Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


At some point in their lives most people get fed up with “the rat race” and daydream about getting away from it all, somewhere far away; maybe a simple island, where they can live happily ever after. This happens (sort of) in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Miranda is fifteen years old. She was taken to an island by her father when she was three years old and has been brought up far away from the corrupting influence of cities and cell phones. So Miranda is no ordinary teenager; which is good because Prospero is no ordinary father. He’s a magician or a wizard of sorts and is also the undisputed king of the island. But Prospero’s not an ordinary king. He once ruled Milan. Now his only subjects are island “spirits” such as the fairy-like being called Ariel and a half-man, half-monster/creature named Caliban. So how do they all get along? Not as well as you might imagine in your daydreams. Ariel is kept in servitude only because Prospero threatens to pin him/her (do spirits have genders?) inside an oak tree for twelve long winters. Ariel would gladly run away at the first opportunity. And Caliban once tried to rape Miranda, so Prospero has had to keep on the lookout ever since. Caliban still has plans to people the island with little Calibans by using Miranda’s body, if he ever gets a chance.

When the play opens there’s a terrible storm. A ship has been sunk and the crew washed ashore, along with lots of booze. Even out here in the middle of nowhere, there’s always something going on; life’s just one darn thing after another. Obviously this little faraway island isn’t much better than the rat race back home. Still, it’s a wondrous island, full of music and magic and love. When Miranda first sees the stranded sailors from Naples she exclaims How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't! Of course not all these “goodly creatures” are “beauteous” at all. There are also drunkards, thieves, assassins, rapists, cowards and fools included in the bunch. Miranda is totally innocent of knowing about these kinds of men. What kind of Queen would she make back in Milan or Naples? What kind of education could she have received on a deserted island to prepare her for life in the big city, much less all the intrigues involved in courtly life?

And what good did education do Caliban? He says You taught me language; and my profit on't Is, I know how to curse: the red plague rid you, For learning me your language. Caliban doesn’t want to be educated. He only wants to be in charge of the island and left to do what he wants to do; including having sex with Miranda. But to be fair, how much different is Caliban from the “civilized” sailors from Naples? Caliban (half-man, half-beast) is really only doing what his nature requires. He’s up front about his desires and doesn’t try to hide them. The sailors are crafty and devious. Which is worse? And there’s a softer side to Caliban we rarely see. He tells the shipwrecked sailors from Naples to Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices That, if I then had waked after long sleep, Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming, The clouds methought would open and show riches Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked, I cried to dream again. Caliban isn’t sophisticated but he knows what pleasure is, and he knows what pain is. He’s almost child-like in his attempt to fall back asleep and pick up where he left off in a good dream. Caliban retires into his dreams because his reality is so dismal. His mother was a witch, literally. We can only guess what kind of childhood Caliban had. In short, he’s lonely. He probably daydreams about getting away from it all; maybe someplace where there are lots of Miranda’s to choose from. Someplace far away, maybe a big city like Naples or Milan. Faraway islands have their problems too.


Post a Comment

<< Home