“The history of mankind is madness, but in order to expose it, one has to perform it on a desert island.”

The Tempest

Act Two, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


To continue where I left of last time with Jan Kott:

the tempest photos act 2 1“The Tempest has two endings: a quiet evening on the island, when Prospero forgives his enemies and the story returns to the point of departure; and Prospero’s tragic monologue spoken directly to the audience, a monologue out of time. But The Tempest also possesses two prologues. The first of these is the dramatic one; it takes place on the ship, which is set on fire by lightning and tossed on the rocks by the wind. The other prologue consists of Prospero’s account of how he lost his dukedom and came to live on the uninhabited island; it narrates the previous history of the dramatis personae.

On the surface, the first prologue – like Prospero’s closing monologue – seems unnecessary. It takes place out of the island and only provides, as it were, a frame. But it serves a double dramatic purpose. It shows a real tempest, as distinguished from the inner storm, from the madness which will overcome the characters in view of the audience. It is only after the physical and material tempest has been depicted that the morality play will be performed. All that happens on the island will be a play within a play, a performance produced by Prospero.

But this dramatic prologue has one other purpose. It is a direct exposition of one of the great Shakespearean theses: a violent confrontation of nature with the social order. The ship carries a king. What is royal might and majesty when confronted with raging elements? Nothing. Shakespeare repeats Panurge’s famous invocation from the fourth book of Gargantua and Pantagruel, but how much more sharply and strongly he does it.

Gonzalo:  Nay, good, be patient.

Boatswain:  When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin! Silence! Trouble us not!

Gonzalo:  Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.

Boatswain:  None that I more love than myself. You are a Councillor. If you can command these elements to silence and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more; use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have liv’d so long…


This in a nutshell, and in condensed form, is the theme of King Lear.

In the prologue to The Tempest, the deprivation of majesty’s sacred character – so characteristic of the Renaissance – is realized once more. Faced with the roaring sea, a boatswain means more than a king.

Now for Prospero’s account, which is the other prologue to The Tempest. It is a long account and seems to include some undigested elements of an old play from which Shakespeare took the plot. [MY NOTE:  Really?]  It is of no importance. Prospero’s story takes up one of the main, basic – almost obsessional – Shakespearean themes: that of a good and a bad ruler, of the usurper, who deprives the legal prince of his throne. This is Shakespeare’s view of history, eternal history, its perpetual unchanging mechanism. It is repeated in this Histories and in the Tragedies – in Hamlet and Macbeth – even in the Comedies, for this theme is present in Measure for Measure and in As You Like It. Only in the Roman tragedies, although the mechanism of history and of the struggle for power remains the same, the dramatis personae are different; they include the senate and the people, tribunes and army generals.

In Prospero’s narrative the framework of feudal history is bare; purged of all allegory and chance, almost deprived of names and character, it is abstract like a formula. Prospero’s account is a summary of Machiavelli’s treatise, The Prince.

     …the liberal arts…

…….being all my study,

The government I cast upon my brother

And to my state grew stranger…

 ……thy false uncle –


Being once perfected how to grant suits,

How to deny them, who t’ advance, and who

To trash for over-topping, new-created

The creatures that were mine…

…….set all hearts i’ th’ state

To what tune pleas’d his ear, that now he was

The ivy which had hid my princely trunk

And suck’d my verdure out on’t.


To have no screen between this part he play’d

And him he play’d it for, he needs will be

Absolute Milan.


……. confederates…

……with th’ King of Naples

To give him annual tribute, do him homage…


 ……one midnight…


The gates of Milan;….


