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José Rodolfo da Silva

Professor Eliana Ávila

Cultural and Literary Theory and Criticism:

“The Tempest as Contact Zone”

13 November 2009

“A Brave Form, But a Spirit”:

The Production of Early Modern Humanism in The Tempest

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “animal” only emerged in the

English language by the end of the sixteenth century (Shannon 474). Before that, reference to

what today are called “animals” was done by the means of different lexical strategies, usually

a sort of list, as the biblical account of Creation suggests: “Let the waters bring foorth in

abundance euery creeping thing that hath life: and let the foule flie vpon the earth in the open

firmament of the heauen. . . . Let the earth bring foorth the liuing thing according to his

kinde, cattell, and that which creepeth, and the beast of the earth, according to his kinde. and

it was so” (Geneva Bible, Gen. 1.20,24). A similar predilection towards a wide range of

phenomena (rather than specific and all-encompassing concepts) could also be found in pre-

modern science, wherein the Aristotelian notion of “experience” of the world ruled over the

modern scientific concept of the experiment as a path to knowledge (Spiller 24-25). This also

entailed the distinction among scientia and ars which would only find its way back into

Western thought in the 19th century (Spiller, 24).

Against this background, Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, having been probably

written in 1611, stands in a crucial node in the transition from Renaissance to Modernism and

enacts many of its main themes, especially the interrelated changing attitudes towards
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“animality”, science, and art. How does the play portray the production of Early Modern

humanism, in its foundations on science and art, as being strictly related to a new

understanding of the relationship between humanity and animality? This paper explores this

question in a post-structuralist framework which will try to show how the dichotomies

constructed for the benefit of humanism are arbitrary and deconstructable. The deconstructive

critique will also focus on art as an instrumental discourse to the setting-up of the Early

Modern humanism, and on how it is organized in relation to science and to the concept of

animality in order to produce the human.

In Aristotelian scholasticism, knowledge of the world could only be glimpsed if it

paid respect to an essential teleology of what “happens always or most of the time” (Spiller

28) in the world and, as such, that could only be capture by the means of experience. Because

an emphasis was put on teleology — “how and why [things] were what they were” — certain

instances of nature, which seemed to deviate from nature’s “design”, were discarded as

offering no insight into the truth of the world (Spiller 25). Thus, accidents, anomalies, and

monsters had no relevance to scientific knowledge from Aristotle to Renaissance.

This disregard for accidents that did not seem to correspond to teleology also

implicated in the notion that creative knowledge, as present in art and in crafts, did not yield

truth about nature. Artistic knowledge, as well as the ones associated with architecture,

painting, and medicine, was seen as product of “human intention rather than the expression of

an essential teleology” (Spiller 25). That meant a division among scientia on one side, as

contemplative and rational knowledge about the world, and praxis (decision-making), poesis

(crafts), and ars (art) on the other, as human derivates (Spiller 27).

In The Tempest, Prospero, when he was Duke of Milan, used to be a man of letters,

“neglecting wordly ends, all dedicated / To closeness and the bettering of [his] mind” (1.2.89-

90) and such isolation led to his exile from Italy. Therefore, in his Italian days, Prospero lived
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under an Aristotelian regime of strict separation between world and art. For him and for his

courtiers, art could bear no relation to reality, and he is banished from Milan to an island.

Stranded on this island, Prospero sets out to reorganize the relations between his art

and the world. The insularity of the island standing exactly for the kind of accident, of

deviated instance from the norm, that scholasticism discredited, it is there that Prospero will

set up his artful play in which he will articulate art, knowledge, power and humanism. The

storm that opens the play is, at the same time, an “accident” and an artifice, upon which

Prospero intends to create knowledge and truth. As such, the storm — and the others illusions

Prospero creates by the means of his “art” — come close to the modern notion of the

experiment, in which a specific instance of reality is controlled and manipulated to produce a

fact, a word whose etymology betrays its status of “fabrication” (Spiller 28).

