The TEMPEST: Anticipating the Next
[This post looks at Shakespeare’s play THE TEMPEST as a myth of the transition from the Medieval to the Modern to the Next. This links to the Teeter Totter of the Brain and other writings on this blog. This will be a two parter.]
Good artists express what it is to live in their time. Very good artists do this and express something universal about being human. Great artists express not only their time and the universal, but over the course of their artistic life evolve through the eras of human/artistic development to the point of anticipating what will come next. This can be found in the work of Rembrandt, Picasso, Martha Graham, Michelangelo, Tennessee Williams and others. [i]
Shakespeare charted this path. He began by revising a classical play (Comedy of Errors), worked his way through the Middle Ages (the History plays), explored the Renaissance (R&J through Merchant of Venice), and laid the ground for the Modern (Hamlet). In his final solo play, The Tempest, Shakespeare anticipated what is coming next for us, what I call simply for now the Next. This play gives us the background, challenge and blueprint for our transition from the post-Modern to the Next.
Prospero was the Duke of Milan, an important city-state in Northern Italy. Prospero, by his own account, was considered a well loved and benevolent leader. However, he was more interested in research and developing this mind than running a city-state. He explored the powers beyond the physical through alchemy, sorcery or magic. These were right brain medieval endeavors in opposition to left brain modern scientific pursuits.
Prospero gave the mundane responsibilities of governing his fiefdom to his younger brother, Antonio, who excelled in the details and bureaucracy of governing. As he became increasingly detached from his people, Antonio developed his allies and longed to be the Duke. Antonio made a deal with the King of Naples to support a coup in exchange for subjugation and yearly tribute. [ii] One night, Antonio and his men seized Prospero and rushed him out of the Kingdom. He was set adrift in a lifeboat with his baby daughter, Miranda. A benevolent Neapolitan, named Gonzago, provided Prospero and his daughter food and more importantly his books.
This to me is a story of how the left brain usurped the right brain or the Modern dethroned the Medieval. The right brain was the elder and rightful ruler. It led during the medieval era. Prospero feels like a medieval ruler focused on alchemical pursuits and dreams rather than commerce and the details. The left brain is to be its lieutenant or emissary. During the Renaissance the left brain rose, driven by literacy and reason, to match and surpass the right brain. Antonio is analytical and pragmatic. He plots with Alonso, the dominate unified hierarchy, to grab power. Once in power, he exiles the right brain from the leadership including a propaganda campaign to demonize the workings of the right brain.
Prospero and Miranda were shipwrecked on a supposed deserted island. It had been the island of Sycorax, a mighty witch. There they found Caliban, the part human son of Sycorax, lost and alone without his mother. [iii] Prospero also found a magical sprite, Ariel, imprisoned in a tree trunk by Sycorax. By releasing Ariel, Prospero becomes his/her/its master.
Sycorax had been a witch who was exiled from Angiers when she became pregnant with Caliban. It is easy to think of her as evil and unnatural as described by Prospero and Ariel. It’s important to keep in mind that the rising left brain pushed the culture toward the patriarchal and the denigration of women. It wasn’t just the right brain, but the feminine that lost in this rise. As the medieval era gave way to the modern there were many witches burned at the stake for consorting with the devil. The other way to read this was that there were many wise women, midwifes and sages who were eliminated so the new patriarchal could rise. This also happened as the world turned from the primitive to the classical era; the earth mother was sacrificed to the sky father. The story of Sycorax is another shadow of the transition from the medieval to the modern.
Prospero goes underground when he arrives on the island. In the Hero’s Journey, our masculine hero must go underground to a deserted place after a significant defeat.[iv] In this time of despair and questioning, he slowly rebuilds his ego and recharges for the penultimate battle. This period usually coincides with mid-life. In the healthy passage through the underground, our hero focuses on tasks of life, gains wisdom and perspective to move forward into maturity. In the unhealthy passage, he puts his energy in returning to his youth with power symbols like the possession of young women and fast transportation. The healthy passage includes grief, loss, despair, and soul searching. It takes years, at least one cycle of seven years. For Prospero, this time was at least two cycles totaling twelve to fourteen years. Many men you meet in their forties and early fifties have gone underground.