Prospero’s narrative is a description of a struggle for power, of violence and conspiracy. But it applies not only to the dukedom of Milan. The same theme will be repeated in the story of Ariel and Caliban. Shakespeare’s theatre is the Theatrum Mundi. Violence, as the principle on which the world is based, will be shown in cosmic terms. The previous history of Ariel and Caliban is a repetition of Prospero’s history, another illustration of the same theme. Shakespearean dramas are constructed not on the principle of unity of action, but on the principle of analogy, comprising a double, treble, or quadruple plot, which repeats the same basic theme; they are a system of mirrors, as it were, both concave and convex, which reflect, magnify and parody the same situation. The same theme returns in various keys, in all the registers of Shakespeare’s music; it is represented lyrically and grotesquely, then pathetically and ironically. The same situation will be performed on the Shakespearean stage by kings, then repeated by lovers and aped by clowns. Or is it the kings who ape the clowns? Kings, lovers, clowns are all actors. Parts are written and situations given. So much the worse, if the actors are not suited for their parts and cannot play them properly. For they perform on a stage which depicts the real world, where no one chooses his or her part or situation. Situations in Shakespearean theater are always real, even when interpreted by ghosts and monsters.

Even before the sea-currents took the raft, carrying Miranda and Prospero to the island, the first act of violence and t error had already taken place. Ariel had been captured by the witch Sycorax and – for refusing to obey her abominable orders – imprisoned in a cloven pine-tree. He suffered, for until then he had been as free as air. ‘Thou wast a spirit too delicate/To act her earthly and abhorr’d commands’ – as Prospero will tell him. Prospero liberates Ariel, but only to make him serve, to make him obey his own power. Shakespeare is always in a hurry to state the conflict and situations, abruptly and at once. No sooner has Prospero ended his narrative, and Ariel given his account of the shipwreck, than the conflict breaks out with full force. The prologue is over; action has begun.

Ariel:  …Let me remember thee that thou has promis’d,

Which is not yet perform’d me.

Prospero:       How now? moody?

What is’t thou canst demand?

Ariel:  My liberty.

Prospero:  Before the time be out? No more!


The theme of force has been introduced twice. But on the island there is another character of the drama: Caliban. The same theme, the same situation will be repeated for the third time. Only the parts will be reversed and Shakespeare will introduce a new mirror. This time it will be a crooked mirror. Caliban is the offspring of Sycorax’s union with the devil. On her death he assumed rule of the island.  He was its rightful lord, at least in the feudal sense. Caliban lost his realm, just as Prospero had lost his dukedom. Caliban was overthrown by Prospero, just as Prospero had been overthrown by Antonio. Even before the morality proper is performed and Prospero’s enemies undergo the trial of madness, two acts of feudal history have already been acted on the desert island.

Caliban:  This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou tak’st from me. When thou camest first,

Thou strok’dst me and mad’st much of me; wouldst give me

Water with berries in’t:…



…first was mine own king;…


Caliban’s first revolt belongs still to the antecedents of the drama. Caliban assaulted Miranda and tried to rape her. His attempt failed. Caliban was confined to a cave, forced to carry wood and water and suffer torture consisting of cramps, aches, and pricks. Shakespeare is a master of literality. Ariel’s sufferings are abstract, and the liberty he seeks is abstract too. It is a rejection of all forms of dependence. Caliban’s sufferings are concrete, physical, animal. Characters in Shakespearean dramas are never introduced by chance. The first scene in which Ariel appears brings a demand for liberty. The first appearance of Caliban marks a recollection of revolt. It is the entry of a slave. The cruelty of this scene is wholly deliberate; so is its brutal materialist quality.

Prospero: Thou poisoned slave, got by the devil himself

Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!

Caliban:  As wicked dew as e’er my mother brush’d

With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen

Drop on you both! A south-west blow on ye

And blister you all o’er!


The exposition is over. Such are the life-stories of the inhabitants of a desert island, on the rocky shores of which the ship carrying Prospero’s old enemies has been wrecked.

For most commentators the island in The Tempest is a utopia, or a fairy tale. Let us look at it more closely, as it is going to be the scene of the drama proper. Where does this island lie, what does it signify, and how has Shakespeare described it?