The island, and the “accidents” Prospero creates in it, becomes the stage for a

reconfiguration of the notions of the universal and the singular. The latter was discarded by

scholasticism as irrelevant, but little by little it is constructed by Prospero (as in the modern

experiment) as bringing a useful insight into the whole of nature. Beginning with the island

setting, singularity is stressed repeatedly as relevant to knowledge. The storm can also be

seen as an accident, a deviation from proper climatic properties, but one which gives

knowledge, such as to Miranda, since it is from the shipwreck that she gets to hear her life

story. Also, the story is set in a state of exception from the Law, since the rightful Duke is

exiled and the King, Alonso, is said to be drowned, suffering a “sea-change”. As authors such

as Benjamin, Derrida, and Agamben have pointed out, the state of exception, or emergency,

is the outside of the law which ends up defining the inside (Lupton 6).

But the importance of singularity over universality is best glimpsed if we see it under

the light of what seems to be Prospero’s objective: the pedagogy of the new generation

(Miranda and Ferdinand) in the Early Modern values of scientific experiment, of the power of
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art and of humanism. Exactly because Miranda has spent all her life on the island, her whole

world is comprised of singulars and “she has never experienced the multiplicity that could

constitute kind” (Spiller 32). Similarly, by having Ferdinand think he is the only survivor of

the wreck, and that his father is dead, Prospero makes him come close to feeling like “a

single thing” (1.2.430), a person with no equals who may be taught the importance of

singularity as truth and the humanist power of art of creating singularities.

According to Peter Sloterdijk, we could link modern humanism to “the model of a

literary society, in which participation through reading the canon reveals a common love of

inspiring messages” (13). As such, early modern humanism is less tied to science than to art,

viewed as the craft which produces that which will bring the truth, and it is defined as a

literate community bound together by its canon. As we gather from Sloterdijk, “national

humanism was nothing other than the power to incline the young toward the classics and to

reaffirm the universal validity of the national canon” (14), and, as such, Prospero’s pedagogy

of Miranda and Ferdinand seem to be exactly the kind of indoctrination into the value of art

and literacy as a way to truth and power.

But Prospero’s realignment of his role as scholar does not depend solely on his

reconfiguration of singularity and art as means to knowledge. He will also have to deal and

tamper with the Medieval understanding of living beings as different creatures in order to

produce them as divided into human and non-human. According to Giorgio Agamben,

“[p]erhaps not only theology and philosophy but also politics, ethics, and jurisprudence are

drawn and suspended in the difference between man and animal” (22). And according to

Sloterdijk, humanism believes that humans are creatures vulnerable to suggestion and that its

role is to coax humans to be under the influence of “constraining” media rather than the

“unconstraining ones” (15). “The label of humanism,” he writes, “reminds us . . . of the

constant battle for humanity that reveals itself as a contest between bestializing and
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taming tendencies” (15). As such, humanism will depend greatly on the human/animal divide

which will be inaugurated in Early Modernism.

Before the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, there was not a concept which could encompass

all animal life. There were living things, which were ordered, along with the human, in a

larger cosmological chain of being, the scala naturae, which also included angels, demons,

and God himself (Shannon 474). The notion that humans were superior to animals was of

course present, but that cosmic ordering did not correspondent to any modern absolute

human/animal division. The Cartesian movement of equaling humanness to the cogito,

together with the reconfiguration of notions of the universal teleology of nature and the

importance of the exception, enabled the drawing of a decisive line between humans and

animals (Shannon 474).

However, as Agamben writes, this division of life into human and non-human does

not occur in the realm of the natural world, but “passes first of all as a mobile border within

living man, and without this intimate caesura the very decision of what is human and what is

not would probably not be possible. It is possible to oppose man to other living things . . .

only because something like an animal life has been separated within man” (15-16). What

this entails is that, when drawing such internal division, the human will in fact be dealing

with abstract concepts of humanity and animality, to which examples in the “real” world will

be found in order to be classified according to such abstract notions. Here, thus, Prospero’s

new science of the singular is most needed, because it is only by seeing instances as true

representatives of a universal truth that such notions of “animality” and “humanity” can be

validated. It is only by seeing one specific animal as manifesting “animalness” that we can

believe in animalness as an existing concept.

