Bernard J. Paris (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7720

SOURCE: “The Tempest: Shakespeare's Ideal Solution,” in Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 206-25.

[In the essay below, Paris compares Shakespeare to the character of Prospero, and finds that “[l]ike Prospero at the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare at the end of his career seems to have resolved his inner conflicts by repressing his aggressive impulses and becoming extremely self-effacing.”]


As J. B. Priestley has observed, “until his final years” Shakespeare “was a deeply divided man, like nearly all great writers. There were profound opposites in his nature, and it is the relation between these opposites … that gives energy and life to his work” (1963, 82). Critics have tended to define these opposites in terms of masculine and feminine traits. In The Personality of Shakespeare Harold Grier McCurdy concludes that Shakespeare “was predominantly masculine, aggressive,” but that his “masculine aims have a way of running counter to the feminine components in him, which incline toward idealistic love and domestic virtues” (1953, 159). In Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare Norman Holland presents a similar picture. As these critics see it, the division in Shakespeare is between an aggressive, vindictive, power-hungry masculine side, which generates “images of … violent action” (Holland 1966, 142), and a gentle, submissive, idealistic feminine side, which dislikes cruelty and is given to loving-kindness and Christian charity. Shakespeare is afraid of his feminine side and employs “aggressive masculinity … as a defense against it” (Holland 1966, 141-42); he can express tenderness and charity only when his aggressive needs have been satisfied.

This view is in conflict with the traditional picture of a “gentle Shakespeare” (Jonson) who is “civil,” “upright,” and “honest” (Chettle) and “of an open and free nature” (Jonson). In the heyday of what Samuel Schoenbaum calls “subjective biography” most critics held the charitable side of Shakespeare's personality to be uppermost (see Dowden 1910). Brandes felt that Shakespeare's strong reaction to evil was partly the result of his idealism (1899, 420), and Bradley observed that it is “most especially in his rendering of … the effects of disillusionment in open natures that we seem to feel Shakespeare's personality” (1963, 325).

In what is perhaps the most sophisticated attempt to relate Shakespeare's works to “the evolving temperament of [the] author,” Richard Wheeler finds “a division in Shakespeare's imagination” between masculine and feminine modes of forming an identity and of relating to the world. The masculine mode involves “the assertion of self-willed … autonomy over destructive female power or over compliant feminine goodness,” while the feminine mode seeks a “trusting investment of self in an other” and “turns on the mutual dependence of male and female” (1981, 221). Wheeler's understanding of the opposites in Shakespeare derives from the theories of Margaret Mahler, which posit an initial state of oneness or symbiosis with the mother, followed by a process of separation and individuation that is essential to the establishment of an autonomous identity. This process is subject to a variety of disturbances that produce powerful needs for a renewal of merger or for the assertion of independence. Both the movement toward merger and the movement toward autonomy have destructive potentialities: “The longing for merger threatens to destroy precariously achieved autonomy; the longing for complete autonomy threatens to isolate the self from its base of trust in actual and internalized relations to others” (206). Wheeler does not find one side of Shakespeare's personality to be dominant. Rather, he sees a continual “interaction of conflicting needs for trust and autonomy” (207) both within individual plays and...

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in the corpus as a whole.

Like many other critics, I, too, see Shakespeare as “a deeply divided man” whose works reflect his inner conflicts. My understanding of the opposites in Shakespeare derives from the theories of Karen Horney (1950), which posit that people respond to a threatening environment by developing both interpersonal and intrapsychic strategies of defense. In our interpersonal strategies we move toward people and adopt a self-effacing or compliant solution; we move against people and adopt an aggressive or expansive solution; or we move away from people and become resigned or detached. There are three subtypes of the expansive solution: narcissistic, perfectionistic, and arrogant-vindictive. Each solution carries with it certain needs, values, and character traits. Each involves also a conception of human nature, a view of the world order, and a bargain with fate in which the behaviors prescribed by that solution are supposed to be rewarded. In the course of development individuals come to make all three of these moves compulsively, and since these involve incompatible character structures and value systems, they are torn by inner conflicts. In order to gain some sense of wholeness, they emphasize one move more than the others, but the subordinate trends continue to exist.

While interpersonal difficulties are creating the movements toward, against, and away from people, as well as the conflict between these moves, concomitant intrapsychic problems are producing their own strategies of defense. To compensate for feelings of self-hate, worthlessness, and inadequacy, individuals create an idealized image of themselves and embark on a search for glory. The creation of the idealized image produces a whole structure of defensive strategies, which Horney calls the “pride system.” Individuals take intense pride in the attributes of their idealized self and on the basis of these attributes make “neurotic claims” on others. They impose stringent demands and taboos on themselves, which Horney calls “the tyranny of the should.” The function of the shoulds is “to make oneself over into one's idealized self.” Since the idealized image is for the most part a glorification of the self-effacing, expansive, and detached solutions, the individuals' shoulds are determined largely by the character traits and values associated with their predominant defense. Their subordinate trends are also represented in the idealized image, however; and, as a result, they are often caught in a “crossfire of conflicting shoulds” as they try to obey contradictory inner dictates.

Shakespeare seems to have intuitively understood and dramatically portrayed the kinds of phenomena Horney has analyzed. The major tragedies, for example, depict characters who are in a state of psychological crisis as a result of the breakdown of their strategies of defense. Hamlet, Iago, Othello, and Lear all have bargains with fate that are undermined when the world fails to honor their claims, while Macbeth violates his own bargain by failing to live up to his shoulds (Paris 1977, 1980, 1982, 1984b). Hamlet's bargain is that of the self-effacing solution, Iago's is arrogant-vindictive, and Lear's is narcissistic. Othello makes both a narcissistic and a perfectionistic bargain, while Macbeth tries to form a new, arrogant-vindictive bargain after he has violated his perfectionistic one. Shakespeare displayed an intuitive understanding of all of these strategies and of the conflicts between them. He seems to have been particularly fascinated by the conflict between the arrogant-vindictive and the self-effacing solutions, which Horney calls the “basic conflict,” and this fascination tells us something about his own psyche.

I do not propose Horney's theory as all-encompassing, but I do find that it illuminates a great deal in Shakespeare. Those who are not as comfortable with it as I am can translate the insights it yields into their own terminology, as I do with the insights of others. Indeed, it seems to me that the critics whom I have been citing have described Shakespeare's personality in terms that are quite compatible with a Horneyan approach. The vengeful, aggressive, power-hungry side of Shakespeare corresponds to what I would describe as his arrogant-vindictive trends, while the forgiving, submissive, idealistic side corresponds to his compliant tendencies. McCurdy and Holland depict a Shakespeare who is predominantly aggressive but who has powerful, though submerged, self-effacing trends, while Brandes and Bradley describe a man who believes in the world-picture of the self-effacing solution and whose aggressive tendencies emerge as a result of his disenchantment. What Wheeler describes as the trust/merger pattern in many ways parallels Horney's account of the self-effacing solution, in which the individual counts on other people for love and protection and tends to merge with them in relationships of morbid dependency. The autonomy/isolation pattern seems to involve both the movement away from other people and the movement against them. Since Horney's theory is predominantly synchronic, not much work has been done tracing the early origins of the defensive moves she describes (see, however, Feiring 1983). It is possible that Horney and Mahler can be integrated by seeing the Horneyan strategies as originating in the vicissitudes of the separation/individuation process. Fear of separation generates the movement toward other people, whereas fear of reengulfment generates longings for power and independence.

From a Horneyan point of view there is more than one conflict in Shakespeare. There are conflicts between perfectionistic and compliant and perfectionistic and arrogant-vindictive trends (Paris 1981, 1982), as well as impulses toward detachment. His major conflict, however, is between his arrogant-vindictive and his self-effacing tendencies. Horney does not identify these tendencies as masculine or feminine, since she does not believe that they are biologically linked to either sex; but she notes that Western culture has tended to reinforce aggressive behavior in males and compliant behavior in females and to frown on compliant men and aggressive women. Because such linkages occur both culturally and in Shakespeare's works, it makes a certain amount of sense to speak of Shakespeare's conflict as occurring between the masculine and feminine components of his nature. I prefer the Horneyan terminology, however, which does not presuppose distinctively masculine and feminine psychologies.

Whereas some critics see Shakespeare as predominantly aggressive, I favor the traditional view of him as predominantly generous, open, and idealistic. As I see it, he is less concerned with establishing his masculinity than with finding ways to release his aggression without violating his need to be virtuous. McCurdy and I have opposite readings of The Tempest. He sees it as embodying Shakespeare's “ideal solution” because Prospero's demonstration of power permits him to “admit … Christian charity” (1953, 162), whereas I see it as embodying Shakespeare's ideal solution because Prospero's magical powers permit him to satisfy his sadistic and vindictive impulses without sacrificing his moral nobility. I think that Shakespeare fears his aggressive side more than his submissive or charitable impulses, though he has mixed feelings about both.


The Tempest is one of only two Shakespearean plays whose plot, as far as we know, is entirely the author's invention. It is, more than any other play, a fantasy of Shakespeare's. What, we must ask, is it a fantasy of? What psychological needs are being met, what wishes fulfilled? One way of approaching this question is to look at the unrealistic elements in the play, particularly Prospero's magic. The function of magic is to do the impossible, to grant wishes that are denied to us in reality. What is Prospero's magic doing for him? And for Shakespeare? Why is it there? What impossible dream does it allow to come true?

Before he is overthrown, Prospero is a predominantly detached person, in Horneyan terms. The detached person craves serenity, dislikes responsibility, and is averse to the struggle for power. His “two outstanding neurotic claims,” says Horney, “are that life should be … effortless and that he should not be bothered” (1950, 264). Prospero turns his responsibilities as duke over to his brother, rejects the pursuit of “worldly ends” (1.2.89), and retires into his library, which is “dukedom large enough!” (1.2.110). He immerses himself in a world of books, seeking glory not through the exercise of his office, which involves him in troublesome relations with other people, but through the pursuit of knowledge. As a result of his studies he becomes “the prime duke, being so reputed / In dignity, and for the liberal arts / Without a parallel” (1.2.72-74). He is not without ambition and a hunger for power, but he satisfies these expansive needs in a detached way. His study of magic is highly congruent with his personality. The detached person has an aversion to effort and places the greatest value on freedom from constraint. Magic is a means of achieving one's ends without effort and of transcending the limitations of the human condition. It is a way of enforcing the neurotic claim that mind is the supreme reality and that the material world is subject to its dictates; indeed, it symbolizes that claim. Through his withdrawal into the study of magic Prospero is pursuing a dream of glory far more grandiose than any available to him as Duke of Milan. It is no wonder that he prizes his volumes above his dukedom (1.2.167-68). He becomes “transported / And rapt in secret studies” and grows a “stranger” to his state (1.2.76-77).

Reality intrudes on Prospero in the form of Antonio's plot, which leads to his expulsion from the dukedom. Although many critics have blamed Prospero for his neglect of his duties, Prospero does not seem to blame himself or to see himself as being responsible in any way for his fate. He interprets his withdrawal as a commendable unworldliness and presents his behavior toward his brother in a way that is flattering to himself:

                                                  and my trust,
Like a good parent, did beget of him
A falsehood in its contrary as great
As my trust was, which had indeed no limit,
A confidence sans bound.


There are strong self-effacing tendencies in Prospero that lead him to think too well of his fellows and to bestow on them a trust they do not deserve. Overtrustfulness has disastrous consequences in the history plays and tragedies but it has no permanent ill effects in the comedies and romances. Prospero glorifies his excessive confidence in his brother and places the blame for what happens entirely on Antonio's “evil nature” (1.2.93). He seems to have no sense of how his own foolish behavior has contributed to his fate.

Antonio's betrayal marks the failure of Prospero's self-effacing bargain; his goodness to his brother, which he had expected to be repaid with gratitude and devotion, is used by Antonio to usurp the dukedom. This trauma is similar to those that precipitate psychological crises in the protagonists of the tragedies, crises from which none of them recover (Paris 1980). Prospero's case is different because of his magic. Like the protagonists of the tragedies, Prospero is enraged with those by whom he has been injured and craves a revenge that will assuage his anger and repair his idealized image. Unlike the characters in the realistic plays, however, he has a means of restoring his pride without being terribly destructive to himself and to others. He spends the next twelve years dreaming of his revenge and perfecting his magic in preparation for his vindictive triumph. The Tempest is the story of his day of reckoning.

Propsero has numerous objectives on this day, all of which he achieves through his magic. He wants to punish his enemies, to make a good match for his daughter, to get back what he has lost, to prove through his display of power that he was right to have immersed himself in his studies, and to demonstrate that he is the great man that he has felt himself to be, far superior to those who have humiliated him. The most important function of his magic, however, is that it enables him to resolve his psychological conflicts. Once he has been wronged, Prospero is caught between contradictory impulses. He is full of rage, which he has a powerful need to express, but he feels that revenge is ignoble and that he will be as bad as his enemies if he allows himself to descend to their level. What Prospero needs is what Hamlet could not find and what Shakespeare is trying to imagine: a way of taking revenge and remaining innocent (Paris 1977). This is a problem that only his magic can solve. The Tempest is above all a fantasy of innocent revenge. The revenge is Prospero's, but the fantasy is Shakespeare's, whose conflicting needs resemble those of his protagonist.

The storm with which the play opens is an expression of Prospero's rage. It instills terror in his enemies and satisfies his need to make them suffer profoundly for what they have done to him. If the vindictive side of Prospero is embodied in the storm, his self-effacing side is embodied in Miranda, who is full of pity for the suffering of the “poor souls” who seem to have “perish'd” (1.2.9). Since Miranda is the product of Prospero's tutelage, she represents his ideal values, at least for a woman; and it is important to recognize that she is extremely self-effacing. When Prospero begins to tell the story of their past, she says that her “heart bleeds / To think o' th' teen that I have turn'd you to” (1.2.63-64); and when he describes their expulsion, she exclaims, “Alack, what trouble / Was I then to you!” (1.2.152-53). She wants to carry Ferdinand's logs for him, feels unworthy of his love, and swears to be his servant if he will not marry her (3.1). Like her father before his fall, she has an idealistic view of human nature. The “brave vessel” that has sunk “had no doubt some noble creature in her” (1.2.6-7), and she exclaims, when she first sees the assembled company, “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world / That has such people in't!” (5.1.183-84). Prospero is no longer so idealistic, but he has retained many of his self-effacing values and has inculcated them in Miranda. He approves of her response to “the wrack, which touch'd / The very virtue of compassion in thee” (1.2.26-27) and assures her that “there's no harm done” (1.2.15). Through his “art” he has “so safely ordered” the storm that there is “not so much perdition as an hair / Betid to any creature in the vessel / Which thou heard'st cry” (1.2.28-32). Miranda says that if she had “been any god of power” (1.2.10) she would never have permitted the wreck to happen; but neither does Prospero. Through his magic the wreck both happens and does not happen. His magic permits him to satisfy his vindictive needs without violating the side of himself that is expressed by Miranda (Kahn 1981, 223). To further alleviate his discomfort with his sadistic behavior and with Miranda's implied reproaches, Prospero maintains that he has “done nothing but in care” of her (1.2.16) and justifies his actions by telling the story of Antonio's perfidy.

Prospero's delight in the discomfiture of his enemies is revealed most vividly in his response to Ariel's account of his frightening behavior during the tempest. He asks Ariel if he has “perform'd to point the tempest” that he, Prospero, has commanded, and when Ariel replies that he has, Prospero reacts with enthusiastic approval and obvious sadistic pleasure: “My brave spirit! / Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil / Would not infect his reason” (1.2.206-8). His response inspires Ariel to elaborate:

                                                                                                    Not a soul
But felt a fever of the mad and play'd
Some tricks of desperation. All but mariners
Plung'd in the foaming brine and quit the vessel,
Then all afire with me. The King's son Ferdinand,
With hair up-staring (then like reeds, not hair),
Was the first man that leapt; cried “Hell is empty,
And all the devils are here!”


Once again Prospero expresses his approval: “Why, that's my spirit!” (1.2.215). Since Ariel has carried out his orders “to every article” (1.2.195), we must assume that the madness and desperation Ariel describes are precisely what Prospero intended. He is pleased not only by the terror of his enemies but also by that of Ferdinand, his future son-in-law. He is rather indiscriminate in his punishments, as he is later in his forgiveness.

