Study Guide

The Tempest

by William Shakespeare

The Tempest Essay - Essays


Does Shakespeare Critique European Colonialism in The Tempest?

Since the 1960s, several critics have found a critique of colonialism in their respective readings of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The most radical of these analyses takes Prospero to be a European invader of the magical but primitive land that he comes to rule, using his superior knowledge to enslave its original inhabitants, most notably Caliban, and forcing them to do his bidding. While the textual clues concerning the geographic location of Prospero's island are ambiguous and vague, there is a prominent reference to the "Bermoothes." We know that shortly before he wrote his final play, Shakespeare read a contemporary travel account of the Virginia Company's 1609 expedition to the New World and its experience after being run aground on the island of Bermuda. Enslavement does surface in Prospero's realm. The grand magician/scholar inflicts "pinches" and "cramps" upon Caliban to keep him in line and he manacles the young prince Ferdinand's neck and feet together. The servile state in which he keeps Caliban is plainly and understandably a cause of the "ridiculous monster's" deep resentment toward his overlord, and it is with some justification that the spawn of Sycorax invokes nature's wrath upon his tormentor, as in his curse, "all the infections that the sun sucks up/From bogs, fens, flats on Prospero fall ..." (II, ii., ll.1-2).

Caliban himself embodies many of the characteristics that civilized Europeans came to associate with the "primitive natives" of the New World. As in the Elizabethan stereotype, Caliban is without moral restraint, and, more specifically, he is lustful in the same way that Native Americans were viewed in the early seventeenth century as dangerous despoilers of innocent white women like Miranda. And, akin to the "drunken Indian," Caliban's introduction to wine causes his spirits to soar as he exclaims, "Freedom, high-day" (II, ii., l.186) after encountering his new masters and gods, the comic characters of Stephano and Trinculo. Just as Native-American tribes would come to distinguish between colonizers from different nations, e.g., favoring the French over the British or vice versa, Caliban becomes disenchanted with Trinculo as a master and proclaims that he will only serve Stephano. For his part, like some great father protecting his children from a European rival, Stephano rebukes Trinculo for his mistreatment of Caliban, saying that "the poor monster's my subject, and he shall not suffer indignity" (III, ii., ll.36-37). All of this closely resembles some aspects of European colonialist stereotypes of the New World's peoples and of their historical subjugation of Indians for their own good.

If Shakespeare's play does comment upon European exploration and colonization in the Western Hemisphere, however, The Tempest does not contain a critique of exploitation, but, instead, an apology for it. Caliban was initially treated as an ignorant child and only put under...

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Prospero and Shakespeare

There can be no doubt that The Tempest contains numerous references to the theater, and while many of Shakespeare's plays make reference to the dramatic arts and their analogy to real life (e.g., "all the world's a stage"), it is in this, his last play, that the Bard most explicitly acknowledges that the audience is viewing a show. Thus, in the play's final scene (Act I, scene i., ll.148ff), Prospero tells his prospective son-in-law Ferdinand that the revels at hand are almost at an end, that the actors are about to retire, and that the "insubstantial pageant" of which he has been a part has reached its conclusion. It is, in fact, tempting to equate the character of Prospero with that of his creator, the playwright Shakespeare. When Prospero sheds his magician's robes in favor of his civilian attire as the Duke of Milan, with the benefit of hindsight that this is Shakespeare's last work and his crowning achievement, we are disposed to associate the learned sorcerer with the Bard of Avon. How far we are to take this identification, however, is moot.

