Study Guide

The Tempest

by William Shakespeare

The Tempest Essay - The Tempest (Vol. 45)

The Tempest (Vol. 45)


The Tempest

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 itself from time to time in oracles, miracles, or appearances of gods, this play has in Prospero a controller who exercises through his magic a power like that of heaven. Certain oppositions in it, such as those between beauty and ugliness, or nurture (education) and nature (brutishness) seem so schematically rendered, as in the contrasts between Caliban and Miranda, as to allow an allegorical interpretation.2 The extensive use of masque and spectacle has also encouraged a treatment of the whole play as based on masque.3 At the same time, The Tempest is the only one among the late plays that observes the neo-classical unities of time and place. All these features in themselves suggest that Shakespeare was moving in a new direction in this play, a view confirmed by an examination of its dramatic shaping.

At the beginning of I.ii, Miranda confirms our impression of what we have witnessed in the opening scene, a shipwreck in which all, boat and crew alike, were lost; she suffered with those she saw suffer, watched the ship 'Dash'd all to pieces' (1. 8), and is convinced the people on it died, 'Poor souls, they perish'd!' (1. 9). She is amazed (1. 14), but accepts what has happened, supposing her father may have raised the storm by his art, but not that he has caused the wreck. In fact she and we quickly learn that he has ordered the shipwreck, but:

I have with such provision in mine Art
So safely ordered, that there is no soul—
No, not so much perdition as an hair
Betid to any creature in the vessel
Which thou heard'st cry, which thou saw'st sink.


What we saw happened, and yet did not happen; Prospero's art is so powerful that with his 'provision' or foresight (supposing this word to be a correct emendation of the Folio reading 'compassion'), he can destroy and save simultaneously.4 He has, through the agency of Ariel, dispersed the crew in groups about the island, and the ship, as we learn when the boatswain returns in V.i. is undamaged. If what he has done on one level is to deceive by a trick or illusion, some vanity of his art, on another level what he has done is real, as it controls the actions of people, and shapes the course of events.

At the same time Prospero's art is limited, and in narrating to Miranda the history of Antonio's usurpation of Milan, and of the way in which she and her father were left to drift at sea in a 'rotten carcass of a butt' (1. 146), Prospero also indicates something of what the nature and limits of his art are. For one thing, his magic powers seem to have been acquired since he and Miranda arrived on Setebos, for he was unable to foresee or prevent Antonio and Sebastian depriving him of his dukedom, and counter their treachery. Moreover, these powers are in some sense a function of the island, and only operate in its vicinity. Their development has to do with the books which Gonzalo provided for Prospero, 'volumes that I prize above my dukedom' (1. 167), and with the latter's 'secret studies' (1. 77) when he was in Milan; their nature perhaps is connected with that neglect of wordly ends for the bettering of his mind Prospero speaks of, with the sense we have of his goodness. Human treachery drove him from Milan, and he was saved, he tells Miranda, 'By Providence, divine' (1. 159); now a strange chance has brought his enemies to the island:

By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune,
(Now my dear lady) hath mine enemies
Brought to this shore; and by my prescience
I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes
Will ever after droop.


Fortune, once hostile to him, brought about his fall, but is now his 'dear lady', and he must seize the opportunity she offers. So Prospero's powers are circumscribed, dependent geographically on the island, and operating in relation to providence on the one hand, and fortune on the other.

The zenith or highest point of Prospero's fortunes will in any case be to recover what he has lost, and reinstate himself as:

the Duke of Milan, and
A prince of power.


His magical art or power subserves another end, that of regaining his temporal or princely power; and it is with this in mind that he has educated Miranda carefully as a princess (1. 172). Indeed, he has made himself ruler of the strange island, and by his magic art has made Ariel and Caliban his servants, or rather, to use his own word, his slaves. Ariel had been imprisoned within a cloven pine by the witch Sycorax until Prospero released him; he had been 'her servant' and has now become Prospero's, earning his eventual liberty through service. Prospero requires absolute obedience, and no complaint:

If thou more murmur'st, I will rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails, till
Thou hast howl'd away twelve winters.


