The Tempest (Vol. 45)
See also, The Tempest Criticism (Volume 29) and Volume 61.
During the past three decades there has been a dramatic shift in critical commentary on The Tempest. Traditionally, critics have viewed the play as Shakespeare's somewhat melancholy farewell to his art. Such interpretations generally presented Prospero as a powerful but benevolent figure who brings about redemption and reconciliation. More recently, however, critics approaching The Tempest from the perspective of Marxist, feminist, or new historicist theory have seen it as a paradigm of oppression. They frequently read it as a parable of colonial expansionism in the early modern age, equating Prospero with Europeans who exploited the New World and Caliban with persecuted or enslaved Native Americans.
Throughout this change in critical reception, traditional interpretations of the play have persisted. R. A. Foakes (1971), for example, has examined the complex nature of Prospero's sovereignty of the island, proposing that his harshness toward others reflects the suffering he had earlier received at the hands of Antonio and Alonso. Although Foakes emphasizes the harmonious conclusion of the play and Prospero's restoration as Duke of Milan, he also remarks on the sense of unresolved issues that underlies the final notes of joy and restitution. Writing more than twenty years later, Philip C. McGuire (1994) has also evaluated the play's ending, particularly the significance of Antonio's silence in the final scene, and questions whether everyone who has wronged Prospero is truly repentant. Additionally, McGuire has maintained that despite the unusual degree to which the audiences' perceptions of other characters and the dramatic action is controlled by Prospero, we gradually come to realize that his representation of Caliban is not the only one we should accept.
The ambiguous nature of Caliban continues to interest commentators, all of whom regard him as a central figure in the play. In their book-length treatment of Caliban, Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan (1991) have explored the reception of Prospero's slave by actors, directors, critics, and audiences since his conception in the early seventeenth century. They conclude that he has become a cultural figure because of his vivid and enigmatic characterization, maintaining that he is particularly susceptible to variant interpretations as social currents change and different ideologies become dominant. Bryan Crockett (1991) has scrutinized Caliban in terms of the theological controversy over predestination that was current in early seventeenth-century England. He argues that while at first Caliban appears to be a model of bestial depravity, subsequently he emerges as a creature capable of seeking, and receiving, divine grace. William M. Hamlin (1994) similarly has considered the seemingly contradictory portrayal of Caliban. Arguing that Caliban's depiction owes much to Renaissance travel literature, Hamlin proposes that it reflects early ethnographers' ambivalent views of Native Americans as mysterious and alien—yet no less human than their European counterparts.
The relation between life and dreams, and reality and illusion, has also received considerable attention from critics. Marjorie B. Garber (1974) has compared the island setting itself to a dream world, remarking that all who enter its realm find it irrational and shrouded in mystery. As in dreams, she suggests, the island becomes the place where reality is transformed and truth is unveiled. John Arthos (1977) has proposed that The Tempest is deeply concerned with the relation between truth and paradox. In the critic's estimation, Prospero comprehends—as no other character in the play does—that human understanding is limited, and that there is a deep and impenetrable gulf between human reason and the unnameable powers that control existence. Richard P. Wheeler (1995) has also discussed the play's presentation of life as a dream. He contrasts Caliban's vision of opulence—unattainable and wholly divorced from reality—with Prospero's decision, once he comes to recognize that he cannot control every situation, to abjure his powers and retreat to a sphere where action is meaningless.
The issue of control—more specifically the question of political dominance—is the focus of many late twentieth-century readings of The Tempest. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme (1985), for example, have contended that the play is profoundly concerned with the structure of power relations and with various characters' attempts to subvert or overturn the hierarchy of authority. These critics perceive an implicit colonialist ideology in Prospero's justification of his authority over the island and his having wrested control of it from Caliban. They maintain that although the legitimacy of Prospero's rule is frequently questioned, the play ultimately sanctions his version of events. Michael Payne (1988) has identified a variety of political aspects in the play, including the interplay of magic and politics, the historical circumstances that provided the context for its earliest performances at court, and Shakespeare's modifications of his contemporary sources. Payne describes as "subjective magic" the means by which Prospero learns self-control, and "transitive magic" as the way he manages to influence others.
The present decade has seen a continuing critical preoccupation with the question of dominance and resistance in The Tempest, particularly as this may be reflected in the master-slave relationship of Prospero and Caliban. Richard Halpern (1994) has asserted that the play anticipates the merging of New World and Western cultures, the mingling of Native American and European ideologies. In the critic's judgment, The Tempest does not favor either colonizer or colonized; instead, it examines the nature of power structures and reveals the violence that sustains utopian projects. Howard Felperin (1995) has also recently analyzed the ideological foundations of the play. Colonial discourse is only one of many historical or political dimensions in The Tempest, he argues, noting that references in the play to the New World waver in purpose and content, and pointing out that they are dismissed or denied as quickly as they are raised. Much more significant, Felperin declares, is Shakespeare's representation of history as a recurring nightmare of conquest and tyranny, and his final affirmation of a collective destiny in which differences among people will become insignificant and traditional concepts of authority will be abolished.
R. A. Foakes (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Last Plays: The Tempest," in Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays: From Satire to Celebration, The University Press of Virginia, 1971, pp. 144-72.
[In the excerpt below, Foakes traces the flow of the dramatic action in The Tempest, maintaining that Prospero's return to his rightful place in Milan is the central motivation of the play. Additionally, the critic describes the nature and limitations of Prospero's art, the corresponding visions of temporal order in the play and heavenly order in the masque, and the underlying tone of melancholy at the close.]
Although The Tempest has much in common with Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, and has often been interpreted as a kind of 'necessary development' from them, it is also in many ways a new departure as a play. Thematic resemblances between these plays have been charted, and they have been analysed as different versions of the same basic 'myth';1 but however they may be linked in these ways, The Tempest has its own distinctive structure, sets up its own peculiar pattern of expectations, and demands to be assessed as a unique work of art in its own right. Some of the more obvious peculiarities of this play would seem at first sight to set it apart from the others. Instead of an inscrutable providence manifesting...
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Bryan Crockett (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Calvin and Caliban: Naming the 'Thing of Darkness'," in The University of Dayton Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 131-44.
[In the following essay, Crockett argues that although Caliban initially appears to be emblematic of human corruption, midway through the play he begins to demonstrate a capacity for self reformation, and at the end of the drama he is truly penitent. Underlying the characterization of Caliban, the critic maintains, is Shakespeare's mockery and rejection of the rigid Calvinist doctrine of predestination.]
Shakespeare's Caliban has received a strikingly varied body of critical interpretation, from John C. McCloskey's treatment of the character as a "savage clown" and a "Commedia dell'arte buffoon" (345) to Frank Kermode's agreement with Prospero's assessment: Caliban is "a born devil" (xl). More recently, revisionist commentators have stressed a relatively helpless Caliban's victimization at the hands of an imperialistic Prospero.1 Corona Sharp has gone so far as to read Caliban in a wholly sympathetic light: unjustly despoiled of the ownership of his island and enslaved by an unnecessarily brutal Prospero, Caliban repeatedly exhibits at least equality to his master in morality, intellect, and imagination. So startlingly virtuous is Sharp's Caliban that she finds it necessary to remind her readers...
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Marjorie B. Garber (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "The Truth of Your Own Seeming: Romance and the Uses of Dream," in Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 186-214.
[In the excerpt below, Garber reads The Tempest as Shakespeare's most complete dramatic treatment of the dream world as a representation of human imagination and creativity. As in his previous plays, she argues, the dream world here is a timeless and transcendent state of mind in which illusion and reality are momentarily reconciled, and through which the dreamer achieves self-understanding.]
The Winter's Tale is fundamentally a play of metamorphosis in which the stage of "becoming" is central to the action. Time and change, "things dying" and "things new born," underlie each of its essential symbols and processes; the space of sixteen years between the third and fourth acts, a violation of the "unities" which Shakespeare deliberately elects to make, is indicative of a tendency to render credible the most improbable events through a mature integration of poetry and action. With The Tempest, which immediately succeeds it in chronology, Shakespeare's attention turns to yet another way of treating the same major themes. Where The Winter's Tale was designedly cyclical, analogous patterns repeating themselves as redemption and reconciliation emerged...
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Politics And Ideology
Michael Payne (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Magic and Politics in The Tempest," in Shakespeare and the Triple Play: From Study to Stage to Classroom, edited by Sidney Homan, Bucknell University Press, 1988, pp. 43-57.
[In the following essay, Payne takes a pluralistic approach to The Tempest, discussing its political dimensions with reference to its depiction of Prospero's magic. In the critic's judgment, Prospero uses his magic to bring others to self-knowledge and to rectify his own original error in choosing the magical world over the political.]
Recent critical interpretation of The Tempest, perhaps more than that of any other of Shakespeare's plays, has become thoroughly polarized. Those who have concentrated their attention on Prospero's magic and the traditions it reflects have, with rare exception, seen the play as the crowning glory of Shakespeare's achievement and Prospero as a character who grows in power and moral stature to a height unmatched by any other of the playwright's creations. This view of the play has come to be strongly supported by a series of studies emanating from the Warburg Institute that have reconstructed the traditions of natural and spiritual magic, which Shakespeare carefully draws upon. These interwoven traditions extend from Ficino's complex network of Neoplatonism, hermeticism, and occult philosophy—whose goal is the...
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Adamson, David. "Authority and Illusion: The Power of Prospero's Book." Comitatus 20 (1989): 9-19.
Discusses the connection between learning and magic in The Tempest, and suggests that Prospero's book is both an image of power and a symbol of the fictitious nature of authority.
Barker, Francis and Peter Hulme. "Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-Texts of The Tempest." In Alternative Shakespeare, edited by John Drakakis, pp. 191-205. London: Methuen, 1985.
Examines the diverse forms of colonialist discourse in that are inherent in The Tempest, as well as the conflicting accounts of usurpation in the play.
Bennett, Susan. "The Post-Colonial Body?: Thinking through The Tempest." In Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past, pp. 119-50. London: Routledge, 1996.
Analyzes the complex history of The Tempest as it has been revised, rewritten, and performed in terms of anti-colonialism, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, and pre-colonial nostalgia.
Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare's "The Tempest." New York: Chelsea House, 1988, 171 p.
A collection of late twentieth-century essays on The...
(The entire section is 1481 words.)