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There is yet another Antonio in Shakespeare, in The Tempest. That Antonio plays a crucial but negative role, in being the reason for Prospero’s exile, having usurped the throne of his more intellectual brother. Given the abandonment the other two Antonios suffer, the name gives us a clue perhaps as to what motivates this Antonio, not just greed for power, not even what he might see as a moral imperative to supplant a less practical brother, but also a sense that he needs to prove his own worth.

Like the bastard brother Edmund in Lear, like the Iago whose bitterness is at least in part motivated by his perceived rejection by Othello, Antonio also needs to assert himself. He does this through destruction, not only taking for himself the power and position of others, but also encouraging those who trust him to turn on their familiars. Thus in The Tempest Antonio persuades (another) Sebastian, the brother of the King of Naples, to conspire against his brother, just as he himself had done against Prospero:

“Here lies your brother,
No better than the earth he lies upon,
If he were that which now he’s like, that’s dead;
Whom I, with this obedient steel, three inches of it,
Can lay to bed for ever; whiles you, doing thus,
To the perpetual wink for aye might put
This ancient morsel, this Sir Prudence, who
Should not upbraid our course. For all the rest,


They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk;
They’ll tell the clock to any business that
We say befits the hour.”
Once, long ago, and I cannot now remember where, I saw the temptation sealed with a kiss, when Sebastian succumbed to Antonio’s persuasion:
“Thy case, dear friend,
Shall be my precedent; as thou got’st Milan,
I’ll come by Naples. Draw thy sword: one stroke
Shall free thee from the tribute which thou payest;
And I the king shall love thee”

That hint of homosexuality seemed perfectly appropriate, though I am not sure that there is anything in the text to suggest it. Less convincing I think are those critics who claim that Iago has a homosexual attraction to Othello, which is as much a reason for his resentment of Cassio as is jealousy about his promotion. But Cassio too, as with Bassanio and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, is a convincing portrayal of the sort of feckless but attractive young man on whom more emotionally intense characters – both male and female – lavish affection.

Whether Sebastian in The Tempest is similarly feckless is not clear, but the way Antonio plays on him is as masterly as Edmund is with his father the Duke of Gloucester and Iago with Othello. But this is a comedy, so the conversion to villainy is harmless, diverted by one of Shakespeare’s most fantastic creations, the sprite Ariel. He is presented with tremendous delicacy and, while acting throughout on Prospero’s instructions, asserts a joyous individuality, as expressed in his best known song:

“Where the bee sucks.there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”

He in the end remains the most memorable character in The Tempest, along with his master Prospero, the master of what turns out a revel rather than a drama, as described in the lightest, and therefore perhaps the most telling, account I have read of the transience of human experience:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.”

Prospero, having been victimized once by his brother, remains in full control of the action of the play. But Shakespeare also gives him moments of introspection, which suggest the problems of great authority, and of learning. So, pace Bloom’s powerful description of Falstaff’s attractions, I find Prospero a much more attractive figure, perhaps because his vulnerability is as apparent as his great power. I suspect I am also haunted by the portrayal I once saw by John Gielgud, the most gently powerful of actors, with a voice that could both command and haunt.

This does not mean that Prospero is wholly a positive figure. The problems, or perhaps I should say the negative aspects, of power are brought out most clearly in his relations with Caliban, the counterpoint to Ariel. Caliban is crude and potentially vicious, but we are also aware of his reasons for resentment, given the freedom he enjoyed earlier, before Prospero’s advent, when his mother Sycorax ruled over the island. He is given lines of great beauty with which to celebrate the place:

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”

But, though this situation is used as a trope for the horrors of colonialism, we cannot also forget the suffering for others, Ariel most obviously, that went with the previous dispensation. And, while the depredations wrought by colonialism obviously still reverberate, the characterization of Prospero is more positive, given his more passive approach to the riches of the island he has taken over. The situation is of course unrealistic, given that his obsession is with his past, the characters over the waters he needs to deal with. The island is merely a refuge then that he enjoys, not an object to be used. He leaves it then as he found it, except the better for Ariel’s release.

But this master of transformations also works on himself. Returning to the real world from his magical island he proclaims:

“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.”

This leads to an ending that is unprecedented in Shakespeare, an epilogue delivered by the main character that is about abnegation rather than self-assertion. The last six lines of this closing speech should be as well known as Portia’s celebration of mercy, or perhaps even more so, for this is an invocation of mercy for human frailty not just acknowledged but also sef-imposed:

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,

I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”

Ceylon Today 23 Nov 2014 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-78359-news-detail-shakespeares-epiphany.html

 

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