The Tempest On the Symbolism of The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

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On the Symbolism of The Tempest

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 exist in some "brave new world" of...

(The entire section is 7,875 words.)