From the itinerary of the sea-voyage undertaken by Alonso, King of Naples, who is returning from Tunis, and from the story of the witch Sycorax, who had come to the island from Algiers, it follows that Prospero’s island should be situated in the Mediterranean. At the crossroads of both routes lies Malta. Other commentators place the island nearer to Sicily and think it is the rocky Pantelleria. Others are of the opinion that the island lies near the shore of North Africa and take it to be Pampedusa. But Setebos, whom the witch Sycorax worshipped, was a god of the Patagonian Indians, while Ariel brings Prospero ‘dew/From the still-vex’d Bermoothes’, or Bermuda.

In 1609 the Earl of Southampton sent a large fleet with men and equipment necessary to colonize Virginia, the first English colony on the North American coast. The expedition raised hopes of fabulous fortunes and fired the imagination. For the first time not only astronomers, but also merchants, bankers and politicians realized that the earth is really round. The world inhabited by man was enlarged to twice its size in the course of a century, but at the same time dwindled in imagination; just as our galaxy dwindled after the first flights into cosmos. The discovery of another hemisphere meant a shock that can only be compared to the landing of an earth-launched rocket on the moon and the photographing of its other side. This planetary image of earth originated in the ear of Renaissance. Thus Leonardo wrote about his works:

‘My book attempts to prove that the Ocean, together with other seas, enables our world, through the medium of the sun, to be luminous like the Moon and that, to the most distant, Earth seems a star; this is what I am arguing.’


Jean Fernel, one of the most eminent people of the new ear, a humanist, mathematician and court physician to the King of France, wrote in his Dialogue in the year 1530: ‘Our times have seen things not even dreamt of by the ancients…The Ocean has been crossed thanks to the bravery of our sailors, and new islands have been discovered…A new globe has been given us by the mariners of our times.’ If new world, inhabited by intelligent creatures, have been discovered on earth, why should they not exist in heavenly spheres as well? This is the conclusion reached by Giordano Bruno; a conclusion for which he was burnt at the stake in 1600, on the charge of heresy. At that time Shakespeare was beginning to write Hamlet. The Tempest was written eleven years later.

Recent commentators connect the origins of The Tempest with the accounts of the English fleet’s expedition to Virginia in 1609. The expedition failed. The flag-ship ‘Sea-Adventure,’ caught by a storm, was wrecked and the sailors landed on an uninhabited island, forming part of Bermuda. They spent ten months there; then they built two new ships and eventually managed to reach Virginia. They called the islands to which they were thrown by the storm Devil’s Islands. At night they could hear mysterious howls and noises, which – according to contemporary accounts – they attributed to demons. It is from them that Shakespeare may have taken the Boatswain’s story of:

…strange and several noises

Of roaring, shrieking, howling, jingling chains,

And moe diversity of sounds, all horrible,…


These accounts made the colonists indignant, and the council of the colonists of Virginia published a pamphlet by William Barrett declaring that rumours of Bermuda being visited by devils and evil spirits were false, or at any rate exaggerated, and in that ‘tragical comedy there is nothing that could discourage the colonists.’ The settlers of Virginia interpreted Shakespeare more sensibly than some of his most recent commentators.

the tempest photo act 2 2It is also been found that Prospero fed Caliban with a certain kind of inedible ‘fresh-brook muscles,’ mentioned by accounts of the unfortunate expedition. In Ariel setting fire to the ship (‘I’ld divide/And burn in many places; on the topmast,/The yards, and boresprit would I flame distinctly’) some Shakespearean scholars would see the picture of St. Elmo’s fire, which so terrified the shipwrecked at the time of the Bermuda disaster.

Shakespeare’s fantastic vision was always based on contemporary realities; thanks to them the world he showed in a condensed form on the stage became even more concrete. But it was always the whole world. It is useless, therefore, to look for the longitude and latitude of Prospero’s island.

In The Tempest there is, doubtless, something of the atmosphere of long sea-voyages, mysterious desert islands; but there is also the anxiety and daring of the conclusions reached by Giordano Bruno. In any event, The Tempest is a long way removed from the native enthusiasm and childish pride of the first witnesses of geographical discoveries. Questions raised by The Tempest are philosophical and bitter.

