During the past three decades there has been a dramatic shift in critical commentary on The Tempest. Traditionally, critics have viewed the play as Shakespeare's somewhat melancholy farewell to his art. Such interpretations generally presented Prospero as a powerful but benevolent figure who brings about redemption and reconciliation. More recently, however, critics approaching The Tempest from the perspective of Marxist, feminist, or new historicist theory have seen it as a paradigm of oppression. They frequently read it as a parable of colonial expansionism in the early modern age, equating Prospero with Europeans who exploited the New World and Caliban with persecuted or enslaved Native Americans.
Throughout this change in critical reception, traditional interpretations of the play have persisted. R. A. Foakes (1971), for example, has examined the complex nature of Prospero's sovereignty of the island, proposing that his harshness toward others reflects the suffering he had earlier received at the hands of Antonio and Alonso. Although Foakes emphasizes the harmonious conclusion of the play and Prospero's restoration as Duke of Milan, he also remarks on the sense of unresolved issues that underlies the final notes of joy and restitution. Writing more than twenty years later, Philip C. McGuire (1994) has also evaluated the play's ending, particularly the significance of Antonio's silence in the final scene, and questions whether everyone who has wronged Prospero is truly repentant. Additionally, McGuire has maintained that despite the unusual degree to which the audiences' perceptions of other characters and the dramatic action is controlled by Prospero, we gradually come to realize that his representation of Caliban is not the only one we should accept.
The ambiguous nature of Caliban continues to interest commentators, all of whom regard him as a central figure in the play. In their book-length treatment of Caliban, Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan (1991) have explored the reception of Prospero's slave by actors, directors, critics, and audiences since his conception in the early seventeenth century. They conclude that he has become a cultural figure because of his vivid and enigmatic characterization, maintaining that he is particularly susceptible to variant interpretations as social currents change and different ideologies become dominant. Bryan Crockett (1991) has scrutinized Caliban in terms of the theological controversy over predestination that was current in early seventeenth-century England. He argues that while at first Caliban appears to be a model of bestial depravity, subsequently he emerges as a creature capable of seeking, and receiving, divine grace. William M. Hamlin (1994) similarly has considered the seemingly contradictory portrayal of Caliban. Arguing that Caliban's depiction owes much to Renaissance travel literature, Hamlin proposes that it reflects early ethnographers' ambivalent views of Native Americans as mysterious and alien—yet no less human than their European counterparts.
The relation between life and dreams, and reality and illusion, has also received considerable attention from critics. Marjorie B. Garber (1974) has compared the island setting itself to a dream world, remarking that all who enter its realm find it irrational and shrouded in mystery. As in dreams, she suggests, the island becomes the place where reality is transformed and truth is unveiled. John Arthos (1977) has proposed that The Tempest is deeply concerned with the relation between truth and paradox. In the critic's estimation, Prospero comprehends—as no other character in the play does—that human understanding is limited, and that there is a deep and impenetrable gulf between human reason and the unnameable powers that control existence. Richard P. Wheeler (1995) has also discussed the play's presentation of life as a dream. He contrasts Caliban's vision of opulence—unattainable and wholly divorced from reality—with Prospero's decision, once he comes to recognize that he cannot control every situation, to abjure his powers and retreat to a sphere where action is meaningless.
The issue of control—more specifically the question of political dominance—is the focus of many late twentieth-century readings of The Tempest. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme (1985), for example, have contended that the play is profoundly concerned with the structure of power relations and with various characters' attempts to subvert or overturn the hierarchy of authority. These critics perceive an implicit colonialist ideology in Prospero's justification of his authority over the island and his having wrested control of it from Caliban. They maintain that although the legitimacy of Prospero's rule is frequently questioned, the play ultimately sanctions his version of events. Michael Payne (1988) has identified a variety of political aspects in the play, including the interplay of magic and politics, the historical circumstances that provided the context for its earliest performances at court, and Shakespeare's modifications of his contemporary sources. Payne describes as "subjective magic" the means by which Prospero learns self-control, and "transitive magic" as the way he manages to influence others.
The present decade has seen a continuing critical preoccupation with the question of dominance and resistance in The Tempest, particularly as this may be reflected in the master-slave relationship of Prospero and Caliban. Richard Halpern (1994) has asserted that the play anticipates the merging of New World and Western cultures, the mingling of Native American and European ideologies. In the critic's judgment, The Tempest does not favor either colonizer or colonized; instead, it examines the nature of power structures and reveals the violence that sustains utopian projects. Howard Felperin (1995) has also recently analyzed the ideological foundations of the play. Colonial discourse is only one of many historical or political dimensions in The Tempest, he argues, noting that references in the play to the New World waver in purpose and content, and pointing out that they are dismissed or denied as quickly as they are raised. Much more significant, Felperin declares, is Shakespeare's representation of history as a recurring nightmare of conquest and tyranny, and his final affirmation of a collective destiny in which differences among people will become insignificant and traditional concepts of authority will be abolished.