On the Symbolism of The Tempest

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7875

John G. Demaray, Rutgers University

A profound and continuing wonder stirred in characters by visionary dreams, reveries and magical spectacles is at the deepest core of The Tempest. This deep experience of wonder, which transforms corrupt characters and inspires the virtuous, distinguishes this late masque-like drama from comedies and tragedies more dependent upon traditional, unfolding, confrontational dramatic conflict.

"O, it is monstrous: monstrous:" calls out the terrified Alonso upon seeing Ariel disguised as a Harpy. The man of "sin," Alonso stands transfixed as his more insightful companion Gonzalo says, "I' th name of something holy, Sir, why stand you/In this strange stare?" (D. 13).

"Let me liue here euer," Ferdinand joyfully remarks upon seeing the visionary betrothal masque, "So rare a wondered Father and a wise/Makes this place Paradise" (D. 15).

"These are not naturall euents, they strengthen/From strange to stranger," says Alonso in awe when meeting seamen whom he thought dead (D. 18).

In the final scene Gonzalo conveys some sense of the total experience of the island's magic and the strange events that have gone before:

All torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement Inhabits heere. Some heauenly power guide vs

(D. 17)

The narrative contains relatively little action, but those characters who wander, dream, stare and listen in awestruck horror or amazement are changed and metaphorically reborn through the strangeness of things experienced but rarely understood. In this way, fancies and symbolic magical spectacles underlie and in large measure motivate action. Thematically, the play moves from a range of subjective and fanciful utopian reveries and visions interspersed, as has been seen, with jolting and equally fanciful "antic" countervailing spectacles, on to a revelation of true identities and of external reality.

Contrasting virtuous and corrupted dreams of a Golden Age, a coming millennium, haunt the imaginations of central characters. In the manner of a host of utopian and millenarian writers of the late Renaissance, the characters speculate, with differing degrees of casualness, seriousness, selfishness, or moral rectitude, on some personal variant of an ideal future time, a period when their sometimes wildly imaginative reveries on power, wealth, possessions, or natural plentitude may be fulfilled. External "reality" is placed in ever-changing perspectives as it is cast against the characters' imagined visions, and these visions are constantly tested against that reality.

The idle, irresponsible fancies of Gonzalo on the creation of an ideal commonwealth; the vicious speculations of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano on riches and rule gained by murder; the parallel brutal, thwarted reveries and acts of Sebastian and Alonso aimed at seizing political power also through murder; and the ideal dreams of Prospero on fecundity and blessedness in marriage—all are presented through spectacle imagery and allusion. But in each case the reveries projected in spectacle, whether good or ill, are shattered or qualified by a rational awakening to earthly realities. Thematically, the play is a sharp but not cynical corrective to then-prevalent dreams of a Golden Age or a "new world" of perfect harmony, dreams given theatrical form in the main masques of court spectacles and suggested too, in very different ways, in the fictions of both utopian literature and the literature of exploration.

As symbolically represented by unique characters and action on a magical Mediterranean island, this awakening to earthly realities—to deceit and moral ambiguity in politics and social life and, in the case of Prospero, to the fact of human mortality—has been observed to contain oblique reflections of the "brave" new, but troubled, colonial world. Yet the drama's varied political, social and religious motifs are absorbed within a sweeping symbolism suggesting that all imagined ideal societies—whether those that might...

(This entire section contains 7875 words.)

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exist in some "brave new world" of total innocence, or those seriously or mockingly envisaged in the dreamlike fantasy of utopian literature, or those wondrously represented in the fleeting Golden Age theatrical Triumphs of aristocrats—all are uniformly subject to the coils of an imperfect, mortal social life.

Before The Tempest was first staged in 1611, the ideal aristocratic social visions that climaxed court masquing spectacles, though diverse in their "hinges," were notable in not directly representing the New World or colonial enterprises. When the New World finally did make its appearance on the Whitehall stage in a masque presented on 15 February 1613, the year of the second and last recorded performance of Shakespeare's play, this New World proved yet another fantastical variation of that golden world carried over from masque to masque. George Chapman's The Memorable Maske of the two Honorable Houses of Inns of Court: the Middle Temple and Lyncolns Inne featuring twelve Virginian Indians as triumphant main masquers, is a staged aristocratic dream vision rather than any recognizable depiction of native American life.1

The action of Chapman's masque unfolds between a stage set representing a New World island controlled by Indians of the Virginian "continent," and island from which the Indians come, and the British seat of state of King James at the hall's rear-center, the place to which the Indians triumphantly proceed. The featured performers, however, are neither the innocent, noble savages nor the monstrous primitives who, according to much political criticism, served as types of the strange "Other" and so prompted European acts of colonial control and repression. As New World rulers and worshippers of the sun, they are courtly aristocratic types who are identified as "Princes" and "Knights" and who perform as the social equals of the British aristocratic audience. The main masquers' courtly "habits," made from "cloath of siluer, richly embroidered, with golden Sunns," show only a touch of court-style "native" decoration in that there "ran a traile of gold, imitating Indian worke" about "euery Sunne"—an appropriate design gesture in otherwise traditional sumptuous masquing costumes (A2 verso). And they act as independent noble characters in a masquing world that, while abundant in natural wealth depicted in the main masque stage set, is conspicuously free of the colonial tyranny, sexual subjugation, drunkenness, slavery, oppression, cruelty and ethnic conflict that are the hallmark subjects of much recent political-literary criticism.

