“Shakespeare, in this, the last play completely from his hand, is inventing science fiction.”

The Tempest

Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


An interesting take from A.D. Nuttall:

tempest photo act one 3“In the television series Star Trek Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise says ‘Are you feeling emotion, Mr. Spock?’ Spock, as his ears show, is not from our planet, but from Vulcan. Captain Kirk has come to know and value his remorselessly logical approach to life. Hence his surprise at what looks,, for the moment, like human emotion manifesting itself in the Vulcanian. In The Tempest Prospero says to Ariel,

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling

Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,

One of their kind, that relish all as sharply

Passion as they, be kindlier mov’d than thou art?


Ariel is not of our world but is a mysterious electrical being. Prospero thought he understood this inhuman creature but is brought up short by a sense that Ariel might be feeling pity. The passage is reminiscent of the point at which Hamlet, seeing a tear on an actor’s cheek, is aghast at his own lack of passion (II>ii.551-69), but the idea has now been transposed to a systematically unfamiliar world. Shakespeare, in this, the last play completely from his hand, is inventing science fiction. Nicholas Nayfack’s science fiction film Forbidden Planet (1956) is a version of The Tempest. Classic science fiction,a s written by H.G. Wells, gives us alternative worlds in which things we have never experienced are imagined in circumstantial detail. When we watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream we know what Puck is at once. He is a tricksy sprite, the familiar Robin Goodfellow of folklore. Ariel is obviously in certain respects Puck rewritten, but a fundamental change has taken place. We do not know what he is. He is that thing that becomes normal in science fiction, a vividly imagined being for which no covering concept is readily available.

Other things contribute to our sense of incipient science fiction. Prospero is a magician, which may seem to link him to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Prospero is the new sort of magician, a fashionable, dangerous figure, like the real-life Dr. John Dee (with a touch perhaps of the Italian ‘natural magician’ Giambattista della Porta). It is a matter of history that in the course of the seventeenth century these magicians gradually turned into scientists. Isolated eccentrics trying to turn base metals into gold found themselves engaged in serious metallurgy and soon, encouraged by Francis Bacon, formed committees and pooled results. Prospero in gaining control of Ariel is, as I have hinted, harnessing the power of electricity. This sounds like nonsense, but there is a grain of truth in it. We are told how Ariel ‘flam’d amazement’ in the ship’s rigging (I.ii.198). There is an allusion here to the prose account of the wreck, in the Bermudas, of the Sea Adventure and, in particular, to St. Elmo’s fire, an electrical phenomenon associated with tropical storms. The magician-scientist Prospero has made the spirit of air and fire his servant. If one begins from the other end and works backwards from H.G. Wells, the genre of science fiction can be shown to derive from earlier Utopias and Dystopias, such as the final voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms of Swift’s Gulliver. Shakespeare carefully plants a miniature Utopia in Act II, Scene i: Gonzalo’s communist commonwealth (II.144-65). This facetiously offered ideal state is in some ways familiar to us. It has some of the characteristics of the pastoral Golden Age (no work, food abundant). We saw earlier how the Golden Age is the Good Place for those who instinctively locate happiness in the past, while the New Jerusalem is the Good Place for those who place happiness in the future. W.H. Auden famously called the latter party Utopians; the Utopians, unlike the Arcadians, are political activists, straining toward an as yet unrealized goal. In Gonzalo’s speech we can watch the glowing Golden Age of Virgil take on a political character, as it is made the basis of a plan to colonize new territory.

