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October 5th, 2010

Inventing Your Way Back to the Top: An Analysis of the Technological Aspects of The Tempest in Relation to Prospero’s Endeavors to Redeem His Throne

Posted by meloni in Uncategorized

William Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest has all of the hallmarks of his best works – love, wit, romance, deception, treachery, and technology. Where, the reader may wonder, does this last characteristic come into play? In considering David F. Noble’s book, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, in relation to The Tempest it becomes clear that Prospero’s fall from power from his throne in Italy, and his journey throughout, mirrors the fall of Adam and Eve from paradise. Likewise, Noble’s assertion that technological innovations and “useful arts” (15) are merely steps on mankind’s way to his rediscovery of the perfect self that existed in paradise correlates to Prospero’s use and study of his own arts – namely the knowledge he gains from his books and his magic – to once more attain his former state of peace and power, the ownership of his own paradise, his kingdom in Italy. In this vein of thinking, technology plays the crucial role of providing new knowledge, but even more critically, allows a rediscovery and restoration of Prospero’s perfect past.

Prospero laments the loss of his kingdom at the beginning of the play, citing his own preoccupation with knowledge – a necessary component of technology – as one of the chief reasons that his power was ultimately able to be usurped:

Through all the signories it was the first

And Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed

In dignity, and for the liberal arts

Without a parallel; those being all my study,

The government I cast upon my brother

And to my state grew stranger, being transported

And rapt in secret studies. (Act I, Scene II, 71-7)

Prospero admits that he favored his thirst for knowledge more than serving his kingdom – a direct parallel to Adam and Eve’s desire to taste of the Tree of Knowledge before serving and obeying their God. Prospero goes so far as to admit that, “I loved my books…/ From mine own library with volumes that / I prize above my dukedom” (Act I, Scene II, 166-8). Prospero succumbs to his great fall from power, banished to an unknown island with his daughter and his books and meager supplies, and from this point must build towards restoring himself to the great precipice from which he plunged.

Prosper endeavors to regain his power from before his great fall by perfecting his knowledge and arts. Prospero gains useful knowledge from his books, and his important use of technology is depicted through his magic in the novel. Even when instructing others on how to get the best of Prospero, the wretched Caliban notes: “…Remember / First to possess his books; for without them / He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not / One spirit to command…” (87-90). It is Prospero’s full attainment of, and proficiency in, his knowledge that allows him to gain mastery over the island, its forces and inhabitants, using magic, which ultimately result in Prospero’s redemption. Noble affirms, “…As one scholar summarized Erigena’s thought, ‘In pursuing the study of the arts…one progresses in perfection since the arts are innate in man. Knowledge of them has been clouded by the Fall. Their recovery by study helps to restore man to his pristine state.’” (16-7). Prospero possesses an innate urge to learn and shares a bond with his books and studies that borders on obsession; as Caliban so rightly pointed out in this case, the books make the man. It is through Prospero’s advances in his learning, through the technology of mind and magic that he acquires, that he is able to plot his plan for redemption.

Prospero’s plot for redemption is ultimately enacted through his use of magic, his own “useful art”. Prospero’s useful art, however, is ardently displayed through a specific kind of magic that is evident through the play: the art of the theater. Throughout the play Prospero is responsible for producing the magic which yields different settings, circumstances, special effects, and crises. Without this magic Prospero would have been unable to even begin to take the necessary steps toward his redemption. It is through his mastery of circumstance that he is able to bring his foes to the island safely through a storm, as he relays to Miranda in the following lines:

I have with such provision in mine art

So safely ordered that there is no soul-

No, not so much perdition as an hair

Betid to any creature I the vessel (Act 1, Scene 2, 28-31)

Similarly, through his ability to manipulate special effects and summon Ariel that he is able to control what those he brings to the island experience, such as in his plot to have Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love, which he confirms when he says to his instrument of magic, Ariel, “It goes on, I see, / As my soul prompts it. Spirit, fine spirit, I’ll free thee / Within two days for this” (Act 1, Scene 2, 417-19). Likewise, his ability to create and divert crises using his powers to set in motion, and subsequently vanquish, conflict, serve to allow him to have complete control of the happenings on the island. This is demonstrated when Prospero sends Ariel to do his bidding yet again, to foil an unanticipated evil plot that has arisen on the island. Ariel whispers to Gonzalo, “My master through his art foresees the danger / That you, his friend, are in, and sends me forth / (For else his project dies) to keep them living” (Act 2, Scene 1, 293-5). It is his skillful directing that produces his desired plot; thereby without these arts in The Tempest Prospero would have been unable to re-attain his former state of power and perfection. Literally, through the play, it is Prospero’s study, perfection, and use of his magical powers that enable him to take the necessary steps toward redemption.

Prospero’s quest for, and perfection, of his arts and knowledge culminates in his ultimate attempt to regain power and ascend back to his throne. Noble cites an idea that “’linked the mechanical as well as the liberal arts directly to salvation and the restoration of fallen man.’…that the useful arts constituted a means of recovering mankind’s original perfection, his original divine image” (19). In Prospero’s own saga it is only his acquisition of his useful arts, his practiced and significant magical technology, that allow him to uncover the steps which will yield his return to power in Italy, his “paradise” as comparable to that of heaven for Adam and Eve and the children of God. Additionally, Noble asserts that technology is simply the means by which mankind is to rediscover his own divinity, the crucial tool that will allow man to return to his perfect state, but once attained, technology is  no longer needed. Prospero, at the end of the play, holds true to this sentiment as well. Having achieved all he sought out to accomplish through his useful arts, he renounces use of them at the end, stating, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own, / Which is most faint” (Epilogue, 1-3).

Prospero’s journey in The Tempest, is perfectly synchronized with David Nobles’ depiction of Adam and Eve’s great fall from paradise. Prospero’s preoccupation with the technology of knowledge in the form of books causes his downfall, but it is this same technology which allows him to gain mastery and control of his surroundings. This use of technology is the guiding force of the progress Prospero makes while on the island, and is the ultimate vehicle to his redemption. Prospero’s entire story mirrors Noble’s idea that technological advances allowed mankind to slowly restore themselves to their pristine condition, and likewise, would no longer be needed once that state of paradise was reclaimed. Through this technocritical approach Prospero’s journey is easily correlated to Adam and Eve’s fall and humankind’s endeavor to re-attain paradise, and likewise the technological advances made by Prospero serve to render this feat possible.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William, Peter Hulme, and William H. Sherman. The Tempest. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

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