Darker Purposes & Rarer Actions: From Tyranny to Empathy in Shakespeare

An essay on King Lear, As You Like It, and The Tempest

by Kane Prestenback | return to list of publications

An old man is forced into exile for his disturbing beliefs and abilities, taking shelter in a cave while conserving his powers and contemplating his revenge until the proper moment arrives. This describes the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi from the contemporary sci-fi series Star Wars as well as it describes many of Shakespeare’s most complex creations. The image of the wise old man emerging from exile out of a cave in a barren land has as much cultural resonance and instructive ability in today’s contemporary cinema as it did in Shakespeare’s plays. Like the exiled Jedi Master, Shakespeare’s characters spend time in solitude in ways that are both instructive and degenerative, ultimately providing guidance toward enhancing our own humanity. In King Lear, As You Like It, and The Tempest, Shakespeare’s old-men-in-caves show us the agonizing consequences of self-involvement, with contrasting outcomes that are as instructive as they are paradoxically both hopeful and bleak.

Lear’s self-involvement sets into motion the events of his play. Lear believes that he can contradict the natural order of inheritance by engaging in a “darker purpose” with the expectation that it would bend to his desire (King Lear 1.1.34). Lear’s hubris “takes the form of a challenge to nature’s claim on the conditions of sociality, nature’s constitutive role in the generational transmission of inheritable practices, goods, and territories… denying that his death is a necessary precondition for the devolution of one generation to the next” (Kottman 82). When he does not receive the answer he expects from Cordelia, Lear becomes irate and disowns Cordelia entirely for having “obedience scanted” (Lr. 1.1.280). Lear says to Cordelia: “Better thou / Hadst not been born than not t’ have pleased me better” (1.1.234-235). He receives his expected adulation of love from Goneril and Regan, unaware that they are merely placating Lear’s tyrannical whim. Goneril says of her father: “Now by my life, / Old fools are babes again and must be used / With checks as flatteries, when there are seen abused” (1.3.18-20). Lear’s propensity toward tyranny and rage when events don’t unfold as he expects makes him blind to the realities around him, thematically highlighted by the literal blindness of Gloucester and Kent’s urging for Lear to “see better (1.1.157). In Lear, Shakespeare shows us the consequences of being blind to the complex variety of ways that love can be expressed.

Having “[shaken] all cares and business from [his] age, / Conferring them on younger strengths,” Lear still believes he has a right to claim authority and “resume the shape which [they] think / [He has] cast off for ever” (1.1.37-38; 1.4.298-299). However, Lear’s expectations are no longer met by his daughters. The cognitive dissonance drives him to madness; eventually there is no one left for him to rage against as he is exiled out into the elements, even trying to rage against nature itself. He cannot conquer nature, but nature can reveal to Lear many personal and transformative truths. Eventually, he is convinced to take shelter in a cave-like hovel, saying: “Where is this straw, my fellow? / The art of our necessities is strange / That can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel” (3.2.66-68). In this cave and later in Gloucester’s home, Lear struggles with the limits of his abilities and wrestles with his demons through the mock court drama that he orchestrates:

KENT. Will you lie down and rest upon the cushions?
LEAR. I’ll see their trial first. Bring in the evidence.
(to EDGAR) Thou robèd man of justice, take thy place.
(to FOOL) And thou, his yoke-fellow of equity,
Bench by his side.
(to KENT)
                              You are o’ th’ commission
Sit you too.
EDGAR. Let us deal justly (3.6.31-37).

Though he is not fully healed when he leaves the cave, he is reborn into a repentance that starts to alter his perspective and awareness. Sadly, Lear’s rebirth and desire to “forget and forgive” comes too late; this newfound understanding cannot undo the consequences of his original heartlessness (4.7.84). Foreman concludes that “in this world there is only isolation and ineffectiveness, and conflict leading to death” (Foreman 116). Lear loses his kingdom and authority, nearly inflicting grim desolation upon the rest of his world, compelling us to contemplate our own ill-timed moments of retrospection.