Much – perhaps too much – has been made in recent criticism of reference to America in The Tempest. Certainly the island is placed firmly in the Mediterranean, somewhere off the north coast of Africa. But at the same time, we have references to the Bermudas, and when Caliban is called an ‘Indian’ we are surely to think of an American rather than an Asian Indian. The distances invoked are not Mediterranean. They are oceanic, super-Atlantic; the Queen of Tunis can have no word from Naples ‘till new-born chins/Be rough and razorable’ (II.i.249-50). The play undoubtedly draws on accounts of Atlantic voyages, including one that Shakespeare read before publication. Curiously, as Prospero’s words to Ariel find an echo in Captain Kirk’s to Spock, so Ariel’s phrase, ‘the still-vex’d Bermoothes’ (I.ii.229), finds an echo in a myth of our time, the Bermuda Triangle. [HA!]  The Tempest contains the most mysterious of all shipwrecks. The Bermuda Triangle is reputedly the place where vessels vanish. There is in the play a sense of the map of the Mediterranean overlaid by an imagined larger topography, the old world somehow instinct with a dream of the new. So we can extend our list of anticipations of science fiction. To the imagined aliens (not just Ariel but Caliban too), the magician scientist, and the Utopian alternative world we can add an indistinct institution of a huge undiscovered environment.

When the American astronauts landed on the moon in the twentieth century they knew rather more about the place they had reached than the first settlers knew about America. America was as strange as that. The very phrase ‘brave new world’ comes from The Tempst (V.i.183), but the words are deeply ironized by their context. When she says these words Miranda is not gazing from a peak in Darien, like Keat’s Cortez, upon an unknown ocean; she is looking at the worst of the old word coming towards her in the shape of assorted courtly criminals. ‘How beauteous mankind is!’ she says, ‘O brave new world/That has such people in’t’ and her father answers, ‘Tis new to thee’ (V.i.183-84). The phrase did not clearly acquire the meaning ‘territory in the western hemisphere’ until the nineteenth century. It is likely, however, that when the use finally established itself, it owed something to this anticipatory verbal gesture on the part of Shakespeare. Given that he is thinking about American and the hopes it aroused in speculative would-be colonists, there is almost certainly a brilliant play on the whole notion of cultural relativism in the exchange between Miranda and Prospero. Miranda has grown up in a new world, with the result that to her it is tame, while the old world at first sight is entrancing. Prospero’s reply is flattening, desolating. His is the relativism of a bleak leveling. It hangs somewhere between Marlowe’s ‘For Christians do the like’ (that is, Christians are no better than Jews, their anti-type) in The Jew of Malta (V.ii.116) and the ending of William Golding’s The Inheritors, where the gentle, doomed Neanderthals, seen through the eyes of Homo sapiens, look bestial and frightening.

tempest photo act one 4To call Caliban ‘an alien’ is obviously chronologically scandalous, and some readers will reject the description forthwith. But the concept is, in a manner grounded in the thought of Shakespeare’s time. Giordano Bruno, who was in England in the 1580s, speculated that the American Indians were not descended from Adam but had an independent origin. In other words, he was an early believer in the heretical doctrine of ‘polygenesis.’ Richard H. Popkin has suggested that Bruno might well have talked about these things in the group of free-thinkers around Sir Walter Raleigh (what sued to be called ‘the School of Night’). This group included Marlowe and Thomas Hariot (or Harriott) the author of A briefe and true Report of the new found Land of Virginia. Hariot’s account of Virginia includes the now-famous reference to the ‘invisible bullets’ that caused sickness and death among those Indians who had contact with Europeans. This too finds an echo in the science fiction of a later age. Hariot is referring, we can see, to the microorganisms that cause disease. The very germs are assisting the already dominant invaders. In H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, the technologically superior Martians are at last defeated (not assisted) by microorganisms, by ‘the humblest things…put upon the earth…our microscopie allies.’ The chattering magpie Thomas Nashe refers in his Pierce Pennilesse his Supplication to the Divell to the notion that there may have been human beings before Adam and in his Christes Teares over Jerusalem to the reported fact that the American Indians can ‘shew antiquities’ from long before Adam’s time. Curiously, in Hariot’s account of Virginia, the Indians themselves say that they are not descended from a first man, like Adam, but a first woman. Shakespeare’s Caliban had a mother, but we never learn of a father.”

