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Dr. Larry Arnn and Stephen Smith From Hillsdale College Study Shakespeare’s Tempest

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HH: You can stop yelling at me. The Hillsdale Dialogue is back. Joined by Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. Professor Stephen Smith. They are here to talk about Shakespeare where we left off, when last we were doing the Hillsdale Dialogue, and everyone needed a little vacation. But I have to tell you both, I get more angry mail, I’ve been out on the road, and people stop, what’s happened, where have you gone, why are they so lazy at Hillsdale, why are you so lazy, take so much time off. It’s actually nice that people missed us, but you know, they do get grumpy.

LA: Well, you know, first of all, we’re in, just tell them you know, we’re in the college business. You think we’re going to be energetic?

HH: (laughing) I also have to taunt you a little bit, at least Professor Smith. I spent part of my break in London at the recreated old Globe watching Antony and Cleopatra performed. That’s an amazing experience. Have you done that, yet?

SS: Yes, I have. We’ve taken Hillsdale College, well, high school trips there, and we always go to the new Globe. It’s a remarkable experience.

HH: It is, because it makes so much more sense to read these plays after you’ve seen how they actually were put on.

SS: Yes, and the students love to be the groundlings. You know, you can lean right up against the stage and walk around, and watch it from different angles. It’s really a great place.

HH: The only trouble is when you have a 58 year old back that’s been walking around London for four days, the seats up top, and Antony and Cleopatra has got, I think it’s got 44 scenes, and it goes on, I think, it may still be going on. I don’t know. It wasn’t exactly the best play to pick to experience…

LA: I’ve been a few times, and a couple of times, I was down in the bottom, you know, standing up…

HH: On the groundlings, yeah.

LA: And you know, after about two acts, I looked up and said oh, I see why the rich people sat up there.

HH: (laughing) Well, we are going to do four Shakespeare plays for the four next Hillsdale Dialogues, and I want to let everyone know, though, on Monday as a special Hillsdale Dialogue, it’s Labor Day. And so Dr. Arnn and his colleague, Dr. Thomas West, and his colleague, Dr. Paul Moreno and I are going to spend all of Labor Day talking about Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Communism and the American labor movement and why it is not an extension of the previous four subjects. So don’t miss that. It’s our catch-up day, and it’s a remarkable day. All Hillsdale Dialogues available at and There’s a button for that at So let’s turn to Professor Smith. We’re going to start with the Tempest, but let’s lay out as well, last time we were together, we did the introduction to Shakespeare. After the Tempest, where are we going in subsequent Fridays?

SS: Well, we’re going to start with the Tempest, first play in the First Folio, and then we’ll turn to Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, King Lear, and then one of my personal favorites, a play that may not be familiar to your listeners as much, Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s last plays.

HH: Okay, not First Folio, first play, First Folio does not mean first play written. In fact, I asked Dr. White about this when I was traveling with him, Shakespeare professor at the Naval Academy for many years, and he explained the Folio organization to me, and he thought that the Tempest came, what, midway through Shakespeare’s career?

SS: Well, the Tempest is actually, probably, his last solo authored piece, so it’s at the end of his career, 1611.

HH: Okay, I do remember him telling me that. Okay.

SS: Yeah.

HH: So why would it be first in the First Folio?

SS: Well, I think because the editors recognized the preeminence of the play, and I think they put it there deliberately. Critics often notice that special care is taken over the text, this particularly good text of the play, not very many errors. But I think it’s first, because the story that it tells is the story of a soul with virtue who actually leads himself and others to a happy ending. And that is, if you study all of Shakespeare, a very rare feat. Prospero in the Tempest calls virtue the rarer action. And when you look at all of Shakespearian drama, it’s difficult to find truly virtuous characters. We find usually more mingled cases.

HH: And Dr. White, who I hope visits Hillsdale sometime, ended his teaching career performing Prospero at the Naval Academy for that very reason. That’s why I now remember it was the last play thought solely authored by him, because he chose to conclude his career, both acting and teaching, with the Tempest.

SS: That’s wonderful.

