Poetry Porch: Forgiveness


Calm Seas and a Prosperous Voyage:
Forgiveness and The Tempest 

by Nadya Aisenberg

                                Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live. 
                                                      Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

                                The rarer action is 
                                In virtue than in vengeance. 
                                                      The Tempest, William Shakespeare

      The creaking and crashing of shipwreck; the drunken refrains of Trinculo and Stephano in the filthy bog; the courtly music of the wedding masque; the unearthly music of the sprite Ariel; the growled imprecations of Caliban; the elegaic measures of Alonzo grieving his son Ferdinand—all are brought into final harmony in the richly polyphonic music of The Tempest. Well, not quite.
       This is our expectation though, given that together with Pericles, Cymbeline, and A Winter’s Tale, The Tempest is labelled “romantic comedy,” “pastoral comedy,” or “pastoral romance.” These four late plays do share a general movement toward reconciliation, reparation, and the restoration of order, attributed by some critics to Shakespeare’s own mature serenity, his removal from the hurly-burly competition of London theatrical life to the green water-meadows of Stratford. The drama’s impression of beneficence is enhanced by the author’s device of neatly bracketing it with two voyages—the first, transpiring before the opening curtain, eventuates in shipwreck, while the second, projected beyond the final curtain, will return all the company to their homeland. As Prospero assures those embarking:

                                         I’ll deliver [tell] all
And promise you calm seas and fortuitous gales. 
      Nonetheless, as Steven Orgel argues, The Tempest is more precisely understood as a “tragicomedy,” for in that way we are made and kept aware of the potential lurking dangers which, ultimately, the drama may or may not refuse. This reading supports my own contention that, despite its fantastic trappings, the play keeps reality as a touchstone—a judgment none of the usual designations, “romantic comedy,” “romantic pastoral,” or “pastoral comedy” allows.
       The first half of the term tragi-comedy applies here to those tragic possibilities, particularly the extremity of death, revenge offers The Tempest; the term’s second half alludes to the drama’s actual comedic ending in marriage, homecoming, and amity. Forgiveness, the very embodiment, not just the agency of the good in this play, effects these happy results. As the portmanteau word “tragicomedy” implies, the drama proceeds by a tension between these two states, and in so doing, resembles the admixture we experience offstage in “real” life. This is why, for starters, I describe The Tempest, a drama of wonders and supernatural effects, as realistic.
      In so far as it ever meaningful and not merely reductive to say a work of art is “about” something, The Tempest has been interpreted as a play about colonialism (an interpretation emphasized in our own time), about spectacle, about nature versus nurture, about art or imagination or science (i.e., creativity). With the caveat that all interpretation is culture-bound, I want to look at The Tempest as a drama about revenge forsworn and forgiveness granted, a moral vision transcending its own time and place, instructive for us.
      Why, in fact, doesn’t Prospero take revenge upon his enemies? Enact a tragedy? Generating the “tempest” of the title, the magician causes his antagonists to fetch up on the very island he rules. So he provides himself with opportunity, none better. He has motive—his betrayers had set him to sea, together with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, to perish in a rotten boat. He has agency, the sprite Ariel, bound on the threat of imprisonment to fulfill all his commands. Moreover, the action of The Tempest is compressed into one afternoon, and the classical unities of drama are observed; as Shakespeare’s shortest play, it practically hurtles us along at a tempo we associate with the spotlit intensity of tragedy.
      Prospero’s refusal to exact retribution is all the more surprising when we set it in its historical moment. Elizabethan drama, its roots stretching back to classical Greek theater, witnessed a flowering of “revenge tragedy”; on the boards were bloody creations such as those by Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe (from both of whom Shakespeare borrowed). Titles such as “The Avenger’s Tragedy” abounded. And of course, we have Shakespeare’s own tragedies which employ the revenge plot—Othello, for one. (The Ghost in the ur-Hamlet is said to have exclaimed “Revenge!”) Then, too, Machiavelli’s The Prince, an analysis of power which divorced “political virtù” from traditional and conservative notions of nobility and honor, appeared at this time. Machiavelli’s definition of “virtù” is pragmatic, expedient. Yet, though Prospero is the absolute ruler of the island, with none to oppose his will, revenge is not his course. The dénouement of the play is as much the consequence of his refraining to take one course of action, the extremity of revenge, as of following another, the temperateness of forgiveness.