From Tanner:

tempest photo act one 1“The story which for James was ‘a thing of naught’ was a thing of many romances, and many folk and fairy tales with a recurrent theme of a magician living in solitude and bringing up a daughter – on an island, or even under the sea (note). As with the play in some ways more closely related to it, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is no specific source for The Tempest. Shakespeare has made his own mix wherein the genres blend into each other so that the play is, variously and at once, a romance, a pastoral, a tragicomedy, a morality, an allegorical history, a comedy influenced by commedia dell’arte, and a masque. Or, if you like, none of the above but something else again. But, beyond all reasonable doubt, a number of contemporary documents acted as some sort of immediate triggering influence. These were what have become known as the Bermuda Pamphlets, and here I must recount what, for some, might be a familiar story. From the time of 1582, when Richard Hakluyt the elder published Divers Voyages touching the Discovery of America – which starts ‘I marvel not a little that since the first discovery of America (which is now full four-score-and-ten years), after so great conquest and plantings of the Spaniards and Portugals there, that we of England could never have the grace to set fast footing in such fertile and temperate places as are left as yet unpossessed by them’ – the Elizabethans grew increasingly excited at the idea of settling North America. Hawkins investigated the coast of Florida, Drake found his way to California, and in 1585 Raleigh sent out his first colony to Virginia (so named to honour Elizabeth) under the command of Richard Grenville. For various reasons this colony did not take and the failed and much-reduced colonists were taken home by Drake in the following year. But the hunt was irreversibly on, and in 1607 another colony was settled in Virginia at the now appropriately named Jamestown. Interest in reports sent or brought back from the New World (containing details of the voyages, the local flora and fauna, the indigenous natives, and the many difficulties and problems among the colonizers) was at a peak in the early years of the seventeenth century – just, of course, when Shakespeare was writing his play (which is his only word to contain the word ‘plantation’).

More immediately, an expedition to Virginia in 1609 led by Sir Thomas Gates had disappeared at sea. But he returned safely from Virginia in 1610, with a tale to tell of a terrible storm and shipwreck in the Bermudas; an almost miraculous escape to land; a period of surprisingly easy survival on a strange island; and finally the troubling state of the Virginia settlement when he managed to get there. The story occasioned various accounts by actual survivors and others, including a long letter by William Strachey giving ‘A True Repertory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates…the Ilands of the Bermudas: his coming to Virginia, and the estate of that Colonie…,’ which was not published until 1625 but which Shakespeare must have read (he had many friends on the Virginian Council, for whom the letter was written). It is in these pamphlets and this letter that Shakespeare draws for his play, though, as always, submitting the material to his own alchemy. I will quote a series of extracts which, I think, throw an interesting light on the play, and, more importantly, on the alchemy.

And first, from that True Reportory – ‘a most dreadfull Tempest.’

A dreadfull storme and hideous began to blow from out the Northeast, which swelling, and roaring as it were by fits…at length did beate all light from heaven…so much the more fuller of horror, as in such cases horror and feare use to overrunne the troubled, and overmastered sences of all which (taken up with amazement) the eares lay so sensible to the terrible cries, and murmurs of the windes, and distraction of our Company…our clamours dround in the windes, and the windes in thunder…Windes and Seas were as mad, as fury and rage could make them…there was not a moment in which the sodaine spltting, or instant oversetting of the Shippe was not expected…For my part I thought her alreadie in the bottome of the Sea…

which is perhaps where the play takes place; but more of that in time. You will recognize the details of Shakespeare’s own tempest with which the play opens; and here is the origin of Ariel’s fire:

an apparition of a little round light, like a faint Starre, trembling, and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, halfe the height upon the Maine Mast, and shooting sometimes from Shroud to Shroud…

Then, the providential escape or salvation:

it wanted little…to have shut up hatches, and commending our sinfull soules to God, committed the Shippe to the mercy of the Sea…but we the goodnesse and sweet introduction of better hope, by our mercifull God given unto us. Sir George Summers, when no man dreamed of such happinesse, had discovered, and cried Land.

