Ariel, aloft

Our Project Was to Please

Hackley School
Apr 30 · 11 min read

By Dr. Adrianne Pierce and Dr. Richard Robinson

Dr. Adrianne Pierce chairs the Hackley School Classics Department. Dr. Richard Robinson is English Department Chair. They teamed up to explore Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and fashioned this dialogue to capture the spirit of their many conversations over the last five months — although not the length! We hope you enjoy!

Adrianne: At the end of the Signet Classic edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest which I have been using since college, there is a series of literary critical essays, one of which is entitled “The Source of The Tempest.” The first line reads, “There is no known source for the plot of The Tempest.” While that may be true in the macro sense, it is clear that Shakespeare had many ancient stories in mind which informed his development of both characters and plot in the play.

Multiple editions representing several decades.

Richard: Which is why, when we discuss The Tempest, Dr. Pierce and I always return to Star Trek episodes rooted in antiquity, such as “Who Mourns for Adonais,” “Plato’s Step-Children,” and “The Cloudminders.” Such episodes investigate the way the powerful enforce their views through illusions created with some artifice: magic, technology, propaganda, art, or language. The first, magic, seems a metaphor for the rest because it makes clear that power is the ability to conform the world to one’s wishes.

A: The Tempest also brings to mind the original 1981 version of Clash of the Titans in which the gods use their magic to manipulate the lives of humans and wreak revenge on each other. The character of Calibos, a doomed figure is consigned to love the princess Andromeda from afar as punishment for an offense to Zeus (played, in this version, by none other than Sir Laurence Olivier!) Zeus gives Calibos horns and a tail and exiles him using his “theater of faith,” a microcosm of the human world. Prospero’s plan for Antonio, Ferdinand, and the others seems equally calculating, and his retribution on Caliban for his insult to Miranda is likewise swift and brutal.

R: As we talked about Shakespeare’s allusions to classical antiquity, Dr. Pierce suggested The Aeneid may be read as an idealized origin story — Roman propaganda.

A: One of the stories from the Aeneid is that of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, refugee from the Trojan War and legendary ancestor of the Roman race. In Act 2, scene 1, Antonio, Gonzalo, Sebastian, and Adrian discuss the marriage of Claribel, Alonso’s daughter, to the King of Tunis. Adrian, praising Claribel, says, “Tunis was never graced before with such a paragon to their queen.” To which Gonzalo replies, “Not since the widow Dido’s time.” An argument ensues about whether Dido was a widow, why the “widower Aeneas” was not mentioned, and whether Carthage and Tunis are the same place — an amusing distraction from contemplation of their apparently shipwrecked and abandoned situation and generated by the fact that their garments seem not to be wet at all and are as fresh as when they left “Afric.”

What to make of this scene? Is it merely idle chatter to lessen the severity of their fate, washed up on what appears to be a deserted island? Or is Shakespeare intending the story of Dido and Aeneas to play more of a role than an excuse for a ridiculous argument? The more I read the play, and the more Richard and I discussed The Tempest, the more connections we drew between this ancient story and the Elizabethan drama.

R: Thinking about the power of The Aeneid as Roman propaganda and the power of Zeus to abject Calibos led me to consider The Tempest as exploring both the dangerous power of leaders’ using the magic of artifice to shape opinion and reality and the profound need for leaders to understand and work with citizens, instead.

A: Just as Augustus used the Aeneid as the linchpin of his “propaganda machine” to cement his claim of sovereignty over the Roman people.

R: In the context of The Tempest, we have to recall that English monarchs in Shakespeare’s day knew the power of art to transform the world. Queen Elizabeth took no husband so she could retain power, and she deployed state portraits to cultivate her image and her authority. Quentin Metsys includes in his portrait of Elizabeth panels depicting Dido and Aeneas. They align Elizabeth not with Dido, who kills herself for love of Aeneas, but with Aeneas, who resists marriage to lead a mighty nation.

A: In Book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid, Mercury is sent to Carthage at Jupiter’s command to tell Aeneas that his amorous sojourn with Queen Dido is over; he reminds Aeneas that he has a destiny to fulfill- “if no glory of such great things moves you…look at Ascanius growing up and the hope of your heir Iulus, to whom the kingdom of Italy and the Roman land are owed.” Ascanius is Aeneas’ son and the ancestor of the eventual legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. Ascanius’ other name, mentioned in the same passage, is Iulus; Vergil goes to great pains to plant and explain this nickname in his narrative specifically because the emperor Augustus is, as the adopted son and great-nephew of Julius Caesar, a member of the Julian (Iulian) gens or family. Aeneas, of course, resists marriage only with Dido; once he arrives in Italy, he must marry Lavinia in order to unite their peoples and set the stage for the new “Roman” race. Dido, in entering into a liaison with Aeneas, laments the loss of her pudor, her chastity, since she had vowed never to remarry after the death of her first husband.