The morality play staged by Prospero will last less than four hours. But the island itself it out of time. There is on it both winter and summer. Prospero bids Ariel ‘…To run both the sharp wind of the North,/To do…business in the veins o’th’ earth/When it is bak’d with frost.’ The island has salt and sweet waters, barren and fertile lands, lemon groves and quagmires. It abounds in hazelnuts, apples are ripe, there are truffles in the forest. The island is inhabited by baboons, hedgehogs, vipers, bats and toads. Jays have their nests here, sea-gulls perch on the rocks. Berries grow here, there are sea-shells of various kinds; feet are hurt by thorns; one hears mastiffs bark and cocks grow.

Commentators of The Tempest find on this island the idyllic atmosphere of an Arcadia. No doubt they interpret the play only through bad theatre performances; those with a ballet dancer and a translucent screen. They see fairy tale and ballet all the time. Well, one would rather trust those who undergo on this island the trial of madness:

All torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement

Inhabits here. Some heavenly power guide us

Out of this fearful country!


That is why it is useless to look for Prospero’s island even among the white spaces of old maps, where the contours of land grow indistinct, the ocean blue turns pale, and drawings of fantastic monsters appear instead, or the inscription: ‘ubi leones.’ Even there that island does not exist. Prospero’s island is either the world, or the stage. To the Elizabethans it was all the same; the stage was the world, and the world was the stage.

On Prospero’s island, Shakespeare’s history of the world is played out, in an abbreviated form. It consists of a struggle for power; murder, revolt and violence. The first two acts of that history had been played out even before the arrival of Alonso’s ships. Now Prospero will speed up the action. Twice more will the same history be repeated; as a tragedy, and as a grotesque; then the performance will be over. Prospero’s island has nothing in common with the happy isles of Renaissance utopias. It rather reminds us of the islands in the world of the late Gothic. Such worlds were painted by one of the greatest visionaries among painters, precursor of Baroque and Surrealism, the mad Hieronymus Bosch. They rise out of a grey sea. They are brown or yellow. They take the form of a cone, reminding one of a volcano, with a flat top. On such hills tiny human figures swarm and writhe like ants. The scenes depict the seven deadly sins and all human passions, above all lechery and murder, drunkenness and gluttony. Apart from people there are demons with beautiful, slender angelic female bodies and toads’ or dogs’ heads. Under the tables shaped like big tortoise-shells, old hags with flabby breasts and children’s faces lie embracing half-men, half-insects with long hairy spider-like feet. Tables are set for a common feast, but the jugs and plates are assuming insect, bird or froggy shapes. That island is a garden of torment, or a picture of mankind’s folly. It is even similar in its shape to the Elizabethan stage. Boats arrive at a gentle harbor at the foot of the mountain. That is the apron-stage. The main scenes take place in large caves and on terraces of the volcanic cone. The flat top of the mountain is empty. There are no actors on the upper stage. No one gives his blessing or sits in judgment over the follies. This island is the scene of the world’s cruel tortures. In that world Shakespeare was a witness. But there are no gods in it, and gods are not needed. Men will suffice:

…Our natures do pursue,

Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,

A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.

(Measure for Measure, I.2)

That quotation from Measure for Measure could serve as an inscription to the large canvases by Bosch depicting The Temptation of St. Anthony or The Garden of Pleasure. Such is Prospero’s island. Ariel is its angel and its executioner. That is why when wishing to be seen he assumes in turn the form of a nymph and a harpy. This is the sentence he pronounces on the shipwrecked:

…destiny –

That hath to instrument this lower world

And what is in’t – the never-surfeited sea

Hath caus’d to belch up to you, and on this island,

Where man doth not inhabit – you ‘mongst men

Being most unfit to live. I have made you mad;

And even with such-like valour men hang and drown

Their proper selves.


