Monday, May 26, 2014

Bound and determined: Hamlet, Prospero, and the puzzled will (Part Five)

'Pure potentiality'  exhausts itself on Prospero's island



The Argument: “Desiring this man’s [Prospero’s] art and that man’s [Hamlet’s] scope” [Sonnet 29], the poet-playwright Shakespeare (known familiarly as “Will” and never indifferent to punning) doubts that either of his famous creatures suffices to establish the independence of human action.

"Your tale, sir, would cure deafness."  — Miranda to Prospero, "The Tempest," Act I, Scene 2 

[A second epigraph in honor of today's holiday]

 "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts." — Ophelia to Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius, "Hamlet," Act IV, Scene 5




The staggered, staggering Hamlet confronts mysteries of action that Prospero, through his “rough magic,” rigorously circumvents. The isolated wizard is abrupt and fierce in command, a nasty boss to the resentful Caliban and the useful Ariel alike, and an overprotective father to Miranda, whose romance with the shipwrecked prince Ferdinand is micromanaged to the hilt. Prospero is an exemplar of free will yoked to power, which oddly loses at length all feeling of freedom.

Could he have exercised his magical power in Milan, before his dukedom was taken away from him with the connivance of King Alonso? Apparently not, despite years of study there. But why not?

Sartre's freedom means discarding the old self.
Here’s a possible answer: Shakespeare needs Prospero to occupy a space apart to engineer his plan to set right a corrupt world. And his willed exercise of magic also needs to show itself superior to other kinds of magic and centers of authority — to be superior to Caliban’s mother, the witch Sycorax, and her god, Setebos. Every suggestion of past weakness and dereliction of duty needs to be overcome on the dream island.

Prospero thus foreshadows Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist dictum that we are condemned to a freedom so ineluctable that we must first obliterate our past selves. That project is most daunting to a man driven by the need to reverse the life-changing injustice done to him. “How are we to go about changing ourselves if there are no persisting features of the old self to provide leverage?” William Barrett asks in “Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer.”  “At the center of the Sartrian self there is only a pure potentiality, which seems at first glance to be potent and overmastering but in fact floats in the void."

Utopian schemes, on the other hand, paradoxically are all actuality, and lead toward determinism. The ideal society is actualized in its creator's mind and tends to rule out the messy conflict of wills required to advance all human enterprise. That would describe the commonwealth that Gonzalo briskly sketches, to the scoffs of his shipwrecked companions (Act 2, Scene 1).  He would get rid of all commerce, law, labor in farming or industry, social hierarchy — "no occupation; all men idle, all; And women too, but innocent and pure."

A kindly old counselor who secretly provided the exiled Prospero with his magic books, he has been too close to what happens when ambition, driven by the will, is vigorous and unchecked. But, now exulting in his survival of the tempest,  Gonzalo lays out an extreme version of a static actuality as untenable as Sartre's absolute potentiality. Besides, it founders on the will required to establish and maintain it. As the sinister realist Antonio points out: "The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning."

To replace a dismal actuality (his deposed and exiled condition on a wild island) with potentiality (his restoration to an exalted position in society), Prospero becomes something less than human: No ambiguity, no uncertain knowledge must be allowed on his dream island, and no floating in the void. When he sets his plan in motion with the tempest, he instructs Ariel to deliver the shipwreck victims safely to shore, with their clothes in even better condition than when they first put them on. Obviously, part of what grounds him as a magician is to show himself less evil than nature. His will through magic must not merely provoke fear of his power, but admiration for its results.

He has a near meltdown when the masque he is staging for the pair he's yoked together (Ferdinand and Miranda) is interrupted by the approach of Caliban and the tipsy conspirators leading him. His powers must be unchallenged. Mystery is for other people to be baffled by.  King Alonso, who engineered Prospero’s replacement by Antonio, finally realizes “there is in this business more than nature / Was ever conduct of.”

Prospero (John Gielgud here) has lots to worry about.
Prospero’s most famous speech, beginning “Our revels now are ended,” occurs shortly after the masque is interrupted by his realization that “the beast Caliban and his confederates” are on their way to overthrow him. His beautiful meditation on his magic seems to encompass all human life, ending “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

It’s easy to forget that right after these lofty words, the magician says, “Sir, I am vexed. Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled.” Prospero is vexed by the knowledge that “our little life” is only his and Miranda's on the island, not all mankind’s in the wide world.

The sleep that rounds this isolated existence is the irrecoverable past at one end and the baffling future on the other, neither of them accessible to the dreams he has erected upon his wave-lapped realm of enchantment. In context, his attempt at generalization to all human life is easy to see through.

Whenever Prospero generalizes or turns abstract, we should remember he's still talking about himself. He's a supreme egotist. In his lengthy account of their past to Miranda, which he peevishly interrupts to make sure he has his daughter's full attention, he asks what she can recall "in the dark backward and abysm of time."

A memorable phrase, but why would Prospero label the past in such glowering terms in talking with his daughter, who is all innocence? Only because the past is frightening territory to a man who needs to bring it under the spell of the present. At the end, the old magician even wants to govern King Alonso's attempt to apologize for past faults. "There, sir, stop. Let us not burden our remembrance with / A heaviness that's gone."

Prospero’s "sleep" is paradoxically the waking life of the real world, which presents imponderables enough for most lifetimes. This is why he speaks the epilogue, asking for release from his prison of sorcery. The formula of soliciting applause to complete a stage performance was conventional, but Prospero has an urgent personal reason to make his pitch. He is baffled by the constraints on magic he’s mastered. He is seeking readmission to the common life of wide possibilities, even if all of them have been set out for us beyond our ken.

Gielgud as Prospero in headgear.
John Gielgud recalled that in one of the productions in which he appeared as Prospero, he removed the character's cap as he came forward to recite the epilogue. The gesture was poised on the boundary between Prospero relinquishing his enchanted rule and the actor preparing to take off his costume and rejoin our world until the next performance. That's something Prospero can do only in the audience's imagination. His future success must remain a mystery, because it would come without everything we have known him by in "The Tempest."

“The occult is not mysterious enough,” the poet John Ashbery once said in explaining that his occasional appropriation of astrological terms in his poetry was merely ornamental. So, what is mysterious enough? The integrity of nature, which the magician cannot hope to match, because his kind of control allows nothing to be self-fulfilled.

“Before a leaf-bud has burst[,] its whole life acts,” Ralph Waldo Emerson says of the rose in "Self-Reliance." “In the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike.” In floral terms, Prospero’s manipulated nature is more like Jesus’ lilies of the field, with the magician as the god who has imbued them with a glory greater than Solomon’s. But even the hold of magic cannot extend that glory beyond an anxious present.

Attempting to contract time and space, Prospero eventually recognizes the limitation of occult studies, once their deliverance of personal justice is complete. Why finally does he brag about powers beyond those he’s exercised in the play, such as raising the dead and causing earthquakes? To make himself feel better about giving them up (though his forgiveness of his usurping brother is risibly grudging).

Prospero was a failure the first time around as “Absolute Milan,” and his hope that he will now do better in that position makes him more than slightly anxious. No wonder he predicts that, once he's restored to his duchy, “every third thought will be my grave.” 

After so spectacular an exercise of will, he suspects that his course in the real world is as determined as everyone else’s. Death will be welcome, but his acceptance of living until then under fate’s decrees is much less wholehearted than Hamlet’s in his play's final scene — though clothed in comparably magnificent language.