Agamben explores this internal division further by pointing out that such internal

division is produced by what he calls the anthropological machine. This machine “verifies the
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absence of a nature proper [to the human], holding him suspended between a celestial and a

terrestrial nature” (29). The function of this machine is to produce the human from the

human/animal opposition, but, “because the human is already presupposed every time, the

machine actually produces a kind of state of exception, a zone of indeterminacy in which the

outside is nothing but the exclusion of an inside and the inside is in turn only the inclusion of

an outside” (37). This is because it is not really possible to imagine a missing link between

the human and the animal unless one imagines an instance of an animalized human or a

humanized animal, and this only stresses the influence of the example-based mode of science

in Modern thought.

Which inhabitant of the zone of exception — animalized human or humanized animal

— is more important will depend on the machine in question. Agamben points to the fact that

there have been two anthropological machines, a modern and a medieval one, and each one

will give emphasis either to the “exclusion of an inside” or to the “inclusion of an outside”

(37). In the case of The Tempest, the (early) modern machine is at work, and it stresses the

animalized human, the exclusion of an inside. Because they are producing precisely the

human which is furthest from “bestializing tendencies”, the zone of exception within their

machines will be the place of the non-speaking man, or the ape-man (34). As such, we can

see that the production of the human/animal binary always leaves a difficult middle ground

which has to be repeatedly produced and decided upon and that Early Modern science makes

possible, when confronted with an instance that seems to complicate the distinction, to see it

as a place where the two concepts meet and as a proof that they exist separately somewhere


The seeming contradiction of seeing in a hybrid the confirmation of the pure concepts

it articulates is only indeed possible in the new economy of science put forth by Prospero.

Prior to that, any hybrid would be considered an anomaly and would contribute nothing to the
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understanding of the nature of creatures, men, angels, or God. But in modern science, the

singular accident is seen as a controllable experiment from which one may derive the maxims

or concepts to be applied elsewhere. In this sense, only two pure concepts exist, one at either

side of the continuum, and we may call them “bestial” and “divine”. The tension between

them would function much like the human/animal economy of relations within Agamben’s

anthropological machine, but it would be prudent to understand that the “human” is indeed

never a kind, but only an instance in which discourse will try to decide where the “bestial”

ends and the “divine” begins, just as any instance living in the middle ground between the

concepts, such as the ape-man or the angel, will have to be produced as a constant negotiation

between the two poles. On this apparent contradictory power for confirmation of the hybrid,

Wolfe writes:

That the ostensibly “pure” categories of [bestial] and [divine] are the merest

ideological functions is evinced by the furious line drawing at work in the

hybrid designations. It is as if these two pure poles can be secured as pure (and

hence immensely powerful) ideological fictions only by constantly revisiting

the locales where they cannot be discerned. (101-102)

If, as we saw, the human is indeed seen as a constantly-produced hybrid, and if the

revisiting of hybrids confirms the existence of the poles, it will be especially convenient for

Prospero to continually stress the supposedly hybrid nature of the other “middle ground”

inhabitants in the play — Caliban and Ariel. By guaranteeing that they are indeed,

respectively, hybrids of animal and a vaguely defined human, and of humans and the divine,

Prospero erects the model that will allow him to construct any instance of a human being as

the ground in which “humanity” may be discerned in its proper quest for divinity and its

earthly counterparts: virtue, civility, and art.

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And indeed, throughout the play Prospero will be constantly intent on constructing

Caliban and Ariel as hybrids, since this serves his revaluing of art as an instance-based model

of science and cosmology but also because his own humanity, in which he wants to educate

Miranda and Ferdinand, depends on that. From the moment that Ariel first comes into the

stage, Prospero continually refers to him as “a spirit” and stresses that Prospero’s “art”

depends on Ariel’s magic, stressing at the same time that human enterprises are seen as

somewhat “spiritual” and that, as such, humanity is defined as a desired approximation to

divinity. This is further highlighted by Prospero when he recounts how he freed Ariel: “It was

mine art / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / the pine, and let thee out”

(1.2.291-293). In Prospero’s view, his art was able of unleashing a spiritual force which will

thrust his own humanity closer to divinity. Ariel’s perceived hybrid nature is stressed by

Prospero’s threats of imprisoning him again, wherein he employs animal references to

supposedly pull Ariel closer to the mundane: “I will . . . peg thee in his knotty entrails till /

Thou hast howled away twelve winters” (1.2.295-296, my emphasis).

