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Tempestuousity (and Other Goodly Words)

April 27, 2012

Henry Fuseli, The Enchanted Island: Before the Cell of Prospero (1797)

Much more on account of my quirkiness than erudition I have long liked The Tempest, Shakespeare’s straightforward tale of Prospero, a bitter old wizard, and his grudge match against his brother and the clowns who betrayed him, stole his neglected dukedom, and stranded him with his young daughter on a romantic little hell of an island somewhere in the Mediterranean.

One day Prospero realizes his unbeloved enemies are sailing by, conjures a storm to smash their ship ashore, then proceeeds to torture them with the help of the spirit Ariel (whom he’s enslaved) and the savage Caliban (whom he’s enslaved). (Prospero ain’t no saint!)

Prospero humiliates the castaways for a while, sort of like he’s been humiliating everyone else on the island for years, then maybe as a peace offering marries off his nymphette daughter to the token virtuous guy amongst the scoundrels. A regular Waltons episode.

But the key passage for me is in the last act where ingénue Miranda (a name Shakespeare drew from the Latin for “admirable, wonderful,” as in annus mirabilis) on first viewing the motley batch of princely pretenders and sycophantic backstabbers exclaims:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Prospero’s reply is my treasure:

‘Tis new to thee.

(Act V, scene 1). His testy dry acerbity tumbles to the floor like a clutch of dry bones, rebuking his delicate daughter while holding short of puncturing her open-faced optimism. He implies that her faith is born of ignorance yet betrays he is perhaps too old and withdrawn to see the world for what it is.

I’m no scholar: I took one Shakespeare course in college and it was to meet a requirement (but it was a hell of a class). Yet this sort of writing has on me a subtle influence. For example, I notice now that for some reason I nicknamed this laptop Caliban. (The drive is Charon, a cranky old guy like Prospero but far less voluble.)

Why is this on my mind? Aldous Huxley of course tapped the phrase “brave new world” to title his 1932 novel of futuristic good cheer—”brave” meaning beautiful not courageous. At the moment I’m liking the “goodly creatures” part. My mother’s maiden name was Good. She and her sisters were known as the Good Girls. The reader can imagine the wisecracks and ironies. My mother could be a goodly creature and sometimes not (goodly is like truthiness), and that’s where the interest lies.

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