Thursday, May 10, 2007

Week 15, Tempest

Notes on Shakespeare’s The Tempest

General Notes on The Tempest

Northrop Frye says that the basis of tragic vision is Being in time, the sense of the one-directional quality of life, where everything happens once and for all, where every act brings unavoidable and fateful consequences, and where all experience vanishes, not simply into the past, but into nothingness, annihilation. In the tragic vision death is not an incident in life or even the inevitable end of life, but the essential event that gives shape and form to life. Death is what defines the individual... (Fools of Time, 3). By contrast, if we take our cue from Frye, the romance pattern is cyclical, not linear; death does not define life but rather the characters in the romance will have a chance to redeem themselves and the order within which they function. The social order goes in cycles of regeneration, just as the seasons do.

But I make romance sound a little too much like comedy, whereas it seems to me that romance is somewhere between tragedy and comedy. Both comedy and romance depend partly on the renovation of a corrupt social order by temporary removal into a green world of nature where magic rules and people can turn things around. The ancient seasonal myth is very much a part of both comedy and romance, though it is even more pronounced in romance. What distinguishes romance from tragedy and comedy is probably its ambivalence—for example, although The Tempest has a happy ending and Prospero is a benevolent ruler both on his island and, we presume, when he returns to Milan , it is easy to see that he is potentially a tyrant and might or could misuse his powers. Death, disorder, and tyranny are real threats in The Tempest, even though things turn out for the best. The quest motif is very strong in romance—all you have to do is think of Spenser’s The Faery Queen, with its Knight in pursuit of a Lady. Love is a prominent theme of exploration, and the sense of magic and strangeness pervades the romance genre. Exploration in itself is matter for exploration, which explains why certain critics have seen Caliban’s circumstances as similar to those of native people colonized by Europeans. Shakespeare’s romances are Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Scene-by-Scene Notes on The Tempest

Act 1, Scene 1

The first thing we see is that authority is the matter in question—the boatswain is not interested in paying reverence to King Alonzo; he has more important things to do at the moment. Gonzalo already appears to be a philosopher—he keeps his council even in a crisis. The storm, therefore, functions as a great leveling influence, at least at this point in the play. Still, Shakespeare is not about to ratify anarchy; this is a romance play, and the basis of the social order is about to be scrutinized. The civil order has broken down and the characters have been compelled by Prospero to the island where things will be sorted out.

Act 1, Scene 2

In this scene, we see that there is need for a movement from ignorance to knowledge on the part of Miranda, Prospero’s 15-year-old daughter. She does not know that her father was the Duke of Milan, and they have been on this island since she was three years old. Miranda possesses sympathetic power of her own—she feels the suffering of those who have been shipwrecked. But Prospero says that no harm has been done and that the shipwreck was arranged for her sake. The question is, how to come by one’s legitimate identity? Miranda must learn about her former place in the social order and prepare for her future role.

As for the status of Prospero as a magician, we are being set up for an important consideration: Prospero has been stripped of civil power by his exile, and he has put on a different kind of power signified by his magic robe. What kind of power is it that he now possesses? What is the source of that power? We should not think that this power will ultimately be self-sufficient—a return to the civil order looms beyond the framework of the immediate dramatic situation.

Prospero is not entirely without blame for his own exile—he devoted himself to secret studies in the liberal arts, neglecting the needs of his own kingdom. That is why he gave Antonio his brother control. Antonio learned the ropes of governing and began to scheme against him. Prospero’s brother is a Machiavellian of the bad sort, but even so he stands for political realism. One of Shakespeare’s ideals is that a good King must be both magnanimous and active. In consequence, poet-rulers such as Richard II must be deposed as surely as evildoers like Richard III. Prospero wanted to lead the life contemplative or vita contemplativa to the neglect of the life active or vita activa. The relative merits of the two was the subject of much debate during the Renaissance, and is well memorialized in Thomas More’s Utopia. Renaissance education was intended to make a person fit for public life, for a life of active virtue—it was about developing one’s capacities to the fullest extent. Prospero seems to have sought knowledge for a much more personal and private reason, one not closely enough allied with the charitable exercise of power. Antonio at least understands that a ruler cannot simply keep the name of prince or king or duke and expect the authority to remain with it—that was one of King Lear’s mistakes, and it is also Prospero’s. To keep the title, you must exercise the power and others must know you are exercising it. To fail in that regard is to encourage disorder and wickedness. Antonio apparently schemed with Alonso the King of Naples to get rid of Prospero, which was more than enough wickedness to result in Prospero’s loss of authority in Milan.