Caliban’s first appearance is marked by his difference from Ariel. Whereas the latter

is constructed as closer than Prospero to the divine, and a thing to be cherished and used,

Caliban is seen as an intermediate of animal and human, as the instance of a creature closer to

bestiality, and on whose disavowal Prospero’s humanity depend. In the second scene of Act

1, Prospero’s opposes Ariel’s “airiness” of spirit to Caliban’s lowly corporeality. He glosses

Ariel as “fine apparition” (1.2.317) to construct Caliban as animal-like only lines afterwards:

“Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!”

(1.2.319-320, my emphasis).

Actually, the overtones of animal-likeness, humaneness and divinity are reinforced

throughout the play in varied instances, thrown around in dialogues and soliloquies as

constant yardsticks for the characters’ desired status of civil humanity and as means of
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understanding the nature of different phenomena, such as the music heard in the island,

Ariel’s illusions, Trinculo’s liquor, the beauty of Miranda and Ferdinand, etc. The singularity

of the island, and of the “accidents” produced there by Prospero, constantly require the

characters to make decisions concerning what would be of “earthly” and “spiritual” origin.

As such, the island itself becomes again the pedagogical stage for training all other characters

in the importance of singularity and art’s role in manipulating it.

This interplay between “earthly” and “spiritual”, which is so necessarily enacted upon

Ariel and Caliban, finds its apex in Miranda and Ferdinand’s meeting each other. Proving to

be a good learner of Prospero’s humanity-producing pedagogy of tensions, Miranda

proclaims Ferdinand to be a spirit: “It carries a brave form. But ‘tis a spirit” (1.2.409). She

has internalized the dialectic between “form” (animal body) and “spirit” (divine attachments)

which Prospero sees to be at a work in every instance of the human. He then proceeds to

teach her that, however angel-like Ferdinand may appear (and Prospero wishes to be), he still

is suspended in between animal embodiment and angelic properties: “No, wench, it eats, and

sleeps, and hath such senses / As we have, such” (1.2.410-411). But still Miranda insists on

Ferdinand’s seemingly impossible nature: “I might call him / a thing divine, for nothing

natural / I ever saw so noble” (1.2.415-417). Of course Miranda has never seen another of

Ferdinand’s kind, because for her the world is comprised of nothing but singulars, and such

“accident” of nature between the animalized Caliban and the god-like Ariel and Prospero will

indeed serve a good lesson in Prospero’s teaching of Miranda in the new Early Modern

humanist values.

Similarly Ferdinand, because he is left “a single thing”, abstracted from his fellows,

sees Miranda as an impossible amalgam of embodiment and divinity, especially because

stressed by the peculiarity of the island and the songs Prospero has Ariel plays for him.

Convinced as he is of the anomalous nature of the island, Ferdinand takes Miranda to be a

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goddess: “Most sure, the goddess / On whom these airs attend!” (1.2.419-420). And he asks

her to define her nature as either goddess or girl: “My prime request, / Which I do last

pronounce, is (O you wonder!) / If you be maid or no?” (1.2.423-425), to which she replies:

“No wonder, sir, / But certainly a maid” (1.2.426-427). And the footnote, added by editors

Hulme and Sherman, stresses that Miranda is a maid “as opposed to either a goddess or a

married woman” (22), attesting that her humanity, different from Ferdinand’s, is dependent

on her virginity as instrumental to the continuation of civility in the future marriage. This is

further highlighted by Sycorax’s demonization and Prospero’s insistence on Miranda’s

virginity until after the wedding, pointing to the construction of women as human to the

extent that they may contribute to civil society in the constitution of the family.

Miranda’s instant infatuation with Ferdinand, apparently even stronger than Prospero

expected, leads the latter to reproach her continuous defense of his enemy’s son, who

Prospero intends to put through trials before he is to be offered Miranda in marriage. In his

reproach, Prospero continues to teach Miranda his model of humanity: “Thou think’st there is

no more such shapes as he, / Having seen but him and Caliban. Foolish wench, / To th’ most

of men this is a Caliban, / And they to him are angels” (1.2.475-478).