HH: Big picture, though, Professor Smith, why begin there?

SS: Why begin with the Tempest?

HH: Yeah.

SS: Again, I think the key is the play provides through the portrait of Prospero a portrait of a soul who, if you will, gets it right. And that gives you a way of judging all of these other dramas. So if we turn from the Tempest to Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, you’re going to see quite a difference between Prince and Prince, between Prospero and Hamlet. And the same can be said of King Lear and the other plays. So I think it really helps the reader. It provides a standard, and helps the reader judge these sometimes very difficult tragedies in particular.

HH: Now Dr. Arnn, Dr. White has a deep set refusal to tell people plot when he begins to lecture. He thinks it makes it too easy for them. I’m of the Charles Lamb school, that if you get the plot down first, it’s a lot easier to understand the explanation. Where are you on that spectrum?

LA: Well, I guess I’m more toward your enemy, there. They’re plays, and the narrator doesn’t stand up and tell you everything that happened at the beginning. It unfolds. It’s good to know what it’s about, right? So you know, Julius Caesar has something to do with Rome, all they know, but you know, the truth is the delight, like I have seen at the Globe theatre one play that I had never read. And it was just tremendous, right? Much Ado About Nothing, and you know, I knew it was about nothing from the title. And also, I suspected that it was not. And so I got to watch it and try to figure out what it was about.

HH: Well, there is that. And I knew about Antony and Cleopatra from reading Plutarch, but I didn’t really know the play at all. I had heard a lecture about it, but I didn’t know the play at all. So I know that advantage, but in modern times, how do you do it, Professor Smith, with your students? Do you just say start, let’s start reading? Or do you tell them about it first?

SS: Well, I usually have them read the play entirely before the first session. But then, I like the word Larry used, unfold. And that’s Shakespeare’s own word. He unfolds tales. And it’s much better to follow his lead and make your way through the work step by step, especially with students, but also as a reader. So I mean depending on the play, you know, a little bit of plot is really necessary. But again, I’d prefer that natural unfolding, kind of following Shakespeare’s lead and seeing where he takes you.

HH: All right, let’s begin there, then. What little bit of plot do you want the listener to know that might encourage them to go out and read it?

SS: (laughing) It’s a great story about a desert island, but the Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s simplest plots, actually. Prospero is the exiled duke of Milan. He and his daughter have been on a desert island for 12 years. He has a servant named Ariel, and a servant named Caliban. And the whole plot of the play, again, it’s very simple, centers on one event. The enemies from his past just so happen to be floating by his island on the way back from a wedding, and he raises a sea storm, he’s a magician, wrecks them on the island, and then it going to lead them to an encounter to himself and then return home to Italy.

HH: Does it ever occur to anyone to ask, though, if a magician can do that much, how he got exiled in the first place?

SS: You ask too many questions.

HH: Okay.

LA: There’s a partial answer, isn’t there? He had books on the island.

SS: Yes.

LA: And those books are important. It’s important where he got them, and it’s important what he did with them. And so in his exile, away from the hustle bustle, he became more powerful.

HH: Okay, that’s actually very interesting.

SS: And he can’t…

LA: You sound surprised.

HH: Well, I hadn’t heard that before. I hadn’t thought about that before. But it also makes an argument for periods of being out of power, so you can reflect upon, I’ve always said this, I thought it’s why Rumsfeld was a better secretary of Defense the second time around, people argue with that, is that if you leave, you ruminate on what you did wrong and right, and then you return. It’s an argument I had with Mitt Romney last week as to why you might be a better candidate the third time around than the second time around, is that you learn, always.

SS: Well Hugh, that’s the key thing with Prospero. How did he get to the desert island? Well, 12 years ago, he was the duke of Milan, the prince of power in Italy, and he made a complete mess out of his life and his rule. He was obsessed with actually the liberal arts as it turns out and with study, he neglected worldly ends, and to his own state, became a stranger. And in this state, he decided to let his brother do all the work of ruling. His brother betrays him, and then he and his daughter are left out on the sea to die. So Prosper is precisely someone who has learned from really the tragedy of his past. And that’s an important part of his power in the play.