Prospero of The Tempest, like Shakespeare in his late Romance period, is a mature man with a daughter (Shakespeare, in fact, had two daughters, his only son dying in childhood) at the height of his intellectual and creative powers. Prospero is a polymath, a scholar with a magic book from an entire library that so absorbed him that it was, "dukedom large enough" (I, ii., l.110). Prospero displays a tinge of regret for having neglected his worldly office as Duke of Milan in favor of the life of the mind. Similarly, as virtually all of Shakespeare's biographers have observed, the Elizabethan playwright's knowledge was exceedingly broad, leading many to speculate that he pursued a number of vocations before settling into a life in the theater, and we know from textual correspondences that Shakespeare was broadly read and that he continued to absorb knowledge from diverse publications until his death. We can also speculate that Shakespeare regretted remaining away from his home in Stratford, at least insofar as his career in London kept him away from his children. Lastly, following The Tempest, Shakespeare, like Prospero, retired to civilian life, there being a period of five or six years between his composition of that play and his untimely death at the age of fifty-two.

Beyond these surface biographical parallels, Prospero's role is less that of a character than that of the imaginative or creative force behind the play itself. After the pageant of the goddesses who bless the union of Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero explains that the effigies which they have seen are "Spirits, which by mine art/I have from their confines call'd to enact/My present fancies" (IV,...

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Ariel and Allegory in The Tempest

The temptation to regard The Tempest as an allegory has proved irresistible to critics, although opinions differ on what it might be an allegory of, and what the principal figures might represent. In this essay I wish to discuss the character of Ariel, who has received less attention than either Caliban or Prospero. If The Tempest is an allegory then each of its characters should fulfil some representative function. Prospero is generally associated with the playwright (or even, which amounts to much the same thing in some views, with God) as he controls the action on stage. Caliban is taken to represent the physical aspect of humanity, or the 'will', his uncivilised condition making him close to the beasts. In this view, Prospero represents intellect (in seventeenth-century terms 'wit', or 'reason'). The opposition of 'infected will' and 'perfected wit' is a common trope of Protestant discourse, as in Sir Philip Sidney's 'Defense of Poesie'. Ariel, then, ('an airy spirit' in the 'Names of the Actors') might represent a third part of the self, the soul or spirit, but at this point the allegory seems to break down, in that Ariel is clearly not Prospero's immortal soul, or the divine part in man, as he is under the control of Prospero as intellect, and in fact performs the action of the play just as Prospero directs it.

Frank Kermode, in his introduction to the Arden edition, criticises the tendency to allegorical interpretation, and seems to have imbibed something of the late Shakespeare's insistence on the importance of Chastity. 'It is not surprising that The Tempest has sent people whoring after strange gods of allegory' (p.lxxx) and most modern attitudes to the play are largely the product of romantic criticism with its dangerous and licentious enthusiasms.' (p. lxxxi). In his valuable discussion of Ariel (Appendix B, pp. 142-145), Kermode opines 'These traces are no doubt due to the element of popular demonology in the play, and it would be foolish to expect absolute lucidity and consistency in the treatment of these ideas. It is surely remarkable that, in all that concerns Ariel the underpinning of 'natural philosophy' should be as thorough as in fact it is' (p. 143). This suggests to me a certain reluctance on Kermode's behalf to acknowledge Shakespeare's expertise in 'popular demonology', perhaps considering such knowledge to be beneath the immortal bard. Why? Is not Shakespeare's possession of such knowledge rather to be assumed than taken as a matter for surprise? He shows the fairly expert knowledge of other now unfashionable disciplines such as astrology and the semi-magical Paracelsan medicine which would be natural for an inquisitive and informed member of his culture. In Cornelius Agrippa's Occult Philosophy (translated by 'J.F.' in 1651) Ariel is a 'daemon', 'the presiding spirit of the element of earth' (Kermode, p. 142), but the resemblance is more nominal than essential. Ariel moves comfortably in all elements, and also controls lesser spirits (with which Prospero has no direct contact) to accomplish Prospero's design.

