The Epistemology of Hate in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Hot take. The Tempest is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays. We come to Shakespeare with an entire history of criticism before us. Even if we don’t understand why, we think some of the plays are more important. We inherit a belief about which ones are most valuable, which characters are most interesting. Here’s the thing: people have been blinded by what they don’t want to see. There is an epistemology of hate. People know what they allow themselves to understand, and they reject any kind of knowledge that interferes with their beliefs.

The result is to have created a lopsided canon, a version of Shakespeare that fits an ideology. It is an ideology of power and hatred. This is not to say that Shakespeare himself was racist or misogynistic, but that many characters in the plays are. Furthermore, the way we have read and valued the plays is also through an ideological lens. The way we have read Shakespeare says a lot about the limitations of our worldview.

The Tempest is a play about hate more than it is about love. The love is staged, it is shallow and fake. The hate is real, though, and it goes deep. It is a cancerous hatred between brothers. Hatred is portrayed as a blinding force, as an overwhelming urge to do the wrong thing. The villains in Shakespeare are not in control of their actions. They are impelled by some powerful negative belief. They are tormented figures who attempt to transform their suffering by interfering with happy people’s plans. Through this exercise of negative power, they try to feel better.

Caliban’s hatred of Prospero and Miranda derives from his disappointed sense of entitlement, of his social isolation. He is alienated from everyone, a wretch. Caliban is surely a model for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. His famous response to Miranda’s chiding him that she had taught him to speak is the essence of the wretch’s consciousness in Shelley’s novel. “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!”

Miranda addresses Caliban as abhorred slave. They recall how he attempted to rape her, and he states that he wishes he had succeeded. It is not a very friendly situation. Kind of toxic if you ask me. The idea that people love this play strongly suggests that they are aligned with an ideology of hate. 

I also don’t think that the figure of Prospero is analogous to a writer for the theater. He is more of a slave master than anything. He represents someone banished who becomes powerful in the land where they are exiled. Although the colonization of the Americas was only beginning, it is easier to see Prospero as a colonist than a director of the theater. 

He enslaves Caliban and Ariel to do his work on the island and motivates their employment with threats and cruel tortures. He justifies it left and right. He saved Caliban from his wretched condition through education. He freed Ariel from a pine tree where she was stuck. For these acts of liberation, he assumes a fee of total obedience. He frees them only to make them into slaves. 

The Tempest like many of Shakespeare’s plays shows us how blind we are to our own subjectivity. Characters in the play act from a sense of urgency they in many ways do not understand. Ideology, the influence of the ideas of the ruling class, and epistemology, our ways of knowing, will always be intertwined. Our ability to know is limited by our ideological beliefs, especially when they are motivated by hatred. 

Why Write? Separating Facts from Feeling through Composition

Does writing improve when the writer has a thesis? Is the point of writing to stake a claim and to defend that point of view with evidence? In school, we learn to write a certain way without really questioning why. What is better about this method? What if you don’t have an argument to make? What if you are better at asking questions?

What can writing do? Everything must have a context to get clear answers. Writing can perform so many different functions. The rules for journalism are different than for creative writing or political rhetoric. Each use of writing has a set of options that makes the most sense for the purpose trying to be achieved. Writing can educate, it can inspire, it can influence. 

One of the things that we need to work on culturally if we are to have a more harmonious and prosperous future is to learn to separate facts from feelings in our decision-making process. Writing can help us to advance in this direction through making the contours of a problem visible and able to be discussed.

Once you set out a problem in writing, it becomes clearer what you don’t know. The other thing is to take accountability. This is the problem. What is my part in it? We must find ways to work around our blind spots to see what can and needs to be improved. Writing is a kind of psychic mirror we use to navigate and to see how we look to others. 

It is not an automatic process, however. You must be deliberate in your intention to be as objective as possible. If you were to write about a situation that is troubling you as though it were written by a stranger, what would it look like? Then, what do you do with it? If you look in the mirror and see you have spinach caught in your teeth, what do you do? You fix it.

Writing is different than talking but they are obviously closely related. The advantage that writing has is to take something that occurs in time and to freeze it in place through the choice of words. If you talk about a subject, you might say something important that you forget and don’t have the opportunity to build on, but if you write it down, then you have a paper trail of ideas that you can draw from in your work. 

Do we know better what we feel or what we think, and which instinct leads us to better outcomes? Again, this is context specific. More important than some set of skills is the overall intention and that is where separating feelings from facts becomes evident. Fictional portrayals of human relations give us examples of how this works. We can analyze these stories to see why situations fail and what to do about it.

In Shakespeare, we have characters who are overwhelmed by their feelings a lot of times. They are spurred into action by a feeling inside of unworthiness or envy. They orchestrate horrible events with deadly outcomes for the people they feel resentful towards. They are motivated by feeling and feeling can be contagious and unreliable. When feeling becomes alienated from thought it leads to violent outcomes. Thoughtful writing seeks to discern between facts and feelings precisely to avoid or mitigate such events. It serves to govern our instincts that are out of line with the spectrum of safe and legal options for action in any given situation. 

To be thoughtful, we need to try and separate what can be verified independently with what we personally feel. Writing can be a way to come to terms with our feelings, too. By giving expression to our desires, we can see how reasonable they are. This creates the possibility of revising our thinking. It is an effective method of recognizing bias. Writing out our thoughts and feelings is the first step to separating them and to gaining control over our decision-making process.

We must understand our weaknesses to improve them. If we are blind to our own susceptibilities, then we are vulnerable to people who seek to manipulate us.