Ways Of Reading The Tempest Essay Research

Ways Of Reading The Tempest Essay, Research Paper

WAYS OF READING THE TEMPEST: Greenblatt Vs Schneider

Shakespeare criticism has long been recognised as a touchstone to shifts in our critical discourses. The following paper constitutes an examination of two conflicting discourses. The analysis will be confined to the views presented in Stephen Greenblatt’s article entitled “Martial Law in the Land of Cockaigne” and Ben Ross Schneider, Jr’s “Are We Being Historical Yet?”: Colonialist Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Tempest – a contest, if you will, between two different theoretical positions as to where the text lies.

In his article entitled “Are We Being Historical Yet?”: Colonialist Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Tempest, Ben Ross Schneider, Jr extends Carolyn Porter’s critique of new historicism to recent work on The Tempest. Included in Schneider’s study of eight recent analyses of The Tempest, is Stephen Greenblatt’s article “Martial Law in the Land of Cockaigne.” Schneider argues that by choosing colonialism as a frame, and then “reifying” it as if it were “coterminus with the limits of discourse in general,” the new historicists marginalize not only a large field of relevant contemporary discourse, but also The Tempest itself (Schneider 121).

Schneider maintains that the great variety of theoretical underpinning in the set of essays fails to produce a corresponding variety of interpretation (Schneider 122). He then proceeds to highlight those areas of the play which provide the common ground for new historicist interpretation. It is not, however, the aim of this paper to analyse the five different areas mentioned by Schneider. What is more important for the author, is the contest that exists between the different theoretical positions as to where the text lies. The new historicists will be represented by Stephen Greenblatt, the opposing theoretical discourse will take the form of Ben Ross Schneider, Jr.

Schneider’s search for a timeless meaning to The Tempest ( a goal, which is remarkably similar to that of the old autotelic historicist) rests on an extensive field of early modern European discourse, whose roots can be traced back to Roman and Greek source documents. In his attempt to establish a specific causal relationship, something that Greenblatt’s circulation of social energy threatens to erase, Schneider maintains that we must examine the past. He argues that “before we declare the Jacobean position on colonialism, shouldn’t we know what ethical tools the Jacobeans brought to the task of judging it?” (Schneider 130) This strikes at the heart of Greenblatt’s argument, as his anecdotes and subsequent affirmations stem from the Jacobean position on colonialism.

Greenblatt uses the relationship between The Tempest and one of its presumed sources, William Strachey’s account of the tempest that struck an English fleet bound for the fledgling colony at Jamestown, as a model in order to demonstrate the complex circulation between the social dimension of an aesthetic strategy and the aesthetic dimension of a social strategy (Greenblatt 147). The play was performed long before Strachey’s narrative was printed, but scholars presume that Shakespeare read a manuscript version of the work, which takes the form of a confidential letter written to a certain “noble lady”(Greenblatt 147). Greenblatt highlights the significance of the relation between the two texts, or rather what he refers to as “the institutions that the texts serve” (Greenblatt 148).

According to Greenblatt, William Strachey was a shareholder and secretary of the Virginia Company’s colony at Jamestown. Apparently, his letter on the events of 1609-10 was unpublished until 1625 because the Virginia Company was engaged in a vigorous propaganda and financial campaign on behalf of the colony, and the company’s leaders found Strachey’s report too disturbing to allow it into print (Greenblatt 148). Shakespeare was also a shareholder in a joint-stock company, the King’s Men, as well as its principal playwright and sometime actor (Greenblatt 148). Neither joint-stock company was a direct agent of the crown and thus could not rely on royal financial support in times of need. Committed for their survival to attracting investment capital and turning a profit, both companies depended on their ability to market stories that would excite, interest, and attract supporters (Greenblatt 148). In his article, Greenblatt proposes that the relation between the play and its alleged source is a relation between joint-stock companies. He does, however, emphasise that these affiliations do not amount to a direct transfer of properties. What takes place is “a system of mimetic rather than contractual exchange” (Greenblatt 149). Greenblatt advocates that the conjunction of Strachey’s unpublished letter and

Shakespeare’s play signals an institutional circulation of culturally

significant narratives. This circulation has as its central concern the public management of anxiety. In his article, Greenblatt demonstrates how the Bermuda narrative is made negotiable, turned into a currency that may be transferred from one institutional context to another (Greenblatt 155). Greenblatt argues

that this process allows elements from Strachey’s letter to be

transformed and recombined with materials drawn from other writers

about the New World. One such final product is William Shakespeare’s

The Tempest.

As a significant point of reference, Schneider mentions Ruth Kelso’s bibliography of Renaissance books pertaining to the Doctrine of the English Gentleman (1929) and The Doctrine for the Lady (1956). Schneider emphasises the link between Shakespeare’s play and Professor Kelso’s findings, summarized in her second book: “the bulk of all that these treatises contain is made up of commonplaces, culled mostly from the ancients, whose names besprinkle the pages of all writers …. There is plenty of evidence that these same commonplaces were not of mere academic interest, for the letters, speeches and fiction of the time are full of the same ideas and rules for conduct” (Schneider 130). Schneider points out that since both rhetoric and history were given strong moral emphasis, it may be said that the universities were to a great extent schools of virtue. Furthermore, Professor Kelso’s list of those ancients most commonly cited in conduct books consists soley of Plato, Aristotle,Cicero and Seneca (Schneider 131). Schneider holds that since only scholars during the Renaissance period commonly read Greek, Cicero and Seneca provided the greatest influence in terms of the reading public (Schneider 131). According to Schneider, Cicero’s De Officiis and Seneca’s Essays and Epistles comprised the principal conduits of classical moral thought in Shakespeare’s time.

