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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 389-404

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Prospero's Counter-Pastoral

Kevin Pask


AT THE BEGINNING of the period in which Caliban was to acquire his strongest association with revolutionary energies of every sort, William Hazlitt lodged what remains a powerful if underappreciated critique of this association. Writing in response to the report of a lecture in which Coleridge described Caliban as "an original and caricature of Jacobinism, so fully illustrated at Paris during the French Revolution," Hazlitt responded with some heat:

Caliban is so far from being a prototype of modern Jacobinism, that he is strictly the legitimate sovereign of the isle, and Prospero and the rest are usurpers, who have ousted him from his hereditary jurisdiction by superiority of talent and knowledge. "This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother," and he complains bitterly of the artifices used by his new friends to cajole him out of it.

Rather than Coleridge's envious Jacobin, Caliban is in fact much more like "the bloated and ricketty [sic] minds and bodies of the Bourbons." 1 Hazlitt is obviously attacking Coleridge from the left, even if his position is one hardly recognizable to more recent attempts to read The Tempest in a historical and political register. Coleridge's association of Caliban with the Jacobins was not a complimentary one, but his relatively conservative reading of Caliban turned out to be considerably more influential than others for the New Historical and Postcolonial readings of the play.

Hazlitt understands the "radical" content of the play to be aligned with Prospero rather than Caliban, and this reading reflects the influence of Milton's engagement with The Tempest. In Milton's early revision of the masque form, A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle generally known as Comus, the enchanter and tempter Comus first appears to the Lady as a shepherd, but, as the representative figure of the aristocratic pastoral, his counsel to the Lady is to spend rather than to hoard her erotic energy. The Attendant Spirit (also [End Page 389] dressed like a shepherd) later informs her brothers that Comus is of divine birth, son of Bacchus and Circe, and he also leads a "monstrous rout" who "are heard to howl / Like stabbed wolves, or tigers at their prey." 2 Comus is both libertine aristocrat and leader of a plebeian mob, and the association of Comus with bestial release puts him in the lineage of Caliban. 3 Still, Milton's Masque does not fail to reveal the genuine temptation Comus offers the Lady, a temptation at least partly Shakespearean in character. 4

Milton provides us with the terms to re-inflect the critical disagreement between Hazlitt and Coleridge: Caliban as both Hazlitt's "rickety Bourbon" and Coleridge's revolutionary Jacobin. Such a reading of pastoral necessarily relies on William Empson's expansive version of pastoral as the literary mode whose characteristic "trick of mind" is to imply "a beautiful relation between rich and poor." 5 The Tempest hardly seems to bring off this trick; rather, it is something more akin to the photographic negative of the Renaissance pastoral, even Shakespeare's own ironic playfulness with the genre. Prospero himself appears to associate Caliban with a narrower understanding of pastoral when his own wedding masque for Ferdinand and Miranda produces the pastoral dance of nymphs and reapers. In watching this conventionalized pastoral, however, what Prospero actually seems to see is Caliban, producing the play's most dramatically unsettling moment in Prospero's sudden dissolution of his own masque: "I had forgot that foul conspiracy/ Of the beast Caliban and his confederates/ Against my life." 6 I shall return to this moment in the play, but only after elaborating a double plot, Miranda's courtship and Caliban's rebellious claim to the island, that makes it so resonant in the play. "What is displayed on the tragic-comic stage is a sort of marriage of the myths of heroic and pastoral," writes Empson with Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay in mind, "a thing felt as fundamental to both and necessary to the health of society." 7 The Tempest, on the...


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