Better Plays for Better Lives: The Tempest

Parting is such sweet sorrow
Parting is such sweet sorrow

Today we publish the last article of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

Twelve years before the start of The Tempest, Prospero the Duke of Milan, was usurped by his brother Antonio, with the help of Alonso, King of Naples. Prospero was exiled to an island, with his three-year old daughter Miranda, where he reigns over the spirit Ariel and native resident Caliban, using his magic powers and books. The play opens with a storm conjured by Prospero; designed to shipwreck Antonio and Alonso on his island. After conjuring the storm, Prospero reminds his daughter; “I have done nothing but in care of thee, / Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter.” Over the years, the play has taken on post-colonial readings; but it’s also a story about a father trying to secure a better future for his daughter.

Securing a better life for our children, family, society and friends is something some of us might also worry about. The OECD certainly does, judging by its slogan – Better policies for better lives. But what do we mean by better? It’s probably got a lot to do with wellbeing, but how do we measure that? Surely that touches on something too difficult to define, or as Miranda says; “’Tis far off / And rather like a dream than an assurance.”

Fortunately, as part of the OECD Better Life Initiative, (you’ve probably heard about this one), the OECD How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being report presents the first international set of comparable well-being indicators. Better still, the OECD offers an interactive tool called Your Better Life Index where you can rank the 11 different dimensions of wellbeing discussed in the report according  your own personal priorities, allowing you to contribute your voice to the wellbeing debate, not only in English, but also in Spanish, French and Russian.

What would Prospero’s index be? Well, he’d probably give housing a 3/5; exiled on his island he is merely “Prospero, master of a full poor cell,” and laments the loss of his dukedom. But the reason Antonio was able to usurp him was because of his keen interest in studying, “Me, poor man, my library / Was dukedom large enough,” and indeed much of the play revolves around Prospero’s magical “art.” He also stresses his efforts to tutor his daughter, so education would probably rank pretty high, around 5/5.

Given that Prospero almost lost his life before being exiled, uncovers a drunken plot by his slave Caliban, prevents the murder of the faithful servant Gonzalo, and is wary of Miranda being assaulted by either Caliban or Ferdinand, safety would also receive 5/5. Income would be important, around a 4/5, because the spirits of his imagination seek to bless his daughter’s marriage with “honours and riches.”

His control over the spirit Ariel, as well as the elements around the island, “I have bedimm’d / The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,” suggests that the environment serves a useful short-term purpose, but he probably doesn’t value it as much in the long-run, so it would be given a 3/5. Jobs would get also get a 3/5, seeing as he’s keen on making all those in his power work (Caliban, Ariel and Ferdinand), but he’s not so much in tune with job security or earnings distribution.

Lower down on his list of priorities would be life-satisfaction, 2/5; he cannot express the same joy as the young lovers, “so glad of this as they I cannot be.” As he spends most of his time orchestrating the plot of the play in order to seek justice for his exile, his work-life balance would be 0/5. Being a recluse megalomaniac, civic engagement would also receive a zero ratings, whilst community would be low – although he seems to get some enjoyment from his small island subjects, so it would receive 1/5. He never really mentions health and is eager for peace in death by the end of the play, “Every third thought shall be my grave”, and so it would also get 0/5.

An interesting part of the BLI Index allows you to compare your priorities with individuals like you in age, gender and nationality. Compared to his fellow Italian males aged 55-64, Prospero’s priorities are close to the average in housing, jobs, education, environment and income, but way off in health, civic engagement and work-life balance. Given his arrangement of priorities, he’d be best off moving to the United States or Switzerland.

Overall, the OECD Better Life Initiative joins an international trend to look “Beyond GDP” as an indicator of wellbeing, into all those dimensions that put life behind the figures. Just as Miranda says to her newfound friend Ferdinand, “Be of comfort: / My father’s of a better nature, sir, / Than he appears by speech,” so we also have much to learn when we use new indicators to examine wellbeing from fresh perspectives.

Towards the end of the play the spirit Ariel reminds Prospero of what it means to be human. Having witnessed the punishment inflicted on Antonio and Alonso, Ariel assures Prospero his heart would be moved if he saw their suffering, “Mine would, sir, were I human.” Prospero, stunned that a spirit has more feeling than him, also sees life from a new perspective. With his daughter happily married to Prince Ferdinand, he turns from revenge to reconciliation, offering his hand in friendship to Alonso, “First noble friend / Let me embrace thine age, whose honour cannot be measured or confined.”

Today, we’re having a good go at measuring the un-measurable; “O brave new world!” So for now, we’ll leave Prospero and Shakespeare, as they bid us farewell –

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.

Useful links

Here’s Prospero’s BLI. Create your own at this link

Prospero BLI

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