"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Shakespeare’s The Tempest–Ambiguity


My hero, Harold Bloom starts his criticism of The Tempest with the following quote:

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the two visionary comedies – A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and The Tempest – these days share the sad distinction of being the worst interpreted and performed….Ideology drives the bespoilers of The Tempest. Caliban, a poignant but cowardly (and murderous) half-human creature (his father a sea devil, whether fish or amphibian), has become an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter. This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at that view is simply not interested in reading the play at all.  Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists – the usual suspects – know their causes but not Shakespeare’s plays. (The Invention of the Human).

The Tempest is fascinating because of its ambiguity, and this, of course, is a hallmark of Shakespeare’s plays.  You are never completely sure of the “real” nature of his characters or their motivation.  You can be just about convinced that Cleopatra never loved Antony and only wanted him as a protector for their (and her other) children and to assure her Egyptian throne if not more; and then, after her attempts to ingratiate herself with the Emperor fail, she – sort of – expresses her love for Antony.  Was Othello really done in by Iago, or was it really the sexuality of Desdemona of which he was afraid, that twisted his judgment? Why did Hamlet delay in the killing of the king?  What changed Lady Macbeth’s mind, etc. etc.

The Tempest is probably the most ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays, and the figure at the center of the issue is Caliban.  He is interesting because although his mother was a witch and his father a sea-devil, he has the humanity and human capacity to learn language (we assume he was either pre-linguistic or spoke his own language), to appreciate beauty – his description of his island are poetic; and to have the very human ability to understand the nature of his freedom (from the tree), his enslavement, the seeming ingratitude of his savior, etc. .  Prospero treats him as a human – he is a very capable slave – but can vilify him as less than human.  Stephano and Trinculo first see him as a fish, a four-legged monster; but then recruit him as a very human conspirator in their desires to get rid of both Alonso and Prospero.

So, is Caliban a noble savage from a pastoral island – an innocent who can be civilized and reformed?  Or a brute who makes no excuses about wanting to rape Miranda and an animal that comes from a savage land which must be tamed?  Or a human spirit in a monster’s body?  A.D. Nuttall says it best:

If we decide that the final “message” of the play is that Caliban is evil, brute nature unredeemed by civility, we are saying that the central impulse of the play is anti-pastoral.  If we discern beauty within the savagery of Caliban and feel that this is destroyed forever by the morally tainted courtly intruders, we are asserting that the play is at bottom a true pastoral still. (Shakespeare the Thinker)

I do not like either of the alternatives.  As I have written previously in posts about The Histories, I espouse the Nietzschian philosophy of Beyond Good and Evil and the critical approach of Jan Kott and his Grand Mechanism of history repeating itself endlessly and therefore predictable and also beyond good and evil.  Caliban is not evil.  How could he be?  There was no one to whom to be evil on his island before the interlopers arrived.  The best word to describe him is not brutish, evil, or savage, but “natural” with a human spirit only waiting to be expressed.  His attempt to rape Miranda is natural – no different than one male animal mounting another.  His vituperation and animus against Prospero does not come from an evil or malignant spirit, but from an understandable human one.  He has been caught in a dilemma familiar to the rest of us humans – he has been freed from twelve years of imprisonment and therefore should be thankful; but he has the right to be resentful at the treatment he receives.

The situation is even more complex because as he becomes more humanized, he becomes more like the rest of Shakespeare’s characters.  He is a former king, albeit of a kingdom without subjects, who wants to be reinstated.  To do so he must bring down the current king.  His immaturity – some have called it his childlike nature or worse childishness – leads him to believe that Stephano will be a true and just king; but he still is as acquisitive and aggressive as any of the usurpers of the Histories or the Tragedies.

This has led some critics to say that the play is about the loss of innocence or the corruption of the natural by the “civilized”.  I maintain my stance that this is a magical play, or a play whose reality is distorted by magic.  Caliban was a natural being with a human spirit in this bi-polar world, and once his humanity supersedes his naturalness, he becomes like all human beings, beyond good and evil and part of the Grand Mechanism.

