Man in the Mirror: Parallel Characters and Categorization in The Tempest

Today, my castmate in The Tempest, Jeanmarie Ryan, dropped a theory in front of the cast and then walked away. “I think there are two mirrored character pairs that explore possible outcomes of a similar dynamic,” she said calmly, leaving all of us floored. “Come back! Explain yourself!” I said frantically. She and I went on to collaborate in expanding an idea that Stephano/Trinculo and Antonio/Sebastian represent couplings of manipulative relationships that exist to negotiate the limits of power. While both pairings consider homicide for the sake of social mobility, outside categorization heavily impacts how they are perceived and punished for their actions. 

In accordance with what I have come to expect regarding socioeconomic discrimination, Stephano and Trinculo face physical retribution for their half-hearted attempts on Prospero’s life, being lead through thornbushes and swamps for hours and being chased by “shapes” (Act IV Scene I).  The pair never even got to the mouth of Prospero’s cell, instead stealing garments off a line (a decidedly less serious crime). Compare this to Antonio and Sebastian’s plot to kill Gonzalo and King Alonso, a plan which they only failed to complete because Ariel woke up the camp. Their only punishment comes at Prospero’s stern warnings and a forfeiture of Antonio’s dukedom to Prospero (Act V Scene I).

While it’s clear that Trinculo and Stephano are written as comic relief, their bodies are offered as Rene Girard’s definition of “monstrous doubles,” (Echoes in the Bone 40). Along with Caliban, who we’ve mentioned in class is a victim of colonization to some extent, this pair is abused in the stead of all who have wronged Prospero. In Act I Scene II, Prospero outlines to his daughter how all the nobles and his own brother Antonio contributed to his ousting from Milan and subsequent marooning on the island. Whether due to nepotism, social class, or some other unnamed factor, Antonio and Sebastian don’t lose much when confronted about their murder attempts, even when compounded with Antonio’s usurping of Prospero’s dukedom in the first place (Act V Scene I). Trinculo and Stephano’s torture is meant to provoke hilarity.

At the risk of providing a false equivalency, this type of inequality in punishment is reflected in much African American art that concerns itself with systemic inequality. As Janelle Monae quips in “Crazy, Classic, Life,” “The same mistake, I’m in jail, you on top of shit/You living life while I’m walking around moppin’ shit.” This lyric calls out Trinculo and Stephano are described as a jester and a drunken butler, respectively, occupying the lowest strata of societal categorization in the show, save perhaps Caliban, who is coded as a slave (Act I Scene II). Their roles both demand physical labor that is less respected than administrative or leadership positions such as the ones Antonio and Sebastian have.

This is a reading I would never think to engage with before taking this class. By physically punishing Trinculo and Stephano, Prospero is able to purge the build-up of pressure resulting from 12 years of isolation on a deserted island at the hands of his own brother and other nobles after he neglected his post to engage with scholarly activities (Act I Scene II). Antonio and Sebastian, both of whom consider fratricide to accomplish their ends, are largely excused for their behavior. Through Girard and Roach’s readings, we can understand this as a case of sacrificial expenditure that maintains the established power structure at the cost of less socially important characters’ bodies (41). In The Tempest as in life, underprivileged individuals take the place of the guilty to placate the ruling class.

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