For Day 2 a number of our guests pore over treason and plot — and more — in Shakespeare’s final play.
Discussion of Shakespeare’s The Tempest
“Thought is free.”Stephano, Act 3, Scene 2
Some of those who wrote guest posts for this year’s Witch Week elected to discuss this play, Shakespeare’s farewell to drama through which the themes of Treason and Plot run and which was first performed just six years after the Gunpowder Plot.
What follows is an edited version of our discussion, shortened by about half. You can read the full version here.
Chris of Calmgrove
Jean of Howling Frog Books
Lizzie of Lizzie Ross, Writer
Ola of Re-enchantment of the World
PART 1. THE PLAY
Lizzie: Any sympathy for Prospero that the loss of his Dukedom inspired in me disappeared with his treatment of Caliban and his daughter. Prospero’s character is questionable: a leader too busy to lead, a master without empathy for others, a father making decisions for his child that will affect others as well. I’m not admiring Prospero at this point.
Jean: I, too, do not think well of Prospero. A ruler who refuses to rule is guilty of neglect at best; Prospero’s lack of care would have made the people of his city vulnerable to all sorts of dangers, from corruption and unchecked crime to invasion and famine. Prospero thinks very well of himself and his motives, and he uses that to justify all sorts of manipulative actions.
Ola: To me, Prospero seems so hell-bent on the revenge finally within his grasp that he is blinded by it; he takes shortcuts, like putting Miranda to sleep or behaving rudely toward Caliban.
I’d like to take a closer look at Caliban’s parentage and his life before the implied enslavement by Prospero, when he was the master of his fate, free and wild and careless. Was the attempt at raping Miranda somehow tied to his treatment by Prospero?
Lizzie: Your last question, Ola, is worth considering. Caliban is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most troubling characters. I have to hope that he’s there to make us think more about Prospero’s morals?
Ola: To me, Caliban seems to be for Prospero a somewhat unwanted charge – a foster son, for whom he feels responsibility mixed with tired exasperation; Caliban in Prospero’s eyes is ugly and willful but necessary; and this image is not helped by Caliban himself, who acts like a rebellious teenager in more than one way.
Jean: Caliban is so very troubling. We want to sympathize with him, until we find out about his attempted rape of Miranda. He was free and wild and careless – but Prospero’s attempts at ‘civilizing’ him mean that he becomes an outlaw. Is it the presence of law that changes him from an innocent wild creature into a criminal?
Chris: One thing that struck me was the clear parallel drawn between Prospero and Miranda, and Sycorax and Caliban. Prospero was Duke of Milan, Sycorax from Algiers; Prospero plots psychological revenge on his usurping brother, while Sycorax spitefully confined Ariel in a pine tree.
Ola: Act Two seems to serve as a validation of Prospero’s woes and his thirst for revenge. All those courtly figures surrounding the grieving father Alonso by and large think and act only in their own interests – maybe with the exception of Gonzalo, who tries to comfort Alonso in his inept but well-meant way. It seems especially evident in the quick and easy decision of Antonio and Sebastian to commit treason. They don’t need much time at all to bare their swords and attempt to kill their sovereign.
Jean: They sure don’t. Antonio, having successfully grabbed power, wants more, and Sebastian falls into line incredibly easily. Murdering his brother (while stranded on a desert island with no discernible chance of getting back home!) seems to come horrifyingly easily to him. Gonzalo is the only halfway-decent person in the group.
Lizzie: What a great point, Jean, about how Sebastian has no idea how to get off the island and yet still thinks killing his brother is a great idea.
Ola: Once again, my impression of Caliban as a wild teenager is confirmed; the scenes with Trinculo and Stephano serve as a comic relief, but we also see how Caliban chafes under Prospero’s rule – a bit of kindness sends him right away on a quest to serve a new master, however pathetic.
Lizzie: “Pathetic” is exactly right, Ola. I don’t understand why Caliban, who yearns for freedom, is so willing to offer himself to a new master.
Jean: Perhaps it’s comic relief; Caliban tastes liquor and is instantly thrilled. I don’t get it either. Though I suppose plenty of people have given up their freedom in the service of drink.
Chris: If we see Caliban as Shakespeare’s conception of a Caribbean or Bermudan islander (“Indian” is how Trinculo views him) and his name a mangling of “cannibal”, then it’s possible to imagine a European view of New World inhabitants as simple-minded. Caliban’s rapid granting of allegiance is a pre-echo of Friday’s subservience to Robinson Crusoe, which we may see as a kind of parallel. I still think we are meant to feel sorry for Caliban as the underdog, despite his rage, much as Shakespeare tried to enlist sympathy for mistreated Shylock, in spite of his insistence on his pound of flesh.
Ola: I will stick to my teenager explanation; I feel that all those African and Italian countries, whose names are dropped here and there through the play, don’t serve as a reflection of the reality; on the contrary, they are designed to put a bit of “neverland” feel to the play, a make-believe place marked only by few readily recognizable markers. Caliban’s anger and thirst for revenge is genuine, but short-lived, and generally his behavior indicates someone willful, stubborn, naive, and used to being his own master, but not stupid or lesser.
