Books and clothes, divine providence and human goodness (1.2.159-169) #StormTossed

MIRANDA      How came we ashore?

PROSPERO                                         By providence divine.

Some food we had, and some fresh water, that

A noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo,

Out of his charity – who, being then appointed

Master of this design – did give us, with

Rich garments, linens, stuffs and necessaries,

Which since have steaded much; so of his gentleness,

Knowing I loved my books, he furnished me

From mine own library with volumes that

I prize above my dukedom.

MIRANDA                                                      Would I might

But ever see that man! (1.2.159-169)

The rotten carcass of a butt was, apparently, larger than might at first have been imagined; at any rate, there’s perhaps the sense here of the dots being joined, backs covered – even, perhaps, a quick revision in light of the play’s ending, when Prospero must appear, once more, dressed as the duke of Milan. Even if they had food and water, Prospero and Miranda – no longer a toddler – have needed clothing or the means of making and mending it for the last twelve years or so. What Miranda’s wearing at this point can be an interesting indicator of how much a production invests in verisimilitude: rags? obviously recycled and patched garments, some of which might have been her father’s? or full Jacobean princess kit? The rich garments are less a way of giving Prospero and Miranda things to wear than giving them things of value that could, if necessary (and not on a deserted island) be sold, although they will become important later on, too, in Caliban’s plot to murder Prospero. The linens are probably sheets, shirts, and smocks; stuffs are other kinds of fabric, generic and unspecified, not yet made up into garments. And necessaries covers all the rest that might be imagined: drinking cups, for instance. (Anything so practical as a small axe, fish hooks, rope? Probably pointless verisimilitude.) A bundle or two. And the books? It was common to carry books in a small chest, for example when moving between town and country houses (Shakespeare would probably have done so when travelling between London and Stratford, which he seems to have done regularly at this point in his career) – and the library that an early modern audience would imagine would appear small by modern standards. John Dee, the mathematician, astronomer, and magus upon whom Prospero is sometimes thought to be based (at least partly; he died in 1609) said that he had some 4000 volumes in his library, although the extant catalogues suggest fewer. When he went to Poland he took 800 books with him. But this was exceptional. A professional academic or scholar of means in the early seventeenth century would likely have a personal library of hundreds of books, but not thousands; very few in The Tempest’s first audiences would have any kind of visual reference for a substantial library. And so a box of books – not, as yet, with any emphasis on a particular book, a magic book – could seem quite reasonable, able to contain the most valuable, or at least the most prized books.

Gonzalo– another name, heard for the first time. He appeared in 1.1, but wasn’t named aloud. And, while it may well have been providence divine that brought Prospero and Miranda (and the books and the clothes) safely ashore, it was Gonzalo’s charity, his gentleness, which ensured their survival. So divine will is set against the free will of humans, the choices they can make to act for good or evil; this will be a central concern of the play. There’s no suggestion that Gonzalo was Prospero’s friend – he is identified as a Neapolitan, part of the King of Naples’s entourage. As will later be seen, Gonzalo too is interested in books and learning, in philosophy and ideas. He had quickly grasped the centrality of Prospero’s books to his life; that they, and Miranda, were and are his life.

These hundreds of lines – mostly spoken by Prospero, with Miranda’s interjections, and far from finished yet – include many lines shared between them, the meter more or less undisturbed. Prospero has told how Miranda gave him the courage to keep going and to steel himself, Against what should ensue, finishing on the half line. But Miranda’s question – how came we ashore? – begins a new line, which Prospero completes, By providence divine. There seems to be a pause before Miranda speaks, for Prospero to remember, and to compose himself, as he recalls this trauma. A pause, perhaps, for father and daughter to embrace.

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