This ambiguity is mirrored in other ways in the play.  Gonzalo sees the island as green, lush while Antonio sees it as tawny and barren.  Nuttall wonders whether Shakespeare intended this difference in perception to reflect the nature of the characters – Gonzalo is not the idealistic romantic, but “good”; and Antonio not realistic but “bad”.

There is much made in the criticism about the lack of consistent morals among those who have been shipwrecked on the island.  Prospero has enslaved both Ariel and Caliban by his powers, character, and language – treating both as chattels with no sense of fairness but only his own interests in mind.  Stephano, Trinculo, Antonio, and Sebastian are plotters and schemers.  Again, I do not subscribe to this theory.  Antonio and Sebastian both prior to landing on the island tried to usurp the power of their older brothers and simply want to continue the quest.  Stephano and Trinculo are a (drunken) butler and jester who see only immediate and venal gain out of an opportune situation.  They are, in Nuttall’s words:

as vulgar as Caliban himself could never be, and There is no question of morality here, but predictable behavior. Ferdinand is a moral blank…

Nuttall suggests that Prospero, in addition to his enslavement of Ariel and Caliban, had incestuous feelings towards his daughter, and that what was cemented the relationship:

There is not a line in the play that supports this inference directly.  But if we think of the other late romances, the thought may begin to seem less wild.  Pericles begins with a full-blown tale of incest…..

Others have noted that there are “good” characters in the play – Ferdinand and Miranda; but others, such as Nuttall have suggested that real goodness needs to have come from a charity, a resistance to evil, a certain moral stance which is taken, not just inherited.  Miranda has known only her father before the arrival of Ferdinand and only has him – her protector and provider – as a touchstone for her “goodness”.  Even her innocence must be questioned because such purity has not been proven in a real world.  Ferdinand has no sex drive, observes Nuttall, and is a goody-goody rather than a good man who, like Miranda, has yet to prove his “good” worth. Again Nuttall:

It is as if Ferdinand is saying to Prospero, “You really don’t have to worry about me, sir; I’m not a bit like that frightful Caliban.  Actually I don’t have much sexual feeling at all”.  Ferdinand is hardly a blazing anti-type to the baseness of Caliban.  His virtue is almost comically limp.

In the final denouement of the play, the curtain is drawn to show Ferdinand and Miranda, not locked in a passionate embrace as one might expect, but playing chess!  Not only that, they are spatting like an old married couple.  So much for passion, romance, and desire.

Therefore to me there are no real good characters in the play, just as there are no bad ones who, as I have stated above, are simply following their very human nature. 

Of all the characters in the play, Prospero, next to Caliban, is the most interesting, the most ambiguous, and the most perplexing.  To what can one attribute his final reversal, abandonment of magic, and total – if perhaps slightly begrudging – forgiveness to his enemies?  Has he simply gotten what he always wanted – his throne, and more importantly the opportunity to return untroubled to his intellectual pursuits? Or has he somehow acted out his philosophy so eloquently stated earlier about the endless cycles of life which some have branded nihilism but are really a resolution to the ambiguity of the play?  Ariel’s song can be taken as his own philosophy:

Full fathom Eve thy father lies

Of his bones are coral made:

Those are pearls that were his eyes,

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell

Hark! I now hear them, ding-dong bell.

How has he made peace with his slave, Caliban?  It is unclear whether or not Caliban remains on the island to regain his throne; or goes with the party to Milan.  Stephano suggests that Caliban would be “marketable”, put in a freak show for money, if he went to Milan; but it is possible that Shakespeare was envisioning the wild child of a hundred years later, taken as an example of natural savagery and civilized (e.g. Kaspar Hauser).  In any case, Prospero leaves the issue unresolved, and again we are not sure what all this drama was all about.

In summary, I like this play which – like the ambiguity contained in it – is liked by many and not liked by many others.  It was the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone before his collaboration with another author for the last three minor plays, and critics have commented that the play is really about the art of creation and creativity.  I have to admit I don’t see this, but if the historians are correct, it adds a dimension to an already intriguing work of art.

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