       The larger answer is that if the great Shakespearean tragedies are explorations of evil, The Tempest is an exploration of the good—but good as it can exist in the real world. Music provides the metaphor for the gulf between the absolute good, that heavenly accord and consonance which Ariel, the insubstantial spirit expresses, and our poor earthly music, product of mortal limitations. Time and time again, this disparity is remarked as various characters hear Ariel’s ethereal strains. For example, the following interchange heralds Ariel’s arrival on the scene (Act III, sc. iii):
Alonzo: What harmony is this? . . .
Gonzalo: Marvellous sweet music!
“Marvellous” music is reserved for the one who can effect marvels, the non-human being. And Caliban, Ariel’s nether pole, the designated “monster” of the drama, demonstrates the Orphic truth that music sways even savage natures, showing himself susceptible to its mysterious charms. He assures his new acquaintances from the ship, Stephano and Trinculo:
Be not feared, the isle is full of noises,
Sound, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Finally, hearing music from an unseen source Ferdinand, son of Alonzo and heir to the throne of Naples, exclaims (in Act I, sc. ii):
This is no mortal business, nor no sound
That the earth owes. I hear it now above me.
This “unearthly” harmony which Ferdinand hears “above” him alludes to the early theory, upheld by Newton and Kepler, that there is a “music of the spheres,” a perfect harmony which expresses the divine order of the cosmos.
          Realistically, Shakespeare maintains these two worlds, perfect and imperfect, as separate. Thus when at the play’s end Prospero describes the music of his magic wand as “heavenly,” we know he must abandon it before he stands again as Duke of Milan. And he does. He breaks his staff in two as he casts his magic books into the sea. Art, religion, science, may attain a transient vision of harmony, but The Tempest does not assay, via its magician, an imposition of the ideal onto the real world. To the contrary. Precisely because of its failure to permeate reality, the enchanted island on which the plot unfolds remains an escape, a kind of exile, necessarily a sojourn and not a home. To instate order and harmony to even a limited degree in the real world to which the drama journeys, ethics must entertain less idealistic goals. This is where forgiveness enters. As crimes, injustices, oppression are ours, forgiveness must be our transformative instrument. We do not possess a magic staff, and neither does Prospero by the conclusion of The Tempest; human forgiveness is what the play requires to fill the space between the spheres “on earth” and “the air above me,” to quote Ferdinand.
      So, Prospero must be convincingly human in order for the play to explore the nature and parameters of human goodness as we see it working through forgiveness. Accordingly, Shakespeare does not make Prospero into a god though he possesses magical powers. Wizard, artist, scientist—he is also cranky, distrait, forgetful, egotistical, in other words, a man. . . . Or if god in some sense, perhaps one of the more capricious pagan deities from Olympus!
       No, Prospero isn’t a god, nor a conventional hero, either. Though a ruler, and though Renaissance humanism in no way precluded the glorification of the warrior-hero, Prospero possesses no martial prowess as do Macbeth and Othello and Caesar. He never did, and does not now prove himself upon his sword, but upon book and wand; bravery is not wedded to revenge. In fact, bravery is cast within the terms of moral growth. He is an artist, he has imagination, he can grow—and he does. His victory is over himself. He who caused his enemies’ boat to founder at sea, can, by the end of the play, without straining credulity, forgive the other characters so they prosper—the play concludes with a prosperous voyage. Most tellingly, it is only at the very last, when Prospero breaks his magic staff and relinquishes his conjurative powers, when he becomes most human, that is, that he forgives. The second follows causally upon the first. Neither Prospero nor we require a superhuman aid to forgiveness.
       In a veritable flood of forgiveness, Prospero forgives Antonio, his treacherous brother who arrives on the island still scheming against him; he forgives Alonzo, King of Naples, complicit in this scheme; likewise, Alonzo’s brother Sebastian; he forgives the drunken clowns Stephano and Trinculo who no sooner land than plot with Caliban to become the island’s masters. In a final gesture, Prospero releases Ariel from his service; leaves Caliban to reassume sovereignty over the island originally his. A clean slate. As Gonzalo is to say at the play’s end, “There’s nothing [left] to forgive.”