HH: And that’s revealed early?

SS: Yes, right away. He tells, the play opens with the storm. Everyone apparently dies. The stage clears, and then Prospero and his daughter come out, and he says it’s time that you know the story of how we got here. And then he explains, very truthfully, I might add, how he brought this tragedy upon himself and upon his daughter and got himself exiled.

HH: Maybe we’ll get a couple of lines of that when we come back.

— – – — – –

HH: Last week, Dr. Larry Arnn, I must say Victor Davis Hanson joined us, and I called it a neo-Hillsdale Dialogue, because he is so often a visitor to your fine campus. And he left everybody close to slashing their wrists. And so I’m not sure you want to invite him back to the campus this fall.

LA: You know, he, the last two times I’ve seen him, he’s been more optimistic. He says we’re going to squeak by, you know, you were saying about periods out of office are good for a man. I’m recommending that right now for certain rulers. But he’s been, so I think he ebbs and flows about that a little bit, and I hope he’s flowing when he gets here in a few days, actually.

HH: Oh, is he? He was flowing quite a lot, but it was not optimism.

LA: Yeah, okay.

HH: So be prepared. What does he do, by the way, with your students for a week?

LA: Well, he comes for three weeks, and he teaches a class. And he gives a public lecture, and he’s been doing that for 400 years now.

HH: Well, that is a truly, one reason among many, but a compelling one to become an applicant to Hillsdale. Has that, by the way, is your class bigger this year as they arrive?

LA: It is, and we didn’t want it to be. It’s 25 people bigger, and more boys than girls. We usually keep it pretty even, but this time, you know, and what it proves is I personally am a long term failure at enrollment management. The college has gotten bigger, about 30%, 35%, and that was never the plan.

HH: I have a solution. Make Professor Smith teach more.

LA: Yeah, there you go. There you go.

HH: Because this is all very popular. These Shakespeare conversations are popular. I’m not sure he likes me much anymore. I’m sorry about that. So we’re talking about the Tempest, Professor Smith, and Prospero walks out, and he gives the backstory. What’s the most important thing he tells people?

SS: Well again, I think not only in the play, but with all of Shakespearian drama in mind, is that here is a guy who can actually tell the story of the soul truthfully, acknowledge that he’s done wrong, take responsibility, and then work to correct himself. That kind of turn of the soul is really rare in Shakespeare. So when he comes out and he tells his daughter, you know, I was first in dignity, I was without parallel in the liberal arts, these were all my study, and upon my brother I cast the government of the state, I neglected worldly ends and awakened in him an evil nature. So he’s going to admit, quite frankly, that he’s really the author of the tragedy of the past, and he’s the reason that he and his daughter are on the island. And I think that that’s something that tells you he has self-knowledge, that he’s honest, and that as the play will show, he is going to now command things quite differently than he did when he neglected everything in Milan.

HH: It’s also an injunction to modern people to be very careful about whom they put in charge of the personnel function. If you are bringing in the wrong people, things are going to go bad in a hurry.

SS: He didn’t recognize that, the great line is his brother was dry or thirsty for sway.

HH: Ooh.

SS: He really wanted rule. And Prospero said oh, you want it? You’re good at it. You go ahead and do it.

LA: Yeah.

SS: And little did he know he would thought to be killed.

LA: And see, think of the contrary, the paradoxical nature of the plot, because he learns his lesson, he neglected his responsibilities for his books and power, and then he goes to a place where he can’t exercise any power, and he becomes much more powerful. And then the play is a revelation of a master of prudence. He arranges things with his powers and his servants to show people as they are, and reveal them, and even correct them and improve them. And so a lot of it’s backwards. And of course, we around here think that reading books is the highest kind of life. But it’s actually also true that people who think that are better qualified to rule than people who don’t.

HH: What kind of a magician is he?

