Study Guide

The Tempest

by William Shakespeare

The Tempest Essay - Criticism



Frank Davidson
[In the following essay, Davidson surveys various twentieth-century critical interpretations of The Tempest, including biographical theories that view the work as an allegory of Shakespeare's life and as his farewell to the stage; thematic speculations that emphasize the prevalent theme of reconciliation; and social/political criticism—such as that of Northrup Frye, who suggests that the drama is about the evolution of a new social order. Davidson goes on to formulate his own interpretation of the play based on its adherence to the Renaissance ideals of political and natural order and its emphasis on the importance of reason in ordering society and restraining human passions.]

Twentieth-century critics have left us a great variety of sometimes conflicting views on the meaning of Shakespeare's The Tempest. They have for the most part, however, been acute in their observations and have, even in their disagreements, bequeathed us a wealth of penetrating comment and points of view on a labyrinthine piece of dramatic art. Some, more objective than others in their approach, have been disturbed by interpretations which seem to have no basis within the framework of the play itself. E. E. Stoll, for example, [in PMLA XLVII (1932)], wearied, it seems, by the insistence that Shakespeare was dramatizing, in a part of The Tempest at least, events of his own life, or writing an allegory, contends that the critic should be a "judge, who does not explore his own consciousness, but determines the author's meaning or intention" from what the play actually says.

This discussion will attempt to restate and examine briefly meaning ascribed to The Tempest by several of these critics of renown of the present century and to follow with an interpretation of the play based on philosophical and psychological thinking of the Tudor era and justified, I hope, by the work itself.

For E. K. Chambers The Tempest [in Shakespeare: A Survey, n.d.] is a "dream" or "fairy tale," the protagonists of which are "imagined beings, taken partly from folk-belief, and partly from literature, to be the symbols of forces dimly perceived by the poet as ruling that life, which is itself, after all, in another degree, but such stuff as dreams are made on." In his consideration of Prospero's dissolution of the hymeneal revels enacted for Ferdinand and Miranda, he follows Ulrici, Dowden, and others, interpreting the action as Shakespeare's farewell to the stage. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch finds in The Tempest a subject which, he remarks, constantly engaged Shakespeare's "mind towards the close of his lire: Reconciliation, with pardon and atonement for the sins or mistakes of one generation in the young love of the children and in their promise. This is the true theme of Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, successively." Stoll agrees with Chambers that the play is a fairy tale, a "sort of glorious fairy-tale," he calls it, "precious not ... because of the structure or situations, but because of the characters, the poetry and the rich and dreamy spirit which for the most part informs it." He is conscious of a "tendency to reverie" in the play, of a "change in his [Shakespeare's] imagery," of outlines that "tend to become vast, vague and wavering, as in a dream," and of some profound thought on "the end, not only of man's work but of Nature's, and of life as a dream, and death as a sleep." He is at total variance with Chambers with reference to any biographical interpretation. Hardin Craig, [in An Interpretation of Shakespeare, n.d.] like Stoll, looks at the play objectively but stresses more than do the other critics the fact that it is stage drama. In support of his view he directs attention to some significant facts unmentioned by Stoll: that "Prospero has committed error, has suffered wrongs, has striven against them, even has some struggles, often overlooked, on the island." The Tempest, he says, represents "Man moving toward the realization of the greatest Renaissance ideal," having "grown on the one side into a competent man of action, and on the other into a man of self-command." [In Six Plays of Shakespeare, n.d.,] G. B. Harrison follows the lead of Chambers and Stoll in viewing the play as a fairy tale and that of Quiller-Couch in assigning as theme, "reconciliation; wrongs committed in one generation ... set right in the happiness of the next." Donald Stauffer [in Shakespeare's World of Images, 1949] interprets the play as one of "moral ideas," which "grow from age and experience and self-discipline and resignation, almost from disillusion." Prospero's "nobler reason" is for him "no scientific rationality, but an ethical control over passion." Northrop Frye rules out allegory and argues [in The Tempest, The Pelican Shakespeare, 1949] that The Tempest is about a "dissolving society" and a "new kind of social order" that moves "not out of the world, but from an ordinary to a renewed and ennobled vision of nature." Prospero, he explains, "takes the society of Alonso's ship, immerses it in magic, and then sends it back to the world, its original ranks restored, but given a new wisdom ..." He touches on the biographical theory and sees possibilities in it without subscribing to it. Frye's is a beautiful piece of exposition, persuasive and charmingly lucid. Mark Van Doren warns the reader [A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, The Pocket Library, n.d.] that "The Tempest is a composition about which we had better not be too knowing"; that "it seems to order itself in terms of meanings" which are not "self-evident," but which are subject to a variety of interpretations, even contradictory ones, and of which even "the wildest is more or less plausible." He accepts the "reconciliation" theme mentioned by Quiller-Couch and Harrison but associates with it a theme of "separation," He touches upon the biographical theory but lends it no credence.