On Prospero’s orders Ariel pursues the shipwrecked, leads them astray by his music, torments and scatters them. Alonso, the King of Naples, and the loyal Gonzalo are tired. They fall asleep with the entire retinue. Only the treacherous Antonio, and the King’s brother, Sebastian, are to keep watch. The story of the plot aimed at seizing power will repeat itself. But Shakespeare uses a different mirror. The loss of the dukedom by Prospero has been told concisely, with a dry precision, as if in a history text-book; it has been unfolded like a formula, like a mechanism. This time, action is slowed down and shown in a typically Shakespearean close-up. As in a film. Every second counts, and we can observe every vibration of the soul, every gesture. The King and Gonzalo are asleep. The moment is ripe. It may never happen again:

Sebastian:  But, for your conscience –

Antonio:  Ay, sir! Where lies that? if ‘twere a kibe,

‘Twould put me to my slipper; but I feel not

This deity in my bosom. Twenty consciences

That stand ‘twist me and Milan, candied be they

And melt, ere they molest!


Antonio and Sebastian raise their swords. In a moment murder will be committed. Shakespeare is, indeed, obsessed by this theme. Only the mirrors change. And every one of these mirrors is just another commentary on situations that remain the same. Prospero’s island, like Denmark, is a prison. Antonio’s and Sebastian’s plot repeats scenes from King Lear:

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits

Send quickly down to tame these vile offences,

It will come,

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,

Like monsters of the deep.


Swords will be put back again, for Ariel is watching. He is both an agent-provocateur and the stage manager of the performance produced by Prospero. Murder does not have to be committed. It is enough that it has been exposed. For it is only a morality play that is being performed on the island. Prospero submits the shipwrecked to a trial of madness. But what does this madness mean? Sebastian repeats Antonio’s deed of twelve years ago. The island is a stage on which the history of the world is being acted and repeated. History itself is madness. As in Richard III:

Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre!

I see (as in a map) the end of all.


Prospero conducts the shipwrecked through ultimate and eschatological situations. Sebastian repeats Antonio’s attempt to assassinate his brother and gain power. But Antonio has made his attempt in Milan, in order to become a real duke. Sebastian wants to murder his king and brother on a desert island. The ship has been tossed on the rocks, and only a handful of survivors are left stranded in a strange land. Sebastian’s attempt is in fact a disinterested act, pure folly, like the theft of a sack of gold in a desert, among people condemned to die of thirst. Sebastian’s gestures and motives are identical with Antonio’s gestures and motives of twelve years ago, following the pattern of a real coup d’etat. This is the essence of the Shakespearean analogy principle, and of the system of ever-changing mirrors. The history of mankind is madness, but in order to expose it, one has to perform it on a desert island.

The first tragic sequence of the scenario devised by Prospero is over. The coup d’état has been performed. But it has been performed by princes. The law of analogy has not yet been exhausted, and another great confrontation awaits us. Actors and their parts are changed again, but the situation remains the same. Shakespeare’s world is unity, and a conglomeration not only of styles. Coup d’état is not a privilege for princes only; and it is not just the princes who have a passion for power. A coup d’état has already shown in The Tempest three times through tragic lenses; now it will be performed as a buffoonery. Characters in Shakespearean theatre are divided into tragic and grotesque. But grotesque in Shakespearean theatre is not just a gay interlude, with a view to entertaining the audience after the cruel scenes performed by kings and dukes. Tragic scenes in Shakespeare often have buffo, grotesque, or ironic undertones. While in Shakespeare the buffo scenes are often mixed with bitterness, lyricism and cruelty. In his theatre it is the clowns who tell the truth. And not just tell; they re-enact situations usually reserved for princes. Stephano, the drunkard, and Trinculo, the clown, want power too. Together with Caliban they organize an attempt on Prospero’s life. History again repeats itself. But this time it is only a farce.

This farce, too, will prove itself tragic. But for the moment it is pure buffoonery;

Monster, I will kill this man. His daughter and I will be king and queen, save our Graces! and Trinculo and thyself shall be viceroys.


