Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

The Tempest's Other Plots

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

The Tempest's Other Plots

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE MOST SKILLED ORCHESTRATORS of theatrical action on the Shakespearean stage, Prospero successfully directs his revenge plot towards its desired ends in The Tempest. Hence it might be surprising that, just when Prospero's "project gather[s] to a head," Ariel interrupts his plans by imagining another reality: "Your charm so strongly works 'em/ That if you now beheld them, your affections/ Would become tender." To Prospero's subsequent query, "Dost thou think so, spirit?," Ariel responds: "Mine would, sir, were I human" (5.1.1, 17-20). (1) Prospero suppresses this speculation of an alternate mode of being--what "would" happen "were [Ariel] human"--by asserting the fact of his own humanity:

      And mine shall.
   Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
   Of their afflictions, and shall not myself--One
   of their kind, that relish all as sharply
   Passion as they--be kindlier moved than thou art?

Prospero's conclusion has often been read as signaling a conversion for the character, as he finally adopts a "tender" attitude towards his opponents. (2) Conversely, we could read this exchange as another instance in which Prospero asserts his absolute power, aborting Ariel's imagination of a human ontology by directing attention to his own. Both interpretations highlight that Prospero's use of the indicative mood upstages Ariel's subjunctive speech act, the spirit's projection subsumed into the narrative Prospero continues to shape and manipulate. This moment--like the play, which is punctuated by Prospero's utterance--structurally orients audiences to consider his words as the culmination of the exchange.

Prospero's assured conclusion reinforces the idea that he is not only a natural magician or colonizer, but also a plotter: he is both organizer and schemer, to borrow Peter Brooks's terms. (3) His ability to conclude interactions and redirect desires intimates why, even as new historicist, anti-colonial, and feminist scholarship have taught us to contest early understandings of the character as a symbol of cosmic harmony or authorial order, it is harder to escape the idea that he is the play's arch-plotmaker. (4) Prospero continually organizes dynamic events and absorbs disruptions into his successful dynastic plot. (5) Thus, to uncover the volatile contingencies that might escape the plot's grasp, we must look beyond his conclusive statements and attend to intermediary moments such as Ariel's fleeting speculation, which imagines an alternate sphere of existence that will never be incorporated into the events enacted on stage.

I propose that Ariel's speech offers the final instantiation of how subjected characters in The Tempest use counterfactual projections to fracture the mechanics of staged plotmaking. These imaginings adumbrate instances of extra-ordinary creativity that I term speculative poiesis, a mode of creation that never brings a moment into actuality but is predicated on thought's power to exist only as potentiality. Following Caroline Levine--who argues that "politics was a matter of imposing order on the world" and who terms such "ordering principles" forms--I argue that through attentive reading we may recover the formal politics animating The Tempest's speculative poiesis. (6) Eluding the "ordering principles" of Prospero's sphere of control (the staged events on the island-theater) Ariel's utterance has no responsibility to enacted plots, as it foregrounds the non-actualizable desires of a non-human "spirit."

I locate speculative poiesis in the voices of characters who are presented as having been under Prospero's control from before the play begins: Ariel, Miranda, and Caliban. By labeling them as "spirit," "goddess" and "monster" respectively (1.2.193, 1.2.420, 2.2.29), the play delineates them as theatrical, rhetorical, or philosophical "wonders." The experience of wonder is a vital constituent of Shakespeare's late plays, which are full of marvelous spectacles. …

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