Even the New World antic performers who enter in a brief opening antimasque, though bizarre types suggestive of courtly Neapolitan intrigue, lack the evil malignancy of antiestablishment figures such as the witches in The Masque of Queenes. These New World antic figures are outlandish baboons "attir'd like fantasticali Trauailers, in Neopolitane sutes, and great ruffes." When their single "Anticke, and delightful" and seemingly gratuitous dance is over, they simply return to "their Tree" at the side of the stage (A).

The main masque that follows places the New World Virginian Indians "close to nature" in an unexpected way—a way doubtless longed for by James and members of his court, though certainly not anticipated by modern historians of the actual Virginia plantation. In an elaborate main masque stage spectacle, a rock transforms into a cloud. The cloud then "opens"; and to swelling music played by court musicians dressed as Priests of the Sun, the stately Indians are "discovered" within a radiant gold mine that glitters beneath a low, red sun.

Action is now "hinged," in the words of the masquing figure Honor, on the Virginian "Princes" coming to "Britan" to do "due homage" to the "Lawe and Vertue, celebrated" in the "sacred Nuptials" of the Princess Elizabeth and Frederick, and to pay homage in particular to the king who presides over both the marriage and the masque (D. 2). The work thus proceeds with the pacing of the masquers across the stage, their descent to the central hall for their main dances, and their triumphant presentation to and unmasking before the king.

The character Honor also debates with other figures over whether the hovering stage sun is rising or setting. The character "Eunomia," the "presenter" of the masquers and the personification of Law, prescriptively states the masque's thematic resolution, with which the featured performers through their symbolic movements show themselves in accord. In a speech using conventional masque sun iconography, Eunomia suggests that the stage sun will be seen rising when the ruling Virginian princes turn from past superstitions and, in a masquing triumph that implies a new political and religious allegiance, give their devotion to the personified true British sun which is "Enlightened with a Christian Piety."

Virginian Princes, ye must now renounce Your superstitious worship of these Sunnes, Subject to cloudy darknings and descents, And of your sweet deuotions, turne the euents To this our Britain Phoebus


Much could be said theoretically of Honor's admonition about what the Indians "must renounce" and to what they must "turn." It could be asserted, following the example of some recent critical approaches to The Tempest that "explain away" the work's internal contexts in order to give weight to external materials, that the masque's subterranean but now uncovered meaning and subtexts provide a central ideological statement on the power and politics of European colonialism. The masque would then point, in the light of wider historical "intertextualities," to the European subjugation of native Americans, destruction of the natives' religion and culture, and appropriation and exploitation of the natives' wealth and natural resources. And the masque could be seen to deny the very cultural existence of native Americans by making them nearly identical to Europeans.

But such claims, however meaningful as wide and general moral and political observations, would in turn unduly "suppress" the work's full contexts and its idealized main masque representation. In the golden world of Chapman's work, the island of the masque is not colonized. It is under the control of the aristocratic Indians, with personified gods and allegorical figures present but without the presence of colonizers. The Indians, in the manner of aristocratic performers in masque after masque, willingly and in festive triumph give their devotion of their own free will to the "state" identified with the sun. Their transfer of the object of their devotion from a lesser sun to a more glorious "Phoebus," another iconographic convention of main masques, is a festive act of free will. And after their choreographic compliment to the state—represented as a classical "Phoebus" Apollo imbued with inner "Christian Piety"—the masquers—Virginian Princes and Knights—can be assumed, as an inferred element of the masque fiction, to continue exercising local authority over their uncolonized homeland, but now under the aegis of the British sun king. Just how much the sun king would extract from their gold mine is open to question; here the masque indeed hints, by its graphic association of the Indians with gold, at the sun king's hopes of possibly obtaining native wealth. Finally, the typal "disguisings" of the main masque figures—Honor, Eunomia, the Indians, and the King as Phoebus—are all conventional generic fictions rather than realistic indexes to actual personal and social identities; and the Indians might well be regarded as receiving a compliment (rather than a dismissal) in being depicted as foreign, native aristocrats.

If the masque's dreamlike Utopian political arrangements were compared to some form of actual government, then these arrangements might be seen as more reminiscent of an international commonwealth, in which native "Virginians" freely choose to recognize a foreign king while retaining local political authority, than of a colony in which natives are ruled by foreign occupying officials subject to a foreign monarch.

Considered as a masque written to flatter the king and court, the work is an imaginatively flamboyant and at times amusing construct of the new "open" court symbolism. Its romance elements are so phantasmagorical—mixing baboons dressed with ruffs, a gold mine, aristocratic Indians, and the king as the classical god Apollo—as to be surrealistic. Yet in directing attention to a New World so exotic it is historically unrecognizable, this late masque, mounted in the same year as The Tempest, might have caused persons familiar with that world and with voyage and colonial issues—possibly Shakespeare among them—to reflect upon actual New World problems involving the treatment of natives, the imposition of political power, and the expropriation of New World gold and natural resources. But it is also likely that at Whitehall in 1613, the masque would generally have been received as a stylized, celebratory, and ideologically conventional representation of how even aristocratic foreigners are drawn by honor and virtue to pay homage to and make bounty available to the glorious English king. What Chapman's masque most lucidly captures is a very special generic quality in main masque spectacles to which Shakespeare responded: an unrestrained and illusionary aristocratic utopianism that clearly called out for some kind of realistic modulation.

