Nature VS Nurture in the Tempest

Length: 2472 words

The conflict between Nature and Nurture, between the forces of instinctual passion and civilising rationality and the innocent realm of nature and the controlling forces of European culture all clash in The Tempest. Shakespeare reflects the philosophic debate that grew out of 17th century colonisation which meditated on natural man (those who were being colonised), and civilised man (the Europeans), and which one was superior. Those who advocated ‘civilised man’ portrayed natural man as savage, barbaric, brutal, and most importantly, inferior. However, one could argue that ‘civilised man’ was probably just as savage in their manipulation and politics, and more power-hungry than their natural counterparts. In the Tempest, Caliban represents natural man, Prospero the civilised, but both have most obvious flaws, and Shakespeare does not appear to wholly condemn either of these polar opposites. Prospero alights onto the island and deprives Caliban of his rights, which is problematic for those arguing that ‘civilised man’ is kind and genteel, and Caliban is said to have raped Miranda, which is problematic for those arguing the other case.

Contextually, Art in The Tempest represents the art of Prospero, or his magical powers. Prospero’s art is used at first for revengeful purposes, which seems to be

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another argument against colonisation as it represents the European colonisers as power hungry and egotistical. However, in the final moments of the play, the benevolent purposes of it’s use become more apparent – restoration of the Chain of Being, or social order, the love match between Miranda and Ferdinand, and for the education of others, like Trinculo and Stephano. The contrasting force is that of Caliban, who represents nature. This connection with nature is, like Prospero’s art, both altruistic and misanthropic and causes problems when Caliban comes into contact with Prospero, because these two views conflict. However, they also have some hidden similarities.

Caliban and his powerful connection with the natural world represent nature. The lack of control can both be harmful to Caliban, by letting his ‘hag-seed’ nature shine through, and advantageous, as it allows him to both hear and appreciate (unlike the ‘civilised’ Stephano and Trinculo) the ‘isle…full of noises…that give delight’. Although the aforementioned attempted rape of Miranda is evidently not praiseworthy, he does seem to be at one with the ‘sounds, and sweet airs’ of ‘the Isle’, and those arguing for natural man could commend this. Caliban’s name is also an interesting point of conjecture. It could be speculated that it comes from ‘Carib’, the derogatory term for those discovered by the Europeans, or if it is an anagram of ‘cannibal’. Either way, Shakespeare obviously did not mean the name as a compliment.

The nature/nurture debate in The Tempest first becomes apparent when we see Prospero’s ‘nurturing’ role as a parent to Miranda. At first, Prospero informs Miranda that she is ‘ignorant’, and instructs her to ‘pluck [his] magic garment from’ him. This presents Prospero as a somewhat dominating father figure, who is a perhaps too strict considering the amount of limitations already in put in place by living on an island. However, his attitude immediately changes after his ‘magic garment’ is removed, his mantle of power has gone and he becomes a father figure, instructing Miranda to ‘Wipe thou thine eyes; have comfort.’. Prospero appears to be confused at what type of father figure he wants to play, be it sympathetic and kindly, or dominating. Perhaps the lack of a mother figure for Miranda could be the reason for this apparent polar parenting, however, the sporadic nature of Prospero’s parenting could indicate a lack of reliability in his parenting skills.

His efforts to nurture the right responses in Miranda spill over into his efforts to control her sexually, especially in the Masque scene. This scene is designed to nurture the right moral responses and exclude sexuality in order to sustain a dynastic political marriage. He threatens Ferdinand with ‘If thou dost break her virgin-knot before All sanctimonious ceremonies … No sweet aspersion … but barren hate … sour-ey’d disdain and discord shall bestrew The union of your bed with weeds so loathly’. This attempt to control Miranda’s sexuality is one of many during the play, and is one of Prospero’s more consistent ‘nurturing’ attempts. For Prospero, the level of Miranda’s chastity seems to be a measure of his success as a parent, and he feels that if he can marry Miranda off successfully, his nurturing will have been sufficient.

Prospero has also apparently attempted to nurture the wildly savage Caliban. When Prospero first arrived on the island, he ‘strok’st [Caliban] and made much of’ him, and gave him ‘Water with berries in’t’. He also taught Caliban to ‘name the bigger light’, or the sun, which shows that Prospero has attempted to educate Caliban in his nurturing of him. Initially, Prospero appears to have had no intention of enslaving Caliban, however, Prospero’s nurturing was not sufficient to overcome Caliban’s nature, as Caliban can take ‘no print of goodness’. An interesting point to note is that Caliban’s lines are always in poetic iambic pentameter, which Shakespeare usually reserved for the ‘good’ characters in his plays.