Ola: Prospero’s plan is shaping up according to his wishes: Fernando and Miranda fall in love. I do wonder about the different faces – or facets – of Prospero: he certainly is a doting father, and a somewhat authoritarian ruler, but there is also the chess master, patiently plotting his strategy and moving the pawns across the board, his daughter notwithstanding. Maybe Caliban’s rebellion serves as a wake-up call?
Chris: An interesting notion, Ola, but I remain unconvinced. Prospero seems to be – so far, at any rate, the absolute ruler of his island domain. Through his books and with spirits like Ariel at his command, he controls the board like the chess master you compare him to. Everything seems to be going his way at the moment.
Act III itself seems designed to confirm what relationships have been established by Prospero’s devising: Ferdinand and Miranda, Stephano and Trinculo with Caliban, and the two camps of nobles – the would-be assassins, and the coterie headed by Gonzalo keeping an eye out for Alonso’s wellbeing.
Jean: If nothing else, Prospero is a master psychologist. Fernando and Miranda fall in love too easily – perfectly understandable, but fraught with danger for Miranda. Her naive willingness to offer her heart to Fernando is lovely, but he – a worldly and experienced young man – is quite likely to think of her more as a passing fancy than as a wife, unless he has to work a good deal harder. Otherwise he might play Theseus to her Ariadne, or leave her pregnant and alone. In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen points out that parental “unjust interference” is perhaps more conducive to Henry and Catherine’s eventual felicity than otherwise, because it adds strength to their attachment; Prospero is playing the same game.
I don’t think, however, that Prospero learns anything from Caliban’s rebellion.
Chris: I’m inclined to agree with you on this last point, Jean; and I think your phrase from Austen is very apposite in this context.
Ola: I’m more and more intrigued by Ariel. He is a curious being of subtle influence, clearly enjoying his role as a sower of chaos, creator of illusions, somewhere between a servant and a partner in Prospero’s plans. His verbal servility strikes me as offhand, more like a bit of decorum than something real; and he reminds Prospero again and again, in no uncertain terms, about their deal.
Lizzie: I’m glad, Ola, that you mentioned Ariel. Such a strange character! And his servile manner to Prospero raises the question of what it means for a slave to be “grateful”. Yes, Prospero freed Ariel from that tree, but only to enslave Ariel in a different manner. What does Ariel actually owe Prospero?
Chris: Since The Tempest seems to have been composed for a royal command performance, all the requirements of a courtly masque seem to be laid on in Act IV: nymphs and reapers dancing, impressive costumes for the three deities, Prospero’s glittering apparel for the servile trio to try on, all accompanied by suitable music.
As for Ariel, he’s the equivalent of a djinn in the Arabian Nights who’s been rescued from a bottle or a magic lamp: like an indentured servant forced to work till the terms of their contract releases them, they are under obligation to their rescuer until the moral debt is paid. Ariel sounds as if he takes pride in his profession and does it to the best of his ability.
Jean: Ariel is fascinating, I agree. Describing him as a djinn is pretty good. I enjoy his cleverness and the way he keeps reminding Prospero of his agreement. Does Ariel function as Prospero’s conscience, in a way? He’s certainly the only person who can tell Prospero anything at all.
Lizzie: Early in Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic one character says, “… the conception of [Prospero’s] character is the most remarkable thing about the play; his use as a sort of summing up of Shakespeare’s essay on human power. Look at the way he’s presented: a father figure, a magician in control of natural forces like the winds and the sea, a sort of benevolent and supernatural Machiavelli who controls the island and all who are in it.”
Ola: The invocation of Machiavelli in the context of Prospero brings a different issue to light: that of inequality/superiority. Machiavelli’s ideal Prince is, after all, a paragon of virtue, a person better – in every way – than anyone around him. He rules by the right of mental, emotional and physical superiority. His supremacy of power stems from the superiority of virtue.
Prospero’s virtue, on the other hand, as Jean pointed out, is questionable. He begins as a lousy ruler, neglectful of his subjects, unable to identify threats to his power even as obvious as his own brother. His quest for vengeance seems to stem from resentment: something was taken from him and he wants it back, but not once is he concerned with the welfare of his dukedom or subjects.
That said, Prospero seems to redeem himself at the end – he keeps his word to Ariel and frees him as promised, and he keeps his word to himself, breaking his magic staff and throwing books of spells in the ocean. I can’t help but wonder, though – when he returns to Milan, will he become a better ruler, has he learned anything from his stay on the island? He seemingly accepts Caliban’s inherent darkness as a reflection of himself, and takes responsibility for it – and for Caliban, too. He realizes his own shortcomings and seems resolved to improve, but I still see him as aloof and distant, more of a manipulator than a leader, avenged, and yet unsatisfied.
Chris: I too wonder how Prospero will rule returning to his dukedom: the problem with the kind of power he has had on the island is that even if it’s no longer of a magical nature it may still involve manipulating people and trifling with their emotions. I’m with you, Lizzie and Ola, wondering if he’s still the unreconstructed distant ruler.
