Milan’s “True” Duke

The class discussion about the events which precede the events of The Tempest, brought about an idea that I had not considered the last time I read the through the play: who the “real” Duke of Milan was. Naturally, I had always thought of Prospero as the one true Duke, but when i began thinking more about it, I found my resolve shaken. Nominally, of course, Prospero was the Duke, but in truth, he was nothing like what a Duke should be. Rather than work to expand his kingdom or serve his subjects, he eschewed courtly affairs to indulge himself in the matters of philosophy and magic, and he passed the actual work onto his brother, Antonio. This fact problematizes the label of “Duke” in my eyes, and I intend to examine this dilemma to answer my own questions about what that label means.

The crux of my internal debate, whether or not the title of “Duke” belongs to the man who was born into it or to the man who does that actual work, rests on a topic addressed by Roach in Echoes in Bone:

“Performances in general […] are so rich in revealing contradictions: because they make publicly visible through symbolic action both the tangible existence of social boundaries and, at the same time, the contingency of those boundaries on fictions of identity, their shoddy construction out of inchoate otherness, and, consequently, their anxiety-inducing instability.” (39)

The work of the Duke in service of his realm is itself a performance of administration, work to prop up the authority of the state, and, in doing this, the role of Duke validates the social distinctions which assign it authority. Thus, paradoxically, the regal position gives itself authority, which it then bolsters in the pursuit of more authority, similar to the ouroboros, and once examined in this way, the position of Duke’s instability of authority is plainly evident. However, the authority of the position still necessitates the performance of the role, and the Duke must take on a role as an effigy of the state. This combination of simultaneous position within and superposition without the institution is summarized in the famous words of the absolute French monarch Louis XIV: “I am the state.”

Yet, in order to be the state, the state must work to uphold the integrity of the state, and if one does not put in the work, then one cannot reap the benefits of the work. It is for this reason that I feel that Antonio was the true Duke of Milan, as it was Antonio who was toiling away to uphold the realm up which his family’s power rested. Prospero even declared that his library was “dukedom large enough” (I.II), and with that in mind, his illegitimacy as Duke is readily apparent.

Bearing that in mind, I feel that Antonio’s actions were justified in the intent, but not their degree. He easily could have asked that Prospero abdicate to his brother, but then we would not have had his story. While Antonio’s methods were unsavory and dishonorable, he only wanted the best for the state, that he could continue to serve it best in order to maintain his family’s way of life. In that regard, I consider his intentions noble, if not his actions.

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