SS: Well, I think Larry used the key word, which was prudence. He’s a reasonable magician. His power flows from his grasp of reality, his understanding of the soul, and his ability to command. So he’s a magician in the fiction of the play, so he can really raise a storm. There’s really no way they’re going to get out of that unless there is unusual power. But the real power in the play is his prudence, and I would add one other word, is charity. I mean, one of the things in Shakespeare that preoccupies him, Shakespeare, the artist, is the relationship between prudence and love, prudence and charity. And Prospero actually unites these in his art in the play very powerfully.

HH: Now you wrote me that he has a project. Prospero has a project.

SS: Yes.

HH: But now you have to first explain what do you mean by a project? Most of us think of home improvement projects. You’ve got to put down the floorboards or something like that. What do you mean?

SS: Well, he’s got a soul improvement project.

HH: Okay.

SS: …in mind. And at the beginning of the play, it’s kind of mysterious. You know, Shakespeare doesn’t give it all away. But in short, he is going to deal with the enemies from the past, the men who betrayed him. He is going to arrange for his daughter to meet a good, young man to marry his daughter. And then he is going to return home, give up his art, and resume rule of Milan. So that’s really the…

HH: So he’s ambitious.

SS: He is, and he wants his dukedom back.

HH: And so he is not benign. He isn’t just the good fellow doing good things. He is not going to turn his brother into Superman and send him back to rule. He wants the throne again.

SS: Yeah, it’s rightfully his. You know, one of the thinks Shakespeare shows often is it’s something that united Hamlet and Prospero, actually. Characters with these intellectual gifts sometimes just don’t want to rule, but they have the position of a ruler. And Shakespeare insists throughout his plays that you know, souls like that just have to deal with the reality that they must rule. They must shoulder responsibility.

HH: You just raised an obvious question for Dr. Arnn out of the front page. Everybody says President Obama has checked out, Larry, Dr. Hanson among them, that he just has no interest. He wants to golf his way through the last…Maureen Dowd of all people sliced and diced him for this. I don’t know that we’ve seen this before, someone who doesn’t want to be president for two years, have we?

LA: No, I think he’s, first of all, I don’t agree with that, myself. I don’t think that’s what’s going on at all. I think he’s got big plans. I think he’s about to launch a bunch more stuff. I think it’s his nature to do it. I also think, and here I’m actually going to try to exercise myself not to be uncharitable to him, but I think that there’s an arrogance about him, you know, to be criticized in public for playing golf after an American was beheaded, a heroic American was beheaded, because you know, he’s not the first one to be beheaded over there, and he went back there. And think of the misery he lived in, and his family, think about them, and they chopped off his head in public and made a ceremony of it. So you know, to be criticized for that, and to go play again, I think that’s arrogance. I think he thinks in some way, it’s not good for a person, that he’s the man.

HH: I’m trying to, I’m going to dig a little bit more at the point you’re trying to make here, that that is malevolent, or is he completely tone deaf?

LA: Well, I don’t know, and that’s, you know, he’s the president of the United States. I’m disinclined to say that it’s malevolence, but I do very much believe this is not a good character trait, especially for somebody who has authority.

—- – – — –

HH: Professor Smith, the project you explain, he’s going to set things right, he’s going to get his throne back, he’s going to marry off his daughter, he’s going to improve the souls of his enemies. There are obstacles. What are they?

SS: Well, as it turns out, the past becomes present pretty relentlessly in this play. So as soon as Prospero’s brother gets to the island, he immediately conspires with another man to kill King Alonso, who’s also on the island. So he’s going to be causing trouble. Caliban, Prospero’s servant, is going to lead a rebellion against Prospero. He thinks Prospero is the tyrant of the island. And then the third obstacle is maybe the most significant, which is Prospero himself, in his own nature, as he confronts finally, after 12 years, all these enemies from his past.

HH: Now 12 years is an interesting period of time. Any significance to it as you study the play

SS: Not any obvious one expect that in the last plays Shakespeare wrote, he likes to explore the good effects of time. You know, there’s never enough time in a tragedy, whereas in these late plays, you get 12 years on an island to think about things, a 16 year gap, a 14 year gap. He’s doing something different in the last plays with time, and especially its healing power.

