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hamlet and the tempest

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Humanist Ideals

In Hamlet and the Tempest

“Hamlet”, Helen Gardner argues, “is the quintessence of European man, who holds that man is ordained to govern the world according to equity...and not to…leave it to it’s corruption.” Although in terms of usurpation a comparison can perhaps more profitably be drawn between Hamlet’s situation and Caliban’s, the affinities between the two central figures, Hamlet and Prospero, in these plays can also be seen as fundamental to their central themes of authority and governance, in the sense Gardner points to when she describes Hamlet’s “capacity to suffer the moral anguish which moral responsibility brings.”

The total effect in both these plays is, to a large degree, centered on the main characters. In fact it could and has been said of Hamlet, as of the Tempest, that it is a play which has “only one character or principal part” in which the other characters are often whittled down to a few essential features, throwing the protagonist’s complexity into sharper focus. As Wilson Knight remarked of the Tempest: “except for Prospero, Caliban and Ariel, the people scarcely exist in their own right.”

On the level of basic character analysis, the protagonists are obviously alike, sharing not only a thirst for knowledge and a tendency towards excessive verbalizing, but also a degree of revulsion from and contempt for their societies. Although this is more apparent in Hamlet’s case than in Prospero’s, it is evident that the former Duke of Milan had little respect or affection for ‘the creatures that were mine,’ describing how easily Antonio,

…having both the key 
of officer and office, set all hearts i’th’state
to what tune pleased his ear…

As Hamlet, reflecting on how ‘the stamp of one defect’ can corrupt those with virtues ‘pure as grace’, describes the court’s ‘heavy-headed revel’ as the visible sign of its many vices, so Prospero, mockingly listing ways in which his brother ‘new created…or changed…or else new formed’ his subjects, shows his derision for these subjects, his ‘creatures’. Even his grateful mention of Gonzalo, describing his ‘charity’ and his ‘gentleness’, can be seen, (in light of as his brief reply “By Providence divine” in answer to Miranda’s ‘How came we ashore?’) as an implicit condemnation that the ‘noble Neopolitan’ could do no more, and, as Leslie A. Fiedler put it “contented himself with smuggling the Duke’s favorite books abroad their rotting ship”.

He furnished me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom 

It is significant that Prospero notes that he prizes these books ‘above [his] dukedom.’ In one sense, he is emphasizing that the usurpation was a result not of his brother’s actions, but of his own inaction: implying that, had he chosen to rule, he would not only have remained Duke of Milan, but would have governed better than his brother.

However, he makes it clear that he had already chosen another path:

The government I cast upon my brother 
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.

…Me, poor man, my library
Was dukedom large enough…

Like Hamlet, Prospero is out of joint with his society. Thus metaphorically distanced, they are both also ultimately literally distanced: Prospero ‘transported’ to an island by ‘Providence divine’, and Hamlet, grown a ‘hazard’ is sent to England. As G. Wilson Knight remarks, Prospero, akin “to all princes whose depth of understanding accompanies or succeeds political failure” shares with Hamlet a “surface (though not actual) ineffectuality.”

In Helen Gardner’s argument however the question of Hamlet’s “agony of mind and indecision,” as opposed to being signs of the hero’s personal inadequacy or unfitness for his task, are seen as “precisely the things which differentiate him” from the corrupt characters: in comparison with Claudius’ painted words, or Laertes, swiftly affirming his readiness to ‘cut [Hamlet’s] throat i’th’church,’ Hamlet’s procrastination, Gardner claims, can only be seen as demonstrating his heroism, nobility, and superior power of insight.

It is of course true that, until Act IV, Hamlet does not have concrete evidence of Claudius’s murder. Yet, as Anne Barton has remarked, his constant self-accusations point to the fact that lack of evidence “cannot be the whole explanation.” In a way similar to Gardner’s contention that Hamlet’s delay is a sign of triumph over evil more than it is a sign of failure, Barton gives two reasons for the Prince’s “redeeming inability”: first, she maintains that “however dutifully he may try to work himself into a more primitive state of mind,” for Hamlet, life remains something precious and strange and holy. And, in a related point, she argues, he is “too intelligent” to believe with Laertes that revenge is a real answer, or the only answer, to his situation. Ultimately, Barton asserts, “Hamlet finds that in real life he cannot reduce his own complexity to that of the conventional stage revenger.”

In his role as revenger the ‘wronged Duke of Milan’ can also be seen as showing his awareness of the futility of revenge when, in due course, he pardons his enemies. Although obviously the comedy’s happy ending is inevitable, the final restoration of harmony in this play is anything but unproblematic.

It is complicated first by the ambiguity surrounding Prospero’s decision to forgive his enemies. In considering this issue, many critics, such as Dover Wilson, have stressed Prospero’s conversation with Ariel, in lines 15 – 30 of the fifth act:

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

Dost thou think so, spirit?

Mine would, sir, were I human.

And mine shall.

