The Tempest (Vol. 29)
The multi-dimensional text of The Tempest has inspired a rich variety of critical analyses. Despite an atypically strict adherence to the unities of time and place, the play operates in an open, fluid atmosphere of the natural and supernatural that evades ready interpretation. In seeking to examine the numerous contexts which may have informed the writing of the work, recent critics have focused on the character of Prospero and the nature of his magic, as well as the drama's sources and structure.
The Tempest's ability to spark such a variety of interpretation is due in part to the fact that the play's plot and situation defy a single clearly identifiable source. Since the eighteenth century, scholars have identified William Strachey's epistle account of the 1609 shipwreck of the Sea Adventurer while en route to the Virginia colony as a primary source for the plot and setting of the play. Prior to 1960, other potential source materials cited were Montaigne's writings on primitive life in the New World, folkloric magician literature.the commedia dell'arte tradition, and Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Aeneid. Recent scholarship has expanded source studies of The Tempest in several areas. Since 1960 critics have given closer scrutiny to the relationship between the play and Latin literature, especially the writings of Vergil and Ovid. John Gillies (1986), for example, explored Ovidian themes in the play, contending that Shakespeare's presentation of "the official portrait" of the Virginia colony is in fact Ovidian in its emphasis on fruitfulness and temperancr. In addition to this expanded exploration of classical sources, scholarship has focussed on new colonial perspectives in the text. Since the turn of the century, scholars have cited the literature of New World pamphlets in circulation at the time the play was written as evidence that the adventures of the Virginia colony were a source for the setting and political views of The Tempest. This view was vehemently rejected by critics who saw the Bermuda setting of the play as a refutation of Virginian sources. In recent scholarship, Gillies has continued this discussion in his article on the Virginian influence, writing that "with its emphasis on self-discipline, its apparent endorsement of absolute power as a necessary means to general prosperity, and its no-nonsense attitude towards savagery, The Tempest can be seen to reflect not only the events of 1609, but the mood which gave them significance".
The debate over sources often frames the discussion of the play's structure. In particular, critics have viewed the masque of Ceres in Act 4 as the unifying element of the play, expressing political and philosophical concerns in a form then fashionable for court performances. Glynne Wickham (1975), for example, has commented that "The Tempest … emerges … as a single unified work of art firmly held together by the successful incorporation of a masque and anti-masque within the dramatic structure of a stage-play." Similarly, Gillies also has viewed the masque as a crucial structural feature, the means by which the Virginian motifs are translated into Ovidian forms.
For the majority of contemporary critics, the predominant unifying element of The Tempest is the character of Prospero. Perhaps no other character in Shakespeare is seen to be as crucial to the structural and thematic integrity of a play than Prospero is to The Tempest. David Sundelson (1980) has commented that "… the play belongs to Prospero in a way that seems downright un-Shakespearean.… [Prospero' s] very presence restores the world to harmony." Prospero's dominance in the action has led to a vast critical exploration of his powers and motivations. While earlier scholarship tended to concentrate on Prospero's renunciation of magic as a key element of the play, criticism after 1960 has moved towards a broader study of Prospero as a multifaceted coalescence of diverse folkloric and intellectual sources. This expanded study of Prospero's magic has resulted in a bountiful mix of critical interpretations. Regarding Prospero as an example of the neoplatonic magus, Barbara Traister (1984) has placed him within the context of European magical thought of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For Traister, "Prospero becomes the supreme embodiment … of the paradoxical figure of the magician: a man of great power who can force or influence nature to alter her course for him, but a man … who is, finally, not a god, only human, and thus faces boundaries beyond which he must not pass." Modifying this view, Harry Berger (1969) and Barbara Mowat (1981) have characterized Prospero as a frustrated idealist whose pursuit of magic and the liberal arts serves as an escape from a mundane world. Berger has analyzed as "… an ancient and familiar psychological perplex connected with excessive idealism and the longing for the golden age; a state of mind based on unrealistic expectations." Another important trend in criticism written after 1960 has been to explore psychoanalytic readings of Prospero and his relationship with the drama's other characters. Critics such as Sundelson have anallyzed the play as a study in Prospero's paternal powers. His anxiety over Miranda's budding sexuality, emphasized by Caliban's sexual threat to Miranda, and the need to find a suitable mate for her, is seen as a motivating force behind Prospero's actions. While pointing out the weaknesses behind a psychoanalytic reading of The Tempest, Orgel has commented on the lack of mothers in the play, emphasizing Prospero's hostility towards mother figures in his quest to be both mother and father to Miranda.
Scholars have gained further insight into the character of Prospero by examining his relationship with Caliban.
Departing from older critical notions of Caliban as either the symbol of the uncivilized savage or the embodiment of human suffering, recent criticism has seen him both as a reflection of Prospero's conflicts and ambivalences and as a universal symbol of human attempts to understand reality. As Berger has noted, the parallels between Prospero and Caliban are clearly drawn, yet Prospero fails to recognize them. In an introduction to the play, Stephen Orgel (1987) has demonstrated that Prospero's attitude towards Caliban represents his conflicting identity as a ruler. Although Caliban's claim to the island through his mother is a threat to Prospero's authority, in fact "… it is Caliban who legitimizes Prospero's rule…he reminds us that authority may claim to derive from heaven, but in practice it depends on the acquiescence … of those who are governed by it." Prospero's ambivalence towards Caliban mirrors, then, his ambivalence towards his authority and power as a ruler, an ambivalence that led to his overthrow as Duke of Milan. Prospero's acceptance of Caliban at play's end, Orgel argues, represents a symbolic acceptance of Prospero's own role in his political exile. In a related view, Kott emphasizes Caliban's function as a mythical hybrid, essential in the resolution of "binary oppositions"—good and evil, mortality and immortality, male and female—that Prospero struggles to resolve in his own nature. Psychoanalytical approaches to The Tempest, such as those of Sundelson and Robert M. Adams (1989), the conflict between Prospero and Caliban over ownership of the island reflects the struggle between maternal nad paternal forces. Adams, for example, maintains that "seeing Prospero and Caliban as super-ego and id or as father and son may suggest varieties of intimate interaction between two unreconcilable elements of an unbreakable unity-interaction that controls much of the play." This "unbreakable unity" is acknowledged by Prospero's ultimate acceptance of Caliban as his own. Other scholars, however, emphasize that Prospero's inability to control Caliban through his magic is seen as one of Prospero's central limitations. Traister has noted that Caliban represents not only Prospero's limits but magic's as well, revealing that magic cannot alter a human soul. Despite Prospero's ambivalent feelings towards Caliban and the limitations he represents, the evolution of Prospero's relationship with Caliban is viewed as a symbol of Prospero's movement towards the attempted resolution of inner conflict, acceptance of responsibilities, and reentry into the world.
Harry Berger, Jr. (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "Miraculous Harp: A Reading of Shakespeare's Tempest," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews Vol. V, 1969, pp. 253-283.
[In the following essay, Berger argues against sentimental approaches to The Tempest and the character of Prospero, maintaining that the magician's resignation of his occult powers at the play's conclusion is in fact "a final attempt to reestablish mastery."]
In many of the later plays, some analogue of dramatic control is imposed—and conspicuously imposed—on action which would otherwise get out of control; action which indeed, in earlier tragedies, did get out of control. The echoes of, or allusions to, earlier tragic patterns in such plays as Measure for Measure, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, have often been remarked. The modes of resolution seem deliberately strained, unnatural, artificial, or unrealistic in these plays, especially since they resonate with allusions to earlier tragedies where resolutions were not forthcoming. This pattern tends to emphasize a crucial difference between life and theatre: in art, life's problems are displayed and then resolved, perhaps displayed in order to be resolved, perhaps resolved so that people can get up and go home. Yet on the other hand,—and this...
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A. D. Nuttall (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "The Tempest," in Two Concepts of Allegory: A Study of Shakespeare's The Tempest and the Logic of Allegorical Expression, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967, pp. 136-60.
[In the following essay, Nuttall provides an analysis of allegorical elements in The Tempest, arguing that the suggestiveness of the play is "metaphysical in tendency," since it conceives of love as a supernatural force.]
One of the reasons why The Tempest is hard to classify lies in its parentage. It has two sets of sources, first a body of romantic, fairy-tale literature and second a collection of travellers' reports. If its mother was a mermaid, its father was a sailor. It must be acknowledged that on the fairy side there is no story which we can point to as a direct influence on Shakespeare, but Iakob Ayrer's Die Schöne Sidea (published posthumously in his Opus Theatricum) and the story of Dardano and Nicephorus in the fourth chapter of Antonio de Eslava's Noches de Invierno show, besides a strong similarity of plot, an occasional correspondence of detail, as in the episode of the log-carrying. The late date at which Ayrer's play was published makes it very unlikely that it was Shakespeare's source, but there is just enough similarity between the two plays to let us postulate a common origin. Some close analogues have been...
