The Tempest Criticism
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespeare for Students)

Frank Davidson
[In the following essay, Davidson surveys various twentieth-century critical interpretations of The Tempest, including biographical theories that view the work as an allegory of Shakespeare's life and as his farewell to the stage; thematic speculations that emphasize the prevalent theme of reconciliation; and social/political criticism—such as that of Northrup Frye, who suggests that the drama is about the evolution of a new social order. Davidson goes on to formulate his own interpretation of the play based on its adherence to the Renaissance ideals of political and natural order and its emphasis on the importance of reason in ordering society and restraining human passions.]

Twentieth-century critics have left us a great variety of sometimes conflicting views on the meaning of Shakespeare's The Tempest. They have for the most part, however, been acute in their observations and have, even in their disagreements, bequeathed us a wealth of penetrating comment and points of view on a labyrinthine piece of dramatic art. Some, more objective than others in their approach, have been disturbed by interpretations which seem to have no basis within the framework of the play itself. E. E. Stoll, for example, [in PMLA XLVII (1932)], wearied, it seems, by the insistence that Shakespeare was dramatizing, in a part of The Tempest at least, events of his own life, or writing an allegory, contends that the critic should be a "judge, who does not explore his own consciousness, but determines the author's meaning or intention" from what the play actually says.

This discussion will attempt to restate and examine briefly meaning ascribed to The Tempest by several of these critics of renown of the present century and to follow with an interpretation of the play based on philosophical and psychological thinking of the Tudor era and justified, I hope, by the work itself.

For E. K. Chambers The Tempest [in Shakespeare: A Survey, n.d.] is a "dream" or "fairy tale," the protagonists of which are "imagined beings, taken partly from folk-belief, and partly from literature, to be the symbols of forces dimly perceived by the poet as ruling that life, which is itself, after all, in another degree, but such stuff as dreams are made on." In his consideration of Prospero's dissolution of the hymeneal revels enacted for Ferdinand and Miranda, he follows Ulrici, Dowden, and others, interpreting the action as Shakespeare's farewell to the stage. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch finds in The Tempest a subject which, he remarks, constantly engaged Shakespeare's "mind towards the close of his lire: Reconciliation, with pardon and atonement for the sins or mistakes of one generation in the young love of the children and in their promise. This is the true theme of Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, successively." Stoll agrees with Chambers that the play is a fairy tale, a "sort of glorious fairy-tale," he calls it, "precious not ... because of the structure or situations, but because of the characters, the poetry and the rich and dreamy spirit which for the most part informs it." He is conscious of a "tendency to reverie" in the play, of a "change in his [Shakespeare's] imagery," of outlines that "tend to become vast, vague and wavering, as in a dream," and of some profound thought on "the end, not only of man's work but of Nature's, and of life as a dream, and death as a sleep." He is at total variance with Chambers with reference to any biographical interpretation. Hardin Craig, [in An Interpretation of Shakespeare, n.d.] like Stoll, looks at the play objectively but stresses more than do the other critics the fact that it is stage drama. In support of his view he directs attention to some significant facts unmentioned by Stoll: that "Prospero has committed error, has suffered wrongs, has striven against them, even has some struggles, often overlooked, on the island." The Tempest , he says, represents "Man moving toward the realization of the greatest...

(The entire section is 48,298 words.)