The Tempest, written toward the close of William Shakespeare’s career, is a work of fantasy and courtly romance, the story of a wise old magician, his beautiful, unworldly daughter, a gallant young prince, and a cruel, scheming brother. It contains all the elements of a fairy tale in which ancient wrongs are righted and true lovers live happily ever after. The play is also one of poetic atmosphere and allegory. Beginning with a storm and peril at sea, it ends on a note of serenity and joy. None of Shakespeare’s other dramas holds so much of the author’s mature reflection on life itself.
Early critics of The Tempest, concerned with meaning, attempted to establish symbolic correlations between the characters Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, and Miranda and such qualities as imagination, fancy, brutality, and innocence. Others considered the play in terms of its spectacle and music, comparing it to the masque or commedia dell’arte. Most critics read into Prospero’s control and direction of all the characters—which climaxes with the famous speech in which he gives up his magic wand—Shakespeare’s own dramatic progress and final farewell to the stage.
In the mid-twentieth century, criticism began to explore different levels of action and meaning, focusing on such themes as illusion versus reality, freedom versus slavery, revenge versus forgiveness, time, and self-knowledge. Some suggested that the enchanted island where the shipwreck occurs is a symbol of life itself: an enclosed arena wherein are enacted a range of human passions, dreams, conflicts, and self-discoveries. Such a wide-angled perspective satisfies both the casual reader wishing to be entertained and the serious scholar examining different aspects of Shakespeare’s art and philosophy.
This latter view is consonant with one of Shakespeare’s principal techniques, which he employs in all of his work: the analogy between microcosm and macrocosm. This Elizabethan way of looking at things simply meant that the human world mirrored the universe. In the major tragedies, this correspondence is shown in the pattern between order and disorder, usually with violent acts (the murder of Caesar, the usurpation of the throne by Richard III, Claudius’s murder of Hamlet’s father, Macbeth’s killing of Duncan) correlated with a sympathetic disruption of order in the world of nature. Attendant upon such human events therefore are such natural phenomena as earthquakes, strange beasts, unaccountable storms, voices from the sky, and witches. The idea that the world is but an extension of the mind, and that the cosmic order in turn is reflected in human beings, gives validity to diverse interpretations of The Tempest and, as a matter of fact, encompasses many of them.
The initial storm or “tempest” invoked by Prospero, which wrecks the ship, finds analogy in Antonio’s long-past usurpation of Prospero’s dukedom and his setting Prospero and Miranda adrift at sea in a storm in the hope they will perish. When, years later, the court party—Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and Ferdinand, along with the drunken Stephano and Trinculo—is cast upon the island, its “meanderings,” pitfalls, and enchantments make it a place where everyone will go through a learning process and most come to greater self-knowledge.
Illusions on this island, which include Ariel’s disguises, the disappearing banquet, and the line of glittering costumes that delude Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban, find counterparts in the characters’ illusions about themselves. Antonio comes to believe he is the rightful duke; Sebastian and Antonio, deluded by ambition, plan to kill Alonso and Gonzalo and make Sebastian tyrant of Naples. The drunken trio of court jester, butler, and Caliban falsely see themselves as future conquerors and rulers of the island. Ferdinand is tricked into believing that his father drowned and that Miranda is a goddess. Miranda, in turn, nurtured upon illusions by her father, knows little of human...
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