       Prospero’s forgiveness demands our scrutiny. This is not to suspect it, only to say it is not motivated by altruism alone—another note of realism. Prospero makes his forgiveness of Antonio, for instance, hinge directly upon the restoration of the dukedom Antonio had stolen from him:
For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault—all of them; and require
My dukedom of thee, which perforce, I know
Thou must restore.
In the space of a semicolon Prospero begins what will be the concluding movement of the drama; he will return to public life, assume his proper station and duties. Antonio, displacing Prospero and enthroning himself in his brother’s stead, breached not only the fraternal bond but the political order. Significantly, Prospero, though the injured one, does not wait upon apology from his false brother. He has a realistic appraisal of his brother’s mettle. Prospero excoriates Antonio in the very moment of pardon:
                                                              Flesh and blood,
You, brother mine, that [entertained] ambition, 
Expelled remorse and nature. . . 
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   . 
. . . I do forgive thee 
Unnatural though thou art.—
Interestingly, Prospero’s magnanimity toward Antonio—both admitting his own fault and forgiving Antonio’s much more grievous injury—elicits no response from his murderous brother. We hear no words, see no gesture of repentance or remorse from him. Apology did not precede forgiveness, and neither acknowledgment nor gratitude follow upon it. Perhaps, indeed, Antonio lies beyond the transformative orbit of Prospero’s forgiveness, his silence suggestive of Iago’s similar silence when accused.
       To Alonzo, King of Naples, who had colluded in Antonio’s conspiracy to kill Prospero, the magus likewise extends forgiveness, in the full knowledge that
                                                    Most cruelly 
Didst thou, Alonzo, use me and my daughter.
Prospero releases Alonzo from the temporary madness with which he had cursed him, and reunites the King with his son Ferdinand, supposedly drowned in the tempest. The unnatural brother and the unnatural king corroborate the truth of Miranda’s observation that “good wombs have borne bad sons.”
      Indeed, The Tempest interrogates the very idea that “the good” is natural. Natural to whom, Shakespeare asks. Who today, living in a most violent century, has not asked these questions? Is the good cultivated or instinctual? Possibly lacking totally in some? In his betrayal of his own best self, “noble” background and education, Antonio may strike us as more bestial than Caliban, the symbol and veritable image of “the natural,” of nature intemperate, whose appetite led to the attempted rape of Miranda. Neither nurture nor nature, it seems, are guarantors of the good, guardians of the temperate. Shakespeare leaves this question of the vexing relation between “nature” and “the good” unanswered. The ending of The Tempest, happy in the here and now, remains therefore an uncertain weather forecast of the future.
       Forgiving Antonio and Alonzo advances many desirable ends. Prospero, as resumptive Duke of Milan, will not face a hostile neighbor on the throne of Naples; further, reconciliation of King and Duke enables Ferdinand, the King’s son, to marry Miranda, the Duke’s daughter, a union unthinkable when Alonzo was Prospero’s foe. In turn, marriage between their respective offspring will ensure proper succession to the throne. In the limited sphere of succession, what has been “unnatural” will be restored to the “natural order,” harmony will be ensured through forgiveness. Recovery of Prospero’s dukedom, and Ferdinand’s eventual kingship—the fruits of forgiveness—constitute at once moral reparation for past wrongs and necessary statecraft. In the largest sense, the personal here is political, because the protagonists belong to and operate within the world of power which has broad public consequences. Practical ethics. If all this sounds perilously close to Machiavelli, it isn’t. The union of Ferdinand and Miranda which makes so much else possible, is the consummation of love at first sight and a virtuous romance. Neither moral reparation nor virtuous romance figure in political virtù.
      Prospero’s declarations of forgiveness, quoted above, are abrupt, authoritative, and inveigh heavily against his betrayers. Forgiveness follows in the wake of a detailed itemization of the plotters’ treachery. In fact, nowhere does The Tempest suggest that forgetting is necessary to forgiving. Does Prospero’s forgiveness arise, then, from religious tenets? No, Shakespeare does not invoke this frame of reference. Indeed, the spiritual or transcendent dimension of forgiveness seems curiously absent in these lines. We have only to contrast his words with the haunted cry of Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyesvky’s The Brothers Karamzov: “I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want any more suffering.” But then Dostoyevsky’s novels are crucially and essentially Christian in a way that Shakespeare’s dramas are not. Prospero doesn’t worry about the entirety of the human race and its condition; nor does he practice contrition himself.