Prospero can enjoy the terror of his victims because he has not injured them physically: “But are they, Ariel, safe?” (1.2.217). Not only are they safe, but their garments are “fresher than before” (1.2.219). In the history plays and the tragedies revengers incur guilt and bring destruction on themselves by doing physical violence to their enemies. Prospero is a cunning and sadistic revenger, who employs his magic to inflict terrible psychological violence on his enemies while he shields them from physical injury and thereby preserves his innocence. To his thinking, as long as no one is physically injured, “there's no harm done” (1.2.15). Prospero finds harmless such things as having everyone, including the good Gonzalo, fear imminent destruction, having them run mad with terror at Ariel's apparitions, and having Ferdinand and Alonso believe each other dead.

Prospero's cruelty toward his enemies may not appear to say much about his character because it seems justified by their outrageous treatment of him. He is prone to react with aggression, however, whenever he can find a justification, however slight, for doing so. (I am taking what Harry Berger, Jr. [1970], calls “the hard-nosed,” as opposed to the “sentimental,” view of Prospero; other hard-nosed critics include Abenheimer 1946, Dobree 1952, Leech 1958, and Auden 1962.) He says he will put Ferdinand in chains and force him to drink sea water and to eat mussels, withered roots, and acorn husks (1.2.462-65), and he makes him remove thousands of logs “lest too light winning” of Miranda “make the prize light” (1.2.452-53). This seems a weak excuse for his sadistic behavior. He even threatens Miranda when she beseeches him to have pity on Ferdinand: “Silence! One word more / Shall make me chide thee, if not hate thee” (1.2.476-77).

The pattern frequently is that Prospero is benevolent until he feels that his kindness has been betrayed or unappreciated, and then he becomes extremely vindictive. He feels betrayed by Antonio, of course, and unappreciated by Ariel when that spirit presses for liberty. He justifies his enslavement of Ariel by reminding him that it was his “art” that freed the spirit from Sycorax's spell, and he threatens him with torments similar to those Sycorax had inflicted if he continues to complain. Prospero's threats seem to me an overreaction. He will peg Ariel in the entrails of an oak merely for murmuring. He makes enormous claims on the basis of his kindness, and if others do not honor these claims by displaying loyalty, gratitude, and obedience, he becomes enraged. If he is ready to punish Ariel and to hate Miranda for very slight offenses, think of the vindictiveness he must feel toward Antonio. Ariel is self-effacing and knows how to make peace with Prospero. He thanks him for having freed him and promises to “be correspondent to command / And do [his] spriting gently” (1.2.297-98). This allows Prospero to become benevolent once again, and he promises to discharge Ariel in two days. Ariel then says what Prospero wants to hear: “That's my noble master!” (1.2.299). This is the way in which Prospero insists on being perceived. Indeed, Prospero's anger with Ariel when he murmurs derives in part from the fact that Ariel has threatened his idealized image by making him seem unkind.

Ariel plays Prospero's game, but Caliban does not. Prospero is initially very kind to Caliban; he strokes him, gives him treats, educates him, and lodges him in his cell. Caliban at first reciprocates; he loves Prospero and shows him “all the qualities o'th'isle” (1.2.337). When Caliban seeks to violate Miranda's honor, however, Prospero turns against him, and from this point on he treats Caliban with great brutality. Here, too, Prospero overreacts. He is so enraged, I think, because Caliban has repeated Antonio's crime, accepting Prospero's favors and repaying them with treachery. Prospero discharges onto him all of the anger he feels toward the enemies back home, who, before the day of reckoning, lie beyond his power.

Prospero exhibits a major contradiction in his attitude toward Caliban. He feels that Caliban is subhuman, but he holds him morally responsible for his act and punishes him severely. If Caliban in fact is subhuman, then he is not morally responsible and should simply be kept away from Miranda, a precaution Prospero could easily effect. If he is a moral agent, then he needs to be shown the error of his ways; but Prospero's punishments are merely designed to torture him and to break his spirit. The contradiction in Prospero's attitude results from conflicting psychological needs. He needs to hold Caliban responsible because doing so allows him to act out his sadistic impulses, but he also needs to regard Caliban as subhuman because this allows him to avoid feeling guilt. If Caliban is subhuman, he is not part of Prospero's moral community, and Prospero's behavior toward him is not subject to the shoulds and taboos that are operative in his relations with his fellow human beings. Caliban provides Prospero with a splendid opportunity for justified aggression, for being vindictive without losing his nobility.

Prospero's rationalization of his treatment of Caliban works so well that the majority of critics have accepted his point of view and have felt that Caliban deserves what he gets, although some have been sympathetic toward Caliban's suffering and uneasy about Prospero's behavior (Auden 1962, 129). Prospero is constantly punishing Caliban, not just for the attempted rape, but also for the much lesser crimes of surliness, resentment, and insubordination. When Caliban is slow in responding to Prospero's summons, “Slave! Caliban! / Thou earth, thou!” (1.2.313-14), Prospero calls him again in an even nastier way: “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!” (1.2.319-20). Caliban does not yield a “kind answer” (1.2.309) but enters with curses, and Prospero responds by promising horrible punishments:

For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up; urchins
Shall, for that vast of night that they may work,
All exercise on thee; thou shalt be pinch'd
As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that made 'em.


This is a very unequal contest since Caliban's curses are merely words, an expression of ill, will, whereas Prospero has the power to inflict the torments he describes. Prospero looks for penitence, submissiveness, and gracious service from Caliban and punishes him severely for his spirit of defiance. He seems to be trying to torture Caliban into being a willing slave, like Ariel, and he is embittered by his lack of success.

Prospero and Caliban are caught in a vicious circle from which there seems no escape. The more Caliban resists what he perceives as Prospero's tyranny, the more Prospero punishes him; and the more Prospero punishes him, the more Caliban resists. He curses Prospero even though he knows that his spirits hear him and that he may be subject to retaliation—“yet I needs must curse” (2.2.4). The need for this emotional relief must be powerful, indeed, in view of what may be in store for him:

For every trifle are they set upon me,
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me,
And after bite me; then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way, and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.


It is remarkable that Caliban's spirit has not been broken as a result of such torments. And it is no wonder that Caliban seizes the opportunity he thinks is presented by Stephano and Trinculo to revolt against Prospero. “I am subject,” he tells them, “to a tyrant, / A sorcerer, that by his cunning hath / Cheated me of the island” (3.2.42-44). Is this far from the truth? He claims that Prospero's spirits “all do hate him / As rootedly as I” (3.2.94-95). It is impossible to say whether or not this is true, but it might be. Even Ariel has to be threatened with terrible punishments and reminded once a month of what Prospero has done for him.

Prospero does not need to use his magic to resolve inner conflicts in his relationship with Caliban because regarding Caliban as subhuman allows him to act out his vindictive impulses without guilt or restraint. The combination of his sadistic imagination and his magic makes him an ingenious torturer. He could have used his magic more benignly if he had regarded Caliban as part of his moral community, but this would have generated conflicts and deprived him of his scapegoat. (See Berger 1970, 261, on Caliban as scapegoat.) Prospero insists, therefore, that Caliban is uneducable:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick! on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost!


His judgment is reinforced both by Miranda, who abhors Caliban in part because his vindictiveness violates her self-effacing values, and by Caliban's plot, which seems to demonstrate his innate depravity. Since there is no point in being humane to a born devil, Prospero is free to “plague” him “to roaring” (4.1.192-93).

Many critics agree that Caliban is a hopeless case, but some are impressed by his sensitivity in the speech “The isle is full of noises” and by his declaration that he will “seek for grace” (5.1.296; see Berger 1970, 255). His plot can be seen as a reaction to Prospero's abuse rather than as a sign that he is an “abhorred slave / Which any print of goodness wilt not take” (1.2.351-52). Prospero must hold on to his image of Caliban as a devil in order to hold on to his idealized image of himself. If Caliban is redeemable, then Prospero has been a monster. The exchange of curses between Prospero and Caliban indicates that they have much in common. What Prospero hates and punishes in Caliban is the forbidden part of himself. His denial of moral status to Caliban is in part a rationale for his vindictive behavior and in part a way of denying the similarities that clearly exist between them. Prospero is doing to Caliban what Caliban would do to Prospero if he had the power.

Prospero is much more careful in his treatment of his fellow humans, some of whom strike us as being considerably more depraved than Caliban. Indeed, Prospero calls Caliban a devil but feels that Antonio and Sebastian “are worse than devils” (3.3.36). Nonetheless, they are members of his moral community, and his shoulds and taboos are fully in operation in relation to them. Not only does he conceal his vindictiveness from himself (and from many of the critics) by employing his magic to punish them without doing them any “harm” but he justifies his treatment of them by seeing it as conducive to their moral growth. His object is not revenge but regeneration and reconciliation. Ariel articulates Prospero's perspective in the banquet scene. He accuses the “three men of sin” (3.3.53)—Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso—of their crimes against “good Prospero” (3.3.70), threatens them with “ling'ring perdition” (3.3.77), and indicates that they can escape Prospero's wrath only by “heart's sorrow / And a clear life ensuing” (3.3.81-82). Even as Prospero is knitting them up in “fits” and exulting in the fact that “they are now in [his] pow'r” (3.3.90-91), he is being presented in a very noble light. He manages to take revenge in such a way that he emerges as the benefactor of his victims.

After he has tormented them so much that “the good old Lord Gonzalo” (5.1.15) is in tears at the sight and even Ariel has “a feeling / Of their afflictions” (5.1.21-22), Prospero relents, as he had intended to do all along. Although he is still furious with the evil three, claiming that “with their high wrongs [he is] struck to th' quick” (5.1.25), now his perfectionistic and self-effacing shoulds are stronger than his vindictive impulses. He releases them from his spell in part because his cruelty is making him uneasy and in part because his need for revenge has been assuaged to some extent by their suffering. He proclaims that “the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (5.1.27-28), but he says this only after he has gotten a goodly measure of vengeance. While he makes it seem that his only purpose has been to bring the men of sin to penitence, that is hardly the case. This is a play not only about renouncing revenge but also about getting it.

There has been much debate over whether Prospero's enemies do indeed repent. Prospero's forgiveness is made contingent on penitence and a clear life thereafter, but only Alonso seems to merit his pardon. Whereas Alonso displays his remorse again and again, Sebastian and Antonio show no sign of repentance or promise of reformation. They have plotted against Prospero in the past, they try to kill Alonso during the course of the play, and they seem at the play's end still to be dangerous fellows. Many critics have speculated on the likelihood of their continued criminality upon their return to Italy, and in 1797 F. G. Waldron wrote a sequel to The Tempest in which Antonio and Sebastian betray Prospero during the voyage home and force him to retrieve his magic.

Why, then, does Prospero forgive them? It may be that he believes they have repented, but I do not think he does. While Antonio is still under his spell, Prospero says, “I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art” (5.1.78-79); and when he has returned to full consciousness, Prospero forgives him again, in an even more contemptuous way:

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault—all of them.


As Bonamy Dobree (1952) has suggested, Prospero's forgiveness seems more like a form of revenge than a movement toward reconciliation. It is a vindictive forgiveness, which satisfies his need to express his scorn and bitterness while appearing to be noble. Antonio's undeservingness contributes to Prospero's sense of moral grandeur; the worse Antonio is, the more charitable Prospero is to forgive him. This is Prospero's perspective as well as that of the play's rhetoric; but from a psychological point of view Prospero's forgiveness seems compulsive, indiscriminate, and dangerous—inappropriate to the practical and moral realities of the situation but necessary if Prospero is to maintain his idealized image.

For most of the play Prospero's idealized image contains a combination of arrogant-vindictive and self-effacing traits, which are reconciled by means of his magic. He needs to see himself as a humane, benevolent, forgiving man, and also as a powerful, masterful, dangerous man who cannot be taken advantage of with impunity and who will strike back when he has been injured. The first four acts of the play show Prospero satisfying his needs for mastery and revenge, but in ways that do not violate the dictates of his self-effacing side. By the end of act 4 he has achieved his objectives. He has knit up Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso in his spell and has thwarted the plot of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, with a final display of innocent delight in the torture of the conspirators. Prospero sets his dogs (two of which are aptly named Fury and Tyrant) on them, and tells Ariel to

charge my goblins that they grind their joints
With dry convulsions, shorten up their sinews
With aged cramps, and more pinch-spotted make them
Than pard or cat o' mountain.


“At this hour,” Prospero proclaims, “lie at my mercy all mine enemies” (4.1.262-63). From this point on he becomes increasingly self-effacing. At the beginning of the next act he gives up his vengeance and determines to renounce his magic. Once he abandons his magic, he has no choice but to repress his arrogant-vindictive trends, for it was only through his magic that he was able to act them out innocently.

Prospero represses his vindictive side for a number of reasons. He has achieved as much of a revenge as his inner conflicts will allow, and he has shown his power. Now, in order to satisfy his self-effacing shoulds, he must show his mercy. He cannot stop behaving vindictively until his anger has been partially assuaged, but he cannot continue to do so once his enemies are in his power. That he is still angry is clear from the manner of his forgiveness, but the imperative to forgive is now more powerful than the need for revenge. Given his inner conflicts, Prospero is bound to feel uncomfortable about his aggressive behavior; and now that he has had his day of reckoning, his negative feelings about it become dominant. He regards revenge as ignoble, and he “abjures” his “rough magic” (5.1.50-51). His choice of words here is significant. He seems to feel ashamed of his magic (even as he celebrates his powers) and guilty for having employed it. Why else would he use the word “abjure,” which means to disavow, recant, or repudiate? Whereas earlier he was able to enjoy his power, he now has a self-effacing response to it. He gives up his magic because he needs to place himself in a humble position and to show that he has not used his power for personal aggrandizement but only to set things right, to bring about moral growth and reconciliation.

With his “charms … o'erthrown,” Prospero, in the Epilogue, adopts an extremely self-effacing posture. Since he can no longer “enchant,” he can “be reliev'd” only by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be
Let your indulgence set me free.

(Epi. 17-20)

Prospero sees himself here not as the avenger but as the guilty party, perhaps because of his revenge; he tries to make a self-effacing bargain in which he judges not, so that he not be judged. We can now understand more fully his motives for forgiving the “men of sin.” Beneath his self-righteousness Prospero has hidden feelings of guilt and fears of retribution. By refusing to take a more severe form of revenge, to which he certainly seems entitled, he protects himself against punishment. By forgiving others, he insures his own pardon. Giving up his magic serves a similar purpose: it counteracts his feelings of pride and places him in a dependent, submissive position. Although Prospero's remarks in the Epilogue are in part a conventional appeal to the audience, he remains in character and expresses sentiments that are in keeping with his psychological development.

When we understand Prospero's psychological development, he seems different from the figure celebrated by so many critics. Those who interpret The Tempest as a story of magnanimity, forgiveness, and reconciliation are responding correctly, I think, to Shakespeare's thematic intentions, while those who take a more “hard-nosed” view of the play are responding to the psychological portrait of Prospero. There is in this play, as in some others, a disparity between rhetoric and mimesis that generates conflicting critical responses and reflects the inner divisions of the author.

The rhetoric of the play justifies the vindictive Prospero and glorifies the self-effacing one. It confirms Prospero's idealized image of himself as a kindly, charitable man who punishes others much less than they deserve and only for their own good. The action of the play, meanwhile, shows us a Prospero who is bitter, sadistic, and hungry for revenge. The disparity between rhetoric and mimesis is a reflection of Prospero's inner conflicts and of Shakespeare's. The rhetoric rationalizes and disguises Prospero's vindictiveness and celebrates his moral nobility (see Sundelson 1980, 38-39). Its function is similar to that of Prospero's magic, which enables Prospero to have his revenge yet remain innocent in his own eyes and in the eyes of the other characters. The magic and the rhetoric together enable Shakespeare to deceive both himself and most audiences as to Prospero's true nature.


Harold McCurdy and I both feel that The Tempest is Shakespeare's “ideal solution,” but we differ in defining the problem that Shakespeare is trying to solve. For McCurdy Shakespeare's problem is how to “admit the loving-kindness of Christian charity” without feeling spineless, and the solution is to accompany it with such a demonstration of power that it “appears gracious and magnanimous” rather than weak (1953, 162). McCurdy sees Shakespeare as a predominantly aggressive person who is afraid of his softer emotions and who can express them only when his toughness and mastery have been firmly established. For me Shakespeare's problem is how to give expression to the hostile, vindictive, aggressive side of his personality without violating his stronger need to be noble, loving, and innocent; the solution is to create situations that permit justified aggression and innocent revenge. I see Shakespeare as a predominantly self-effacing person who is afraid of his aggressive impulses and who can express them directly only when it seems virtuous to do so.

