Professor Frederick Buell
26 September 2010
A Dangerous Strength
One definition of technology is any object, or method involving objects, that serves as a catalyst for the assertion of power. The Internet, to use the most modern example, has claimed control of the realm of information, what with its immense abundance of websites and search engines that allow one to navigate the sea of facts and opinions; but there are also certain figures who are dominant within the world of the Internet, such as government censors (operating on a large scale) or Wikipedia monitors (on one much smaller). The telephone, railway, and even paved road all contributed to the conquering of distance. Video cameras and photographs replaced memory. The most potent kind of technology by this definition, however, and that which may be manifest in all of the examples I mentioned above as well as countless others, is the kind that exerts control directly over living beings. A literary example of such a technology and the wide-ranging effects it may have is the magic that the former duke Prospero of Shakespeare’s Tempest has learned from his books. The plot of the play centers on Prospero’s ability to conjure a storm: “I have bedimmed / The noontide sun,” a late litany begins, “called forth the mutinous winds” (5.1.41-42). This essay will examine the dangerous aspects of possessing such a power, as already glimpsed by one writing at the beginning of the 17th century, long before the mechanical as opposed to magical technologies that bestowed powers like Prospero’s came into being.
The most controversial matter in the play is that of Caliban, the native “savage” of whom Prospero makes a “slave” (1.2.358, 1.2.316). The art with which Prospero exerts control over Caliban, however, is not limited to the magic he uses. “When thou cam’st first, / Thou … [taught] me how / To name the bigger light, and how the less, / That burn by day and night; and then I loved thee” (1.2.335-339), Caliban tells his master soon after arriving onstage. A couple of acts later, when Caliban is plotting to overthrow Prospero, he tells Stefano to “remember / first to possess his books, for without them / He’s but a sot as I am, nor hath not / One spirit to command—they all do hate him / As rootedly as I” (3.2.86-90). It is, on the most fundamental level, Prospero’s literacy and learning that give him power over Sycorax’s son. Like Bertilak’s courtiers in awe of Gawain, so Caliban to Prospero; but the consequences that follow the admirer’s willing subordination are much darker in this tale. Only when Caliban has lost his autonomy does he realize that the trade-off was not worthwhile: “this island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,” he insists, “which thou take’st from me” (1.2.334-335). Even in his scheme to get revenge, he must subordinate himself to the most pathetic of the new arrivals to the island, the drunken butler Stefano and jester Trinculo. Lastly, at play’s end Caliban remains powerless, even after Prospero disposes of his books; “this thing of darkness I / acknowledge mine,” says Prospero (5.1.278-279), and that is essentially the last we hear of Caliban—how he is to fare in the play’s aftermath we do not learn.
Equally troubling, though augmented in this case by the complexity of the relationship between the two figures, is Prospero’s control over Ariel. In the first scene, though at the height of his agitation, Prospero is as harsh with the spirit as he is with his own daughter, despite the great service Ariel has just done him, and at this juncture anyhow does not let pass from his lips a single word of thanks. Instead, he chides Ariel for the spirit’s own supposed ingratitude: “Thou liest, malignant thing. Hast thou forgot / The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy / Was grown into a hoop? Hast thou forgot her?” (1.2.258-260). The sorcerer’s anger only escalates, in spite of Ariel’s demureness: “If thou murmur’st, I will rend an oak, / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howled away twelve winters” (1.2.296-298), threatening his servant with the very evil from which Prospero originally saved him. The abuse relents as time passes, and the final farewell the master bids his servant is a curious combination of curt and kind—”My Ariel, chick, / That is thy charge. Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well” (5.1.320-322)—but it can nevertheless be argued that the only reason Prospero is more reasonable with Ariel than Caliban is because he needs the former in a way he does not need the latter. Despite the closeness the sorcerer and the air spirit share, Ariel ultimately remains a tool, an instrument of technology, and like Caliban is treated according to his perceived worth.
Finally, a point around which the entire play revolves, from beginning to end Prospero has his enemies (with but one exception, the moment of panic Prospero feels upon realizing he has neglected to attend to Caliban’s plot) completely in his grasp. He could have taken all their lives in the very first scene, but chooses to keep them alive for his own ends, which after a matter of mere hours he achieves. His fearsome power exerts control not only over human life but even human death, as we learn in a chilling moment near the end of the play; “graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth / By my so potent art” (5.1.48-50). This is the only mention of Prospero’s necromancy, and there is no indication that he abused the power, but he was close enough to rendering at least Antonio and Sebastian lifeless, and only held back at Ariel’s urging. The humane one turns out to be the air sprite, not the man: “Your charm so strongly works ‘em / That if you now beheld them your affections / Would become tender … Mine would, sir, were I human” (5.1.17-21). Every living being has some control over the powers of life and death, if only because every living being must eat, but the enormous capabilities Prospero’s art bestows on him in this regard is downright frightening—what is such power doing in the hands of someone so vengeful and self-absorbed? The Tempest could have easily been a tragedy, had Prospero decided to carry through a revenge and had some aspect of his scheme backfired in such a way as to also damage him or Miranda and Ferdinand.
Any discussion of technology must take into consideration the states of mind that accompany its usage; when read with that in mind, The Tempest paints a very dark picture. What is amazing and a blessing to the time period in question is that it takes just one decisive action to wipe out the means with which Prospero has risen to his position as a puppet-master of life and death; it is enough for him to say “this rough magic / I here abjure … I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book” (5.1.50-57). This is a luxury not available to the Prosperos of our day even should they undergo a change of heart such as he does; one might destroy nuclear weapons, and perhaps even the documents one possesses that reveal the secrets of their making, but science is available to all, and equally destructive weapons are available to other world leaders; no longer can one erase the stain one casts with a single decisive motion like Prospero’s. Such is our loss—but with a text like The Tempest spelling out its warning for four hundred years, it is also our own fault.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.