It’s unlikely that Prospero wishes Miranda to see Ferdinand as a low instance of

human being, for that would jeopardize his entire teaching project. It’s more likely that, in his

need to silence Miranda’s hasty admiration, Prospero makes use of his didactical three-fold

model only as a censuring discourse (but one that teaches at the same time), so that Miranda

can truly admire Ferdinand only after Prospero has put him through the trials that will cut him

off even further from the other Italians. So, in the same move, Prospero teaches Miranda

another lesson in the anthropological machine, and also stresses that humanity must not be

based on natural proprieties — that it is a work in progress towards divinity. Ferdinand’s

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physical trials may be seen as a form of sacrifice of the body in the name of the soul, after

which Miranda may truly love him as a perfect instance of the civil human.

Parting from the union of Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero sets out to establish his

new paradigm of art, science, and humanity. He has Ariel set up a masque which will teach

the importance of being chaste until the wedding, in order to secure the legitimate

continuation of such paradigm. As Ferdinand puts it, such legitimate continuation depends on

a taming of bestializing tendencies: “The white cold virgin snow upon my heart / Abates the

ardor of my liver” (4.1.55-56).

After Prospero reunites with the Italians, he loftily forgives his enemies for their

treason and usurpation. He can forgive them because by now they have been convinced that

his art, rather than separated from the world, is a way of both creating knowledge about the

world and controlling it by the means of power. At the same time, he has secured that his

pupils, Miranda and Ferdinand, will succeed Alonso as monarchs to protect Prospero’s new

paradigm of art and science.

When Miranda is finally brought out from her world of particularities to meet the

Italians and find universality, she’s capable, according to Prospero’s plan, of making “the

oddities of nature . . . meaningful” (Spiller 32) by seeing all the courtiers as hybrids instances

of animal bodies and divine souls. In her speech, “O, wonder! / How many goodly creatures

are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world / That has such people in’t!”,

Miranda founds the new early modern world, where art (indistinct form science) is

meaningful in its manipulation of accidents, and where each instance of life is internally

divided into human and non-human, just as it was carefully architected by Prospero.

We are then left with the question whether Prospero was successful or not in his

pedagogy of the other characters in founding his new world. The “happy end” of the play

seems to suggest that he was, and that he is going back to Italy to resume his scholarly work,
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now “rightfully” posited as knowledge-producing, and to rule through the reign of Miranda

and Ferdinand. However, as was pointed out by Barker and Hulme, we glimpse the

possibility of failure of his discourse when the masque is abruptly interrupted by Prospero

after he remembers that Caliban is to attempt against his life. He deals with the problem in a

rather effective way, but the threat to his careful orchestration of bestial and divine concepts

lingers on: he admits that his masque was played by “spirits [that] / are melted into air, into

thin air” (4.1.149-150) and that all, even “the great globe itself” (4.1.153), is fabrication.

With the realization that Caliban has full subjectivity and is not merely a discursive tool for

his enterprise, it is perhaps implied that Prospero sees his project betrayed as fabrication and

manipulation, and that it might not hold for long due to its artificiality.

However, by the end of the play things do seem to work according to his plan, and

Early Modernism did install both art as crucial for humanist knowledge and the

human/animal divide. The former has been largely refuted with the separation of knowledge

between the Sciences and the Humanities, but the latter is still fully present today, as a legacy

from the discourses which were (and are) necessary for humanism.
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Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. The Open: Man and Animal. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.


Barker, Francis, and Peter Hulme. “‘Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish’: The Discursive

Con-texts of The Tempest.” In Alternative Shakespeares. Ed. John Drakakis.

London: Methuen, 1985. 191-205. Print.

Geneva Bible (1587). StudyLight.Org. Web. 13 Nov. 2009. <


Lupton, Julia Reinhard. “Creature Caliban.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51.1 (2000): 1-23. Web.

12 Sep. 2009.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest: Sources and Contexts, Rewritings and Appropriations.

Ed. Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman. New York and London: Norton,

2004. Print.

Shannon, Laurie. “The Eight Animals in Shakespeare; or, Before the Human”. PMLA 124.2

(2009): 472-479. Print.

Sloterdijk, Peter. “Rules for the Human Zoo: a response to the Letter on Humanism”.

Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27.1 (2009): 12-28. Web.

Spiller, Elizabeth. “Shakespeare and the Making of Early Modern Science: Resituating

Prospero’s Art”. South Central Review 26.1&2 (2009): 24-41. Print.

Wolfe, Cary. Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist

Theory. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Print.