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Shakespeare’s Vergil: Clemency and 'The Tempest'

Thursday Lecture Series

dateSeptember 22, 2011 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
  • Free and open to the public

Recent studies of Shakespeare’s relationship to classical literature have firmly established the Aeneid as part of the imaginative landscape of The Tempest. Allusions to Vergil’s epic in Shakespeare’s play of exile, dynasty foundation, and the perils of sovereignty have encouraged critics to see The Tempest as an ambivalent response to the Aeneid’s representation of a myth of the translation of empire. This paper takes a different approach to the relationship between The Tempest and Vergilian epic by focusing on the Aeneid’s contribution to the ethics of the play, particularly the problem of mercy. Vergil’s anxiety about the power of ira to conquer pietas lingers in the ethical substructure of The Tempest. In the concluding act of the play, Prospero’s anger and demand for strict justice override his more magnanimous gestures of forgiveness, leaving the reader of The Tempest, like the reader of the Aeneid, uncertain whether clemency can win out over the powerful forces of wrath and retribution. By activating the Aeneid’s interrogation of clemency in Prospero’s failed scheme of reconciliation with the Italian lords, Shakespeare allows for the darkening of the comic plot and reveals an ethical dimension of his reception of the classics.