Like Lear, characters in As You Like It also seek a refreshed outlook in literal and metaphorical caves. In the forest of Arden, the exiled Duke Senior finds restorative peace in the “life more sweet / Than that of painted pomp” of his cave and its pastoral locale (As You Like It 2.1.2-3). Jaques also agrees to meet with Duke Senior in the Duke’s abandoned cave at the play’s conclusion before seeking out the reformed Duke Frederick. Duke Frederick has chosen to retreat from the world and become a monk, a solitary life also spent in cave-like conditions. Jaques says of Duke Frederick: “Out of these convertites / There is much matter to be heard and learned” (5.4.177-178). In the monastic cave, Duke Frederick can repent and atone for his misdeeds while improving his understanding of humanity. In observing Duke Frederick’s search for truth, Jacques searches for compassionate, human truths that Shakespeare shows can be found in our own metaphorical caves.

If as Harold Bloom suggests “As You Like It is as much set in an earthly realm of possible good as King Lear… [is] set in earthly hell,” then The Tempest is set in a self-inflicted earthly purgatory (Bloom 203).  Prospero is similarly exiled and makes the most of his secluded setting. Before his exile, he practically manufactured a cave for himself in Milan, preferring to study his magical arts in seclusion over his political duties, “neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated / To closeness and the bettering of [his] mind” (The Tempest 1.2.89-90). His island cave is not as transformative as it was for Lear and Jaques/Duke Senior. Instead, his cave deepens his desire for vengeance and calcifies Prospero’s flawed perception of human nature. The burden of his vengeful memories which he refers to as “the dark backward and abysm of time” locks Prospero into an inescapable prison of the mind (1.2.50). His worst instincts are placated on this island populated with obedient spirits and half-human creatures subject to his bidding. Our first impression of Prospero comes out of his rattling on of so much exposition that he constantly doubts whether Miranda heeded his demand to “obey and be attentive” (1.2.38). The exposition reveals the play’s circumstances to Miranda and the audience, but it also reveals Prospero’s chauvinistic condescension and his tendency to manipulate his narrative while maintaining control.

Like Lear commanded a mock-performance while in his cave, Prospero takes control of those around him to perform a perverse sort of play as well. He observes the performances of his captives. Consumed by his blind desire for vengeance he is not fully capable of comprehending the deeper truths on display, noting only that “[his] high charms work / And these [his] enemies are all knit up / In their distractions” (3.3.90-92). But Prospero’s desire for Miranda’s happiness supersedes his antagonism, as he earlier tried to rationalize his actions saying to Miranda: “I have done nothing but in care of thee, / Of thee my dear one – thee my daughter” (1.2.16-17). Like a writer giving his audience what they want, his surprise at Miranda’s reaction to his manipulation of Ferdinand leads him to further encourage that plot for Miranda’s welfare. Miranda is deeply in love, and Prospero learns how deeply in love someone can be by observing Miranda and Ferdinand, saying: “So glad of this as they I cannot be, / Who are surprised withal. But my rejoicing / At nothing can be more” (3.1.95-97). Prospero also learns most about humanity through the seemingly most unlikely of individuals, his non-human sprite, Ariel:

ARIEL. Your charm so strongly works ‘em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
PROSPERO.               Dost thou think so, spirit?
ARIEL. Mine would sir, were I human.
PROSPERO                And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art? (5.1.17-24).

Ariel reveals to Prospero a deep truth about humanity, surprising him to learn that a non-human creature is capable of such understanding. Prospero’s actions toward his captives and his servants soften as he reconsiders his long-held beliefs and actions, realizing that “The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (5.1.27-28). Unlike Lear who rages and glooms, ultimately contributing to his and the world of his play’s catastrophic and lamentable end, Prospero’s plans change. Prospero doesn’t rage when confronted with a different viewpoint. He learns to recognize that his actions can contribute toward a greater good for all humanity.

“All men would be tyrants if they could.”