Although Shakespeare usually uses two narrative styles to help the audience distinguish between upper and lower classes, in this play both Prospero and Caliban use the same style, that of poetic verse. This is not, on the surface, because Caliban and Prospero are equals, but because Miranda had to teach Caliban how to speak. Before this, she says, he spoke ‘like/A thing most brutish’. However, this contradicts Prospero’s belief that Caliban is beyond becoming civilised with nurture. Prospero believes 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’. However, it is evident from Caliban’s use of the ‘civilised’ language style that nurture has in fact stuck. This is a constant reminder that Prospero/Miranda have taught Caliban everything ‘civilised’ that he knows.

Caliban initial reaction to Prospero on his entrance in Act I is to curse Prospero, and wish for a ‘south-west blow’ to ‘blister you all o’er!’. This immediately leads to the audience feeling wary of Caliban, especially a Shakespearian audience who would be aware of the colonisation at the time. Caliban is contrasted with Ariel, who is generally a well-tamed ‘subject’. Caliban is exclamatory and hostile, a bad colony. Caliban’s un-co-operative nature in this scene also fits the common stereotype at the time of natives being brutal and savage. However, Caliban claims that he ‘lov’d’ Prospero, and ‘show’d [him] all the qualities o’ th’ isle’, and this leads to some sympathy for Caliban. His childish innocence in calling the sun the ‘bigger light’ adds to this sympathy. This speech, from line 333, also has a stoical, poignant feel, which presents Caliban as quite noble. This leads to a vague almost respect for Caliban.

During this presentation of Caliban, the audience is forced to come to a decision. Caliban, for all his faults, does not attempt to cage and contain anyone on the island. He has an innate appreciation of ‘liberty’ and all that it implies. It is perhaps easier for a modern reader to see Caliban’s nature as more beneficial than Prospero’s attempts to harness it. However, an audience of Shakespeare’s era would disregard Caliban’s good points, or perhaps see them as a faint imprint of Prospero’s benevolence in his education of Caliban. The attempted rape of Miranda is the most obvious negative point of Caliban, and is explicit evidence of Caliban’s apparent lack of soul. Shakespare seems to have skirted over the obvious point that ‘civilised’ Europeans also commit sexual crimes. However, Antonio also claims to have no conscience in the play, which is more shocking because as a civilised man, we expect him to be continually virtuous and eloquent.

Prospero has elements of both the evil and the benevolent. At the beginning of the play, we see him as a very commanding and unrelenting ruler. As the ‘right duke of Milan’, he, upon alighting the island, has assumed all power. His punishment of Ariel shows his severity, as Prospero threatens to ‘peg’ Ariel in an oak’s ‘knotty entrails, till/Thou has howl’d away twelve winters’. This seems a harsh punishment, as all Ariel had requested was the ‘liberty’ that Prospero had previously promised. Perhaps when Caliban says ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t Is, I know how to curse.’, he also means that Prospero has nurtured envy and hatred in his subjects. Prospero has managed to inflict more than just his ‘civilised’ nature onto Caliban, but also his propensity to curse and threaten anyone or thing that disobeys him. There are two main aspects of Colonialism. One is the benign wish to nurture the European values, and the other is a harsh tyranny inflicted when the native fails to obey, and Prospero appears to readily switch between the two.

Prospero’s art implies self-control, and virtue. Even today, the word ‘art’ is usually used in conjunction with descriptions of worldly intellectuals, and these can only be found in places where civilisation is apparent. For this reason, we can consider Antonio’s intelligence as an ‘Art’, although it is not as benevolent as Prospero’s – Antonio uses his intelligence for evil causes. This is proof that Art is ultimately more dangerous and subversive than nature, ‘more terrible is the sin’ – hence Antonio is infinitely more dangerous as he is in a position of power and nobility, simply because of birth, and his ‘art’ and intelligence, which is simply because of access to good education. It is interesting to consider, as Antonio and Caliban are both ‘bad’ characters, what Prospero means by saying that ‘nature can never stick’ to Caliban, when it evidently has to Antonio. Antonio is not only aware that he is corrupt, he consistently chooses to be, and good breeding has not shown him the errors of his way.

