Written by Sia Rouh Phin, 2A13A, 13 May 1996.
"... the natural man functions like the virtuous shepherd of normal pastoral, to indicate corruption and degeneracy in the civilized world; if the natural man is a brute, so much more terrible is the sin of the nobleman who abases below the natural." Consider the debate between Art and Nature in the play The Tempest.
In The Tempest, Art is that which is composed of grace, civility and virtue. It is represented by Prospero, the other members of the nobility who belong to the court party and their servants. The world of the court is synonymous with the world of Art in the play. In contrast, Nature is bestial, brutish and evil; and manifest in the form of Caliban and the natural world. With two such extremes brought together, debate between the two is inevitable.
There are two opposing views of the natural. One sees the natural as that which is corrupted by man while the other regards it as that which is defective in itself and must be corrected by nurture. Montaigne's essay, Of Cannibals, is an undisputed source of the novel which supports the former view. Montaigne believed that a society without the civilised 'additives' of law, custom and artificial restraints would be a happy one. Gonzalo's talk of his "commonwealth" mirrors this opinion in the play. Shakespeare agrees more with the latter view which is propounded by Aristotle in the following lines, "men...who are as much inferior to others as the body is to the soul...are slaves by nature, and it is advantageous for them always to be under government" and Caliban is Shakespeare's example of this.
There are also two opposing views of the nobility. The first belief is that nobility comes by birth, and hence one of noble birth is virtuous by extension. Shakespeare supports the second view which sees nobility as the perfection of nature in each thing. Nobility is shown by the manners and merits of the individual. Thus, among those of better birth, there are those who might beget an evil nature and noblemen can do wrong because they are free to choose. Though gentle birth predisposes man to virtue, it is not necessary to virtue. It cannot be uniformly maintained that where there is high birth, there is virtue.
In the play, Shakespeare has portrayed neither Nature nor Art as perfect but as having a complex relationship where one is reflected in the other. While Nature calls forth the authoritative power of Art to correct it, Art can descend to, and even sink below, the level of Nature.
Caliban, the natural man, is a representative of Nature in many ways. His name itself fascinates regardless of whether it is an anagram of 'cannibal' or if it originates from "Carib", which is a term for the savage inhabitants of the New World. This links him with Indian natives, and like them he is amiable at first but treacherous under provocation. He is described in the Dramatis Personae as "a salvage and deformed slave". As he is "salvage", unchastity is a conventional attribute. He is "deformed" -- "a freckled whelp hag-born, not honoured with/ A human shape", because he is a product of a sexual union between a witch and an incubus. Not only is Caliban natural in origin, he is also natural in character. He exists at the most rudimentary level of pain and pleasure, making him a natural slave. Lust and lechery are all that he knows because love is beyond his depth. Although he appreciates music, it charms him as it does a beast without reason.
In contrast, the court party are used to grace, civility and every refined comfort. Able to reason, analyse, feel and sense. Prospero himself is a nobleman and "the right Duke of Milan". As a duke, he naturally assumes the right to rule the island -- "to be lord on't". Not only does Prospero have the seed of nobility, he is also wrapped up in the pursuit of knowledge. He is such an accomplished mage that he gains special powers -- his Art. His powers are magnified by the control he has gained because of his ability to place reason over passion. Prospero's highly developed mind also allows him to hatch a plan to give the court party a chance to learn.
Such is the manifestation of Nature in The Tempest, and such the cultured representation of Art. Debate between the two takes the form of a series of antitheses with Caliban frequently recurring as the representative of nature which allows comparison between the two worlds. Caliban is a measure of the incredible superiority of the world of Art and also a measure of its corruption and degeneracy.
In terms of physical appearances, the world of Art is indisputably superior. The noble (and often virtuous) are beautiful while the vile are ugly. Physical appearance is an index of a character's nobility or vileness. Caliban is deformed as a result of evil magic and "with age his body uglier grows". Caliban seems even more loathly in the presence of Ferdinand and Miranda's comeliness. Miranda is especially beautiful because the divine quality of nobility and her virtue illuminates her physical body such that both Ferdinand and Alonso take her for a goddess. This serves to emphasise the incomparability of the world of Art to the world of Nature in terms of physical appearances.
In the practice of magic, Prospero's Art is the antithesis of the black magic of Sycorax. Prospero's divine magic achieves supremacy over the natural world through the exercise of virtuous knowledge gleaned through studious observation. Requiring virtue, learning and temperance of its practitioner to succeed, it stands for the world of better qualities and achieves the restoration of harmony at human and political levels. Prospero only deals with spirits high in the scale of goodness like Ariel -- "an airy spirit". Symbolically, this Art of Prospero's has control over Nature in the form of Caliban. Distinct from it is Sycorax's black magic which has limited power and can only pronounce "grand hests" or command the lower order of spirits. Yet, Sycorax was powerful enough to trap Ariel. Nonetheless, Prospero's beneficent magic far outshines Sycorax's evil one.
The contrast of the lustful incontinence of natural man with the love and restraint of the nobleman once again displays the incredible superiority of the world of Art. Caliban is naturally lustful as seen in his attempt to defile Miranda. This corroborates the belief that the natural is often sexually promiscuous. Ferdinand markedly differs from Caliban in his insistence that his desires are under control despite Miranda's exceptionally frank professions of love. As Ferdinand assures Prospero, "The white cold virgin snow upon my heart/ Abates the ardour of my liver". Ferdinand is able to restrain his appetite in the hope of enjoying "quiet days, fair issue and long life".
Unfortunately, the continence of the world of Art is marred by Stephano's unchaste designs. Stephano's lustful nature reveals itself when he is tempted into murdering Prospero in the hope of getting a "brave...lass" who "will become [his] bed". Even where the world of Art is supposed to have preeminence, it can be seen that members of that world can sink to the level of Nature. Perhaps this can be accounted for by the fact that Stephano is not a member of the nobility but just one of their servants.
The disparity of birth between the world of Art and Nature seems to be an impassable abyss. However, Edward Phillips offers some hope, "want of nature ( the nature of nobility acquired by birth) can be partially supplied by education". Thus, Shakespeare carefully sets up a comparison between Miranda and Caliban who both have Prospero as their tutor. Miranda is endowed with the seed of noble race, blessed with the benefit of education and equipped with the ability to learn. As Prospero proudly tells her, "...here/ Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit/ Than other princess' can that have more time/ For vainer hours, and tutors not so careful". In Miranda, both the qualities of nobility and the ability to learn are united in happy conjunction. But Caliban has neither and nurture appears to be not only useless but harmful to him. Prospero laments that Caliban is "A devil, a born devil, on whose nature/ Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains/ Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost". Instead, Prospero's attempts to cultivate Caliban has only brought out in the worst in Caliban, such as lust for Miranda and discontent at his inferior position. More significantly, he has learnt to abuse the gift of language which can be seen in his biting return to Miranda, "You taught me language; and my profit on't/ Is I know how to curse". However, Caliban is not totally incapable of learning at a sensory level of pain. After Prospero's punishment, Caliban knows he must never touch Miranda although he does not understand why. Consequently, primacy of the world of Art over Nature is not complete, especially since Prospero fell from his kingdom because of an inordinate thirst for education and learning. This indicates that learning is not necessarily a desirable thing. Fortunately, Prospero compensates for this as it is his learning which eventually gives him the means to return to Milan.
There are also points in the play where Shakespeare uses Caliban to show how much baser corruption of the world of Art can be than the bestiality of Nature. Stephano and Trinculo are servants who belong to the world of Art. Yet once they are away from the watchful eye of their master, they lose all discipline and control, beginning to drink freely of the king's wine. This is not unlike Caliban who cannot wait to be out of the service of Prospero. Won over by the "celestial liquor", Caliban would take Stephano for his master and the three treacherous servants merrily drink themselves into drunkenness. However, here Nature shows itself to be superior to Art for Stephano and Trinculo are persuaded to follow the leadership of Caliban in a plot to murder Prospero. But Caliban soon perceives Stephano's infirmity of purpose and scorns both Stephano and Trinculo for being distracted from their mission by such material things as fancy clothes. Here indeed we can see men of the world of Art stooping below natural man.
However, the name of the world of Art is most sullied by the ambition of Antonio. Antonio is part of the courtier stock which is endowed with grace and nurtured in refinement through centuries in the world of Art. But though it is a civilised world, it allows freedom of action. Thus, it is possible for Antonio to indulge in an act of treason, to usurp the dukedom of Milan from his brother. This action of Antonio's is contrary to the spirit of the world of Art. That is not all. Antonio has not changed with the passage of time. Instead, he seems to have degenerated still more for there is a parallel between Antonio's treacherous behaviour with that of Caliban's in their plots to murder Alonso and Prospero respectively. While Antonio persuades Sebastian to secure accession to the throne by killing off all opposition (i.e. Alonso and Gonzalo), Caliban leads Stephano and Trinculo in a scheme to murder Prospero in his sleep. The malicious ambition of Antonio sinks him to the level of Caliban, and to even lower levels. As stated in the essay title, since "natural man is a brute, so much more terrible is the sin of the nobleman who abases himself below the natural".
Antonio is a degenerate nobleman. As Miranda points out to Prospero, "Good wombs have borne bad sons". Juxtaposed with Caliban the vileness of his conduct as opposed to the nobility of his birth is sorely felt. Being a nobleman, Antonio is predisposed to virtuous conduct. Yet, he is impervious to the actions of grace and alienates himself from Prospero's forgiveness. In contrast, Caliban has no choice but to be vile. In the words of Aristotle, "bestial man has no sense of right and wrong, and therefore sees no difference between good and evil". But Caliban knows better than Antonio that it is imprudent to resist grace and he declares it, "I'll be wise hereafter/ And seek for grace." Despite the benefit of birth and education, Antonio degrades himself below of those who live unaided at the level or nature.
To conclude, the ongoing debate between Art and Nature in The Tempest establishes the incredible superiority of the world of Art over nature and also that Art is not so far above Nature that it cannot stoop below it. As such, one has to agree with Aristotle's conclusion that the state of bestial man is "less guilty and more hopeless than those of incontinence and malice since it cannot be improved".
BibliographyThe Tempest edited by Frank Kermode [The Arden Shakespeare]. General Editors: Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson, David Scott Kastan. First published by Methuen & Co Ltd (1954). Reprinted by Routledge (1994)
Art vs. Nature (E-Ching's),
Art vs. Nature (Rouh Phin's),
Prospero as Ruler, Prospero vs. Caliban,
The Tempest as Masque, Apparitions and Stage Spectacle,
Ideas vs. Dramatic Principle, Island of Echoes & Suggestions,
Comic Resolution, Prospero Context
Back to Prospero's Isle
Back to Chao Mugger front door