I’ve … seen things …

It often takes something (we consider) sub-human to remind us of our humanity …

BH blade runner

‘… you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Time to die.’

Not that you needed me to complete the speech, I dare say … I’m also guessing you want to watch it again (I had to), so here it is.

The weekend brings an exciting reward for my ‘holiday’ week’s hard marking. On consecutive nights I’ll be watching Bladerunner: The Final Cut, and then Bladerunner 2049.  And I’ve got my tattered copy of Philip K Dick‘s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep‘ (1968) out – the first non-Shakespeare/EMP book I have read in weeks, or perhaps even months …

Yet there is, because there always is, an opportunity for me to connect to Shakespeare.

Regular visitors, indeed anyone who has tuned in recently, will know that Science Fiction is my other love.  You might be surprised to know that I did my dissertation on ‘The Evolution of Robots in Science Fiction‘, and this included a healthy dose of Philip K Dick, on screen and on the page.  Here’s a quotation from it:

In a reflective note [in 1976] on the re-publication of his short story, ‘Second Variety’ [1953], PKD states a personal credo: ‘My grand theme – who is human and who only appears (masquerades) as human? – emerges most fully. […] To me, nothing is as important a question.’

Ultimately, what separated the humans from the machines in ‘Second Variety‘ was that empathy was a human weakness which was, eventually, successfully exploited.  I’m going to take you a little further, with a second quote from my dissertation:

By the end of the 1960s Dick’s obsession with empathy remained, but his focus had switched from the enemy among us to the enemy within us. He began utilizing the android as ‘my metaphor for the dehumanized person, as […] someone who is less than human.’ Echoing Asimov’s Russian Formalist and Marxist influences, Dick recognized that a human being could be so alienated that they became, effectively, androidised. He came to believe that ‘the production of such inauthentic human activity has become a science of government’ and that this was ‘the greatest evil imaginable’.

We could wander along this road all night, but now’s the time for you to understand why I think this has something to do with Shakespeare

And this bring us to … The Tempest.  Of course it does, I hear you say.

I’m going to suggest to you that Prospero is inhuman, alienated, androidised, for most of the play.  He only has a kind word for those who fully agree or obey him. (He’s not James I in disguise, is he?) There is no empathy in his treatment of Caliban:

‘For every trifle they are set upon me’ (II.ii.8)

He’s peremptory with his daughter:

‘Thou attend’st not!’ (I.ii.93)

And her emotions mean nothing to him in the grand scheme he is devising:

‘Silence!  One word more

Shall make me chide thee, if not hate thee.’  (I.ii.479)

Frankly, it’s hard to believe his statement that he wasn’t murdered by his brother because:

‘Dear, they durst not,

So dear the love my people bore me’  (I.ii.140-141)

For film-goers, Prospero is Rick Deckard.  For readers, I might go further and suggest that he is Phil Resch.

If so, we need a Roy Batty (or Baty, in the book).  Miranda is, of course, highly empathic from the off:

‘O, I have suffered

With those that I saw suffer’  (I.ii.5-6)

But let’s go back to Rutger Hauer‘s epic dying speech, easily as good as anything we see in Shakespeare.  I mean it.  Roy has seen things, and Miranda has not.  So who has?

Ariel, that’s who.

In a quick diversion, last year’s GCSE class studied The Tempest.  Somewhat fortuitously, the question was on Ariel, and we had spent some time on his role, and on this, which I think is the pivotal exchange in Prospero’s journey:

ARIEL:  ‘Your charm so strongly works’ em

That, if you beheld them, your affections

Would become tender.

PROSPERO:  Dost thou think so, spirit?

ARIEL:  Mine would, sir, were I human.

PROSPERO:  And mine shall.  (V.i.17-20)

If Deckard, in the film, is left stunned by Batty’s empathy in saving him even as his own lifespan trickles away; if there are many, many instances in the book of empathy between and by the Nexus-6 androids, to the extent that Deckard actually apologises to one at the end before retiring it/her; then this is the moment in the play when Ariel’s ability to empathise with the plight of the King’s party is a gut-punch to Prospero, reminding him that he has become the thing he hated, and less than human.

It’s all change for him from here, a happy ending – not just all round, but for Prospero himself – which wouldn’t have been possible without the intervention of something sub-human to remind him, and us, what that actually means:

‘Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling

Of their afflictions, and shall not myself

(One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,

Passion as they) be kindlier moved than thou art?

[…] The rarer action is

In virtue than in vengeance.’ (V.i.21-28)

Now who or what’s going to deliver that message to Donald Trump?  Or indeed Theresa May?

I cannot wait for the weekend …


All line references are taken from the Arden Third Edition (eds. Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T Vaughan)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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