In The Tempest, Prospero seeks to control an imperfect world through his magic. Although critics, impressed and somewhat misdirected by Prospero's rhetoric, regularly lapse into the assumption that the Magus actually gives up the exercise of his powers at the beginning of the final scene, Prospero in fact has it both ways. He theatrically states in the present tense that he "abjures" his magic. But with his powers at their apex, he continues to use them, manipulating both events and characters to the very end of the dramatic action. He then promises, at the conclusion of scene 9, to employ his magic in the future to ensure clear sailing weather, though in the Epilogue immediately following he declares, in seeking the empathy of the audience, that his spells are "ore-throwne" (D. 19).

Before the final reconciliations that constitute a metaphoric rebirth, characters in the imperfect world of the play indulge themselves with social "imaginings." The essentially good counselor Gonzalo fancies an "antic" commonwealth of political and personal lassitude fortuitously supplied by a superabundant Nature. "I would with such perfection gouerne Sir," he remarks to Antonio, "T'Excell the Golden Age" (D. 7). Gonzalo's idle-man's commonwealth grows out of a cultural milieu of utopian works including Thomas More's communal Utopia, Robert Burton's agricultural commonwealth in the "Democritus" section of The Anatomy of Melancholy, tall tales of voyage authors about noble "primitive" societies; and polemical religious tracts predicting a coming millennium.2 Gonzalo's reverie can also be seen more directly as a court counselor's satiric comment on the supposedly "perfect" hierarchical society revealed at the climax of familiar court theatricals such as Daniel's The Vision of the 12. Goddesses and Jonson's Hymenaei and The Haddington Masque, and in particular Jonson's later masque The Golden Age Restored"3

Stimulated by the word play of Antonio, Sebastian and Alonso, by talk of the lushness of the grass, and by the magical freshness of recently drenched garments, Gonzalo's casual social reveries on inaction and superabundance are rendered, as were court spectacles, "to minister occasion to these Gentlemen." His remarks are sharply antic. With his imagination amusingly active but his intellect seemingly at rest, Gonzalo announces that in his commonwealth he will "(by contraries)/Execute all things" (D. 7). The counselor would have "all men idle, all:/And Women too" (D. 7):

All things in common Nature should produce Without sweat or endeuour: Treason, fellony, Sword, Pike, Knife, Gun, or neede of any Engine, Would I not haue: but Nature should bring forth Of it owne kinde, all foyzon, all abundance To feed my innocent people.

(D. 7)

Despite Gonzalo's fanciful insistence that Nature should supply all in his imagined commonwealth, his past actions rationally contradict his fancy. Prospero has said earlier that Gonzalo humanely placed food in the small boat in which the Magus and Miranda had been set dangerously adrift by their enemies. The counselor took action to preserve their lives precisely because Nature could not be depended upon to do so.

Gonzalo's society of idleness, supposedly excelling the Golden Age, is eventually disclosed as a construction of negatives on an empty dream of "nothingness," a dream produced for the occasion with amusing but stinging overtones:

.. . no kinde of Trafficke Would I admit: No name of Magistrate: Letters should not be knowne: Riches, poverty, And use of seruice, none; Contract, Succession, Borne, bound of Land, Tilth, Vineyard, none: No use of Mettali, Corne, or Wine, or Oyle: No occupation . . .

(D. 7)

When Antonio mocks the counselor saying that he "dost talke nothing" (D. 7), Gonzalo in turn mocks the "sensible and nimble Lungs" of the gentlemen who "laugh at nothing" (D. 7). "'Twas you we laugh'd at," Antonio replies (D. 7). Gonzalo then strikes back, emphasizing the "nothingness" of the gentlemen's concerns, and implying that the men are fools associated with the moon, the source of madness.

Gonzalo's comments, with their ironic edge and their implication of egalitarian "leveling," are an original and mocking contrary to traditional iconography exalting an industrious, cultured and structured aristocratic-royalist state. But the "nothingness" of the words confirms that neither the imagined commonwealth nor its ideal contrary reflect actual social existence. The counselor's remarks thus satirically criticize even as they wittily entertain. They also hint at Gonzalo's inclination toward moral weakness: an excessive passivity in speaking against yet accepting corrupt nobles as masters. Here, central motifs—the emptiness of certain reveries, and the lunacy of those attending to them—foreshadow allusions to the emptiness of Caliban's vision and the comparative fullness of Prospero's.

In vivid contrast to Gonzalo's program for the mutual sharing of Nature's bounty, Caliban and his companions Trinculo and Stephano, ignoring others, basely and selfishly dream of hoarding the bounty of nature and mankind for themselves. Caliban gives vent to his earthly desires by paradoxically speaking of heavenly dreams. During a drunken conversation with Trinculo and Stephano, Caliban awkwardly describes the imagined descent of antic fools and virtuous figures from the changeable realm of the moon, the lowest and most material body in the Ptolemaic cosmos. Caliban's moon references thematically derive in part from traditional, exotic moon allusions in masques such as Jonson's Masque of Blackness (1605) and Thomas Campion's Lord Hayes Masque; and they anticipate those in Jonson's News from the New World Discovered in the Moon (1620).4 In this last work, virtuous main masque moon people, the harbingers of an ideal Golden Age society, float down to earth and "shake off their glittering silver "Isicles." Left behind on the moon, according to a Herald in the antimasque, are "two or three Moon-Calves!" (11. 233-34). A character designated as Factor asks, "O, I, Moone-Calves! what Monster is that, I pray you?" To which the Herald replies, "Monster? none at all; a very familiar thing like our foole here on earth" (11. 235-38).