(As they seem to be foundering, Gonzalo cries out a longing ‘for an acre of barren ground – long heath, brown furze, anything,’ I.i.65-6)

Indeede the morning now three quarters spent, had wonne a little cleerenesse from the dayes before, and it being better surveyed, the very trees were seene to move with the winde upon the shoare side – and by the mercy of God unto us, making out our Boates, we had ere night brought all our men, women, and children, about the number of one hundred and fifty, safe unto the Iland.

(In another pamphlet, A Discovery of the Barmudas, otherwise called the Ile of Divels, Sylvester Jourdain expresses more wonder: ‘But our delivery was not more strange, in falling so opportunely and happily upon the land, as our feeding and preservation was beyond our hopes and all men’s expectations most admirable.’)

The island turns out not to be as rumour, or seamen’s superstition, has it.

We found it to be the dangerous and dreaded Iland, or rather Ilands of the Bermudas…they be called commonly, The Devils Ilands, and are feared and avoided of all sea travelers alive, above any other place in the world. [MY NOTE:  Was this the beginnings of the Bermuda Triangle?] Yet it pleased our mercifull God, to make even this hideous and hated place, both the place of our safetie, and meanes of our deliverance.

And hereby also, I hope to deliver the world from a foule and generall errour: it being counted of most, that they can be no habitation for Men, but rather given over to Devils and wicked Spirits; whereas indeed we find them now by experience, to bee as habitable and commodious as most Countries of the same climate and situation.

(Jourdain, who says the island is reputed to be an ‘enchanted’ place, is even more enthusiastic: ‘Wherefore my opinion is that whereas it hath been and is still accounted the most dangerous, infortunate, and most forlorn place of the world, it is in truth the richest, healthfullest, and pleasing land…and merely natural, as ever man set foot upon.’)

Strachey goes on to list all the trees, berries, fruits, birds, fish, crustaceans and other animals the island affords – including a ‘reasonable toothsome (some say) Tortoyse’ (Prospero calls Caliban a ‘tortoise.’) There are no rivers or springs; you have to dig to find ‘certaine gushings and soft burblings’ of water (Caliban can show you where). He notes the absence of ‘any venomous thing’ – certainly, he never saw a snake; which is somehow appropriate in this somewhat anamorphic version of Paradise. And all the venom on Prospero’s island is secreted by men. These observations are apt for Shakespeare’s own ambiguous and enchanted island. But we should remember that, in the play, the Bermudas are mentioned just once – fleetingly, peripherally: Ariel was once sent by Prospero ‘to fetch dew/From the still-vexed Bermoothes’ (I.ii.228-9). The action is a long way elsewhere.

There are two more sections in the letter, both having relevance for the play. Once they were all safely landed and the danger was over, the men started to fall out and go wrong, as men will unless they are properly ‘governed’ by some good authority, however legitimized or derived. (The prospect of mobs of ‘masterless men’ was a nightmare for the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans.)  ‘Loe, what are our affections and passions, if not rightly squared?…some dangerous and secret discontents nourished amongst us, had like to have bin the parents of bloudy issues and mischiefes…a conspiracy was discovered [led by] a mutinous and dissembling Imposter.’

In these dangers and divellish disquiets (whilest the almighty God wrought for us, and sent us miraculously delivered from the calamities of the Sea, all blessings upon the shoare, to content and binde us to gratefulnesse) thus inraged amongst our selves, to the destruction each of other, into what a mischiefe and misery had wee bin given up, had wee not had a Governour with his authority, to have suppressed the same? Yet was there a worse practice, faction, and conjuration a foote, deadly and bloody, and could not but miscarry in his fall…but as all giddy and lawlesse attempts, have always something of imperfection, and that as well by the property of the action, which holdeth of disobedience and rebellion…as through the ignorance of the devisers themselves…

Just so: this plot collapsed and came to nothing; as will a similar ‘foul conspiracy’ against Governor Prospero’s life, hopelessly botched by Stephano and Trinculo, ‘giddy and lawlesse’ with drink.