Prospero’s island is a scene symbolizing the real world, not a utopia. Shakespeare explains this clearly, speaking directly to the audience, almost over-emphatically. Gonzalo is the reasoner of the drama. He is loyal and honest, but simple-minded and ridiculous at the same time. The King has not yet fallen asleep. The assassination has not yet been attempted. Gonzalo begins to tell a story of a happy country. He must have read recently the famous chapter on cannibals from Montaigne’s Essays. He is repeating Montaigne’s words. In that happy country work and commerce are unknown, there are no offices and no power:

Gonzalo (ending):…No sovereignty…

Antonio:   …The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

Gonzalo:  All things in common nature should produce

Without sweat or endeavor. Treason, felony,

Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine

Would I not have; but nature should bring forth

Of it own kind, all foison, all abundance,

To feed my innocent people.


Human beings, beautiful and intelligent, live in the state of nature, free from the original sin and uncorrupted by civilization. Nature is good and people are good. Such are the happy isles of the anti-feudal utopias. They were being discovered in the South Seas by the simple friars of the Order of St. Francis who found in them – long before Rousseau – good and noble savages. These ‘noble savages’ had been written about by Montaigne. But Shakespeare did not believe in ‘good savages,’ just as he did not believe in ‘good kings.’ When he did look for a utopia, he located it in the forest of Arden, where Robin Hood had been with his company. But even this utopia had an element of bitterness in it; Jaques will not find his place even there. Shakespeare did not believe in the happy isles. They were too close to the known continents.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy. The Tempest was regarded as a comedy by his contemporaries. The Dream is a forerunner of The Tempest but written in a lighter vein. The Duke is kind-hearted and understanding. Hermia’s father forgives her. Hymen will join three happy couples. Such is the situation in the epilogue. But in the prologue, a father asks for the death penalty for his daughter, who has chosen her lover against his will: the lovers flee to the forest. Hermia loves Lysander. Demetrius is passionately in love with Hermia. Helena is crazy for love of Demetrius. The world is cruel and irrational at the same time; it makes a mockery of all feeling. But love itself is irrational, too.

And nature? Nature is represented by the Athenian wood – which is really the Forest of Arden. Oberon and Titania live there, but in fact it is the realm of Puck. Puck is not just a country troll. He is also the commedia dell’arte Harlequin. But the real Harlequin is the devil. To Shakespeare nature is just as irrational as law and customs. It makes a mockery of feelings, order, conscious decisions.

Some berry juice has been put into a lover’s eyes. He wakes, has no eyes for the girl asleep beside him; he runs after another, forgetting the one he has loved. Some more juice and he again forgets everything, even the fact that he has betrayed his girl. For he betrayed her during the night. Night and day have different laws.

Titania is slender, affectionate, lyrical. She wakes in the middle of night and sees a fool with the head of an ass. The same night she will give everything up for him. She has dreamt about just such a lover, only she never wanted to admit it. In the morning she will want to forget it as soon as possible. Titania, embracing a monster with an ass’s head, is close to Bosch’s cruel visions. But at the same time there is in her something of the great grotesque of the surrealists. In these dream images of a summer night broken by day’s sobriety there is a novel and precursory foretaste of depth-psychology and the subconscious. Madness lasts here throughout the June night. Then the dawn comes. Everybody wakes up thinking they have had strange and awful dreams. They do not want to remember their dreams. They are shamed of the night. In the grand vision of love’s madness Shakespeare is at the same time very much a man of the Renaissance and a most modern writer. It is here that one should look for the truly modern Shakespeare: bitter, and very human.