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John Pitcher (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "A Theatre of the Future: The Aeneid and The Tempest, " in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, July, 1984, pp. 193-215.
[In the following essay, Pitcher examines Shakespeare's reconstitution of episodes from Vergil's Aeneid in The Tempest, maintaining that in this drama the playwright displays the fruits of his encounter with both the vital and negative aspects of Roman culture.]
Twenty five years ago, when H. A. Mason [in Humanism and Poetry in the Early Tudor Period, 1959] sought to characterise the achievement of Ben Jonson—in his estimate, the first Englishman to make living contact with the classical past—he wrote that Jonson's 'feelings for the countryside of England were the place where above all the classical and modern meet'. In the soil, and pools and fish and fruit in and around the great houses owned by Jacobean aristocrats and gentry, Jonson could reimagine the culture, growing and made, of the Roman poets and their patrons. In the convivium especially, in the small gathering of friends for a meal, the essential facts of civilised Roman life could be made to vivify the Renaissance celebration of the rural feast. Away from the court, and its cloying arts and sophistication, the alfresco meal, attended by courtier and clown, poet and politician, could free the men of the...
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The New World And Colonialism
Jan Kott (essay date 1976-77)
SOURCE: "The Tempest, or Repetition," in Mosaic: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas, Vol. X, No. 3, Spring, 1976-1977, pp. 9-21.
[In the following excerpt, originally the first part of a two-part essay, Kott argues that Shakespeare's reworking of classical mythology and Renaissance concepts of the New World, Utopia, and the Golden Age serves as a bitter commentary on "the lost hopes of the Renaissance."]
Not only did explorers and colonizers give old world names to the lands they discovered and to their newly established colonies—New England, New Amsterdam, Jamestown, Virginia—but they also saw their very travels to the West, to uncharted territories with unknown flora, fauna and native inhabitants in terms of the myths of the Argonauts, sunken Atlantis and the Golden Age, the journeys of Odysseus and Aeneas. In the first engravings and paintings representing the new world, in, for instance, Mostaert's West Indian Scene, the pastoral landscape begins to resemble the rolling hills and forests of Umbria—rabbits scamper on the green slopes amidst grazing sheep and cows, and the naked natives of the land are endowed with the athletic, harmonious and beautiful physiques of ancient Greek and Roman warriors.
The Classical myths shaped the language of chroniclers as well as the imagination of the...
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Prospero And Magic
David Sundelson (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "So Rare a Wonder'd Father: Prospero's Tempest," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, pp. 33-53.
[In the following essay, Sundelson provides a psychoanalytic reading of the relationships between fathers and children in The Tempest, focusing in particular on what he terms Prospero 's "paternal narcissism: the prevailing sense that there is no worthiness like a father's, no accomplishment or power, and that Prospero is the father par excellence."]
Dramatic conflict is strikingly absent from The Tempest. Brothers try to kill brothers, servants stalk their masters, and the union of attractive young lovers is delayed by an old man's whim, but none of these things creates suspense. Once we have seen Prospero calm the raging waters with a wave of his arm, danger and difficulty cease to be more than prelude to an inevitable harmony. The movement of the plot toward fulfillment is the most serene and secure in Shakespeare.
This tranquility requires the sacrifice of some characteristic Shakespearean complexity. One can be either master or servant in The Tempest, either parent or child; middle ground scarcely exists. Antonio supplanted Prospero because "my brother's servants/Were then my fellows;...
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Bamber, Linda. "After Tragedy: The Tempest." In her Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare, pp. 169-91. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982.
Examination of the ways in which The Tempest diverges from Shakespeare's other romances in its handling of the feminine.
Berger, Karol. "Prospero's Art." Shakespeare Studies X (1977): 211-39.
Influential analysis of Prospero's magic.
Bergeron, David M. "The Tempest." In his Shakespeare's Romances and the Royal Family, pp. 178-203. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.
Discusses the depiction of family politics in The Tempest and explores how the family of James I is represented in the play.
Brown, Paul. "'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine': The Tempest and the discourse of colonialism." In Political Shakespeare: New essays in cultural materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp. 48-69. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Argues that repunctuating the text of The Tempest highlight's the play's interconnection with British colonialism.
James, D. G. "The New World." In his The Dream of Prospero, pp. 72-123. London: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1967.
Classic account of the parallels between The Tempest and the English...
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