Shakespeare's Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory

By Mary Thomas Crane | Go to book overview

6
Sound and Space in The Tempest

ALTHOUGH critical interpretation of The Tempest has changed dramatically over the past fifteen years, virtually all critics, writing both before and after the shift occasioned by postcolonial theory, would agree that the play is preeminently about control, specifically Prospero's control over the island and everyone on it. The change, then, lies mostly in whether this control is considered to be good (before) or bad (now). Older interpretations of Prospero as benevolent ruler, humanist sage, and playwright who gradually comes to control his own unruly emotions assumed that the controlling ascendance of art over nature, and reason over passion, was almost always good. The island setting of the play, however, helped critics to see the more sinister aspects of Prospero's power, especially the ways the play reveals his implication in repressive early modern discursive formations. His use of discourses of colonialism, treason, masterlessness, and the New Science have all been traced, and in the wake of Freud, critics have come to see even his control over himself as problematic. 1

The Foucauldian terms discourse and discursive have been crucial concepts in more recent readings of The Tempest, perhaps particularly important in the case of this play because Prospero's magic can so easily be read as a metaphor for the operations of discourse to reproduce and maintain power relations in a culture. 2 Yet it seems clear that the play represents discourse as larger and more complicated than Prospero's magical powers, constituting a metaphorically based radial category with fuzzy boundaries. The differences and connections between speech, music, human cries of pain, animal noises, and natural noises such as thunder in creating and attempting to control an environment greatly complicate the definition of discourse in this play. In addition, the spatial schemas of containment and confinement that structure Prospero's concept of his discursive powers reveal them to comprise the very material properties they claim to transcend and control.

Although there is considerable slippage in Foucault's use of these terms—he speaks of “the equivocal meaning of the term discourse, which I have used and abused in many different senses”—critics of this play have tended to emphasize certain features. 3 Paul Brown includes a helpful note: “By ‘discourse’ I refer to a domain or field of linguistic strategies operating

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