Schneider adds to his argument that of Ann Jennalie Cook’s, featured

in her book The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare’s London 1576-1642. Cook’s evidence suggests that the best educated and most well-read segment of society composed the main body of Shakespeare’s audience. Schneider advocates that the field of discourse mentioned above, would have been a major means of communication between Shakespeare and a audience which was “steeped in classical morality” (Schneider 132). This platform provides Schneider with the ammunition for his assertion that Stoicism, like feminist discourse nowadays, acted as the prevalent discourse during the Renaissance period and consequently dominated the way other discourses were understood.

Schneider’s assertions raise as many questions as they seems to answer – the pitfall of any theoretical discourse perhaps. In Schneider’s quest for a linear progression of moral ideas and values, the argument he constructs rests on another. It assumes two things. First, that Shakespeare’s audience predominantly consisted of the best educated and most well-read segment of society. Second, that the audience who went to watch The Tempest, or any other play for that matter, must have been versed or at least familiar with the principles advocated by Cicero and Seneca. If this is not the case, then Schneider’s argument appears to have no grounding whatsoever. What occurs is a break in Schneider’s linear, causal chain. One might argue that such values were inherent in Renaissance society, and when performed were easily identifiable. Such a reply, however, seems to break away from the fixed, causal relationship that Schneider wishes to impose and appears to enter the

realm of circulation.

Schneider continues to press home his assertions in the fourth area of common ground, the “discourse of anger”. Schneider argues that if we identify Prospero as an exemplar of the Senecan angry man, his behaviour is easier to explain. For Seneca, anger is one of the two most destructive passions that plague mankind.

Anger [he says] is temporary madness. For it is equally devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of ties, persistent and diligent in whatever it begins, closed to reason and councel, excited by trifling causes, unfit to discern the right and true (Schneider 133).

In an attempt to gain credibility, Schneider highlights the similarity between Prospero and Shakespeare’s list of “angry madmen”, whose fury drives them down an irreversible course to certain disaster, notably Lear, Hotspur, Coriolanus, Macbeth, Othello, and Timon (Schneider 133). Anger interrupts the tale of Prospero’s deposition. Anger restrains Ariel’s resistance and punishes Caliban’s insubordination with extreme cruelty. Schneider cites other examples of anger within The Tempest, and states that Prospero is governed by anger and is not, as romantic critics suppose, in control of his domain. Schneider once again refers to Seneca’s writings “a man cannot be called powerful – no, not even free if he is the captive of his anger” (Schneider 133). Schneider uses Seneca’s work to highlight the plays use of Stoic language. He maintains that The Tempest incorporates Seneca’s recommended views when, prompted by his “nobler reason”, Prospero admits his common humanity – admits “feeling [the same] passion as they” ( Schneider 133). Schneider argues that Seneca’s work elucidates other key elements of The Tempest and provides the rationale behind Prospero’s behaviour. Seneca advocates “that you may not be angry with individuals, you must forgive mankind at large, you must grant indulgence to the human race.” This reveals Prospero’s final position with respect to Caliban, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”. On a moral level Schneider argues, it is “not so puzzling a remark … as it is in the stricly-framed view of colonialist critics” ( Schneider 134).

In the fifth area of his analysis, entitled “Discourse of Freedom”, Schneider notes the importance of freedom in The Tempest. Three acts close on freedom, and the play ends with the word “free.” At the end of act 1, Ariel asks for his freedom. At the end of act 2, Caliban runs offstage shouting “Freedom, high-day!” Act 4 ends with Prospero promising Ariel his freedom after one more task (Schneider 134). Schneider points out that if freedom is mastery, act 3 also ends on freedom, when Prospero has his enemies where he wants them. Schneider notes the influence of Seneca and the Stoic context that exists before the play begins, before Antonio usurped Prospero’s dukedom. Prospero sought freedom of the body from the cares of office and retired to his chamber to study the “liberal arts” (Schneider 135). According to Schneider, Seneca opposed the study of “liberal arts”, with the execption of philosophy, because their aim was to make money. Cicero takes a dim view of reluctant administrators like Prospero, declaring that ” to be drawn by study away from active life is contrary to moral duty.”

The nature of Greenblatt’s approach and the flexibility of his argument makes it difficult to attack in a direct manner. While he seems to negate the influence of writers such as Cicero and Seneca, his concept of circulation allows for the incorporation of new discourses. No specific causal relationship is required. Schneider’s discourse appears to be less flexible. The causal relationship demanded by Schneider and theorists like Frank Kermode, requires sequential, linear progression from one period to another. In other words, a direct link. Source X lends itself to source Y, which in turn lends itself to Source Z. If Source X is found not to cause Source Y then the process breaks down. Schneider’s criticism of the new historicists, is that they are confined by a framework of colonialism and consequently, are blinded by it. They become limited in the sense that are not open to a wide range of possibilities.

The contest appears to be an endless debate involving two discources that, in this author’s opinion, can never be successfully argued to conclusion because both theories rest on different principles. Any one theory will assume some things in order assume others. Consequently, the theory will be blind to certain areas in order to elucidate others. The trick is to pick that model which appropriates the most meaning. In this instance, that choice lies with Stephen Greenblatt.


Stephen Greenblatt, “Martial law in the land of Cockaigne”, in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

Ben Ross Schneider, Jr, “Are We Being Historical Yet?”: Colonialist Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Tempest, Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995), 120-45.


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