Prospero — Shakespeare’s Shaman

“Animism” is a concept first introduced into anthropological circles by one of its founders, Edward Tylor, as the belief in supernatural beings permeating the natural world. In his Primitive Culture (1871), he wrote that animism is a perception held by “tribes very low in the scale of humanity,” yet serving as the “groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men.”

Yet Shakespeare offered a far more sophisticated theory of animism in his final play, The Tempest. This is not surprising. Shakespeare’s works easily bear more than one interpretation, and like the termas in the Tibetan tradition, their hidden teachings seem to emerge as the centuries pass.

The Tempest is the tale of a Duke of Milan and his daughter, who, marooned upon a remote island, survive with the aid of a magic staff, a book of potent spells, and two servants: an airy spirit and a half monster/half man named Caliban.

When their enemies one day come sailing into Prospero’s prescient view, he uses his magic to regain his throne. It sounds almost silly, doesn’t it? It’s not. Shakespeare, like a quantum physicist, is exploring the fabric of reality and how “magic” can shape it, and all the play’s activity is grounded in animistic experience.

Tylor’s theory of spiritual evolution is dramatically realized in the characters of Caliban and Prospero, who both perceive the cosmos as vital and sentient, yet from different ends of the spectrum.

In Caliban’s naïve animistic consciousness, trees, streams, stars, all are alive, filled with music and strange wonder, and his most haunting evocation of that sentience comes in the lines:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

If Caliban is mother nature’s son, Prospero is her shaman. As a Renaissance magician, Prospero has a similar mode of perception as the savage Caliban — he releases spirits imprisoned in oaks, calls forth mutinous winds, and, above all, creates visionary worlds that enrapture their beholders — yet his apprehension is aesthetic, not raw or sensual. In Prospero, Shakespeare gives us a glimpse into one of the directions that science, as we now know it, was developing in his time (and would have kept developing if not for the interventions of the Inquisition, Galileo, and Descartes).

Prospero’s magic perfects God’s creation. Rather than splitting the atom, Prospero catches rides on the movements of the stars. His most memorable reflection on the nature of reality comes when he states, in the same vein as Caliban, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Like a Buddhist magician who understands that “all things are essentially empty,” Prospero can shape “the baseless fabric of this vision” we call reality.

Yet far from rejecting Caliban, who is murderous, lecherous, drunken, and won’t fall in line with his colonialist regime, Prospero in the end embraces him. Why?

Could it be that Caliban, with his indigenous visions and uncanny local knowledge, represents that mythic line, that symbiosis of human and animal that Euro-Americans simultaneously abhor and secretly yearn for? Is not the island itself, stranded half way in a dream, the shamanic realm where powerful magic and discourse with spirits and supernatural beings is possible?

If the island is a metaphor for the realm of the transpersonal unconscious (where Shakespeare, who wrote three of his greatest plays simultaneously, no doubt resided for much of his creative career), Caliban, we suspect, is the genius of the Earth — “You earth, thou” — the impulses arising from the depths, the wild vitality, the Dionysian trickster, that still sparkle in the Bard’s work.

Prospero is a hero beyond our society’s adolescent fixation with the journey of meeting mentors, crossing thresholds, experiencing ordeals, encountering the goddess, etc. Prospero is a grown man, who can orchestrate, like an incredibly skilled therapist, the catharsis of his enemies, and then forgive them once they are repentant. In the union of his daughter Miranda and the King of Naple’s son, Ferdinand, we see the hieros gamos, the royal marriage of opposites in the soul, which allows Prospero to renounce all his powers and surrender himself to mere prayer, holding that “every third thought shall be my grave.”

In our society, so desperately short on portraits of mature men, we have much to thank Shakespeare for. Interestingly, the best film version of The Tempest is Julie Taymor’s, in which Prospero is transformed into Prospera, nobly realized by Helen Mirren.

One Reply to “Prospero — Shakespeare’s Shaman”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *