The Tempest Essay - The Tempest (Vol. 61)

William Shakespeare

The Tempest (Vol. 61)


The Tempest

The Tempest, written circa 1611, typifies Shakespeare's writing in the final period of his career. The play is a tragicomedy, combining elements of tragedy with the positive resolution of comedy. Shakespeare set the play on an unnamed island in an unidentified age. In the play, Prospero has been unfairly deposed and set adrift in the ocean with his daughter Miranda. Upon arriving on the island he uses magic to free the spirit Ariel, enslave a half beast named Caliban, and to engineer the shipwreck of his brother Antonio, the king of Naples, and the king's son Ferdinand. Under the control of Prospero, Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love. In the final scene, Prospero confronts his brother, who rules in his place, and demands his dukedom back. He leaves the island under the control of Caliban, and returns to Milan with the others. The lack of a clear location and time has intrigued critics since the play's introduction. Although no source for the plot has been identified, scholars have noted the influence of various literary sources and the advent of colonialism on the play. In addition, critics have studied the nature of Prospero and the possibility that he represents the author.

Concern with the role of colonialism has dominated scholarship on The Tempest for a century. Some critics have challenged the interpretation that Prospero benignly reestablishes the order of the natural world at the end of the play, maintaining instead that the play reflects the inherent oppression and tyranny of the colonial system. However, recent scholarship has redefined these arguments. In his 1999 essay, Robert B. Pierce examines the apparent discord between the emerging metatheatrical and historicist readings of the play. He suggests that by applying both readings—by viewing The Tempest both as a work of literature and a historical document—that a more accurate and full interpretation can be determined. Through the years, critics have also debated whether Shakespeare meant the play to be set in the new colony of Virginia or Bermuda. Richard Wilson (1997) discards existing arguments by positing that the play is set neither in Virginia nor Bermuda but in the Mediterranean. Through the application of the work of recent historians, Wilson shows how the play's meaning is clarified by locating the play off the coast of northern Africa.

Benefitting from advancements in the study of social and cultural history, Shakespearean scholars have focused on aspects of Elizabethan society for clues to a clearer understanding of the playwright's intent. For instance, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1997-98) considers the role of alchemy as a metaphor in the play. She argues that Prospero uses alchemy as a means of reforming and improving society. In an earlier article, Simonds (1995) advocates rejecting misleading postmodern readings of the play in favor of a more accurate historicized viewpoint. She applies her knowledge of Renaissance iconography, particularly emblems and woodcuts, to the play. In addition, emerging evidence on the life of the playwright and his environment has fostered new lines of debate about the autobiographical aspects of the play. Critics have long maintained The Tempest represents one of Shakespeare's most intensely autobiographical works. Building on the interpretation that Prospero represents Shakespeare, David Beauregard (1997) argues that the play reveals Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic. Paul Cantor (see Further Reading) makes the case that the play reflects Shakespeare's concepts on politics and society and represents the playwright's efforts to provide a clear statement of his personal philosophy. Cantor concludes that Shakespeare believed the knowledge of how to rule did not necessitate authority to rule and vice versa. The critic posits The Tempest represents Shakespeare's ultimate summary of justice.

Scholars of The Tempest are drawn particularly to the concepts of the natural world versus the unnatural or monstrous as it was understood in Shakespeare's time. Many critics focus on the relationship of Prospero, who represents modern and rational humanism, and the savage and barbaric Caliban. Scholars believe that Shakespeare's central thesis of the play can be found within his representation of the natural and unnatural state. For instance, Mark Thornton Burnett (1997) considers the nature of the monstrous in Elizabethan culture and concludes that Prospero shares equally in Caliban's distinction as monstrous. In her 2000 essay, Julia Reinhold Lupton discusses the universality of Caliban, placing him within the order of the cosmos. She states that Caliban is neither universal nor particular but exists in between. Finally, John Gillies (see Further Reading) rejects earlier arguments about the location of the island in the play. Rather, he states the island is allegorical and symbolic, representing the state of disorder and the problems in the lives of the characters.

Criticism: Autobiography

Bernard J. Paris (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Tempest: Shakespeare's Ideal Solution,” in Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 206-25.

[In the essay below, Paris compares Shakespeare to the character of Prospero, and finds that “[l]ike Prospero at the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare at the end of his career seems to have resolved his inner conflicts by repressing his aggressive impulses and becoming extremely self-effacing.”]


As J. B. Priestley has observed, “until his final years” Shakespeare “was a deeply divided man, like nearly all great writers....

(The entire section is 7720 words.)

David N. Beauregard (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “New Light on Shakespeare's Catholicism: Prospero's Epilogue in The Tempest,” in Renascence, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring, 1997, pp. 158-74.

[In the essay below, Beauregard charges that Prospero's epilogue provides convincing evidence that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic.]

Shakespeare's religious affiliation has never been convincingly determined. It has long been known, of course, that Shakespeare's family background was heavily Catholic. His mother Mary was from the Catholic Arden family. His father John concealed in the roof of his house a signed Spiritual Testament in the popular Roman Catholic form devised by Charles Borromeo, in the recent judgment...

(The entire section is 6384 words.)