On Prospero’s island the laws of the real world apply to an even higher degree than in the Forest of Arden. No sooner has Gonzalo ended telling his story and lain down to sleep beside the King than Antonio and Sebastian stand over him, bare swords in hand. A show commences, as cruel as the world; the same world that Hamlet looked upon:

…..the whips and scorne of time,

Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes…

(Hamlet, III.1)

the tempest photo act 2 3Ariel has fulfilled Prospero’s orders. His enemies have repeated gestures of twelve years ago. Gestures, not deeds. From the first to the final scene they were just a handful of shipwrecked men on a desert island. In such a situation they could only repeat gestures of hate. These gestures were madness itself, and this is the essence of the trial through which Prospero leads his actors. They have gone the whole way to the hell raging in their own souls. They have at least seen themselves ‘naked like worms.’ Alonso has realized the purpose of this trial:

This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod,

And there is in this business more than nature

Was ever conduct of.


The performance of The Tempest and the morality play produced by Prospero is drawing to an end. It is almost six o’clock. The same clock has counted the inner time of the performance and the time of the audience. For it is both the actors and spectators who – in the course of four hours – have gone through the same request. Everybody, in fact.

     Not a soul

But felt a fever of the mad and play’d

Some tricks of desperation.


On the island, which Shakespearean scholars took to be Arcadia, the history of the world has once more been performed and repeated.”

This reading feels very right to me.  I love Kott.


And, a bit more from Nutall:

the tempest photo act 2 4“There have been two remarkable editions of The Tempest: one by Stephen Orgel (The World’s Classics, Oxford, 1987) and one by Frank Kermode (the Arden edition, London 1958). Orgel brought out vividly the relation of the play to colonization and Utopian ideals. Kermode, earlier, held that the play was clearly a pastoral. Just as in Gonzalo’s miniature commonwealth we find the Utopian schemes of the colonist grounded in the retrospective dream of a Golden Age, so in the play at large we find pastoral eerily entwined with radical novelty. Kermode rightly observed that the relation of nature to art, central to pastoral, is at the heart of this play also. The narrative pattern of Shakespearean pastoral is clearly present. As in As You Like It we have a banished duke who takes refuge far from his court in a wild place; the courtiers are re-educated in the wild place, and in the end they return to civilization. Just as in the earlier play the usurped duke finds that he has ousted the deer (to whom the forest properly belongs, II.i.61), so Prospero, ejected from Milan, in his turn displaces the uncivil creature Caliban, who held the island by lineal succession (I.ii.331).

The nature-art debate, however, is now conducted in very different terms. In The Winter’s Tale the talk was of gardening and cosmetics. Now it is of government, power relations, education, and civilization. ‘Civilization’ comes from the Latin civis, ‘a citizen,’ and of course cities, like art, are antithetical to pastoral. If we decide that the final ‘message’ of the play is that Caliban is evil, brute nature unredeemed by civility, we are saying that one central impulse of the play is anti-pastoral. If we discern a haunting 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.

If so, however, it must be acknowledged at once that it is a very strange specimen of the genre. As early as A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare was alive to the possibilities of ‘transposed pastoral.’ There by the simple maneuver of darkening the forest and placing the trees closer together he produced his original pastoral-of-the-night, a world ruled not by the sun but by the moon. In The Tempest the place to which the duke flees is more radically other. It is epistemologically wild. The central problem of epistemology is the differentiation of what we know to be real from the unreal. In The Tempest we are brought to a place-that-cannot-be-placed. The Mediterranean Sea is not huge. One can see North Africa from the southern coast of Sicily. But Shakespeare’s oceanically remote Mediterranean island is utterly strange. The one thing that we know about the pastoral landscape is that it is green. Is the isle in The Tempest green? Gonzalo tells us that it is: ‘How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!’ But Antonio answers, ‘The ground indeed is tawny,’ and then Sebastian puts in a qualification, ‘With an eye of green in’t’ (II.i.54-56). The director who provides either a bright green or a brown setting destroys the extraordinary effect of these lines. The staging must be neutral. An audience that knows the early comedies would be propelled, at once, by Gonzalo’s ‘green,’ into an expectation of pastoral. But Antonio cannot see the grass. He is looking at a tawny landscape. The promise of straight pastoral is disconcertingly withdrawn. What kind of a place is this? We start to speculate wildly: Have they all died and gone to another world? Is Gonzalo seeing a rich landscape because he is good, Antonio a barren because he is wicked?…In Hamlet death is at one point conceived not in the usual terms of heaven and hell but as an undiscovered country (III.i.78). If the dialogue of the castaways in The Tempest is anticipated anywhere it is in the moment of Viola’s arrival in Illyria, after the shipwreck. We saw how the chiming of ‘This is Illyria, lady’ with ‘My brother, he is in Elysium’ (Twelfth Night, I.ii.2-4) could start the thought, ‘She means that she should be dead – perhaps is dead.’