The threatened punishment coincides exactly in nature and length of time with that inflicted on Ariel by Sycorax, which was, as Prospero describes it, 'a torment To lay upon the damn'd' (1. 289). So although Ariel and Prospero respect each other as 'great master' (1. 189), and 'Fine apparition! My quaint Ariel' (1. 317), their relationship is basically that of slave and master. Prospero's other slave, Caliban, serves him and Miranda in the most menial offices, and is despised by Miranda as a 'villain', and by Prospero as a 'poisonous slave' (11. 309, 319); he is imprisoned in a 'hard rock' (1. 343) by his own and Miranda's account, hates his service and his master and mistress, and for the slightest sign of unwillingness in carrying out commands, he is racked with horrible pains and tortures. Miranda tried to educate him, and taught him language as Prospero had taught her, but the purposes of his brutish nature could only seem vile to her, as he would not take 'any print of goodness' (1. 352); his imprisonment and slavery are apparently punishments for his 'wickedness' in seeking to rape Miranda. The standards Prospero applies are those of Milan, of his own civilization, and Caliban's version of what has happened raises some questions about the validity of those standards on the isle. For Prospero is himself in some sense a usurper, as he has taken the island from Caliban, who in the first place 'educated' him by showing him 'all the qualities o'th'isle' (1. 337), and who now can lament with some reason;

I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king,


After the shipwreck of the opening scene, Prospero's first exercise of his art is to use Ariel to lure Ferdinand to the presence of Miranda. At the first glance they see one another as 'thing divine' (1. 418) and 'goddess' (1. 421), but know themselves for man and woman too, and duly fall in love, as Prospero desires; how far his art has effected this is not clear, but for them to be in love is to put them 'both in either's powers' (1. 450). Ferdinand has entered half in grief, and weeping the King his father's death, and half in self-congratulation, as now he can say, 'myself am Naples' (1. 434); but here he is in Prospero's kingdom, and in his power, as, like Jupiter 'crossing' Posthumus in Cymbeline, Prospero makes Ferdinand suffer:

thou dost here usurp
The name thou ow'st not; and hast put thyself
Upon this island as a spy, to win it
From me, the lord on't.

Ferdinand No, as I am a man.

Miranda There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple:
If the ill spirit have so fair a house,
Good things will strive to dwell with't.

Prospero Follow me.
Speak not you for him: he's a traitor. Come;
I'll manacle thy neck and feet together. . . .


Prospero imposes on Ferdinand tasks fit for a slave, and, in the same sense that it applied earlier to Caliban, 'imprisons' him; this is designed as a kind of test, or rather, education in self-rule, and the presence of Miranda makes confinement easy; so Ferdinand cries:

all corners else o'th'earth
Let liberty make use of; space enough
Have I in such a prison.


At the same time, we witness a display of power by Ferdinand's 'enemy' (1. 466), Prospero, who speaks as if he were King indeed, twice using the word 'traitor', which rings somewhat oddly on the island; it is also in its way an exercise of tyranny, and the 'punishment' Ferdinand has to endure corresponds exactly to that inflicted upon Caliban, who had attempted to violate Miranda. In II.ii Caliban enters carrying wood, and meets Trinculo and Stephano, whose wine makes him drunk, frees him from Prospero's impositions, and enables him to escape to the forbidden parts of the island. Ferdinand in effect takes the place of Caliban, and the following scene (III.i) opens with him 'bearing a log'.

Prospero rules as King, and uses his magic arts to order his kingdom somewhat as if it were still Milan, as when he uses a term like 'traitor'. He has in some sense usurped upon Caliban's island, and imprisoned him; but in another perspective, Prospero himself has seen his own kingdom usurped, and is himself 'imprisoned' on an uncivilized island. Here what Prospero has learned by the necessary exercise of patience and self-rule will emerge in the course of the play, as will the way the harshness he imposes matches the harshness he has suffered. He is also a father carefully arranging an appropriate marriage for his daughter, but delighted, too, to find that she and Ferdinand at once fall in love—delighted and at the same time angry:

Miranda Sir, have pity;
I'll be his surety.

Prospero Silence! one word more
Shall make me chide thee, if not hate thee.


An advocate for an impostor!


Prospero says he must make their courtship difficult, 'lest too light winning Make the prize light' (1. 451), but they do not know this, and to them he is simply cross-grained and harsh. He becomes temporarily, and in a minor perspective, a father-figure out of conventional romantic comedy, opposing his daughter's wishes, because the fulfilment of her desires will end parental control over her. The lovers are now in the power of each other, and through this gain a kind of freedom, just as Caliban gains a different kind of freedom when drunk. So in III.i, Miranda, watching Ferdinand bearing logs, promises to be his 'servant' (1. 85), even as he accepts the 'bondage' of love to become her 'slave':

The very instant that I saw you, did
My heart fly to your service; there resides,
To make me slave to it; and for your sake
Am I this patient log-man.


