Analysing The Tempest for Ideas about Discovery (HSC AOS)

In act 1 scene 2, the second scene of Shakespeare’s last play, we are introduced to various kinds of encounters of the play’s key characters. Below are two kinds of discoveries you could consider:

Memory and Narrative as Sources of Discovery

First, there is Miranda’s encounter with her past and her actual identity. Central to this is the idea that discoveries about oneself can be made through second-hand accounts told by other people – in this case, Prospero narrates Miranda’s past to her, and this results in a unique experience where Miranda, despite having lived through her own past, does not know it, but forms knowledge of it only when another decides that it is appropriate to do so.

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A production of The Tempest directed by Michael Burnham

Act 1/Scene 2

PROSPERO

The hour’s now come;

The very minute bids thee ope thine ear;

Obey and be attentive. Canst thou remember

A time before we came unto this cell?

I do not think thou canst, for then thou wast not

Out three years old.

MIRANDA

Certainly, sir, I can.

PROSPERO

By what? by any other house or person?

Of any thing the image tell me that

Hath kept with thy remembrance.

MIRANDA

‘Tis far off

And rather like a dream than an assurance

That my remembrance warrants. Had I not

Four or five women once that tended me?

PROSPERO

Thou hadst, and more, Miranda. But how is it

That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else

In the dark backward and abysm of time?

If thou remember’st aught ere thou camest here,

How thou camest here thou mayst.

MIRANDA

But that I do not.

Prospero’s imperious declaration of “the hour’s now come” shows the degree of control he has over the timing and manner of Miranda’s discoveries. The encounters dictated by Prospero is one form of discovery in this scene – the other is the act of rememberance taking place in Miranda: “rather like a dream than an assurance/that my remembrance warrants. Had I not/Four or five women once that tended me?”, in which memory serves as the medium for self-knowledge. But memory proves a precarious, unreliable medium for exploring one’s identity, as Prospero asks: “What seest thou else/In the dark and backward and abysm of time?” The metaphor of an ‘abysm of time’ for memory highlights its depth, but also the infinitude of things past that drift fragmented or distorted in memory. Self-discovery for Miranda, therefore, takes a retrospective course, and involves both a combination of remembrance, and, to a greater degree, a narrative of the past that another creates and unfolds for her.

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Djimon Hounsou as Caliban in the 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest

Discovery and Power: Imposed Knowledge as Self-Knowledge

When we meet Caliban in the same scene, questions of the value of certain discoveries, and whether they are made voluntarily, begin to surface. Prospero teaches Caliban language, and in return, the latter offers Prospero knowledge of the island. While the island’s secrets are certainly of use to Prospero, it is unclear whether language benefits Caliban. The value of language is the value that a cultured, scholarly Renaissance sorcerer Prospero places on it, not something which it inherently possesses. Take a look at the following dialogue between the two characters:

Act 1/Scene 2

CALIBAN

I must eat my dinner.

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,

Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me

Water with berries in’t, and teach me how

To name the bigger light, and how the less,

That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee

And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,

The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:

Cursed be I that did so! All the charms

Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!

For I am all the subjects that you have,

Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me

In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me

The rest o’ the island.

PROSPERO

Abhorred slave,

Which any print of goodness wilt not take,

Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,

Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour

One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,

Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like

A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes

With words that made them known. But thy vile race,

Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which

good natures

Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou

Deservedly confined into this rock,

Who hadst deserved more than a prison.

CALIBAN

You taught me language; and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language!

Caliban himself highlights the dubious worth of Prospero’s lessons about the names of things on the island, and means of communicating his thoughts – neither of which he would need had Prospero not come to the island in the first place. Prospero insists: “thou didst not, savage/know thine own meaning but wouldst gabble like/ A thing most brutish”, and again positions himself as the source of another character’s self-discovery. His view that Caliban did not know his ‘own meaning’ before Prospero taught him the means to express it, is a profoundly arrogant assumption of authority over another’s mind. What he means, in other words, is that Caliban did not know his own mind before he had the tools (language) to express it in a way that Prospero understands. The blinkered Prospero negates anything he does not identify with, and considers Caliban’s way of life inferior because he does not recognise it within his narrow frame of reference.