Cassio and the Great Chain of Being in 2.3
Though Cassio and Iago only speak to each other briefly in 2.1, they have a conversation of more than 70 lines in 2.3 (259-335). The occasion of the latter is the new state of dishonor into which Cassio has fallen because of his drunken quarrel with the escaped Roderigo and his wounding of the former governor Montano when the latter tried to accost Cassio from chasing Roderigo (2.3.150). When Othello learns what happened, he dismisses Cassio with the curt line, "Cassio, I love thee,/ But never more be officer of mine (2.3.248-249)." Cassio is humiliated, and in his humiliated condition is met by Iago.
When Iago asks him whether he is hurt, Cassio responds not dissimilarly to Brabantio's response in 1.3 when he breathlessly proclaimed to the Venetian Senate, "My daughter! O, my daughter (1.3.58-59)." All Cassio can say is that he is hurt "past surgery," and that rather than being a bodily hurt it is an injury to reputation:
"Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have/ lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of/ myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,/ Iago, my reputation! (2.3.262-265)."
Iago responds with his expected cynicism. "Reputation is an idle and most false/ imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without/ deserving (2.3.268-270)." In other words, 'Get real, Cassio! Reputation is overblown; it is no measure of your true value.' Rather than his deposition being a strumbling block, it is a stepping stone to recover the good will of Othello again. "Sue to/ him again, and he's yours (2.3.275-276)."
The Crumbling of Cassio's Philosophy
What is interesting, however, about Cassio's overwrought lamentation about losing his reputation is how it reflects a belief in a philosophy called the "Great Chain of Being." The Great Chain of Being was a powerful visual metaphor, prevalent in Western culture for at least a millennium, for a divinely inspired ranking of all forms of higher and lower life. Atop the great chain sat the divine being, perfect in itself, full of light and power. At the bottom of the chain is the absence of light, the privation of goodness, the realm of the powers of darkness. In the middle was the world of the human, and the human was further divided into ranks of men (from kings to slaves) and males and females. A human might run the risk of losing his or her humanity by especially egregious activity; he or she then becomes a beast.
This brief description illumines a number of actions or remarks by Cassio. It explains his view of women, where he elevates them above the lower, sexual qualities and places them on a pure and pristine pedestal of semi-divinity. It explains his outburst to Iago in this passage where he fears that his loss of reputation reduces him to the bestial level. Most interesting, however, is it explains a remark, not usually explained in the commentaries, which he makes to Iago during his drunken conversation earlier in 2.3.
Sav'd Before the Ancient (2.3.110)
Earlier in 2.3. Iago arranged for Cassio to get drunk and then for Roderigo to "brave him" on the watch. After Cassio has had too much to drink but before he assumes his position as watchman, he greets Iago in a drunken condition. A sure indication of his drunken condition is his denial of it: "Do not think, gentlemen, I am drunk: this is my/ ancient, this is my right hand, and this is my left/ hand. I am not drunk now; I can stand well enough/ and I speak well enough (2.3.113-116)."
But before this comical scene he engages in an unexpected theological discussion with Iago. They both express their desire to be saved, even though "there be souls must be sav'd, and there be souls must/ not be sav'd (2.3.103-104)." After Iago speaks his hope of salvation, Cassio cuts him short: "Ay, but by your leave, not before me; the/ lieutanant is to be sav'd before the ancient (2.3.109-110)." That Cassio utters this line, which is perfectly reflective of the ordered hierarchy of the philosophy of the Great Chain of Being, even when he is drunk shows that the philosophy is so wedded to his soul that it is even deeper than his conscious control. Indeed, as Iago himself said early in the play, Michael Cassio was a man versed in "bookish theoric (1.1.24)." We should not read that to refer only to his skill at "number crunching" (the theme of Iago's speech in 1.1); it suggests an acquaintance with broader intellectual culture that comes out in the ways I have shown.
Thus, when Iago devotes himself to bolstering Cassio's shattered reputation in the remainder of 2.3, he is not just helping him regain his position. He is also rebuilding his mental life.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long