In The Tempest Trinculo and Stephano, who are too gross even to "cut" the clouds in an abrupt descent, are imagined by an ignorant and foolish Caliban as gods who have directly descended by falling from above.

Cal.: Ha'st thou not dropt from heauen?

Ste. Out o'th Moon, I doe assure thee. I was the Man ith' Moone, when time was.

Cal. I haue seene thee in her: and I doe adore thee. .. .

(D. 10)

Caliban's foolish adoration of this spurious Man in the Moon is the antithesis of the monster's detestation of Prospero, who is seen as aided by the sun. Caliban curses the sun's brilliant light, and calls down upon Prospero those harmful "infections that the Sunne suckes vp" (D. 9). On the other hand, Caliban views Stephano as "a braue God" (D. 10), a figure who bears an all-too-earthly "liquor" that the monster in confusion says is "Celestiali." Caliban, in turn, is given an established "antic" lunar nickname by Stephano:

How now, Moone-Calfe, how do's thine Ague?

(D. 10)

Awkward, subhuman, earthly Caliban, adoring the base seamen and drinking their liquor, crassly imagines a Golden World of physical possessions and wealth—an island that he will own. And following the creature's reminiscence on the gradual "opening" of the heavens to instrumental music and voices as in a staged masque spectacle, he dreams of clouds dividing to reveal the mundane object of his desires:

Cal. Be not affeard, the Isle is full of noyses, Sounds, and sweet aires, that giue delight and hurt not:

Sometimes a thousand twangling Instruments Will hum about mine eares; and sometime voices, That if I then had wak'd after long sleepe, Will make me sleepe againe, and then, in dreaming, The clouds methought would open, and shew riches Ready to drop vpon me, that, when I wak'd, I cri'd to dreame again.

(D. 12)

A comparable yet thematically different depiction of the masque-like opening of the heavens before shepherds occurs in Milton's On the Morning of Christ's Nativity. There, the "music sweet" of "Divinely warbled voice/Answering the stringed noise" is said by the poetic narrator to help the "fancy" envisage an "Age of Gold,"5 an age that in this case is represented as spiritually transcendent. The music in Milton's poem introduces the "discovery" of heavenly cherubim and seraphim within a "globe of circular light"; and this discovery is followed by the appearance in the scenic heavens of the theological figures Faith, Hope, and Mercy who then descend to earth on "tissued clouds down steering" (11. 146-47).

Although critics seeking to show empathetic qualities in Caliban rightly suggest that the monster reacts with humane delight to "sounds and sweet airs," they overlook the fact that Caliban's allusions to instrumental and vocal music are but the matrix for the culminating masque-like depiction of the monster's flawed ideal. The noisy "twangling" and the "hum" of stringed instruments, followed by the sound of voices, stir in Caliban dreams of clouds opening, not upon virtuous figures ready gracefully to descend to an honored viewer, but rather upon material riches ready to "drop" on a dreamer. And, too, they overlook a remark by Stephano on the music in Caliban's fanciful "brave kingdom," that echoes again the theme of "nothingness."

Ste. This will proue a braue kingdome to me, Where I shall haue my Musicke for nothing.

(D. 12)

In the later betrothal masque—the antitype of Caliban's antic dream and Gonzalo's antic reveries—Prospero's representation of a Golden Age marriage can be seen in tune with a virtuous conception of nature and society.

Before the masque begins, Prospero warns Ferdinand to beware of brutish lust engendered by "th' fire ith' blood" (D. 14). Ferdinand states and subsequently demonstrates that he can indeed suppress burning passion by restraining "the ardour of my Liuer" (D. 14), one of the supposed "seats" of fiery desire. However, passion and lust have flamed in other characters earlier. In scene 2, Prospero wrathfully condemns the monster for attempting to rape Miranda. Later, Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano plot sedition and murder after becoming, in the words of Ariel, "red-hot with drinking" (D. 15).

By contrast, the betrothal masque features iconography suggestive of a cool, restrained, chaste love appropriate to the honored couple, and antithetical to the fiery passions that in earlier scenes spurred Caliban's lust and desire for riches and power. An aristocratic vision of peace, harmony and plenitude centered on a new theme—the bearing of children—now briefly supplants and suppresses Prospero's awareness of the reality of Caliban's sedition and obsessions. In the masque it is the mother goddess Juno who, in gracefully descending and then in blessing the betrothed couple, gives rich expression to ideals of honor, prosperity, joy and, most important, human and earthly plenitude.

Iu. Honor, riches, marriage, blessing, Long continuance, and encreasing, Hourly yes, be still upon you, Juno sings her blessings on you Earth's increase, poison plenty Barrens, and Garners, near empty. Vines, with clustering bunches growing, Plants, with goodly berthed bowing: Spring come to you at the farthest, In the very end of Hairiest. Scarcity and want shall shun you, Ceres blessing so is on you.

