25th February 2018
Towards the end of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero, the magician and former Duke of Milan, announces his intention to relinquish his magical abilities. He claims:
[T]he strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up The pine and cedar; graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
Prospero is fully aware of the power of his ‘art’, which is ‘so potent’ that he can cause earthquakes, uproot trees and even raise the dead. And yet, for all that, he intends to ‘abjure’ his ‘rough magic’ upon completion of one final supernatural intervention.
In Prospero’s phrasing there is an echo of an earlier, and ultimately unrepentant, magician. In the final few moments of his time on earth, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus desperately hopes to avoid damnation:
Ah, Pythagoras' metempsychosis, were that true,
This soul should fly from me, and I be chang'd
Unto some brutish beast! All beasts are happy,
For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv'd in elements;
But mine must live still to be plagu'd in hell.
Curs'd be the parents that engender'd me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath depriv'd thee of the joys of heaven.
Faustus’ mind turns at first to the possibility of reincarnation as a means of escape (‘This soul should fly from me, and I be chang’d / Unto some brutish beast’), following which he then imagines himself as a ‘happy’ beast, for (he argues) the ‘souls of beasts ‘are soon dissolv’d in elements’. He is drawn to the possibility of annihilation, which he deems to be a more attractive prospect than eternal torment.
For Faustus, time is running out. The clock in his study strikes, to which he responds:
O, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!
O soul, be chang'd into little water-drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne'er be found!
My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!
I'll burn my books!
Faustus’ final, desperate offer to burn his books evokes the fires of the ‘ugly hell’ to which he is convinced that he will be sent. And it also stands in direct contrast to Prospero’s plan to ‘drown’ his books, which calls to mind baptism, and the possibility of rebirth (as opposed to the ‘still life’ that awaits Faustus in hell).
Helen Cooper has noticed that Prospero’s ability to strike his enemies immobile replicates the actions of ‘the first wicked enchanter in the Tragical History of Guy’, which is a play of which both Marlowe and Shakespeare would have been aware. Suffice to say, there is little doubt that Prospero’s status as a magician would have been profoundly unsettling for Shakespeare’s contemporary audience. Moreover, in the cases of both Prospero and Faustus it is a yearning (and overreaching) for knowledge that lies at the heart of their stories. From the beginning of Dr Faustus it is apparent that knowledge is to be found in books, and Mephistopheles seems to sate Faustus’ desire for knowledge by giving him a book in Act II, Scene 1, to which Faustus replies, ‘Thanks Mephistopheles for this sweet book’ (II. i. 161). Similarly Prospero tells us in Act I, Scene 2 that he neglected ‘worldy ends’ to study (I. ii. 89), while Caliban explicitly links Prospero’s magical powers to his books in Act III, Scene 2 when he stresses to Stephano and Trinculo the importance of burning them: without his books Prospero is, according to his servant, ‘but a sot’ (III. ii. 94).
At this point, we might turn our attention to another intellectual, separated from Prospero and Faustus by at least two hundred years, but who is also caught precariously between the prospect of damnation and the possibility of forgiveness, or maybe better put, the possibility of being forgiven. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the impoverished student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov attempts to draw his delusional intellectual theory (that he might become a kind of Napoleon or superman, if only he dares to seize power for himself) into life. His way of achieving this goal involves the premeditated murder of an elderly pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, followed by her weak and meek-tempered sister, Lizaveta Ivanovna, whose murder was not part of Raskolnikov’s original plan but rather a bungled attempt to cover his tracks. The resulting novel traces Raskolnikov’s psychological breakdown as his guilt, coupled with the pressure placed on him by the detective Porfiry Petrovich, climaxes in a confession to his only friend, the virtuous prostitute Sonya Marmeladov.
At the beginning of the novel, Raskolnikov’s murder becomes possible as a result of his self-imposed isolation: he shuts himself off from all human contact, including his family. His confession, in contrast, takes places as a result of dialogue, a conversation, throughout the course of which Sonya helps Raskolnikov to see, and to speak, more accurately. He protests to Sonya, ‘I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless, vile pernicious louse’, to which
Sonya retorts, ‘A human being a louse!’ (p. 399). This kind of correction is crucial; it is something that Raskolnikov’s previous isolation had made impossible. The conversation continues with Raskolnikov suddenly acknowledging his error: ‘“Of course I know she wasn't a louse,” he answered with a strange look. “But I am not telling the truth, Sonya,” he added. It is a long time since I have told or known the truth ...’ (p. 399).
Raskolnikov explains the murder as a kind of thought experiment, an attempt to find out if ‘I was a louse like everybody else or a man, whether I was capable of stepping over the barriers or not’ (p. 402). Sonya is repulsed by this attempt to draw abstract theory into life without care for the consequences of other human beings. Indeed, she fears that Raskolnikov has condemned himself (‘You will have ceased to be a human being’), and she urgently commands him to ‘“Go at once”:
Go at once, this very minute, stand at the cross-roads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled, and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, 'I am a murderer!' Then God will send you life again.