LA: Richard III needs a horse, and he needs it right now.

SS: Exactly (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

SS: He’s not thinking, maybe next decade when I’m better.

HH: Gloucester on the hills of Dover. You’re right. Tell us about Caliban. I think people need just a word on this character.

SS: Well, Caliban is the original kind of the island in his own estimation, and when Prospero arrives, Prospero takes him in, begins to educate him, and then Caliban violates, or seeks to violate the honor of Miranda after which Prospero holds him in subjection kind of as a slave. So Caliban is a disgruntled character. When they bring up the violating the honor of Miranda, he says oh, what did I had? I would have peopled this island with Calibans if I could have. So he’s actually a very energetic and interesting character, but he’s going to lead a little rebellion.

LA: Also, he’s ugly and he smells bad, right?

HH: Right.

SS: Yeah, an ancient and fish-like monster.

HH: A fish-like monster. That’s what I want people to understand. So why wasn’t he killed? Isn’t it prudent just to kill him?

SS: Well actually, I think Prospero saw in him what Shakespeare reveals, too, which is there are real sparks of soul in this guy. He speaks in beautiful poetry a couple times about the island and the mystery of the island, and then surprise, surprise, at the end, when he thinks he’s going to get killed by Prospero for leading the little rebellion and everything, he ends up being pardoned. And his last lines are I’ll be wise hereafter and seek for grace. And he repudiates the drunkards he had followed in the rebellion. So there’s something going on with Caliban. He’s not really a monster, simply. He’s a little bit more than that.

HH: Well, he’s subhuman, though, right?

LA: Steve said charity, right? And there’s a lot of forgiveness at the end.

SS: Yeah.

LA: Like Caliban is extremely insightful about Prospero.

SS: He is.

LA: Burn his books, and you would deprive him of his strength, you know…

SS: Yeah, he says you take them away, and he’s just a sot like the rest of us.

LA: Yeah, and see, that means that the lesson about the books, that he attended to them too much in power, and now he’s out of power and he’s studying them more. And what does he learn? What he learns is we are made not entirely for theory. We are made for life, too. And he got the balance wrong. And Caliban understands that, and is actually a spokesman for that lesson. His practical worth is his attachment to things that are beyond practicality.

HH: So does it all work out in the end? Does it succeed?

SS: Yeah, the famous ending, Prospero will, well, several things. First, he leads his enemies to the banquet and confronts them with the truth about their past. But then the play ends with several really great moments. Prospero breaks his staff and says he’s going to drown his book, very mysterious lines. He requests heavenly music, and then forgives his enemies. Now at the end, people respond differently to the revelation that he’s alive, and to the offer of forgiveness. His brother who betrayed him actually says nothing in reply. So you have good responses, and then these limited ones as well.

HH: All right, we’ll come back and find out if the marriage comes off as well.

—- – – – —

HH: So we’re at the end of the Tempest, and everyone’s together at a banquet, and Prospero has, to use the modern term, thrown down on everyone. His brother’s, is his brother dumbstruck? Or is he simply not responding?

SS: It’s mysterious. He does not respond. He has nothing…the only thing he says at the end is, looking at Caliban, hey, we can make some money on him back in Italy. And so he doesn’t, you know, as we way, not entirely with the program.

HH: He’s not reformed.

SS: It’s not clear where it’s going, but that’s a famous touch from Shakespeare, you know. It’s not just a perfect ending.

HH: And so how about the daughter and the groomsman?

SS: Well, that’s the simplest part of the plot. You know, they fall in love, they exchange eyes, as Shakespeare likes to say. And you know, they get married. They’re the simplest part of the plot by far.

HH: Why did Prospero like his future son-in-law?

SS: Well, his future son-in-law is the son of his former enemy, King Alonso.

HH: Right.

SS: So the marriage is going to work peace, which is a really important theme in the whole play, working for peace.

HH: So there’s a political marriage element to this.

SS: There is, but it turns out the boy is well-formed, well-educated, well-spoken, and a good soul.