Prospero may impose bodily labour on Ferdinand, but the power of love is greater than Prospero's in the sense that it transmutes menial slavery into service to Miranda, and makes Ferdinand's labours into pleasures.

Meanwhile, Alonso, cast up on the island with his little 'court' remains inconsolable in the conviction that his son and heir, Ferdinand, has drowned. The good Gonzalo likewise wrongly assumes that Ferdinand is dead, and, in his attempts to comfort the King, gets his facts wrong about the location of Tunis, and proposes such a self-contradictory idea of a commonwealth that he lays himself open to the mockery of Sebastian and Antonio. In all this he 'talks nothing' (II.i.164) to Alonso to encourage 'merry fooling' (1. 168) and relieve the mood of the King. Gonzalo's image of the ideal commonwealth he would establish if he could colonize the isle and 'were the King on't' (1. 139) may in some sense be a critique of the primitivism of the essay of Montaigne on which it is largely based, but in any case it has an immediate and potent relevance to the action of the play. His ideal commonwealth would have no laws, no magistrates, no contracts, no inheritance, no letters, no labour and no treason or crime:

No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure:
No sovereignty. . . .


It would be a return to a prelapsarian Eden, with Nature bringing forth of itself all necessities, but an Eden filled with his 'innocent people' (1. 158); and yet Gonzalo would be king:

I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T'excel the Golden Age.


A people of such innocence would not need to be governed, but a king might well wish to have a state such as Gonzalo imagines. Gonzalo talked 'nothing', but something at the same time, for the idea of a perfect commonwealth underlies all rule, and the idea of paradisial innocence and the golden age provides a point of reference by which civilization demands to be measured.5

Sebastian and Antonio mock Gonzalo, and have no conception of innocence, but can think of his 'subjects' only as idle 'whores and knaves' (1. 160), and when Ariel enters playing the solemn music which, though not heard by them, puts Alonso, Gonzalo and the rest to sleep, at once Antonio's 'strong imagination' (1. 199) works to propose another image of rule. It is just that as Antonio has driven out Prospero and made himself Duke of Milan, so may Sebastian get rid of his brother Alonso and seize the kingdom of Naples. Sebastian sees himself as King for a moment before Ariel comes to wake Gonzalo and prevent murder:

as thou got'st Milan,
I'll come by Naples. Draw thy sword: one stroke
Shall free thee from the tribute which thou payest;
And I the King shall love thee.


Rule for them lies in the mere possession of power, not in the quality of the man who rules, and in their barbarity they are worse than Stephano and Caliban, whose plot against Prospero is conceived in drink rather than in cold blood. The next scene shows us these characters. Caliban enters with a load of wood and cursing his master and tormentor who sets his spirits on him to plague him 'for every trifle' (1. 8). He has seen no other human beings besides Prospero and Miranda, and it is natural for him to take Trinculo and Stephano for spirits, just as it is natural for them to regard Caliban as 'some monster of the isle' (1. 62). When Trinculo creeps under Caliban's gaberdine to hide from the storm, they make together a four-legged monster with two mouths which becomes very funny as Stephano converses with both voices at once. The re-appearance of Trinculo, pulled forth by Stephano, serves to emphasize how much less of a 'monster' Caliban himself is. Caliban is described in the list of actors given in the Folio text as 'a salvage and deformed slave', and he has links with Indian savages and cannibals, and with the wild man of European folklore, embodied in drama in such a figure as Bremo of Mucedorus; he has been well described in terms developing these basic dimensions:6

His origins and character are natural in the sense that they do not partake of grace, civility and art; he is ugly in body, associated with an evil natural magic, and unqualified for rule or nurture. He exists at the simplest level of sensual pain and pleasure, fit for lechery because love is beyond his nature, and a natural slave of demons. He hears music with pleasure, as music can appeal to the beast who lacks reason; and indeed he resembles Aristotle's bestial man.

However, there is more to Caliban as we see him in the action of the play. He not only hears music, but makes it, and his natural medium, it seems, is verse of some distinction, as against the prose of Trinculo and Stephano; also, like the others, he has a sense of the role he might play in the body politic. Prospero is a 'tyrant' (1. 152) to him, and he is glad to change his master, when the new spirits or men he now meets offer him liquor that is not earthly, and through that a vision of freedom. Stephano and Trinculo assume the King is dead, and determine to be rulers of the island, 'we will inherit here' (1. 163), even as Caliban swears allegiance, 'I'll kiss thy foot; I'll swear myself thy subject' (1. 142).