R: Yes . . . but again unlike Dido, Elizabeth not only continued to affirm her chastity, but also became celebrated for her virginity, and George Gower depicts her holding a sieve in an allusion to Petrarch’s “Triumph of Chastity” in which the heroine proves her chastity by miraculously carrying water in a sieve. Some portraits depict Elizabeth as chosen by God or even supernatural. Nicholas Hilliard depicts her in a gown ornamented with birds and fish, suggesting dominion over nature. The unknown painter of the “Armada Portrait” fills his background with images of the Spanish Armada crushed by a violent storm, as if Elizabeth somehow conjured the tempest or was protected by God.

A: Natural or supernatural intervention like that features prominently in the Aeneid. Aeneas and his crew are blown off course on their way from the ruins of Troy to Italy by a storm orchestrated by Aeolus, god of the winds, at the behest of Juno. Juno is trying to delay Aeneas’ arrival in Italy although she knows that his descendants are fated to found Rome, a “new Troy.” The love affair between Aeneas and Dido is enhanced by an unholy alliance between Juno and Venus, each of whom has her reasons for wanting him to tarry in Carthage.

R: Isaac Oliver takes the idea a step further, suggesting Elizabeth is a minor deity. His “Rainbow Portrait” associates her with the Greek messenger of the gods and depicts her holding a rainbow and clad in bright gold and orange. The canvas bears the Latin motto, “There is no rainbow without the sun.” The queen’s sunny gown is covered with eyes and ears, but no mouths, suggesting discernment, knowledge, and circumspection. Elizabeth exploited visual art to play the sun in England’s skies. Imagine her with access to the internet!

A: The ancient internet is a creature known as Fama or Rumor, who propagates the news of the relationship between Dido and Aeneas. Vergil’s description of this monster is graphic- one hundred eyes, one hundred ears, and one hundred mouths, all the better to see, hear, and spread rumors, without consideration of their truth or fiction. Fama brings this news to an African nomadic king named Iarbas, himself, like Aeneas, a son of a god, Zeus Ammon. Iarbas, who had desired marriage with Dido, is outraged and accuses his father of not protecting his interests in return for all the temples and sacrifices Iarbas has made to him. In Iarbas’ reality, as shaped by Fama, Aeneas is nothing but “another Paris,” or wife-stealer, and interloper in his land and thief of what Iarbas regards as rightfully his.

R: Seen in the light of Elizabeth’s use of artifice to shape opinion and reality, it’s a short step to seeing The Tempest as an exploration of the dangers of artifice. In it, language around sorcery and illusion characterize artifice whether it involves the exercise of political authority or magic or artful words or stagecraft. When, for example, Prospero becomes rapt in his studies, Antonio seizes power and creates the illusion that he properly serves as Duke of Milan. As Prospero explains, Antonio “new created” Prospero’s “creatures” — those who owed their positions to Prospero — and “set all hearts i’th’state to what tune pleased his ear.” Prospero uses a more literal magic when, usurped and outcast, he works with the spirit Ariel to call up a storm and create the illusion of a shipwreck. This illusion brings within his grasp those who have betrayed him, and it paves the way for his vengeance. Prospero also fabricates the circumstances by which Miranda, his daughter, and Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, fall in love. By pretending to distrust Ferdinand, Prospero encourages Miranda to think well of Ferdinand, and by making Ferdinand believe his father has drowned, Prospero makes Ferdinand eager to turn to Miranda for comfort. Prospero thereby not only secures Miranda a spouse, but also guarantees his return to power.

Colleagues collaborating across academic disciplines: Joy!

A: Shakespeare did not invent either the idea of artifice or of using one’s children for political ends. While Aeneas is motivated by his sense of a debt owed to his son Ascanius/Iulus, whose descendants will found Rome and, ultimately, give rise to Julius and Augustus Caesar, both Caesars had only one child, a daughter, and thus the question of succession in the burgeoning Roman Empire was an all-consuming concern. Augustus was faced with not only convincing the Roman people, for whom the idea of a king was anathema, that he was not a king but “first among equals,” in an Animal Farm sort of way. He also used his daughter, Julia, as a political pawn, marrying her to a steady stream of potential heirs, most of whom were dispatched by Augustus’ wife, Livia, to make room for the ultimate succession of her son, Tiberius.

R: Prospero’s artifice also includes using sorcery to call upon spirits to perform a masque to celebrate Ferdinand and Miranda’s love and inspire their chastity until marriage — a success he calls to the attention of all by revealing the couple in a tent chastely playing chess.

A: As Dido and Aeneas consummate their affair in a cave during a storm, they have their own “masque” in the form of Juno Pronuba, goddess of marriage, Tellus (Mother Earth) and ululating Nymphs, all there to celebrate the “marriage.”

R: Finally, bent on revenge, Prospero conjures harpies to terrorize those who usurped or threaten his power, to force their confessions, and to pave the way for his restoration. While Antonio acts on his lust for power and Prospero seeks vengeance, Prospero imitates Antonio; he uses artifice to set all hearts to the tune that pleases his ear.

Setting the hearts of others to the tune that pleases your ear realizes the dearest dream of magic: you snap your fingers and get what you want. But you also “new create” the world without regard for others. Prospero acts almost solely for himself and must discover both how to sympathize with others and how to work with them to achieve a shared vision. When Prospero directs Ariel to simulate the ship’s sinking, he takes no thought for his daughter and her regard for others. He does not anticipate she will lament, “I have suffered with those that I saw suffer.” Unsurprisingly, he goes on to heap misery and humiliation on his victims. Only near the end of the play does Ariel challenge Prospero for his lack of compassion. Ariel — an insubstantial spirit whom Prospero thinks incapable of emotion — has repeatedly sustained Prospero’s charges of ingratitude and threats of punishment. Now he criticizes Prospero for his failure of compassion both for those on whom he seeks vengeance and for his innocent victim Gonzalo, to whose compassion Prospero owes his life. Ariel explains that Prospero has driven the villains to distraction, that Gonzalo weeps for them, and that “Your charm so strongly works ‘em/ That if you now beheld them, your affections/ Would become tender.” When Prospero skeptically asks if Ariel really thinks so, Ariel says: “Mine [affections] would, sir, were I human.” Ariel’s assertion that he would pity Prospero’s victims obliges Prospero either to feel sympathy and show mercy or to reveal himself as less human than Ariel. Faced with that choice, Prospero forgives both his brother and those who plotted against him, gives those plotting against the King of Naples only a stern warning, begins to rebuild his family and Milan, and abandons his “rough magic” as too great a temptation given his duty to family and country.

Dr. Pierce’s copy of the play…elaborate tagging strategy.

A: Duty to family and country, and the gods, is the Roman concept of pietas. Aeneas’ reaction to Mercury ordering him to leave Carthage and set out for Italy once more is immediate. His renown as a man of pietas requires him to obey the gods unquestioningly, and he tells Dido “I do not seek Italy of my own free will.” In abandoning Dido, he condemns her to death, a fact he realizes and tries to make up for when they meet again in the underworld. There, she offers him no satisfaction and leaves him contrite and in tears, lamenting that he was the cause of her suffering.

R: It’s important to remember that Prospero’s obsession with the tune that pleases his ear deafens him to his duty to those close to him. He fails to anticipate the suffering he causes Miranda and Gonzalo. But he does worse to those who do not conform to his tune. He reinvents them as “other,” evil, and beyond consideration. When he speaks of the witch who once owned his island, Prospero dismisses her as a “foul witch,” a “damned witch,” and one who performs “sorceries terrible to enter human hearing” — conveniently forgetting his own sorcery. When Ariel begs for his long-promised freedom, Prospero rages at him as a “malignant thing,” charges him with ingratitude, and threatens to imprison him in an oak tree. The same mechanism works when Prospero says Caliban is “not honored with human shape” and fails to see his illogic in calling Caliban “our slave, who never yields us kind answer.” What did he expect?

When Prospero forgets wrongs, forgives others, and abandons his “rough magic,” he does so to understand and re-engage with the people around him and to live a human life. And while heads of state need this reminder not to let their ability to influence others distract them from the real people around them, so do we all. It’s pretty to think we can snap our fingers and have the world we want, but our efforts to do so harm others and isolate us. Small wonder the play ends by inviting us to applaud and send Prospero home to Milan: it invites us to get outside our own heads in a communal gesture of understanding and support for someone other than ourselves.

Hackley Perspectives

Perspectives from Hackley School, Tarrytown, NY, on the many ways our K-12 community challenges students to grow in character, scholarship and accomplishment, to offer unreserved effort, and learn from the varying perspectives and backgrounds in our community and the world.

Hackley School

Written by

Hackley Perspectives

Perspectives from Hackley School, Tarrytown, NY, on the many ways our K-12 community challenges students to grow in character, scholarship and accomplishment, to offer unreserved effort, and learn from the varying perspectives and backgrounds in our community and the world.

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