They finally reach the Jamestown colony in Virginia, and find it to be ‘full of misery and misgovernment.’ In the absence of good government, ‘the headless multitude’ has fallen into ‘wastful courses’ and ‘Idleness.’ There was ‘no husbandry’; they couldn’t even be bothered ‘to sowe Corne for their owne bellies.’ Captain John Smith, writing about Virginia in 1608, describes how difficult it was to get the settlers to do any of the necessary plantation work. Neglecting agriculture and carpentry, all they wanted to do was look for non-existent gold. (A lot of these greedy, lady wastrels were young gallants hoping for easy riches, not honest labourers.) Thus Strachey: ‘Unto such calamity can sloath, riot and vanity, bring the most settled and plentifull estate.’ Another contemporary anonymous pamphlet about Virginia makes the same point even more vigorously: ‘So that, if it bee considered that without industry no land is sufficient to the Inhabitants: and that the trade to which they trusted, betrayed them to loose the opportunity of seed-time, and so to rust and wear out themselves.’ Yet another anonymous pamphlet known as The True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia (1610) makes a definitive statement:

The ground of all those miseries, was the permissive providence of bod, who, in the fore-mentioned violent storme, separated the head from the bodie, all the vital powers of regiment being exiled with Sir Thomas Gates in those infortunate (yet fortunate) Hands. The broken remainder of those supplies makes a greater shipwreck in the continent of Virginia, by the tempest of dissension: every man underprizing as others value, denied to be commanded…it is no wonder that so many in our colony perished: it is a wonder, that all were not devoured.

More than one kind of shipwreck; more than one kind of tempest. The importance of work, and agriculture and husbandry; and the whole question of good and necessary ‘government,’ and ‘the vitall powers of regiment’ – these are central matters in Shakespeare’s play. One more quotation from the True Declaration:

The next Fountaine of woes was secure negligence, and improvidence, when every man sharked for his present bootie, but was altogether carelesse of succeeding penurie. Now, I demand whether Sicilia, or Sardinia, could hope for increase without manuring? A  Colony is therefore denominated, because they should be Coloni, the Tillers of the Earth, and Stewards of fertilitie: our mutinous Loyterers would not sow with providence, and therefore they reaped the fruits of too deere bought Repentance.

You will hardly find a better phrase for Stephano and Trinculo than ‘mutinous Loyterers’ sharking for booty (Caliban is something else.) Shakespeare’s play is not a study of imperialism and colonialism as currently understood. But it does engage with basic issues concerning what is involved in being proper coloni and in establishing ‘plantations’ in the New World. On this matter, a final quotation from a later essay by Francis Bacon entitled ‘Of Plantations’ (1625)

It is a shameful and unblessed thing to take the scum of people, and wicked condemned men, to be the people with whom you plant: and not only so, but it spoileth the plantation; for they will ever live like rogues, and not fall to work, but be lazy, and do mischief, and spend victuals, and be quickly weary, and then certify over to their country to the discredit of the plantation…For government, let it be in the hands of one, assisted with some counsel…And above all, let men make that profit of being in the wilderness, as they have God always, and his service, before their eyes.

With extraordinary economy, Shakespeare’s play encompasses, or glances at, all these matters.

tempest photo act one 2The Strachey letter was published in 1625 in Purchas His Pilgrimes with marginal notes by Samuel Purchas. I have not yet mentioned any of the remarks made by the commentators in Virginia concerning the indigenous inhabitants, the miscalled Indians. Suffice it to say that they were found do be credulous and adoring (treating the colonizers as gods); helpful (many of the colonies were completely dependent on the natives for food and instruction about the terrain, in their early years); and treacherous (there are some terrible massacres, often but not always provoked by the disgraceful behavior of the colonists) – sometimes in that order. You will readily see that this exactly describes the range of responses that Caliban goes through with regard to Prospero. Strachey describes an episode of treachery on the part of the Indians, suddenly turned hostile. Purchas adds a marginal comment: ‘Can a Leopard change his spots? Can a Savage remayning a Savage be civill? Were not wee our selves made and not borne civill in our Progenitors days? and were not Caesars Britaines as brutish as Virginians? The Romane swords were best teachers of civilitie to this & other Countries neere us.’

