- Twethis: Prospero’s command of Ariel and Caliban, as well as his total domination of the island, represent the realization of the greatest potentiality for man. Prospero has achieved mastery of himself, mind and body, and used it to take control of his environment.
Humanism is in my opinion the best thing to come out of the Renaissance. Imagine stepping out of the Dark Ages - the bubonic plague, serfdom, people basically living and dying like cattle - and then stepping into the warm glow of the Renaissance where Shakespeare, Cabeza de Vaca, and Pico della Mirandola are waiting to bestow gold stickers just for being you. Essentially, humanism boils down to a celebration of man, and more specifically the potential of man. A cow will always be a cow, but the plough boy guiding him is much more than what he appears to be. The opinion of humanity dominating most Renaissance thinkers is that anyone can master their environment based purely on the human characteristics that they naturally possess. (This is where interpretations of the Bible shift from focusing on the “burn in hell for your inescapable sin” aspect and moves over to the “man was made in the image of God” aspect.) The key focus of humanism is the dynamic nature of man and this great, wide, open future of potential that everyone is born with. I don’t think anyone puts it better than Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who wrote “that man is the intermediary between creatures, the intimate of the gods, the king of the lower beings, by the acuteness of his sentences, by the discernment of his reason, and by the light of his intelligence the interpreter of nature”(Oration on the Dignity of Man).
So. Humanism. Pat yourself on the back for choosing to be reincarnated human, because not only are you capable of anything but you also naturally possess the skills to master your world.
Playing in Storms
In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest the storyline revolves around the character Prospero, an ex-Duke booted from his kingdom for being too bookish who angrily sulks on an island for twelve years amassing power. Remember, humanism is about the natural talents and great potential given to all men, and in Prospero those two things come together beautifully. During his time spent exiled on his rocky island he becomes more powerful than he had been before in Milan; in twelve years Prospero has realized that he is not a victim of life and is capable of taking control; “He can now take a hold on destiny - insofar as it is given men to make their own fortunes”(Rockett 77).
Mind and Body
The composition of a human being is essentially divided into the two mediums through which people perceive reality; spirit and body. Part of the grand potential of man is his ability to not only master his environment, but to know and master himself. As Mirandola writes, “Whatever seeds each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear in him their fruit”(Oration on the Dignity of Man). Mirandola acknowledges that across the spectrum, people are different based on what sides of themselves they give in to, whether bestial or spiritual. Those that react more based on their physical instincts are more bestial, while those who respond based on spiritual or intellectual reactions are more tempered.
The Tempest takes these two sides of man and represents them in the two servants of Prospero; Caliban and Ariel. Caliban is the purely physical, he displays brutish behavior and has an ugly - he’s literally fishy - demeanor. Prospero has control over him but it is not absolute, representing the struggle that Prospero has over his own physical urges such as, ahem, anger. Ariel on the other hand is a nebulous, beautiful, hermaphroditic spirit that is completely obedient to Prospero and seeks total freedom, like the mind's driven pursuit of knowledge. Although powerful, he is powerless until Prospero frees him, just as when Prospero is empowered when he educates himself. Mind and body, Ariel and Caliban, are both under the control of Prospero, the shining example of the enlightened, all-knowing Renaissance man.
Mirandola, Pico Della. "Oration on the Dignity of Man."
Rockett, William. "Labor and Virtue in The Tempest." Shakespeare Quarterly, 24.1(1973): 77-84.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest.