Written by Yeo Siew Lian, 2A01B, 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.
The debate between Art and Nature in The Tempest is very much based on the Renaissance debate, partly occasioned by colonialization , on whether civilized man or the "natural man" was superior, the advocates of the former presenting the "natural man" as being savage, intemperate and brutal in contrast to the nobility, self-control and high-mindedness of the civilized man, the advocates of the latter presenting the "natural man" as being artless, unaffected, as what Rousseau was later to term the "noble savage" and the civilized man as being corrupt, affected, merely more adept at cloaking his vices, which were at best more refined, but nevertheless hardly a reason for pretensions to moral high ground -- Montaigne, in his famous apologia for the "natural man", observes that it may be arguably more barbaric to "mangle by tortures and torments a body full of lively sense [...] under pretence of pietie and religion" than "to roast and eat him after he is dead".
Shakespeare does not go to either extreme in The Tempest. The "natural man" (i.e. Caliban) is savage, intemperate and brutal, incapable of higher reasoning and lacking the innate intelligence for nurture to "stick" (as Prospero says in frustration) responding only to something that in effect could be considered, not inaccurately, as what would in modern terms be called a form of Pavlovian conditioning. While his portrayal is not totally unsympathetic (cf. the touching passage in Act III Scene II where he speaks of his "cr[ying] to dream again"; it can also be argued that Prospero's alighting on the island, installing himself as ruler, and consequently -- albeit not unjustifiably -- depriving Caliban of his rights and liberty is per se somewhat questionable, depending on how one views colonialization ) he is nevertheless far from being admirable, far from being a "noble" savage in any way. Admittedly, he does serve to show the implications of Antonio's conscious choice of evil despite being born of a "good womb" and having every advantage of mind and upbringing; however, he does not only "indicate corruption and degeneracy in the civilized world"; that would suggest a certain one-sidedness to the argument. On the contrary, he also serves as a contrast with the radiant virtue (Miranda and Ferdinand) and enlightened benevolence (Prospero, albeit more towards the end) of untainted nobility.
It is in this context that the debate between Art and Nature takes place. Art, using the stricter definition, refers specifically to Prospero's magic, which he uses to control Nature; this Art, though not without some questionable aspects, (cf. "graves at my command / Have wak'd their sleepers", and his excessive threats to punish Ariel in Act I for nothing more than a polite request that he remember to release him), is chiefly used for benevolent purposes (i.e. for the restoration and perpetuation of the appropriate social order, for the edification of the others e.g. Alonso). Even the tempest at the beginning of the play , which as a traditional symbol of chaos in tragedy, is somewhat sinister, is shown ultimately to have done "no harm". [and created the foundation for sincere penitence.]
However, while Prospero's Art (in the stricter sense) can be said to imply the self-discipline, temperance and virtue required to practise it , "Art" can also refer, in a wider sense, to the enlightened, refined intellect that can only be found with the advantages that civilization offers -- in which case Antonio's apparent intelligence can be considered, by extension, as much a form of "Art" as Prospero's, albeit a form perverted for reasons of self-interest and to serve the cause of evil [good]. In this case, Art, when debased, is infinitely more dangerous and more subversive of the social hierarchy; as a result, "so much more terrible is the sin of the nobleman who abases below the natural" -- hence Antonio, unrepentantly silent at the end of the play, is more sinister than the conspiratorial buffooneries of Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo put together; for while he "must restore" the dukedom to Prospero, he will presumably still be in a position to subvert society, not only because of his birth, but also because of his form of "Art" [good] -- an extraordinary persuasiveness aided by his superior education (when trying to persuade Sebastian to kill Alonso, he uses Renaissance rhetoric -- an example of how he abuses "Art" for self-interest) and justified by the Machiavellian concept of virtù. He is, moreover, the only of the "villains" to be consistently and unflinchingly evil with the full conscious knowledge that he is choosing evil, and as such is more dangerous, for while the rest can be brought to an awareness of their mistakes, he already has this awareness, and has no intention to do otherwise . His behaviour also makes one all the more uneasy because he does not always have the same apparent motivation as Iago and Edmund, for example, have, being already in a privileged position.
Nature as personified in Caliban, on the other hand, while serving to "indicate corruption and degeneracy in the civilized world", is hardly a "virtuous shepherd of normal pastoral". He behaves in accordance with his instinctual urges, not with any sort of reasoning above that of the most elementary, and is incapable of understanding "virtue" as a concept. However, his behaviour is comparatively less worrying than Antonio's. He does not have power, and is, or at least will not be when back in Milan, hardly in a position to alter the social hierarchy significantly. Similarly in the case of Stephano and Trinculo; though they (though perhaps to a lesser extent) are also bound to "Nature", there is not much danger from a butler and a jester particularly susceptible to inebriation. All three, moreover, lack Antonio's intellect, and, being without either version of "Art", do not pose a serious threat, since they can be easily controlled. Their "natural" tendencies are, moreover, less distressing than Antonio's taste for evil, since none has had the advantages of birth and breeding; Caliban, in fact, is congenitally disadvantaged by fact of his parentage alone, being born from a union of an incubus and a witch, and therefore not even totally "human", so to speak. In any case, while they can be accused of being ill-behaved and ill-natured at worst, they certainly cannot be accused of being evil, as Antonio can. This fact may perhaps partially account for Prospero's acknowledgement of Caliban at the end of the play and his relatively cold treatment of Antonio, whom he forgives, but does not speak much to. [good]
As such, The Tempest presents "Nature" as being far from the idealistic, idyllic image created by Montaigne and those who thought similarly. However, if "Art" is taken in the wider sense, it can also be equivocal, since it is extremely dangerous if misused. If used properly, however, it can control Nature and curb its baser urges or at least prevent them from being carried out. Nevertheless, while the need for control over Nature is asserted continually, the ending suggests that Art must ultimately come to terms with Nature [yes!] (hence Prospero's "this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine"); for while Caliban's limitations are apparent, his wish to improve himself is promising, and his new relationship with Prospero seems to be more stable and more reassuring than the resentment-filled and extremely uneasy jailor-prisoner / master-slave relationship shown earlier.
A pleasure. Well done. 50/50
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
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