Monday, September 28, 2015
What have you done, Prospero?: Humanism in The Tempest
Shakespeare's geographical irregularity extends beyond criticism of the subjugation of the people of the new world but also lends itself to the people of the old world as well. Rather than a criticism of how foreign people are treated, it approaches how different people approach humanist topics - like politics, philosophy, and art (Stanivukovic). Instead of analyzing colonalism as one people subjugating another, The Tempest can be read as the impact of ideosyncratic ideas of humanism from one culture to another.
Humanism finds it's avatar in Prospero's character. He is learned, stubbornly opinonated, and incredibly powerful. He uses these powers over everyone on his island, including the New World natives Caliban and Ariel, as well as members of the Old World. The main subject of the play is not action; although the plot of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano provides the play's comedic entertainment, most of the focus of the play is Prospero's humanist arguments.
Both Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, measure their affection by the knowledge they are willing to bestow. In the second scene of the first act, Miranda bitterly recalls that despite the "great pains" she took to "make thee speak, taught thee each hour one thing or other"(1.2.355-358), nothing could leave "any print of goodness"(1.2.354) on Caliban's character. Caliban is considered a monster because of his reception of their humanist knowledge, which he rebels against. A contrast to Caliban would be Ferdinand, who wins the chalice - Miranda - by his acceptance of Prospero's teachings, even to the point where he wishes to stay on the island indefinitely under Prospero's rule.
The major difference between Prospero's humanist ideology which he practiced in his kingdom in the Old World and the way he rules the island of the New World is that he has more power to subjugate an equally unwilling populace, which is perhaps where Shakespeare's loudest criticism of colonialism and cultural imperialism can be heard.
Stanivukovic, Goran. "The Tempest and the Discontents of Humanism." Philogical Quarterly 85.1 (2006): 91-114.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest.