Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Tempest and the Discontents of Humanism

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Tempest and the Discontents of Humanism

Article excerpt

"Which play / Were we in?" Ted Hughes, "Setebos" (1)

Since the peak of postcolonial approaches to Shakespeare's work in the decade between the 1980s and 1990s, The Tempest has been read as a drama of colonial expansion and a play about the subordination of the natives of the New World. (2) Yet Ariel's allusion to "the still-vexed Bermudas," (3) which expresses the play's concern with Jacobean colonial projects in the New World, also captures the ambiguities of Shakespeare's geography because the island is located in the Mediterranean, somewhere between Tunis and Naples. Despite the allusions to the New World, the location of the Bermudas in the Mediterranean makes The Tempest also a play about the Old World. The play's geographical setting in Europe, not in the colonial space of the New World, connects The Tempest to the world of humanism. Or, as Neil Rhodes has put it recently, "in The Tempest there is no centre, nor indeed any firm sense of geographical location at all." (4) Scholars have already detached The Tempest from its firm place in postcolonial criticism by reading it as a Mediterranean play. (5) The ambiguous location of the Bermudas, between worlds, makes us wonder what the play's historical concerns really were. I propose to displace the postcolonial approach to The Tempest criticism with a revisioning of this a play as allegorizing humanism's positive and negative characteristics. I will argue that The Tempest is a humanist play in the sense that it engages with the humanist world and politics at a number of levels. In arguing for the play's strong humanist orientation, however, I am not merely endorsing humanism as a practice of learning and reading as refashioned in the play. I also claim that some writers, including Shakespeare, showed humanism's negative effects, and call this self-reflective critique humanism's dark side. From the outset of the play, Shakespeare announces that humanism is under pressure, not merely upheld. The shipwreck in the opening scene, for example, could be read as a kind of over-literal satire of the Petrarchan image of the galley sinking under the weight of sighs and tears that is an early humanist cliche, an emblem of government's pinnace overfraught.

When David Scott Kastan argues that The Tempest "is much more obviously a play about European dynastic concerns than European colonial activities" and calls for "other and more obvious contexts" of the play to be uncovered, he articulates the recent critical turn away from postcolonial readings of the play. (6) Other contexts, especially the multilayered and complex web of humanism, permeate this play more systematically, more apparently, and yet no less problematically than issues of imperialism and colonialism. The dominant discourse in this play is humanism, embodied in Prospero as a teacher and narrator. Yet the play is also a critique of humanist practice of education and government, with Prospero playing a failed governor who valued humanist principles but fell short of applying them to the practice of governing.

While Jonathan Bate has argued that the master discourse in The Tempest is not that of the territorial possessions in the New World but humanist arguments about the just or unjust forms of government, Andrew Fitzmaurice has proposed that "the atmosphere" of The Tempest echoes court debates presented in Tacitus, a popular philosopher in humanist debates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries about civic government and worldly corruption. (7) Neil Rhodes has also argued for the humanist foundations of the master discourse in The Tempest, seeing "poetry as a civilizing agent" in this play, and for the art of eloquence as determining its aesthetics and ideology. (8) While these critics focus on specific humanist topics--philosophy, ethics of government, poetic eloquence--I want to explore a variety of topics that connect some of the philosophical, rhetorical, and aesthetic features of the play as a composite humanist structure, and how such topics overlap in producing one of the most complex of Shakespeare's late plays. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.