(D. 15)

In Anthony and Cleopatra, the passionate and moody Cleopatra, at the moment of her death, identifies with the element that was thought to burn with varying intensity in human beings. "I am Fire and Ayre," she declares, "my other Elements/I giue to baser life" (D. 367). Throughout The Tempest, it is precisely the element of fire, with its power to cause the heat of burning desire, that Prospero seeks to keep at a distance from cool and chaste Miranda. In conjuring up the masque, the Magus thus banishes from the stage—while allowing their names to be mentioned—two other characters associated with fiery passion: "Marses hot Minion" (D. 14), that is, the goddess Venus; and her son Cupid. Prospero features Iris, Ceres and Juno as main masquers, each of them associated with an element other than fire. Iris with her "refreshing showers" and "watry Arch" carries iconographic allusions to water; Ceres, with her "Medes" "bankes" and "Turfie-Mountaines," the earth; and Juno, the "Queene o'th Skie" who descends, the air (D. 14).

Although Iris and Ceres are distinctive in the betrothal masque in speaking slightingly of Venus and Cupid, they are otherwise presented as traditional iconographic figures of, respectively, the rainbow and earthly fertility, in consonance with their established roles in works as varied as Virgil's Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphosis, and in Daniel's The Vision of the 12. Goddesses and Tethys Festival, and Ben Jonson's Hymenaei. Shakespeare's Juno appears most indebted to Jonson. In the text of Daniel's Vision of the 12. Goddesses, Juno was represented primarily as a figure of divine power without specific attributes, but in Jonson's marriage masque Hymenaei, the goddess directly signifies those meanings prominent in The Tempest: "ayre" and, through an anagram, "union." In the words of the figure Reason in Jonson's masque,

And see where IVNO, whose great name Is VNIO, in the anagram, Displayes her glistering state, and chaire, As she enlightened all the ayre!

(11. 232-35)

Jonson may well have induced Shakespeare to develop long-recognized anagrams of his own. It seems likely that Shakespeare introduced the name Caliban as an anagram for "Canibal," in the seventeenth century usage of the word, a "sauage" (D. 5) living close to the earth. The contrasting name Prospero appears to be an anagram for "Prosperity." It is the name "Prosper" that Alonso thinks he hears echoing within the sound of thunder when Ariel, disguised as a harpy, vanishes in scene 7 (D. 13). In the next scene, when the betrothal masque is interrupted by Prospero's thought of the seditious Caliban, thematic oppositions in the play are further underlined by the roles and names of these two figures.

The idealized but interrupted betrothal masque briefly but memorably highlights Prospero's unattainable, evanescent dream of social harmony. Shakespeare, here and earlier, artfully chooses and intermingles masque-like hieroglyphics to insure social meanings adjusted to his own theatrical purposes.

Prospero's movement from fury to reconciliation in the play's last scene is not powerful drama. A passing comment by Ariel about the sadness of the wandering nobles spurs the Magus to follow his human feelings.

Ar. . . . your charm so strongly works 'em That if you now beheld them, your affections Would become tender

(D. 16)

The Magus's reply is surprisingly casual: "Dost thou thinke so Spirit?" To which Ariel says, "Mine would, Sir, were I humane" (D. 16). Prospero suddenly declares, "And mine shall." Yet before rationally deciding on the "sole drift" of his "purpose," the Magus, as if out of a need to convince himself of his own "affections," asks a self-reflective rhetorical question:

Hast thou (which art but aire) a touch, a feeling Of their afflictions, and shall not my selfe, One of their kinde, that relish all as sharpely, Passion as they, be kindlier mou'd then thou art?

(D. 16)

The question proves decisive. Prospero avows in only five lines that he is "strook to th' quick" by fury but will now take action relying upon his "nobler reason" (D. 16). The change is introduced, not as a deeply felt dramatized experience, but as a quick and rather matter-of-fact reasoned decision that leads into a series of dominating, ritualistic, magical actions.

On the private stage at Blackfriars or the public stage at the Globe, actors with only these few lines to work with might imaginatively improvise and act out an emotional change that is only haltingly suggested by Prospero's brief, flat questions and remarks. But at Whitehall on the uplifted royal stage, and particularly on the green rug of the center-hall performing space, performers in close proximity to the audience could have emphasized the change memorably through the magical rituals, "presentations" and "unmaskings" that were a climactic part of Whitehall Spectacle Triumphs.

In the opening lines of the play's final scene, the Magus, in full magical regalia, proclaims that his zenith of power has at last arrived. He now turns to the magical resolution of his "Project" at the evensong hour of Vespers as day fades into night.

Now do's my Proiect gather to a head: My charms cracke not; my Spirits obey, and Time Goes vpright with his carriage: how's the day? Ar. On the sixt hower; at which time, my Lord, You said our worke should cease.

(D. 16)

This resolution begins with rituals of "robing" and empowerment. Ariel had earlier been ordered to Prospero's Cell to obtain the magical robes that Prospero called "trumpery" and that Trinculo subsequently called "wardrobe" (D. 15), a term often used for theatrical costumes. The garments were donned by the comic conspirators in an antic mockery of true kingship. But now in this final scene of the play, the robes are most seriously assumed by Prospero in his role as Magus as he apparently displays his instruments of power: a magical wand and an occultist book.

Even Caliban had recognized the force of Prospero's magic; the monster had insisted that the overthrow of the Magus depended upon the destruction of his occult books. "Braine him," the monster declared, "Having first seiz'd his bookes." Caliban twice repeated this admonition. "Remember/First to possesse his Bookes; for without them/He's but a Sot"; "Burne but his Bookes" (D. 12).