Clearly this instruction involves confession of guilt, but such confession is no private prayer in the ear of God. Rather, Sonya insists that Raskolnikov must place himself before ‘all the world’, must reveal his true self ‘to all men’ by proclaiming, aloud, ‘“I am a murderer!”’ and that only then will God send him life again. He must place himself in all of his vulnerability before a community; he must humble himself, and in doing so he must reveal precisely what he has done, and perhaps more challengingly, who he is.
Turning back to Faustus, in the final moments of his life, he imagines his soul transformed into ‘little water-drops’, which at first might remind us of the drowning of Prospero’s book:
However, unlike Raskolnikov, and ultimately unlike Prospero, Faustus’ desire to be ‘chang’d into little water-drops’ is a strategy to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. His line, ‘My God, my God, look not so fierce on me’, is a travesty of Christ’s final words on the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27: 46). In an echo (and inversion) of the moment when Christ assumed full responsibility for humanity’s sin, Faustus dreams of being dissolved amidst the immensity of the ocean, ‘ne’er to be found’. In contrast to Christ’s extraordinary humility, Faustus’ pride is so great that he would prefer his individual identity to be annihilated than to experience the consequences of his own, freely chosen actions.
O soul, be chang'd into little water-drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne'er be found!
My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!
Unlike Christ, who momentarily points to the apparent absence (or distance) of God, Faustus laments God’s proximity, His closeness and His fierceness. A few lines earlier, Faustus had thought of repentance:
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.
O, I'll leap up to my God!--Who pulls me down?--
See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!--
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer!--
Where is it now? tis gone: and see, where God
Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!
‘Faustus must be damn’d’. One way of hearing these lines, perhaps even the primary way, would be to say that Faustus has gone too far, that forgiveness is no longer possible for him. And this would pose some serious theological problems. But another way of hearing the lines would be to suggest that Faustus has decided that he ‘must be damn’d’. In other words, Faustus is unwilling (or unable) to imagine a greater power capable of such forgiveness. The God that he imagines looking at him is in fact a creation of his own imagination; he is ‘pulled down’ by his own inability to place judgment in the hands of others, which I suppose is another way of saying that he actually condemns (or damns) himself. Faustus is in turmoil: ‘Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!’ His attention flickers between Christ and Lucifer as he experiences the conflicting impulses to, on the one hand, place himself at the mercy of God’s forgiveness, and on the other hand, to retain his own sense of self. He wants, in short, to ‘ascend to heaven’ as the person that he is, rather than repenting, which must by necessity involve breaking and remaking himself anew. In contrast to both Prospero and Raskolnikov, Faustus refuses to be born again.
Stephen Orgel has argued that Prospero’s ‘great scheme is not to produce illusions and good weather’ but to ‘bring about reconciliation’ (1987: 60). In this respect, like Faustus who wastes the opportunities granted to him by Mephistopheles on adolescent pranks, Prospero’s magic is ultimately unsuccessful; Prospero’s magic might be thought to act as a metaphor for his desire to control the world around him, and in these terms his failure is most apparent in the Iago-like silence of his younger brother (and usurper) Antonio at the end of the play, which also calls into question Ariel’s earlier description of Antonio’s repentance. And yet Prospero’s failure is not at all the failure of the play, for the conclusion of The Tempest may well involve a necessary acknowledgement of the limitations of Prospero’s magic; Prospero cannot (as Orgel suggests) ‘bring about reconciliation’, because he cannot ultimately control his brother’s feelings and sense of self. All that he can do is take responsibility for his own actions, forgive his brother, and place himself back within a community. He must, in a strange way, choose to end his own exile.
And this is precisely what we see in the final lines of the play. With reference to the sin’s of Caliban, Prospero admits his share of the blame, ‘This thing of darkness / I acknowledge mine’ (V.1.275-6). Moreover, having released Ariel (‘Be free, and fare thou well’), he steps forwards in the epilogue to plead for his own freedom:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own, Which is most faint. Now ‘tis true
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
In addressing the audience, Prospero merges the fictional and the real, admitting the audience into the play and placing responsibility for the happy ending in their appreciative (and prayerful) hands. He renders himself vulnerable and places himself before the scrutiny of others. In direct opposition to Faustus, he allows himself to be seen. And in being seen, he becomes both responsible and responsive, which in turn allows for the possibility of forgiveness, and change.
And yet, even in Prospero’s final plea there is a subtle Faustian reluctance to abandon magic. He admits, ‘Now I want / Spirits to enforce, art to enchant’ and his verb (‘want’) suggests both a lack and a desire, so that even in the final moments of the play the pull of ‘art’ (and identity, or maybe better - ego) can be felt. The possibility of forgiveness may be before Prospero, as it may be before Raskolnikov at the conclusion of Crime and Punishment, but that doesn’t mean that he is happy about it, or that the abjuration of magic is quite as final, or complete, as he had suggested it would be. Neither Shakespeare nor Dostoevsky suggest that forgiveness is easy. And nor do they suggest that it is quick. To borrow the final lines from Crime and Punishment, it is ‘the beginning of a new story, the story of the gradual renewal of a man, of his gradual regenerations, of his slow progress from one world to another’.
Dr Scott Annett