The Tempest: Shakespeare on Freedom and Power

December 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm 1 comment

A couple of years ago, I set out to read or watch / listen to all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I recently finished the last one. To crown it all, I went to the Globe Theatre in London (a faithful replica of Shakespeare’s original), and I have now started to jot down a few reflections on Shakespeare.

Here is the beginning of my reflections on parts of The Tempest (more blog posts will follow in the coming weeks):

the-tempest_mirandaItaly during the Renaissance. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, falls victim to a plot by his power-hungry brother Antonio, who deposes him. But rather than raise his own hand and strike the blow to finish him off, Antonio takes a course typical of human nature and sends his brother adrift in a little boat. In that way, it would be the elements that killed Prospero, and not he himself. Also in the little boat is Prospero’s little daughter Miranda, as well as provisions and books, smuggled in by someone sympathetic to Prospero.

“By providence divine” the two land on a deserted island, which is only inhabited by spirits and the son of a deceased witch. Prospero makes use of his skills in magic to subdue the few human and non-human inhabitants, and henceforth he lives with his daughter in “a full poor cell.”

Years later, his enemies happen to pass the island in a ship, and Prospero, once again employing magic, raises a storm to force the sailors unto the island and win back his former position as Duke of Milan.

Thus far the broad outline. Most of the play focuses on the various people on the island after the storm, all of whom either strive for freedom or consciously give up freedom for the sake of other desires. In fact, the very last words of the play are “set me free,” but one hardly needs to wait until the last words to notice this theme. It is weaved into the text throughout.

Freedom—now what exactly is that? Many people feel that freedom is power, namely the power to go where they want, do what they want, and think what they want. “Had I been any god of power, I would have sunk the sea within the earth,” says Miranda right in the beginning of the play, after her father Prospero had raised the storm and caused the shipwreck. What Miranda is saying is that if she had as much power as Prospero, she would use it for the good. Of course, at this stage in the play she does not yet know the background story and so does not understand her father’s actions, but the main point is that she desires more power. “If I had the power, I would do so-and-so”—this is the desire of someone who recognizes that she is not completely free. Miranda is in the hands of her father, her “schoolmaster,” and others are in his hands too, and she is tempted to think that she would be more worthy of the power he holds. She would be kinder to others and not use her power to deprive them of their freedom.

Such are the thoughts of many a powerless person, thoughts as noble as they are foolish, for it is less easy to use power correctly once one is in possession of it than when one is merely desiring it. Indeed, the desire to be a “god of power” is a dangerous thing. As the Graeco-Roman gods demonstrate, gods do not always use their power for the good, and neither might I if I were one of them. The gods were personified forces of nature, and, like these forces, raw power tends not to discriminate. It thunders on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Therefore, it might be for the best that I do not have all the freedom I desire. It might give me more power than I can handle.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. rockomnibus  |  December 28, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Nicely set up, Jacob. In analyzing the components of power corruption, one of the more viable competing theories is that power can very often alter a person. The all-too-common knee-jerk analysis we instead see is that only corrupt/rich people aspire to office to the extent that they get noticed and become popular, and therefore they were always that way. However, the former scenario is more logical, because there’s generally no clear distinction pre-office of who those supposed “corrupt” politician wannabes are. In fact, many of those now part of the political machine were ones earlier decrying the political machine. There’s got to be something native to the territory that produces the corruption. Ergo, the system — while well-intentioned — encourages and even celebrates it.

    In my view, the people of the U.S. have given their representative government too much of the balance of power, and once given over, it doesn’t come back without drastic measures. (see also: taxes, property “rights”, etc.) Major crises are the only things that could collectively wake us out of our slumber. The governmental advantage is that it has become so big that an overthrow of the system requires much more coordination than people at the grass roots level can generate under normal circumstances. Until their very lives are at stake will they have a truly common cause to rally behind, at which point they make very well be under too much control.

    It boils down to the lawyers and lawmakers having too firm a grip on the process. Regulations and litigation have got us around the neck, and at present we are powerless to do anything about it.

    We’ve therefore created the monster and continue to feed it. In theory, the American way is prosperous and peaceful. In practice, in the hands of unremarkable people not equipped to handle the exhilaration of power, we get a distorted version. We place too much faith on our politicians, when they’re just like us, but only now on steroids. And they can’t stop their addiction.

    Power/control is too enticing when applied absolutely. In a government that can finagle its way through just about any policy, whether it be by mandate, legislative maneuvering, or judiciary promiscuity, they find a way.

    So I wouldn’t be one to place immediate blame on the players, but instead on the game which rules we so easily go along with, by means of a media we so easily swallow. We’re as sheep being herded. And then we’re surprised when our elected get to Washington or in our capitals and it remains the status quo. Idealistically, we’re not electing them to be sheep herders, but that’s exactly what we end up sending them there to do.

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