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 Prospero's Business

By John Knope

08 April, 2015
Countercurrents.org

        Shakespeare's “Mystery Play,” the 1611 The Tempest, is an exceptionally puzzling play, “as strange a maze as ever men trod,” as the play says of itself. The Tempest's story of three bizarre hours one afternoon on Prospero's remote island has long defied explanation. “The range of disagreement on how to take this play is itself astonishing,” writes Shakespearean scholar Steven Miko. Several other scholars have written that there must be a “secret meaning” camouflaged between the baffling lines (Goddard, D. James, H. Smith, H. Berger, etc.). So far though, no “other story” has ever been identified in The Tempest, leading Northrup Frye to conclude, “Interpreters must travel and labor still onward.”

         The next three paragraphs point out an alternative scenario that is hidden within a few lines in The Tempest. This “secret meaning” has never been written about by any scholar that I could find, nor has it been presented in any of the several filmed versions of the play that are available. No familiarity with The Tempest or Shakespeare is required to understand this hidden feature. Following the short explanation of this secret element is a brief attempt at understanding how this obvious feature (and hopefully you will agree it is obvious) has not been previously noticed by any reviewer of the play.

        The short first scene of The Tempest takes place on a ship, caught in a thunderstorm, which has just arrived at Prospero's island kingdom. Right from the opening curtain, the passengers and mariners on the deck of this ship are very frightened of something, but just what is causing them such terror is unexplained. This undefined panic lasts all of the brief opening scene, and ends with people jumping overboard, “with hair upstaring,” yelling out as they leap, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.

       The ship which has just come to Prospero's island to start the play is not seen again after the opening. It is, though, better described near the very end of the play, when one of the mariners, now on Prospero's island, remarks that the ship has “roaring, shrieking, howling, jingling chains and moe diversity of sounds, all horrible” that are “all clapped under hatches.” There is only one kind of ship which fits this strange, fearsome description. At the start of The Tempest, a horrifying slave ship has just arrived at Prospero's island.

         This description of “roaring, shrieking, howling, jingling chains” “clapped under hatches” found at the end of Act Five finally explains the origin of those same sounds reported on the ship during the mysterious chaos of the opening scene. At line thirty-five of the first scene, barely two minutes into the start of the play, is a stage direction for “a cry within,” indicating an ill-defined noise coming from inside the ship. In the very next line, in response to this “cry,” a mariner on deck curses, “A plague upon this howling! They are louder than the weather.” The origin of this howling noise coming from inside the ship that is louder than a thunderstorm is not explained. At another point in the opening confusion, a mariner yells out “What cares these roarers for the name of the King?” Who are the disrespectful roarers? The reader or playgoer does not know at this point. The source of these howling and roaring sounds heard on the ship at the start of the play is only revealed at the end of the play, with the “roaring, shrieking, howling, jingling chains and moe diversity of sounds, all horrible” that are locked below deck. The terror on the deck of the ship at the start of The Tempest is caused by enraged Africans chained in the hold, threatening to break loose. This alternate scenario of a slave ship in revolt coming to Prospero's island at the start of The Tempest, which also explains the play's heretofore confounding title, has never before been presented.

       In the 1611 The Tempest, Prospero refers ten times to his “business” on the island, which he never explains further, except to state that he “makes more profit than other princes' can.” In the 17th century, the most profitable business for Europeans was the African slave trade, the first “golden trade.” Thus, The Tempest begins on a secret slave ship arriving at Prospero's island (brought there by his “prescience”), where          he has a mysterious business that makes more profit than any other. Despite this damning evidence, Prospero remains silent throughout the play about the abject nature of this “business.”

        Prospero's silence about his unprecedentedly profitable enterprise comes from the shame and guilt which has accompanied all slavers throughout history. “Slavery, that thing of evil, by its nature evil,” wrote Euripides in a fifth century B.C. condemnation of slavery, presaging similar denunciations of human enslavement that can be found in all eras of European history. This well-documented (see M. Stanton Evans' The Theme Is Freedom), though little-known, enduring abolitionist spirit is also found in the 1587 bestseller The Description of England, where author William Harrison wrote that England has no slaves, “such is the privilege of our country by the special grace of God” (p.118). Because of this common anti-slavery attitude, Prospero's evil business must be hidden away, kept from public view, unmentioned. The ancient “silence of slavery” adopted by Prospero (and most all slavers before and since) is also employed by the legions of reviewers and directors of the play, predetermined to respect Prospero, or, as many refer to him, the Magus. All of these critics, knowing the great wrong that slavery is, “by its nature evil,” are blind to the terrible ship which is the source of Prospero's wealth. This unseen slave ship coming to Prospero's island, with jingling chains and roaring and shrieking and howling and other horrible sounds aboard, is the secret start to the story hidden in The Tempest.

John Knope is a 64 year-old semi-retired carpenter and longtime amateur historian, living in Portland, Oregon USA. He can be reached at osito3210@hotmail.com

 

                                          

 

 

                                                                                                        

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