Idealization and the Problematic in The Tempest

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3412

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...

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the value of idealization. We define "idealization" as "the representation or exaltation of someone or of something to a state of perfection not found in actuality." Although this seems to be a neutral definition, it masks a prejudice against looking for something not present in the world—against longing for something better. Utopian literature often gets similarly bad press, and for much the same reason. An individual's ability to create and discover something extremely good beyond what is expectable, seems essential not only to our feeble attempt to make a better world but to maintaining a viable sense of self-esteem.

Nevertheless, psychoanalytic critics themselves often find idealization suspect because it often results from "splitting" (over-simplifying things into what is entirely good or entirely bad). Splitting not only distorts reality but impoverishes a person's range of feelings. On the other hand, idealization is central to human development—for instance, in the way children imagine their parents perfect, then temper this idealization as they realize that even they have feet of clay. It seems that we have to pass through a stage in which we can participate in their magnificence and then differentiate from our exalted view. Idealization adds zest, vitality and purpose to life. That this is so may account for why some critics now idealize Caliban. It may also account for why literary theory now raises indeterminacy as a standard of perfection.

The early psychoanalyst Melanie Klein was unusual in her insistence that people idealize because of an innate need to feel that something extremely good exists. She argues that this feeling "leads to the longing for a good object [an internalized benign aspect of other persons] and for the capacity to love it. This appears to be a condition for life itself."5 Klein argues that this longing is what motivates "reparation," a continual attempt to repair real or imagined destructive attacks on the "good object" outside us (say our parents or our internalized sense of ourselves). Her theory of reparation puts the Christian view of sin, guilt, grace and repentance into psychoanalytic terms (although she seems not to have realized this).6 J. O. Wisdom adds philosophical support to Klein's view. He notes the importance of reparation as "essentially a theory of emotional integration centering around ambivalence." Reparation allows the idealization to retain its perfection unblemished: "in the state of ambivalence, the desired object is attacked; this attack is not canceled, but redressed by reparation."7 Wisdom concludes that the neutralization by reparation "relieves the desired object of all diminution of good quality"; yet this idealized state is not split-off from reality—as would be the case in pathological idealization—but results instead from "neutralization of its bad part" through reparation.8

From this psychoanalytic perspective, we can see how the problematic aspects of The Tempest serve to keep the audience in touch with the complexities of reality—including anger, aggression, and loss of self-esteem. The play draws us into its idealized world and yet admits destructive feelings of various sorts that are then neutralized by their relation to the good object: the idealized ruler, parent, and magician/scientist. Like Shakespeare's own audience, we find ourselves at a historical moment in which we must negotiate some course between skepticism and its opposite pole, a viable idealization. The play assists this process, I think, by implicating the ideal in a problematic context that adds plausibility.

I want to discuss a few specific instances in which this delicate process occurs. As Orgel remarks, editors have for a long time tended to ignore the play's ambivalences, to "sweeten and sentimentalize it, to render it altogether neater and more comfortable than the text that has come down to us."9 He points out numerous examples in which interpreters perfect the play by "correcting" manifest contradictions, by smoothing over disparities, and by making Prospero thoroughly laudable.

In the simplest instances editors correct the text in ways that sentimentalize characters and undermine the text's hold on reality. Take the case of Miranda. Editors have often transferred her violent rebuke of Caliban to Prospero:

Abhorred slave, Which any print of goodness wilt not take Being capable of all ill!                                    (1.2.350-52)

As Orgel notes, "from Dryden to Kittredge, this speech was almost always reassigned to Prospero, its tone being considered inappropriate to Miranda's character." Orgel concentrates on the energy she displays. I would emphasize her anger: Miranda rebukes Caliban not only for his attempted rape but for his ingratitude and lack of repentance. The text prevents us from imagining Miranda a pallid idealized creature; from the very start she comes across as not only forceful but highly skeptical about her father's intentions. Indeed, it is through her that the audience first learns that it may be wise to question Prospero's good intentions, for it is she who confronts him for raising the tempest that sank the ship and "the fraughting souls within her" (1.2.1-13). At every step, the play encourages members of the audience to balance positive and negative views of the same character.