In the final scene, after having donned his magical robes, Prospero, stepping forward from his Cell, makes his great declamation on the terrible strength of his occult power. Echoing the "Chief Dame's" magical claims in the Masque of Queenes (11. 218-43) and the sorceress Medea's praise of magical art in the Metamorphosis (7.197-219), Prospero announces that his "rough Magicke" has "bedymm'd" the sun, called forth "windes" that stirred the seas, and even raised the shades of the dead.

. . . Graues at my command Haue wak'd their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em forth By my so potent Art.

(D. 16)

For many in court and public audiences and very possibly for James I himself, Prospero's necromantic recalling the dead to life would have been viewed as blasphemously mirroring Christ's raising of Lazarus as recorded in Scripture. Earlier in the scene, Prospero had been addressed by Ariel as "my Lord," the title applied to Christ in Patristic commentary.

. . . how's the day? Ar. On the sixt hower; at which time, my Lord, You said our worke should cease.

(D. 16)

According to all four Gospel accounts, it was at the sixth hour that, as Christ hung crucified on the Cross, darkness came over the earth and the graves gave up their dead. In the words of the Gospel of Matthew, which are echoed in the Gospels of Mark and Luke,

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.


And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose.


Yet Prospero's actions are the reverse of those of the crucified Christ of Scripture—and the reverse of those of the changeable figure Medea in Ovid's Latin poem the Metamorphosis. In the Bible, Christ's Passion ultimately results in a disclosure of divinity that overcomes death and reveals an eternal kingdom. In Ovid's poem, Medea exercises her demonic magical powers to restore the youth of aging Aeson, the father of her husband Jason. Overtones of these scriptural and poetic allusions resonate in the play. But in actions that are the antithesis of Christ's scriptural victory over death and revelation of a heavenly kingdom, and of Medea's restoration of Aeson's youth in Ovid's work, Prospero, like a main masquer removing a visor and disclosing a human face, strips away his screening weeds as Magus, "abjures" and so renounces occult necromantic and other magical powers, and comes forward in his social role as Duke of Milan and as a frail and aging human being. Prospero ultimately acts out of virtue rather than fury, but there remains about the Magus and his magic a moral ambivalence. Prospero has performed virtuous works of reconciliation while admitting to the raising of tempests and the dead. These last actions would have been recognized as blasphemous deeds of black and necromantic magic in violation of God's natural law, deeds that certainly would have been condemned by King James and officials of his court.7

And Prospero, having verbally "abjured" his rough magic, continues to promote virtuous results through dubious occult means. When Prospero confronts his enemies, the confused nobles are reconciled to the Magus not through dramatic acted-out demonstrations of anguish or love, but rather through the jolting experience of Prospero's magic. The Magus confirms that Alonso is still under a spell and so subject to the "subtilties" or illusions of the island. In this state Alonso asks "pardon" for his "wrongs" and thereupon directly resigns the falsely gained Dukedom of Milan in favor of the rightful Duke Prospero. But in telling his "strange story," Alonso confesses that the affliction of his mind and his past madness have been overcome by the astonishing magical reappearance of Prospero, referred to here as an apparent phantom or "inchanted trifle" (D. 17). When Alonso asks for forgiveness, the Magus actually intervenes to prevent him from delving introspectively into memories of past evil.

Alo. I Must aske my child forgiuenesse;

Pro. There, Sir, stop, Let vs not burthen our remembrances, with A heauiness that's gon.

(D. 18)

A sense of the miraculous pervades the scene. Prospero's magic so awes the nobles that, in the words of the Magus, "they deuoure their reason and scarse thinke." And Prospero, in a comment recalling the paramount role Inigo Jones gave to the "eyes" in achieving spiritual enlightenment, repeats a truism of court iconographic stagecraft: "Their eies doe offices of Truth" (D. 17). The enchanter then inspires amazement by producing "a wonder": magically presenting Miranda and Ferdinand playing chess. "A most high miracle," Sebastian cries upon seeing the seemingly drowned Ferdinand resurrected and in the company of this unknown young maid (D. 17).

This unexpected "wonder" appealing for its "Truth" to the eyes rather than the other senses would very likely have been mounted at Whitehall at a central rear-stage position as a sudden "discovery." If traditional staging techniques were followed at court, backflats or perhaps a curtain would have been quickly drawn to disclose the betrothed couple in an iconographic tableau. Lambent light cast by oil lamps or candles may well have illumined Ferdinand and Miranda, now perhaps dressed in conventional sparkling outer garments covered with reflecting metal "orbs" or "spangs," as they revealed their inner virtue through gracious movements even while playing at the battle game of chess. Some years later in Thomas Middleton's allegorical A Game of Chess (1624), a play satirizing the machinations of the English and Spanish courts' marriage negotiations, performers acted out the roles of belligerent chess pieces. At Whitehall, the iconographic "speaking picture" would have signified the spiritual chastity of Miranda in her reactions to the seemingly playful deceptions of her betrothed at the gaming board.

Mir. Sweet Lord, you play me false.

Fer. No my dearst loue, I would not for the world.

Mir. Yes, for a score of Kingdomes, you should wrangle, And I would call it faire play.

(D. 17)

Together, the iconography and dialogue demonstrate that in earthly play at chess, even as in earthly love, there resides the potential for mortal corruption.