Nora Johnson (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Body and Spirit, Stage and Sexuality in The Tempest,” in ELH, Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 683-701.

[In the essay below, Johnson examines early-modern selfhood, sexual identity, and authorship in their relation to The Tempest, contending that “The Tempest demonstrates that sexuality and authorship are nevertheless bound up in compelling ways with the question of identity on the early-modern stage.”]


Writing Plays Confuted in Five Actions in 1582, Stephen Gosson encounters a momentary setback in his condemnation of stage plays. After all, he admits, Gregory Naziancen once wrote “a Playe of...

(The entire section is 7800 words.)

Criticism: Colonialism

Richard Wilson (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Voyage to Tunis: New History and the Old World of the The Tempest,” in ELH, Vol. 64, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 333-57.

[In the following essay, Wilson contrasts colonial New World interpretations of The Tempest with the view that the play centers on European concerns.]

A recent pairing by the Royal Shakespeare Company of The Tempest with Edward Bond's Bingo has reminded critics of the persistence of what they long ago discounted as the “totally spurious” identification of Prospero's story with the dramatist's.1 While this last comedy has been Americanized on campuses as a tragedy of colonialism in the New World,...

(The entire section is 10049 words.)

Robert B. Pierce (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Understanding The Tempest,” in New Literary History, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1999, pp. 373-88.

[In the following essay, Pierce attempts to reconcile contradictory interpretations of The Tempest by reexamining the meaning of the play.]

Some years ago I wrote an article1 on Shakespeare's The Tempest in which I gave a reading that was quite sympathetic to Prospero and Miranda. I tried in that article to express an important part of my understanding of the play at that time, and I would still stand behind what I then said. On the other hand, I find much that is appealing and persuasive in a series of New Historical and...

(The entire section is 8202 words.)

Criticism: History And Society

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “‘Sweet Power of Music’: The Political Magic of ‘the Miraculous Harp’ in Shakespeare's The Tempest,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 61-90.

[In the essay below, Simonds argues that in The Tempest Shakespeare promoted his views regarding the political reform of the monarchy.]

In a recent paper critical of the logical discrepancies between “new historicist” theory and practice, Robin Headlam Wells argues that a true historical approach to The Tempest would focus on the mythological topos of Orpheus as the conventional prototype of Prospero rather than on modern views of colonialism and demonized...

(The entire section is 8951 words.)

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1997-98)

SOURCE: “‘My charms crack not’: The Alchemical Structure of The Tempest,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1997-98, pp. 538-70.

[In the following essay, Simonds examines the significance of alchemy in The Tempest, arguing that through alchemy Prospero transforms and reforms the world.]

In a previous essay I have discussed Shakespeare's Prospero as an Orpheus figure, as the persuasive rhetorician of mythology who leads mankind from barbarity to civilization through music and eloquence.1 That he might also be an alchemist in The Tempest, which is to say an adept in a science that was more often than not an important...

(The entire section is 10710 words.)

Criticism: Natural And Unnatural Elements

Cynthia Lewis (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Prospero's ‘false brother’: Shakespeare's Final Antonio,” in Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, Associated University Presses, 1997, pp. 154-85.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis compares and contrasts Prospero with Antonio.]

The essential question about the Antonio and Sebastian of The Tempest is why they are the direct antitheses of their saintly precursors. Saints Anthony and Sebastian, each in his own way, forfeited worldly possessions and risked their lives for love of God. All three of the earlier Shakespearean Antonios studied thus far bear resemblance to the saints at least in part, notably...

(The entire section is 17049 words.)

Mark Thornton Burnett (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “‘Strange and Woonderfull Syghts’: The Tempest and the Discourses of Monstrosity,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 50, 1997, pp. 187-99.

[In the essay below, Burnett argues that Shakespeare's depiction of the monstrous reflects Elizabethan culture.]

On the seventeenth of July, 1583, the town chronicler of Shrewsbury recorded in his diary an extraordinary event, an Elizabethan ‘freak show’:

cam to the towne … one Iohn Taylor … a marchant of loondoon and free of the coompany of fyshmoongers there who … brought … with hym strange and woonderfull syghts that ys to saye a dead childe in a coffyn...

(The entire section is 5011 words.)

Julia Reinhard Lupton (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “Creature Caliban,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 1, Spring, 2000, pp. 1-23.

[In the essay below, Lupton contends that Caliban is best understood as a creature who represents neither the universal nor the particular, but that he is “[a]t once monstrous and human, brutely slavish and poignantly subjective.”]

What is a creature? Derived from the future-active participle of the Latin verb creare (“to create”), creature indicates a made or fashioned thing but with the sense of continued or potential process, action, or emergence built into the future thrust of its active verbal form. Its tense forever imperfect, creatura...

(The entire section is 11056 words.)

Further Reading


Baldo, Jonathan. “Exporting Oblivion in The Tempest.Modern Language Quarterly 56, No. 2 (June 1995): 111-44.

Explores the concepts of memory and forgetfulness among the colonized peoples of the world in relation to The Tempest.

Cantor, Paul A. “Prospero’s Republic: The Politics of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 241-59. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2000.

Outlines the views on political authority and ability in The Tempest, arguing that these views reflect Shakespeare’s concluding opinion...

(The entire section is 471 words.)