Ariel it is who performs the action of the play, the motor that powers the plot, the animating force which accomplishes Prospero's design. To enumerate all Ariel does would take some time, but his chief actions are in creating and managing the storm which opens the play (although we are not told this until 1:2:195-206), in charming to sleep (often through the use of music), in changing shape to represent a Harpy, an electrical storm, a firebrand, a marsh-light, and possibly either Ceres or Juno (Kermode, p. 105, l. 167), in becoming invisible, in dressing up like a water-nymph (of which more later), in becoming invisible, in leading the enchanted from place to place, and in controlling and setting on lesser spirits. Ariel is reported as flying, flaming, entering the "veins o'th'earth", and going beneath the sea. In the negative, Ariel has...

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Caliban: A Character Study

Caliban is the only authentic native of what is often called 'Prospero's Island'. However, he is not an indigenous islander, his mother Sycorax was from Argier, and his father Setebos seems to have been a Patagonian deity. Sycorax was exiled from Argier for witchcraft, much like Prospero himself, and Caliban was born on the island. Caliban's own understanding of his position is made eloquently plain when we first meet him:

I must eat my dinner.
This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. When thou cam'st first,
Thou strok'st me, and made much of me, would'st give me
Water with berries in't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and...

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Themes in The Tempest

The Tempest is generally considered to be Shakespeare's last sole-authored play. As early as 1875 it was identified as one of a group of late Shakespearean 'Romances' with Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline. The Tempest differs markedly from these others, however, in containing the action within the 'classical unities' of time and place (meaning that the duration of the performance is equal to that of the events depicted, and that the action is confined to one geographical area, requirements which the other romances entirely disregard.) The Tempest is a very beautiful play, beautifully constructed and beautifully written. Such is its atmosphere that many commentators have considered...

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Father-Daughter Relationships in Shakespeare's Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest

"This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; ...
My daughter.” - T.S. Eliot, "Marina".

The purpose of this paper is to explore some of the ways in which father-daughter relationships define both structure and theme in Shakespeare's Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. While avoiding the issue of the exact nature of Shakespeare's crisis of c. 1607-1609, we shall nevertheless agree with Dover Wilson that a conversion of some kind took place as a result of that crisis, allowing the frame of mind which was to produce the transition from the tragedies to the romance plays. Perhaps, as Wilson asserts, "by the...

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The Tempest: Illusion and Reality

This essay will discuss the part that illusion and reality plays in developing and illuminating the theme of Shakespeare's The Tempest. This pair of opposites will be contrasted to show what they represent in the context of the play. Further, the characters associated with these terms, and how the association becomes meaningful in the play, will be discussed. Quotes used in this essay are taken from the Folger Library edition of The Tempest, edited by Louis B. Weight and Virginia A. LaMar, published by Pocket Books, New York, 1961. Quotations will be formated according to Act, scene and line.

A good starting point to discuss the use of illusion and reality in The Tempest is to focus on the setting...

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The Tempest: An Overview

The Tempest was originally performed in late 1611, and was published in its current form in the First Folio of 1623. It is the one play by Shakespeare not derived from one or more of the many sources commonly utilized by all playwrights of the Elizabethan era, although a contemporary German play possesses an analogous exile theme. The story of the shipwreck was probably taken from Sir George Somers' narrative of a Bermuda shipwreck of 1609.

The play itself is a masque-like comedy; it far surpasses the majority of those traditional pieces with similar themes which were continuously being updated by other writers of Shakespeare's day. It is a tale of magic and wonderworking, of retribution and forgiveness,...

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The Tempest and Colonialism Revisited

There is much in the topical dressing of The Tempest which relates it to the colonial adventure of the plantation of Virginia and with the exotic Bermudas. Critical opinion has varied as to whether The Tempest is closely related to colonialism as undertaken in the Jacobean period; E.E. Stoll wrote in 1927 that 'There is not a word in The Tempest about America … Nothing but the Bermudas, once barely mentioned as faraway places.' On Stoll's side we can say that the action takes place somewhere between Tunis and Naples, presumably therefore in the Mediterranean, and that the characters who are shipwrecked are returning from Tunis after a wedding, not in the least intending to set foot upon, let alone settle or...

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