Not long afterward, Miranda, looking upon mortals other than her father for the first time, experiences astonishment. "O wonder!" she exclaims (D. 17). Alonso, stunned by the visionary appearance of his son Ferdinand whom he thought drowned, desires deep oracular understanding of the events. But again Prospero prevents immediate introspective knowledge, directing Alonso's sensibility away from intellectual comprehension and toward magical experience.

Alo. . . . there is in this busnesse, more than nature Was euer conduct of: some Oracle Must rectifie our knowledge.

Pro. Sir, my Liege, Doe not infest your minde, with beating on The strangenesse of this businesse; at pickt leisure (Which shall be shortly single) I'le resolue you, (Which to you shall seeme probable) of euery These happend accidents: till when, be cheerful And thinke each thing well

(D. 18)

Even the last entrance of Caliban inspires amazement. "This is a strange thing," Alonso remarks, "as eer I look'd on" (D. 18).

In The Winter's Tale, King Leontes of Sicilia, by seeking and receiving a message from the Delphic Oracle, obtains deep prophetic knowledge of his own misdeeds. But in The Tempest such deep knowledge is deferred. Rather, the immediate experience of wondrous events followed by the gradual emergence of amazed characters from spells and illusions to a recognition of true identities, provides a gradual dawning, but not a full illumination, of intellectual insight. Shakespeare, playing upon spectacle traditions of magical transformation, uses the "unmasking" of identities as a metaphor for spiritual rebirth. He thus gives to his drama the general theme of human regeneration familiar to ancient mystery plays, but not by making explicit allusions to such dramas. He relies instead upon immediately known masque forms, devices and ceremonial actions.

In this way, Alonso slowly begins to recognize the true identities of Miranda and Prospero as they symbolically "unmask." Having witnessed the astonishing "discovery" of Miranda playing at chess, Alonso is puzzled. "What is this Maid," he asks his son, "with whom thou wasn't at play?"

Is she the goddesse that hath seuer'd vs, And brought vs thus together?

(D. 1.8)

Miranda's magical "discovery" has indeed been like that of a virtuous goddess in a masque, one whose absence has allowed for past antic action, but one whose surprise entry and power restore social harmony. Ferdinand, speaking as someone spiritually reborn through his "second father" Prospero, now strips the screening disguise from Miranda and presents her in her underlying human reality: .

Sir, she is mortall; But by immortall prouidençe, she's mine: I chose her when I could not aske my Father For his aduice, nor thought I had one: She Is daughter to this famous Duke of Millaine, Of whom, so often I have heard renowne, But neuer saw before: of whom I haue Receiu'd a second life; and second Father

(D. 18)

Gonzalo joins in underscoring the play's theme of discovery and unmasking by adding that "In one voyage" many persons and things were found, among them, "all of vs our selues/When no man was his owne" (D. 18). With the final visionary entrance of Miranda at the end of the nobles' wanderings, "all" of the aristocrats are symbolically "unmasked" to themselves and restored to their own identities. The confused seamen who also now appear, having been aroused by Ariel from enchanted sleep, experience a wondrous reawakening to themselves and to all around them. And when a distracted Caliban wearing the Magus's stolen clothing is driven on stage together with Stephano and Trinculo, the monster is at first verbally chastised by Prospero. But then, as the Magus again assumes the role of a "second Father," Caliban is greeted by Prospero as. "mine" and promised pardon. Caliban, seeing the figure he now calls his "fine . . . Master" transformed in appearance by state robes, is himself astonishingly transformed. Caliban alone among the play's characters announces, with possible religious undertones, that he will "be wise hereafter,/And seeke for grace" (D. 18-19).

An air of uncertainty nonetheless remains, for much has been left unexplained. Prospero has promised Alonso growing revelations in times to come; in addition, the Magus promises ever-expanding knowledge from his personal tale.

Alo. I long To hear the story of your life; which must Take the eare strangely.

Pro. I'le deliuer all.

(D. 19)

Prospero's wondrous magic will continue too, for the Magus announces that he will engage in one more extraordinary exercise of his art before he breaks his staff and drowns his book. He will, with the help of Ariel, give Alonso

calm Seas, auspicious gales And saile so expeditious, that shall catch Your Royall fleete farre off. My Ariel, chicke, That is thy charge; Then to the Elements Be free, and fare thou well:

(D. 19)

In the magical calm that follows the tempest, charmed winds will waft Prospero and the reconciled nobles from the Mediterranean island of Utopian dreams. Ariel will be free to return to the elements; and Caliban, to occupy the island that the creature coveted. The strange, revealing tale that Prospero promises to tell, as he breaks from the realm of illusion to reenter the mainland world, is left mysteriously unspoken at the end of the play.

The play's Epilogue, even more than the "entries" and "unmaskings" of characters in the drama's last scene, shows the tensions Shakespeare faced in adapting the social forms of the masquing Triumph to a staged drama. The Triumph forms produced a pressure to create plays in which there was an actual break from the theatrical world of romance and dream into the actual social world of the audience in the hall. In turn, the counterpressures of dramatic form required a certain aesthetic distance between audience and performers, even in the Epilogue.