The play's treatment of magic is another instance of this process. Magic often strikes modern readers as a rather quaint and largely irrelevant factor in the play, even though footnotes alert us to its serious implications and to its historical relation to modern science. That Prospero is a magician is one of the play's most problematic idealizations of knowledge and power. That he should choose to be a magician—on top of being a patriarch and omnipotent ruler—emphasizes his quest for absolute supremacy in all spheres of life.10

Frank Kermode follows a long line of interpreters who obscure this issue by trying to validate Prospero's elaborate—and largely spurious—distinction between white magic and black magic.11 As Orgel demonstrates, such distinctions simply do not convince us unless we want to be convinced.12 For instance, the play sets up a strong correlation between Prospero's magical powers and those of his predecessor on the island, Sycorax. Prospero alleges that Sycorax is a witch, but he also demonstrates that they share strikingly similar powers. For instance, he threatens to punish Ariel in exactly the way Sycorax punished him in the past (a twelve-year spell of imprisonment in a tree)—and for exactly the same offense (being too fastidious to carry out the magician's commands). Given such details as these, it is difficult to accept his claim that his magic differs from hers. If it differs at all, it is in benign intent, but he undermines this assumption by furious outbursts and threats. In addition, he gratuitously claims the black-magical power of necromancy in his valedictory speech beginning "Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves"—a speech based on Medea's in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Why does Shakespeare have Prospero crib from this infamous practitioner of black magic? And why have Prospero claim necromancy when it is irrelevant? It is difficult not to conclude that the character is designed to create an ambivalent response; there is something prohibited and dangerous about Prospero's magic—and something devious about his claim to be entirely above suspicion.

Prospero continually tries to idealize himself, to conceive of himself as a standard of perfection—not only as magician with impeccable credentials and goals, but as an ideal ruler. The play assiduously undermines his attempts. For instance, he clearly feels that he himself was in no way to blame for losing his dukedom, but in so doing reveals his irresponsibility:

The government I cast upon my brother, And to my state grew stranger, being   transported And rapt in secret studies.                                (1.2.74-76)

"Rapt" is an ominous term in the context of "secret studies," for it is one used to describe the effect of the Witches upon Macbeth. No ruler can safely cast his power on another, particularly on a brother next in line for the throne. Prospero exalts himself as blameless and wronged, but in so doing the text allows us to realize that he is idealizing himself in a defensive maneuver. He cannot admit that he was partly to blame for the conspiracy against him.13

The play's single most vexing problem is that he never fully achieves his "project," which is to make his enemies repent. It is not for want of trying to do so, for he bends his energy toward this goal from the start. The goal of repentance and regeneration is central to the whole play—as critics have for a long time agreed. It is only quite recently, however, that they have become skeptical about his success. Neither his brother Antonio, nor Alonzo's brother Sebastian give any sign of repenting in the final scene. Only Alonzo does so, and in a speech whose fullness and clarity makes the silence of the two chief malefactors all the more startling. Since the entire plot is devoted to this goal, its failure can hardly be the result of Shakespeare's oversight; he might have wrapped up the matter in a couple of lines. Yet none exists; nor do we have reason to believe that a speech dropped out of the play as we know it, for the Folio is an exemplary text.

Therefore, it is wonderfully strange that critics have only recently begun to note that the wicked brothers fail to repent. For an astonishingly long time interpreters simply could not see that the text refuses to support Prospero's claim that he succeeded in his grand design. In one scholarly publication after another it was assumed that repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are achieved at the end of the play. Indeed, so certain were critics of Prospero's success that they conceived of The Tempest as an allegorical drama on the Christian pattern of sin, repentance, and reconciliation.

The failure of the wicked brothers to repent alters the achievement at the end of The Tempest. For instance, Antonio seems not to have repented, and yet Prospero forgives him. Why does he do so? Perhaps we are supposed to conclude that Prospero is so very good—so full of the rarer virtue—that he forgets his brother's cruel deed and forgives him despite the fact that there is no sign of contrition. Such a reading makes Prospero benign beyond all measure, a perfect ruler and Christian. But such a reading is given the lie by his contemptuous and uncharitable speech:

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call   brother Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive Thy rankest fault—all of them—and require My dukedom of thee, which perforce, I know Thou must restore.                               (5.1.130-34)

Prospero "requires" his dukedom in such a way as to freeze any penitence that might be stirring in his brother. Critics therefore had to ignore the speech or excuse Prospero's tone. Still, the tone is stunningly contemptuous; that the word "brother" "Would even infect my mouth" undermines a term central to all discussions of Christian charity; and it seems spiteful to say, "Thy rankest fault—all of them."

Yet many critics want to subordinate this harsh tone to Prospero's essential goodness. I would agree with their impulse and carry the matter a bit further. His tone is at odds with his profession that he will not be vengeful. On the other hand, he does not punish Antonio and Sebastian for their treason when he captures them. Prospero's forgiveness is not the free and charitable gift he led us to expect when he said:

… the rarer action is In virtue than in vengeance: they being   penitent, The sole drift of my purpose doth extend Not a frown further.                                  (5.1.27-30)

But he does not have them drawn and quartered as a ruler under similar circumstances in Shakespeare's day would surely have done.

