The Tempest Other Voices: The Sweet, Dangerous Air(s) of Shakespeare's Tempest
by William Shakespeare

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Other Voices: The Sweet, Dangerous Air(s) of Shakespeare's Tempest

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Jacquelyn Fox-Good, Illinois Institute of Technology

Most recent criticism of The Tempest has insisted upon the play's "worldliness," its status as a production of an imperial culture that was—at just the time (1611) the play was written and first performed—colonizing islands like the one Prospero inhabits and subjecting natives like Caliban. As is now quite familiar, these readings foreground the play's ideological and historical contexts, which have both "written" the play and "been written" by it. This emphasis is a crucial value of this approach, which must be seen, at least, as an interrogation of the long-dominant "idealist readings" of the play and of Prospero "as an exemplar of timeless human values," of the "profit" of language, "civilization," forgiveness, all of which finally achieve (in this humanist vision) "a harmoniously reconciled new world" (italics mine).1

"Harmony" (and related musical metaphors like "concord" and "resolution") occur frequently in such humanist readings, and may even epitomize—by virtue of their "idealism" and apparent "aestheticism"—the kinds of assumptions most subject to ideological critique. According to a colonialist reading, interpreting the play with such metaphors amounts to complicity in the play's strategic "effacement" and "euphemisation" of Prospero's power. Paul Brown, whom we might take as representative of the colonialist position, argues that The Tempest's music mystifies and thus tacitly justifies Prospero's power over his subjects, drawing an aesthetic veil over his colonial "project." According to Brown, the play's use of "harmonious music to enchant, relax, and restore," along with its "observation of the classical unities" and its "constant reference to pastoral," underline the play's "aesthetic and disinterested, harmonious and nonexploitative representation of power."2

It is The Tempest's music that I wish to foreground and investigate in this essay, and it seems useful to begin by noting that music has been rendered subordinate by the two most prominent threads of critical treatment of the play. Humanism conflates "harmony" and music with social "concord" and reconciliation; new historicist/materialist readings make the same conflation but are critical of it, regarding music in its presumed "aestheticism" as a colonialist tool for masking and reproducing the dominant discourse.

At the heart of both arguments lies a naive claim about music, one that has only recently come under scrutiny, even within the academic study of music, where one might expect to find such scrutiny undertaken. Susan McClary, a musicologist who has been at work to develop a feminist criticism of music, would say that it is especially within the academic disciplines of music scholarship (history, theory, ethnomusicology) that such scrutiny has failed to develop, the result of tight "disciplinary" and ideological "control" over the study of music.3 Until very recently, none of these disciplines within music scholarship had seriously raised any questions about musical signification.4 Music has been analyzed structurally, its "history" told chronologically and positivistically, but it has generally been assumed to float free of its historical contexts, to be transhistorical, transcendent (a "universal language"), so meaningful as to be inscrutable, meaningless.

These assumptions about Western music in general have of course been manifest in criticism of music in Shakespeare. The "reading" (hearing) of Shakespeare's music that I shall argue for in this essay developed initially as a response to the inadequacy of the critical response to Shakespeare's music that has prevailed—in literary criticism and music scholarship—for most of this century. A brief outline of these responses will suggest not only the critical context for my own argument but will reveal some of the assumptions (or failure to recognize assumptions) that this essay will critique. Music—and particularly music in drama—has been...

(The entire section is 11,659 words.)