In this posture of humility before the drunken butler Stephano, Caliban appears ridiculous to Trinculo, who cries, 'I shall laugh myself to death at this puppy-headed monster' (1. 144); but however absurd and comic he may be here, Caliban retains a kind of superiority over his companions. He knows the qualities of the isle, and without him they would be lost; he has a poetic response to it, and where Trinculo sees a 'most ridiculous monster' (1. 155), we see Caliban vividly and imaginatively reacting to his natural environment as Trinculo never could, and promising to

Show thee a jay's nest, and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmoset; I'll bring thee
To clustering filberts, and sometimes I'll get thee
Young scamels from the rock.


The adjectives 'nimble' and 'clustering' reveal his appreciation of what he has seen. There is something visionary too about Caliban's feeling for freedom, even if he is mistaken in supposing that it will lie in serving Stephano. To him Prospero is the tyrant who robbed him of the island, made use of him, sought to impose his own values and morality on him, and when he rebelled, made him a prisoner and a slave, and any escape from this would be freedom. Prospero taught him language, but Caliban's use of it is his own, and the surprising thing about this is the extent to which Caliban's language matches that of Prospero; Caliban's curses against Prospero are as rich and inventive as Prospero's invective and threats against him in I.ii, and his poetry is every bit as good as that of his master. While, then, we may think of Caliban as in some sense inhuman, and find evidence to support a view of him as almost a beast, as representing the irreducible element of bestiality in human nature,7 the son of a witch, and, in Prospero's words:

Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself
Upon thy wicked dam,


it is not merely this Caliban we are involved with in the action. On the stage we see in the one figure both a brute and a human being (played by an actor like other actors, however disguised), who speaks fine and sophisticated verse, itself a product of both nurture, in his command of language, and nature, in the sensibility he reveals. At first when Prospero made much of him, Caliban 'lov'd' the newcomer to the island, and served Prospero by educating him in 'all the qualities o'th'isle' (I.ii.337); so now in offering to do the same for Stephano, Caliban, kissing the foot of the new master, is expressing, in his kind, his 'love', and this new service seems at first to be perfect freedom.

So the presentation of Caliban here has links with the treatment of Ferdinand in the next scene, who gains a freedom in yielding to the bondage of love, and kneels or makes obeisance of some kind in sign of his service to Miranda ('And I thus humble ever', III.i.87). The analogy continues, however, into the next scene (III.ii), where we find Stephano's 'kingdom' in a state of discord, as he quarrels with Trinculo over Caliban:

Trinculo, keep a good tongue in your head: if you prove a mutineer,—the next tree! The poor monster's my subject, and he shall not suffer indignity.


Here, too, we learn that 'freedom' means to Caliban 'revenge' (1. 51) on Prospero for getting the isle by 'sorcery' from him, as he kneels again to Stephano to present his suit, and begs him to kill the 'tyrant'. Caliban's service to his new master is to offer him the opportunity of braining Prospero, and also to 'give' him that nonpareil of beauty Miranda, whom Caliban had wished to possess for himself; and the vision is irresistible for Stephano, 'I will kill this man: his daughter and I will be king and queen—save our graces!—and Trinculo and thyself shall be viceroys' (1. 102). The mood of this scene is different from that of II.ii, as the brutishness of the plot to kill Prospero emerges, and especially in Caliban's images of the deed;

with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
Or cut his wezand with thy knife.


Yet Caliban retains a kind of superiority over his companions, even in the fuddle of drink which besets them; he makes the scene comic, and takes a good deal of the sting out of their scheming; for his aim is freedom, theirs merely to seize power and rule, and he speaks verse which expresses his sense of beauty and of harmony, while their apprehension is bound by prose.

By this point in the play the drift of the action is settled. Prospero himself has happily witnessed the interchange of vows of love between Ferdinand and Miranda. His spirit Ariel has intervened at Prospero's behest as Sebastian and Antonio were about to murder Alonso and Gonzalo, so that we know these are under supervision. Now Ariel intervenes again, but apparently of his own accord, to promote the quarrel between Stephano and Trinculo, and to lead them astray as they follow his music offstage; here he may, in his capacity as fairy, be 'thwarting the unchaste', as fairies were supposed to 'abhor unchastity',8 and again he is thwarting a plot of murder. Before the final unravelling and reconciliations of Act V, there now follow two scenes (III.iii and IV.i) in which the focus is on elements corresponding to anti-masque and masque. The play has already provided a sense of spectacle, notably in the opening shipwreck scene, in the way Prospero charms Ferdinand, and as Ariel, 'invisible' to other characters, may control or guide their actions. The island, too, is full of music, the sweet and strange airs of Ariel, whose songs and 'solemn music' suggest order in their power to put men to sleep or wake them, to charm or compel them to follow where the music leads; there are also the drunken songs of Stephano and Caliban, whose 'howling' (II.ii.167) sets up by contrast a discord, and yet, as it is music, both mitigates our sense of their brutishness, and represents the contribution they can make to that quality of the island best appreciated by Caliban:

the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when
I wak'd, I cried to dream again.