       If we have had to infer why Prospero rejected revenge [tragedy], he states outright his reasons for choosing forgiveness [comedy]. He summons two. The first explanation of his change of heart (and I use the word “heart” advisedly) comes in his dialogue with Ariel [Act V, sc. i.]. When Ariel reports that, witnessing the torments Prospero inflicts upon his enemies, the sight would make his own affections “tender” “were I human,” Prospero replies:
                                                            And mine shall [be].
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their own kind . . . ?
So Ariel recalls Prospero to awareness of what his humanity, rather than wizardry, consists. Compassion, which prompts Prospero’s first impulse toward forgiveness, is rooted in feeling; Ariel has swayed him to be “moved.” Compassion, like moral reparation and romance, is no guide to policy in Machievelli’s schema.
       Prospero’s second reason is reason itself, which Ariel lacks as much as he does feeling. In a continuation of the same speech (Act V. sc. i) to Ariel begun above, he adds:
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick, 
Yet with my nobler reason, ’gainst my fury 
Do I take part. The rarer action is 
In virtue than in vengeance.
Reason is that particular human capacity Prospero, like Hamlet, identifies as ennobling. Feeling and reason work together to forge a new moral contract. He shows us in this final act of the play a glimpse of himself as ruler-to-be, perhaps less arbitrary, less in love with his own power, than the despot of the island. More human, perhaps more noble. Here’s one example: if Prospero’s fault as Duke of Milan lay, as Antonio charges, in neglecting the administration of his dukedom for his private pursuit of necromancy—“Me, poor man, my library was dukedom enough”—then Antonio, vengeful and ambitious though he be, has some reason to point a finger of blame. This responsibility Prospero accepts.
       Though Prospero has created a new clearing in which goodness may take root, what we don’t know is how the fraternal relation will be played out when both brothers return to Naples. The play will end between the present and the future, in the projected interval of the return voyage to the real world. Can we be sanguine that Antonio’s “ambitious nature” will remain content without his falsely appropriated power? We embark with the rest of the company to a world of duties and compromise, an outcome yet to be enacted, terms to be negotiated. Ambiguities and irresolutions remain because we are incapable of a goodness wholly restorative, predictable, and certain in its outcome.
      Yet, despite these realistic reservations about the future, and our dalliance in a fantasy which contains a sprite and a slave, a magician, a fairytale island of Arcadian abundance, of banquets appearing out of thin air, we, the audience, are not reluctant to set sail. We mistrust this exile as an exile from the human condition, even before Prospero deconstructs the fantasy in his famous, bittersweet speech (Act IV, sc. i):
Our revels are now ended. These, our actors,
(As I foretold you) were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, of which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
The young and naive Ferdinand, in the rapture of first love, may wish to stay on the island forever, content with Miranda alone; Gonzalo, fantasizing a reign as future sovereign of the island, may describe a new Golden Age:
All things in common nature should produce 
Without sweat or endeavor . . . 
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  .
. . . nature should bring forth, 
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance, 
To feed my innocent people.
But we see each as a foolish dreamer in a pre-lapsarian dream. The island may be bewitched, but is it ideal, perfect, harmonious?
       Haven’t we been shown the island’s rightful ruler, Caliban, as a “monster,” hairy and with scales, not a “noble savage,” but a creature hatched upon the hag and wicked witch Sycorax by the devil, Setebos, to inherit this “eden”? This “eden” that in his final speech, Prospero calls “bare”! More than a geographical description at work here. If the island is verdant and temperate what can it signify to have Prospero sum it up as “bare”? What’s missing in the state of nature? If, on the other hand, Prospero thought to bring civilization to nature, to cultivate its “barreness,” the island is but a graft, itself “unnatural.” For hasn’t civilization, in the person of Prospero, corrupted nature with stinking bogs and shrieking sounds, shipwreck and the infliction of bodily pain? What does this augur for our civilized future upon the island? Can nature survive civilization?
