Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Articles

Prospero among the Neoconservatives

The Temptations of Political Powerlessness

Donna Dickenson

“Prospero commanding Ariel,” John White Abbott (1829). Via Wikimedia Commons.

We are accustomed to thinking of Shakespeare’s Prospero as the guileless victim of his evil brother Antonio’s plotting. Though born the rightful Duke of Milan, Prospero preferred the purity of his books to the tangle of politics: “And to my state [I] grew stranger, being transported / and rapt in secret studies.”11xWilliam Shakespeare, The Tempest, I.ii.76–7. Against the worldly wise Antonio, who knew how to “set all hearts i’ the state / to what tune pleased his ear,” the innocent Prospero was strategically powerless.22xShakespeare, I.ii.84–5. Soon, after his brother took power, he was impotent even to ensure his own survival: he was deprived of his state, set adrift in a boat with his daughter, and left to die.

That Prospero and Miranda did not die was the doing of his counselor Gonzalo, who stocked the boat with provisions, including the food Prospero most hungered for, his books. On the island where father and daughter were finally cast up, Prospero became more enchanted than ever by his readings. But was this being stranded in books an innocent preoccupation, either when Prospero was in power or when he was powerless?

Shakespeare thinks not. He makes Prospero blame himself for tempting Antonio to seize power: “I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated / to closeness and the bettering of my mind…in my false brother / awaked an evil nature.”33xShakespeare, I.ii.90–5. Being cloistered in books does not merely allow those who are already the wrong sort to take over the state: it makes them the wrong sort in the first place. Prospero effectively placed an evil enchantment on his brother, even if he did so unawares and to his own huge detriment. The sorcerer’s sources in which Prospero had become adept had also promised a kind of power—one that tempted Prospero more than worldly might.

In exile, Prospero becomes the same sort of tyrant as Antonio, except that he lords it over inhuman creatures and spirits of the air. He uses his knowledge to afflict Caliban with cramps and tortures as twisted as his own psyche has become. At last he holds the traitors—along with some who did him good, like Gonzalo—confined on his island under his spells. The sprite Ariel, who has more human qualities than Prospero, although he is “but air,” asks for mercy:

ARIEL. …Your charm so strongly works ‘em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

PROSPERO. Dost thou think so, spirit?

ARIEL. Mine would, sir, were I human.44xShakespeare, V.i.17–20.

Compelled by his “nobler reason” rather than the self-absorbed cunning of his arcane studies, Prospero releases his prisoners and himself from his enchantments:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part; the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance; they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel:
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves…I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.55xShakespeare, V.i.25–31, 53–6.

Yet, on this unreal island, he who has seized power illegitimately is at least penitent. How can intellectuals who oppose the illegitimate war in Iraq come to similar terms with the U.S. neoconservatives, and their unrepentant British collaborators, who have stranded us in it? Here in Shakespeare’s most political play, comedy though it is meant to be, intellectuals are warned not to consider themselves guiltless. But how can those who marched against the war, or who tried to speak truth to power in other ways, be guilty of its misuses? Surely this is too harsh a view of the role of the public intellectual. What choice did Prospero really have? He was exiled, hapless, stranded. What choice do intellectuals who are against the war have? We, too, are powerless. Aren’t we?

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