Prospero is not an independent actor in his own chance at redemption—he admits that divine providence brought him ashore and that Gonzalo charitably furnished him with rich garments and the books he still values above his dukedom. Prospero will need to learn how to wield the knowledge in these books to get himself back to his former state and do some good for the people, just as he has used it to make life tolerable on the island.

Prospero admits that an accident or fortune has brought his enemies within his power. With this fortunate accident, he begins to operate on his own under an auspicious star. As always, “there is a tide in the affairs of men,” as Brutus says in Julius Caesar, and Prospero must act now or lose his chance forever. He is satisfied that the spirit Ariel has done his bidding, appearing as St. Elmo’s Fire (a natural phenomenon) and striking the crew of the King’s ship with madness during the storm. The aerial spirit has also dispersed the crew about the island, separating them into logical camps. Ferdinand, the King’s son, is alone, for he above all is to be tested as the future successor to Prospero’s kingdom.

Prospero reminds Ariel that he had been imprisoned by the witch Sycorax, who died and left him in a pine tree. Prospero has made a sort of contract with Ariel to free him from human control at the end of a certain time. Since Ariel seems to represent imagination or the finer and more sensitive of nature’s powers, we begin to see that the play is in part about how humanity is to maintain control over the natural forces within itself and beyond itself. Prospero threatens Ariel in a way that suggests potential tyranny: around line 295, he threatens to imprison the friendly spirit for another twelve years, just as Sycorax had done. This is not a democratic island—as always, Shakespeare is a good royalist. Ariel is much better (and much better off) than Caliban (Sycorax’s son and therefore the natural heir of this island kingdom), but both feel the power of Prospero.

Next we see Caliban at his best, cursing Prospero but submitting to him because, after all, he must eat his dinner. Caliban has sometimes been seen as a native set upon by white Europeans. Shakespeare’s was a great age of exploration, and European countries were busily colonizing and exploiting the New World . There is some sense in this view of Caliban, although I don’t think it’s appropriate to turn the play into an allegory about colonialism. Caliban says that the island is his to inherit from Sycorax. Prospero associates him with the devil, or perhaps with the unregenerate natural man. It is true that Caliban is controlled by his own appetites as much as by Prospero, but he is not without ability—notice that his complaints at times approach downright eloquence. As he says, Prospero has taught him how to curse. And he was good to Prospero in time of need. His crime was to try to violate Miranda’s honor—another natural impulse he does not regret. Caliban is not appreciative of the gift of civilization Prospero has supposedly given him. I would say that Prospero is somewhat unfair to Caliban—indeed, to say that Caliban is “capable of all ill” is to say something of him that is true of humanity in general. Caliban is not simply “malice,” as Prospero calls him. The things with which Prospero threatens him are entirely natural—pain and suffering—but Caliban is afraid of Prospero because he believes that the old man’s art can control even Sycorax’s God, Setebos. (Robert Browning’s poem “Caliban upon Setebos” is a fine character study of Caliban, covering his resentments and religious sentiments.)

Meanwhile, Ferdinand is enchanted by the music of Ariel and drawn on by it. Ariel sings that Ferdinand’s father has suffered a sea change into “something rich and strange.” Of course the song is not true since Alonso is not drowned, but the song signifies the transformation wrought by death. What is the point of bringing up such change here? Is it to distance him from his father’s death? Certainly Ferdinand must undergo his own transformation here on the island.

Ferdinand’s first question to Miranda is whether she is a virgin—that is certainly a question with institutional significance. He wants to make her his queen. But Prospero knows that the prize must not be won too easily and that Ferdinand has not yet earned the right to reenter the social order and succeed him. So he will test Ferdinand. He uses the same Machiavellian terms of political intrigue that got him exiled from Milan . He claims, that is, that Ferdinand wants to usurp power on the island.

As for Miranda, she still needs to learn the difference between appearance and reality since she says that the handsome prince Ferdinand could not possibly mean anyone harm. She will need to understand this lesson to become a good queen when the time comes. That she shows promise is obvious from line 498, where she says her father’s speech gives a false impression of his true gentility.