This last point, you may remember, was taken up in Cymbeline. More generally, it can be readily understood that the discovery of apparently totally uncivilized and ‘primitive’ (= first of its kind) natives in the New World lent enormous impetus to that favourite Elizabethan topic of debate, and a concern central to all Shakespeare’s drama – the relationship of savagery to civility, of nature to nurture; indeed, the nature of Nature itself. When Prospero describes Caliban as ‘a born devil, on whose nature/Nurture can never stick’ (IV.i.188-9), he is raising all the questions. (We should not, incidentally, take Prospero’s statements and definitions as veridical and definitive. It would be a mistake to assume that Shakespeare’s view of Caliban is coextensive with Prospero’s.) Leaving aside Caliban’s role in the play for a moment – he is in a way the pivot; the figure against whom all the others are measured – we can see that he incorporates attributes associated with, at least, the European figure of the wild or ‘salvage’ man (of the woods) and the native of the New World. About this native, traveller’s reports were continually ambiguous – he was innocent, essentially uncorrupted, naturally happy; he was a cannibal, truly savage, naturally brutal. In  Spenser’s Fairie Queene Books IV and V, there is ‘a wilde and salvage man,’ a cannibalistic monster, who lecherously abducts Amoret; but there is also a gentle ‘wilde man’ who, though without human speech, takes pity on Serena and saves her. Just so. Caliban has his lecherousness and murderousness; but he also has his sensitivities and delicacies (even though Prospero reserves that word exclusively for Ariel). His name is, effectively, an anagram of ‘cannibal’; it might owe something to the Romany word for blackness – cauliban; it could refer to the Caribbean. Whatever he is – born devil; monster (nature unnatural); enslaved native; or just ‘natural man’ (man in a state of nature) – it is of particular interest that Prospero needs him.

We cannot miss him. He does make our fire,

Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices

That profit us.


(It is perhaps worth noting that the one task we see imposed on him, and after him on Ferdinand, namely ‘fetching wood,’ was exactly the work which the insubordinate settlers initially refused to do for Sir Thomas Gates – though he wanted the wood to build a boat to escape from the island, where the mutinous loiterers preferred to remain in idleness.) You would have thought that a magician with Prospero’s so potent powers (he can raise the dead!) would have been able to whisk a bit of firewood into his ‘cell’ at the flick of a wand. But no – Shakespeare wants to mark a curious and perhaps significant reliance and dependence. This is not a reprehensible implausibility, but a matter to think on.

Columbus himself was sure he had encountered cannibals in the Caribbean, and he contrasted them with the ‘meke and humayne people’ on other islands – ‘they seeme to lyve in that goulden worlde of the which owlde writers speake so much; wherein men lyved simplye and innocentlye without enforcement of lawes, without quarelling Judges and libelles, content onely to satisfy nature…’ It was reports like this which helped to inspire Montaigne’s essay ‘Of the Cannibales’ (John Florio’s translation of the Essais was published in 1603 – a work which Shakespeare certainly knew and whose copy is almost certainly even now in the British Museum). I will quote some relevant passage; and you can see a tolerant and provocative relativism creeping in which surely appealed to the ironic Shakespeare.

