By Bill Walthall

I’m beginning the wrap-up process for The Tempest, but as I do, I’m grappling with an issue of not a little import: just what is this play about? (and please, no snarky response like “It’s about two hours long”…because that’s a better response for Romeo and Juliet). I mentioned yesterday about what I (and a reader of the blog) felt was a turning point in the play, the Act Five exchange between Ariel and Prospero, in which–it seems–Prospero changes his mind, his goal of vengeance, and turns to forgiveness and mercy.

Again, to review, “Pongo Literatii” commented a few days back for the blog entry “Friday (non)Film Focus: a question of postcolonialism”:

I’d suggest that Prospero acts INhumanely for most of the play: obsessed by power, control, and vengeance. There is an irony in the fact that it is Ariel, a non-human figure, who reminds him of his humanity in Act V: ‘That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender. […]. Mine would, sir, were I human.’ I think Alexander Pope’s reflection that ‘to err is human; to forgive, divine’ fits nicely with your ideas about forgiveness and Prospero’s response to the wake-up call by Ariel.

And the phrasing of his comment is stuck in my head:

INhumanely — human

In response to “Pongo,” I wrote:

While I agree totally that many of Prospero’s actions are inhumane, I would argue they are (to use your Pope reference) sadly very human (the obsession for power, control, and vengeance–for me, at least–is found only in the human animal. That Act Five moment is one that sticks with me. I agree with you that Ariel’s statement seems to me to remind Prospero of the truly redemptive end-game–redemption–rather than his initial raison d’etre–revenge.

I’m wondering if this is what the play is about: humanity and what it means to be both human and humane.

We have human characters, of course. But more importantly, I think, are the two non-human characters with whom our protagonist interacts: Ariel and Caliban.

Ariel, a sprite, a spirit, and yet one that has tangible and perceptible consequences for our human characters.

Caliban is a flesh-(and maybe fish)-and-blood character who actually interacts with our human characters.

I’ve wracked my brain, and I don’t think there’s another play with such a duo. Sure, we get the fairies in Midsummer and the witches in Macbeth, and in a sense they combine the two aspects, spirit and form. But in no other play do we have this binary, this dichotomy.

Ariel, not human, but humane. Caliban, closer to human in form, but inhumane.

My mind is starting to form around the idea that The Tempest is about what it means to be human, between the spiritual (and forgiving) and the physical (and violent/vile). The humans are, for the most part, in between. Gonzalo, with his Utopian vision, leans a little more toward the spiritual; Sebastian and Antonio, a little more toward the physical (and possibly Alonso is a recovering physicality, moving toward the more spiritual). Prospero is the pendulum, in this moment in time in the middle, but before in Milan–too caught up in his work–spiritual, and on the island–plotting his reprisal–solidly in the “real” world. In a sense, he is the man in the middle, leaning for much of the play toward vengeance and violence–while still presenting a spiritual front and masque for Miranda and Ferdinand. But his moment of truth, that turning point, is what interests me.

I don’t think he turns completely spiritual. I think he transcends the duality. He finally, successfully, integrates the two. He will renounce the violence and become merciful, but he will still live in the physical world (of course, every third thought will be of his death).

And the next generation, Miranda and Ferdinand (and any future progeny)? Are they hope for humanity in balance?

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