Act 2, Scene 1

Gonzalo is an honest old counselor, a quality which shows in his trust in providence. We must weigh our sorrow with our comfort, he tells his hearers. However, Gonzalo is surrounded by people such as Sebastian and Antonio, who do not necessarily appreciate his wisdom. The problem is that wisdom is separated from rank, whereas both are required to keep firm order. Gonzalo will offer his own utopian vision, but it will not equal Prospero’s magic and foresight. So this little group of stranded citizens of Milan doesn’t have all the answers. Perhaps Gonzalo is a little too ready to live within the confines of his natural surroundings rather than transforming them into something more civil. Sebastian makes fun of Gonzalo, ironically crediting him with the power to “carry this island home in his pocket and give it to his son for an apple,” as well as being able to bring forth more islands. Note also the reference to Amphion building the walls of Thebes with his musical instrument. Shakespeare may be poking fun of himself in these conversations filled with witty exchanges—Antonio, Alonso, and Gonzalo are spending a lot of time making puns and quibbles, and not getting anywhere. But Gonzalo is observant—he has at least noticed that their garments are strangely dry, and we are thereby reminded that a certain wizardry is necessary to the founding and maintenance of the social order.

Alonso despairs over the loss of his son Ferdinand, but Francisco tells him that the boy may be alive, recounting his heroic attempt to survive. Sebastian reproaches Alonso for having married off his daughter to the king of Carthage , an adventure that he considers responsible for the shipwreck.

Gonzalo’s utopia is a silly pre-technological communist fantasy; he would undo the punishment of original sin. No one needs to work, and there would be no sovereignty. Sebastian is right to point out that Gonzalo “would be King” nonetheless. Sebastian is encouraged by Antonio to usurp the place of his brother the king. What we are seeing in this camp of stranded Mariners is first of all a false utopia and then political intrigue. Antonio is quite certain that Ferdinand has drowned. Antonio, using as an example his own usurpation of the dukedom of Milan from Prospero, wants to seize the occasion of this shipwreck since Claribel, who should inherit the kingdom, is far away in Carthage and knows nothing about the wreck. Antonio sees only the operation of random chance in a storm, and does not of course understand that Prospero has used Ariel to generate the tempest. As always, the category of nature is not to be taken simply in Shakespeare—we are not dealing with an ordinary natural tempest; it is a thing of nature brought on by human and superhuman magic. It is even associated with providence since Prospero himself was steered after his own shipwreck by divine providence. Antonio mistakenly sees his friends and potential subjects as passive men just waiting to take orders, but his scheme is foiled by Ariel, who warns Gonzalo to awaken King Alonso. Now awake, they all set off to look for Ferdinand.

Act 2, Scene 2

Trinculo and Stefano have their own ideas about paradise—they assume everyone else has perished in a storm, so this island is theirs, so far as they know. Trinculo meets Caliban and later joins with Stefano to turn him into a willing subject on the basis of drink, which seems to be the god of this nascent kingdom. Liquor provides shelter for Stefano, just as an ordinary garment serves to clothe Trinculo. This section acts as a parody of the previous scene, which was about misguided intrigue. Caliban sees the arrival of these two drunkards as a chance for freedom. The scene had opened with Caliban describing his reaction at the torments Prospero visits upon him because of his misbehavior, and we get a chance to see how Caliban perceives the island’s order. On the whole, Act 2 is about false attempts to set up a new kingdom upon the wreck of the old, with Antonio and Sebastian trying to seize the opportunity to make their own “providence,” and Stefano and Trinculo (along with Caliban) trying to set up their own crazy government. Act 3 will transition to the more legitimate attempts at self-discovery on the part of Ferdinand and Miranda; this focus will, in turn, gesture towards a regenerated dukedom in Milan, even though the play ends with everyone still on the island.