Caliban and Ariel present the two poles that the right brain must balance. Caliban is the baser, more animal part of our nature. He initially lacks the higher functions of language or reason. He is of the earth and ground. He represents the baser desires for primary needs of food, water, shelter and sex. In contrast Ariel is gender neutral and of the sky. Ariel is spirit, magic and the ethereal. Ariel transcends the laws of physical time and space and helps Prospero expand beyond his physical reality. The third aspect that Prospero must incorporate is the feminine, what Jung might call his anima. It is easier to imagine this as Miranda. However, it is more incorporated than that. It is in some way the reason we have seen this explosion of women playing Prospero.
As the Modern era has developed, technology has allowed for the world to expand and become more interconnected. What was the other side of the world has becomes our immediate trading partner. This is represented by the King of Naples choice to marry his daughter to the King of Tunisia, or Tunis as they call it. This is the impetus of the encounter in the play. Alonso, the King of Naples, is returning from the wedding with his son Ferdinand, his brother Sebastion, Prospero’s brother Antonio, Gonzago and others of the court when their ship is diverted to the island by Prospero.
Prospero with Ariel’s help brings up a violent storm that separates different groups from the ship. All are convinced that the others are lost. Alonso, Antonio, Sebastion, Gonzago, and a few lords end up on one part of the island. Ferdinand, the King’s son, ends up stranded on another part of the island lamenting his father’s death. Two servants, Stephano and Trinculo end up in another part of the island with a butt of wine.
The ship remains safely at harbor with the crew asleep. Prospero’s revenge is ordered, measured and deliberate. Where he could have simply sunk them all, he has devises on how things will come out. This is a shift from a Hamlet who cannot fathom or accept the consequences of his choices. While Prospero does not see the future, he anticipates and plans for outcomes. What is not know is not so much what will happen as how he will be/feel/know and others will be/feel/know when they get there. There is a clear differentiation between actions and human experience.
After the storm, Miranda and Prospero visit Caliban.[v] It is here that you get a glimpse of the relationship between the sage father, ingénue virgin and the wild young male sexual energy. When Prospero arrived on the island, he found Caliban abandoned there after his mother’s death. He was a wild man. Prospero treated him with kindness and civilized him by teaching him language. Miranda as she grew up with Caliban probably treated him as a brother and actively taught him.
The civilizing could not overcome his young male sexual desire for the only female on the island and the only one he ever saw other than his mother. Something shifted in the relationship between Caliban and Miranda. At some point, he made a physical advance to her; whether this was a rape or something less, the sexual advance was unexpected and uninvited by Miranda. Caliban was exiled from the cell where they lived to a nearby cave. I imagine only happened a short time before the play begins.[vi] This clues Prospero into the maturity of his daughter and speeds the need to lure in a proper suitor.
That “proper” suitor is Ferdinand, son of King Alonso of Naples. During the storm, he was thrown overboard. He made his way, with Ariel’s help, to another part of the island where he is morning the loss of his father. He follows a dirge sung by Ariel that reminds him of his dead father. In this most vulnerable place of loss, he sees Miranda for the first time. At first sight, Miranda and Ferdinand are smitten with each other. Upon seeing Miranda, he believes she is the goddess of this island that commands music in the air. Miranda thinks him a thing divine and not natural. Though this is Prospero’s desire, he must slow this down because they are falling in love with image of themselves in the other. This is what Jung would refer to as a falling in love with the anima projection. To break this spell and give them time to see each other as they are so they might develop a true love, Prospero calls Ferdinand a spy and imprisons him.
Alonso, Antonio, the King’s Brother Sebastion, Gonzalo and a few other lords are shipwrecked on another part of the island. While most of this scene is about being stranded and the King mourning the loss of his son, I’m interested in two exchanges: Gonzalo’s Commonwealth and the attempted assassination of the King by Antonio and Sebastion.
As an attempt to lift the King’s spirits, the wise old man Gonzalo describes how he could make this barren island into a utopia. He imagines a world where everyone is equal and shares the bounty of the land. In his commonwealth, there would be no need for sweat or treachery. This idea anticipated and inspired the philosophers of the Enlightenment and even the founding of the new world. It echoed a desire to make these newly discovered countries better than countries of the old world; basically scrapping the old and starting over. This thought inspired the birth of United States. It also holds the hope of the era that is to come. In a right brain dominated world could we all be equal and share the resources? Or, is this as much an illusion as the island of Prospero?
