The Tempest The Tempest (Vol. 29)
by William Shakespeare

The Tempest book cover
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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Tempest

The multi-dimensional text of The Tempest has inspired a rich variety of critical analyses. Despite an atypically strict adherence to the unities of time and place, the play operates in an open, fluid atmosphere of the natural and supernatural that evades ready interpretation. In seeking to examine the numerous contexts which may have informed the writing of the work, recent critics have focused on the character of Prospero and the nature of his magic, as well as the drama's sources and structure.

The Tempest's ability to spark such a variety of interpretation is due in part to the fact that the play's plot and situation defy a single clearly identifiable source. Since the eighteenth century, scholars have identified William Strachey's epistle account of the 1609 shipwreck of the Sea Adventurer while en route to the Virginia colony as a primary source for the plot and setting of the play. Prior to 1960, other potential source materials cited were Montaigne's writings on primitive life in the New World, folkloric magician literature.the commedia dell'arte tradition, and Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Aeneid. Recent scholarship has expanded source studies of The Tempest in several areas. Since 1960 critics have given closer scrutiny to the relationship between the play and Latin literature, especially the writings of Vergil and Ovid. John Gillies (1986), for example, explored Ovidian themes in the play, contending that Shakespeare's presentation of "the official portrait" of the Virginia colony is in fact Ovidian in its emphasis on fruitfulness and temperancr. In addition to this expanded exploration of classical sources, scholarship has focussed on new colonial perspectives in the text. Since the turn of the century, scholars have cited the literature of New World pamphlets in circulation at the time the play was written as evidence that the adventures of the Virginia colony were a source for the setting and political views of The Tempest. This view was vehemently rejected by critics who saw the Bermuda setting of the play as a refutation of Virginian sources. In recent scholarship, Gillies has continued this discussion in his article on the Virginian influence, writing that "with its emphasis on self-discipline, its apparent endorsement of absolute power as a necessary means to general prosperity, and its no-nonsense attitude towards savagery, The Tempest can be seen to reflect not only the events of 1609, but the mood which gave them significance".

The debate over sources often frames the discussion of the play's structure. In particular, critics have viewed the masque of Ceres in Act 4 as the unifying element of the play, expressing political and philosophical concerns in a form then fashionable for court performances. Glynne Wickham (1975), for example, has commented that "The Tempest … emerges … as a single unified work of art firmly held together by the successful incorporation of a masque and anti-masque within the dramatic structure of a stage-play." Similarly, Gillies also has viewed the masque as a crucial structural feature, the means by which the Virginian motifs are translated into Ovidian forms.

For the majority of contemporary critics, the predominant unifying element of The Tempest is the character of Prospero. Perhaps no other character in Shakespeare is seen to be as crucial to the structural and thematic integrity of a play than Prospero is to The Tempest. David Sundelson (1980) has commented that "… the play belongs to Prospero in a way that seems downright un-Shakespearean.… [Prospero' s] very presence restores the world to harmony." Prospero's dominance in the action has led to a vast critical exploration of his powers and motivations. While earlier scholarship tended to concentrate on Prospero's renunciation of magic as a key element of the play, criticism after 1960 has moved towards a broader study of Prospero as a multifaceted coalescence of diverse folkloric and intellectual sources. This expanded study of...

(The entire section is 122,036 words.)