On the Problem of The Tempest: The Problem of Political Philosophy

19 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 11 Aug 2010

Date Written: 2010


Understanding the world requires that we objectively see the world, that we apply categories or general terms that identify what it is at which we are looking. From where do we get these general terms or categories? If we get them from observing the particular, these general terms are corrupted by experience. In order for a category or form to retain its objectivity it must be uncontaminated by any one particular; it must be, as it were, hatched like Athena from the head of Zeus, so that it can serve to illuminate not just a particular, but the particular. What we seem to need is something like Plato’s forms, i.e. categories we get in advance from birth, for if we rely on our experience of the particular to generate categories the terms we would use to understand the world would have already been formed by the world they would objectively explain. It is with this problem in mind, which we call the problem of political philosophy, that Shakespeare composes The Tempest, for in The Tempest Prospero’s island seems to solve this problem. It makes intelligible the forms or the universals, i.e., the categories, by means of which the particulars are made intelligible. The problem of The Tempest is how to go from the world of theory or intelligibility to the world of practice or of combining theory and practice.

The marriage of theory and practice would seem to constitute the plot of The Tempest, for Prospero asserts that everything he does is for his daughter Miranda, and what Prospero wants most is to marry his daughter to Ferdinand, the prince of Naples, and have her transported back to Naples. As we learn, Miranda has received tutoring from Prospero, and is very much a creature of theory for she loves to look. The word theory comes from a Greek verb (qeavomai) which means to look. Miranda’s name, moreover, in Latin means wonderful. In marrying Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero reconstitutes the failed partnership of theory and practice that went awry back in Milan, when his brother Antonio allied with Alonso and had Prospero placed on the open sea in a rickety boat. This was the ceremonial unhinging of theory and practice that almost cost Prospero his life and exposed Naples and all of Italy to naked self-interest. Theory was placed on the open sea with nothing to support it but a prayer and the supplies provided by the generosity of Gonzalo, whose very name (i.e., “Gonzo”) and character brings to mind theoretical extravagance. Theory unhinged from practice gave theory nothing to do but look – Miranda is its beneficiary. And, practice disconnected from theory descends into complete moral turpitude, as exemplified by Antonio. The problem of The Tempest is how to unite theory and practice, thought and action, but as The Tempest suggests this is no easy problem. The Tempest illuminates why.

Keywords: theory,practice, nature, convention, rule, philosophy, Plato, Republic

Suggested Citation

DeLuca, Kenneth, On the Problem of The Tempest: The Problem of Political Philosophy (2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1642714

Kenneth DeLuca (Contact Author)

Hampden-Sydney College ( email )

Hampden-Sydney, VA 23943
United States

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