“The Elements so Mix’d”: Empedoclean Cosmology in The Tempest
This article examines the manner in which the elemental images that constitute a recurrent motif in Shakespeare’s The Tempestevolve in accordance with the cosmic cycle propounded by the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, and how this serves to adumbrate the psychological process undergone by the protagonist Prospero in the course of the events depicted in the play. Prospero is a character who, dedicating himself exclusively to his arcane studies in Milan at the expense of his practical duties as a prince, has implicitly repudiated what he considers to be the inferior elements in his own being in favour of the more elevated aspects of his personality, this schism in the self being represented symbolically in the contraposition between Ariel and Caliban, associated respectively with air and fire, and earth and water. This corresponds to the phase in which Strife(neikos) gains ascendancy in the Empedoclean cycle, and in which the elements are segregated out from a primal unity and set in opposition to one another. The phase in the Empedoclean cycle in which the process reverses itself and Love (philia) begins to assert its sway is what appears in the here and now of the drama, as the disparate elements both within Prospero himself and in the world surrounding him undergo a process of convergence that eventually makes possible the reunification symbolized in Prospero’s charmed circle.
Keywords: Shakespeare; The Tempest; Empedocles; cosmic cycle
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