Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Art of Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s play, the Tempest, begins with a storm and ends with a wedding. In between these two events unfolds another human drama of envy, revenge, love and reconciliation. But at the end of the story, what has really changed? One ruler of Milan has been exchanged for another. Caliban is still a rough creature, devoid of reason. Antonio and Sebastian show no signs of remorse for the trouble they have caused. The drama of human existence goes on much as it did before. So art has its limitations. For the true effects of this art can only be felt in the minds and hearts of the audience, not in the players who perform this drama upon the stage.

Some critics have surmised that the Tempest is a kind of swan song to Shakespeare’s career, a way of announcing his professional departure from the stage. If so, what kind of message is he leaving us? What moral or lesson do we take away from this final story? From Shakespeare’s earlier work, we have learned that greed and envy fester in the hearts of men, that good does not necessarily triumph over evil, and that the innocent always suffer. How can this final play (if indeed it is Shakespeare’s final play) add anything more to this legacy?

The setting of this play on an obscure island populated with magical creatures is a clue to its intent. The drama opens with a great storm at sea which threatens to overwhelm a ship full of men struggling to survive. Eventually, we learn that the storm was caused by Ariel, a fairy who owes a debt to Prospero.  Thus, right from the beginning of this play, the natural world is in collision with the supernatural.

Prospero, who is the rightful Duke of Milan, was overthrown and deprived of his title by his ambitious brother, Antonio. Quite naturally, Prospero feels cheated of his rightful place in the world. Twelve years ago, he and his young daughter, Miranda, were put on a small boat, towed out to sea, and then left to drift until their small provisions run out. Thanks to Gonzalo, luck, and magic (it is never clear which), they survive their journey and land upon this strange island far from the civilized world.

This is the background of the play. The action of the play is designed to bring about a certain resolution to Prospero’s predicament. Yet Prospero’s imprisonment on this primitive island has resulted, to some degree, from his decision to withdraw from the affairs of men, and his  political responsibilities in Milan. The truth is that Prospero does not care much for government. The problems of governing are much less interesting to him than his books on magic and philosophy. So he appoints his brother, Antonio, to handle the daily affairs of his office which allows Prospero to focus on what really matters to him: the ability to control or subdue nature.

Right from the beginning we have a central conflict between things in opposition: the real or natural world (the world of matter) vs. the imaginary world we aspire to (the world of spirit). I use the term imaginary to describe the realm of ideas which primarily exists in the mind (and is codified in books). As we will see in this play, the island which Prospero inhabits is a Twilight Zone kind of intersection between the natural and the supernatural.

Whether or not Prospero’s attraction to magic is a form of philosophical seduction is not exactly clear. What we soon learn is that Prospero feels a great injustice has been done to him. The kingdom of virtue (which perhaps only existed in his mind) has been violated and he plans to set it right. To accomplish his objective, he needs the service of Ariel, a spirit endowed with magical powers who is in his debt.

The society of men to which we are all accustomed is predominantly a world of politics fueled by ambition. This is the world of Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso. But this world now collides with an imaginary world (the sphere of virtue) which exists predominantly in Prospero’s head. Here on this remote island, far from the daily affairs of Milan, Prospero plays the part of the magus or artist who manipulates the elements of his drama to suit his own design.

Thus, it is not extravagant to compare Prospero’s use of magic with the realm of spirit, for these are the elements of transformation. In his mind, Prospero has an idea of the way the world should be. It is an image of truth and virtue which exists only in the mind of the idealist, and corresponds to a certain Greek idea of moral perfection.

To me, Prospero is attempting to reconcile the domain of matter (politics) with the domain of spirit (virtue). But it is unclear to me whether these elements can ever be successfully combined. Yet, if such a transformation is possible, I believe it must occur within the domain of art. This might be Shakespeare’s greatest trick, for I believe all great art is a form of deception. It inspires us to believe that the boundaries of human experience can be transcended. Thus the world of magic (or supernatural) connects the rational to ordinary experience, or to put it another way, mind is now connected to matter. This is why Prospero orchestrates the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda. It isn’t about revenge; it’s about redemption. It’s about elevating man’s spirit over his flesh. And love is the force which Prospero uses to bind the spiritual to the material. In this way, he reconciles the domain of matter with the domain of spirit which is a form of transcendence that only art and revelation can aspire to.


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