Cassius and Othello
The Imagery of Death's Imminence
Both Othello and Cassius have a sense of their impending deaths. The thesis of this mini-essay, however, is that in Othello, a more mature Shakespearean tragedy from 1604, the tragic figure Othello's lamentation in the face of death is much more plausibly and richly presented than Cassius' premonitions in Julius Caesar. Thus, by comparing the two passages regarding imminent death, we can see the maturing of Caesar's dramatic technique.
Cassius' Premonition of His Death, 5.3.23-25
Cassius first shares his anxiety about the outcome of the battle of Philippi when he relates an ominous portent he saw in the sky, where "ravens, crows, and kites/ Fly o'er our heads, and downward look on us, As we were sickly prey. Their shadows seem/ A canopy most fatal, under which/ Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost (5.1.84-88)." When battle is actually joined a few scenes later, Cassius' troops retreat, and he takes to a hill to survey the damage. He does not know the exact situation in the battle because his eyesight is poor. Thus, he Cassius extrapolate or interpret from partial reports of others. When Cassius speaks of his death, he will mention it is his birthday, and he uses the image of the clock making a full cycle to speak of his death, "This day I breathed first; time is come round/ And where I did begin, there shall I end;/ My life is run his compass (5.3.23-25)." It is as if the span of life is one huge lap around a track, and he has now made that circuit.
But there is an air of unreality about Cassius' dramatic loss of faith in life even before he sees the results of the battle. It does not fit the characterization we have seen of Cassius in the rest of the play where he is the cunning manipulator of the plot against Caesar. In addition, not only has Cassius received no intelligence yet about Titinius' mission to determine how bad the situation is, but Cassius has to rely on other, possibly unskilled, interpreters of the battle. In addition, the image of a clock going around a circuit is a very simple literary presentation. In all these ways, the portrait of Cassius' impending death strains credulity or is quite simplistic.
Othello's Premonition of Death--Othello 5.2.265
Othello also feels he is going to die, but both his words and his situation ring much truer than Cassius' premonition. Othello actually has just slain his wife and has been exposed as her murderer by Emilia. It has just dawned on Othello that Iago has manipulated everything to try to stoke Othello's jealousy against his wife Desdemona. Othello is either facing death or banishment. Truly he could say that his life is over. In this connection, he utters his premonitory words:
"Here is my journey's end; here is my butt/ And very sea- mark of my utmost sail (Othello 5.2.267-268)."
Though all the images in these two lines suggest a ship coming into a harbor, they do so with language that piles up in its intensity and forlornness. There is the end, the butt (goal) and not just the harbor entrance but the "very" sea-mark of the "utmost" sail. It is as if Othello is straining for every last inch as he reaches for the harbor entrance before he expires. But then he reaches the end and cannot eke one more inch out of his life's journey. He is at the end and it is irreversible. The language of Othello carries with it a poignant sense of grief, of useless effort expended, of herculean energy used up in life, all to the wrong end.
A Word of Comparison
We can thus compare the words of death's imminence and the conditions of the two men. Othello's words appear in the middle of a speech that culminates in powerful language of guilt and desire for punishment. Thus, his reaching of the "utmost sail" gives way to thoughts on the judgment to come after his death. A perfect picture of unendurable anguish is thus presented. In contrast, Cassius' words appear before he can determine even how badly his troops have done in battle. Cassius' reaction seems extreme. And, the compass image is quite limited in its linguistic field. When once the clock has gone around, we have fully understood the metaphor. In Othello, however, we see a ship and a harbor. We see the striving of a crew toward a goal. We see exhausted sailors giving their all. We hear exhaustion and grief and immobilizing pain.
Julius Caesar is a brilliantly-conceived and written play. It is testimony to Shakespeare's genius that such a powerful play as Julius Caesar still has several traces in it of Shakespeare's relative inexperience with language of utter distress. The tools for even more creative genius are there in Julius Caesar; the maturity is still to come.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long