Caliban, deformed, vindictive, is utterly unlike the shepherd of traditional pastoral. The usual ‘thesis’ of pastoral is that the simple life of a shepherd is better than life at court, where flattery poisons all. At the same time, however, pastoral has traditionally included, within this thesis, an ‘ultra-pastoral’ version of itself, according to which animals are the only truly good beings, genuinely at one with nature. The image of the stricken deer haunted the Virgil and finds its place in As You Like It. If Caliban is an animal he has, then, a deep pastoral precedent. Meanwhile there is a pastoral precedent for the monster in Arcadia in the sixth Idyll of Theocritus. The singing match in this poem alludes to the love of the huge, one-eyed monster Polyphemus for Galatea. If we remember satyrs (lustful half-human creatures that live in woods) and the ‘salvage men’ (wild men) in Spenser’s Fairie Queene, we shall find it easy to see that Caliban, profoundly strange though he is, does fit in with the earlier anti-civilization literature.

the tempest photo act 2 5Caliban is certainly not a nice person. He attempted to rape Miranda (I.ii.347-48) and thinks with pleasure of knocking a nail into Prospero’s head (III.ii.61). Prospero sees to it that Caliban is educated, and the pupil responds, ‘You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse’ (I.ii.363-64). Duke Senior, in ‘ultra-pastoral’ mode, liked to supposed that the language-less simplicities of nature apprised him of his own humanity, but when Caliban is given his voice a torrent of hatred is released. At the same time we are given to understand that Prospero delegated the teaching of Caliban to his daughter, Miranda. It is no great strain to imagine that from Caliban’s point of view it all looks different. No one has told him he must not have sexual relations when nature bids. Here is this vividly attractive female, set beside him for hours at a time. He does what his body tells him (remember Duke Senior’s pastoral ‘sermon’ – ‘these are counselors/That feelingly persuade me what I am,’ As You Like It, II.i.l0-11), and at once everything round him changes. From being the petted experiment in education he becomes the reviled serf, tormented by his technological superior with cramps and pinches. Caliban is sexually mature but culturally a child. Many years ago I argued that the imagery of the play places Caliban in a near-sighted child-world. He is taught to speak, is stroked and made much of, is shown the man in the moon, is eager to show newcomers where birds’ nests are, is given glimpses of inexplicable beauty, and cries to sleep and dream again (I.ii.363, I.ii.332-37, II.ii.141, III.ii.135-43). The innocent child is iconic in pastoral. But it will be said that Caliban is not innocent. Once again it is a matter of dominant and minor chores in the musical texture of the writing. The dominant effect is one of harsh collusion – Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda is at the same time a violation of pastoral itself. In As You Like It the sudden appearance of the bloody napkin was a similar violation of genre – death in Arcadia. Now sex enters Arcadia, and the shock effect is obvious. But the minor chord, in the background, is more subtle. This carries a suggestion that Caliban’s innocence of any educational influence renders even a violent sexual move on his part innocent too. The healing word ‘nature’ helps this intuition (animals are the saints of pastoral, and animals have sex, don’t they?)”


And again, on a personal note, I’m still looking for suggestions/ideas for the Shakespeare themed tattoo I’m going to get to commemorate this great adventure.  Send them on!


Our next reading:  The Tempest, Act Three

My nest post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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1 Response to “The history of mankind is madness, but in order to expose it, one has to perform it on a desert island.”

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