Jean: Prospero is killing two birds with one stone, pushing his daughter into (hopefully) a happy and prosperous marriage, and arranging for a powerful position for himself – the one he didn’t care about before, and lost because he was so busy looking for power in the realm of knowledge and magic. He’s going to break his staff and drown his book. Does this mean that he is repenting? Magic gave him knowledge, but also loneliness. If he goes back home and takes up the political position he was born to, but wasn’t interested in, does that mean he now cares more for people and their welfare? Is he going to make any better a ruler than his greedy, usurping brother? Maybe that’s what he learns from Caliban…
PART 2. OUR THEME: TREASON AND PLOT
Lizzie: I’m left wondering if the various treasonous plots and actions of The Tempest are anything more than devices to keep things interesting. Is Shakespeare trying to say something political here?
Chris: The play was first performed – wait for this — 1st November 1611, so highly apt for this anniversary discussion! Performed before King James on ‘Hallowmas nyght’, the play couldn’t help but have political overtones, and the date being a scant six years since the Gunpowder Plot, all present would be alert to any hints of treason by any of the characters.
Ola: This context is fascinating; I’m starting to wonder whether Shakespeare tried to smuggle in a timid but timely critique of a ruler who is so distant and uncaring toward his subjects as to prompt treachery and rebellion. After all, we all seem to think Prospero had it coming, at least to an extent, and none of us is willing to fully believe his miraculous improvement.
Jean: Goodness, I had not realized how close this play was to the actual Gunpowder Plot. That’s fascinating. I have to wonder if there were a few uncomfortable moments at the first performance? If all the characters are Italians from Milan and Naples, does that bring in a realistic and Catholic note that would have been missing if they’d been portrayed as being from Illyria or ancient Athens? I think that brings it all a little closer to home.
Lizzie: Perhaps the setting has the opposite effect, Jean, distancing the play from local events. Shakespeare can easily explain, “But, sire, the story takes place in another country, where people behave differently!”
Jean: I do think Shakespeare is commenting, quietly, on what constitutes proper rule and who is qualified for it. And what circumstances might encourage people to think about rebellion.
Chris: Gonzalo’s commonwealth speech in Act I, ii is illuminating, despite heckling by Antonio and Sebastian – “I would by contraries/Execute all things” – and especially as a contrast to Prospero’s absolutist rule on the Isle. But it comes across more as a Land of Cockagne, a Schlaraffenland, than as a practical form of governance, and blunts any kind of critique which might attach to Prospero. Or to King James.
Lizzie: At least no one is talking about using explosive devices! True, Gonzalo’s plans for his fantasy kingdom are a bit pie-in-the-sky, and it’s always easy to make such plans in one’s imagination, but it’s another thing altogether to enact them in the real world, where other people will get in the way.
6 thoughts on “#WitchWeek2021 Day 2: Thought is free”
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What a marvelous discussion. Makes me want to go look for a production to watch.
I think Prospero has changed by the end. As Jean points out, “Magic gave him knowledge [and power], but also loneliness.” Drowning his book is an extraordinary statement of giving up that kind of knowledge, and leaving the island shows that he values a return to social life over an isolated existence of absolute power. I have hopes that he will become a better ruler, and at this point in his life, be preparing to make way for the next generation, whose future he has just assured. That is where many powerful people fall down, in being unable to step down from their hard-won position when the time comes.
Caliban and Ariel are two sides of the human soul nature, externalized on the magical island, that have to be integrated and worked with in normal life. I’ve just been reading a book about addiction which points out that pretty much 100% of hardcore addicts have suffered from childhood trauma. It’s not a moral issue, or a genetic issue, but a social issue of how we foster healthy relationships and child development. Caliban is that wounded child in us, who longs to be free yet lacks the ability to self-direct and is vulnerable to self-harming behaviors. He’s also the shadow side of Prospero’s authority and power, which is no doubt why they have a rather fraught relationship.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It looks like you had a lot of fun with it.
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That’s an interesting correlation between childhood trauma and addiction, Lory, and a fascinating application to help explain why Caliban may have been how he was; the bits I’ve gleaned from my psychologist partner about the widespread and pervasive effects of childhood trauma back up what you’ve read about healthy relationships and child development needing to be an issue society needs to address urgently.
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Lory, I recommend Julie Taymor’s 2010 film, with Helen Mirren as Prospero (available on YouTube in the US, so perhaps also in Switzerland). The closed-captioning meant that I caught it all, despite accents and ambient noises. The outdoor scenes were filmed in Hawaii — surprisingly rocky, but appropriately bleak for the play.
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I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. I was hoping I might have had time to re-read the play myself before you posted your discussion, but I didn’t manage it. When I do get round to it, I’ll have to keep the historical and political context in mind!
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Thanks, Helen, I found the historical and political context interesting too but it’s the psychological aspects that to me make the play particularly fascinating: enforced innocence in the case of Miranda, understandable rebellious rage from Caliban, Antonio’s overpowering urge to power, Prospero’s complex motivations, and how they all interact. But then that the case in politics too! 🙂
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