Oct 06 2010

Technology’s Illusory Benefits in The Tempest

Published by at 12:48 pm under Uncategorized

Rachel Reich

ENG 399W

Professor Buell

26 September 2010

Technology’s Illusory Benefits in The Tempest

William Shakespeare’s final piece of theatrical magic, The Tempest, lends itself to myriad layers of complex meaning and significance. Perhaps one of the most obvious yet least explored interpretations of the play focuses on techno-criticism, which affords an understanding of its all-important yet elusive elements of magic. Prospero, Shakespeare’s protagonist and the play’s most overt technological voice, manipulates the events on his island towards what some may consider a benevolent end. Order is restored, those who had previously been involved in politically underhanded schemes are given retribution and a chance to make things right, and the whole contingent lives happily ever after. However, when examining this paradigm more closely, it seems that Shakespeare does not wholly approve of Prospero’s technologically mediated interventions. More aptly, The Tempest expresses the notion that technology can offer, at best, only small doses of apparent good.

The love story that Prospero orchestrates between his daughter Miranda and Naples’ royal prince, Ferdinand, is a perfect example of the small victories Prospero and his technology accomplish in this play. Miranda, having been raised as an emotionally impressionable young woman, falls for Ferdinand the moment she sets eyes on him. “I might call him/ a thing divine,” she exclaims, “for nothing natural/ I ever saw so noble” (1.2.421-3). Her reaction is not surprising, considering the fact that the only human man she can remember seeing is her very own father.

Ferdinand’s reciprocation of Miranda’s love further serves to fashion the impression that Prospero is actually doing something good with his powers.  Given the situation in which Ferdinand finds himself, a situation wholly crafted by Ariel as per Prospero’s instructions, it is no surprise that Ferdinand reacts with awe when he sees Miranda. Upon returning from creating the tempest and the ensuing shipwreck, Ariel reports to Prospero on the condition and whereabouts of all of the ship’s members:

And as thou bad’st me,

In troops I have dispersed them ‘bout the isle.

The King’s son have I landed by himself,

Whom I left cooling of the air with sighs

In an odd angle of the aisle, and sitting,

His arms in this sad knot. (1.2.220-5)

Evidently, Prospero had commanded Ariel to separate Ferdinand from the rest of his group, where he sits alone, mourning his desolation and his fate.

Then, right before he allows his daughter to glimpse her soon-to-be betrothed, Prospero again influences Ferdinand’s emotional state so that he will be conveniently smitten at the sight of Miranda. Ariel sings, “Full fathom five thy father lies, / of his bones are coral made” (1.2.400-1). This song, along with bell clanging sounds that the spirits make from within, convince Ferdinand both that his father is dead and that “this is no mortal business,” or that he is in some sort of magical arena (1.2.410). Thus, it is no surprise that upon setting eyes on Miranda for the very first time, Ferdinand calls her a “goddess” and a “wonder” (1.2.425, 430).

Unfortunately, Prospero’s utilization of magic/technology to foster a loving relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda cannot be understood to be an act of selfless altruism. Yes, Prospero is giving his daughter the gift of a lifetime, but how justified are his actions in light of Miranda’s severely indoctrinated psyche and with respect to the great lengths to which Prospero must go in order to create that love? As the young lovebirds set eyes on each other, Prospero comments, “It [my plan] goes on, I see, / as my soul prompts it” (1.2.423). What kind of a love do Miranda and Ferdinand have if it was contrived? Shakespeare seems to say that although Prospero carries out fatherly and caring activities with his magical tools, it is utterly unfair and unfortunate that Miranda and Ferdinand were subjected to their circumstances.

The extent to which Prospero uses his magic, or tools, to abuse Miranda is again depicted at the end of the play when Miranda sees all of the visitors on her island. She exclaims,

Oh wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in’t! (5.1.184-7)

By themselves, these lines are tragic, in that they bespeak a hopeless naivete. However, their devastation is greatly compounded when viewed as a microcosm of Miranda’s entire role in this play. She will continue, most likely, to live a life of fantasy! She will never be able to function normally in the real world both because her father landed her on their island by becoming too involved in his machinations in the first place, and because her father has literally held her under his spell for so many years. It may have seemed, from Miranda’s initial delight in Ferdinand and her reaction of awe at humanity, that Prospero crafted a life of enjoyment for Miranda. However, it is obvious that because of Prospero’s obsession with his books, he has destined Miranda for a life disconnected from reality. At its most basic level, Miranda’s artificial life will be nothing compared to what it might have been had Prospero’s abstained from meddling in magic/technology in the first place.

