Prospero’s Starvation

Posted by Happy Landings - October 4, 2010

Prospero’s Starvation
A merciful and conventional way of understanding Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is as a representation of the playwright himself. As such, he is perceived to possess greater knowledge than the other characters who operate according to his purportedly benign order. He orchestrates their perceived redemptions and “progress.” The value system this conventional reading prizes Prospero’s mental prowess and the actions in which they manifest. That reading and its accompanying value system can and should be disregarded and Prospero should be examined as one center of consciousness among others- rather than the sole and superior. In doing this, Prospero’s identity as a mentally anguished man, not in possession of divinely granted power, but in control of tools and resources unbeknownst and marvelous to the microcosmic society constructed in large part in a psychopathological state.
Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, is the ultimate prize. Having been marooned on a deserted island since the age of three has made the internalization of Prospero’s microcosm unavoidable. Seen, according to Peter Hulme’s “Prospero and Caliban,” like the titular characters of the essay as actors of a play originating in Prospero’s maligned psyche, Miranda has no influences other than her father’s. Though she has access to the information contained in Prospero’s books, it is policed by Prospero. She is kept in a constant state of control by the belief that “father knows best.” Etymology explains the manner in which Miranda is kept under control in the ideal state of chastity: Miranda is a gerundive from the Latin, “mirari,” which has within it all the connotations of spectacle. Miranda is to be admired, wondered at, revered, bewildering. At the same time, in her narrow world view, she is in constant state of bewilderment herself. While Prospero has kept his daughter alive, his orchestration of her betrothal was still an opportunity for an exercise of his control. He abuses his knowledge and accuses Ferdinand of deception in order, purportedly, for the ultimate benefit of Ferdinand and Miranda’s relationship. Despite his knowledge otherwise, Prospero condemns Ferdinand: “Who mak’st a show but dar’st not strike, thy conscience/ Is so possessed with guilt”(I: ii: 469-470). His characterization of Ferdinand as guilty and deceptive is an instance of projection of his own actions and a egomaniacal need to have Miranda and Ferdinand’s relationship to unfold according to his terms- according to his narrative.
Prospero’s penchant for indoctrination is most strongly demonstrated by his domination of Caliban. In an effort to civilize Caliban, Prospero gives him the “gift” of language- a newfound consciousness imbued with resentment: “You taught me language, and my profit op’t/ Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!” (I: ii: 361-363). Really, in truth, the act is self serving: Prospero benefits from Caliban, who teaches him how to survive on the island. Prospero also gains yet another spectator to his “wondrous” powers. Caliban, having learned the language by way of Prospero’s world order, understands himself as savage and at the bottom rung of this social stratification. As Peter Hulme points out, his attempts at articulating his own narrative and “sovereignty” are constantly thwarted.   When Caliban claims, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou tak’ st form me” (I: ii: 333-334), Prospero does not dispute it but merely and unconvincingly exercises control by falsely “characterizing” Caliban as deceitful: “Thou most lying slave” (I: ii: 346). Here, Prospero doesn’t attempt to counter Caliban’s narrative so much as discount it. The superiority of Prospero’s judgment is, of course, a falsehood, an invasion of his society into that of the island’s. Since Caliban has adopted his culture, his perspective has been infected by Prospero’s value system- wherein his experience and history are erroneous.
While he seen as a monster and unfit for anything other than servitude, Caliban’s mental faculties could be characterized as quite sophisticated: ” Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not… The clouds methought would open and show riches/ ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,/ I cried to dream again.” (III: iii: 134-140). Perhaps his appearance and resourcefulness would lend to his dismissal as a savage. Such an understanding would only make this passage more striking. Here, Caliban does not only operate on need and necessity guided by immediate pressures for food or shelter. While he may not be able to expound on the intricacies of composition, he possesses the capacity to delight in and establish mental leaps that allow for what he hears to resonate within himself on an emotional level. The ability to dream is further proof of Caliban’s sophisticated mental capacities. While the purpose and process of a dream’s production is contentious, it’s existence at all- and the anguish which accompanies it in waking- are demonstrations of Caliban’s consciousness. This moment, though minute, is a conventionally human outpouring of emotion, an existential wail.
Prospero’s previous condition and predicament must be reiterated: an attempt was made on his life as he was immersed in the world of books and learning and the memory of this has been festering in the 12 years he has occupied this island. In this world, through his manipulations, his books and sources of learning are redeemed from a weakness that earlier allowed for his usurpation into a source of power and an opportunity to actuate his desired narrative. Peter Hulme describes the destructive relationship between between Caliban, the native, and Prospero, the colonizer as “a precise match with the situation of Europeans in America during he seventeenth century, whose technology(especially of firearms) suddenly became magical when introduced to a less technologically developed society, but who were incapable(for a variety of reasons) of feeding themselves.” (Hulme, 244). Prospero’s starvation is both physical and psychic. Caliban indeed teaches him how to feed himself and is utilized in Prospero’s attempts to heal his trauma. It is destructive because, for all of Prospero’s learning, his primary means of evoking wonder are through deceit and concealment of his knowledge. Unfortunately, he has his tools, his magic, his books, to perversely construct his identity as benign scholar and wizard. His vengeance, spite, and hysteria are masked by his spectacles, his instruments of nearly imperceptible oppression.

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