I finde (as farre as I have been informed) there is nothing in that nation [the newly discovered America], that is either barbarous or savage, unlesse man call that barbarisme which is not common to them [point taken!]…They are even savage, as we call those fruits wilde, which nature of her selfe, and of her ordinaire progresse hath produced: whereas indeed, they are those which our selves have altered by our artificiall devices, and diverted from their common order, we should rather term savage [well, all right – an agreeable and refreshing inversion and oxymoron; the product, of course, of civilized casuistry]…me seemth that what in those nations we see by experience, doth not only exceed all the pictures wherewith licentious Poesie hath proudly imbellished the golden age and all her quaint inventions to faine a happy condition of man, but also the conception and desire of Philosophy [a node there to the ‘Golden Age’ as described by ‘licentious’ Ovid] …It is a nation, would I answer Plato, that hath no kinde of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie; no use of service, of riches or of povertie; no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle; no respect of kindred, but common, no apparel but naturall, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corne, or mettle…

And as for cannibalism, continues Montaigne, compared to the indescribable tortures we ‘civilized’ people inflict on living bodies, the eating of a dead body is infinitely less ‘barbarous’ – and we can take that point, too. Shakespeare, of course, allows the good Gonzalo to articulate much of this passage from Montaigne (see II.i.148-73), making it clear that his wistful evocation of the ‘Golden Age’ is full of impossible contradictions, easily pounced on by the sneering, worldly derision of Antonio and Sebastian. But where Gonzalo’s confused and unrealizable fantasy is benign (‘holy Gonzalo, honorable man’), the jeering malice of Antonio and Sebastian does them little credit, trenchant and telling though it is. As Coleridge very rightly observed: ‘Shakespeare never puts habitual scorn into the mouths of other than bad men.’

But Ovid’s Golden Age can hardly be squared with, or mapped on to, the ‘New Land like unto That of the Golden Age,’ as one contemporary traveler described America. For one thing, there was no voyaging in it (‘man knew no shores except their own’); for another, the sowing and farming necessary for plantation survival (even if some of those work-shy early settlers did try to regress to a Golden Age idleness) are innovations of the Silver Age (‘then in long furrows first were set the seeds’); and for a third, not only voyaging (‘men sailed the sea’), but also the evil of ‘deceit and treachery/And violence and wicked greed’ and the ‘hands of blood’ which the travelers bring with them to the island, are the distinctive features of the Age of Iron. The ‘brave new world’ which Miranda so innocently wonders at is in fact the varyingly corrupt old world of Europe. Even Sycorax was from Algiers, and Caliban is not an indigenous native, not a Virginian or a Caribbean savage. From this point of view, the island is ‘uninhabited’ (the implication being, perhaps, that the only golden worlds are unpeopled ones), and whether Caliban is innately disposed to evil or was corrupted by his encounter and enforced servitude with Prospero, all the malign and infecting influences in the world of this play are importations, sourced elsewhere – wherever it is that evil is sourced; on this point Antonio is as unyieldingly silent as Iago.

So, while his opening shipwreck and aftermath has something more than echoes of the Atlantic adventure of Sir Thomas Gates and his crew, Shakespeare locates his island squarely in the Mediterranean, as we gather between Naples and Tunis. Italy, for Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, meant the glories of Renaissance civilization (here figured as Prospero’s ‘liberal arts without a parallel’), and the horrors of unscrupulous Machiavellian politics (Antonio’s ruthless usurpation of Prospero’s dukedom). Tunis, from where they are returning after what was clearly a completely political marriage of Alonso’s daughter to the Tunisian king (the play’s alertness to the importance to royal families of astute dynastic marriages may have some contemporary relevance), allows a backward reference to Carthage and some seemingly pointless banter about ‘Widow Dido’ and ‘widower Aeneas.’ Carthage may be allowed to evoke a memory of the lost civilization of the ancient world (‘Delenda est Cathago’), while Aeneas is, of course, the most famous founder of Empire of all. There are small echoes of the Aeneid in the play, and these have a quiet, marginal relevance. But the exiled Prospero is not an empire builder, no matter how relevant the settlement of Virginia is to his background in the play. It is the more general resonance gained by suspending this mysterious island between, or off, a sort of palimpsest of European civilization which is more cardinally suggestive.”




Our next reading:  The Tempest, Act Two

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning


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4 Responses to “Shakespeare, in this, the last play completely from his hand, is inventing science fiction.”