From I Henry VI to The Tempest a frequent concern of Shakespeare's plays is how to cope with wrongs, how to remain good in an evil world. In the histories and the tragedies the tendency of the main characters is to respond to wrongs by taking revenge; but this response contaminates the revenger and eventually results in his own destruction. In Horneyan terms, the arrogant-vindictive solution, with its emphasis upon retaliation and vindictive triumph, does not work. But the self-effacing solution does not work in these plays either, for many innocent, well-intentioned but weak characters perish. Hamlet's problem, as I see it, is how to take revenge and remain innocent. The problem is insoluble and nearly drives him mad. In a number of the comedies and romances Shakespeare explores a different response to being wronged—namely, mercy and forgiveness. Because of the conventions of these genres, with their providential universe and miraculous conversions, wronged characters do not have to take revenge: either fate does it for them, or they forgive their enemies, who are then permanently transformed. In these plays the self-effacing solution, with its accompanying bargain, works very well, but only because the plays are unrealistic.

What I infer about Shakespeare from his plays is that he has strong vindictive impulses but even stronger taboos against those impulses, and a fear of the guilt and punishment to which he would be exposed if he acted them out. He does act them out imaginatively in the histories and tragedies, and he is purged of them through the destruction of his surrogate aggressors. He also fears his self-effacing side, however, and he shows both himself and us, through characters like Henry VI, Hamlet, Desdemona (Paris 1984b), and Timon, that people who are too good and trusting cannot cope and will be destroyed. In the tragedies he portrays the inadequacy of both solutions. In some of the comedies and in the romances he fantasizes the triumph of good people and avoids guilt either by glorifying forgiveness or by leaving revenge to the gods. In The Tempest, through Prospero's magic, he imagines a solution to Hamlet's problem: Prospero is at once vindictive and noble, vengeful and innocent. Although he takes his revenge through his magic, by raising a tempest and inflicting various psychological torments, he does not really “hurt” anybody; and when he has had his vindictive triumph, he renounces his magic and forgives everyone.

The Tempest offers an ideal solution to the problem of how to cope with wrongs without losing one's innocence—but only through the first four acts. The solution collapses when Prospero renounces his magic, for his magic was the only means by which he could reconcile his conflicts and keep evil under control. He does not at the end seem to have attained psychological balance or to have discovered a viable way of living in the real world.

Magic enables Prospero to attain only a temporary psychological equilibrium. It solves one set of problems, but it generates new inner conflicts, which he attempts to resolve by becoming extremely self-effacing. As we have seen, he abjures his magic because of a need to disown his pride and to assuage the feelings of guilt aroused by his exercise of power. Prospero has never been comfortable with power, which is one reason he delegated his authority to Antonio, and he seems unduly eager to relinquish it here. The problem is that though Prospero feels guilty with power, he feels helpless without it, as the Epilogue indicates. Even with all of his objectives achieved, Prospero seems weary rather than triumphant at the end. He will see the nuptials solemnized in Naples:

And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.


Since he has given up his secret studies and has no taste for governance, what, indeed, is there for Prospero? It is no wonder that he longs to withdraw into the quietude of death.

We see Prospero at the end in the grip of self-effacing and detached trends that do not promise to make him an effective ruler. Even so “sentimental” a critic as Northrop Frye observes that Prospero “appears to have been a remarkably incompetent Duke of Milan, and not to be promising much improvement after he returns” (1969b, 1370). There have been many misgivings about Prospero's forgiveness of Antonio as well as doubts about his ability to cope upon their return to Italy. The forgiveness, as we have seen, is compulsive and indiscriminate. There is no evidence of repentance on Antonio's part and no reason to think that he will meekly submit to Prospero's rule. Antonio should, at the least, be put into jail; but Prospero can neither do this nor, we suspect, keep him under control. Like the Duke in Measure for Measure and many other of Shakespeare's self-effacing characters, Prospero cannot exercise authority and deal effectively with the guilty. At the end of The Tempest Shakespeare seems back where he started in the plays about Henry VI, with a nobly Christian ruler who cannot cope with the harsh realities of life.

Like Prospero at the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare at the end of his career seems to have resolved his inner conflicts by repressing his aggressive impulses and becoming extremely self-effacing. In Henry VIII he begins at the point he had reached by the end of The Tempest. The desire for revenge, which had inspired such a marvelous fantasy in The Tempest, is no longer present. Character after character is wronged and responds in a remarkably charitable manner, asking forgiveness and blessing his or her enemies. There is no need to cope with evil; rather we must submit ourselves patiently to the divine will, which has a reason for everything. As J. B. Priestley has said, Shakespeare was “a deeply divided man,” the “opposites” of whose nature gave “energy and life to his works.” In Henry VIII the opposites are gone, and the result is a vapid moral fable in which we no longer feel the presence of a complex and fascinating personality. This play makes it clear that Shakespeare's inner conflicts had much to do with the richness and ambiguity of his art.

Cynthia Lewis (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17049

SOURCE: “Prospero's ‘false brother’: Shakespeare's Final Antonio,” in Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, Associated University Presses, 1997, pp. 154-85.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis compares and contrasts Prospero with Antonio.]

The essential question about the Antonio and Sebastian of The Tempest is why they are the direct antitheses of their saintly precursors. Saints Anthony and Sebastian, each in his own way, forfeited worldly possessions and risked their lives for love of God. All three of the earlier Shakespearean Antonios studied thus far bear resemblance to the saints at least in part, notably for sacrificing their own property, power, and safety in the name of earthly love, albeit not without encountering for their pains some measure of suspicion, or even outright ridicule. This last Antonio/Sebastian pairing, however, stands apart from the others, although both, like Saint Anthony, are tempted to evil. But these two do not pretend to have goals other than selfish gain. Steeped in the folly of worldly ambition, they are mocked not for trying and failing to realize true charity but for lacking the vision and will to make the attempt.

I would like to offer two analyses as to why these familiar characters are turned inside out in The Tempest. Although the explanations are not opposed to each other, the first is quick and easy, while the second is far more challenging to elaborate. The first is that the thorough subversion of virtue in Antonio and Sebastian perfectly suits the effect in The Tempest of looking at traditional doctrine about wise folly as if through a looking glass. Insofar as The Tempest concerns the relationship between this world and the next (as it does to a great extent), it urges a healthy attachment to the earthly matters that Saint Paul identifies with foolish folly, rather than detachment from the world. Most particularly, Prospero's main objective during the play is to act on spiritual principles, thereby practicing tenets that the reason knows as wisdom.

Through Prospero, that is, Shakespeare pushes to conclusion doubts about avoiding the world that pervade The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and Antony and Cleopatra. In Spenserian and Miltonic terms, The Tempest “cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue” but examines the meaning and purpose of wisdom both to the individual and to society.1 Here, true sacrifice requires engaging in affairs of state and of family, while withdrawal from such practical concerns constitutes selfishness as gross as that about Antonio and Sebastian's ambition. If, then, the wise folly of The Tempest lies in the mirror image of its conventional form, we should not be surprised to find in this Antonio and Sebastian obversions of their originals. Rather than invalidate the saint type, Shakespeare's final Antonio and Sebastian subject it to more extreme versions of the challenges it has encountered in earlier plays. The Tempest, whose philosophy owes as much to classical learning as to Christianity, might be expected occasionally to turn something Christian on its ear.2 Prospero, perennially subject to his own temptation, has virtually replaced the conventional Anthony figure. Put another way, this Antonio and Sebastian serve the dual purpose of reflecting Prospero's constant temptation toward egoism and of elucidating, like images on a photographic negative, the unorthodox treatment in this play of the doctrine they were known to represent.

Fleshing out the longer response to my opening question will occupy the rest of this chapter. Much interest will be lavished on Prospero and his temptation, as any full-length study of The Tempest necessitates, but with an eye to weaving Antonio and Sebastian into the larger fabric of Prospero's ordeal. In Prospero as both man and mage is extracted the larger play's fascination with the relationship between the temporal realm and the eternal. No wonder, then, if the complexities of Prospero's characterization eclipse other characters, his brother included. Yet Antonio finally contributes a perspective as essential to the whole play and to the portrayal of Prospero as does Caliban, whose character complements Antonio's.

Discussing Prospero critically must be one of the most problematic of all tasks currently presented by Shakespeare's canon, so disparate in temperament and attitude are the approaches that critics have adopted in the last twenty-five years or so. Chiefly, what seems to have begun as a move to correct idealistic views of Prospero has evolved into a rift between those scholars who continue to insist upon Prospero's nearly unqualified virtue and others who vehemently object to idolatry of Prospero, citing his injustice toward Caliban and other characters or his subconscious tendency to resemble Caliban.3 Although I would not presume to harmonize these opposing parties, I seek more balance between them, as well as more interrelatedness, than is typical. Harry Berger complained in 1969 that the “sentimental” version of The Tempest “does not hit the play where it lives.”4 But neither does a blackened Prospero or an all-out renunciation of the play's concluding optimism, however superficial it may strike us, accord with any but the most perversely distorted of its productions in the theater.5 Anyone who has seen the play performed more than once knows intuitively that a Prospero with pretensions to flawlessness is as unsatisfying as one marked by self-deception and irredeemable heartlessness.

I would like to sweep away cobwebs without eliminating aspects of recent criticism that acknowledge tonal and moral complexity about Prospero's characterization. On the one hand, the blatant allegorical texture of The Tempest invites allegorical critical modes. On the other hand, the defiance of the play to settle on and carry through its own allegorical suggestiveness inevitably undermines uniformly allegorical readings. Put another way, The Tempest is, among Shakespeare's works, unusually susceptible to interpretation based on selective evidence and aimed at consistency. Better to admit from the start that any models—allegorical or otherwise—will fall short of resolving all ambiguities. Better, too, I think, to take initial cues from scholars whose command of medieval and Renaissance moral philosophy and whose sensitivity to the play's poetry offers them perspective on what The Tempest and its critics cannot, as well as can, address. Consider the example of R. A. D. Grant, describing the sense in which the work concerns Providence:

The Tempest … dramatizes a complex of mutually sustaining meanings, a tissue of analogy in which the realms of human society and moral character owe their very autonomy to the providential pattern which both embraces and informs them. For this reason, the feats of abstraction performed by the dramatist and called forth in the critic in one case do, and in the other should, involve no loss. … Yet … neither The Tempest nor providential fiction … can be read as religious allegory or as contributing to pure theology in any immediate way, if, indeed, the latter should happen to be anything more than imaginative exercises. The Tempest tells us much about human life, but it has nothing to say about divinity in itself. For, whereof one cannot speak directly, thereof one must, in a manner, be silent.6

Grant establishes the primacy in the play of individual moral conduct in particular relation to society—of “politics” in the fullest sense of the word (255). Simultaneously, he identifies expectations that the human orientation of The Tempest cannot fulfill; he locates the limits of this art form and the criticism about it to articulate the truths at stake.

So, in a different key, does James Walter. Commenting on the play's allegorical dimension, he writes:

The Tempest … develops a psychological imagery that allegorizes many distinct voices in the soul. The clear voice of reason expresses itself in categories of conceptual thought and forms of discursive language; but other, more ambiguous voices speak from a dark depth of the soul that cannot be fully articulated in language, although spectacle, music, and poetic image can convince an audience of their reality. [Walter goes on to quote Caliban's speech about the island's “noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”]7

Having thus pointed out the inadequacy of verbal allegory to contain entirely an audience's knowledge of The Tempest, Walter concludes by expanding on his definition of allegory so as to account for our experience of the play:

The direction of allegory is counter [to that of the symbol], demystifying the perceived symbolic unity to uncover a depressing difference between signifier and signified. But allegory also seeks to heal itself by striving to signify a more than natural plenitude of meaning. Allegory both deflates signs by calling attention to their failure and inflates them by charging them to carry more truth of experience than they properly can.


His determination to entertain The Tempest as allegory notwithstanding, Walter's point is that the play speaks more than it or its audience can say. Both Walter and Grant are in some sense remarking that this work does not formulate accessibly all that it is about.8

So it is, I would argue, in the case of Antonio, whose characterization not only pushes against the theatrical tradition that bred him but also resists allegorical readings of his evil and final silence. For all the audience can surmise, Antonio is in spiritual torment as The Tempest closes, inwardly unresolved; then again, his recent experiences may yet to have seeped into his awareness. In any event, the mysteries lingering about Antonio at the play's conclusion suggest ongoing, if not secret, evolution in Antonio's inner spiritual narrative.

Can Prospero be discussed in this spirit? Can he be seen as a character in moral dilemma, in whom several motivations act in conflict with one another? And can even this loose paradigm be abandoned when it ceases to resonate in the drama? To pursue these questions, I propose to focus on Prospero's pride, as it shapes his fluid character, as it is complicated by his identity as an artist, and as he grapples with it while reformulating his social and political bonds—most notably, his relationship with his brother Antonio.


The promotion of one's attachment to the world in The Tempest is, like so many other features of the play, paradoxical. More than any other Renaissance work before Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), The Tempest draws on Thomas More's Utopia—most particularly, on the dangers of excessive pride associated with either reckless immersion in or complete rejection of private material gain and earthly power. More's Utopians illustrate the veritable impossibility of being both human and capable of avoiding possessiveness, as when, for instance, they wage imperialist war under the pretense of altruistically ensuring that another country's land be put to worthy use.9 They have only ostensibly eradicated the vice of pride through their communism, which, conveniently, applies merely in domestic, not in international, situations: they go so far as to hoard gold that they pillage from other countries (and that they purport to disdain) in order to wage more imperialist war and to allow “some of their citezeins … to lyue … sumptuously lyke men of honoure and renowne” (121). More's irony toward their hypocrisy is further complicated by his suggestion that the pride so reviled by the Utopians—and yet to which they are prone—may not, in one light, be such a bad thing. The character of More (who has a Chaucerian way of seeming a wryly naive version of the author) puts the issue this way in the book's concluding paragraph:

When Raphaell hadde made an ende of his tale, thoughe manye thinges came to my mind which in the manners and lawes of that people semed to be instituted and founded of no good reason, … yea and chieffely, in that which is the principall fondacion of al their ordinaunces, that is to saye, in the communitie of theire liffe and liuinge, without anny occupieng of money; by the whyche thynge onelye all nobilitie, magnificence, wourship, honour, and maiestie, the true ornamentes and honoures, as the common opinion is, of a common wealth, vtterly be ouerthrowen and destroyed.


Though pride be the downfall of many a civilization, without it a civilization flounders for lack of shared motivation, cause, and enthusiasm.

As The Tempest opens, Prospero struggles with a comparable paradox. Twelve years earlier, he tells Miranda, Milan had become “[t]hrough all the signories … the first,” and himself, “the prime duke,” because of his renowned “dignity” and learning in “the liberal arts” (1.2.71-74). The very study that conferred glory on his state, however, tempted him to “[neglect] worldly ends” and to concentrate solely on his own improvement (1.2.89-90). With that retirement to solitude came contempt for those who, like Antonio, were left behind to administer the practicalities that Prospero now viewed as beneath him: Prospero “cast” the burden of governing on Antonio, scorned “all popular rate,” and then was surprised when no one, least of all Antonio, remembered that he was duke in actuality (1.2.75, 92, 102-5). Succumbing to his own ambitions, Prospero inadvertently tempted Antonio to give in to his. Both men became slaves to pride—the one, by trying to transcend the world through contemplation; the other, by embracing the world's trappings.

Prospero's account of his past in 1.2 goes a long way toward consciously acknowledging his role in Antonio's temptation, as when he concedes that “[I], in my false brother, / Awak'd an evil nature” (92-93).10 Yet occasionally his diction betrays an effort to whitewash his responsibility: his “trust” in Antonio, for example, is like a “good parent” that “begets” vice in its own too much (94-97). The subtle self-justification here joins other hints in this scene of Prospero's vestigial pride—his use of present tense when declaring that he still “prize[s] his books” more than his “dukedom” (167-68) and the gloating self-satisfaction that Ariel seems to take in fulfilling Prospero's commands, which may derive from the master himself (for example, 195-237). Taken together, these details point to the greatest difficulty that Prospero's character will face in recovering his lost dignity because, to do so, he must first retrieve his former respect for the practice of governing, a kind of socially beneficial pride, which will be constantly threatened by his proclivity to flatter himself.

The demon lurking under this mage's cloak tempts him not toward but away from the world; it lures him to think of himself as separate from his society, as beyond the jurisdiction of the limits that he, the duke, must impose on his subjects. The island on which Prospero is stranded has affinities with the desert in which Saint Anthony elected to seclude himself so as to reject the world's temptations, but if removal from the world should become for Prospero an end in itself, then Prospero's opportunity to serve will degenerate into merely self-serving escapism. Only full acceptance of his social responsibility can provide him with the antidote to his false pride: paradoxically, pride in assuming and administering political responsibility—the pride of which the character More speaks at the end of Utopia—carries its own means of modulation by requiring a ruler like Prospero to meet other people's needs.

