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The Tempest and the Printing Press

Posted by: Sara Paccione | October 4, 2010 | No Comment |

While William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest is likely not often seen through a technocritical lens, many of its themes still revolve around changes that resulted from the inventions of new technologies.  One of the most important inventions that changed the world within the past several centuries was the printing press.  Although this was invented over 150 years before The Tempest was written and was not the newest technology of the time, some elements of the play reflect changes that the printing press had brought to the world, including the creation of mass-marketed books and maps.  These printed items, which were by this time commonly in the hands of the general public, helped to demystify some of the world while at the same time increasing the imaginations of many people.  In The Tempest, we are shown that books create enchantment through imagination, while charting tends to cause disenchantment through the dispelling of mystery.

Charting and maps, while not actual foci in the play itself, are still important in terms of technocriticism of it.  Before the invention of the printing press, maps were not widely available to the general public.  However, with the coming of the printing press, maps became much easier to create and obtain.  Mapmakers realized that selling them to the public was a profitable business, and there was a greater incentive to have them made in the first place.  This eventually led to the creation of more accurate and carefully charted maps, and the myth and monster-filled maps of the past gave way to more practical and scientific maps.  While these new charts were extraordinarily beneficial to sailors and explorers and allowed for more accurate navigation, they lacked much of the wonder, mystery, and imagination that the old ones had.

Books, which like maps were also vastly popularized after the invention of the printing press, seem to be associated more with enchantment than disenchantment in The Tempest.  While Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, spends time with his books, his more politically-oriented brother Antonio is able to usurp him.  For Prospero, books serve as an escape from a political life that holds little interest for him.  Eventually, when Antonio betrays him, he is set out to sea with his young daughter, and they end up on the island that Prospero eventually takes over.  Using the books that had originally led to his banishment, Prospero recreates the formerly disenchanted (and in some cases even foul) island into a place that fits his imaginative vision.  In some ways, Prospero is even a bit like Miguel Cervantes’ character Don Quixote, who attempts to transform the disenchanted world in which he lives into an exciting and fantastic world of noble knights, evil giants, and chivalry like the world that exists in his favorite books.  Like Don Quixote, Prospero transforms from a passive reader to an active shaper.  In his homeland, his reading of books allows him to escape from the outside world, but on the island, he uses the knowledge he gained from reading the works of others to create works of his own.  In the end, similarly to how Don Quixote sadly rejects his books and dreams just before his death, Prospero somewhat sadly relinquishes his books and his magic art so that he can live what he believes is his rightful life.  Without books, Prospero loses his magic, and without Prospero and his magic, the island likely becomes disenchanted as well.

At the beginning of The Tempest, Prospero’s island can likely be called “uncharted.”  It can be inferred that nobody else besides Prospero and Miranda, the spirits, and the island’s native Caliban even know of its existence prior to the main events of the play.  Before the coming of Prospero, the island seems as though it would be one of the mysterious unexplored locations on an old map labeled “Here there be monsters.”  While this might seem to have some elements of enchantment, the supposed foulness of Caliban and his mother, the witch Sycorax, give the old island an air of disenchantment.  Sycorax is described by Prospero as a “foul witch… who with age and envy / Was grown into a hoop” (I.ii.258-9).  Although she was magical, she was not “enchanting” in the way that most people think of that word.  Even parts of the island itself bear some markers of foulness from before Prospero’s coming, such as the “filthy-mantled pool” (IV.i.182) near Prospero’s dwelling.  A new type of enchantment, an “art” based on knowledge gained from books, arrives with the coming of Prospero to the island.  On one hand, it can be argued that the island is mapped or charted with the coming of Prospero, who conquers the island and its inhabitants and turns the island into his own dukedom like the one he lost to his brother in Europe.  To the rest of the outside world, the island remains a mystery, but it becomes less of a place of monsters and more of wizardly enchantment.

However, at the same time that Prospero’s “charting” of the island can be associated with the island’s enchantment, the island is really put on the map by another group during the events of the play.  Alonso, Antonio, Ferdinand, and the rest of their party from Europe are forced onto the island by Prospero’s magic tempest.  Perhaps it can even be argued that Prospero and Miranda’s coming served to chart the island in the old fashioned magical way, while a more modern practical mapping of it, more in the line of post-printing press maps, occurs by the time everybody leaves with the ship at the end of the play.  When the men first arrive on the island, they are filled with wonder and amazement.  As the play progresses, the magic ventures a little more into the realm of familiarity when the men realize that the magician is Prospero.  Even later, Prospero abandons his magic entirely and returns home with the others.  The island is not enchanted any longer, and would now likely be a not-so-mysterious marking on a map.  This shift in mindset likely reflects what modern mapping did for some perceptions of the world.  Even though charts and maps became much more practical, the thoughts of some people, similarly to Prospero at the end of the play, can probably be summed up by a spoken exchange from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, when Barbossa claims that “The world used to be a bigger place,” and Jack replies that “The world’s still the same. There’s just… less in it” (At World’s End, 2007).

With the printing press came the development of more standardized information, in that many people were able to read the same information as each other.  It also led to more individualized thought, in that these same people were able to interpret this information by themselves instead of having to hear it from another source.  In many ways, charts and maps, which are based on known quantities and measured distances, lead to a more homogenized body of knowledge and more disenchantment, while books can be written about anything and interpreted in many different ways, leading to the enchantment of imagination.  We see each of these results in The Tempest.  The beginning of the island’s enchantment came with Prospero’s discovery of it and his use of books, while the end of the island’s enchantment came with the loss of books and its symbolic (and possibly literal) charting on a map when the information about its location would have been brought home.

Works Cited:

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Perf. Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom. Disney, 2007. DVD.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest: Sources and Contexts, Criticism, Rewritings and Appropriations. Ed. Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

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Sharon Olds’ poem, “Summer Solstice, New York City,” features a man who is preparing to commit suicide by jumping off a building.  While some aspects of the poem can be interpreted as being critical of modern technology, which might have created the man’s misery, much of the poem can also be interpreted as a sort of praise of modern urban society.

At the beginning of the poem, the man is running up the “iron stairs” of a building as he goes to the building’s roof to end his life.  In this sense, it would seem that he is unhappy with living in a technological New York City.  However, when other people notice what the man is attempting to do, the “huge machinery of the earth” starts up to save his life.  Police officers come to dissuade the man from killing himself, and one of these officers wears a bullet-proof vest, described as “a black shell around his own life, life of his children’s father.”  While the man who is ready to jump might only be seeing the negativity of a modern world, he fails to recognize that people have lives that are very much worth living.  The people on the street, who spread out a net to catch him, value not only their own lives but the life of this stranger, who they are ready to receive in the net as if he is a newborn baby.  Eventually, he is lured away from the building’s edge, where he smokes a cigarette with the officers.  The cigarettes are even compared to “tiny campfires we lit at night back at the beginning of the world,” and in a sense, this shows that even though times and technology have changed, people are in many ways still the same as they have always been.  While technology might have influences on people, it is also important to remember that it is created by people.

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