- The intricacies of humanism can be understood through Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which demonstrates how humanist ideology can be a boon and a bane, a practical educational theory and an idealistic societal dream. In short, humans can be surprisingly humane or inhumane through humanism.
Prospero: Duke, Father, Humanist, Wizard.
Humanism, the great idea that humans are great.
At least, at its most basic. Frankly, I didn’t understand anything more than that about humanism before delving a little deeper into the writings of humanist scholars. I found that humanism might be thought of as a refocusing of philosophical thought on the power and possibilities of man, especially in relation to other men. One of the greatest early humanist scholars, Pico della Mirandola, said of man “To you is granted the power of degrading yourself into the lower forms of life, the beasts, and to you is granted the power, contained in your intellect and judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, the divine” (On the Dignity of Man) In other words, because humans are self-determining creatures, we are uniquely amazing in all of creation.
However, the issue becomes more complicated if we view Humanism in the context of history. Specifically, I’d like to look at it in the context of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. While the play appears to be about magic and wonder, colonialism and the evils of corrupt government officials, it may be more about Humanism than you would think. I think that many of the actions of the characters throughout the play can be explained by applying Humanist ideologies, and especially those that have to do with power hierarchies between characters. And those relationships are (more often than not) pretty ugly.
Prospero and Caliban
Of course, when speaking of ugly relationships the most obvious must be between Prospero, the exiled duke/wizard ruler of the island, and Caliban, his semi-slave of questionable origin. Prospero, a man fully steeped in higher education, is depicted as a liberal humanist. He was “reputed / In dignity” and “for the liberal arts / Without a parallel;” (1.2 72-74) He even tries to inculcate a sense of civilization and intelligence in Caliban through education. However, Caliban does not appreciate this and resents Prospero’s rough magical abuse. Prospero rebukes him in lines 345-349 of Act 1 Scene 2:
Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness; I have used thee
(Filth as thou art) with humane care and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.
The attempted rape of Miranda, Prospero’s daughter (about which Caliban apparently feels no shred of remorse) is too much for him to accept. Prospero claims to have acted with “humane care” and yet refers to Caliban as filth. In later sections, Prosper will refer to him as “Hag-seed” (1.2, 367), “slave” (1.2, 375), “beast Caliban” (4.1, 140), “a devil, a born devil” (4.1, 188).
If Caliban is human (at least partially) and Prospero is a humanist, shouldn’t Prospero believe in Caliban’s ability to become better? Shouldn’t Prospero treat him well and not like an animal? After Prospero’s attempts to civilize Caliban fail, he determines that if Caliban were actually human, then he would have changed.
Prospero can only truly be a humanist if Caliban is not human. Therefore, Prospero begins to view Caliban as not a human, but rather a devil, a slave, a beast. Interestingly, this can be fully reconciled with Prospero believing that he is a good person. He did his best to help Caliban, after all, and is it not better to think of Caliban as a creature who simply cannot become better than as a being who chooses to be inferior? By effacing the humanity of Caliban, Prospero now has a way to reconcile Caliban’s inferior actions with his appearance and a way to sooth his own conscience.
Gonzalo and his detractors
Gonzalo, the idealistic counselor to the king, during Act 2 Scene 1 begins to imagine the Utopian society that he would construct were he lord of the isle.
“ …for no kind of traffic
Would I admit ; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty
And use of service , none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land , tilth , vineyard – none;
No use of metal , corn, or wine or oil;
No occupation , all men idle, all;
And women, too, but innocent and pure ;
Although two other nobles, Sebastian and Antonio mock, and deride his ideas, Andy Mousley suggests that although his vision is perhaps unattainable, it prompts “wondering how his vision might have some sort of practical application or embodiment” (172). In Gonzalo’s society, there would be no sovereignty, no excess labor, no poor and no rich. It would be an equal paradise in which each man could grow to the maximum of their ability. Mousley suggests that this society is a reflection of the “the simultaneously idealistic and practical spirit of literary humanism” (173). If put into practice, such a society would be a great boon to humanism, but the practicality of the issue is shaky. However, simply by suggesting these ideas, Shakespeare plants seeds of humanism in the minds of his audience.
Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. Oration on the Dignity of Man University of Adelaide, December 17, 2014. Web. October 4th, 2015.
Mousley, Andy. Re-Humanising Shakespeare : Literary Humanism, Wisdom And Modernity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Shakespeare, William (2014-09-25). The Tempest: Third Series (Arden Shakespeare) (Kindle Locations 2828-2831). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.