These harmonious sounds of music and voices seem to bring him pleasant dreams and visions, to raise him out of his ordinary existence, even if the scope of his visions is limited to the display of riches about to drop on him.

All this prepares for what in this play is equivalent to a crisis in the action, namely the masque of III.iii to IV.i. In the first of these scenes, Alonso and his companions, with Sebastian and Antonio, weary and frustrated in their search for Ferdinand, and still supposing him drowned, pause to rest; and Antonio and Sebastian think they have a chance to carry out their plot to murder the King and Gonzalo. At this point they see a vision and we see a masque, as, with Prospero placed 'on the top' as a regal spectator, and ultimate creator of what follows, various 'strange shapes' bring in a banquet to 'solemn and strange music'. Gonzalo thinks of these as 'people of the island', and in their 'monstrous shape' (1. 31) they perhaps look like cousins of Caliban, but gentle servants, made in the image of what Prospero would have liked Caliban to be. As Alonso plucks up his courage and makes as if to eat, Ariel, as presenter of the masque, enters 'like a Harpy' in thunder and lightning to clap his monstrous bird's wings upon the table and make it vanish. A harpy as a wind-spirit, and as servant of the Erinyes or avenging Furies is a very appropriate figure for Ariel to take at this point; in his speech addressed to Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio, the 'three men of sin' (1. 53), he speaks to them from within the masque, claiming that he and his fellows are 'ministers of Fate' (1. 61), servants of Destiny, agents of 'The powers' (1. 73). At the same time he speaks to us both as harpy and as Ariel, Prospero's agent, skilfully carrying out his master's instructions, and receiving his congratulations as the business is completed. As the 'shapes' first entered in a dance, so now they return in a dance to carry out the table, and Ariel 'vanishes in thunder'. The men of sin, afflicted with a sense of guilt by the strange vision that demanded of them

nothing but heart-sorrow
And a clear life ensuing,


show their affliction in 'desperate' behaviour (1. 104); they had drawn their swords when Ariel appeared as a harpy, but were charmed from using them; now, after the vision ends, they run into strange antics, and rush offstage, Alonso in thoughts of drowning, and Sebastian and Antonio fighting imaginary fiends. So the scene ends in disorder and grotesque actions. The whole may be seen as a kind of elaborate anti-masque, in which the monstrous shapes that vanish with grimaces and mocking actions, the harpy, and the disordered rushing about of the men of sin at the end, constitute a driving out of evil, which is to be followed in IV.i by the masque proper.

The punishment Prospero inflicted on Ferdinand turns out to have been but a trial of his love, a kind of symbolic task; by completing it successfully he proves himself fit to marry Miranda, and 'earns' her. As Prospero showed earlier that he had never relinquished his place as ruler of his state by treating Ferdinand as a 'traitor', so now he gives him his daughter within the framework of full social and religious ceremonies:

If thou dost break her virgin-knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be minister'd,
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall . . .


The emphasis on virginity here is often noted, and it is of course important as relating to the moral discipline of the individual, and to the opposition between Miranda's chastity and Caliban's unrestrained lechery; but what is equally important is Prospero's insistence on 'sanctimonious ceremonies', for where is the priest to perform these rites? The normal social, political and religious order of society is assumed in the way Prospero talks. In this context, he bestows on the lovers a vanity of his art in the form of a masque, which, in terms of what a court-masque signifies, has the effect of giving the betrothal a full social sanction, and announcing it publicly.