Any of the preceding views, except perhaps the biographical, may be to an extent justified by the lines of the play. Three, however, those of Frye, Stauffer, and Craig, provide some very pertinent observations not included in the others. Frye almost induces belief in his theme of a new society. He finds arguments for it in the compassion of Prospero, in the reconciliation of implacable enemies through the marriage of their children, and in the fact that most of the characters find themselves, "when no man was his own." Prospero, however, is so much the center of the action from beginning to end, he so dawrfs the other characters, that the social aspect dwelt upon by Frye is but vaguely defined. Stauffer is aware not only of moral ideas in the play, but of moral ideas which are the outgrowth of "age, experience, self-discipline, resignation, almost disillusion" and which anticipate "ethical control over passion" (italics added). Craig particularizes more than does Stauffer the experience, the self-discipline, and their results. For him, as we have noticed, "Prospero has committed error, has suffered wrongs, and has struggled against them, even has some struggles, often overlooked, on the island" and under the discipline imposed by these conflicts, has moved toward "the realization of the greatest Renaissance ideal" (italics added).

In content as well as in period The Tempest is, as Craig implies, Renaissance drama. It reflects such inherited classical theories and faiths and philosophies of sixteenth-century Western Europe as natural differentiation in degree and in duties of rulers and subjects ("specialty of rule" Ulysses called it in Troilus and Cressida); zeal for learning; the relative importance of speculative and practical living and a morality and psychology based upon convictions about the rationality, the passionate nature, and the free will of man.

Although Craig does not identify the "error" with which he charges Prospero, there can be hardly a doubt that he has in mind the cause of Prospero's failure as a Duke, a type of error of which the Renaissance took cognizance. As Frye correctly observes, Prospero "appears to have been a remarkably incompetent ruler of Milan." The obsession or passion with which Shakespeare endowed him would, for an Elizabethan, have made him so, for he devoted himself to speculative studies, "neglecting worldy ends, all dedicated / To closeness" (Ln.89-90), and by this immoderate inclination contributed to the defection of his brother, the loss of his dukedom, the exile of himself and Miranda, and the conflict that enmeshed him after he was forced by circumstance to care for himself and his daughter on a practically uninhabited island. "The government," he tells Miranda, while acquainting her with his former situation as Duke,

I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies ...
I, thus neglecting wordly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind ... in my false brother
Awaked an evil nature ...
Me, poor man, my library
Was dukedom large enough.

His error is evident in his words. His lack of any practical interest in the affairs of his people, his passion for a meditative and private life, and his delegating the actual operation of governing to a kinsman, as did Lear (in itself a perversion of nature), would have proved an almost insurmountable barrier for any sixteenth-century European ruler.

Study was, however, though insufficient in itself, an asset for the gentleman of the time, and for princesses as well, as Henry VIII demonstrated, and Prospero, too; for instruction in the liberal sciences would, says Sir Thomas Elyot, "prepare the mynde and make it apte to receive vertue." But, Elyot goes on to say, the governor should be "neyther by study withdrawen from affaires of the publike weale, nor by any busyness utterly pluckyd from Philosophy and any other noble doctrynes." John Lyly voices a similar thought, pointing out that there is an active life "which is about ciuill function and administration of the common weale," and a speculative, "which is continuall meditation and studie ... If this actiue life be without philsophie, it is an idle life, or at the least a life euill imployed which is worse: if the contemplatiue lyfe be seperated from the Actiue, it is vnprofitable." Prospero's error helps to explain the presence of Ariel and Caliban in the play and to prepare for the climax.

On the island, to which Providence has guided him, Prospero, the scholar, dedicated to closeness, is forced to employ that function of the rational soul which, to this time, he has neglected—the active. Through the kindness of Gonzalo, he still has his books and he still uses them, but he must divide his time now between speculative and practical concerns. He discovers two inhabitants on the island, Ariel, whom he releases from imprisonment, a delicate spirit, brave, adaptable to a variety of visible forms as well as to invisibility, freedom-loving, accommodated to any of the four elements, and Caliban, a creature of earth, offspring of a witch and the devil, whom he attempts to instruct in the manners of human life. The former, Prospero detains as servant in spite of protest; the latter, subsequent to his kind treatment and its ingratitude, he shuts in a cavern and assigns menial tasks—a rebellious slave. Neither of these beings is human. Ariel, who, it must be remembered, acts only on Prospero's bidding, can, under his direction, perform rationally (I.ii.207-208) but lacks human affection (V.i.19); Caliban is without reason and acts from instinct. But both act. Chambers speaks of Ariel, as from one point of view, "the agent and minister of an inscrutable Providence," which Ariel demonstrates himself to be (III.iii.60-75), with his adeptness at working with sensory objects—seas, shores, creatures, winds—through which, according to him, Providence operates to maintain order and justice in the world. Stoll treats Ariel and Caliban in considerable detail. Somewhat contemptuous of those critics who have a "taste for an inner meaning, biographical or symbolical," he likens Ariel to Puck "in the enjoyment of his own performances and of his effects on mortals" and speaks of him as "more ethereal ... than the fairies," representing "a power of nature, like wind or water, harnessed for a time to man's service [italics added], and delighting in it, yet ever ready to break loose." Caliban is for Stoll "a mooncalf," "the perfect brute," who "fits perfectly into the dramatic scheme as the creature of earth—both a parallel and a contrast with the spirit of the air ..." The two, he significantly remarks, constitute a "state of nature—Prospero and Miranda as human figures coming in between." Stoll lays great stress upon his point that these two figures are "not single abstractions personified, but many-sided conceptions, incarnated," "developments out of popular superstitious conceptions, which are concrete," both closely associated with nature. Of their growth in the poet's mind, he explains that

