Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Paul Yachnin
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The Tempest: Critical Introduction


1715. Conclusion: The Enchanted Islands of The Tempest

Let us, finally, consider three of the play's principal sources--Virgil's Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Montaigne's "Of the Cannibals"--but not in the usual terms of source study. Source study is a critical approach that seeks to explain the specific uses that writers make of other works and/or how preceding works influence writers. The approach does not work well for The Tempest since, aside from a few clear-cut references to earlier works, Shakespeare's engagement with his three great predecessors is both deep and elusive--easy to feel but difficult to describe or explain. In order to understand what Shakespeare did with Ovid, Virgil, and Montaigne, then, I will follow a clue offered by the play itself, unraveling that clue by way of the 1956 sci-fi film adaptation, Forbidden Planet. These two works tell us that Shakespeare did not "use" his sources in any usual sense of the word; rather, the play and film suggest that he lived in the earlier works as Prospero lives on the island. What we might call The Tempest's archipelago of islands has become the source of the play's enduring literary power. It is the main island in an archipelagic sea, and Shakespeare is the chief island-hopper, someone who invites us to join him on his peregrinations and even to create islands of our own.

172The island in The Tempest is a supposed actual island in the Mediterranean, a stand-in for the Bermudas, and an island of the imagination (like Thomas More's Utopia). It is also a symbol of the playhouse in which the play was performed. Both the stage and the island are "desert" or "bare"; Prospero playfully draws out the likeness in the Epilogue when, shimmering between the character and the actor (likely Richard Burbage), he asks the audience to applaud and so "release" him (Burbage) from the role he is performing and also to fill his sails with "gentle breath," which will blow his (Prospero's) ship safely home to Italy. The island is the source of Prospero's power just as the theater is the source of Shakespeare's; they are places that stand apart from the normal world, places that offer ideal conditions for the conjuring of morally intelligible actions by highly talented performers able to give tangible form to the visions of magician-artists.

173The playhouse is magic because of the talent of the performers, the beauty of the costumes, properties, and music, the frisson of the fireworks and claps of artificial thunder; and magic because of how the space is able to organize the attention and heighten the pleasure of the playgoers. It is also peopled by the great writers of the past. Someone like Shakespeare is able to achieve superhuman strength by harnessing their visions and voices. When Prospero says that "Graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth" (TLN 1999-2000), he is as likely pointing to the literary practices of his creator as he is confessing to the practice of black magic.

174The island is a literal "emplacement" of the cumulative power of the minds of the past. Another spatial version of the intellectual power of antiquity is the planet Altair IV in the film Forbidden Planet. The Prospero-figure here is Dr. Morbius, curiously enough a philologist, who came with an exploratory party from Earth twenty years before the action of the film begins. All the other colonists are dead, torn to pieces by a fearsome monster, all except for Morbius' daughter, the Miranda-figure Altaira. Midway through the film, Morbius tells the commander of the rescue ship (Leslie Neilson as the Ferdinand-like Captain Adams) a fascinating story about the original inhabitants of the planet. (Morbius learned their history while he was mastering a tiny fraction of their technology.) The Krell were a brilliant race ("a million years ahead of humankind") that conquered disease, traveled the galaxy, and created a subterranean generating system so huge and powerful that it allowed them to create matter, machines, and creatures simply by thinking them. (Forbidden Planet reel 4, page 3). The generator was so durable that it survived the 200,000 years since the sudden destruction of the Krell civilization. As we learn, the almost infinite power they created undid the Krell in a single night because it gave instant form to the darkness that lay within even this highly evolved race; we learn also, and Morbius discovers to his horror, that the monster stalking the planet now is the creation of his jealous rage (his "Id monster") against anyone that would threaten to remove him or his daughter from Altair IV (Forbidden Planet, reel 6, page 10). In the end, as the Id monster is about to kill his daughter (she has fallen in love with Captain Adams), he sacrifices his own life and so dissolves the monster. His dying instructions are to set the process in motion for planetary self-destruction and to flee the doomed Altair IV. In the last sequence, on board the home-bound spaceship, we witness the planet explode; then the Captain says,

175Alta, about a million years from now, the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy. And your father's name will shine again like a beacon in the galaxy--it's true, it will remind us that we are, after all, not God. (Forbidden Planet reel 6, page 15)

176The Tempest's island is like Altair IV because both are gathering-places of huge stores of ancient knowledge-power. Magic alienates Prospero from others just as technology separates Morbius from humanity, but the two settings differ importantly because the planet enables only murder whereas the island is capable of procreation. As we have heard, it has the capacity to "bring forth more islands," issuing in a plethora of offspring, including Forbidden Planet. In keeping with the natural, genetic character of literary creation, moreover, the fertility of The Tempest is not wholly original to Shakespeare but is rather an outcome of his brilliant orchestration of already existing literary works.

