Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is for me a kind of touchstone. It is the play I know and probably love the best (although “King Lear” is a contender) and the one I have seen most often performed. I read it as an undergraduate and ended up writing my honors thesis on it as my first bona-fide research project. At the time, postcolonial theory was on the rise and all the talk about the play was centering on Prospero’s abuse of Caliban as an emblem of colonial rule. Language was a tool of control: “You taught me language,” Caliban cries, “and my profit on it is I know how to curse!” Little did I know at the time that the many arguments I found that were in sympathy for the many areas of the globe affected by the colonial imposition of Western culture and the research that I did surrounding this character would eventually draw me away from European studies where I thought I was headed and back to the Americas and the Caribbean in particular. This was a great gift.
It wasn’t until many years later that I went back to older interpretations of the play. Maybe because I myself had aged, had daughters of my own, or had taken up the task of writing artistically, but I found Prospero a more sympathetic and intriguing figure. Maybe too the change resulted from reading the play in the Bay Area of California, where concerns about justice took precedent, to reading it in Provo, UT, a place where free expression of religion is paramount. And as I have taken to reading theology of late, I find myself drawn back to these famous words Prospero speaks to his daughter and his future son-in-law. This comes after he performs his art before them, bringing forth illusions, strange and wondrous, that cause them a certain degree of fear.
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful sir,
Our revels now are ended. These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
With this one speech Shakespeare pierces through the illusions of art to show their artificiality. Just as we are being moved by the play itself, he shows us its insubstantiality. It is mere illusion that moves us, and this is either because we are fools, his art is insidious and manipulative, or because art is that powerful. It turns out that all three conditions are true.
We are fools, easily deceived by appearances, not just the appearances of reality presented to us in the arts or in commercial and political propaganda, but also by appearances in life. Like those aboard the ship at the play’s opening or like Miranda watching from the shore, our own sufferings are often a product of our failure to understand or wait for the broader purposes of life to become apparent to us. Prospero implies here that mortality itself and all of its manifest substance of cities and transportation and commerce is a pageant of illusions, as transient as spirit. But Shakespeare doesn’t shame us for this foolishness. In fact, the capacity to be moved by life signals a good and teachable heart, one for whom mortality will prove a learning experience.
Art too is insidious, never quite escaping the political conditions in which it emerges. Artists are people of their times and they carry prejudices, blind spots, and they can never fully manage the noise of contradiction of being who they are and where they are. And art cannot retain its purity against the pull of commercial and self-interest. I toured the Harry Potter studios here in England yesterday. They are a monument to the staggering and pervasive power of the imagination of one woman, which then infected thousands more to give more substance to an even more elaborate illusion. As moving as that was to see the power of the imagination on display, it is not innocent. It is also a massive commercial enterprise. These facts are not to be ignored, but neither should they convince us to become overly cynical about the power of art. If so, we will have failed to avail ourselves of the one thing that might help us to see ourselves most clearly for who we are.
Prospero’s art is powerful, and it is not merely a power of representation; it is a power over the natural world. He has struck a partnership that allows him, for a time, to release the energies of the earth in a certain way for certain effects for a certain time. You can never escape the feeling from the play’s beginning that time is of the essence, that what little power Prospero imagines he has over the earth and over others is contingent. When he finally lays down his staff, after briefly flirting with the idea of using his power for revenge, it is perhaps finally apparent to us that he sees himself for the flawed man that he is. This is perhaps the reason why he pleads in the final speech to the audience, “as you from crimes would pardoned me, let your indulgence set me free.” To love art, to finally and ultimately decide that it is worthy of our praise is to enact forgiveness, to see ourselves mercifully and charitably in our foolishness. Because what’s far worse than the foolishness of being moved by illusions, of weeping when we didn’t have to, of pouring our hearts out in compassion for others when in the end it isn’t cost-effective, is to remain unmoved by the great drama of life itself. W.H. Auden imagines Prospero after the end of the play in his great poem “The Sea and the Mirror” speaking to Ariel:
But now all these heavy books are no use to me anymore, for
Where I go, words carry no weight: it is best,
Then, I surrender their fascinating counsel
To the silent dissolution of the sea
Which misuses nothing because it values nothing;
Whereas man overvalues everything
Yet, when he learns the price is pegged to his valuation,
Complains bitterly he is being ruined which, of course, he is.
To be language users, dreamers, and makers of illusions is our lot. And this means that we make of the world a second nature, as Kant once described it, making and reorganizing the elements in our minds and in our world. And this means we will always overprize, always suffer, and always have insufficient power to achieve our ambitions, even though it also means that dreaming is our only chance.
This play has come full circle for me because now critics are starting to pay attention to the environmental messages implied in Prospero’s relationship to Caliban and perhaps most especially Ariel. A production I saw a number of years ago in Stratford portrayed the ticking of the clock as the melting of the stage itself, presumably due to climate change. We don’t have a lot of time to work with here to learn how to manage our dreams in a world of limits. Shakespeare suggests that such vital awareness is cultivated at the edge of human society, on the frontiers of the wild away from the claims civilization would make on us where nature runs its course independent of our pageants and where we stand the best chance of learning proper humility. It is perhaps too for this reason that Auden argued that “a culture is no better than its woods.”