Shakespeare's model for the peculiar blindness that, like Prospero's, illuminates others' weaknesses while it obscures one's own, must surely have been Montaigne.11 Most critics to date have supposed that the playwright's main interest in “Of Cannibals” was that the essay, in Walter's words, “purports to defend the natural reasonableness of precivil life.”12 If so, then the crucial relevance of the essay to the play lies with Shakespeare's handling of Caliban's primitivism—in particular, with the question of whether Caliban's naturalness is in the end more virtuous, more civil, than the actions of civilized men like Antonio, Alonso, and even Prospero. The Tempest clearly plays with this question throughout—for example, when Caliban displays superior understanding to Trinculo (for example, 4.1.222-24); when he speaks in verse, while Stephano and Trinculo are given only prose; and when Antonio and Sebastian try to usurp Alonso's position, as Caliban does Prospero's (1.2).13

Still, I think the core of Montaigne's piece, and of Shakespeare's focus on Montaigne, is something other: it is the pride of allegedly civilized people, which renders them capable of perceiving barbarism in others' actions but not in their own. “Of Cannibals,” in other words, centers on the hypocrisy of one society's hiding behind the pretense of reasonableness and civility in order to judge another society as barbaric, beneath the standards of reasonableness and civility. Montaigne abhors inhumanity in any society whatsoever; he aims not to exalt “precivil life,” but to debunk civilization. Repeatedly, he signals that his subject is any society's attachment to its own practices—its self-love:

Now (to returne to my purpose) I finde (as farre as I have beene informed) there is nothing in that nation [i.e., Brazil], that is either barbarous or savage, unlesse men call that barbarisme which is not common to them. As indeed, we have no other ayme of truth and reason, than the example and Idea of the opinions and customes of the country we live in. There is ever perfect religion, perfect policie, perfect and compleat use of all things.

I am not sorie we note the barbarous horror of such an action [i.e., the practice of cannibalism “to represent an extreme, and inexpiable revenge,”] but grieved, that prying so narrowly into their faults we are so blinded in ours.

We may then well call them [i.e., Brazilians] barbarous, in regard of reasons rules, but not in respect of us that exceed them in all kinde of barbarisme.14

Montaigne does not excuse truly barbaric behavior in either natural or artificial society. Instead, he laments the license that civilization gives social beings to ignore barbarity among themselves.

Montaigne's fixation on such hypocrisy offers a crucial lens on Prospero's wrongdoers and, more so, on the problems confronting Prospero himself. Shakespeare's metaphor for Montaigne's barbarity is monstrosity, visually evident in only Caliban but manifested spiritually in the “three men of sin,” one of whom, Alonso, uses the metaphor in describing his former barbarity against Prospero:

                                                  O, it is monstrous! monstrous!
Methought the billows spoke, and told me of it;
The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounc'd
The name of Prosper; it did base my trespass.


In fact, as in Montaigne, the most potentially damaging monstrosity in The Tempest is that which is hidden within, protected by the signs of civilization, as is the absence of conscience in Antonio: “If 'twere a kibe, / 'Twould put me to my slipper; but I feel not / This deity in my bosom” (1.2.276-78).

Gonzalo makes clear in 3.3 that a reverse incongruity between the appearance and reality of monstrosity is possible; remarking on the spirits who serve the banquet, whom he takes to be “islanders” (29), he says: “though they are of monstrous shape, yet note / Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of / Our human generation” (31-33). Of course, these spirits are about to appear far less kind (and yet are also about to be truly kind—even Christian—for their role in Ariel's upcoming sermon?), but the significance of the example is that outward monstrosity can mask inward beauty and outer beauty can cover inner barbarity. In a more relevant instance, Caliban's misshapen form both reflects his moral deformity and belies his highly developed aesthetic sensibility: he speaks in often lovely verse, he appreciates music (3.2.135-43), and his attraction to Miranda, although acted on in a violative way, owes to his awareness that “she as far surpasseth Sycorax / As great'st does least” (3.2.102-3).

In the most relevant example, however, Prospero's identity as an artist—a maker of beauty—can obscure, especially from himself, his own capacity for monstrosity. Nowhere, perhaps, does he seem spiritually uglier than when he instructs Ariel to torment Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano:

Go, charge my goblins that they grind their joints
With dry convulsions, shorten up their sinews
With aged cramps, and more pinch-spotted make them
Than pard or cat o' mountain.


Indeed, the speaker here could well be Caliban, railing at Prospero: “All the infections that the sun sucks up / From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him / By inch-meal a disease!” (2.2.1-3). This implicit comparison does not defend Caliban's behavior or attribute it to Prospero; rather, it implicates the presumably learned and civilized Prospero for losing his reason and self-control.15 From the perspective that Montaigne lends Shakespeare, what is more spiritually deformed than Prospero's vengeance here is his failure to perceive it as monstrous, a failure that hinges on his assurance of his superiority to a creature like Caliban.

The demon that distorts Prospero's vision in this way has another face—despair—which is often conflated in Renaissance literature with pride. John Faustus represents the clearest of examples here: Prospero's characterization stems partly from Faustus's attraction to magic, from his dependency on his books, which careens out of control, and, above all, from his Promethean impatience with mortal knowledge and his narcissism toward his scholarly and supernatural feats. Such pride engenders in Faustus a certainty that he alone “can never be pardoned.”16 “The Serpent that tempted Eve may be sav'd,” he groans to the young scholars who urge him to repent, “But not Faustus” (13.16-17). Faustus's hard-heartedness, leading to his ultimate damnation, traces back to his original sense of superiority to all others—in the case of his sinfulness, even to Lucifer.

Prospero flirts with a similar despair but one less obviously directed toward his own situation than toward those he would reform—specifically, the three offending nobles and Caliban. Of the latter, we hear him speak in terms clearly bereft of hope for change:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;
And as with age his body uglier grows,
So his mind cankers.


So Prospero has felt ever since Caliban betrayed his trust—his “human care”—by trying to rape Miranda (1.2.345-48).17

The influence of this betrayal on Prospero's cynicism about Caliban should not be minimized.18 Granted that Prospero's character is naturally inclined toward condescension, Caliban not only attacked his daughter but threatened her honor, a terrifying attempt at violation in any historical period but of even more ethical than physical consequence in the cultural context of The Tempest. In addition, that the incident reprises Prospero's earlier misplaced trust in Antonio helps explain the intensity of his reaction to Caliban: he has been deceived twice but until now has had only Caliban, not Antonio, with whom to register his grief and anger. Prospero may also be understood as projecting onto Caliban shame that properly belongs to himself. Caliban's claim that Prospero usurped the island from him implies another instance, in addition to the earlier incident with Antonio, in which Prospero has contributed, partly unawares, to being betrayed (1.2.331-32). His usurpation has possibly encouraged Caliban's retaliation. Yet the context of Caliban's claim about Prospero's seizure of the island from him suggests that it is an afterthought, a means of justifying his own anger at Prospero's loss of faith in him (1.2.331-44). In short, if Prospero is given to despair in Caliban or in humanity generally, it is not gratuitous; he has seen much in twelve years' time to induce it.

My point is that Prospero's evident antisocial tendencies stem from various possible roots, some of them more understandable—and acceptable—than others. Moreover, those tendencies are in tension with Prospero's apparent desire to overcome them and his efforts to bring forth something better, redemptive even, from the mistakes and the pain of the past. That impetus depends on his capacity for humility and for the “human care” that he once dispensed to Caliban and clearly continues to display toward Miranda. The story of The Tempest is, essentially, that of Prospero's wrestling with his demons to sustain that care. As such, the play features a protagonist in moral flux. The dynamic pull between his “fury” and his “nobler reason” sees him constantly tempted to repeat his original mistake by removing himself from all that is human (5.1.26). Sometimes, he succumbs to temptation, and it is almost always with Caliban. More often, he is engaged in struggle, and the struggle is the substance of the play's drama.19

The clearest illustration of what remains unfixed in Prospero's character throughout the play is his behavior toward the three offending nobles—especially his intent as to how he will use them once he has them in his power. Tellingly, some critics assume that Prospero never entertains the possibility of avenging their wrongs but only wants to reform them; others, that Prospero intends revenge until his scene with Ariel at the beginning of 5.1. Both sets of critics seem sure of their views.20 And both, I would suggest, are partly right. From the start, Prospero knows rationally that he should refrain from harming so much as one “hair” of the men on board the ship (1.2.217). What he is tempted to do is another matter. That he is tempted to wreak revenge bubbles up in his language (for example, he is “strook to th' quick” with “fury” over his enemies' “high wrongs,” 5.1.25-26), and ambiguity as to his motives hovers around some of his actions, like teasing Alonso before finally reuniting him with Ferdinand (5.1.134-71). In short, audiences disagree about aspects of Prospero's characterization because Prospero's character is unresolved. Nuances in his lines as he deals with his anger imply that he could always go in the other direction—away from forgiveness and toward a wild justice connoting despair over his peers' ability to change morally.

As if Prospero's mixed motives and sometimes subtle inner conflicts did not produce enough complexity, Shakespeare adds to the problem of coming to terms with this character the challenge of discerning when he is merely acting. For all we know, he may be ever the artist, unceasingly manipulating others through manipulating their feelings and their impression of his feelings. His peevishness toward Miranda and Ferdinand, for instance, may be partly or largely feigned. Miranda indicates twice in 1.2 that his “ungentl[e]” conduct is “unwonted” (445, 497-99), confined only to this day, and Prospero himself later calls into question the authenticity of all his earlier testiness, when he explains to Ferdinand that his “auster[ity]” was meant to convey Miranda's worth and to “test” Ferdinand's worthiness (4.1.1-7). What the audience may take as evidence of Prospero's inclination toward arrogance and disrespect, then, might sometimes be an extension of his art, a show. What's more, he is likely to seem more sympathetic for whatever portion of his pride and impatience is genuine if the audience takes into account that the only day he appears onstage is also the only day on which he can make a bid for reparation. On this particular day, he would naturally be more given than usual to anxiety.

In the end, Prospero's shortcomings are considerable and of a piece: his tendencies toward pride and despair, intolerance and wrath are consistent with his exceptional learning and rigorous demands of others. His perfectionist expectations square with his difficulty in accepting human error, even one so small as his daughter's nodding off as he speaks. Shakespeare has created for this character a rich personal history suitable to his advanced years, a matrix both for the difficulties he faces when the play opens and for the factors that may mitigate the audience's view of his weaknesses.

Only his reluctance to own up to those weaknesses remains as the one serious obstacle to his successful reentry into the world. His involvement in Alonso's conversion implicitly speaks to that problem. By virtue of his concern for Ferdinand and of Antonio and Sebastian's attempt at usurping his crown, Alonso is closely paralleled with Prospero. In addition, Prospero's waverings toward despair about Caliban and the nobles resonate in Alonso's broader vacillations between faith in Ferdinand's survival and despair that “he's gone” (2.1.123; cf. 2.1.323-24, 3.3.8-10). More than anything else, what distinguishes the two men is the way they tend to acknowledge their faults: while Prospero, as we have seen, hedges on the question of his own role in his downfall (1.2.66-151), Alonso confesses and repents his wrongdoing outright, first to himself (3.3.95-102), then to Prospero: “Thy dukedom I resign, and do entreat / Thou pardon me my wrongs” (5.1.118-19). Ironically, however, Prospero has pulled the strings of Alonso's open admission. In this light, he again appears poised on the border between self-awareness and what Skura calls “self-estrangement”—here, the temptation to ignore his own reasons to repent.21 Paradoxically, his art both prompts in others the self-knowledge essential to remorse and yet permits him the very aloofness from others that sustains his pride. How Prospero comes to manage his relationship to his art, including his apparent sense of superiority to it, constitutes much of his struggle to rejoin the society of mortals in Milan.


Although art in The Tempest is strewn with traps, it is still the means to achieving the play's highest goal, spiritual freedom. Such freedom, which assumes various forms in the play, is always paradoxical because it depends on some kind of bondage or fulfillment of obligation. Subjectively, it might be defined, for lack of better words, as service, rather than slavery—that is, a willing, generous, even foolishly self-sacrificing labor in others' behalf, as against the enforced, begrudging execution of a task at another's command.22 Hence Caliban's sense that he is enslaved because he is made to do Prospero's chores (for example, 1.2.372-74). And hence Ferdinand's view of the same burdens as welcome. Initially pressed into service (1.2.467), Ferdinand learns to accept his labors under the influence of Miranda (3.1.63-67), who herself exemplifies liberality at every turn: “To be your fellow / You may deny me, but I'll be your servant, / Whether you will or no” (3.1.84-86).

Objectively, the same spiritual freedom can be described as mercy—unhesitating, unconditional acceptance.23 Recalling Portia's image of mercy as “not strain'd,” but falling “as the gentle rain from heaven” (Merchant, 4.1.184-85), Prospero twice refers to “grace” and “aspersion” as heavenly rain (3.1.75, 4.1.18). If grace is a free gift, however, it is also enjoined on humanity by both nature and Providence. To the first of those ordering principles Prospero refers when he tells Ariel that to be “kind” is an inherently human quality (5.1.21-24). And he repeatedly makes clear in his narration to Miranda in 1.2 that he sees himself as both the pawn and the instrument of “Providence divine” (159). In fact, Providence has dictated that the evil done to Prospero be converted to “loving wrong” and that Prospero rely on a “most auspicious star” to achieve his “zenith” (1.2.151, 180-84). As freely as he may choose the details of his plans to fulfill the larger aims of Providence, he is nonetheless bound in service to a higher power whose ultimate motivation is heavenly love and whose final destination is love on earth.24

Yet neither can Providence advance in its course unless aided by Prospero's artistic manipulations. Otherwise, it is frozen in mere potentiality. Indeed, the very function of that art is to release those who partake in it from whatever obstacles impede their spiritual freedom both to forgive and to be forgiven. Most of the artistic displays that Prospero presents to an internal audience suggest that their purpose is to realize larger charitable ends. Although the vanishing banquet of 3.3, for example, has the immediate effect of arousing despair and madness in the nobles, Ariel's assurance—“I and my fellows / Are ministers of Fate” (60-61)—establishes Prospero as a guide, channeling their present pain through the difficult, slow process of penitence, to the providential end of “heart's sorrow, / And a clear life ensuing” (81-82). “the pow'rs,” says Ariel, are “delaying (not forgetting)” (73); in identifying himself as a spark of memory, he further reveals this particular spectacle of Prospero's as the catalyst by which, through time, Providence will prove effective.25 If all goes well, the same conversion Prospero effects in the nobles, thereby helping to fulfill Providence, will also benefit himself.26

Prospero's learnings toward pride, however, complicate his approach to artistry, as well as to forgiveness, threatening to corrupt his art with egoism. In fact, the very nature of art in the context of The Tempest spawns its own complications. Although it requires the artist to relinquish ultimate control to Providence, it nevertheless demands from the artist a high degree of control and, furthermore, attracts those who can muster it. Artistry thus contains its own temptations. Practically speaking, if Prospero feels drawn toward private vengeance, his impulse would naturally stem in part from simply possessing the power to hurt through his art. In addition to whatever specific motives might lure Prospero to revenge, that is, his identity as an artist who enjoys wielding power may well augment the enticement for him of vengeance, especially since he is certain of accomplishing it skillfully, if he so chooses. As Prospero uses art to unlock the possibility of spiritual freedom in himself and others, his art must itself enact the balance between personal freedom and obedience to higher law that also characterizes willing service and mercy. For Prospero, as for any capable artist, this is a precarious balance indeed.27

The antidote in The Tempest to the pride that can thwart the most well-meaning of artists is compassion, or what Harriet Hawkins calls “empathy.”28 It is the recognition that one's pain, however acutely felt, is not unique but shared; that to punish one's malefactor does nothing to relieve suffering but only increases it; that the common lot of humanity is, at best, what Spenser calls “tickle”—uncertain—and, at worst, hellish, therefore compelling kindness, grace. Once compassion is felt, in other words, spiritual freedom is within reach. The play's logic is inescapable: if even the best human beings err, the only possible response to human error is forgiveness.

To suggest the ultimate folly of pretensions to immunity from human error and sorrow, allusions to the essential sameness of all humanity are scattered throughout the play. The opening wrangling between the nobles and the Boatswain fixes immediately on the notion that class rank is no protection against the ravages of nature:


What cares these roarers for the name of king?


Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.


None that I more love than myself. You are a councillor; if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more.