there was of course a guiding thread of thought, or a germinal idea—the spirit of the air in the one case, the spawn of the earth in the other—but that worked darkly under cover. Guided by touch and instinct, the poet, when consciously active at all, was intent upon the life and shape of the imagined creature, not on a meaning within it. (Or rather upon both, for this meaning—this germinal idea is simple and inherent, not arbitrary and external ... and the creature and its meaning are one.)

One may gladly accept all this and then, making an additional observation, point out a "guiding thread of thought, or germinal idea" in each of these non-human creatures that is different in some respects from those that have been suggested and...

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The magical atmosphere Shakespeare creates in The Tempest is one of the play's defining qualities and, according to critics, this element of magic pervades many of the primary themes in the work. While the topic allows for a wide range of interpretation, it is most often associated with the opposing forces of illusion and reality and the theme of reconciliation.

Robert Egan
[In the following essay, Egan interprets Prospero's magic in The Tempest as an indicator of the play's theme of the possible moral rejuvenation of mankind. Prospero, as an artist/magician and the ultimate ruler of the island, usurps the role of God by forcefully projecting his moral vision on all of the other characters in the...

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Order and Structure

Ernest Gohn
[In the following essay, Gohn discusses Shakespeare's use—hitherto unpredecented in his plays—of the classical unities of time and place in The Tempest. He argues that the work's structural unity, with action occurring as it does over the course of approximately three hours, is reflected in a thematic emphasis on the present. Gohn's analysis continues by relating this dramatic sense of urgency and preoccupation with the "now" in the play to its themes of hoped-for redemption and reconciliation.]

Critics have spent so much time on character-analysis—and upon possible biographical, allegorical, and symbolic implications of The Tempest—that they have overlooked the great...

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Music and the Masque

Theresa Coletti
[In the following essay, Coletti analyzes music as "the medium through which order emerges from chaos" in The Tempest. Perhaps more pervasive in this work than in any other of Shakespeare's plays, music is, according to Coletti, a structural principle that suggests the thematic struggle between harmony and disorder and the difficulty of achieving the former over the latter. By comparing Shakespeare's use of music in The Tempest with that in an earlier work, As You Like It, Coletti explains how music sets both tone and theme, and maintains that the play represents Shakespeare's most extensive use of the medium to highlight themes of freedom, forgiveness, and human redemption.]


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While Prospero is clearly the central figure in The Tempest and orchestrates much of its action, the question of whether he should be viewed with sympathy has divided critics.

Ian Ferguson
[In the following essay, Ferguson investigates the contradictory qualities of Prospero's character as they are borne out by his interaction with the other characters in The Tempest, especially with Caliban and Ariel. According to Ferguson, Prospero is essentially a ruler, now dressed as an artist and a director, who has abdicated his power without fully accepting moral responsibility for his actions. Prospero's endeavors throughout the play are bent on revenge and the restoration of his lost worldly power. His...

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Commentary on Ariel has tended to speculate about his nature and to suggest possible sources for his original and unique characterization. In 1811 August Wilhelm Schlegel was the first to identify Ariel with the element of air, contrasting him with Caliban, who is linked with the lower element of earth. And, while Schlegel was careful not to reduce Ariel or any other characters in the play to simple allegory, symbolic studies of this creature have abounded in modern criticism.

W. Stacy Johnson
[In the following essay, Johnson surveys the many possible sources for the character of Ariel, including the Bible, books of Renaissance magic, and works on demonology. From these he arrives at a definition of the...

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Caliban has remained one of the most compelling characters in The Tempest, and has elicited a large portion of the critical interest in the play. Early commentators were often drawn to Caliban. In 1679 John Dryden cited this figure as an example of Shakespeare's genius for creating distinctive and consistent characters, and he remarked on the creature's malice, ignorance, and sinful nature. Dryden's emphasis on Caliban's negative qualities was not the rule, however, and later criticism has demonstrated the complexity of his character.

John E. Hankins
[In the following essay, Hankins searches for the origins of Caliban in accounts of primitive peoples that were available to Shakespeare. Beginning...

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