In fact the masque does more than this. I do not know of any extant masque of this period that is a betrothal masque, though several wedding masques survive, like those for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1613, or Ben Jonson's masque for Lord Harrington's marriage in 1608, or the masque in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy for the marriage of Amintor and Evadne. The masque in these instances provided a public ceremonious congratulation on the occasion of the union, and although it could, in The Maid's Tragedy, be skilfully distorted to foreshadow the darkness and disaster that were to follow in the action of that play, it could also, and especially in the lofty vein of Ben Jonson's conceptions, go far beyond compliment and decorative splendour. In his most sophisticated masques, the expulsion of evil or darkness is followed by a blaze of virtue and light suggesting something beyond happiness or pleasure, and becoming an emblem of order and harmony passing into a hint of universal order and harmony. The dances which formed a central feature of the masque could be very important in this, as is shown by the commentary of the presenter Daedalus, the legendary artist and inventor of the labyrinth of Minos, in Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1618):

Then as all actions of mankind
Are but a labyrinth or maze,
So let your dances be entwined,
Yet not perplex men unto gaze;
But measured, and so numerous too,
As men may read each act you do,
And when they see the graces meet,
Admire the wisdom of your feet;
For dancing is an exercise
Not only shows the mover's wit,
But maketh the beholder wise,
As he hath power to rise to it.

The dance exhibits through the 'wisdom' of the dancers' feet a pattern in what appears to be a maze, and the beholder who can understand this may be made wise, as he sees an image of order in the intricacies of movement, suggesting that all human actions, though inexplicable and bewildering to us, make a pattern in a larger scheme of order, the cosmic dance, the order of providence. In making Daedalus interpret the dance here in this way, Jonson was exploiting in a sophisticated and complex way a familiar Renaissance analogy, as exemplified in Orchestra (?1596), addressed by Sir John Davies to Queen Elizabeth:

Dancing, bright lady, then began to be,
When the first seeds whereof the world did spring,
The fire, air, earth, and water did agree
By love's persuasion, nature's mighty king,
To leave their first discorded combating,
And in a dance such measure to observe,
As all the world their motion should preserve.

Since when they still are carried in a round,
And changing come one in another's place;
Yet do they neither mingle nor confound,
But every one doth keep the bounded space
Wherein the dance doth bid it turn or trace.
This wondrous miracle did Love devise,
For dancing is love's proper exercise.

Dancing as the exercise of love signifies the divine harmony controlling the spheres, the planets in their movements, and all nature. Dancing as 'measure' or order, signifying matrimony, as at the end of so many of Shakespeare's comedies, carries in it hints of a greater harmony or order, that of the heavens.

What Prospero introduces as 'Some vanity of mine Art' (1. 41) would have meant much more than this to audiences at the Globe or Blackfriars. After the grotesque shows and dances of III.iii, ending in the confused rushing about of Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio, there follows now the harmonious masque proper, with Ariel again as presenter, playing, as I take it, the part of Iris. This seems the best interpretation of his phrase at 1. 167, 'when I presented Ceres'; and even without this comment, a link between the Harpy of III.iii and Iris might have been suspected. For, according to Hesiod, Iris was the sister of the Harpies, and as Ariel appeared in III.iii with a woman's face and a bird's wings and talons, or, as Shakespeare phrased a simile in Pericles:9

like the harpy,
Which, to betray, dost with thine angel's face
Seize with thine eagle's talons,


so now in Iris the same angelic face is seen, but Ariel is dressed to suggest the goddess of the rainbow. Iris, messenger of the gods, and, as rainbow, a link between heaven and earth, summons Ceres, presented here as goddess of harvest and of earth, to attend on Juno, queen of heaven, and like Ceres, a mother-goddess. Their business is first to make sure that Venus and Cupid are at a safe distance, so that no wantonness or lust may attend on the proceedings, and then to 'celebrate A contract of true love' (1. 133). The two goddesses, who are shown as sisters (1. 103), join in song to bless Ferdinand and Miranda, and their song is, in effect, a marriage song:

Juno Honour, riches, marriage-blessing,
Long continuance, and increasing,
Hourly joys be still upon you!
Juno sings her blessings on you.
Ceres Earth's increase, foison plenty,
Barns and garners never empty;
Vines with clust'ring bunches growing;
Plants with goodly burthen bowing. . . .
Ceres' blessing so is on you.


This blessing seems to be the 'donation' (1. 85) they bestow on the lovers, a promise of honour, riches, and fruitfulness. So although the young couple have vowed

that no bed-right shall be paid
Till Hymen's torch be lighted,


the masque becomes implicitly a marriage-masque, and as such is indeed, as Ferdinand calls it, a 'most majestic vision' (1. 118).

