The Tempest

What slaves we make of those who help us. We love them if they’re clever, and despise them if they’re dull, but always double-check the knots on them are holding.

Prospero has two slaves: Ariel and Caliban. Ariel is a sprite, a spirit with power to control the weather, teleport, and conjure. Caliban is a man, compared in the text to a fish, often portrayed on stage as a hulking brute. Prospero claims powers too. In practice they are little more than hypnotism, however, and he relies on Ariel to spy invisibly, run like Mercury, make banquets from thin frippery, and reassemble shipwrecks. -ery.

Miranda is Prospero’s daughter. She taught Caliban to read and for that he tried to rape her, seeing her kindness as desire. He would still have her if not for his master. Miranda does what she pleases, but now she is afraid of Caliban and does not like to see him. Prospero genuinely loves her, though he is not above putting her to sleep when it suits him. In this way he treats her like a slave.

By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune,
Now my dear lady, hath mine enemies
Brought to this shore; and by my prescience
I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes
Will ever after droop. Here cease more questions;
Thou art inclin’d to sleep; ‘tis a good dullness,
And give it way. I know thou canst not choose.
                                                [MIRANDA sleeps]
Come away, servant; come; I am ready now.
Approach, my Ariel. Come.

Prospero has developed a god complex on his little island, population 3. He hides the existence of Ariel from Miranda, who thinks that everything supernatural derives from him. He is lying when he tells Miranda that Fortune brought these people to his shore. He dispatches Ariel with instructions re: the guests. He would control their movements too. One of these is Ferdinand, a prince.

Why speaks my father so ungently? This
Is the third man that e’er I saw; the first
That e’er I sigh’d for. Pity move my father
To be inclin’d my way!
O, if a virgin,
And your affection not gone forth, I’ll make you
The Queen of Naples.
Soft, Sir! one word more. [Aside]
They are both in either’s pow’rs; but this swift busines
I must uneasy make, lest too light winning
Make the prize light.

It’s a reminder of the justification of Jupiter in Pericles. Prospero cannot stop Miranda falling in love, but he will control the manner of her courtship. On the other hand, he brought new people to the island and on some level must have known the effect a handsome young man would have on someone who’d never seen one before. Though he may have in his isolation forgotten.

Indeed it seems he has her needs at heart, in effecting the crash on the island of the men who’d driven him there. He would settle up with them. But the tears of one of his captives, Gonzago, a good man, rot his anger like a microbial sandstorm. Prospero forgives them, frees them, and invites them into his home.

This leaves only his slaves. Throughout the play, with each task he gave him, Prospero dangled Ariel’s freedom before him. Do this, and you shall get your reward. His schemes complete, his foes forgiven, his daughter betrothed, Prospero keeps his promise at the end of the play.

PROSPERO. [Aside to ARIEL]  My Ariel, chick,
That is thy charge. Then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!

Ariel leaves without a word. There is no thank you, there is nothing to be gracious for. There is no good-bye, there is no need to return the well wishes of one who subjugates. Ariel doesn’t waste another second on Prospero. He vanishes with all speed into his new life.

Caliban is different. He thought to kill his master. Prospero is known to study books and sleep at regular hours. Only Caliban, and the two drunks of the wreck, end the play as prisoners, for their plot against Prospero. Caliban should be forgiven. He is a slave who would take what advantage he could to end his oppression. Foul thoughts are amplified in chains. Still, a free Caliban, with no powerful person to stop him, would have assaulted Miranda.

For all his wrongs, Caliban’s grief is just. One of Shakespeare’s finest masteries is his ability to make well rounded characters. We cannot put Caliban out of our minds, or think him a low beast. Yet in this mastery, having reached the corpus’ end, I wonder if Shakespeare had an underlying point in this granting of universality to each person in his plays. It could be Shakespeare couldn’t help it, it’s where his talent took him. It could be a great humanness, that we the audience should go away from his stage unwilling to judge or unthinkingly dismiss our fellows, having seen how fellows of all kinds are like us. That would be a message, and we love to take our lessons with us when we live, ignoring how we drop them on the way. But I think his mastery of character speaks of cacophony. All these mouths in all his worlds have a point of view, each of which has merit. So in his oeuvre it is a conglomeration of merit against merit against merit. People are ground up and others ascend. He follows through it with the logic of a storyteller. He makes us wonder. For goodness’ sake he even entertains. But oh what a mess he’s revealed. It’s a mess unchangeable, and it’s all the sharper for its bewildering mass of pitiable points of view. When each man and woman is right, and few of them agree, there will be pratfalls, deaths, and lovers twined — the awful human comedy.

If you’re sensitive to it, you can drink or drug it away, or let it drive you mad. Imagine then, if this fits you, that you see as well as Shakespeare. You immediately wonder how he got through life. It’s hard enough to get through your own, limited as it is. How did he do it? If you’re Shakespeare, you see a way in what you love, literature. Ovid, Chaucer, and the rest make doable the days. You find you have a knack for producing your own, both for the page and the stage. And with the depth and breadth of your abilities, you are not limited to the arts. You’re adept at business, and you turn fancies into money. You must toil in this world. Better to profit from your pen than from your back. You’ve seen what that does to people: robbing their spirit and their health, made into Calibans. You’re clever, you have more ability than anyone who ever lived, you know this. You serve as long as you must, and when you’re set free, you go without a word. To them, you vanish. To you, it is they and everything they see.



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