Published on May 8th, 2013 | by Thompson0
Comedic Errors of The Tempest
If embracing our own errors is so difficult, you can only imagine how difficult it is for us to embrace the errors of others. The Tempest displays this difficulty quite effectively. In the early going of The Tempest, it’s rather easy to despise Prospero. He displaces and enslaves Caliban, enslaves Ariel, and treats everything except his precious books like shit. In all his books, Prospero couldn’t find a way to relate to humans. He learned everything in the world (and a few things not of this world) but couldn’t figure out his own kind. Did Gonzalo forget to pack the literature when readying Prospero’s ship? It seems to me Prospero was only interested in becoming more powerful – not more compassionate. The one thing he didn’t understand, humanity, couldn’t be found in the books he was reading, so he had to find another way to learn it – through a mistake.
He is fulfilling the colonizer stereotype perfectly, forcing his language and religion upon Caliban, who will have no use for it after Prospero leaves the island, as he will be the only inhabitant. But Prospero is the personification of redemption, and it’s because he listens and is willing to learn.
There’s no doubt Prospero is willing to learn. He values his books of magic over the lives of the people of Milan, which I’m sure is a reason his brother Antonio usurps him. Jealousy alone couldn’t possibly motivate such an act, but I could be wrong, which isn’t all that bad. The important thing is Prospero waits 12 years to get his revenge, and with his magic he could have reclaimed his rightful place as Duke of Milan much earlier. Perhaps he feels he hasn’t learned enough.
So Antonio and Alonso are returning from the wedding of Alonso’s daughter, and Prospero makes his move. He draws everyone closer and closer to him, as they conspire against him and against each other. Caliban falls in with a couple of drunks, Stephano and Trincula, and convinces them to help him kill Prospero. Not all that surprising given Caliban was displaced as “king” of the island with Prospero’s arrival and is now a slave. All the while Antonio and Sebastian intend to kill Alonso so Sebastian can become king, and Prospero convinces Ferdinand to be his servant after playing cupid with his daughter, Miranda. Again, Prospero isn’t exactly respectful and creates a potentially tragic state of affairs.
Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after reading the first three acts you’re sure things will end tragically, but Prospero escapes a tragic hero’s end by simply listening. Ariel, despite a lengthened sentence of slavery, helps Prospero realize how cruel he has been.
Ariel: “That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.
Prospero: And mine shall.
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 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” (The Tempest, V-1, 2035-38).
The rarer action is certainly in virtue than in vengeance, and unfortunately, that’s even truer today. We Americans are a spiteful bunch. The fact that we compete for jobs, wages, and property can’t help. Even our religions have a sort of superiority attached to them. We’re God-cocky. There’s no empathy in the world anymore – only vanity. We all need an Ariel to knock some sense into us. Ariel saves the day and the lives of many, including Prospero. Had Prospero taken his vengeance, he’d only loathe himself the rest of his life. I just don’t think our culture allows too many Ariels to survive anymore. There are too many ulterior motives, means to an ends, and profits after taxes.
Despite our current cultural state, our belief structure, and lack of empathy, there is something we can all take from The Tempest. Forgiveness. Prospero gives us a model for dealing with the errors of others, and though it takes him awhile to get there (as it will us), our state of mind would surely benefit from committing acts of virtue rather than vengeance.
But wait, there’s more. Prospero finally owns up to his mistakes in “raising” Caliban, saying, “this thing of darkness! / Acknowledge mine” (The Tempest, V-1, 2349-50). It’s not a strong apology, but it’s better than what we get out of most of our political leaders. At the end of his final term, George W. Bush couldn’t recall one mistake he made, and later, after writing his memoirs, the best “apology” he could come up with was “mistakes were made,” as if to say, “Mistakes were made, but not by me.” This is the tragedy that suffocates our world: Our unwillingness to admit we’re wrong and apologize for it. Even our children are unwilling to say they’re sorry, and when they do they don’t mean it. I see this as the premiere problem of our culture, and until we all start empathizing with others, we’ll continue down this path that tears us apart inside. Schulz writes, “We can foster the ability to listen to each other and the freedom to speak our minds. We can create open and transparent environments instead of cultures of secrecy and concealment. And we can permit and encourage everyone, not just a powerful inner circle, to speak up when they see the potential for error. These measures might be a prescription for identifying and eliminating mistakes, but they sound like something else: a prescription for democracy. That’s not an accident” (311). So if you want to foster true democracy, the next time you wrong someone, apologize, and do it right. Tugend suggests that a “proper apology has three elements: an acknowledgement of the fault or offense, regret for it, and responsibility for it – and, if possible, a way to fix the problem” (217). Prospero acknowledges his fault, regrets it, and takes responsibility for it. Then he offers solutions. Not bad considering he certainly didn’t have Tugend’s Better By Mistake in his vast library. It seems Shakespeare had a better handle on handling the errors of others than we do now.