Juno and Ceres then call on Iris to summon a group of 'temperate nymphs' (1. 132) to join with a group of reapers or 'sunburn'd sicklemen' (1. 134) in a graceful dance linking the Naiads of the water, cool and fresh, with the hot harvesters, weary with August; the union of these perhaps symbolizes the state of marriage, and certainly as a harvest dance their performance is more appropriate to a wedding than a betrothal. At this point Prospero interrupts the masque, and the spirits vanish in a 'strange, hollow, and confused noise'; the stage direction calls for him to intervene 'towards the end' of the dance, and 'interrupts' is perhaps the wrong word to describe his action, for the masque is in fact complete. The 'anti-masque' of the monstrous shapes and men of sin in III.iii gives way to a harmonious vision looking forward to prosperity, honour and a blessed life for Ferdinand and Miranda; it offers them congratulation, compliment, and closes with a dance of reapers and nymphs, symbolizing the union of ripeness with temperance in marriage. It is so compelling as a vision that Prospero loses himself in it, and forgets the 'foul conspiracy' of Caliban and his companions, so that the 'confused noise' and discords heard at the end of the masque represent the troubled mind of Prospero, and do not reflect on the masque except to show again that it is in one sense a projection of Prospero's mind or 'art'. On another level we share the lovers' acceptance of it as a splendid vision, harmonious and wise; and we see it also as a real masque enacted by performers on a stage.

It is true that one element of the conventional masque, that final stage in which the masquers 'take out' spectators into the dance and make them participants, is lacking here. Ferdinand and Miranda are kept at a distance from it as onlookers, so that they will see it as a vision acted out by spirits raised by Prospero's art. This is how Prospero himself speaks of it too, notably in his famous speech to Ferdinand:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


There has been much discussion of this speech as a comment in particular on masques, and in general on human life and the mutability of all things; but if in one perspective life itself appears no more than an 'insubstantial pageant' like the masque, a fleeting vision or dream, in another perspective the pageant is most substantial, and reflects a view of life as rich and significant. For this vision or masque is itself an imaginative achievement of a high order, combining visual spectacle, poetry, music and dance in an art-form which emerges out of centuries of civilization and concern for the flowering of the human spirit. Moreover, the descent of Juno as queen of heaven constitutes a theophany in the play corresponding in some measure with the theophanies in Cymbeline (the descent of Jupiter), and in The Winter's Tale (the coming to life of the statue-goddess in the figure of Hermione). In this sense, the masque relates to an order outside Prospero, and beyond his control, a heavenly order. The masque belongs in a scheme of social and cosmic order to which Prospero himself subscribes, as is shown by his determination that the wedding of the lovers shall be celebrated with 'full and holy rite', in his ratifying his gift of Miranda to Ferdinand 'afore Heaven' (1. 7), and in his concern throughout to restore himself to his rightful place as Duke of Milan. As vision and performance the masque passes and melts into air, but as theophany and as a masque full of substance seen by the audience, it contradicts the notion of human insignificance in Prospero's phrase, 'our little life Is rounded with a sleep'.

In his admiration of the vision Prospero has his spirits enact, and of his prospective father-in-law as magician, artist, poet, choreographer and producer, Ferdinand cries:

Let me live here ever;
So rare a wonder'd father and a wise
Makes this place Paradise.


The vision renews the image of Ferdinand and Miranda as first man and first woman, or Adam and Eve figures, recalling her first thought of him as a 'thing divine', and his sense of her as 'goddess' (I.ii.418, 421). Human beings cannot remain for ever in paradise, or in what the masque of Juno and Ceres hints at, the golden world of pastoral; these belong to visions, dreams, poetical 'fancies', to use Prospero's word (1. 122). Ferdinand has already had to endure a temporary loss of 'paradise' in the hard labour of log-bearing, and must return again to the workaday world. So Caliban's vision of Stephano as a 'brave god' (II.ii.109), and Gonzalo's fancy of an ideal commonwealth, dissolve and leave not a rack behind. Yet the visions and dreams are real, if transitory, and work, as by analogy the whole play, Shakespeare's 'vision', does, to open vistas on higher possibilities and orderings of human life. At the same time, they link with the masque-like elements in the play and come to a focus in the great masque of IV.i to insist on the artifice of the incredible fiction which composes the play's action. But paradoxically, this masque, as theophany, in the substance of what it says, and by its social function, both affirms an order in the heavens beyond Prospero's art, and firmly returns us to the social order, as it looks to a future of riches and honour for the young couple, and to the formal celebration of the marriage-rites it, so to speak, assumes in advance. It thus reinforces what is the primary drive in the play, the return of Prospero to his proper place in Milan, as he has been waiting for the day when it would be possible for this most civilized of Shakespeare's characters to recover his role in the civilization to which he belongs.10