* * *

177For the Renaissance, the Aeneid was the most impressive work of Latin antiquity--the epic story of the destruction of Troy, the travels and suffering of the hero Aeneas, his tragic love affair with Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the victorious but heartrending founding of Rome. It is a poem about the loss of one world and the creation of another, the relationship between the individual and the nation, the bonds between human action and destiny, and the severe costs of empire and of civilization itself, which is revealed to be inseparable from the violence that it is supposed to be able to prevent. There are a number of clear recollections of the poem in the play, including Ferdinand's reaction to his first sight of Miranda, "Most sure, the goddess" ("O dea certe"--Aeneid, 1. 328), and the harpy scene in 3.3 (Aeneid, 3.209-77). For most Shakespeareans, however, Virgil's poem has been strangely there and not there in The Tempest. In 1954, Frank Kermode said that it was his "feeling that Shakespeare has Virgil in mind," but he took that intuition no further (Kermode, xxxiv, n. 2 ). Robert Wiltenburg followed the intuition by arguing that Shakespeare developed a critical imitation of the poem's structure and theme. "Both works," he commented, "address the most fundamental questions raised by the enterprise of civilization: what is required to establish and to renew our life in common?" (Wiltenburg 168). But his very fine reading often claims strong parallels where there are merely broad resemblances, and it has to ignore much of the play, including Prospero's magic and the character Caliban.

178I suggest that Shakespeare's approach to Virgil is threefold. One, he provides enough that is like the Aeneid (both works begin with a tempest and an interrupted sea voyage) to create a strong resonance and to arouse curiosity about how the play and the poem might speak to each other. The indefinition of the relationship itself is a prompt to readerly engagement. Two, such engagement pays off because Shakespeare has indeed thought deeply about questions asked by the Aeneid--what are the human costs of political power and of civilized life itself, what are the links between what we choose and what destiny chooses for us, how are we to deal with wrongs done against us, how are we to deal with loss? The play answers these questions generally by rejecting Virgilian ideals of law and justice (standards of judgment outside actual lived experience) and by embracing "kindness," the principle that couples benevolence toward others with the recognition of our shared life-experience as members of the same kind (i.e. species) (Wiltenburg 168 ). Three, the conversation between the play and the most famous poem of Latin antiquity, a conversation in which readers and critics have played a formative role, is of a piece with the elevation of The Tempest into the Western canon--that human-made constellation of texts that I am calling the archipelagic sea.

179The Tempest's relationship with the Aeneid helped give the play its entry into long-term thinking about exploration, conquest, and empire, making it the obvious choice for someone like Césaire when he undertook to write about the depredations of colonialism. In his book, Shakespeare and Ovid, Jonathan Bate has tried to displace Virgil from his proximity to the play and replace him with Ovid (Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid 239-63). Bate has greatly enhanced our understanding of the play's Ovidian dimension, but his "one or the other" argument belongs to the practices of literary argument rather than to the practices of literature. Since works of literature are dynamic structures capable of ever-increasing intertextual complexity and semantic density, a play like The Tempest can readily sponsor very full connections with Virgil as well as with Ovid.

180The most prominent instance of the play's Ovidianism is Prospero's renunciation speech, which Shakespeare took from Arthur Golding's 1567 translation of the Metamorphoses. There it is spoken by the witch Medea, with an emphasis on the unnaturalness of her magic, which can cause streams to run backward, the noonday sun to grow dark, and the dead to rise from their graves (see appendix 000). Shakespeare imports all these elements into the speech he gives Prospero. Bate rightly corrects the view that refuses to connect Medea's bad fame and black magic with Prospero (Bate, 251-5 ). The magician is indeed acknowledging the dark potentialities of his magic by way of explaining why he is going to renounce it; after all, it is clear that he loves magic books, supernatural power, and the company of the spirit Ariel.

181The speech deepens the characterization of Prospero, showing that he grasps the limitations of his occult learning. It is no accident that the renunciation speech comes immediately after the exchange with Ariel in which he declares his intention not to take vengeance on those whose "high wrongs" injured him and his daughter, a decision against violence, discussed earlier (pp. 000), that he takes in light of his recognition of natural fellowship with his enemies--that he is "one of their kind." The speech also refers to the supernatural practices of Shakespeare himself, a greater and less harmful magician that either Prospero or Medea, a conjurer who can cause the dead poet Ovid to come forward at this moment and speak again. Finally, the renunciation speech advertises the Ovidianism of the play as a whole, drawing attention to its keen interest in the changeful character of persons and the world.

182Changefulness is everywhere in the play, as it is generally in Shakespeare's works. Ariel sings about it to Ferdinand, telling him that his drowned father (of course, he is not drowned) has "suffer[ed] a sea-change / Into something rich and strange." A lack of historical or personal continuity simply comes to be expected; that's why Prospero is bowled over by the simple fact that his daughter remembers her early years before their exile ("how is it / That this lives in thy mind?"--000), and it's why he works so hard to enforce on others and himself a coherent history of betrayal, banishment, and the coming of his just rule to the island (see "Memory and Forgiveness," 000).

