Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest (Act II Gonzalo’s Dream)

When it comes to government are Americans optimistic or pessimistic? Is the glass half full or half empty? On one hand we have idealistic goals like those expressed in Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. On the other hand, recent polls show Americans at an all-time low regarding confidence in government. These two facts don’t seem to match. So which one is right? Act II of Shakespeare’s Tempest may give us some insight into this question. Gonzalo is an advisor to King Alonso of Naples. Gonzalo is the eternal optimist. Alonso’s brother Sebastian is the pessimist. Shakespeare is showing us that the current American dilemma is nothing new. There have always been optimistic citizens and pessimistic citizens. The names and faces and places may change but the sentiments they express stay the same. So let’s listen to Gonzalo and Sebastian for clues to our own problems.
Gonzalo starts out by saying “Had I plantation of this isle, my lord…And were the king on't, what would I do?” This is the core of Gonzalo’s meditation: what would I do if I had political power? Sebastian answers cynically, “'Scape being drunk for want of wine.” That sets the stage for both sides to express their views. Gonzalo begins by telling how he would use the executive power of king or president: “I' the commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things.” In Shakespeare’s day “contraries” meant to rule in opposition to what was expected from a Renaissance ruler. And Gonzalo’s political ideas would no more work in his day than they would work in ours. But it’s interesting for him to lay out his dream of a virtuous republic. It shows how much we also dream in our own American-style version of a virtuous republic.
For starters Gonzalo says, “no kind of traffic would I admit.” This can be taken two ways: (1) traffic in the sense of vehicles clogging the streets, or (2) traffic is also an old term for conducting business. In Gonzalo’s world there would be no traffic jams and no shady bourgeois business deals. There would also be “no name of magistrate.” In Gonzalo’s republic there would be no need for policemen to arrest criminals or for judges to judge them; presumably because everyone would live virtuous lives according to nature. And “Letters should not be known” since there would be no further need of universities or literary culture to teach us how to live. Everyone would be living virtuously anyway. And living according to nature means there would be plenty for everyone to go around: “riches, poverty, and use of service, none.” No one would take more than they wanted and no one would want more than they needed. According to Gonzalo all the citizens in his realm would have enough to be happy but not so much that it would make them greedy for more.
And since men would be naturally honest there would also be “no contract, succession, Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none.” A Bourn is a limit or boundary marker. In Gonzalo’s world we won’t need markers designating private property. Everything would be held in common. No need for complicated contracts because no one would try to cheat anyone else. A man’s word would be his bond. There would also be “No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil” because commodities like these lead to greed or envy and would corrupt the commonwealth. All this is too much for Sebastian and he sarcastically pays homage to Gonzalo’s dream: “God save his majesty!” Gonzalo’s dream may well be unattainable. But so was Lincoln’s and so was King’s. They all dreamt of a land where everyone would live in peace with his neighbor. Is that too much to ask? In a few weeks we’ll read how the Founding Fathers dealt with this same dream in The Federalist Papers. They didn’t just want to dream about it; they wanted to make it happen.


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