Shakespeare and Authority: The Tempest

In the opening scene of The Tempest there is not only a sinking ship but a dissolving society. The boat which contains people who usurped Prospero’s dukedom of Milan twelve years ago, is washed ashore by Prospero’s magic. Unaware of the fact that they are brought to this strange island, full of witches, spirits and supernatural beings, to pay for what they have done, they continue assuming the roles that hierarchy imposes on them. In the rest of the play, the characters thus appear to be taking their appropriate places in a new kind of social order. Yet, each one tries to exhibit his/her ideal society. Fir instance, at one point, Prospero neglects his duties as “Duke of Milan” which encourages his enemies to cast him adrift on a bark with his daughter Miranda; however, he later becomes a father-like figure to every creature on the island. On the other hand, Sebastian plots to become King of Naples by murdering Alonso. In between comes Stephano, whose ambition to be the king of island is ridiculous through Caliban’s mock-resemblance of Prospero’s authority, and Gonzalo who dreams of a primitive golden age of equality and leisure but simple and honest, full of good nature and good will like himself.
            The play begins in the middle of disorder. There is disorder not only among the members of society but in nature. Shakespeare makes use of the themes of the attempt of the human beings to restore order and the use and abuse of power in The Tempest. The boatswain, who comes to life in a few lines, dominates the first scene and exemplifies the superiority of personal character to social rank. Authority varies according to the circumstances. In the sinking ship the boatswain is the king, thus the leader whom each person regardless of social status should obey, Gonzalo has a different view of authority and kingship even in the most desperate position. He recommends to be more passionate and insists on the existence of the King on the board: “Good, yet remember whom thou hast abroad.” The boatswain’s response to this asserts the theme of the play which relates to every individual in the play: “... use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap.” (I, i, 17-23)

The sixteenth century principle of hierarchy – master and slave, king and subject, higher powers and lower powers – continues to exist in this magical island. Prospero, with his ability to control the elements, human beings and supernatural powers, is the ruler of the enchanted island. In fact, his power is more than that of a god. Caliban says: “His art is of such pow’r / It would control my dam’s god, Setebos, / And make a vassal of him.” (I, i, 372-73) Yet this aged magician performs “white” magic. He is a tempest raiser. Nonetheless, courage and determinedness are required of all magicians, white or black, as the spirits as well as the human beings, they control are both reluctant and malignant. Prospero determines to take his revenge and waits till the appropriate day comes. In the meantime, he brings Ariel and Caliban under his control. Caliban, the deformed, half-human slave of Prospero symbolizes the primitive urges. He plans to murder Prospero, with Stephano and Trinculo, pretending to be the leader of the group. He even offers Miranda’s hand to Stephano: “Ay, lord. She will become thy bed, I warrant, / And bring thee forth brave brood.” (III, ii, 101-2)
            Caliban accepts Stephano as his new master, and Stephano calls him “servant monster.” In fact, Stephano becomes the real monster and even slave to Caliban, who plots everything and imposes the idea that they should destroy Prospero’s books first for “without them he’s but a sot.” (III, ii, 89-90)
            Prospero’s talents lack political insight. As he claims he gives the management of the state to his brother: “The government I cast open my brother / And to my state grew stronger, being transported / And rapt in secret studies.” (I, ii, 75-6) The master, in spite of his learning, talents and magical books is mortal and human, and also fallible. He lacks the qualities of a charismatic politician and neglects his job at the cost of losing this dukedom. Moreover, throughout the play Ariel, Miranda and Gonzalo are presented as essential to Prospero’s effectiveness. Ariel represents Prospero’s finer nature. He is on the side of reason. Miranda represents the sensitive part, who helps Prospero to endure in his hardest times as Prospero himself declares:

            Thou wast that did preserve me! Thou didst smile,
            Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
            When I have decked the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burden groaned: which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue.
                                          (I, ii, 153-58)

            The kindliness and good heartedness of Gonzalo is mocked by everybody in the first scene of Act II. However, he does a great favor to Prospero by providing him with supplies and his books. Thus, Prospero and Miranda overcome the difficulty of coming to this island unprepared. When Gonzalo persists in his attempt of the order of hierarchy by saying the boatswain should not forget who is on the board his conservative ideas about power and authority are revealed. The boatswain’s answer is more devastating than Gonzalo’s statement: “You’re counsellor; if you can command these elemnts to / Silence and work at peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more.” (I, i, 19-20) Gonzalo’s inability to alter the situation, in spite of his “authority” reminds the reader of the power of Prospero. As a “counsellor” Gonzalo provides no solution to the problems of reality which emphasizes his powerlessness as a statesman. Due to similar reasons of inability to make use or abuse of the power as a statesman, Prospero ends up living in exile for twelve years – a period enough to cultivate ideas of vengeance – on a strange island, “where man doth not inhabit,” (III, iii, 57) as Ariel tells. Ariel, on the other hand, has a unique place among the three quintessential components of Prospero. Without the aid and support of a spirit like Ariel, Prospero would not actualize his thoughts of punishing his oppressors. Nevertheless, Prospero’s arrogance in his treatment of subordinates is observed in his treatment of Ariel, too. He freed Ariel from the pine in which he is imprisoned by Sycorax. For that act of charity Ariel has served Prospero for twelve years. In spite of his acknowledged promise Prospero delays Ariel’s freedom and through rhetoric he persuades him that he is still the master. His treatment of Ariel changes in a negative way when Ariel reminds him of his promise. He threatens Ariel to keep him in an oak for “twelve winters” which brings him closer to Sycorax whom he outcasts as a “damned witch.” Thus, he decides to remind Ariel of what he has been and what he is, once a month, as he says:

