In his penetrating commentary on Dante’s theology, Charles Williams divides the spiritual life between the ‘way of affirmation’ and the ‘way of denial.’ In essence, both impulses are necessary for the appropriate formation of our moral lives: we must say a resolute ‘no’ to disordered impulses, while pursuing—to borrow from a Puritan essay popular among Reformed evangelicals—the ‘expulsive power’ of a deeper and more profound ‘yes.’ Much of the controversy around ‘gay Christians’ swirls around how we organize and integrate these two aspects of the spiritual life, both of which are necessary.
I have not often thought of The Tempest
as having much of a stake in this question, if only because I have read it with other aims in mind. Yet at the play’s heart lies an attempt to explain how chastity is formed within us, especially within a fallen world.
The backstory of the play is a ‘tell’ for readers: Prospero had been Duke of Milan, but bequeaths his authority on his brother to study the arts of magic. Nothing about this goes well. Though Shakespeare only alludes to Prospero’s brother’s growing political ambition, the set-up is almost identical to Measure for Measure, in which the ‘temporary Duke’ is seized by lust. Chastity is political, within Shakespeare’s world: kingdoms stand or fall on it.
Prospero isn’t free from unchastity on the island. When he arrives, he attempts to charm that earthy bundle of appetites Caliban into compliance with “humane care,” going so far as to lodge him within his own cell. Such a strategy fails, miserably: Caliban assaults Miranda, who had taught him language, and when we meet him he is being imprisoned in a cell of stone and being treated as a slave.
No wonder, then, that when the dashing Ferdinand appears on the island Prospero takes a rather different tack. Playing the protective father, Prospero puts Ferdinand through the test of being locked in Caliban’s prison, where he is compelled to do manual labor. Miranda pleads on both sides, imploring her father to take pity on Ferdinand and comforting Ferdinand by suggesting that her “father’s of a better nature…than he appears by speech.” Where he had been lax with the barely-human Caliban, Prospero is harsh toward the kingly Ferdinand. Much like the labor that Jacob was forced to endure for Rachel, Ferdinand is tasked with piling up some thousands of logs before the day is through. The work Caliban begrudgingly undertook, though, Ferdinand gladly accepts—empowered as he is by the site of Miranda. There is no shirking from the “mean task” before him, as Miranda “quickens what’s dead, and makes [his] labours pleasures.” Though he is a king, he places himself in glad submission and subservience to Miranda’s aims: it is for her sake that he becomes a “patient log-man.”
“All thy vexations,” Prospero later tells him, “were but my trials of thy love, and thou has strangely stood the test.” Note the strangely: Prospero is intimately acquainted with failures of chastity, and knows how odd the virtue is within this world. Though he welcomes Ferdinand’s successful wooing of Miranda—and even seems to scheme to that end—Prospero yet surrounds his joy with sharp warnings about unchastity’s bite. He warns of barrenness if he does “break her virgin-knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies may with full and holy rite be ministered,” and demands vigilance in the keeping of continence. “The strongest oaths are straw,” he cautions, “to th’ fire i’th’blood.“ Prospero has spirits enact the full pageantry of a happy and chaste wedding, which celebrates the “contract of true love” between them. But it is only after this blessing and its warnings that Prospero invites Ferdinand to “retire into [his] cell,” as he had once invited Caliban.
In other words, we might frame Shakespeare as something of a rigorist on matters of sexual continence. He knows well the madness unchastity breeds, and so puts even the kingly Ferdinand (for his father is King of Naples) through the trial of labour to see how gladly he would humble himself to undertake work beneath him. Ferdinand’s situation is nigh the opposite of the usurping Duke’s: where Prospero’s brother was given power and authority, Prince Ferdinand is made a prisoner and a slave. The former begets vice within the Duke’s brother: the latter reveals Ferdinand’s true and virtuous character.
The formation of chastity, then, is fundamentally the glad assumption of humility into the soul. All unchastity is pride, the self-indulgent, narcissistic reduction of the other to our own ends and gratification. To learn chastity requires not simply continence in the moment of temptation, but the repudiation of our own claim to have the companionship we think we are owed. The way of affirmation and that of denial are ultimately the same path, leading to the same happy end. But the negation preserves the affirmation: the warning against unchastity preserves the joy of marriage. No precedes yes, as the cross comes before the crown.