[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...
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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.
[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 play, including the indigenous creatures Ariel and Caliban and the shipwrecked nobles from Italy. According to Egan, this vision lacks the elements of love and forgiveness necessary for it to succeed in a real human society. Prospero's 'rough magic,' based on the desire for vengeance, however, is transformed by the end of the drama into a moral system tempered by charity and in keeping with the Christian belief in a shared love for all humanity.]
Is the knowing all? To know, and even happily, that we meet unblessed; not in some garden of wax fruit and painted trees, that lie of Eden, but after, after the Fall, after many, many deaths. Is the knowing all? And the wish to kill is never killed, but with some...
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Order and Structure
[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 emphasis put on the sense of the present in the play. But it is an emphasis which we cannot ignore: such words and phrases as 'now', 'at this moment', 'at this instant' echo and reinforce one another throughout the play. Furthermore, the episodes of the play are usually conceived in a present which is a crucial nexus uniting the past to the future: the past is relevant only as it affects the present, the future only as it grows out of the present. The past is defined as that which occurred years ago in Milan, the future as that which will take place after the characters leave the island.
Shakespeare no sooner finishes his brief opening shipwreck scene than he begins to emphasize the crucial quality of the present. Prospero assures...
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Music and the Masque
[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.]
The vital center of The Tempest is its music. Pervading and informing the action of the play, music is always sounding, always affecting and shaping the lives of the characters. Often directionless and ambiguous in its meaning, the music of The Tempest provides a context for Prospero's magical machinations and becomes, through the course of the play, a powerfully evocative symbol of this magic. In The Tempest music is the medium through which order emerges from chaos; it is the agent of suffering, learning, growth, and freedom.
Critics who have noted the pervasiveness of music, songs, and musical allusions in Shakespeare's drama have often attempted to extrapolate from the canon of his work and posit a distinct...
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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.
[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 activities are thrown into dramatic relief, however, by his subjects Ariel and Caliban. These two characters, contends Ferguson, are symbolic of the "wild man," a figure common in Medieval literature, who personifies the "inescapable irrationality inherent in civilized man." Prospero's subjugation of these two almost ironically results in his own education, as he learns the value of forgiveness, compassion, and freedom from those to whom he has so long failed to grant mercy.]
The generally accepted belief that The Tempest is Shakespeare's last complete play has led to numerous ingenious (and frequently sentimental) readings of the text. It is widely regarded as Shakespeare's farewell to the stage with Prospero's famous...
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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 creature that synthesizes both Medieval and Neoplatonic conceptions of spirits, but favors the latter by placing Ariel in the category of a spirit-agent that draws power from natural elements (in this case the air), rather than labeling him as a demonic or angelic being. Thus, Ariel has powers over natural forces, allowing him to conjure The Tempest that brings Alonso, Antonio, Ferdinand, and the others to the island. In terms of his motivation, Ariel also appears to be more a fantastic creature from folklore bent on achieving his personal freedom than an abstract being with religious overtones and purely good or evil intentions.]
As the sole agent of Prospero's magic in The Tempest, the spirit Ariel is a crucial...
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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 with the likelihood that the name Caliban is a metathesis of the word "canibal," Hankins gives evidence from records of man-eating peoples that bear a resemblance to Caliban's character. Further extrapolation allows him to identify Caliban as a type of the "bestial man," a term derived from the writings of Aristotle that signifies an individual who is unable to perceive the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. This assessment permits a greater understanding of the savage's character with respect to his lack of moral sense and almost total inability to demonstrate moral improvement in the play.]
The character of Caliban continues to be a source of speculation to readers of The Tempest, but gradually we are...
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