But perhaps no more poignant reminder of common human vulnerability emerges in The Tempest than Ariel's detailed description of Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban, whom he has led far afield of their designs to usurp Prospero:

                                                  I charm'd their ears
That calf-like they my lowing follow'd through
Tooth'd briers, sharp furzes, pricking goss, and thorns,
Which ent'red their frail shins. At last I left them
I' th' filthy-mantled pool beyond your cell,
There dancing up to th' chins that the foul lake
O'erstunk their feet.


Prospero responds to Ariel with sheer approval, little sensing at this feverish moment that he could be—and once was—so humbled as are now these three scoundrels: “This was well done, my bird” (4.1.184). He also portends further punishment and humiliation: “I will plague them all, / Even to roaring” (4.1.192-93). But the evocative images of these creatures' “frail shins” and their wading chin-deep in ooze seem virtual emblems of general human frailty—witness the recapitulation of the image of drowning already applied to the ship's crew, Alonso, and Ferdinand.29 That Prospero does not recall here the time when he himself was at the mercy of a “rotten carcass of a butt” on the “roar[ing]” sea does not except him from the same helplessness he now inflicts on Caliban and fellows (1.2.146, 149). It merely confirms his difficulty at fully imagining the effects of his artistry on others. The three low characters' actions may have invited Prospero's discipline, but not his smugness.

The vision that will allow Prospero to understand others' capacity for pain and his own capacity for brutality is, again, the vision that Montaigne advocates in “Of Cannibals.” Through an exploration of Prospero's art, however, The Tempest pushes the issue by addressing how to achieve that vision, which engenders spiritually freeing compassion. Not surprisingly, more paradoxes ensue, specifically those through which art interrelates innocence and experience. In essence, the compassion of a child, lost in adulthood, can be retrieved through art, which is itself tainted by experience.

Montaigne's conception of an inclusive outlook on all of the world's societies is manifested in purest form in the innocent Miranda. Although the audience might expect Caliban's earlier assault on her virginity to instill some skepticism in her view of humanity, her perception is instead clear of bias toward any but her former pupil. She assumes that the men on board the afflicted ship are undeserving of Prospero's punishment, and her sympathy for their agony is explicit: “O! I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer” (1.2.5-6). Unto themselves, her tenderness and generosity are ideal. Yet the practical limitations of her perspective come into focus early on and remain so throughout the play. On first seeing Ferdinand, she takes him for a “thing divine” (1.2.419), indicating that she will fall for Ferdinand not as an individual but as a member of general humanity, with whom she is barely acquainted. Only Prospero's seasoned judgment legitimates her choice of husbands (which, in light of her naiveté, is really no choice at all). Furthermore, the audience hardly needs to hear Prospero's famous retort to know that Miranda's later assessment of humanity is dangerously ingenuous:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!
'Tis new to thee.


Although Miranda shows signs of growing up and away from her father, as when she breaks Prospero's rule by pronouncing her name to Ferdinand (3.1.36-37), this process is still highly controlled by the hidden, protective Prospero, and it is unfinished by the play's end.30

In earlier plays by Shakespeare, Miranda's inattention to the perils of blind trust and her readiness to sacrifice her comfort to do Ferdinand ease might have seemed problematic but not so painfully simple as in The Tempest. Particularly in Twelfth Night, Antonio's (and later Viola's) love at all costs raises problems concerning wise folly but remains valued and desired for its idealism. And so is Miranda's natural compassion, in one light, held in high esteem. But The Tempest deeply distrusts an easy compassion, which, uninformed by the evil of which humanity is capable, is therefore automatic, not chosen freely.31 Prospero's gaze, though jaded, is clearly safer. It is also profoundly of this world, born of disappointed expectations and firsthand experience with treachery. Because he is still at risk of loathing this life, his business is to recover enough of Miranda's childlike compassion to modulate his cynicism but not so much as to render his worldliness Ineffectual. Gonzalo's trust and idealism, though refreshing, go too far; he is the adult incarnation of Miranda's innocence and so is prone to reflecting both wise and foolish folly in the extreme—through, respectively, his humane concern and his inability to deal with the villains who tease him for his unworldliness (2.1.1-190).32 Prospero's partial recovery of the kindness that Gonzalo may never have lost relies in part on his fatherly love for Miranda; like other instances of parental love in the romances, this love is so fervent as to be grace indeed. What's more, Prospero often makes explicit that the image of Miranda's devotion to Ferdinand softens his heart and gives him hope—for example, while he blesses the new love between her and Ferdinand (3.1.74-76) and when he presents the pair to Alonso as a “wonder” (5.1.167-71). Not even the sight of the young lovers can erase the bitter experience that colors his view of the world, but it can restore to him some measure of joy about participating in social living: “So glad of this as they I cannot be, / Who are surpris'd withal; but my rejoicing / At nothing can be more” (3.1.92-94).33

Another means of rehabilitating Prospero's compassion that is equally potent to his love for Miranda lies in his art. Not coincidentally, each time he is moved by parental love, he is observing Miranda in a dramatic scene or a tableau of his own devising. The strength of natural love is somehow intertwined in The Tempest with the power of artifice properly employed—at least to the extent that the father's commitment to his child's welfare compels him to use art responsibly, in the service of her welfare.34 Yet the instinctive compassion of a child, to which art can return an adult, also diverges widely, in the context of this play, from the essence of artistry, which is both learned and chosen. Prospero's art is solely the product of experience—not, as in Sir Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry, innately good simply because it is natural.35 It is thus perpetually—and vexatiously—debased by the artist's fall from grace. It is also likely, then, to be an imperfect mode of recovering lost grace. Nor is it, from this angle, much to be proud about. For whatever may be natural about art in The Tempest is inherently at odds with what is unnatural—morally corrupt—about the artist.

That art in The Tempest is the exclusive domain of postlapsarian humanity is suggested frequently—for instance, by Miranda's inability to detect Ariel's presence. Miranda herself is artless, in both the senses that she does not practice art and that she is guileless. That pun suggests at least the contrivance, and at most the corruption, about the other characters' artfulness. Indeed, even young Ferdinand's exposure to courtly society is already evident in the self-consciously artful—adult—language in which he addresses Miranda: “Most sure, the goddess / On whom these airs attend!” (1.2.422-23). Although his diction mirrors Miranda's (for example, 1.2.411-12), its deliberately crafted rhetoric is implicitly contrasted with the absence of cunning in her speeches. By his own account, Ferdinand has already known many women, experience that enables him to judge Miranda's relative merits (3.1.39-48) but also that has introduced him to the manipulative ways and discourse of politicians and usurpers, such as that of his father's company. When Antonio urges Sebastian to murder Alonso in 2.1, he applies the language of the theater to political usurpation, linking fallen society with abusive artistry. Claribel, he says, is

                                                  she that from whom
We all were sea-swallow'd, though some cast again
(And by that destiny) to perform an act
Whereof what's past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.


Human artifice in The Tempest—whether Ferdinand's, Antonio's, or Prospero's—is necessarily morally suspect because it results from experience. Hence, its moral efficacy is always in question.

Accordingly, as if portrayed as a belated appendage to human nature, art is repeatedly figured in The Tempest as a garment that may be worn or removed at will. Prospero identifies his magical powers with his mantle—“Lie there, my art” (1.2.25)—and political positions are seized and put on like costumes in a play, inessential features of the people who perform within them. The notion of political plotting as an act of fashion-mongering is sharpened through parody when Stephano and Trinculo are distracted from their ambush of Prospero by the “wardrobe” he has displayed for them (4.1.222-54). Rosemary Wright has written persuasively on the emblematic significance of this episode: “The gaudy clothes that dangle from the branches of the [lime] tree seem almost certainly to have derived from the late Gothic device of the pedlar and the apes.”36 This device, she explains, concerns mainly the human folly of “being attracted … by glittering trifles,” as portrayed by the apes whose keeper sleeps idly nearby while they plunder a lime tree for pretty clothes and trinkets (137). As helpful as Wright's interpretation is, I believe that the robes donned by Shakespeare's two fools also play off of Prospero's mantle in respect to the play's most fundamental warnings about human artifice. Prospero can be contrasted with Stephano and Trinculo for the legitimacy of his apparel: he is the true mage; they, only base imitators. But in all three cases art remains external, implying that it is not natural but willed, and, if willed, then threatening, since, as Sidney insisted, in the Apology, human will has been “infected” by the fall.37

But, again paradoxically, that human artifice is stained by worldly experience empowers it, in Sidney's phrase, to deliver a golden world. It cannot rise until its creator falls. Through directly encountering error, Milton would later write, comes the knowledge of error that can be deployed against itself.38 Experience is double-edged, then, providing both the need for redemption and the means to it. A Prospero who had never known the temptation of lust could probably not conjure a masque that cautions a betrothed couple from indulging in lust (and a Prospero who had never struggled with such temptation would likely not repeat his call to abstinence so often and so adamantly, as in 4.1.14-23, 51-54, 94-98). In fact, art in The Tempest might yet be thought natural in the narrow sense that, quite apart from humanity, it occupies a pure realm into which experience initiates the fallen. Some attribute of Prospero's art, that is, lies beyond his ability to corrupt it or to contain it; it is that principle that permits his artistry to intersect with Providence, to instill virtue, and to awaken both conscience and compassion in folly-fallen humanity.

Such words come as close as I can force them to describing Ariel, of whom I have not yet found a thoroughly satisfactory reading.39 Many of Ariel's traits delineate him as the pure idea, spirit, of art in nature. His singular refusal to be bound into any service other than that of his own delight removes him from the human sphere. His decided nonhumanity is, in fact, stressed; at one point, he is “but air” (5.1.21). He is, however, subject to abuse by mortal artists like Sycorax, as well as to the more benign employment of human beings like Prospero, whose freeing of him from the cloven pine metaphorically suggests the redirecting of the artistic principle from vice toward virtue. Ariel's own compassion recommends him for the task of imbuing spiritual freedom in the audience he shares with his master. He tells Prospero: “Your charm so strongly works 'em [Prospero's enemies] / That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender” (5.1.17-19). In Aristotelian terms, if Prospero is the efficient cause of art in The Tempest and Providence the final cause, Ariel might be considered the formal cause.

Ariel's passage from unbearable slavery to Sycorax, to uncomfortable service to Prospero, to complete freedom from any earthly obligations indicates the inevitability of Prospero's forfeiting his magic, which seems to rely on a force that can be borrowed but not possessed and which, if borrowed too long, decays into ugliness. Illustrating this principle, Prospero reminds Ariel of his misery and repulsiveness after years of fruitless subjugation by Sycorax:

                                                  Thou best know'st
What torment I did find thee in; thy groans
Did make wolves howl. …
                                                  It was a torment
To lay upon the damn'd.


Confinement once made a virtual howling Caliban out of Ariel, until Prospero freed the spirit to create beauty (1.2.291-93). Prospero's profit by Ariel, however, could itself grow exploitative. Not coincidentally, Prospero has relied upon Ariel for twelve years, exactly the length of time that Sycorax had previously trapped him in the cloven pine (1.2.274-79). Prospero seems able to harness Ariel's spiritual perfection favorably only so long, up to a point beyond which lies unchecked pride and abuse, like that of Sycorax.

Racing against that terminus, Prospero treats Ariel with hints of impatience and disrespect, indications of the self-centeredness that militates against his kindness. The oddly unnatural aspect of human artistry is exposed over and again as Prospero imposes demands on an Ariel who must struggle to comply and marshals inflammatory insults, like calling Ariel “malignant thing,” to enforce, ironically, the natural law of love (1.2.257). As the play draws to a close, along with the day, the pressing question is whether Prospero's collaboration with Ariel can penetrate beneath the outer garments of the chief characters to affect them internally. Before Ariel vanishes, can the clothes that Gonzalo says are “newdy'd” and “fresh” come to represent the spiritual renewal of the men who wear them (2.1.64, 69)? What's more, will the artistry confined to Prospero's mantle make its spiritual impression on him before he discards it? Will Prospero's magic have left its indelible traces in his other art—that of his governing? Can he truly reenter this world and its society, that is, as a changed person?

Caliban tells Stephano that, if he would conquer Prospero, first to “possess his books; for without them / He's but a sot, as I am” (3.2.92-93). Of course, Caliban exaggerates: in the most negative light, Prospero does not, and could not, sink to “sot.” Still, Caliban's line points in a number of provocative directions, all of which contain their grain of truth. First, what distinguishes civilized, fully human creatures from monsters is their practice of artistry. But, second and at the same time, pure art always somehow escapes human practice, as though held at a distance in a book that mortal minds can briefly touch and yet that mortal hands will eventually soil—make sottish. Finally, Caliban diminishes Prospero's stature from a self-impressed artist to the lowliness that, once Prospero fully recognizes it, can plant his humility. On Prospero's willingness to lower himself in the glass of his own imagination hinges the relative success of his art.


Prospero reaches a distinct turning point in The Tempest, where he demonstrates a seemingly new humility in respect to his own art. It comes in 4.1, when he cuts off the masque. Previous critical analyses of this scene have concentrated on the parallels between the content of the masque—Pluto's kidnapping of Proserpine behind Ceres' back—and Prospero's history: Caliban remains at large, stalking Miranda. Of greater significance, however, is what happens to Prospero as he recognizes this parallel. What starts as a thinly veiled injunction against the young couple's prenuptial love-making ends as a warning to the artist himself. While witnessing the adverse consequences of Ceres' obliviousness to Proserpine's well-being—a devastating mistake that Ceres still rues and because of which she is now more circumspect (88-91)—Prospero connects the artistic vision with his own grievous experience, recognizing his parental obligation to Miranda: “I had forgot that foul conspiracy / Of the beast Caliban and his confederates / Against my life” (139-41). He takes the moral instruction of the masque to heart, learning about his own conduct from his own art. Apparently reordering his thinking, he moves his focus from Ferdinand's responsibility to safeguard Miranda's chastity to his own.

Such re-vision, in addition to protecting Prospero from the charge of hypocrisy, shows that he is being humbled, as reflected in his metamorphosing views of his artifice. He at first glibly calls the masque “[s]ome vanity of mine art” (41), at least striking an appropriately self-effacing pose. As the masque proceeds, however, the artist and Shakespeare's audience come to understand the real sense in which the masque is vain. Now Ferdinand, repeating Prospero's youthful history, is lured by the delight of this “vision” and longs to escape into its false freedom (118): “Let me live here ever; / So rare a wond'red father and a wise / Makes this place Paradise” (122-24). The danger of art's beauty and idealization, with which Prospero has long been wrestling, is that it will distract its audience or its maker from applying its moral content where it is most needed, in the fallen world. Ferdinand's relative inexperience also obscures from his perception much of what Prospero, who has suffered the consequences of such oblivion, can learn from it. For Ferdinand, then, the masque threatens to dwindle into a vehicle of self-admiration, a trifling entertainment, a “vanity.”

When Prospero suspends the masque to attend to life, he avoids such youthful error and lowers his pride sufficiently to objectify his art. But he also restores a much-needed perspective on the role of art in life, reestablishing art's purpose as that of serving life, which is to say serving social, rather than private, ends. Prospero has in this case, as in earlier ones, egotistically coached Ferdinand's idolatry with more false modesty toward the “[s]pirits, which … / I have from their confines call'd to enact / By my present fancies” (120-22). Yet in 4.1 Ferdinand's ill-advised attraction, so like his own toward the wonders of pure contemplation, seems to register with him. Not long after Ferdinand makes his comment, Prospero breaks off the masque, as though he suddenly comprehends the potential egoism implicit in the remark and reacts against it: “Well done, avoid; no more” (142).40

Prospero's ambivalence toward the uses of art, however, persists in 4.1 and is so delicately scripted as to resist verbal analysis. On the one hand, his vestigial enchantment with art for its own sake tends to draw him away from social responsibility and into the selfish pleasures of his own mind. On the other hand, the traces of his suffering coerce his attention to the needs of others, visible in his urge to abandon his borrowed magic. He is still tempted, even as late as 4.1, not to do what the virtue implicit in his own art tells him he must, so that his virtuous action, once chosen, indeed seems a narrow escape out of pride and despair into humility and faith. His speeches in the remainder of the play are riddled with comparably subtle tension. His sense of social responsibility, which prompts him to end the masque, is tinged with “anger” and “distemper” (4.1.145), suggesting his unresolved emotions. The famous comparison that follows, between the transience of artistic illusion and that of human life, both extols artifice for mimicking reality and disparages anything human for its impermanence (4.1.146-58). Prospero's equally celebrated valedictory to magic in 5.1 alternates between boasts of his superhuman “command” over nature and more modest references to the “[w]eak” spirits he controls and to his “rough magic” (48, 41, 50).