What are we as members of the audience to make of this curious blend of good and ill? The play seems to offer three main options. We can emphasize either of two potentially split-off approaches: Prospero is a paragon, an idealized father, ruler and magician; or, he is an irascible, omnipotent despot. Over the years, most critics have fallen into one camp or the other. However, since both approaches are manifestly present—and manifestly inadequate—I suggest that we simply admit the problematic nature of the play and its central character. Over the past twenty years Shakespeareans have grown more comfortable with the lack of consensus among critics about what the plays mean and they are ready for such a response.14

By admitting the problematic nature of the play we should not, however, ignore its strong idealistic bent. Prospero is neither so successful nor so benevolent as he would have us believe, but he manages to defeat the conspirators without bloodshed. He has also taken steps to ensure his hold over them in the future by means of a dynastic marriage that excludes his brother from succession, and by his threat to reveal that Sebastian and Antonio plotted to kill Alonzo. Prospero has been "forgiving" and he has been provident. As a result, the play offers members of an audience usable idealizations about key issues: power, control, rule, vengeance, forgiveness, and repentance. The results are usable because they are implicated in the actual world by means of such realistic emotions as grandiosity, spite, contempt and deviousness. These color the ending so strongly that it cannot be called "ideal." The Tempest presents a world firmly grounded in the anomalies, self-contradictions and problems attendant upon everyday reality.

The play can serve as a warning to anyone who seeks a perfect ruler of the sort Prospero pretends to be—yet it seems overhasty to insist that all values represented by the play are vitiated. To modern critics Prospero may seem tyrannical, patriarchal, colonialist and pathological in his obsession with control. In a way, he is. Nevertheless, in character, intelligence, and temperament he is a distinct improvement over most of the world's rulers from the time of James I to the present. It is difficult for modern audiences to make such comparisons given the enormous difference in forms of government, but the play reminds us of alternatives: Antonio, Sebastian, Alonzo, and the drunken conspirators.


1 Stephen Orgel, Introduction to the Oxford Shakespeare edition of The Tempest (1987), 1-87. I cite this text for quotations.

2 For an important critique of new historical readings of the play—along with an extensive psychoanalytic interpretation—see Meredith Ann Skura, "Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest," Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 42-69. Curt Breight offers an excellent historical argument in which he argues that the play demystifies official strategies designed to deal with treason—and thus makes Prospero a problematic figure, a creator and manipulator of conspiracy; see Breight, "'Treason doth never prosper': The Tempest and the Discourse of Treason," Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 1-28.

3 See Orgel, Introduction, 25.

4 Alden T. Vaughan, "Shakespeare's Indian: The Americanization of Caliban," Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 137-53. This is quoted in Skura's discussion of colonialism in the play, "Discourse and the Individual," 45-57.

5 Melanie Klein, "Envy and Gratitude" (1957) in "Envy and Gratitude" and Other Works: 1946-1963 (New York: Dell, 1975), 193.

6 I discuss this cultural aspect and its implications in "Some Problems with Klein's Theory of Reparation," Journal of The Melanie Klein Society 6 (1988): 68-80. Heniz Kohut offers a more complicated, and in many ways more convincing, account of why people idealize; see his important The Restoration of the Self (Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, 1977). In brief, Kohut argues that we idealize others as a way of endorsing our idealization of ourselves as centers of vigor, strength, and perfection.

7 J. O. Wisdom, "Freud and Melanie Klein: Psychology, Ontology, and Weltanschauung" in Psychoanalysis and Philosophy, ed. C. Hanley and M. Lazerowitz (New York: International Universities Press, 1970), 350.

8 Ibid., 350-51.

9 Orgel, Introduction, 10.

10 For the cultural and psychological significance of attempts to control others, see Alice Miller, For Your Own Good, trans. H. and H. Hannum (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983).

11 Frank Kermode, Introduction to his Arden Edition of The Tempest (sixth edition, 1961). The makers of the Hollywood science fiction movie The Forbidden Planet (1955) were not taken in by this fastidious distinction, and as a result the movie is probably the first thoroughly skeptical response to Prospero in the last few hundred years.

12 Orgel, Introduction, 19-23; I follow this account for the rest of my paragraph.

13 See my article "Omnipotence and Reparation in Prospero's Epilogue," in Narcissism and the Text: Studies in Literature and the Psychology of Self, ed. Lynne Layton and Barbara Schapiro (New York: New York University Press, 1986). I explore some of the theoretical basis for idealization in "Idealization as a Habit of Mind in Shakespeare: The Tempest," Melanie Klein and Object Relations 7 (1989): 71-82.

14 Norman Rabkin's Shakespeare and The Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) was probably the first book to establish this trend.

Source: "Idealization and the Problematic in The Tempest," in Subjects on the World's Stage: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by David G. Allen and Robert A. White, Associated University Presses, 1995, pp. 239-47.


Critical Evaluation


On the Symbolism of The Tempest