Michael Cassio as a Foil to Shakespeare's Othello
Theodore Spencer wrote of Shakespeare's Othello, “In presenting the character of Othello to his audience, Shakespeare emphasizes very strongly his grandeur, self-control, and nobility” (Spencer 127-28). This observation demonstrates that these three main traits—grandeur, self-control, and nobility—are key to understanding Othello's complex character, and even more helpful in understanding the contrasts between him and his subordinates. Most notably in this comparison is young Michael Cassio, a beautifully written foil character to the general in the fact that where Othello possesses these three qualities (and others), Cassio either lacks them entirely or enhances them to the betterment of those around him.
Othello is one of the most dignified and sumptuous characters in Shakespeare’s writings, rivaling such men as Henry V or King Lear in his superiority and aloof grandeur in both mind and body. Harold Bloom goes so far as to say that “Othello has a touch of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in him…there is an authentic nobility in the language of his soul” (Bloom 445). His first entrance on the stage presents him as a wise man, a leader whose experiences have made him all the more observant and patient with the world around him. The hardships of his enslavement and the experiences of war have made him a calculating, reserved leader who looks at a situation from every angle, who never acts rashly or without understanding all sides. Indeed, the Venetian council acknowledges his masterful approach to the battlefield as they call him to take command of their fleets against the Turks: “…though we have a substitute of most allowed sufficiency, yet opinion, a more sovereign mistress of effect, throws a more safer voice on you” (I, iii, 222-224).
Cassio, on the other hand, is a young pup by comparison. Iago acknowledges to Roderigo that Cassio knows not “the division of a battle” (I, i, 23), is “without practice [in] all his soldiership” (27), and is in, the opposite vein, a philosophizer, “a great arithmetician” (19). Both men serve as loyal soldiers of the Venetian crown, but Cassio seems to represent the impishness of youth, the suave, debonair, and eye-catching gallantry that attracts lady folk to military men, whilst Othello represents the wisdom, experience, and backbone - both the brains and brawn - of any army’s foundation. Cassio has physical beauty and grace; Othello has calculating finesse and wisdom. Both men deserve and attain recognition for their individual strengths…as they also lose it at various times and in different ways throughout the play.
Othello’s is also a very self-controlled character. While some would argue that his murder of Desdemona is anything but self-controlled, the attack on his wife is an extremely calculated and planned one, as Othello seeks to rationalize his decision, slanting the proposition in the form of an execution of a strumpet, instead of the murder of an innocent. As Spencer says, “Othello appears to all the world as a man who is not passion’s slave (128). Even when his reputation is at stake, Othello remains calm and calculating, even to the detriment of his wife; when accused of betraying Branbantio’s trust and stealing away Desdemona, Othello reacts calmly and without question to the interrogation of the Venetian council: “Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it / Without a prompter. Where will you that I go / To answer this charge?” (I, i, 83-85). When Iago first hints at Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, Othello first seeks out “ocular proof” before making any judgments or broaching the subject with his wife.
Cassio on the flip side is a slave of passion. Not always a negative trait to possess, the passion he exhibits is a passion for life, of enjoying every moment and living in the present, as evinced by his rollicking romance with Bianca, his cajoling with Iago, Montano, and the men of the watch, and his overall pleasantry with his superiors and the ladies around him. Othello, seemingly, must admire him for this appreciation for life that Cassio possesses, perhaps one of the reasons he promotes Cassio over his long-faithful right hand, Iago. His character also balances the morality and tone of the play in a negative aspect: while Othello shows a genuine respect for his wife, Desdemona, Cassio - though for the most part, a gentleman - displays a lack of true respect and commitment to women as a whole, especially his mistress Bianca, revealing the one major flaw in his character. His treatment of women depicts a slovenly attitude with romance, one that thinks of women as more of a plaything or passing fancy; this is highly contrasted with Othello’s legitimate love and appreciation for women on the whole.
One final trait, though hardly the last legitimate, comparable characteristic, is the background and heritage of each of these men. Othello is a king, no argument. In his opening speech to the Venetian court, he reveals his ancestry and his original state as the king of the Moors. His presence and bearing, as previously noted, denote a majesty and nobility that is unfound in the common man, as noted by his subjects and subordinates. Cassio’s heritage and background, by contrast, remain a mystery; all one knows of him is gained from Iago’s description of him as a Florentine who knows little of his trade and who holds a mistress (I, 1, 20). Cassio is as mysterious as Othello is reserved. The fact that he is a soldier in a high court suggests that he is not of a royal or noble bloodline but a man who had to earn his reputation and favor in the eyes of those he served.
Both men, too, have wounded reputations, but the different ways they choose to handle their situation shows the foil technique playing beautifully. Like Othello, Cassio finds himself pitted against a slight on his reputation, but unlike Othello, Cassio pleads only the truth: that he never intentionally injured his beloved captain. Cassio serves as a foil to Othello in this manner because though each man has an injured ego and position in the Venetian world, Othello remains focused on the injury itself, no matter how valid it is, dwelling only on the hurt that Desdemona’s faithlessness caused him; Cassio, comparatively, is quick to forgive the injury of Othell’s dismissal and instead pleads his case only as a loyal servant of his general. His emotional “Dear general, I never gave you cause,” (V, iii, 209) reveals his true heart despite the boyish immaturity that marks his character.
With these opposite characteristics presented, Cassio might, at this point, seem more of a second antagonist to the hero. But he slips into the role of a foil character through his similarities as well as his differences. Cassio’s moral line serves as an expansion, a continuation of Othello’s when the general has been confronted with a breakdown in his own understanding of justice. Othello questions what evil his sense of duty and justice will lead him to, whereas Cassio remains determined to keep a good and wholesome reputation amongst the Venetian court, and especially in the eyes of his “dear general” (V, ii. 209). Like Othello, Cassio offers himself as a loyal countryman, “never anything but your servant” (III, iii, 9). Cassio’s main motivation is for the honest truth of his loyalty to be known and the general’s love for him won back.
Cassio then acts as an expansion of this similarity to Othello in the final scene; Othello’s sense of justice has been manipulated and disintegrates into a desperate sacrifice of the one he loves to a perverted justice that has been twisted by the evil Iago. Cassio, another nonce t victim in this strange perversion of Iago’s hatred, has a chance - unlike the poor Desdemona - to redeem himself in Othello’s eyes. As Cassio is allowed to reveal the truth, one sees Othello’s admirable traits being transferred to the young lieutenant who is now granted full supremacy over the region in Othello’s place. Cassio, ever the complement to Othello’s characteristics and personality, has the final victory in the twisted lie of Iago’s making, resulting in a victory of good over evil.
Cassio, in the end, seems to represent the better man, the higher sophisticate in Othello’s mind than his own self. He presents a moral balance, both positively and negatively, to the Moor’s own morality and sense of duty and justice, ultimately providing the audience with an exceptional character whom they can identify with and admire for his loyalty and steadfastness to his beloved leader and friend.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. 2nd ed. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949.