Caliban, on the other hand, has no self-control. The rape of Miranda, his attempts to ‘violate the virtue of [Prospero’s] child’ shows that he is beneath the level of those that can love, like Ferdinand and Miranda, and can merely hope to control his lust and raw sexuality. This lack of control can be seen as a problem for those attempting to colonise the island, but also allows him to hear ‘a thousand twangling instruments’ that the Isle offers. Therefore, this lack of control can also be seen as a route to completely liberty.

Prospero is referring to his magic as ‘Art’ continually throughout the play. This seems to suggest that his magic is creative and harnesses a large amount of power. He uses his magic for more benevolent purposes, especially when compared to Sycorax, who serves the demon Setebos, a ‘natural’ God from the Carribean. It seems that although Sycorax was powerful, she used her magic for evil, and some of her ‘torment…which Sycorax could not again undo’ shows that she is significantly less powerful than Prospero. Prospero uses his Art to restore the social hierarchy and peace within the human relationships, and after this act has been completed, he is certain that he can renounce ‘this rough magic’ and it never will be needed again.

Although Caliban is the key figure in the exploration of nature in the text, Gonzalo makes an eloquent attempt to improve the King’s view of the island in Act II, Scene I; ‘How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!’ Gonzalo believes that ‘here is everything advantageous to life.’ Gonzalo also appears to have an element of the ‘untamed’ in him – he states that if he were to have charge of the island, there would be no ‘use of service’, ‘contract, succession, Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;’ This listing technique used could be a list of the things about civilisation that Shakespeare has most contempt for.

Caliban can also be contrasted with Ferdinand. Caliban’s lust ‘to violate The honour of (Prospero’s) child’ is very ‘natural’, a wild and savage need to satisfy raw sexual desires. Ferdinand is a very good example of a courtly lover, he is kind and courteous, and wishes as much as Prospero for Miranda to retain her chastity. He wishes for his children to be ‘fair issue’, and he claims that his love ‘shall never melt … into lust’. This shows that Ferdinand has a contempt for lust, his lust could ‘take away The edge’ of the marriage ‘celebration’, and this Christian virtuousness of the civilised is contrasted with the natural element in Caliban.

Appearance plays a big part in helping the audience to distinguish between those that are civilised and those who are not. Caliban, the ‘hag-seed’ offends Miranda, who exclaims that she ‘does not love to look on’ him. Trinculo, on first sight of Caliban in Act II, Scene II, wonders whether he is ‘a man or a fish, dead or alive’, and proceeds to announce that Caliban ‘smells like a fish’. Upon closer inspection, however, Trinculo comes to the conclusion that Caliban is ‘no fish, but an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt.’ The other ‘civilised’ characters in the play, are given an altogether more favourable description. The king, Alonso, has ‘garments’ that ‘hold’ ‘their freshness and glosses’.

The ending of the storyline is also significant for illustrating the differences between Nature and Art. When Prospero’s ‘charms are all o’erthrown’, he acknowledges Caliban is not evil, but his ill nature and behaviour is due to his parentage. However, Antonio, Prospero’s brother, is ‘forgiven’ for the past, but is still not recognised as an equal by Prospero. He is portrayed as power-hungry and foolish throughout, and this ‘civilised’ man is altogether more corrupt than Caliban and his nature.

To conclude this evaluation of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Nature and Art in The Tempest, it is evident that Shakespeare does not feel wholly satisfied with either the ‘civilised’ European etiquette, or the ‘un-civilised’ ways of Caliban, but merely hopes to show the differences and parallels between the two. However, Shakespeare also uses the finale of the play to illustrate the redeeming features of using Art, and civilisation, to fix the problems as the storyline progressed. As Shakespeare was himself a colonising European, it is understandable that he should portray civilisation, and Prospero, as slightly more favourably than Caliban’s raw and untamed nature. However, it is perhaps unfair to compare Caliban and Prospero as Nature and Nurture, as Caliban is never acknowledged to be human. This means that Caliban’s nature, although at times brutal and animalistic, is excusable because he is an animal or monster. However, the civilised Europeans who have similar amounts of evil in them are more surprising, especially when considering a writer in Shakespeare’s era should be doing all he can to advertise colonialism.

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