  1. Lesley says:

    In this scene Miranda gets the back story of how she and her father came to be on this island from her father, Prospero. Afterward he puts Miranda — for she is under his spell as much as everyone on this magic island–promptly to sleep. He then summons the spirit Ariel who dutifully reports on recent events. At the end of the report and Prospero’s next set of instructions to Ariel, we get another back story. We learn how Ariel came to be in Propero’s service and how Ariel came to be on this island. Ariel had come to the island as a servant to someone else–another “terrible” sorceress–a witch named Sycorax. Sycorax is no longer living, but she, like Prospero was banished to this island. Pregnant Sycorax was banished from Algiers and left on the island by sailors. (And what is the relation between Algiers and the Roman world? And the relationship of Milan to the Christian world? Wasn’t Saint Augustine from Algiers and didn’t he move to Milan where he converted to Christianity? And in our play wasn’t our shipwrecked vessel returning from Carthage–in Tunisia–not far from Algiers–where King Alonso’s daughter, Clarabelle has just been married to the King of Tunis. Let us not forget the story of Dido and Aeneas which hovers on the edge of this story as surely as Medea and Jason hover as well–this island hopping hero)

    Sycorax is banished from Algiers, pregnant with child and with Ariel as her servant. However, Ariel is rebellious and is punished for his rebellion by being trapped in a tree. It seems from the start all that Ariel wants and needs is his liberty. He is trapped–locked into service of magicians but what he longs for is liberty. Prospero reminds Ariel:

    “for thou wast a spirit too delicate
    To act her earthy and abhorr’d commands,
    Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,”

    and he goes on:

    “Imprison’d thou didst painfully remain
    A dozen years; within which space she died
    And left thee there; where thou didst vent thy groans
    As fast as mill-wheels strike. Then was this island–
    Save for the son that she did litter here,
    A freckled whelp hag-born–not honour’d with
    A human shape.

    Yes, Caliban her son.

    Dull thing, I say so; he, that Caliban
    Whom now I keep in service. Thou best know’st
    What torment I did find thee in; thy groans
    Did make wolves howl and penetrate the breasts
    Of ever angry bears: it was a torment
    To lay upon the damn’d, which Sycorax
    Could not again undo: it was mine art,
    When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape
    The pine and let thee out.”

    So Sycorax becomes a foil to Prospero. She was on the island for twelve years just as Prospero and Miranda have been on the island for twelve years. (‘Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since, Thy father was the Duke of Milan and A prince of power.’). No doubt this twelve and twelve has significance. She and Prospero both have magical powers–Prospero’s magic frees Ariel from the tree (from nature–from poetry/spirit trapped in trees and nature magic? which is Sycorax’s realm.) Is not Sycorax related to Medea? Sycorax is gone but her son, Caliban remains on the island–cutting logs–on the outer edge of this world Prospero has secured for Miranda. Prospero is father to a daughter and Sycorax is mother to a son. There is mirrors. Ariel is a bridge between both worlds–past and present–and has served both but what Ariel longs for is his liberty. At the start of the Tempest it appears that Ariel is almost free but still needs to finish out the debt he owes Prospero for freeing him from the tree. He’s been freed from complete captivity but he still has to complete the recasting Prospero is working out.

  2. Lesley says:

    Correction: They are mirrors. NOT “There is mirrors.”

  3. Lesley says:

    Caliban is imprisoned by Prospero just as surely as Ariel had been imprisoned by Sycorax. The role of language becomes an issue. Prospero says of Caliban:
    “Abhorred slave,
    Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
    Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
    Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
    One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
    Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
    A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
    With words that made them known. But thy vile race,
    Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which
    good natures
    Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou
    Deservedly confined into this rock,
    Who hadst deserved more than a prison.”

    The power of language to cast and recast “magic.” Prospero–the great student of the liberal arts–tooks pains to teach Caliban to speak–but he did not learn. He only wanted to rape Miranda. Caliban lacks reflection or culture or human form. I don’t see Caliban as someone whose culture was stolen from him by the colonialist Prospero. Caliban conjures up a mythological creature like one encountered by Aeneas or Jason while they quested from island to island.

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