The Tempest: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Freedom

I have the feeling Shakespeare has been shadowing me lately and writing his plays based on things I’m thinking about. You laugh, but think about this.

I’ve been reading the Tempest to prepare for discussions with the apprentices. So this morning, I read Act 5, and I come across lines like this:

Ariel: If you now beheld them/ Your affections would become tender.

Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel: Mine would, were I human.

Ah yes, he’s been thinking about next year’s conference theme: What is man?

But that’s not all. He goes on:

Prospero:
And mine shall.
Hast thou, which are 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?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

I think that we fail to realize how much Shakespeare’s philosophy and ethic enabled his poetry. Shakespeare was a wise man, a man of such profound insight that his literature tempts people like Harold Bloom to turn it into a secular literature.

He knew human nature. Notice the language he used, some of which would now be considered archaic because it does not reduce man to something kindless (unkind).

“Shall not myself, one of their kind… be kindlier moved than thou art?”

In other words, should I not, sharing the same nature/kind with these men, act as one who shares a nature/kind with them. Should I not act humanely, humanly?

Do you see how very high a conception of humanity Ariel has? “Mine would, were I human.” Where does it come from? Until this day, he’s only known two humans, Prospero and his daughter Miranda.

It reminds me of Miranda’s words when she sees the nobly dressed dukes and kings later in Act 5: “How beauteous mankind is. Oh brave new world that has such people in’t.”

She’s young and naive and has enjoyed the loving affection of a good father. By brave, she means wonderful, imaginative, splendid – bedecked in wonder might be a fitting expression.

She had not endured what her father had. He replies to her awe: “‘Tis new to thee.” He is less impressed.

And no wonder, he had been betrayed by a brother, “that entertained ambition, expelled remorse and nature.” Nevertheless, to this brother he says, “I do forgive thee, unnatural though thou art.”

Ariel and Miranda are full of admiration for humans. Prospero less so. And yet, Prospero respects them more. He has one goal in mind, expressed a few different ways.

Line 36: Penitence.
Line 40: They shall be themselves
Line 197: To “requite them with a good thing” which restores a just order
And then, the very last word of the play, at the end of the last two lines:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free

In other words, the purpose of Prospero’s project (line 1) is that these human beings would realign themselves to nature and thus be set free.

Ironically, perhaps, it takes something more than nature to achieve that end.

Read the Tempest with these three themes in mind (but just read it for the pleasure of it) and you will be drawn deeper and deeper into truths that will open your eyes and, while they will “take the ear strangely” you will “be wise hereafter, and seek for grace.”

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