183Against Ovidian metamorphosis, however, Shakespeare articulates a Virgilian aspiration toward stability over time, the finding out of one's life-story in relation to the purposes of destiny. Neither classical predecessor is supplanted by the other; rather, the two great Roman poets serve the dialectical supremacy of a play that is able to include both Ariel's song of metamorphosis and Gonzalo's awestruck speech about the gracious will of the gods and the happy fulfillment of destiny (note how the truth of each speech is put in question by the situation that each purports to describe--Alonso is not dead, no matter what Ariel sings; contrary to Gonzalo's claims, Alonso's issue will become kings of Milan rather than the other way round, Claribel didn't find her husband at Tunis but was forced into an unwelcome marriage, and not all of them, certainly neither Sebastian nor Antonio, have found themselves in any meaningful way):

184. . . look down, you gods,
And on this couple drop a blessèd crown,
For it is you that have chalked forth the way
Which brought us hither.
. . .
Was Milan thrust from Milan that his issue
Should become kings of Naples? O rejoice
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars! In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis;
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost; Prospero, his dukedom
In a poor isle; and all of us, ourselves,
When no man was his own.
(TLN 2182-95)

185The Tempest is peopled by ancient poets, who enjoy a second life in dialogue with each other and with Shakespeare. All their works are richer for the conversation. The islands of the archipelago include Shakespeare's contemporaries too, chief among whom is Montaigne. The play signals its relationship with Montaigne's essay, "Of the Cannibals," by way of Gonzalo's reflections on a utopian island commonwealth that are based on a passage in the essay (see "Service and Freedom," 000). Shakespeare shares with Montaigne an Ovidian awareness of the changefulness of the world, and he also shares a critical attitude toward civilization. In the essay, Montaigne upbraids Europeans for their prejudice against the cannibals: "They are even savage, as we call those fruits wild, which nature of her self . . . hath produced, whereas indeed they are those which ourselves have altered by our artificial devices . . . we should term savage" (Montaigne 163), Shakespeare, however, demurs from holding up "natural man" as an ideal to which we might aspire, and he challenges Montaigne, both by suggesting that human community, of whatever kind, must suffer the inborn flaws of the humans that constitute it, and by developing a more balanced account of civilization, which is shown to be capable of good outcomes as well as bad.

186The Tempest's relationship with "Of the Cannibals" is strong evidence for the claim that Shakespeare neither merely used other writers as sources nor was simply subject to their influence upon him. That he lived and held conversations with Montaigne, as it were, seems evident given the depth of his response to the French writer, especially since "Of the Cannibals" could not have been particularly useful in the process of writing a play for the theater: the essay supplies little by way of plot or character or applicable background material; and the issues that are central in the essay were also the subject of a large body of sixteenth-century New World writing, most of it more detailed than Montaigne.

187To conclude this discussion of how Shakespearean intertextuality creates literary power, and what the character of that power is, let us briefly re-consider the connection between "Of Cruelty" and The Tempest. Shakespeare takes over Montaigne's idea of virtue as a capacity different from goodness and makes it key to Prospero's hard-won forgiveness of the men who betrayed him. This is Montaigne:

188Methinks virtue is another manner of thing and much more noble than the inclinations unto goodness, which in us are engendered. Minds well-born and directed by themselves follow one same path, and in their actions represent the same visage that the virtuous do. But virtue importeth and soundeth somewhat, I wot not, greater and more active than by a happy complexion, gently and peaceably, to suffer itself to be led or drawn to follow reason. He that through a natural facility and genuine mildness should neglect or condemn injuries received, should no doubt perform a rare action and worthy commendation; but he who being stung to the quick with any wrong or offence received, should arm himself with reason against this furiously blind desire of revenge, and in the end after a great conflict yield himself master over it, should doubtless do much more. (Montaigne 371-2 )

189In The Tempest, Montaigne's passage about virtue is subsumed in a conversation between Prospero and Ariel, which concludes with Prospero's declaration of his humanity in common with others:

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 mov'd than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am strook to th' quick,
Yet, with my nobler reason, 'gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.
(TLN 1971-8)

190Have we caught Shakespeare reading here? And not reading instrumentally, as if on the hunt for material he might use, but reading for pleasure and interest. There was evidently something appealing to Shakespeare in Montaigne's idea of virtue as something more noble than natural goodness, in virtue as a quality that the person makes actively and by struggle, and in the alignment of virtue and forgiveness. Yet aside from a few phrases, there is nothing here of Montaigne's book. Indeed, Shakespeare has rewritten his own reading as a scene pointedly without any book, where Prospero comes to feel his own humanity in the face of the fellow-feeling of the spirit Ariel.

191On the strength of this admittedly questionable scene of reading (since there is no book present and since we can't even be sure about the connection with "Of Cruelty"), we might venture nevertheless to say that literary power is not instrumental but always deeply dialectical. We cannot make robots or monsters with it, or raise the dead from their graves, or create real islands. Literary power is the capacity of written language to arouse and sustain meaningful conversations; it makes not actual tempests but a play called The Tempest that can bring forth many more art works of all kinds. As we have seen, literary power can have real effects on the world, but these will always be indirect, mediated by the creativity and agency of readers, playgoers, writers, actors, filmmakers, and others. The social effects of works of literature like The Tempest will always therefore retain the character of a conversation that is able to build human community, both in the here and now and also over long periods of time and across great distances.