The Tempest, written toward the close of William Shakespeare’s career, is a work of fantasy and courtly romance, the story of a wise old magician, his beautiful, unworldly daughter, a gallant young prince, and a cruel, scheming brother. It contains all the elements of a fairy tale in which ancient wrongs are righted and true lovers live happily ever after. The play is also one of poetic atmosphere and allegory. Beginning with a storm and peril at sea, it ends on a note of serenity and joy. None of Shakespeare’s other dramas holds so much of the author’s mature reflection on life itself.
Early critics of The Tempest, concerned with meaning, attempted to establish symbolic correlations between the characters Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, and Miranda and such qualities as imagination, fancy, brutality, and innocence. Others considered the play in terms of its spectacle and music, comparing it to the masque or commedia dell’arte. Most critics read into Prospero’s control and direction of all the characters—which climaxes with the famous speech in which he gives up his magic wand—Shakespeare’s own dramatic progress and final farewell to the stage.
In the mid-twentieth century, criticism began to explore different levels of action and meaning, focusing on such themes as illusion versus reality, freedom versus slavery, revenge versus forgiveness, time, and self-knowledge. Some suggested that the enchanted island where...
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