Friday, July 6, 2012

A Promise of Calm Seas, Auspicious Gales

At the end of The Tempest, Prospero decides to abandon magic and return to civil society. He makes this decision only after using his occult skills to enact a kind of mock retributive justice. His vengeance entails conjuring up a violent storm that causes a shipwreck that brings his enemies to the very island where Prospero and daughter Miranda have been shipwrecked for a dozen years. Prospero’s revenge does not, however, involve any bloodshed. Nor does his revenge-procured-through-magic involve the naïve belief that all of the bad guys (including his own rotten brother) will be magically reformed in the process. Prospero’s revenge is theatrical and ritualistic; he puts the wrong-doers through various psychological torments, exposes their relative failings, proves that they are vulnerable such that he could take an eye for an eye, and then he pardons them. In using his “most potent art” in this way, he does change some minds—but mostly he solidifies a future for his daughter and his own ability to return from exile. Not a bad outcome. Since undoing the past is not exactly an option, at least this compromise is one he can live with. Arguably, such a compromise, not “pure” vengeance, is what permits him to resume living.

A person could read The Tempest as a dynamic example of how a person learns to pardon, which is essentially an act of grace that is both irrational and highly reasonable. (Think about it while singing something rousing from Les Miz.) Neither I nor The Tempest suggests that societies shouldn’t do their bit to try to reduce crime—part of which means crafting punishments that might act as deterrents. But The Tempest seems to acknowledge an important role for pardons—especially because pardons are perhaps the best means whereby the victims are able to overcome the feelings of rage and grief that, however justified, can keep them imprisoned in the crime’s aftermath. Maybe this is why The Tempest ends with Prospero directly addressing the audience as follows:

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free

On one hand, Prospero is just asking the audience to applaud, thereby breaking the play’s “spell.” On the other hand, he relies on a metaphor that presumes an understanding that pardons, not retribution, are what free both perpetrators and victims from the legacy of crimes.

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