LA: So one of the things that goes on in the play, Steve’s going to tell us about Ariel in a minute, but one of the things that she and other factors make possible is that Prospero can watch people in ways that we normally can’t watch them, and he sees their characters more clearly than normal people can see. And he watches the two of them, and he sees that the boy is good. But Ariel is important, so say something about that, please, Steve.

SS: Well, so Prospero is the magician. Caliban is associated with the Earth, and Ariel associated with the air, the spirit and fire. And she is the way, or he, because we’re not very sure what she is, is the means by which he exercises all his power. So his providence of watching over folks, the storm at the beginning, but in probably the most beautiful touch, it’s Ariel at the end who intercedes for the former enemies and says that Prospero should treat them mercifully. So this character, who’s sort of a spirit and is set free at the end of the play, has been identified as Shakespeare’s fancy, the imagination, spirit. All sorts of readings are out there.

LA: Related to a witch, right? No, she was imprisoned…

SS: Servant of a witch, yeah.

LA: And Caliban if an offspring of a witch.

HH: Offspring, yeah.

SS: Yes.

HH: The son of a witch. Now here’s, what’s interesting is this final scene, he gives the epilogue, he speaks, and so Shakespeare may or may not be aware that it’s his final adieu. So what’s he have Prospero say in what turns out to be his last unassisted speech from the stage?

SS: Well, would you like me to read it?

HH: Yeah.

SS: Okay. So this is spoken by Prospero after all the business is done. Now my charms are all overthrown. And what strength I have is my own, which is most faint. Now it ‘tis true I must be here confined by you, or sent to Naples. Let me not, since I have my dukedom got, and pardoned the deceiver, dwell in this bare island by your spell. But release me from my bands with the help of your good hands. Gentle breath of yours, my sails must fill, or else my project fails, which was to please. Now I want spirits to enforce, art to enchant, and my ending is despair, unless I be relieved by prayer, which pierces so that it assaults mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon be, let your indulgence set me free. Last words.

HH: So how do you unpack that? You’re a student of Shakespeare. What’s he saying?

SS: Well, you know, for my money, Prospero is acknowledging here at the end that he’s not self-sufficient, and he cannot deliver himself. Many readers have heard echoes of the our father in the epilogue. It’s formally a request for applause, right? So he’s addressing us. He wants us to applaud and really to applaud virtue, I think, in the play. They were to applaud prudence and charity. But he’s also addressing Heaven. I mean, these lines are very strong. My ending is despair unless I be relieved by prayer.

HH: But is he also, is it a retirement speech for Shakespeare?

SS: Well, this is the last sole-authored play, and it’s very hard for me not to think that when I read this.

HH: That’s what I, I didn’t know that until you read it what it was going to say, and I thought to myself, okay, he’s putting, he’s doing a double purpose here. He has to end Prospero and the play, but he’s also got to always be aware of his audience demanding more from him. And you know, they’ll want him back, right?

SS: Yeah, I mean, it must have been very difficult. I mentioned that the two mysterious acts earlier in the play, the breaking of the magic staff and the drowning of the book, they’ve been read autobiographically. You know, no more writing, no more drama. And he, after this, retires to Stratford. So I also like the last line, set me free. These are the last words of Prospero, and it sounds to me like he not only is forgiving the enemies of his past, but is seeking forgiveness himself, too.

HH: Interesting reading. Dr. Arnn?

LA: Yeah, you know, you can’t read the play without understanding that it’s a commentary on two alternative kinds of life – leisure and occupation is the way we talk about them here. And its point is in the end, in my opinion, is that they depend on each other, and that fitness for occupation, for ruling, for doing things to others and with others, requires an understanding of things that are beyond that. But the things beyond that have to be sheltered by things above. And so here at the end, his powers, which is what he book is about, the play is about, for most of it, are gone. And he’s left with prayers. And that’s, you know, and he actually asks us to join him in those. And so in a way, we all depend on that.

HH: Great, fitting place to end, Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, Professor Stephen Smith, our guide through the Tempest. We will see you again a week from today talking about Hamlet: The Prince of Denmark. Don’t miss that, America.

End of interview.


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