Abigail Adams

Though she was not writing about Shakespeare’s plays, Abigail Adams aptly summarizes what Shakespeare initially shows us to expect from these men-in-caves: “All men would be tyrants if they could” (Adams 1). Shakespeare would show us that those who can escape that tyranny through empathy and understanding enhance their own humanity. Prospero could reasonably yield to the perpetual tyranny granted to him on this island; he lives in a paradise after all, one that Ferdinand covets saying: “Let me live here ever. / So rare a wondered father and a wife / Makes this place paradise” (Tmp. 4.1.122-124). But Prospero knows that this world is not complete, not fully real, not wholly human, a “utopia [that] exists only in the imagination” (Wells 206). For Miranda to thrive, she needs to experience the fulness of humanity off the island. Despite his desire to return to authority in Milan, Prospero is better suited to continue ruling on his island; but for Miranda’s benefit he must give it all up.

Perhaps he understands the benefit that will come when he ultimately passes control of Milan to this next generation. Where Lear’s “darker purpose” in usurping expectations of inheritance brought about a “cold night [that would] turn us all to fools and madmen,” Prospero has ultimately enacted a plan that promises “calm seas [and] auspicious gales” from here on out (Lr. 1.1.34; Lr. 3.4.72; Tmp. 5.1.316). Prospero is not fully absolved of wrongdoing, newly aware of the injury his self-involvement has inflicted on his island subjects. He believed himself to be more capable and knowledgeable than everyone and everything, but he has learned important lessons from these lesser beings. He shows us that there is always more to learn if we remain open to the humanity surrounding us. For his project to succeed, he must give up his ability to fully control the outcome and return to his former, non-magical self. Though he was “successful only as magician and as single father,” the “neglectful ruler of Milan” returns to “where evidently he again is not to shine as an administrator” (Bloom 669). Prospero must commit to an inescapable paradox, finding happiness by metaphorically losing his daughter to marriage, losing the authority he has over the island’s inhabitants, and losing the magical powers that he presumed brought him happiness. He sorrowfully comes to terms with his temporality saying: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (Tmp. 4.1.156-157). Still, he has established this possible calm for those important to him. By encouraging the commitment between Ferdinand and Miranda, the most ideal line of succession is confirmed. Both Alonso and Prospero’s progeny will succeed.

For these characters, their circumstances have led them to literal and metaphorical caves, pondering their choices, avoiding their reality, and contemplating their subsequent actions. For Lear, his self-involvement makes him blind to the opportunity for introspection, disbelieving reality and arriving too late to heed the invaluable lessons. For Jaques and Duke Senior, they willingly seek the contrast to their status quo and the lessons that this solitude offers. And for Prospero, his cave is both a self-imposed prison nurturing his worst tendences and the space where a brighter future can take shape. He gives up his control of nature and learns to accept what has been given with grace and empathy. Shakespeare shows in these varying perspectives the paradoxical complexity of human nature. He implores us to remain accessible to the surprising and instructive happenings all around us and to realize when to step out of our metaphorical caves to embrace our complex humanity.

Works Cited

Adams, Abigail. “Abigail Adams’ Letters of March 31 and May 7, 1776.” Abigail Adams’ Letters of March 31 & May 7, 1776, Aug. 2017, p. 1. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy2.lsua.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mat&AN=21212214&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. Print.

Foreman, Walter C., Jr. The Music of the Close: The Final Scenes of Shakespeare’s Tragedies. The University Press of Kentucky, 1978. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy2.lsua.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=938732&site=eds-live.

Kottman, Paul A. Tragic Conditions in Shakespeare: Disinheriting the Globe. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy2.lsua.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=308832&site=eds-live.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Ed. John Crowther. New York: Spark Publishing, 2004. Print.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. John Crowther. Toronto: Spark Publishing, 2003. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. John Crowther. Toronto: Sterling Publishing, 2003. Print.

Wells, Robin Headlam. Shakespeare on Masculinity. Cambridge University Press, 2000. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy2.lsua.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=77561&site=eds-live.