The other instance in the play that evidences Prospero’s apparently benevolent use of his art, or technology, comes at the end, when all of the players have ostensibly been restored to their original, good selves. This last scene is an especially dangerous one, in the sense that it truly threatens to dupe the reader. Beginning with his renunciation of his books, through the forgiveness he bestows upon all those gathered, and until his final request to be set free by the audience’s acclaim, Prospero appears to genuinely tie his whole magically manufactured mess into a neat, pretty bow. However, with a little reading between the lines, it is obvious that Prospero is still acting selfishly, as he was from the very moment he absorbed himself in his books and lost control of his dukedom so many years prior.

The first indication that the scene that follows will be more than it seems is when, right before avowing to drown his book, Prospero draws a circle on the ground. This circle, we soon learn, functions to charm all those who stand within it. If he so genuinely believes that he is in the right and that the order he is about to restore is in fact just, why does Prospero need to charm all of the players until he can arrange the circumstances so that every person will be forced to kowtow to him? Apparently, Prospero feels the need to continue to meddle and to fool even during what might be considered the most revealing and truthful scene of the play.

Another element that exposes Prospero’s true intentions in this scene is the manner in which he reveals himself and breaks the charm under which he has been holding all of his guests. Most poignant is his self-identification to Alonso, the King of Naples. After donning the clothes of the Duke of Milan, Prospero says to Alonso, “Behold, sir King, / the wronge`d Duke of Milan, Prospero,” (5.1.109-10). This weighty introduction, very clearly designed to induce feelings of guilt and remorse within Alonso, illustrates that Prospero is still using his crafty techniques when he is supposedly restoring order. Clearly, according to Shakespeare, technology cannot justifiably undo the mess it makes.

Two additional manipulations in this scene bolster the impression that Prospero is continuing to use technology towards his own ends, even though he had supposedly given up his book. Firstly, Prospero tells Sebastian and Antonio, who had previously plotted mutiny, that he is aware of their scheming and that he has the ability to “pluck his highness’ frown upon them/ and justify [prove] them traitors” (5.1.129-30). There is no apparent reason why Prospero would need to threaten Sebastian and Antonio with blackmail; rather, he is simply reveling in, or at least hanging on to, his last moments of mastery.

The second instance in the last scene of the play that indicates how Shakespeare feels about the function of technological prowess is when Prospero lies about Ferdinand and Miranda’s whereabouts. In order to secure Miranda’s position as future queen of Naples, Prospero confirms Alonso’s notion that his son has died with the words, “I am woe for’t, sir” (5.1.141). Then, in the same vein, Prospero claims that he has lost his daughter and can therefore help to make Alonso’s loss more bearable. To this admission, Alonso exclaims, “oh heavens, that they were living both in Naples, / the king and queen there!” (5.1.151-2). Shakespeare makes it utterly obvious that had Prospero not convinced Alonso that their respective children had perished, it is highly unlikely that Alonso would have been stirred to wish that his son would marry Prospero’s daughter and thereby make her queen of Naples. He only expressed that wish in the contrived moment of passion and sorrow. Prospero’s actions in this scene, which ostensibly set everyone and everything straight and upright again, are evidently not as altruistic as they may seem. In truth, he is suffering from a huge amount of anxiety at his magic-free reintegration into Naples, and he cannot help but grasp at the very last strings he can reach, even if it means resorting to methods that abuse and manipulate those around him.

It may be the case that at the moment when all of the island’s inhabitants step foot on their Naples-bound ship, they will feel that they are in a state of complete restoration and harmony. However, Shakespeare subtly tells the reader, once back in the real world of Naples, without Ariel, magic cloaks, and circles of enchantment, Prospero’s spell will break! The notion that Prospero has utilized his various forms of technology in order to rectify Naples’ decrepit political state is nothing more than an illusion. Throughout The Tempest, Shakespeare drops hints of Prospero’s inability to affect any real, lasting good with his machinations and manipulations. Shakespeare’s message, at the end of both his play and his career, is unmistakable; the accomplishments of technology, or of the magical and elusive art that man can sometimes harness, are an enjoyable yet ephemeral fantasy.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition, Second Edition: Volume 2: Later Plays. 2 ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. Print.

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