This evidence of Prospero's remaining confusion shows that the final stage of his conversion, as he experiences it, is not mechanical. But it does occur. And it is living, in many senses—chiefly, in that it evolves erratically, unevenly. No sooner than he interrupts the masque to save his dukedom and his daughter than he regresses to enjoying his fantasies of brutalizing Caliban (4.1.258-61). In this ironic instance, he readily exchanges hard-won sympathy for the familiar dispassion he long ago showed Antonio. Yet Prospero makes clear strides toward human kindness that, like his openness to the substance of his own masque, demonstrate art's power to perform spiritual alchemy. Even if Prospero succeeded in teaching no one but himself, his example alone would legitimate his art, so far has he come in twelve years' time toward transforming his and others' mistakes into “loving wrong” (1.2.151).

Prospero's susceptibility to the moral instruction of his own art has significant implications for his use of art to teach others as well. Any art in The Tempest that finally proves capable of improving human nature derives its potency from invading and manipulating the audience's conscience through its emotions. But such invasiveness revives familiar reservations about Prospero's presumptuousness. Twelve years after his exile, Prospero, still wavering between pride and humility, deems necessary the use of vicarious loss to convert Alonso and to chasten Ferdinand. In Alonso's case, this strategy seems especially extreme: it is the death of a child, felt as if real because imagined to be real. No bereavement could be more painful. The exploitation of such power craves adequate justification, in addition to that already discussed—in particular, Prospero's willingness to subject himself to moral standards as high as those he expects his audience to embrace. On three additional grounds, Prospero's right to practice meddlesome artistry can be considered wise and can be distinguished from both the tyranny that marks Antonio's usurpation and his own bendings toward pride.

First, Prospero's strenuous effort to teach the characters he manipulates is called for because they repeatedly exhibit cruel and violent—inhumane—behavior, which they show no signs of amending on their own. Numerous critics have recently blamed Prospero for inciting such behavior in Caliban; some would also judge Prospero indirectly guilty of Antonio's crimes, imagining, for example, that he seduces Antonio to attempt a second usurpation in 2.1 and, beyond that, shrewdly engineers a marriage through which Milan will pass from Prospero to Ferdinand, altogether dispossessing his maligned younger brother. Stephen Orgel argues both of these points in condemning Prospero for robbing Antonio's ability to “act of his own free will.”41 He implies that Prospero practically forces Antonio to plot against Alonso so that, “at the play's end,” he will “still [have] usurpation and attempted murder to hold against his brother, things that will still disqualify Antonio from his place in the family” (111). The outcome of Prospero's machinations to rid Europe of Antonio, springing from some mysterious malignancy in Prospero's character, is, according to Orgel, that “Prospero has not regained his lost dukedom, he has usurped his brother's” (111).

But, surely, to consider so is to consider too curiously. Not only does making Prospero the villain of The Tempest require gyrations of reasoning about the plot that a theater audience would be hard-pressed to undertake (even during postproduction reflection), but it also rests on assumptions about the plot for which textual evidence is lacking. When Orgel states about the “conspiracy” in 2.1, for instance, that it is “certainly part of [Prospero's] project,” he neglects quite another possible understanding of the episode.42 The script divulges only two elements of the scene that are incontestably instigated by Prospero: Ariel's soporific music (184-98) and Ariel's wake-up call to Gonzalo (300-305). Why the rest occurs between lines 184 and 305 is anybody's guess. Granted, some circumstantial evidence implicates Prospero in setting up Antonio and Sebastian: Ariel likely exits just after Alonso has fallen asleep (2.1.198), perhaps depriving the other two of their chance to do the same, and that Ariel earlier agrees to follow “[a]ll points” of Prospero's “command” “[t]o th' syllable” hints that Prospero is willing every detail of the action in 2.1 (1.2.501). Other explanations of the scene, however, make more sense and require less elaborate reasoning—for instance, that Antonio and Sebastian are untouched by Ariel's music because they are wicked men, not because Prospero wills them to stay conscious.43 Indeed, insofar as Prospero is involved at all, he seems to be discouraging the intrigue to which Antonio and Sebastian are prone, having Ariel rouse Gonzalo to “keep” all of these folks “living” (299). Furthermore, Ariel says only that Prospero “through his art foresees the danger” to Gonzalo (297), not that Prospero has caused the conspiracy. Anyone who has ever become embroiled in debating the theological distinction between foreseeing and willing events knows better than to assume they are identical.

On balance, Prospero hardly seems responsible for encouraging the second fall of Antonio, who by his own admission lacks a conscience (276-80). The circumstances that Prospero's art brings about in this scene are intended, rather, to test the current mettle of the men whose moral turpitude was verified twelve years earlier. In this arena, although admittedly one of Prospero's designing, two of these men freely elect not merely to sin again but to descend farther than ever into sin by committing murder. No, if Prospero is to be charged with abusing his magic, it cannot be for assaying the virtue of his one-time malefactors or, for that matter, for reinforcing Ferdinand's love through similar trial (4.1.1-11). Both ploys are necessary for ascertaining responsibly the degree to which further artistry is warranted and of protecting himself and Miranda against repeated misfortune.

The second consideration in determining the legitimacy of Prospero's severe and invasive tactics with the nobles is whether his art remains in line with providential ends in this most crucial of cases. Here, too, I think that Prospero's motives have lately been misunderstood. Not that he thoroughly skirts and resists the temptation to vengeance. As we have seen, his failures to teach Caliban give rise to a strong, desperate desire to punish Caliban and his cohorts. Nor is he above relishing the power in which he holds the nobles when it is at its apex: “At this hour / Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” (4.1.262-63). Indeed, the very revenge within Prospero's grasp is itself a metaphor for the ultimate tyranny of one person over another. Yet to read most of his artistic endeavors with the nobles as fostered mainly by pride is to misjudge him. Prospero's foremost objective is to awaken the faith that ushers in grace.

Greenblatt stops short of understanding Prospero's motives completely, I believe, when he writes that Prospero aims merely to arouse anxiety. Although Greenblatt marshals some historical evidence to argue that anxiety in itself was seen by theologians of the time as a “necessary precondition of the reassurance of salvation,” in The Tempest the majority of anxiety that Prospero elicits is neither an end in itself nor a direct path to salvation.44 Rather, it is a form of role-playing whose immediate goal is to evoke one's compassion for others' suffering and, promptly thereafter, remorse for the suffering one has caused others. Such contrition may eventually lead to conversion and salvation, as Prospero hopes it will (5.1.28-30). While Prospero's art works to promote just such remorse, it simultaneously encourages faith, itself the complement of grace, by stimulating the sympathetic imagination. Both goals—the arousal of contrition and of faith—cooperate with Providence.

The banquet scene in 3.3 details how Prospero's art seeks to conjure both the suffering that leads to penitence and salvific faith in the “three men of sin.” Kermode identifies this scene as one of temptation, which it surely is, both by virtue of its allusion to Job 20:23, 2745 and because it parallels the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. But the belief that the illusory banquet stirs in the minds of those who are tempted by it is also an important component in the process of repentance, which can become mired in despair. Indeed, although Ariel subverts the hungry men's pleasurable expectations when he and his spirits dismantle the banquet, thus making the impact of his austere sermon all the greater, the sinners' faith has, immediately before, already been exercised. It therefore stands ready to modulate the “ecstasy” brought on by “their great guilt,” freshly remembered in response to Ariel's accusations (108, 104). Moreover, the belief that the nobles express as they approach the banquet is one of pure awe, admiration; it retrieves a measure of their lost innocence. They are drawn not to the feast as flesh but to the apparition as wonder:

A living drollery. Now I will believe
That there are unicorns; that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix' throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.
I'll believe both;
And what does else want credit, come to me,
And I'll be sworn 'tis true. …
If in Naples
I should report this now, would they believe me?


Sebastian speaks truer than he realizes by calling the image a “living drollery.” The art here is, in a real sense, living because it acts upon the souls of its audience. This faith in the reality of Prospero's illusion will prove key in the final scene, where the same characters' faith will be tested one last time, principally by being confronted by the apparent mirage of Prospero's person. The newfound credulity of Sebastian and Antonio at the banquet, a credulity for which Gonzalo had earlier appeared to them such a fool (2.1), will remain in their memory even after Ariel has interrupted it to plunge them into the “desperat[ion]” of self-recognition (104).46

A similar interaction in Prospero's artistic methods between implanting grief and allaying it informs nearly every facet of his overall design. To cite another example, Ariel's song for Ferdinand moves him, uncannily, in two opposed ways: it convinces him, first, of his father's fictional death and, second, of Alonso's “sea-change / Into something rich and strange” (1.2.401-2). In actuality this is his father's ultimate destiny, although, unbeknownst to Ferdinand, it will be delayed. The song, then, is another “living drollery,” acting as a catalyst in Ferdinand's mind and spirit. It introduces him—prematurely and yet none too soon—to faith in a beauty beyond death's sadness.

Prospero's extreme measures for touching off complex spiritual chemistry in the nobles, then, are authorized both by the ambitiousness of his project and by the enormity of his audience-subjects, who grow ever greedier, ever more callous. As Friar Francis advises in Much Ado about Nothing when he proposes to counterfeit Hero's death by slander: “to strange sores strangely they strain the cure” (4.1.252). Still, Prospero's methods are less severe than those of revenge tragedy, wherein the solution to awakening people to the pain they have caused is to inflict real pain, by maiming, killing, and psychologically torturing. Prospero seeks to share his injury by reviving or implanting it in the fantasies of those who have hurt him and could do so again. On the other side of their horrific imaginings, moreoever, lies the possibility of regret for the torment they have caused Prospero and of human compassion born of shared grief. Through his artistry, Prospero offers his brother Antonio a great gift—the imaginative capacity required for sympathetic understanding.

The third and final problem to address about the extraordinary lengths to which Prospero takes his artistry is also the most crucial and the most difficult to resolve. It is that of whether the results of his labors justify his strategies, which often edge on high-handedness. To what degree and in what sense do Prospero's efforts produce the most desirable effect: an inward turning in his artistic and political subjects toward spiritual freedom in this world?

Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio compose, in that order, a spectrum of possible responses to Prospero's manipulations. Alonso so obviously undergoes and, at various points, articulates his reversal that further commentary than that already included here is superfluous. For his sincere “heart's sorrow,” expressed both to Prospero and to his son (5.1.116-19, 197-98), and for a “clear life ensuing” (3.3.81-82), he is given a “second life,” embodied in his recovered son Ferdinand (5.1.195).

Sebastian's case, although less overt than Alonso's, is not, in the end, as cryptic as is often asserted. When he first awakens from his trance, his faith in Prospero's virtue—and, by extension, his own heart's sorrow—are still unsound, as his aside evinces: “The devil speaks in him” (5.1.129). Prospero's magical ability to hear his doubt, however, unites with the tableau of the children playing chess to induce his long-awaited conversion to faith: “A most high miracle!” (5.1.177). Whether because this last of Prospero's spectacles owes more to palpable reality than to illusion, or because the sight of restored, loving children melts down Sebastian's resistance, he is brought to testify, as it were, before our eyes.47

Antonio's reaction to Prospero's stratagems is silence. It is, therefore, impenetrable: although we can safely assume that, were he fully converted, his lines would indicate as much, neither does he speak to the contrary. He makes one more lame joke before the play closes, implying less defiance of than indifference to Prospero's high hopes that he will transform (5.1.265-66). But the actor playing Antonio has little to go on as to Antonio's inner feelings and thoughts. Earlier, during the banquet scene, he showed clear evidence of being spiritually moved. But in 5.1, however affected he may be internally, he stops short of voicing the ecstasy that seizes Sebastian and Alonso. Taken together, then, these three fellows suggest a range of outlook, from faith to skepticism.

Less mystifying than Antonio's reserve, I believe, is Caliban's promise: “I'll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace” (5.1.295-96). Even in view of his fear of Prospero's punishment—“I shall be pinch'd to death” (5.1.276)—and despite Prospero's threatening tone in the lines that precede his claim to reform, his pledge rings true because punishments, real or portended, have not changed him in the past. The distinguishing mark of his earlier vituperation for Prospero, in fact, is that it is involuntary, compulsive—necessitated by his anger and capable of drowning other consideration: “His spirits hear me, / And yet I needs must curse. … For every trifle they are set upon me” (2.2.3-4, 8). In the play's last scene, rather than pretending to win Prospero's “grace,” Caliban is at long last reflecting the lessons that experience teaches: “What a thrice-double ass / Was I to take this drunkard for a god, / And worship this dull fool!” (5.1.296-98). Clearly, what Prospero has taken as Caliban's inability to learn has been in truth the inadequacy of Prospero's art to teach—or, at the least, to teach effectively. In this regard, Caliban remains the virtual emblem of Prospero's pride.

With this reversal in Caliban's attitude toward Prospero's moral discipline comes, first, the audience's increased awareness that Caliban's brutality to date has been a form of the same innocence that vexes Miranda's comfortable and effective engagement in the real, fallen world. Perhaps what truly reaches Caliban, as the play's underplot unfolds, is not so much Prospero's intervention—the tempting wardrobe on the lime tree, for instance—but, more, the direct exposure, independent of the pedagogy that Prospero has arranged for him, with men who have far less to recommend them as rulers than does his master. Through his interaction with Trinculo and Stephano, that is, Caliban has had opportunity to see for himself, absorbing naturally—and, as he perceives of it, freely—the broader truth about his presumed slavery to Prospero. Whether or not Prospero's relative inattention to Caliban toward the day's end largely accounts for the latter's change (and it may), the outcome of that change lies chiefly in Caliban's altered understanding of service and freedom. As he discovers for himself that Stephano and Trinculo are false idols (for example, 3.2.63-67), his trust in the “freedom” they can supply him by “destroy[ing]” Prospero wanes (2.2.186-87, 4.1.224). It is replaced by another kind of trust, that in the “grace” that follows from being “wise”—in this case, wisdom gained through partaking in the folly of this world (5.1.296-98). Surely Prospero, at his most lucid, would prefer that Caliban's service issue from such freedom and trust, rather than from the bondage of punishment or from forcible instruction. Prospero's forbearance toward Caliban represents a small relaxation of his grip but just enough of a release to initiate a reversal in how the two characters interact. Caliban arrives morally where, with Prospero's continued guidance, he can begin to choose his submission freely, as Miranda and Ferdinand come to do (5.1.293-94).48

But the spell by which Prospero has sought to control Caliban is actually broken earlier, just several lines above Caliban's professed conversion, when Prospero makes public his affinity with his nemesis: “this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5.1.275-76). This begrudging acceptance has been variously interpreted; it has even been seen as Prospero's admission of his responsibility for making Caliban into a cursing, rapacious creature.49 In the play's larger moral context, however, with special regard to the role that Montaigne's “Of Cannibals” plays in shaping that context, Prospero's self-recognition pertains to his resemblance to Caliban, to his own proclivity to behave barbarically, monstrously. That awareness being in place, Prospero is positioned to abandon pride, better understand the quality of mercy, and return to Milanese society balancing political control against self-control. In Prospero's shift to reentering the world by accepting his human failings and needs lies his chance at spiritual freedom.50

Reminiscent of Duke Vincentio before him, Prospero seems in this and other cases to be taken surprise by his own artistry, only to discover himself more influenced by his art than is his audience. When the earlier duke's attempts to reform Vienna meet with disappointment, he adapts accordingly, a process that continues throughout the play. In contrast, Prospero's transformation, from avoiding the world to participating in it, has already in large part occurred when the play begins. Thus, Prospero reacts to moments of defeat less by changing than by adjusting. The Tempest, then, records the last hours of a seasoned character's moral growth. Yet much the same process transpires in both dukes. They simultaneously release pride and are released from it by becoming attentive audiences to the artifice they create, thus willingly humbling themselves. Even for Prospero, however, this process is ongoing, always heading toward and yet never reaching resolution. He begins and ends in some tension, albeit tension that gradually finds certain mitigation. The refusal of The Tempest to resolve all difficulties being granted, the play nevertheless portrays a progression. Prospero fails very little in his broader aims, obviously moving others to feel more deeply, if not inspiring Antonio to repent. Such fruits help to vindicate his medding; though Prospero's means are imperfect, they are minimally presumptuous. And they work.51

Paradoxically (one last time), more evidence that Prospero's invasive strategies have left their imprint on the creator himself emerges in his restraint from foisting them any further on Antonio. Like his tentative acceptance of his kinship to Caliban, this ultimate step on Prospero's part involves some hesitation. As act 5 opens, Prospero is clearly thinking of his mercy toward all three offenders as conditional: “They being penitent, / The sole drift of my purpose doth extend / Not a frown further” (28-30). Characteristically, he has as yet given no thought to the possibility that his “so potent art” might not work a minor miracle of repentance on absolutely everyone (5.1.50). Then again, the “solemn air” that he has played to “cure” the spellbound men's “brains” is “heavenly music,” justifying Prospero's faith in its efficacy (5.1.58-59, 52). When even divine assistance stops short of realizing his hopes, however, Prospero affirms the free nature of mercy, which is not itself unless rendered unconditionally. He must deal spontaneously with his failure to convert Antonio as easily as Alonso was changed. Addressing the awakened Antonio, he reveals his intent to release his brother from his debt, even if Antonio remains unreformed: “I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art” (5.1.78-79). Prospero still feels the pangs caused him by his brother's betrayal, for which Antonio has yet to express open regret, and this unresolved tension darkens his pardon with tints of his own frailty: “For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother / Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive / Thy rankest fault—all of them” (5.1.30-32). Strained though it may be by his own vulnerability and judgmentalism, it is nevertheless free and freeing grace.52 What is possibly even more remarkable about the scene's end than Prospero's generosity is his self-restraint; once Antonio seems spiritually static, Prospero refrains from further prodding—from trying to stir up his guilt, bring about his confession, or renew his faith in a power beyond his own ego.

