Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest (Act V: Three Views of Man)

In Act IV of The Tempest we saw a couple of extreme views of Man. One view saw Man as closer to the angels. The other view claimed Man was more of a beast. In Act V we’ll consider three alternative views of Man, or at least three different ways of approaching the human condition: (1) with pity, (2) with awe and wonder and (3) Man as creator of civilization.
First let’s consider Man from the outside looking in. How would mortal human beings appear to spiritual creatures? The spirit Ariel feels sorry for the humans who have fallen under Prospero’s magic spell. Ariel gives this point of view: “if you now beheld them, your affections would become tender.” Prospero is moved by Ariel’s concern: “Dost thou think so, spirit?” Ariel’s reply demonstrates the noble character that spirits can achieve: “Mine would, sir, were I human.” Ariel has feelings and he’s just a spirit. How much more should Prospero feel sorry for his fellow humans? Prospero admits “Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling Of their afflictions, and shall not myself, One of their kind, that relish all as sharply, Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?” Ariel pities human beings and he’s nothing but thin air. Prospero is “one of their kind” and knows how much human beings suffer. He has suffered much himself.
Greek tragedy uses suffering as the best means to help understand a fully human life. For example, Sophocles showed how blind we are in his characterization of Oedipus the King. Oedipus brought his terrible fate on himself. Or did he? Was his fate (or Prospero’s fate or our own) already marked out by the gods from the beginning? Or can we choose our own fate by studying nature and using the powers we discover there? Put another way, can science give us power over nature and fate? That’s what Prospero spends fifteen years trying to find out. And he has considerable success. But in the end Prospero doesn’t find the answers he’s looking for in science. So he gives up on going down that path. He simply says, “I’ll break my staff… I’ll drown my book.” Why does he do that? Why does he walk away from powers that took him so long to accumulate? Maybe because, like Oedipus, the answers he’s searching for aren’t found “out there” somewhere. Maybe the most essential truths for human beings are found not in the relationships of nature but in our own relationships to one another. Suffering is indeed an inseparable part of the human condition. But it’s only a part; it’s not the whole thing. Life as a human being is also a precious and (literally) wonderful experience. Miranda expresses this view when she exclaims, “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!” The wonder of so many “goodly creatures” (other people) should fill us with awe and wonder. Nature is full of marvels and studying science is indeed important. But nothing in nature is more marvelous than Man.
To get a sense of just how marvelous Man really is we need to consider people in their “natural habitat” of civilized societies. Consider our last few readings. There’s Diderot’s society of aristocratic snobs in 18th century France; Plato’s Greek drinking party in the Symposium; St. Augustine’s portrayal of the austerity of the early Christian church; or Mill’s Victorian England views of virtue. The varieties of human society can (and will) go on and on. In many ways these social cultures help form a Plato, a St. Augustine, a Mill or a Shakespeare. But great writers need great readers. This is where we come in. At the end of the play Prospero says “Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell; But release me from my bands…” We, as readers, have the same power over the books we read as Prospero had over the subjects on his island. We should use this power wisely.


Post a Comment

<< Home