Gonzalo’s commonwealth

Gonzalo is the most virtuous character in Shakespeare’s Tempest, a man “whose honor cannot / Be measured or confined” (v,1,135-6). He arrives on Prospero’s island in the company of vile politicians who have organized a coup and are prepared, some of them, to kill for even more power. They mock him after he makes his speech in favor of his ideal society:

I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries

Execute all things, for no kind of traffic

Would I admit; no name of magistrate;

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,

And use of service, none; contract, succession,

Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;

No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;

No occupation; all men idle, all

And women too, but innocent and pure;

No sovereignty —

SEBASTIAN: Yet he would be king on ‘t

ANTONIO: The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

GONZALO: All things in common nature should produce

Without sweat or endeavor; treason, felony,

Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine

Would I not have; but nature should bring forth

Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,

To feed my innocent people.

SEBASTIAN: No marrying ‘mong his subjects?

ANTONIO: None, man, all idle: whores and knaves.

GONZALO: I would with such perfection govern, sir,

T’ excel the Golden Age. (ii,1,161ff.)

Gonzalo sounds like Rousseau–and has Rousseau’s problem, acutely noted by the wicked Sebastian and Antonio in their prose interruption to his blank verse. Gonzalo would need power to create his society without power. When he says, “I would … execute all things” he implies that he would be sovereign, yet there would be no sovereignty in his anarchistic commonwealth. He must force men to be free.

Rousseau would not be born for another century. But Gonzalo quotes another Frenchman, Montaigne, whose essay “On Savages” described Native Americans as happy and free. There were two “savage” natives on Prospero’s island when he arrived (although Caliban was actually an earlier immigrant). Prospero quickly made both of them his slaves, thus acting “contrary” to Gonzalo. Also against Gonzalo’s principles, Prospero demands “service,” charges people with “treason” and “felony,” and controls his daughter’s marriage “contract” and “succession.” Prospero seems to be the hero of the play, which is presented as a comedy. Yet modern readers mostly recoil at his treatment of Caliban, his paternalism toward Miranda, and his slave Ariel’s obsequiousness.

Yet Prospero is the hero, I think, and Shakespeare’s vision is a dark one. Gonzalo may be appealing, but he is ineffectual. He has served the usurping Duke Antonio and supported the law of that regime (see i.1,30). He does nothing to overthrow Antonio or create a Golden Age. Prospero was also originally an idealist. He shunned “temporal royalties” in favor of his library, becoming a harmless scholar (i,2,131). He wanted to “abjure” his “rough” powers, as he finally does in Act V. Unfortunately, power did not vanish in Milan because Prospero refused to exercise it. His own brother and confederates overthrew him and sent him into a dangerous exile with only his child.

Then he came to a place with no sovereignty, a desert island. He had his books. Otherwise, there was no property, no crime, no border, no master or slave. But now Prospero understood that he could not simply abjure power without putting himself in grave danger. He would have to be master or mastered. Thus he made himself dictator of his new “dukedom” until, by means of an elaborate scheme, he was able to restore justice. When he finally arranges for a lawful succession, his own story is over. “And thence retire me to my Milan, where / My every third thought shall be my grave” (v,1,378-9).

Prospero wishes to avoid ruling–as does Lear at the beginning of that play. Gonzalo describes a society without rulers–just like Lear’s vision once he is out on the heath (iv,6). But Gonzalo is actually nothing but a tool of a despotic state. Prospero realizes he must use rough power to restore order and imperfect justice before he dies. Shakespeare takes that to be a happy ending.

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