A central point for disagreement here is the question of whether this represents “Prospero’s sudden conversion from a previously intended vengeance.” E.M.W Tillyward argues that it does not, that in fact “Prospero does not change fundamentally during the play.” His regeneration, Tillyward maintains, has already happened; this is only a re-enactment of the process. Whether we take this view, or the opposing argument, it is clear that Prospero’s final speech of forgiveness has, to put it lightly, very little of the conventional tone of forgiveness in it.

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault…

As Anne Barton remarks, there is “something disturbing” about this speech: “contempt breathes through it, a basic inability to forget and put aside, not genuine mercy.” And comedies, of course, do not typically end in such a disturbing way.

Similarly, Hamlet often uses words as ‘daggers’, this hostility being directed perhaps most openly towards Polonius, but also towards Claudius, Gertrude, and most obviously in his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech to Ophelia. The scene in which Hamlet makes this speech has been seen by many since Samuel Johnson as “useless and wonton cruelty,” revealing a ‘disturbing’ aspect of his character which is further deepened by his unchristian and vengeful stated reason for sparing the king at prayer “so unworthy of a hero.”

Up sword and know thou a more horrid hent
When he is drunk asleep or in his rage
….Or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven
And that his soul may be as damned and black
As hell, whereto it goes.

The combined effect of such hostile and hateful words, it has been argued, at last becomes difficult to reconcile with the assumption that Hamlet is represented as a virtuous character. In fact “unless we can allow him a degree of genuine mental disturbance”, as Patrick Cruttwell put it, the only possible verdict goes back to Johnson’s “useless and wanton cruelty”. Thus for the critic who sees Hamlet as essentially ‘a good man’ the question of his morality is tied up first with the central question of his madness, as his moral responsibility is lessened if his madness is not (or not altogether) feigned.

In the Tempest, critics have also pointed out that Prospero’s actions often border on the fanatical – one much cited example being his repeated lectures on pre-marital chastity, which in L. C. Leech’s view “cannot be understood other than pathologically.” After all, his ‘forgiveness’ speech to his brother is far from the only jarring note in the play. In fact, as Alexander Leggatt has noted, this jarring note is there from the beginning: as he and Caliban curse each other in the first scene, they sound “disconcertingly alike.” This, to some degree, seems to collapse the Nature/Art distinction which Frank Kermode sees as the basis of this play, undermining Prospero’s humanist ideals, his belief in the power of self-discipline and self-knowledge.

As Kermode has noted Prospero’s magic, or Art, is ultimately “a technique for liberating the soul from the passions, from nature,” it is precisely what differentiates him from Caliban, the representative of Nature. It could be argued however that the play in fact sets up this order only to destroy it – first we see Prospero’s Art, we see him as a mage, controlling the elements, as a father and as the wronged duke, telling his story to his daughter and to the audience, and then we see him cursing Caliban.

This, like his repeated threats and warnings to Ferdinand, his eavesdropping and his exercising of what could be seen as an unnecessary degree of control over the pre-planned union between his daughter and the prince, has led some critics to see Prospero, (far from taking part with ‘nobler reason’ against ‘fury’) as “a terrible old man, tyrannical…and irascible.”

Thus in both plays, the two protagonists are not only isolated and distanced from their society, they are also often feared. In Hamlet, Claudius sees his madness as a danger to the state and to others, in the Tempest, Prospero’s rage is terrifying, not only for Caliban and the ‘rabble’ but also perhaps for Ferdinand and Miranda, although for them the fear seems more a result of worry that the harmony the ‘vanity’ of Prospero’s art celebrates has disintegrated, leaving them in confusion.

This is strange. Your father’s in some passion
That works him strongly. 

Never till this day 
Saw I him touched with anger so distempered.

To some extent, parallels can be drawn between this and Hamlet’s situation:

….There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger…

However, in Hamlet as Cruttwell argues, there is an insistence in the text that the madness is pretended, that Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ is put on, and off, like Prospero’s ‘art’. And, perhaps more importantly, Hamlet in the play behaves “if not quite normally, then at least within sights of normality and therefore within reach of moral judgment.” He is never allowed to behave as the other characters assure us does:

…His doublet all unbraced
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled
Ungartered, and down-gryved to his ankle
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell…

Finally, Cruttwell compares Hamlet to characters in other plays that are shown to be neurotic and concludes: “in none of them are the easy sociability, the unforced authority, the capacity to love and be loved which Hamlet shows.” If then, Hamlet is not thought to be mentally or emotionally disturbed, “we can rescue him only on one assumption – that he has laid on him a duty so stern…as to excuse any behaviour which is directed to it’s performance.”

Similarly, the case has been made that Prospero acts the way he does because he must. As Hamlet deceives others, pretending madness, in order to speak the truth safely, so Prospero must use his Art to right the wrong that has been done to him. For example, his control over Ferdinand and Miranda’s relationship, which some may see as excessive, can also be seen as necessary as Kermode argues “so far as his aims were dynastic marriage and the regeneration of the noble.” It could be said that in the Tempest, there is a sense in which Prospero believes, like Hamlet, that he ‘must be cruel only to be kind’ – deceiving Alonso, as well as the way he treats Ferdinand, (which some critics have seen as testing the Caliban in him), are the most obvious instances of this.

