Book Reviews LEAR and PROSPERO

LEAR and PROSPERO

Last week I watched Shakespeare’s King Lear and yesterday (23.04.2014) The Tempest, and I began to see Prospero in relation to Lear. Both are leaders: one gives away his political power to spend his life in retirement; the other, who secludes himself in study, is deposed. Both seek freedom from the responsibility of government but both wish to retain power. When they lose power, both are angry and resentful. Both are banished; one to barren wastes; the other to an island. Each has a daughter who embodies love – the essence of harmonious existence. Lear is too blind to see it.

Lear loses everything and dies, and it seemed to me as I watched The Tempest, is transported with Cordelia, to a magical island and is resurrected in Prospero, Cordelia in Miranda. Writers often become fascinated with themes and characters and try them out in different contexts. Take Jane Austen, for instance, you will find a Darcy-type, a Wickham-type, a Bingley-type, an Elizabeth-Jane (merged or separate), a Lydia-type in all her novels. She is trying to solve the problem of women’s independence in a culture in which all they can aspire to is a secure marriage.

Shakespeare examines the problem of political power in many of his plays. In The Tempest and King Lear, he divests both Lear and Prospero of political power. Lear has to learn that love is not love when it is conflated with power. After he is reduced to “a poor forked animal” and goes mad, he learns to see. Unlike Lear, Prospero is given a chance. In his banishment, through his study of magic, he attains god-like power – a reaction to his former apathy with regard to power – and takes total control of an island, the elements and people.

He colonizes and enslaves Caliban, son of Sycorax, the “witch” who formerly ruled the island. He also enslaves the elements in the form of Ariel, whom he releases from imprisonment in a tree and thus gains power over him. His rule is totally authoritarian. Throughout the play his slaves cry for freedom. One wonders then whether, as Duke of Milan he had ruled instead of studying, what kind of ruler he would have been. Better than his brother? On the island he is a dictator.

With magic arts, learned from books, Prospero has gained the power to take revenge on his brother and the King of Naples who together conspired to depose him as Duke of Milan. He uses his magical powers to bring them to the island to punish them. But his sojourn on the island, has given him a different understanding of existence and he learns from his daughter, Miranda, and from Ariel, to be compassionate. Speaking of his treacherous brother who with the complicity of the King of Naples, robbed him of his Dukedom, he says:

  • Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
  •  with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
  •   Do I take part. The rarer action is
  •  In virtue than in vengeance.  (The Tempest, 5.1, 25-28)

And he gives up his magic – his power to control:

  ... But this rough magic

  • I here abjure. And when I have required
  • Some heavenly music – which even now, I do
  • To work mine end upon their senses that
  • This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
  • Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
  • And deeper than did ever plummet sound
  • I’ll drown my book. (The Tempest, 5.1, 54-57)

Unlike Lear, he has been given a second chance and has learned. Lear is severely punished for his blindness; Prospero is forgiven for his and we assume that he returns to Milan to rule with compassion. Being a wiser man, it is possible that his people will be justified in loving him on his return.

He is now a man who sees human existence as transient and the pursuit of power as meaningless illusion, like a stage performance, a reflection of reality, not reality itself.

  • The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces
  • The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
  • Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
  • And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
  • Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
  • As dreams are made on, and our little life
  • Is rounded with a sleep.  (The Tempest, 4.1, 151-158)

The creation of life on-stage in a theatrical performance imitates the creation of life off-stage. All human systems and institutions are creations for stabilising life on earth. They give us the illusion of being fixed in time and space so we are not aware that the human pageant is “insubstantial” i.e. a process not a fixed form. What we take as reality seems fixed but is not; we have our being in a process of continuous change. Reality, therefore, is in continuous movement (in Alvin Toffler terms, rising and falling like waves) – flowing out of one set of circumstances into the next as we evolve; in computer terms – as we continuously update the way we live.

Ironically, the fictional life created in Shakespeare’s plays, in Jane Austen’s novels, being fixed in time and place, attain that quality of permanence that we so vainly wish to establish in reality. Plays like King Lear and The Tempest are fixed in Shakespeare’s words and present a reality frozen in time and place. Plays, novels and other art forms that reflect life are the closest we can get to stability in the human condition. Our rules, regulations, laws try to fix us in unchanging circumstances, but they give only an illusion of stability. We live in an expanding universe, on a planet that rotates on an axis and revolves around the sun but in our daily interactions, we are completely unaware that the earth is a spinning spaceship. Being in an aircraft and moving with it, we are unaware of its movement.

In the search for fixity in the human condition, we build communities and set up power structures to exert control over human volatility. But power itself is subject to human volatility and readily gives rise to the lust and greed that lead to the unending struggle for dominance.

Power at all levels leads to corruption in every walk of life. And corruption is the symptom of malfunction in the systems we create. But we treat the symptom without seeking its cause because we accept administrative systems unconditionally. Human nature, however, ruled both by instinct and reason, is ambivalent and human beings are fallible. Placed in positions of power and authority, they fall prey to lust and greed, to corruption. We may, depending on our integrity, punish those who abuse power but it does not occur to us to examine the systems that facilitate corruption; we more readily arraign the individual.

Love, always presented as an alternative to corrupting power, is also a form of control but being based on affection, is benign and leads to voluntary conformity. As such, love cannot compete with the violence that accompanies corruption. [That possibly explains why love is generally personified as women in Art.] Cordelia and Miranda, embodiments of love in King Lear and The Tempest, have no power. Cordelia is murdered; Miranda marries into power. Within power structures, love is replaced by lust and rape. And in the bureaucracies that serve power, functionaries become automatons, cold and inhuman in their treatment of the powerless who must apply to them for all kinds of permits that control their lives – IDs, passports, licences etc. And in administering such permits, functionaries find ways to abuse their power and authority. Corruption, facilitated in bureaucratic structuring, makes it impossible to predetermine human destiny.

So Jokers, looking for clear-cut definitions of existence, feel betrayed, become disillusioned and succumb to despair. For the majority, who live in fearful compliance with the dictates of power, the solution is God who provides the only stability possible – in life after death. When we lived in our conception of a geocentric universe, the ruler– pharaoh, king – was seen as God on earth and the killing of a king, as in the play, Macbeth, was sacrilege. It led to chaos, disorder, loss of control. But pharaohs and kings lived in pomp and circumstance and the stability they created denied human dignity to the majority. In the modern world, rulers invested with power by the electorate, become demigods. They see themselves as entitled, become corrupt and self-serving. While legislating to curb human volatility in the electorate, they , in themselves, become embodiments of inconsistency as they turn their guardianship to exploitation and pillage. Their understanding of equality and fraternity is an election promise, as insubstantial as democracy.

We invented gods and governments as Guardians of stability, but our desire ‘to stop the world’ is a futile quest. We are like psychiatrists trying to impose ‘normality’ on ‘abnormality’. But what is normal? The elimination of the instinctual self? We are creatures of instinct as well as reason; as inclined to destroy as to create. Under the veneer of civilization, we are feral beings and the duality of our natures makes human existence paradoxical – the opposition in our natures gives rise to creativity as well as corruption. 

When Adam and Eve decided to take control of their destinies, they lost their innocence. And what is innocence?  Simply total conformity. So what they lost was a trivial life of complete stability. When they left the garden, they became creative beings. And creativity, like childbirth, combines pain with delivery.

After we watch plays like King Lear and The Tempest, we are left to evaluate the efficacy of the ways in which we try to bring together the contradictions in our natures; to wonder whether the striving for stability, which is a denial of human complexity, should form the basis of structured human existence.

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