Tuesday, July 27, 2004


Tempest Island

On Friday night my wife and I went with some friends to see an outdoor production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, but midway through the second act, the play was stopped because of some tempests moving through the area (true story). I generally don't like to be left hanging, so on Sunday I pulled down my trusty Norton Shakespeare from college and finished the play.

The play is set on a barely inhabited island that is ruled by the magical powers of Prospero, a conjurer and erstwhile duke of Milan. He was exiled there, along with his daughter Miranda, by a palace coup led by his brother. But Gonzalo, the man assigned to chase Prospero and Miranda off, showed kindness to them by giving them provisions and allowing Prospero to keep his beloved conjuring books. Long story short: while his evil brother (along with others, including Gonzalo) are passing by the island, he conjures up a tempest and his enemies are shipwrecked.

In one of the most famous speeches in the play, Gonzalo muses on what he would do if he were made king of the deserted island where he now finds himself. "Had I plantation of this isle, my lord,--" he says, "And were the king on't, what would I do?"

I' the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;--

Yet he would be king on't.


The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
(Tempest, 2.1)

Gonzalo's speech today reads like a naively utopian vision; when I first read it, I tended to agree with the snarky asides of Sebastian and Alonzo. But as I was reading Stephen Greenblatt's introduction in my Norton edition, I started to think a little bit about the long history of islands and undiscovered countries as palimpsests for utopian social thought. Think Daniel Defoe and Robinson Crusoe. Think Thomas More and Utopia. Think of the Skipper and Gilligan's Island.

If islands present, in microcosm, what we think an ideal society is, be afraid. Say "island" to the average American and they'll probably say Survivor. There's a dystopian show if ever there was one. In Castaway, Tom Hanks is just trying to figure out how to get off his island; his only "subject" is a volleyball. And what about the various forms of the question, "If you were on a deserted island ...", as in,

" ... and could only take 5 CDs, what would they be?" (don't ask, I have no idea)
" ... and could only be with one person, who would it be?"
" ... where would it be?"

Now, obviously Gonzalo's fairly comprehensive vision of a perfect politicial society on his island was the product of a particular moment in time. (Maybe the glib character of our island visions comes from the essential implausibility of there being an undiscovered, uninhabited island anymore; that was a very real possibility in the seventeenth century.) But I think it says something that we don't really have developed island utopias anymore, unless you count an island where you make back-stabbing alliances to throw the other people off, possibly (but not probably) win a million dollars, listen to the same 5 CDs forever, and make friends with volleyballs.

Does the fact that we don't have island utopias mean we've lost the ability to imagine utopias? We know what we like about society, and what we don't like, but has the time passed when Gonzalos can rattle off visions of a holistic good society? Is that a bad thing?

Collective Improvisation:

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