Why not murder? smiling villains… (1.2.135-143) #StormTossed

PROSPERO                             Hear a little further,

And then I’ll bring thee to the present business

Which now’s upon’s, without the which this story

Were most impertinent.

MIRANDA                                          Wherefore did they not

That hour destroy us?

PROSPERO                                         Well demanded, wench:

My tale provokes that question. Dear, they durst not,

So dear the love my people bore me, nor set

A mark so bloody on the business, but

With colours fairer painted their foul ends. (1.2.135-143)

This is the first, not especially explicit, indication that this long story that Prospero’s been telling Miranda, about how they came to the island, has anything to do with the storm and the shipwreck which first occasioned Miranda’s distress. He will – soon, soon – bring thee to the present business – but he had to give her the backstory – the two go together. He wouldn’t be telling her this long, complicated story if it weren’t for the shipwreck and the storm – without them this story would be impertinent, irrelevant. (And without the story the storm doesn’t make sense, and would be an act of unjustified cruelty.) Despite her isolation and apparent naiveté, Miranda is sharp and perceptive, as here, asking why her father’s enemies did not simply kill Prospero and her – surely it would have been politically expedient and more straightforward, is the implication. And Prospero is pleased by her quick grasp of the essentials; he has taught her well: it’s an excellent question, and perhaps, implicitly, one that he’s asked himself, over the years. (Wench is affectionate here, and not at all pejorative or sexualised, in this context.) His understanding of political contingency and compromise is, understandably, more nuanced, as he explains that his people still loved him (and so Antonio and his faction didn’t want to provoke them into an uprising in Prospero’s defence) and also that they wouldn’t want to be so obvious, and so extreme, as to commit murder. A mark so bloody again suggests the language of sin and damnation, and specifically the mark of Cain, the biblical brother-killer (Genesis 4.15). As so often, Shakespeare’s villains are marked by hypocrisy, by dissembling, by the pretence of mercy or of kindness. Antonio and the king of Navarre and those doing their dirty work with colours fairer painted their foul ends. Claudius, the Macbeths, Iago, Richard III, Edmund: snakes under flowers, and smiling villains. Foul is fair; painting is cosmetic, but colours are also those of language and of rhetoric, and dissembling is both visual and verbal. But never outright murder; so crude.


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