In the last act of The Tempest, Prospero describes his impending escape from his island exile and his eventual return home. He will first sail to Naples to see his daughter Miranda marry into a handy alliance and then travel to Milan where he will be restored as Duke.
It seems a joyous outcome—and one Prospero labors four acts to effect—but, thinking of his future sitting on his restored throne, Prospero reports, “Every third thought shall be my grave.”
How does success make him so unhappy?
The Rolling Stones tell us we can’t always get what we want, which is true, but we also know we should be careful what we wish for in the first place. Sometimes what we wanted isn’t what it pretended. Aspiration looks good from afar, but capture can be less fulfilling than pursuit.
I sometimes tell my students they shouldn’t take my criticism so hard because an essay without flaws might be more curse than boon. Write the perfect essay and what would you do tomorrow?
Fruition invites redefinition. Having done something means something more to do… someone else to be.
Among Prospero’s final deeds is shedding his books, staff, and magic. Nothing makes that step necessary—being naked of magic isn’t a condition of his return—but he decides that, once he’s redressed all the wrongs against him, he won’t need his powers. He frees one beloved slave and another not-so-beloved one with the words, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” He forgives deceivers who wronged him and ends twelve years of isolation.
Yet he seems melancholy. He never quite says so but swings between satisfaction or surrender. As the action of the play ends, he invites the usurpers and schemers into his cell to hear how he has lived, how he survived and thrived in the harsh island’s conditions, his glee with where he’s been more vivid than his anticipated return to civilization.
Sometimes we want things because we think we ought. Envy makes us desire what others have attained because, after all, we feel just as able, or think we are. “What about me?” the greedy heart cries and incites clumsy effort to find its proper place. Getting there may promise little pleasure—quite the contrary, you may feel you cut cross-grain against deeper, more immediate and comfortable desires—but it’s not always easy to distinguish between should and ought. Should sounds gentler. Ought suggests some grander, more dubious, aim.
Ariel, the slave Prospero likes best, brings dispatches—the status of the villains Prospero tests and torments. Some of them suffer. They’re ignorant of Prospero’s plan and its happy conclusion and know only their grief and torment.
“Your charm so strongly works ’em,” Ariel tells Prospero, “that if you now beheld them, your affections / would become tender,” and Prospero bristles. He replies, “shall not myself, / One of their kind, that relish all as sharply, /Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?”
Prospero is often so defensive. Part of him wonders if his unjust usurpation arose from an accurate cause. Part of him knows his plans aren’t harmless, yet he didn’t consider how others might feel. Worse, he hasn’t examined his own feelings, whether his longing is so important he can abide becoming a stranger to himself.
When I came to Chicago almost ten years ago, it was as the chair of the English department. My old school had become predictable. My place there was—and appeared would always be—a younger brother, a role I know well. I’m used to being George, not Paul or John, nor even Ringo, who has the good sense to choose humor over earnestness and anarchy over hierarchy.
It took six months to recognize the person the job required and how different he was from me. I was competent in the skills and vision required but incompetent in desire. The job wasn’t beyond me, just beyond my perseverance. I played the role for a while because I refused to surrender, to give up an exalted sense of capabilities I didn’t care that much about proving.
And when I stepped down after two years, I felt no better. Whether I called it quitting or others did mattered little. For another year, I thought I should be chair and, since I should be, I ought to be too. Yet I’d sacrificed my spot and couldn’t go back.
Each decision is sacrifice, one alternative dying for another. You may find a means to return but will have to confront the choice that necessitated doubling back. You won’t know whether you were right all along or right now, and, in that case, both are wrong.