It may be a somewhat widespread opinion, but one of my favorite plays by William Shakespeare (among many excellent ones) has been, as long as I have been familiar with it, The Tempest. As someone who appreciates discussing matters of politics and geopolitics, the play has much to offer. The play as a whole features a character who seeks to manipulate others without using brutal coercion in a fashion not unlike that of Thomas Jefferson, whether that refers to the character as a (generally unsuccessful) ruler of a European state, as the ruler of a colonial island with one helpful servant (the plucky Ariel) and one sullen and uncooperative one (Caliban), as a father seeking to protect his daughter from exploitation by others, and as a playwright and perhaps even a double for Shakespeare himself. Politics, the issues of colonialism, the exercise of parental authority, and the power of culture and literature to shape and manipulate others are all on the table in this play, and like layered writing in general, it tends to provoke in the reader the revelation of their own biases and agendas based on how this layered appreciation is approached.
Late in the play, Prospero comments to Calibian, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” and it is a resonant sort of saying that has prompted a great deal of fanciful interpretation, ranging from the psychological to the political. It is not my intent to add to this speculative body of literature with my own ideas, although I must admit that I tend to see the statement as being applicable across all of the layers of the play, from an admission of his failures as a political leader to his rule over the island to the darker elements of Shakespeare’s own literature that are being referred to here allegorically. What is remarkable and what I do wish to comment on at some length, is the fact that Prospero acknowledges Caliban as a thing of darkness for which he is responsible. This is not a common act; it is quite rare, in fact, for people to acknowledge the things of darkness that they are responsible for as their own. I am not sure the extent to which this acknowledgment should be viewed as praiseworthy. It would be better by far not to have things of darkness to acknowledge, it must be candidly admitted, but human beings are seldom that wise or that restrained. I speak for myself as much as for anyone else with that, although it must be admitted as well that it is better by far to acknowledge a thing of darkness than it is to persist in denials, since acknowledging at least puts one on the road to repentance and self-reflection, which perhaps may provide a means of reconciliation and restoration and also a chance that fewer dark things will be present in the future that one must acknowledge. Hope springs eternal in that respect.
Why is it so hard to acknowledge things of darkness? To be sure, there are some ages which are less sentimental or high minded where a great deal of darkness may be acknowledged without much difficulty. For example, Sense & Sensibility contains a humorous passage where it is assumed that Colonel Brandon, a generally decent and high-minded and respectable gentleman, is casually said to have been the likely father of a young woman born of illegitimacy that he has taken care of, even though it is later revealed that he is not. His concern for a young woman of dishonorable parentage is viewed as an acknowledgement of wrongdoing by others who are perhaps too cynical about generous motives. Be that as it may, even in ages as cynical and decadent as our own there are things of darkness that it is difficult for people to acknowledge, and precisely those areas of moral failing that would seem to remove one’s credibility in being an authority or an example to others. For example, the Beastie Boys song has a young person complaining about his hypocritical parent who smokes two packs a day but tries to convince his son not to take up smoking. Such a hypocrite is very likely to be someone caught up in the midst of addiction and hoping to urge others not to follow his self-destructive lifestyle, someone whose advice should be taken and who should be viewed with compassion rather than contempt. And yet in our age to acknowledge certain forms of darkness is to remove in the eyes of others (and sometimes in ourselves) the moral authority to defend virtue or attack vice. And so such darkness is not often acknowledged, since having the power to condemn vice and urge virtue is highly valued–or else we would have far fewer editorials and blogs in existence, my own included.
Whole cultures have enshrined the refusal to acknowledge things of darkness as key aspects of their society. This was true in the antebellum South as well as in its successor cultures where one of the most important aspects of being a gentleman was in being able to do something without someone else able to give the lie by contradicting and proving it. For example, it was openly acknowledged that many plantation owners (like Thomas Jefferson) carried on relationships with privileged slave concubines as a substitute for a married relationship, but while this was conceded as a general principle, those who attempted to make this particular claim in a particular incidence would face very serious repercussions, including death, from those proud gentleman who sought to protect their reputation despite their lack of honor. Sometimes this can go to extremes, such as the case where Jefferson Davis was accused to have adopted the tactic of cross-dressing in order to (unsuccessfully) escape notice of a cavalry detachment whose job it was to round up fugitive rebel leaders after the collapse of the Confederacy in April 1865. It was not viewed as wrong to engage in such behavior, but it was wrong to be caught in the lie and to be unable to enforce one’s own “truth” against those who would contradict the word of an elite Southerner. It was not the existence of evil that was problematic in that culture but rather its acknowledgement, which would have been an admission of wrong that would have made one lose face and moral credibility in elite competition over status and authority, which was an intolerable indignity to suffer.
It can, therefore, take some bravery for people to acknowledge their errors. This bravery is not always appreciated by others, some of whom may use the acknowledgment in order to bolster their own cynical claims that all attempts to defend virtue are merely cloaks for vicious and immoral character. Such bravery, therefore, must depend on a few other elements, including the desire to be forgiven by those whom one has wronged, the desire to live an honest life of integrity and character, and often some degree of hope that present shame may be repaid with future honor, either in this life or in the world to come. After all, there may be a price that needs to be paid in the acknowledgment of evil. Perhaps one will face some sort of sanctions or personal repercussions, the loss of freedom in prison, the forfeiture of office, civil penalties and fines, the shame of being exposed as an evildoer, abandonment from friends and family, the slings and arrows of nasty words by strangers and rivals and enemies, and the condemnation of one’s behavior by future generations of moralists and historians. All of this can only be endured by someone who finds the existence of evil that is not acknowledged to be a torment, which is itself the evidence that someone has a working conscience, even if that conscience was not strong enough to restrain the evil in the first place. Yet as we human beings are full of mixed intentions and self-deception, even the presence of a conscience which is tormented by wrongs it was not strong enough to prevent is something worth preserving and worth praising. For we have not enough virtue to turn our nose up even against such feeble evidence of higher morality in ourselves and in our world, for even to acknowledge the darkness that we have created requires courage in a world that is largely content to persist in denial.