      The nature of all such dreams and places as those in The Tempest is not only illusory, “the baseless fabric of this vision,” an “insubstantial pageant,” but also essentially anti-social (as escape usually is). The island of wonders is itself like those curios placed in special “wonder cabinets” beloved of the Renaissance. They were spectacle, kept for viewing, strange and rare, set apart, as the unnamed island is. Anti-social, too, is Prospero’ role there as sovereign. Before the shipwreck strands its passengers upon his island, Prospero has no companions but his daughter, a spirit, and a slave. The ruler has power, but no subjects; his books are for his own pleasure and edification only; and in truth, their wisdom has made him but a middling wise ruler. Rule was not his study. Though he speaks ruefully of the delights of the ivory tower he is leaving behind, his concept of service returns only when he prepares to depart it. Forgiveness engenders relation. It is in anticipation of reentry into the real world, the central motion of the drama, that issues of revenge and forgiveness matter; hence, they are only toyed with until the last two precipitous acts of the play.
      Before this “sense of an ending,” what happens to our perception of time? Thoughts of mortality have been postponed while we dwelt on the mysterious island. In a curious way, as the island is unnamed, out of space or context, so is it out of time. If to watch tragedy is to watch a rehearsal of our own death, to watch tragicomedy is to watch it postponed. Forgiveness bestows this gift upon us. But only postponed, not vanquished. The drama we are watching, the realistic tragicomedy that is The Tempest, can’t, like the fairy tale, promise “happily ever after” and certainly not “forever.” Prospero, in his wise adulthood, knows this. When speaking of his return to Milan, he remarks that then “every third thought shall be my grave.” His poignant lines
                                                 We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
affects us because they pertain not just to Prospero and his fellow players who will disappear from the stage at the play’s end, but to all of us—the “we” of his speech, the larger company, who will disappear from this “insubstantial pageant.” Prospero’s lyric speech is a momento mori, the equivalent of Hamlet’s musing upon Yorick’s skull. Postponement ends; together with Prospero we confront our common human condition. And, in the conclusion, it is our frailty which initiates the compassion for each other from which forgiveness grows.
       Though forgiveness comes about as The Tempest ends so that we, the spectators, can’t follow its consequences over time, the characters, unlike Lear and Cordelia in their tragedy, presumably still have time and space to enact the outcome. We are left with this sense of futurity, the great space which opens out before us at the conclusion, beneficent in its intentions, revenge forsworn. As the curtain is about to descend, just as we are about to leave the island behind, we understand it. The island was not a paradise on earth, not an Eden, not forever; nevertheless it was a place of recovery. Not only Prospero will become his own self, returned to Milan, a nobleman who may now be noble, but in Gonzalo’s words,
. . . and all of us, ourselves,
When no man was his own.
      Outside the life of the drama, forgiveness generates its own social energy which draws us in. In the Epilogue, Prospero beckons us to approach: “please you, come near.” The gap between actors and viewers closes. Just as he did in the mortality speech,(“Our little life is rounded with a sleep”), Prospero includes us, we are to become players, sharing the act of forgiveness:
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Who, the play proposes, does not need both to extend and receive forgiveness? Prospero, describing his reduced strength as “most faint,” needs us; his appeal lies within our human power to grant or withhold. While it is a commonplace of Shakesperean drama to beseech, at the play’s end, forgiveness from the audience for a flawed performance, Prospero’s Epilogue reaches far beyond the ended revels, beyond performance. He reminds us in the two last lines above, (and for the third time in a short space), of the power of this collective “you” the we to whom he appeals. We too can be moved to compassion and exercise our reason against fury. Accountability has been thrust into the island’s world of wonder. This is where the play knew it was going all along, even if it bemused us with phantasms into thinking otherwise.
       Neither character (there is no tragic flaw from which all events proceed) nor plot (revenge) drives The Tempest. Instead, we are entrusted in the Epilogue with Prospero’s vision of a society in which tolerance and forgiveness provide the motive energy; the words he uses are “release,” “help,” “good hands,” “gentle,” and “mercy”; he calls for a “pardon” which “frees all faults.” As his did. That pardon, his and ours, does not proceed from king or bishop but from the individual.
       The vision of a new beginning upon an old return is perhaps the most secure for the faithful Gonzalo. But all have been forgiven; from the shipwreck with which the play commenced we have moved to the promise of “calm seas and fortuitous gales,” from disorder to order. After fantasy, confusion, misadventure, enmity, madness, this is what forgiveness promises: reality, clarity, a true compass course, amity, health, the becoming of one’s own self. This is the promise of harmony sounded on the well-tempered clavier of The Tempest. The contest between tragedy and comedy, like the revels, is now ended.

Copyright © 1999 by Nadya Aisenberg.

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