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In the plays of Shakespeare, readers can find several issues of human nature addressed. In Othello, Shakespeare addresses jealously and racism. In King Lear, he addresses pride and love. In Romeo and Juliet, he examines fate. In The Tempest and Hamlet in particular, he seems to deal indirectly with one significant problem. In both plays, some supernatural impetus prompts the actions of important characters and directs the plot in a specific direction. This brings the reader to question why an outside force is necessary to provoke certain action in the story. Is the force a plot device, employed by Shakespeare to develop the drama and achieve a certain end? Does the force represent a cosmic impetus that acts on us all? Or does it represent something internal, common to us all? Most importantly, what is Shakespeare saying about human nature through employment of this?
In The Tempest, Prospero’s sorcery and the sprits under his control compel the stranded nobles to act according to his wishes. In Hamlet, the appearance of his father’s ghost causes Hamlet’s depressed indecision and eventually his fatal vengeance. Whatever Shakespeare’s purpose is in using this external drive, these supernatural forces allow the reader to see characters developed under extraordinary circumstances, as they might not if the characters were limited to acting strictly according to principles of cause and effect or rationality.
In The Tempest, Ariel reports to Prospero:
In troops I have dispersed them ’bout the isle. The King’s son have I landed by himself, whom I left cooling of the air with sighs in an odd angle of the isle… Safely in harbor is the king’s ship… And for the rest o’ the fleet, which I have dispersed, they have all met again, and are upon the Mediterranean flote bound sadly home for Naples, supposing that they saw the King’s ship wracked and his great person perish. (1.2.220-37)
Prospero’s strategic scattering of the nobles, sailors, and servants about the island enables his complex plan’s ultimate success. Ferdinand is separated from the group so that he meets Miranda alone. The king and his men are enticed to sleep by Ariel, allowing Antonio and Sebastian to plot their overthrow of the king of Naples. Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban are led by music to a “mantled pool” (4.2.182) where they occupy themselves, drunk, until it is time for them to act.
These characters do not seem compelled to act in ways they would be incapable of by their own accord. We can believe Ferdinand could fall in love with Miranda under different circumstances. Antonio would certainly be able to plot tyranny with Sebastian without Ariel’s assistance in putting the king’s men to sleep. The significance of their actions lies in that they did not act entirely of their own accord, but they were compelled to act thus by Prospero and the spirits under his command.
In Hamlet, the appearance of his father’s ghost provides Hamlet with information he would not have otherwise had. It also leaves him conflicted as to whether or not he should believe the ghost and avenge his father’s death. This conflict for Hamlet takes him from depressed indecision to madness to finally, fatal action. When Hamlet is on watch with Horatio and Marcellus and he sees the ghost for the first time, he asks, “What may this mean?” (1.4.51) and “What should we do?” (1.4.57). While it is perhaps in Hamlet’s disposition to seek guidance and to need reassurance, it is nonetheless the appearance of the ghost and his directions to Hamlet that drive the prince to his madness and death.
In each of these cases, the influence of the external force is crucial to the action. In using such forces, Shakespeare avoids an over-simplified view of human action as being based simply on a principle of cause and effect. He acknowledges non-rational factors in our action and shows an appreciation for our complexity.
I would certainly not argue that Shakespeare believes in ghosts and spirits, at least as they exist in his plays. They seem instead to represent some metaphysical impetus, or even an indistinguishable aspect of ourselves that directs our actions, but that we are not quite able to understand or name. Some of Shakespeare’s characters act as their personalities dictates. They are consistent to the point of being predictable. Gonzalo and Polonius are two such characters who do not seem to stray from a particular disposition or line of thought throughout the play. Hamlet, however, as well as Prospero, and a few others in The Tempest to some degree, are moved to do great or tragic things.
It seems that Shakespeare is suggesting in this that there is a part of us, represented by the ghost of Old Hamlet and the spirits of Prospero, that is supra-rational and beyond our comprehension. His denial of this quality to flat characters like Gonzalo and Polonius suggests that Shakespeare does not allow this hidden reserve of abstract motivating forces to everyone. Those who do great things, however, or who are tragic heroes, may indeed possess some internal motives of a metaphysical nature that drive them to do extraordinary things.
According to this reading of The Tempest and Hamlet, Shakespeare offers his audience a complex explanation of the nature of human action. He places some of the seemingly irrational conduct of men under the influence of ‘spirits’ or ‘ghosts,’ or our indefinite inner drives, as we can read it. In trying to give form to the seeming inexplicability of some of man’s actions, Shakespeare both attempts to explain these actions and respects the complexity of man.
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