Shakespeare responded by composing a play in which the "release" of performers into the actual society of spectators in the hall is never complete. There are no revels in which the commoners who were actors totally unmask—that is, fully cast off the screen of their make-believe identities and enter into the court as known persons in an existing social hierarchy. The actors remain theatrical character-types whose entry into the social world essentially takes place in the context of the drama. It is Prospero alone who, having disclosed himself as the "true" Duke of Milan, unmasks sufficiently to reveal, beneath the theatrical guise of the Duke, an elder actor pointedly appealing to an audience for applause and prayers. In the Epilogue, when Prospero briefly reappears alone to ask that the "good hands" of the audience release him from the magical "bands" still confining him, his request is more than an emotive appeal for applause (D. 19). It is an appeal for permission to break further from the constraining illusions of the play. And at Whitehall, the actor would very likely have made this personal plea, not from a raised stage as is often assumed, but close to the audience from the central green rug bordering the tiers or degrees on which the aristocrats were seated. The performer then would have been in a position to make a final step that was in fact barred to him as an actor and a commoner—the troubling step at the root of tensions in applying the masque to dramatic form—the step over the carpet's edge and into an actual aristocratic society.

Such tensions are echoed in the social world within the play. The innocent Miranda may believe in seeming harbingers of a "braue new world" into which she is about to enter; but Prospero dryly remarks, "'Tis new to thee" (D. 17-18). And in the Epilogue, when the Magus asks for the prayers of the audience, he is sadly considering the possibility of his own future despair. For in The Tempest, the social realm now contained within the play allows for the continuing existence of ideals of innocence and virtuous union; but it is a social realm with a potential for war and sedition mirroring that of the external world, and it is a social realm in which divine providence is invoked by Prospero in recognition of human mortality.


1The Memorable Masque . . . As it was performed before the king, at White-Hall on Shroue Munday at night; being the 15 of February, 1613. At the Princely celebration of the most Royall Nuptialls of the Palsgraue, and his trice graious Princess Elizabeth. &c (London: Printed by G. Eld, for George Norton, 1613).

2 Thomas More, Utopia, ed. Edward Surtz (New Haven, 1964); and the Utopian comments in the "Democritus Junior to the Reader" segment of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy eds. Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith (New York, 1955), 83-93.

3 See Jonson's masques Hymenaei and The GoldenAge Restored in Ben Jonson, 7.208-41, 419-29. The theme of the return of a Golden Age appeared also in Thomas Heywood's pageant play The Golden Age (1611). The repeated and very popular representation of ideal Arcadian and Golden Age themes in Stuart and Caroline court theatricals has been treated in Erica Veevers, Images of Love and Religion: Queen Henrietta Maria and Court Entertainments (Cambridge, England, 1989); and in the citing of Arcadian figures and iconography by John Harris, Stephen Orgel, and Roy Strong, The King's Arcadia: Inigo Jones and the Stuart Court [a printed catalogue for a 1973 exhibition at the Masquing House] (London, 1973). See also the discussion of seventeenth century millenarian tracts in E. V. Tuveson, Millennium and Utopia (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1949).

4 See The Masque of Blacknesse and News From theNew World Discover'd in the Moon in Ben Jonson,7.167-89, 512-25. See also Thomas Campion, "The Description of a Maske, Presented before the Kinge Maiestie at White-Hall on Twelfth Night last, in honour of the Lord Hayes, and his Bride, Daughter and Heire to the Honourable the Lord Dennye" (London: Imprinted by John Wilndet for John Brown, 1607).

5John Milton, 45-46, 11. 93-105.

6 See the passages in Matthew, together with Mark 15.33 and Luke 23.44, in Bibles popular in England during the period; namely, the Geneva Bible (London: Rouland Hall, 1560); The holy Byble, conteynying the olde and newe Testament Set foorth by authoritie, Bishop's Version (London: Richard Jugge, 1575); and The Bible: Holy Scripture, Geneva Version (London: Christopher Barker, 1576).

7 See King James's comments on magicians in league with the devil in Daemonologie in forme of a Dialogue, xii. In this text, the figure Epistemon, a spokesman for the king's views, does admit that some persons have simply studied magic without entering "themselues in Sathans seruice," but he immediately adds that such persons are nevertheless dangerously exposed to the devil's "baites" and so may fall into his hands. In a central statement that would appear unmistakably to reflect what is known of the king's own opinions, Epistemon then condemns the actual "practise" of magic as an "offense" against God (15). In Daemonologie James even denounced the conjurer-diplomat Girolamo Scotto who had performed card tricks for Queene Elizabeth and who had occasionally served as an ambassabor for the occultist Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, the ruler with whom Frederick was consulting in 1611 at the approximate time the English marriage was announced. The king also dismissed from court and did not patronize the Queen's former advisor, Dr. John Dee, who was part occultist, part mathematician, part navigational expert, and part charlatan.

See also Frances Yates's studies of occult influences in England and in the English court in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago, 1969); The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London, 1979); and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (London, 1972). See also Colin Still, Shakespeare's Mystery Play, revised as The Timeless Theme; Michael Srigley, Images of Regeneration; and Christopher Mcintosh, The Rosy Cross Unveiled: The History, Mythology and Rituals of an Occult Order (Wellingborough, 1980). R. W. Rowse in Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age: Simon Forman the Astrologer (New York, 1974) examines the relationship between Forman, the astrologer and magician, and the French Huguenot couple, the Montjoies, in whose house on Silver Street Shakespeare lived in 1602, and probably before and after that year.

Source: "On the Symbolism of The Tempest," in Shakespeare and the Spectacles of Strangeness: The Tempest and the Transformation of Renaissance Theatrical Forms, Duquesne University Press, 1998, pp. 110-34.


Idealization and the Problematic in The Tempest


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