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Monday, July 07, 2014

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest (Act III: Hauling Logs)

The glass that’s half empty vs. the glass that’s half full is a puzzling example of a common question: how can two people look at the exact same thing and come up with two exactly opposite views? One simple answer is they bring their personal views with them to the table. If a man is already pessimistic he’ll see a half empty glass. But if a man is optimistic he’ll see a half full glass. Their views are well established before they ever see the contents in the glass.
A similar phenomenon takes place in The Tempest. But instead of a half empty or half full glass we have two men carrying wood. What they’re doing isn’t as important as their respective attitudes toward work. One of them says, “A plague upon the tyrant that I serve! I'll bear him no more sticks, but follow thee, Thou wondrous man.” That’s Caliban speaking. The tyrant is his master, Prospero. Caliban hates Prospero and wants to follow a new master; the “wondrous man” Stephano. Carrying wood for Prospero is humiliating. Why would it be any less humiliating to carry wood for Stephano instead? Because Caliban chooses to follow Stephano.
The other wood carrier is Ferdinand. And he’s carrying wood for the same guy, Prospero. Yet his attitude is almost exactly the opposite of Caliban’s attitude. Ferdinand rather enjoys this work. What’s the difference? Is Caliban a pessimist and Ferdinand an optimist? No. There’s a different reason why Ferdinand has a bounce in his step as he hauls his logs. He says, “I must remove some thousands of these logs and pile them up, upon a sore injunction: my sweet mistress weeps when she sees me work, and says, such baseness had never like executor. I forget: but these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labours, most busy lest, when I do it.” In plain English, Ferdinand is in love. Carrying logs is easier when he’s doing it in order to get a “sweet mistress” like Miranda. What it all boils down to is this: Caliban believes he’s working under compulsion; Ferdinand believes he’s working under his own free choice.
The Tempest is a play that has a long ago and far away feel to it. After all, how many of us will ever be shipwrecked on a deserted island? But there’s a question here that applies just as much to life in modern America as it applied to life in Shakespeare’s England. The question is this: how do we feel about our work? Is it just constant drudgery? Or is it something we do willingly, with pleasure? Most people have to work for a living. And work takes up a large part of each day. It doesn’t matter if we’re hauling logs or sitting in front of a computer or driving a truck. The principle is the same. We’re either (a) doing what the boss says because we have to work to make a living, or (b) we choose to work even if we didn’t have to. These are two very different motivations. Caliban represents choice (a). Ferdinand represents choice (b).
Another question comes up. How do we define “work” as opposed to some other activity? Hauling logs is a prime candidate for a work activity. Who wags logs around for fun? Who moves logs from one pile to another just for the sheer pleasure of moving logs? Log hauling is definitely work. Many other activities aren’t quite as clear. Miranda says, “My father is hard at study; pray now, rest yourself: he’s safe for these three hours.” Prospero is going to be busy studying for the next three hours. Does that count as work or fun or something in between? Studying for a calculus exam may count as work. Caliban says, “I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer...” A calculus student may say, “I am subject to a tyrant, a math professor…” What about an old man (Prospero) studying philosophy? Is philosophy work or play? That’s a bit like asking: is the glass half full or half empty? For some, philosophy is play; for others, drudgery.

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