While the King and the others sleep, Antonio tries to coerce Sebastion into killing the King and Gonzalo. In this way, Sebastion would succeed his brother as Antonio took the reins of power from his own brother. (Sebastion would also owe Antonio giving him power over him.) Once the left brain, gathers power it continues to eat up all around him. Alonso’s grief (and leaning to the emotional right brain) over the loss of his son has made him vulnerable. Antonio also demonstrates that he has not changed or repented in the ensuing years. The unrepentant must be punished. Ariel thwarts the murder and assassination by waking Gonzalo who awakes the others. Antonio and Sebastion must make a story as to why they were standing over the others with their knives drawn.
Act II also introduces the drunken butler, Stephano, and a jester, Trinculo. They meet with Caliban through awkward circumstances and he believes, with the help of Stephano’s bottle of liquor, them to be moon gods. Besides for always needing to have clowns, I wonder why this merry trio is part of the journey. Did Prospero plan to have Stephano and Trinculo wandering around the island with Caliban plotting a coup? Or, this is this something Ariel did on his own for his amusement? It seems strange on well planned out day for Prospero to allow these clowns to possibly muck it up. For me, it demonstrates how the clown energy lives outside of the control of the dominate paradigm, whether it is the left of right brain.
In his drunkenness, Caliban sees a path to freedom. While this contains echoes of freedom from slavery and oppressed indigenous people, especially the Native Americans,[vii] also speaks to me about the enslavement of the cerebellum, the so-called reptilian brain, which controls our bodily functions, primary impulses and physical intelligence. This rear part of our brain is over-shadowed and controlled by the frontal lobe. Alcohol subdues the upper brain functions. Caliban in his drunkenness cries “Freedom, high-day, Freedom!”
[i] This is one of my big thoughts. I plan to write the big book on this idea when I retire. It will take time and more perspective than I can muster while I work full time.
[ii] The Kingdom of Naples never spread as far north as Milan. This is another example that demonstrates the guy who wrote these plays never travelled to Italy. The writer of the plays lacked a basic understanding of geography that would be learned by travelling. The Earl of Oxford, who many believe penned the plays, is known to have travelled to Milan, Naples and Sicily. The writer of the plays seemingly never left Southern England, someone like the actor and son of a glove maker, William Shakespeare.
[iii] One version of this back story (though not supported in the text I.2.391-422) has Sycorax still being alive when Prospero hits the island. Caliban is the offspring of their union. Sycorax is dead at the beginning of the play. How and when she died is not part of this story. An interesting story to create would be Prospero’s arrival on the island, their affair and her death. I imagine it was fraught with drama. In this version, Caliban would be the half brother of Miranda, making his attempted “rape” of her double down with incest.
[iv] In the feminine hero journey, there is also a transition similar to going underground for women. For most women it occurs between child raising and coming into the wise woman archetype or the “crone”. (The term has too much western fairy tale baggage, but it is the appropriate term for both the beneficial and shadow aspects of the archetype)
[v] I’m not sure why. Getting more firewood seems to be inconsequential. Prospero says he has other business for Caliban, but does not ask him to do anything else. Symbolically, getting the fire wood to provide warmth and cook food fulfills a basic need. Perhaps, the idea is that even when performing great magic on a monumental day, you still need to attend to gathering firewood.
[vi] This incident was catastrophic for this little nuclear family of Prospero, Miranda and Caliban. They had lived like a family for a dozen or more years. It is reported in Act I Scene 2, lines 345-365. Prospero uses the text “thou didst seek to violate the honor of my child.” It sounds like “rape.” I put quotes around the “rape” because it is unclear if this was an attraction that was easily rebuffed by Miranda or Caliban’s attempt to physically take Miranda that was stopped by Prospero. There seems to be some disconnect between the actual incident and the reporting. This often happens in Shakespeare. Miranda is clearly upset in the play by what happened between them what feels like soon before the action of the play. Between the First Folio and last century, some scholar when editing the text decided that the “Abhorred Slave” speech should be spoken by Prospero rather than Miranda. Doing so really takes the teeth out of Miranda and the incident. Thankfully, the speech has been restored to Miranda in the last century.
[vii] The impact of the European arrival in the Americas on the natives is a story that has been watered down. It is possible that the diseases and warfare brought by Europeans killed up to 90% of the native population. A hundred years after Columbus “discovered” the new world, Shakespeare had to know about this genocide. (That phrase might be harsh, since most of the deaths were unintentionally caused by disease that the Europeans were unaware they carried.) Some productions of the TEMPEST want to make the play predominantly about the
subjugation of the colored man by the white man. Being part English and part Native American, the dichotomy of this relationship lives deep in me. However, it is a part of the large canvas of the play, though not the whole story.