Prospero's forfeiture of control over the likes of Antonio—an act paralleling his abjuration of his magic—represents the key risk required of him as he makes his way back to worldly affairs. Experience has taught him that he cannot afford to set an unregenerate Antonio loose, particularly without the borrowed powers that have helped him manage and contain Antonio's treachery on the island. Yet Prospero has no other choice than to trust Antonio even as he moves to trust himself. Such irrational faith—a version of Saint Anthony's wise folly—spiritually exonerates Prospero, too. At the same time, it makes possible—inescapable—his commitment to the worldly prospect of serving Milan. In The Tempest, to adapt Saint Paul's words, wisdom with God is, in large measure, the foolishness of this world.


As in all English Renaissance plays where Antonios take substantial roles, in this one, too, arises the problem of reconciling unbounded love with all-too-real boundaries, boundaries imposed upon human beings by virtue of their corruption in their corrupt sphere. In Prospero's brother, whose literary-theatrical heritage immediately attaches him to the conception of wise folly, a shift occurs: he becomes the object, rather than the donor, of charity. As successor to Antonios whose extravagant love issues from a source beyond our ken, this Antonio confronts us with the opposite mystery, the unfathomable origin of evil. Miranda's early comment—that “Good wombs have borne bad sons” (1.2.120)—explains little more about Antonio's unplumbed depths than does his silence in the last act. From first to last, he is an inscrutable and perhaps intractable force to be reckoned with, the acceptance of whose elusiveness is the ultimate phase in Prospero's return to social responsibility.53 Antonio's unruliness stands for all the reasons that Prospero veers away from ruling: he cannot be contained by Prospero's idealism and theorems. Yet, if Prospero waited until he could predict and mold every subject's actions, he would never again govern Milan.

Failing to command Antonio absolutely, he can nevertheless, as Montaigne would have it, minister to his own capacity for monstrosity, a recognition implicit in his grace toward Antonio, however tense, and crucial in recreating himself as both brother and ruler. In this light, even Prospero's brother remains true to the type of the Renaissance stage Antonio. His capacity to inspire love as intact as that of the Antonio in Twelfth Night, he merely serves Prospero unwittingly and probably unwillingly. The Antonio in The Tempest, then, is a “false brother” in many senses of the epithet (1.2.92). He is not only deceitful, as Prospero literally intends, or even, in Prospero's more figurative sense, just unbrotherly. Finally, he is also Prospero's shadow—not illusory but insubstantial relative to Prospero's active charity. By the play's end, Antonio has ceased to be the agent determining Prospero's course, or fueling his emotions, or alleviating his sense of blame for his predicament. Once Prospero becomes answerable for his own choices, Antonio fades into obscurity, set free to determine his own course. Deprived of so much as a word about his dumbness, he makes the Antonio in Merchant appear positively well-adjusted. He has, indeed, changed places with Prospero and lags behind Caliban, his spiritual paralysis rendering him a social outcast.

If Prospero is not, in the end, his subjects' equal, he is close, as is manifest in his warm summons to all of them: “Please you draw near” (5.1.319). Prospero's strong toil of grace is punctuated by such moments when he lets go of attempts to dominate what he cannot control and rebinds himself, in humility, to the collective effort of civilizing humanity. The narrative of his renewed commitment repeatedly implies that “temporal things,” in Walter's words, “are all means through which we shape our souls to an order of love.”54 In The Tempest, to ignore this world, which entraps the likes of Antonio and Caliban, threatens to enslave Prospero in the disarray of self-love. As Montaigne quotes Saint Augustine: “He who praises the nature of the soul as the sovereign good and condemns the nature of the flesh as evil, truly both carnally desires the soul and carnally shuns the flesh; for his feeling is inspired by human vanity, not by divine truth.”55 The emphasis on the spirituality of the flesh is apt. Prospero's great achievement is restoring some, if not all, equilibrium to his political life and social outlook—in a sense, making the word flesh.

Prospero's Epilogue concentrates into his plea for freedom the moral process he has undergone. The pattern of thought here is elegantly simple: he has given up the power he could use against his offenders, releasing them from his debt; now, he asks the audience not to level that same power against him by judging him ill for his mercy but to deliver him from blame. As he has overlooked cause to censure Antonio, he begs that his faults, too, will be pardoned.56 To do otherwise is to neglect willfully the sense of the play. The Epilogue has power to dislodge the audience from passivity because it confronts us with our own need for unconditional love, a discomforting prospect. Much as Prospero might have permanently displaced his own vices onto Antonio or Caliban, so we can hold him accountable for all the imperfections that dissatisfy us at the play's end. We can keep clinging to a trivial kind of power by quibbling over blame.

Or, as the Epilogue urges, we can begin again. Doing so requires us to recognize in ourselves the demons that still plague us even as Prospero dissolves into thin air. The last action of The Tempest consists in returning us, too, to the material world, nagging questions, imperfections, and all. Yet, through its portrayal of Prospero's experience, the play also carefully cultivates the audience's sense of belonging to that humble world. Permitting Antonio's crimes to go unrepented and his own “crimes” to be publicly displayed (Epilogue, 19), Prospero at once throws himself at our mercy and aligns himself with Providence. To do as he requests is to retreat from pride, “dancing up to th' chins” in the “filthy-mantled pool” that is our present home.


  1. John Milton, Areopagitica, in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957), 728.

    In an essay on Prospero as both wise man and hero, Paul Cantor concludes that “The Tempest … stresses the difference between knowledge and lack of it” (“Shakespeare's The Tempest: The Wise Man as Hero,” Shakespeare Quarterly 31 [1980]: 75). By contrast, I think The Tempest stresses the difference between the virtuous use and the abuse of knowledge.

  2. Recent scholarship that pays particular attention to either classical or Christian influences (or both) on The Tempest includes that of David Beauregard, Virtue's Own Feature; Lynette Cook Black, “Suppertime at Six: Prospero's New Creation,” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 15 (1989): 59-72; Cantor, “Wise Man as Hero”; E. J. Devereux, “Sacramental Imagery in The Tempest,The Humanities Association Bulletin (Canada) 19 (1968): 50-62; R. A. D. Grant, “Providence, Authority, and the Moral Life in The Tempest,Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 235-63; Mary Ellen Rickey, “Prospero's Living Drolleries,” Renaissance Papers 1964: 35-42; James Walter, “From Tempest to Epilogue: Augustine's Allegory in Shakespeare's Drama,” PMLA 98 (1983): 60-76; and Rosemary Wright, “Prospero's Lime Tree and the Pursuit of ‘Vanitas,’” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 133-40.

    The idea that the effects of virtue are properly realized in the world is not, in itself, necessarily non-Christian, as attested by the Catholic doctrine of good works and the Protestant notion that good works naturally follow from saving faith. Yet Shakespeare is clearly referring in The Tempest to the classical notion that gnosis should result in praxis, the notion that Sidney uses in The Apology for Poetry to defend the capacity of imaginative literature to instill practical virtue. Narrowly speaking, that notion conflicts with Paul's that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Nonetheless, part of the wisdom that proliferated around Saint Anthony himself took a temperate approach toward shunning participation in this world, as discussed in chap. 1.

  3. Probably Harry Berger should be credited with the most influential stand toward what he calls the “sentimental” reading of Prospero and the play (“Miraculous Harp: A Reading of Shakespeare's Tempest,Shakespeare Studies 5 [1969]: 254), against which he proposed a “hard-nosed” interpretation (279 n. 3). Meredith Anne Skura's parallel terms—“idealist” versus “revisionist” (“Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest,Shakespeare Quarterly 40 [1989]: 42-43)—may not fully capture the degree to which the two camps often differ in their understanding of Prospero and The Tempest. The “revisionists” include mainly new historicists, interested in the play's colonialist content, and psychological critics, two groups whose interests Skura seeks to correlate. For a challenging essay on the matter of approaching The Tempest from a new historicist/cultural materialist perspective, see Russ McDonald (“Reading The Tempest,Shakespeare Survey 44 [1991]: 15-28), and for an intriguing discussion of continuities between modernist and new historicist approaches to Shakespeare, see Richard Halpern's “Shakespeare in the Tropics: From High Modernism to New Historicism” (Representations 45 [1994]: 1-25).

  4. Berger, “Miraculous Harp,” 254.

  5. One of the bleakest views of the play's conclusion must be Jan Kott's: “The ending of The Tempest is more disturbing than that of any other Shakespearean drama” (Shakespeare Our Contemporary [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964], 164).

  6. Grant, “Providence,” 254.

  7. Walter, “Tempest to Epilogue,” 71.

  8. As early as 1937, D. G. James attributed much the same phenomenon to The Tempest (Scepticism and Poetry: An Essay on the Poetic Imagination [London: George Allen, 1937]). Yet to him any disjunction between symbol and meaning grew out of Shakespeare's restlessness with conventional myths and symbols, which proved “inadequate to embody all that was present in [his] imagination” (220). “Driven to be unfaithful” to convention (220), he minted less fixed, sometimes ambiguous symbols. James cites Caliban's “sense of glory” about the island's enchantment as just such a “complication of symbolism” (227).

    See also Anne Barton on this same defiance of The Tempest to be reduced (introduction to The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, New Penguin ed. [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968], e.g., 17, 21-22).

  9. Thomas More, Utopia, 67.

  10. Critics have long been fascinated by Prospero's suggestions, however conscious they may or may not be, of his shared guilt in Antonio's temptation. See, for example, Berger (“Miraculous Harp,” 254); James Black (“The Latter End of Prospero's Commonwealth,” Shakespeare Survey 44 [1991]:31); Devereux (“Sacramental Imagery,” 53); and Stephen Orgel (“Prospero's Wife,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's “The Tempest,” ed. Harold Bloom [New York: Chelsea House, 1988], 110).

  11. Michael de Montaigne, “Of Cannibals,” in Essays, trans. John Florio, ed. J. I. M. Stewart (New York: Modern Library, 1933).

  12. Walter, “Tempest to Epilogue,” 65.

    Cf., e.g., Frank Kermode's comments on the relationship between “Of Cannibals” and The Tempest, which are related to his widely influential view that “Caliban is the core of the play” (The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, New Arden, 6th ed. [New York: Methuen, 1958], xxxiv-xxxviii). As my argument will continue to show, I would contend that Prospero is at the play's heart.

  13. Several critics have cited similar evidence—for example, Walter (“Tempest to Epilogue,” 67) and William G. Masden, who notes, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” (“The Destiny of Man in The Tempest,Emory University Quarterly 20 [1964]: 176). Alden T. and Virginia Mason Vaughan include an especially clear paragraph, in their book about Caliban, proposing that Montaigne purveys “cultural relativism”: “Brazilian cannibals, Montaigne asserted with acerbic irony, are more virtuous than their French contemporaries” (Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991], 47).

  14. Montaigne, “Of Cannibals,” 163, 166, 167.

  15. Stephen Greenblatt and Karen Flagstad see reason in this parallel to wonder whether Prospero is actually responsible for Caliban's cursing, symbolic of his barbarity and hatred (Greenblatt, “Learning to Curse”: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century,” in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture [New York: Routledge, 1990], passim; Flagstad, “‘Making this Place Paradise’: Prospero and the Problem of Caliban in The Tempest,Shakespeare Studies 18 [1986]: 206). I think that such an argument goes too far, although, as will become clear, I would agree with both writers that Caliban represents to Prospero the barbarism in himself that he would just as soon ignore.

  16. Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus, in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Roma Gill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 2:13.15.

  17. I can only agree with the now shrinking number of editors who reassign the most despairing speech in 1.2 from Miranda (as in the Folio) to Prospero:

                                                      Abhorred slave,
    Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
    Being capable of all ill! …
                                                      thy vild race
    (Though thou didst learn) had that in't which good natures
    Could not abide to be with.


    I suppose that the trauma of being attacked might account for this single instance in the whole play where Miranda sounds like her father: in her emotional turmoil, she may have absorbed Prospero's cynical view of Caliban, as well as the harsh language in which he typically condemns Caliban. But common sense seems to me to dictate otherwise. This speech has nothing in common with Miranda's outlook or language elsewhere in the play, although it does echo many of Prospero's sentiments about Caliban's inability to grow morally, including some expressed in this very scene, as in lines 345-48.

    “Human care” is “humane care” in the Folio (1.2.346).

  18. The tendency of new historicist and psychological criticism has been to sentimentalize Caliban so much as to make Prospero's suppression of him seem thoroughly unfair. A good example would be Bernard J. Paris, for whom Caliban's illicit behavior appears virtually insignificant: “Prospero's rationalization of his treatment of Caliban works so well that the majority of critics have accepted his point of view and have felt that Caliban deserves what he gets, although some have been sympathetic toward Caliban's suffering and uneasy about Prospero's behavior” (“The Tempest: Shakespeare's Ideal Solution,” in Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman N. Holland (and introd.), Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988], 216). While I am not denying that Prospero's extreme harshness toward Caliban is linked to a problem in Prospero's character, I would argue vigorously that “Caliban's suffering” naturally results in large part from suffering he has caused.

  19. Several critics have taken approaches similar to mine in portraying Prospero as a character defined by struggle. See particularly Flagstad (“‘Making this Place Paradise,’” 218-28) and Skura (“Discourse,” esp. 57-69) on the tension in Prospero's psyche between what he desires and what he can actually have, and Paris's discussion of the Horneyan paradigm in relation to both Prospero and Shakespeare (“Ideal Solution,” passim). See also Peggy Muñoz Simonds on Prospero as an Orpheus, who must “master his own baser passions” in exercising art and statecraft (“‘Sweet Power of Music’: The Political Magic of ‘the Miraculous Harp’ in Shakespeare's The Tempest,Comparative Drama 29 [1995]: 64).

  20. For example, Flagstad believes that Prospero intends vengeance (“‘Making this Place Paradise,’” 206, passim), as does Alvin B. Kerman (The Playwright as Magician: Shakespeare's Image of the Poet in the English Public Theater [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979], 140); Paris argues that Prospero's magic enables him to relieve his vengeful feelings without actually enacting revenge (“Ideal Solution,” 212, passim); but most critical studies clearly state or assume that Prospero never means to take revenge from the very beginning. Barton stresses the audience's ignorance as to what Prospero intends through the first four acts (introduction to The Tempest, 9, 12, 16).

  21. Skura, “Discourse,” 63. Skura's context is somewhat different from mine in that she is discussing Caliban as an embodiment of traits that Prospero is loath to accept about himself, but, ultimately, we are both addressing Prospero's limited understanding.

  22. I wish for clearer words here because Shakespeare's use of them, although frequent, does not always preserve the distinctions that I am according them. Take, for instance, Ferdinand's lines to Miranda in 3.1:

    The very instant that I saw you, did
    My heart fly to your service, there resides,
    To make me slave to it, and for your sake
    Am I this patient log-man.


    Here, slave has about it a flavor of courtly love, which, although it does not obscure Ferdinand's willing love (“service”), muddles the semantics a bit.

    Ariel is the obvious exception to my two categories, since he craves absolute freedom after Prospero releases him from the cloven pine. I shall discuss his example more fully below.

  23. Walter describes mercy in The Tempest as that virtue which, especially as formulated in the Epilogue, gives “all human words, deeds, and creation … their final meaning” (“Tempest to Epilogue,” 73).

  24. Cf. Grant's definition of Providence as “not God himself …, but God's purpose in the world” (“Providence,” 239). See also Grant on Prospero as “minister of Providence” (241-42) and on the relationship of freedom and self-restraint (255).