                                                                              I must
            Once in a month recount what thou hast been,
            Which thou forget’st. This damned witch Sycorax,
            For mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible
            To enter human fearing, from Argier,
            Thou know’st, was banished.
                                                        (I, ii, 262-66)

Prospero’s treatment of Caliban is another example of his arrogance. Although Caliban is “a devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick” Prospero learns from Caliban. Shakespeare intends to show that man can also learn from his passions by creating a character called Caliban. The play deals with Prospero’s becoming a reasonable man, thus he learns how to treat his lesser selves. Despite his evil nature, Caliban becomes “a most ridiculous monster,” (II, ii, 161) to use Trinculos words; yet, memorable and vivid he becomes as important as any character in the play.  
            From the very early scenes in the play Prospero assumes a role that is beyond the capacity of a human being, even that of a mortal who is furnished with magical powers. Prospero, the magician brings the “three men of sin” to the island, but Prospero, the man has to decide whether he should punish the sinners or to forgive them. The comic movement of the two lovers -- Ferdinand and Miranda, the two innocent characters of the play – towards marriage and consummation adds to prospero’s advance. Ferdinand first appears through the harmonious music of Ariel in Act I, scene ii. Prospero deliberately delays the consummation of the two lovers, as he wants to give time to them to know whether they truly love each other or not. In Ferdinand’s case too, he changes one form of freedom into another, just like he does to Ariel. Ferdinand is given  the task of making log files and Miranda in her simplicity of expression and feeling wishes to help him. She utters the following words which rejoice Prospero, who watches the scene as a witness:

            This is the third man that e’er I saw; the first
            That e’er I sighed for. Pity move my father
            To be inclined my way!
                                                (I, ii, 445-47)

            Prospero’s powers mentioned above function in collaboration with his concept of time, which is in fact Shakespeare’s concept of time. Prospero’s triumph must be on that day, not later and not earlier. He asks Ariel “What time o’ th’ day” is and Ariel casually replies: “Past the mid season.” (I, ii, 238-39) Prospero has waited for the right day for years and deliberately delays Ariel’s freedom as well as the consummation of the young couple. This idea of waiting for the right time goes parallel with Shakespeare’s idea of treating life paradoxically. For that reason, in the final act through Miranda’s words Shakespeare makes an optimistic remark about the members of society, who are portrayed as decaying in the opening scene:

            How many goodly creatures are there here!
            How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
            That has such people in’t!
                                                (V, i, 181-83)

The tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning as stated in the first stage direction of the play lead to the pleasent scene, where Ferdinand and Miranda pledge their hearts and hands in Act V. Prospero’s act of forgiveness reinforces Shakespeare’s aim of regaining order and having the characters tahe their appropriate places in a new kind of social order. Finally, Prospero makes up his mind about whether to use his authority constructively or destructively. He does not choose the either way but forgives the sinners. Although Prospero has the power he prefers not to use it and the change in him is completed as he manages to temper his passion with reason. Thus, he justifies Shakespeare’s ideas on power, authority and judgement which are best expressed in Sonnet 94:

            They that have pow’r to hurt and will do none,
            They do not do the thing they most do show,
            Who, moving others, are themselves as stone;
            They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
            And husband nature’s riches from expense;
            They are the lords adn the owner of their faces,
            Other but stewards of their excellence.
            The summer’s flow’r is to the summer sweet,
            Though to itself it only live and die;
            But if that flow’r with base infection meet,
            The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
                        For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
                        Lilies that fester smell for worse than weeds.

            The first two lines of this sonnet point out the same idea that people who have power to hurt others, but do not use their powers possess “heaven’s graces.” Lines seven and eight emphasize the relationship between the rulers and the subjects, more directly. The true aristocrats, lords and masters are the men who do not abuse their powers. They are the “true owners of their faces” and their might, who justly inherit God’s grace. Others end up being servants. Shakespeare talks about the rulers and the subjects in terms of authority and human psychology, in Sonnet 94. By introducing the flower imagery Shakespeare deals with the transitory nature of the living things, as the summer’s flower blossoms beautifully although it knows that one day it will fade away. In the final couplet Shakespeare goes back to his primary idea that “the sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds.” Even the weed smells better than a beautiful flower such as lily, if the liky festers and stinks.
            The final scene of the play is full of joyous action and conversation which result from Prospero’s forgiveness. Certainly, it is a noble manner of Prospero to forgive his enemies, but it is especially appreciated that he comes to terms with Caliban and says: “This thing of darkness  acknowledge mine.” (V, i, 275-76) This statement of Prospero together with Caliban’s last words bring the essence of the play, which tries to show what piece pf work is a man and what he is capable of. Even Caliban is able to develop and learn from his faults:
I will be wiser hereafter,
                        And seek for grace. What a thrice double ass
                        Was I to take this drunkard for a god
                        And worship this dull fool!
                                                            (V, i, 285-98)

Works Cited

Harbage, Alfred, ed. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: The   Viking Press, 1986. Print.

Written by Dr. Gul Kurtulus
Bilkent University,
Department of English Language and Literature

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