The Tempest (Vol. 61)
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Tempest, see SC, Volumes 8, 15, 29, and 45.
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 He suggests that by applying both readings—by viewing The Tempest both as a work of literature and a historical document—that a more accurate and full interpretation can be determined.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.
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. There were profound opposites in his nature, and it is the relation between these opposites … that gives energy and life to his work” (1963, 82). Critics have tended to define these opposites in terms of masculine and feminine traits. In The Personality of Shakespeare Harold Grier McCurdy concludes that Shakespeare “was predominantly masculine, aggressive,” but that his “masculine aims have a way of running counter to the feminine components in him, which incline toward idealistic love and domestic virtues” (1953, 159). In Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare Norman Holland presents a similar picture. As these critics see it, the division in Shakespeare is between an aggressive, vindictive, power-hungry masculine side,...
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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 of Patrick Collinson “very nearly conclusive” evidence that he was a Catholic (38). Similarly, we have long been aware that, during Shakespeare's youth in the 1570s, two out of three of the teachers at Stratford's grammar school were Roman Catholics (Schoenbaum 66).
Over the last twenty-five years, some interesting evidence has surfaced and suggested even more strongly that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic. In 1972, on the basis of the records of the Stratford ecclesiastical court for May and December 1606, E. R. C. Brinkworth concluded that Susanna Shakespeare and Hamnet and Judith Sadler, for whom the Shakespeare twins were named, were most probably “church papists.” He cautiously admitted that “although...
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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 Christe.” But, Gosson asks, “to what ende? To be Plaid upon Stages? neither Players nor their friendes are able to prove it.”1 Naziancen's play is morally acceptable because it cannot conclusively be linked to actual performances. This distinction between a written text and a fully-embodied theatrical production becomes crucial for Gosson as he details the abuses to which theater is prone in early modern England:
If it should be Plaied, one must learne to trippe it like a Lady in the finest fashion, another must have time to whet his minde unto tyranny that he may give life to the picture hee presenteth, whereby they learne to counterfeit, and so to sinne. Therefore whatsoever such Playes as...
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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 professional theater continues to connect its ending to New Place and a retirement in Stratford. These popular and academic traditions seem, in fact, to straddle the play's two hemispheres, and it may be that the New Historicist success in relocating The Tempest in Virginia has transported it too far from Virgil, and the Old World of Aeneas where its action is set, between Tunis and Naples. For it is now axiomatic that, as Frank Kermode stated in the Arden edition, Shakespeare had America “in mind” when he wrote his “Virginian masque,” based Ariel's songs on Algonquian dances, and intended Caliban “to be a representative Indian, and Prospero a planter.” Yet this certainty about the American context is matched by...
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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 anticolonialist readings of the play,2 which tend to be not at all sympathetic to Prospero and if anything to turn Caliban into a sort of hero or at least victim. How am I to explain this weak-minded doubleness in my understanding of The Tempest? Is it that I cannot make up my mind about what Shakespeare's play means, or can two contradictory readings be part of the way I understand it? My difficulty with The Tempest is suggestive of a larger problem in assimilating varied interpretations of a complex literary or dramatic text, one that I suspect we all encounter.
The task of adjudicating among different and even contradictory commentaries is dependent on what counts as understanding The Tempest. A...
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Criticism: History And Society
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 otherness.1 In response to this important suggestion, I shall discuss here the conflation of two such traditional topoi in Shakespeare's tragicomedy: (1) the benevolent and thus successful ruler as Orpheus, a magician in control of Nature and the poetic civilizer of barbaric peoples, and (2) the ideal commonwealth as a melodious and fruitful garden. Since my iconographic materials will be taken from the political discourses of the Renaissance itself, and not from Foucault or Greenblatt, they will help to historicize Shakespeare's tragicomedy rather than theorize it in the usual postmodern fashion. Moreover, I reject the fallacious either-or logic of Foucault who implies that artistic works like The Tempest must be either for or...
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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 aspect of the Renaissance magician's art, should not surprise readers and spectators familiar with the kind of alchemical language we hear spoken throughout the play. One of the original argonauts engaged in the Quest of the Golden Fleece, Orpheus himself, was considered by adepts to be an early alchemist as well as a magician.2 Famous Renaissance magicians who also practiced alchemy as part of their repertoire included Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, Giambattista Della Porta of Naples, and the English alchemist Dr. John Dee, who taught chemistry to Sir Philip Sidney and his group. And, as many scholars have noted in other contexts, Shakespeare's audience probably knew alchemical language as well or better than we in the...
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Criticism: Natural And Unnatural Elements
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 for sacrificing their own property, power, and safety in the name of earthly love, albeit not without encountering for their pains some measure of suspicion, or even outright ridicule. This last Antonio/Sebastian pairing, however, stands apart from the others, although both, like Saint Anthony, are tempted to evil. But these two do not pretend to have goals other than selfish gain. Steeped in the folly of worldly ambition, they are mocked not for trying and failing to realize true charity but for lacking the vision and will to make the attempt.
I would like to offer two analyses as to why these familiar characters are turned inside out in The Tempest. Although the explanations are not opposed to each other, the first...
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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 which had ij heades and … ij bake boanes. More a lyve sheep beinge a tupp the which had … ij foondementes vnder hys tayle, also ij pyssells and ij paire of codds … and yf the partee which keapt hym wold aske hym and saye be thosse people welcoom he wold lyft vp hys foorefoote and Crye heighe, heighe, heighe … And also more a glasse artyfycially made beinge but ij candells therin and a chayne with ij faces or pycturs which wolld represent inwardly to the sight of the beholders soondrye candells, chaynes facys, Iuells and other things myraculously …1
The chronicler's breathless narrative offers a powerful registration of some of the period's deepest fears and...
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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 resembles those parallel constructions natura and figura, in which the determinations conferred by nativity and facticity are nonetheless opened to the possibility of further metamorphosis by the forward drive of the suffix -ura (“that which is about to occur”).1 The creatura is a thing always in the process of undergoing creation; the creature is actively passive or, better, passionate, perpetually becoming created, subject to transformation at the behest of the arbitrary commands of an Other. The creature presents above all a theological conceptualization of natural phenomena. In Judaism and Christianity (and indeed it is only via the Latin of late antiquity that the word enters the modern...
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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 on the subject.
Demaray, John G. “On the Symbolism of The Tempest.” In Shakespeare and the Spectacles of Strangeness: The Tempest and the Transformation of Renaissance Theatrical Forms, pp. 110-34. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1998.
Compares The Tempest to other Renaissance drama in order to reconcile conflicting criticism of the play.
Fox-Good, Jacquelyn. “Other Voices: The Sweet, Dangerous Air(s) of Shakespeare's Tempest.” Shakespeare Studies 24 (1996): 241-74.
Surveys the criticism concerning the role of music in The Tempest.
Fuchs, Barbara. “Conquering Islands:...
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