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Saturday, July 12, 2014

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest (Act IV: Two Views of Man)

Some folks think the glass is half full. Other folks think the glass is half empty. Ho-hum. But here’s a related question: is Man (generic humanity) more like the angels or closer to the animals? For questions offering two extremes the answer is usually either (a) neither or (b) both or (c) somewhere in between. And that’s (sort of) the answer we find in Act IV of The Tempest. If this sounds confusing, it is. Shakespeare never settles for an easy answer when he can squeeze dramatic tension out of opposing viewpoints. Let’s consider each of these viewpoints in turn and try to determine what Shakespeare himself thought was the correct answer.
First let’s consider the proposition that Man is more like an angel. Here’s the full text for that proposition: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack (cloud) behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.” This is Prospero speaking but notice what he’s NOT saying. He’s not saying that Man is good therefore he’s more like the angels. Besides, the Bible says there are bad angels as well as good angels. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was a bad angel. No, what makes Man more like the angels is his spirit. Other animals may have fundamental thinking and reasoning abilities. But only Man has the ability to dream dreams of past and future times and create a vision for a better way of life.
In Act IV of The Tempest we get a play within a play where all the actors are pure spirits. Prospero calls forth the spirits of three ancient Greek goddesses (Iris, Ceres and Juno) to perform a dance. When the dance is over Prospero dismisses them and says, “Our revels now are ended…” etc. The spirits have gone away. What happened to them? Prospero says they “melted into air, into thin air.” That’s why many people don’t believe in spirits. It’s all make-believe, like seeing actors on a stage. Not real. Shakespeare is aware of that too. But he points out that spirits and actors aren’t the only things that melt into thin air. Even things we think are most real in the world, things like towers and palaces and temples, will all eventually dissolve like clouds in the sky. And nothing will remain. Where is Priam’s Trojan palace, for example? Long gone. But The Iliad remains. The idea, the dream of Priam’s Trojan palace, lives on in our imaginations every time we read The Iliad. So which is really stronger; Priam’s palace or the vision of Priam’s palace? We dream. That’s why Man is more like the angels.
But the second proposition says that Man is more like the animals. Prospero argues for this view when he says, (Caliban is) “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost; And as with age his body uglier grows, So his mind cankers.” Man is no angel. We’re physical creatures just like all other animals on this earth. We’re all born with an inclination to want to do the things we want to do, when we want to do them. And it’s only natural for physical creatures to want physical things. So when Caliban tries to rape Miranda it’s not just some random defect in his character. No. According to Prospero Caliban is “a born devil.” Rape is simply the kind of thing devils do, and animals too. It’s Caliban’s animal-nature to want to reproduce and people the island with little Calibans.
Those are the two basic viewpoints of Man expressed in Act IV of The Tempest. So what did Shakespeare think? Shakespeare probably thought mostly about selling lots of tickets.


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