The confused noise at the end of the masque marks Prospero's recollection of his role as 'king' of the island, and the need to take action against the 'foul conspiracy' of Caliban and his companions; the harmony of the vision or masque gives way to a display of passion by Prospero, whom Miranda has never seen so 'touch'd with anger' (1. 145). The large perspective from which 'our little life' appears no more than a dream is replaced by the immediate view of practical life, with its urgencies, passions, and its important moral and social meanings. Prospero becomes again 'compos'd of harshness', as Ferdinand saw him in III.i, when he puts down the rebellion of Stephano. Caliban discovers what fools his companions are, to be diverted from their plot by the 'trumpery' hung up on show by Ariel; a wardrobe fit for a king becomes more important to them than the kingdom itself, and Caliban's remonstrance is turned aside by Stephano with the threat, 'help to bear this away . . . or I'll turn you out of my kingdom' (1. 249). At this point Prospero and Ariel enter like hunters to set a pack of 'Spirits, in shape of dogs and hounds' upon them, two of them bearing the names 'Fury' and 'Tyrant'. The hounds embody the wrath of Prospero, and something like vindictiveness, as he congratulates himself on having all his 'enemies' at his mercy, and summons goblins to torture Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban, and 'grind their joints With dry convulsions' (1. 257).

Now, at the beginning of Act V, Ariel reports on the King, Alonso, and his followers, and by a nice touch prompts Prospero to mercy:

Your charm so strongly works 'em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.


Prospero accepts the hint, and, while admitting to 'fury', the word echoing the name of the hound in the previous scene, he renounces his anger:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th'quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.


Here 'pardon' would be the obvious word, rather than 'virtue',11 which, however, is much stronger, as implying his desire to make his conduct conform to moral laws, and indirectly invoking a Christian sanction for his action. The climax has arrived, the moment when Prospero can renounce too his magic, and reclaim his place in society. He has another great speech here, matching in poignancy and resonance his dismissal of the masque, with the lines beginning 'Our revels now are ended'; both speeches express a kind of farewell, and both are moving, with their mood of regret and resignation, nostalgia for pleasures that have passed, and acceptance of what must be. They are, however, very different in kind; the first speech marks the end of a majestic vision which embodies the highest imaginative working of Prospero's magic art, even if it is in one aspect a mere show or 'vanity'; the second speech follows on from the display of another sort of magic, in which Prospero hunts his enemies with spirits in the shape of hounds. It is based on the incantation of the witch Medea in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and although it has been argued that 'only those elements which are consistent with "white" magic are taken over for Prospero',12 this is to make a dubious, and from the point of view of an audience watching the play, oversubtle distinction. For the speech shows Prospero excited by, and almost boasting about, feats of 'rough magic' such as we have not seen him perform:

I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azur'd vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-bas'd promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have wak'd their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em forth
By my so potent Art. But this rough magic
I here abjure. . . .


We have seen him create a storm and shipwreck, but only for the special purpose of distributing the boat's crew and passengers about the isle, and we have seen Prospero use his powers to confine, hunt, and torment his 'slaves' and 'enemies'; but here, for the first time, we learn of his delight in using his magic for its own sake, to disturb the natural order, and make discord and destruction in ways traditionally associated with witchcraft. So, for example, his power over the 'mutinous winds', to make them serve him, was commonly attributed to witches, and is made much of in Macbeth, where the First Witch proposes to punish a sailor by using winds to toss his boat with tempests, and where Macbeth later tries to compel the Witches to answer him, crying:

Though you untie the winds, and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up. . . .


His words sufficiently anticipate Prospero's lines to indicate how far the latter moves towards traditional claims for witchcraft in a speech which ends with the most sinister statement of all, that he has brought back the dead from the grave, a feat for which Dr Faustus was well known.

At this point in the play Shakespeare seems to emphasize Prospero's connection with black magic deliberately, as indeed there can have been no graves on the isle for him to open. Prospero has the mantle and staff proper to the magician; he has forced Ariel, in return for a promise of his freedom, to bind himself as his servant for a specific length of time (I.ii.245); and we have seen him in anger use his magic to cruel effect. At the same time, we have the overriding sense of Prospero as a practiser of white magic, and of his major effort to restore order and harmony. This seeming contradiction is resolved in the distinction between magic and the magician; in other words, The Tempest does not offer a sharp clash between black magic and white magic, but offers rather a sense of magic as an art at best neutral, and perhaps dubious in its common use, but available to good or bad ends, depending on the user. Prospero is sometimes seen as a neo-Platonic mage,...

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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...

(The entire section is 20344 words.)


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...

(The entire section is 31402 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 15944 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 1481 words.)