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Idealization and the Problematic in The Tempest

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Joseph Westlund, Northeastern University

For a very long time The Tempest was perceived as an idealistic romance about a benevolent prince who by means of his art inspires repentance in his enemies and creates a better world; that critics perceived an identity between Prospero and Shakespeare reinforced the view. This comfortable and rather sentimental interpretation no longer prevails. In the most striking instance of the present shift in attitude, Stephen Orgel has written the first introduction to a play by Shakespeare devoted entirely to the discovery of problematic aspects, with the inevitable result of undermining traditional idealizations about the play.1 With similar effect, new historicist readings treat The Tempest as part of the discourse of English colonialism; from such a perspective idealization is always suspect as a political act.2 Psychoanalytic interpretations (such as my own) also take an increasingly skeptical view of Prospero and his efforts to control others.

These recent developments rescue The Tempest from some of the most enervating effects of overidealizing Prospero—and behind him, Shakespeare, patriarchy, and colonialism. To assume that the central character and his "project" are entirely selfless, benevolent, and successful runs contrary to the text in crucial ways. However, one unfortunate effect of this revision is that it denigrates the response of people who, like many before them, find something extremely good in Prospero and in the overall effect of The Tempest. In the iconoclastic mood of the day critics run the risk of fitting themselves with a new set of ideological blinkers when they deny that the play creates the illusion of an intensely subjective character, Prospero, with whom members of the audience find it difficult not to identify and—to some degree—idealize.

I want to concentrate upon problematic aspects of the play that center around Prospero, who until recently was thought the obvious center of attention. That some critics now find Caliban an almost equally important figure reveals their own impulse to idealize, to elevate to a standard of perfection. Caliban is of late portrayed an innocent, peaceful native dweller on the island; Prospero is the colonist. However, Caliban and Sycorax are themselves not native to the island and are indeed vigorous colonists; that this is so would seem to be the point of Caliban's attempt to rape Mirabda.3 Present-day critics often find Caliban a representative Native American, a noble savage, an idealized victim of colonialism. Yet, as Vaughn points out, "if Shakespeare, however obliquely, meant Caliban to personify America's natives, his intention apparently miscarried almost completely."4

Caliban performs a function that Prospero previously served: both characters assist interpreters in their idealization of a view of the world that they themselves bring to the play—in this case, anticolonialism. Here, too, the play undermines their attempts. For instance, Caliban is so comically subservient to his European coconspirators that he abandons liberty before he even gets it. Or, if he hopes to rule, he would simply replace Prospero as head of a colonialist state. That Caliban's characterization involves so many self-contradictions makes the idealization of his role even more precarious than is the case with similar attempts with regard to Prospero. My point is that the play both problematizes and idealizes Prospero, and that the idealization survives because it is tempered with the anomalous, discordant aspects. They ground the idealizations in a realistic world of self-contradiction and limitation. By problematizing central aspects of the play—at the same time as exalting them—The Tempest offers the audience an idealization that becomes more believable and thus more usable.

In psychoanalytic theory, and within Western culture as a whole, many people lose sight of the value of idealization. We define "idealization" as "the representation or exaltation of...

(The entire section is 3,412 words.)