The question then becomes how far this ‘necessity’ or duty absolves Prospero and Hamlet from the charges of cruelty or tyranny, which the ‘awkward episodes’ in both plays can be seen as implicitly positing.

In the Tempest, Prospero’s use of force to keep his ‘subjects’ and ‘creatures’ in line is problematic, if he is seen in the role of governor-parent, at times strict, but only because he must do his duty, typifying the wise paternal ruler, ultimately responsible for the development and supervision of the ‘child’ primitive, doing his best to keep an unruly population in check. This is perhaps most obvious in the final scene where, significantly, Prospero not only reveals Ferdinand and Miranda at chess, he also releases Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo and both are seen to be exhibitions of his power. Caliban, who had recognized the ‘insignia of power’ as ‘trashy,’ seeing the magician as he was ‘sometime Milan’ is prompted to exclaim: ‘how brave my master is!’ but immediately fears ‘he will chastise me’ and, comically despairs ‘I shall be pinched to death’. These two comments can be seen as setting up a tension within the final show of power Prospero has put on.

In Hamlet, returning to the problematic ‘praying scene’, there are countless arguments critics have put forward to explain or excuse the vindictiveness of the prince’s tone. Gardner for example argues that just as we - the audience - would not want the (sympathetic) hero to stab a defenseless man, Hamlet’s recognition that, though within touching distance, his enemy is inapproachable, leads to his outburst of “baffled rage”. Cruttwell on the other hand notes that it is precisely because he is a Christian that Hamlet is unable to go through with his imposed task: he believes in dying well.

Whatever the explanation, Hamlet’s inability here is of course contrasted to the fact that Hamlet does cause the deaths of at least five people, and does not seem much affected by this fact. As T. S. Eliot put it:

“Hamlet, who has made a pretty considerable mess of things and occasioned the death of at least three innocent people and two more insignificant ones, dies fairly well pleased with himself.”

In contrast to Prospero’s controlled plot however, it has been repeatedly stressed that Hamlet’s killings are spontaneous and unpremeditated. Gardner links this to the code of a soldier, and quotes Iago’s explanation of it:

Though in the trade of war I have slain men
Yet I do hold it very stuff o’the conscience
To do no contriv’d murder

This is in some ways a fundamental point in the argument. “Revenge, in effect, was a private war” as Cruttwell has put it, and though in different situations, both Prospero and Hamlet are seen acting in their capacity as revengers. At the beginning of the play, they are both in a situation that is difficult or tragic, but for which, arguably, they have no direct or obvious responsibility. Yet this situation also demands that they do take on responsibility, the responsibility of revenge.

Hamlet is seen as reluctant to enter this world. Not, at least in Cruttwell’s argument, reluctant to kill, but reluctant to enter the whole world of action: “he would rather be in Wittenburg, with his books.” Prospero, on the other hand, after twelve years of imposed delay, is impatient for the day when he can finally erase the memory of his usurpation. Yet, it can be argued that his position too is imposed, that he too was reluctant to enter the life of action and that he too like Hamlet “is a conscript in a war” who “has done things, as we all do in wars, he would rather not have but…all in all, he has borne himself well.”

The fact that both Prospero and Hamlet do commit crimes, or at least, actions that would seem to be crimes were they not conducting a private war, might also link to the ‘contamination theory’ Maynard Mack alludes to in The World of Hamlet when he notes that the act required of the hero “through retributive justice, is one that necessarily involves the doer in the general guilt.” However, seeing Prospero and Hamlet as essentially sympathetic heroes who become involved in a general spread of evil could be seen as reducing their complexity, and, more importantly, obscuring a fundamental trait they both share, and which goes directly against their humanist ideals: their deceit.

Hamlet and Prospero both keep their own council. Their isolated position demands this, but it is significant that despite their inordinate fondness for verbalizing and their many soliloquies, they deliberately avoid certain questions that undermine their position, as ‘wronged’ heroes, as revengers, or as virtuous, studious humanists.

Thus, at the heart of both Hamlet and the Tempest is silence. This is obviously ironical, since both these protagonists are obsessed with words and their power. But it is also a silence which reveals.

As Francis Barker and Peter Hulme note, Prospero, is “systematically silent” about his own act of usurpation, a silence is which all the more emphasized as a result of his “otherwise voluble preoccupation with themes of legitimacy.” Hamlet, on the other hand, is silent on the question of revenge, a silence which, as Anne Barton argues, is all the more emphasized by the fact that the unreflective Laertes admits that to exact revenge is to ‘dare damnation’. As Prospero is unable to face up to the conflict inherent in the play he controls, which necessities his assuming the dual roles of usurper and usurped at the same time, so Hamlet is unable to face up to the conflict inherent in the play’s dual moralities, it’s notably Christian character working against the unchristian revenge ethic which propels the play forwards.

Ultimately, both Hamlet and Prospero reveal themselves, through silence, to be hypocritical as well as deceitful. The humanist ideals they share are revealed to be no more than tools, manipulated not only to deceive others, but also to deceive themselves.

written: 2004
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