Act 3, Scene 1

In the third act, the developing affection between Ferdinand and Miranda is central. Ferdinand performs his difficult labors mindful of Miranda and in hopes of better times. For him, love makes labor redemptive—it is not something to be avoided so one can set up a fool’s paradise. By his patience, Ferdinand shows the potential for nobility. The word Miranda means “she who is to be looked upon [with wonder].” Prospero’s daughter is virtuous, and her virtue is part of the island’s special quality. Like Adam in Paradise Lost, however, Ferdinand will need some warning not to be overly fond of Miranda’s charms. They have some negotiating to do, and must move from the language of innocent courtship to a permanently enduring union—after all, they are the future of the state, and cannot remain in paradise forever, if indeed one wants to say that’s where they are at present.

Prospero blesses the union to himself since he is apparently convinced that Ferdinand and Miranda will prove compatible. Still, he must not allow premature erotic relations between them. Language will prove essential to a proper match between the two lovers, and marriage is an institution, not a simple declaration. Prospero must go back to his books and work up an appropriate spell to delay this courtship.

Act 3, Scene 2

Caliban, meanwhile, is courting Stefano as his lord and master. Caliban is too easily won over to servitude. To him, government is essentially a protection racket. We notice that he describes itself rather like Prospero—as someone exiled by a tyrant and cheated of his inheritance by evil powers. Stefano, as usual, is spinning a storyline from his own base desires—once having seized Prospero’s books and murdered the man, he thinks, he will be free to marry Miranda. They all serve their bodily desires. Ariel is looking over them even as they make their plot. The would-be ruler ends up following Caliban, whom both Stefano and Trinculo call a monster.

Act 3, Scene 3

King Alonso is ready to give up the romance quest for his lost son Ferdinand. Nature seems to have won the battle. Again, Gonzalo sees that the island is much more than simple nature—though the inhabitants are monstrous, they are more gentle than many humans back in Naples . This comment of his follows the appearance of shapes Prospero has summoned to set up a banquet. The wonder of exploration is part of romance—as Antonio says, “travelers never did lie, though fools at home condemn them.” The banquet itself, and the appearance of Ariel as a harpy, has a classical precedent in Virgil’s Aeneid. Ariel has set them a fool’s banquet—and he explains sternly to them (some of whom attending are plotting against Alonso) that they have been driven here to be punished for their sins in exiling Prospero. They are threatened with “lingering perdition.” That would mean a futile repetition of the romance pattern, one stripped of meaning and redemptive quality. At present, they still think Ferdinand is dead, and Prospero has no intention of telling them otherwise just now. He goes off to see Ferdinand and Miranda. This decision in itself has a powerful effect—Alonso feels bitter remorse at the loss of his son.

Act 4, Scene 1

Prospero insists that Ferdinand should not behave like Caliban and spoil the honor of his daughter. There is much play here about the value of language—Prospero says Miranda will outstrip all praise, and then says that Ferdinand has spoken fairly and will have his daughter. Ceremony is important for the obvious reason: it is necessary to bless this socially and politically significant union. Marriage is part of the magic of civilization. Prospero bids Ariel bring the rabble (an important word here in terms of governance) so that he may give the young couple a demonstration of his powers. Iris and Ceres—the latter a fertility goddess—will provide the lovers a gift. Ceres offers the gift of regular seasonal change; that is, she offers abundance in perpetuity and, therefore, a secure future. Together, these goddesses call upon nymphs to celebrate the marriage contract.

Breaking in to this celebration is Prospero’s remembrance that Caliban and his new friends are plotting against him. But we still have unfinished business, so the celebration is a false ending in accordance with classical comic structure. Consider lines 148 and following—Prospero sums up what his wizardry has accomplished: he has demonstrated that we are “such stuff as dreams are made on.” This remark has sometimes been taken as Shakespeare’s farewell speech as a dramatist, even though The Tempest isn’t his last play. In any case, there is clearly a parallel between art and life to be drawn here: art has much to tell us about life, and it is a kind of magic. Then Prospero professes himself vexed and weak, an enfeebled old man, to get rid of Ferdinand and Miranda so he can deal with Caliban. The island is not paradise after all, and the consequences of human fallenness impend even here.

Act V

I must expand this section, but a main point is that in contrast with King Lear, insight doesn’t come in The Tempest at the cost of power. Prospero is able to give up his magic books and powers without losing his chance to recover the dukedom he lost. His concluding wishes are of interest in that what he really seems to desire is not so much to exercise great power again but instead to practice “the art of dying well.” The main promise of things to come is the impending marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda, who will, we may presume, carry on in a regenerated social and political environment.

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