    Although Grant sees Gonzalo as “in his limited way a direct human representative of the Providential power that lies behind the play” (249), I think that Gonzalo's portrait is finally more perplexing and, alas, less satisfying than Grant asserts. In addition to the allegorical value Grant assigns him, Gonzalo extends Shakespeare's study of loyal service that pervades The Winter's Tale, especially in the figures of Camillo and Antigonus. Much like Antigonus, Gonzalo good-naturedly, but uncritically, carries out whatever orders his superiors issue. If he has supplied Prospero with staples and books (1.2.160-68), he has also refrained from objecting to the exile in the first place. For this problematic loyalty to the regime at any cost, Prospero and others pay dear. Moreover, although Prospero does not resent Gonzalo's role in his banishment, his liberality seems to stem less from Gonzalo's past behavior itself than from Prospero's willingness to interpret that behavior exclusively in terms of its liberality.

  25. This connection with Providence, I think, accounts for why, as Kermode notes, Art is capitalized throughout the Folio (The Tempest, xli).

    Cf. to Ariel's “not forgetting” in line 73 his “remember” in line 68.

  26. In this regard, if in no other, Prospero resembles Cleopatra: she fulfills both private and political goals through her suicide, while his art is capable of reconciling the private with both the political and the providential. See chap. 4.

  27. Such struggle also characterizes Prospero's predecessor, the artist Paulina in The Winter's Tale. For, even as she upholds the oracle of Apollo in her treatment of Leontes (3.2.134-36), she must also be tempted to take personal vengeance on Leontes for having killed her husband Antigonus and, presumably, her lady Hermione. Caught between duty and self-interest, she treads a fine line between faith in Leontes' ability to repent and despair that he ever can (3.2.207-24). Though she has no right to doubt that Leontes can be forgiven, she has reason.

  28. Harriet Hawkins, Classics and Trash: Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 179. See also Maurice Hunt, who discusses “shared passion,” including compassion, as the basis of “personal and general salvation in The Tempest” (Shakespeare's Labored Art: Stir, Work, and the Late Plays [New York: Peter Lang, 1995], 189-90).

  29. See especially Ariel's song—“Full fadom five thy father lies” (1.2.397-405)—and Alonso's description of Ferdinand as “mudded in that oozy bed” (5.1.151).

  30. James Black observes that, as Miranda gains independence from Prospero, she behaves increasingly like Antonio (“Latter End,” 30-31), a point that underscores the inevitable and marked transition from innocence to experience.

  31. Beauregard points out that “according to Aristotle and Thomas, wonder (admiratio: thus Miranda's name) begins in ignorance” (Virtue's Own Feature, 174).

  32. Masden's discussion of Gonzalo balances well the advantages of his supremely kind disposition against its disadvantages (“Destiny of Man,” 181-82). Gonzalo, by the way, may appear awfully gullible, yet he also reveals in 2.1 that he understands more of Antonio and Sebastian's gibes against him than he earlier lets on (2.1.176-84). He implies, in other words, that his good will is not thoroughly unthinking, but possibly somewhat deliberate.

  33. For Peter Holland, the love of Ferdinand and Miranda is the “triumph” at the play's core and the basis for all other human compassion therein (“The Shapeliness of The Tempest,Essays in Criticism 45 [1995]: 226-27).

  34. For further discussion of this point, see James Black's essay (“Latter End”), which analyzes Prospero's manipulations as centered on marrying Miranda responsibly.

  35. As Shakespeare and much of his audience well knew, Sir Philip Sidney grounds his defense of the creative imagination in a twofold premise concerning the relationship of art to nature. First, he asserts, art repairs that branch of nature that fell along with Adam and Eve by presenting a “golden” world (An Apology for Poetry, in Criticism: The Major Texts, ed. Walter Jackson Bate [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970], 85). To do so, however, it must spring from a source other than the human soul, which is itself fallen. Here follows the second prong of Sidney's premise, that the source of art is unfallen Nature, the eternal and immutable ordering principle of the universe (see, e.g., 85). Hence, Sidney concludes, art is licensed by unfallen Nature even if it alters fallen nature, since the alteration is, morally, for the better—that is, intent on teaching us to follow “our erected wit” (86). This natural basis of art, together with the poet's stature as divinely inspired vates (84), protects art, in Sidney's scheme, from human corruption. This issue of art's purity is of course debated by Polixenes and Perdita in 4.3 of The Winter's Tale.

  36. Wright, “Prospero's Lime Tree,” 134.

  37. Sidney, Apology, 86.

  38. See, e.g., Areopagitica (passim; e.g., “the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world … necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth,” 729). This idea, a form of the more general notion of felix culpa, finds further reflection in 1.2.148-51 and 5.1.205-13.

  39. Nor do I consider mine ideal. Berger includes many helpful observations about Ariel as both character and metaphor, especially those relating the spirit to Prospero (“Miraculous Harp,” 255-59).

  40. This example of Prospero's response to the masque—conveying the modesty to identify with his audience and to be affected as they are, rather than lose himself in admiration of his artifice—directly opposes a statement like Berger's about Prospero's failings: “Prospero delight[s] in art which … continually distracts him from his ethical purpose” (“Miraculous Harp,” 257). True enough, Prospero was first exiled for being so distracted. In The Tempest, however, he is continuing to learn not to repeat his mistake. Wright takes another approach to argue, similarly, that Prospero is oblivious to the reality of danger around him when she compares him to the sleeping peddler in the emblem of the peddler and the apes, an “idle dreamer” who loses his goods because he is too dull to notice that his apes are pilfering them (“Prospero's Lime Tree,” 137-40). But both Wright and Berger neglect the difference between the former Prospero and the present one, who is struggling to overcome his desire to dream instead of act.

  41. Orgel, “Prospero's Wife,” 110-11.

  42. Ibid., 111.

  43. As Barton writes: “What [Ariel] significantly declines to tell his audience is whether his master instructed him to exempt Antonio and Sebastian from the charmed sleep” (introduction to The Tempest, 17).

  44. Stephen J. Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 137. Greenblatt elaborates: “William Tyndale suggested that St. Paul had written the Epistle to the Romans precisely to generate a suffering that could be joyously relieved” (137). One might especially think in this connection of Duke Vincentio's stated reason for deluding Isabella about Claudio's execution (Measure for Measure, 4.3.109-11) and also of the anxiety he produces, then relieves, in Angelo. Yet, here again (and as I have argued elsewhere), such anxiety is merely a portion of a complex mission on Vincentio's part to excite sympathetic imagination in his subjects (see Lewis, “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered,’” 271-89).

  45. Kermode, The Tempest, n. heading 3.3.

  46. Rickey also sees Prospero's aims in the banquet scene as largely “penitential, not punitive,” although she does not elaborate greatly from there (“Prospero's Living Drolleries,” 38).

  47. Detecting sarcasm in Sebastian's line (“A most high miracle!”) is currently fashionable (see, e.g., Barton, introduction to The Tempest, 17, 37; Flagstad, “Making this Place Paradise,” 228; Kernan, Playwright as Magician, 138). But I see no textual evidence for a cynical reading of the line. In fact, Sebastian's earlier practice, when conveying doubt in this same scene about Prospero's magic, is to speak without irony (i.e., 1. 129; the Folio, as is typical, does not designate this line as an aside). The context of line 177 is, to quote Kermode, “language [that] assumes a hieratic quality” (The Tempest, n. to 1. 177). If Sebastian's line cut across this grain, surely another character would notice and respond.

  48. That same “self-negation,” Rickey points out, characterizes Ferdinand and Miranda's attitude toward each other in the chess game (5.1.172-75; Rickey, “Prospero's Living Drolleries,” 37). On Caliban's similarities to the innocent Miranda, see the Vaughans (Shakespeare's Caliban, 17-18).

  49. The particular view I mention is Greenblatt's, in “Learning to Curse” (26). See also, e.g., Skura, whose reading of the line attempts to reconcile a colonialist approach with a psychological methodology: “Prospero acknowledges the child-like Caliban as his own, and although he does not thus undo hierarchy, he moves for the first time towards accepting the child in himself rather than trying to dominate and erase that child … in order to establish his adult authority” (“Discourse,” 66).

  50. To return briefly to the comparison with Marlowe's hero-magician, Faustus is finally dragged into hell by demons that he cannot admit lurk within him. He remains his own victim, while Prospero dredges up just enough self-recognition to salvage what is left of his days on earth.

  51. Several other critics' interpretations of Prospero's extreme tactics converge with, while others' diverge from, mine. For examples of the former, see Walter's assessment of The Tempest as “Shakespeare's profound look … at the poet's ability to redeem a world degenerated in the imaginations of the degenerate” (“Tempest to Epilogue,” 64) and Grant's “guarded optimism” toward inferring from The Tempest that the “corruption of human nature … is … largely curable” (“Providence,” 257). Contrasting ideas are epitomized in the work of Paris, who, echoing Orgel, finds Prospero's artistry self-serving (in that it “enables him to resolve his psychological conflicts,” “Ideal Solution,” 212) and who describes Prospero's forgiveness as “compulsive and indiscriminate” (224), as well as a form of passive vengeance: “The worse Antonio is, the more charitable Prospero is to forgive him” (219).

  52. Barton reads such details of the last scene with greater skepticism. For example, she emphasizes the streak of “contempt” in Prospero's mercy toward Antonio, which she would probably call only technically unconditional (introduction to The Tempest, 38). She also underlines what she sees as Antonio's (and Sebastian's) “refus[al] to be absorbed into any final harmony” and implies that Prospero's ongoing challenge, even after the play closes, is such characters' (as well as Caliban's) “unalterable will to evil” (39, 30).

  53. In both his concluding silence and his earlier verbal seduction of Sebastian, of course, Antonio resembles Iago, who raises similar questions about the origins of and motives for evil.

  54. Walter, “Tempest to Epilogue,” 70.

  55. Michel de Montaigne, “Of Experience,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 855.

  56. I would not belabor the sentiment of the Epilogue, which seems so clear, if I did not find so many recent readings of it dishearteningly cynical, as well as overread for purposes of driving home points that seem alien to the play. Berger's account of it is intriguing but surely distorting: “The end is a final attempt [on Prospero's part] to reestablish mastery. The closing couplet has too much bite and sweep to it to be characterized as expressing weariness alone. It points the finger. … He has shifted his role slightly but significantly in the final couplet, from that of fellow sinner to that of homilist, the voice of conscience” (“Miraculous Harp,” 279). Greenblatt's notion, that the Epilogue savors of “subversive politics” by way of a prince's reliance on a forgiving public, seems to me similarly wide of the mark (Shakespearean Negotiations, 157).

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “‘Sweet Power of Music’: The Political Magic of ‘the Miraculous Harp’ in Shakespeare's The Tempest,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 61-90.

[In the essay below, Simonds argues that in The Tempest Shakespeare promoted his views regarding the political reform of the monarchy.]

In a recent paper critical of the logical discrepancies between “new historicist” theory and practice, Robin Headlam Wells argues that a true historical approach to The Tempest would focus on the mythological topos of Orpheus as the conventional prototype of Prospero rather than on modern views of colonialism and demonized otherness.1 In response to this important suggestion, I shall discuss here the conflation of two such traditional topoi in Shakespeare's tragicomedy: (1) the benevolent and thus successful ruler as Orpheus, a magician in control of Nature and the poetic civilizer of barbaric peoples, and (2) the ideal commonwealth as a melodious and fruitful garden. Since my iconographic materials will be taken from the political discourses of the Renaissance itself, and not from Foucault or Greenblatt, they will help to historicize Shakespeare's tragicomedy rather than theorize it in the usual postmodern fashion. Moreover, I reject the fallacious either-or logic of Foucault who implies that artistic works like The Tempest must be either for or against state power.

Instead I shall suggest that Shakespeare is primarily interested in neither royalist propaganda nor revolution but in reform during an Age of Reformation, and that he indicates in this play precisely those aspects of Renaissance kingship that must be corrected if the monarchy is to survive. Prospero's long exposition in Act I of his personal failure to govern Milan well lists a number of them: negligence, lack of interest in the work of government while immersing himself completely in his hobby, handing over the real power to others, ignoring the ordinary people over whom he rules, and, above all, refusing to consider and provide for the future of his family and his dukedom. It is well known that James I of England was guilty of many of these same faults, especially that of putting his hobby of deer hunting ahead of the welfare of the nation while delegating royal authority to courtiers such as the notorious Duke of Buckingham.

In the present iconographic study of The Tempest and its politics, I shall refer to relevant musical imagery in Renaissance emblems and in woodcuts of royal and civic pageants, both of which provide useful analogues but are probably not sources for Shakespeare. I offer visual materials here primarily as evidence of a general cultural interest in the figure of Orpheus and of his political symbolism in Renaissance Europe, and with the hope that these pictures and their verses will supply at least a partial explanation of how an early seventeenth-century English audience might have understood the political aspects of the tragicomedy.

Although Orpheus is never directly mentioned in the text, critics often observe that, as Shakespeare's most musical play, The Tempest contains many of his best songs. It also contains a musical masque featuring an elaborate stage dance, numerous poetic references to the techniques of music, and an unusual number of sound effects (from whistles, thunder, roars, barking dogs, and howls of pain contrasted to exquisite serenades from unseen musicians). David Norbrook, brilliantly discussing much of this stage dissonance in terms of political language and rhetoric, has argued that in this play “the boundless voice of the elements and of social transgression is pitted against the name of king, the arbitrary language of power.”2 Although Norbrook is quite correct in calling our attention to the political linguistic resonances of the tragicomedy, his analysis glosses over the fact that the magician Prospero controls through his daemon3 Ariel the voice of the elements which drowns out the name of king and contains the comic howls and drinking songs of social transgression that serve as the bass line of the musical composition of The Tempest as a whole. Indeed, from the initial noisy shipwreck to the last scene of the play, the symbolic island in The Tempest (which could be a fantasy version of England itself) resonates with the competing vocal and stringed music of harmonious Apollo, representing rational order and measure, and the irrational pipe and tabor music and sheer racket of discordant Dionysus/Pan, symbolizing both passion and freedom. A resolution to the cacophony is finally achieved by Prospero in Act V, scene i. At this point the Boatswain returns to the stage to proclaim that the previously split and sinking ship (of state) is now as “tight and yare, and bravely rigg'd as when / We first put out to sea” (V.i.224-25).4 Also, in contrast to Norbrook, I shall emphasize in the present essay the harmonist elements of Shakespeare's text rather than its political discords. Both are present—working together like the differing vocal and/or instrumental lines in the polyphonic music of the Renaissance.


In the iconography of Renaissance emblem books and civic pageants, Orpheus symbolized for Europeans the ideal ruler of a commonwealth that also resembled a peaceful, well-cultivated, and fruitful garden. When the mythical Orpheus is unable to control his own passions of desire or grief, he is indeed drowned out by the discordant music of the Dionysian maenads and dismembered by them. However, Shakespeare makes certain that this catastrophe does not happen in The Tempest by making no references in the play to Prospero's sexual past or present.5 Nonetheless, the threat of political and personal disaster is always dramatically present in the play until Caliban and his drunken cohorts are tamed and until Caliban learns the difference between a self-restrained ruler and a drunken sot. Throughout The Tempest, the master of poetic language and of Ariel's musical magic as well is the magician Prospero, Shakespeare's Renaissance analogue to Orpheus, who has been said to haunt all of the final plays.6 The multifaceted figure of Orpheus the Civilizer was, of course, very useful for Renaissance poets, philosophers, and politicians as a popular fictional representative of qualities ranging from art itself, to the love of humanitas, and finally to the idea of political harmony among all the social classes in a well ordered state.

As Charles Segal observes, the demi-god Orpheus began his career in ancient Greece as a magician much like Prospero, an enchanter (from the Latin canere—to sing) who persuaded others to act in concord through the magic of his song and his poetic rhetoric.7 According to Segal,

Orphic song can embody that universal harmony which unites man with nature, the unifying concord of the cosmos that finds expression in the song that moves birds, beasts, stones, and trees in rhythmic responsion to its own beat and tune. Orpheus' music can express man's participation in that cosmic harmony and also recreate it in the shaped, human terms of art.8

Such music can also quell ordinary human dissension, as when we see Orpheus calm the quarreling Argonauts with his lyre and his song in the poetic account of Jason's voyage by Apollonius of Rhodes. As Apollo's son, Orpheus is an eloquent peacemaker, but when he personally crosses a psychological boundary into the Dionysian realm of the passions after the death of Eurydice, he succumbs to poetic furor or frenzy and apparently loses his magical power to restore the dead Eurydice to life. His loss of self control is fatal to his beloved but paradoxically vital to his art, which derives from the frenzy of poetic inspiration. For this reason, no doubt, we see the magician Prospero constantly fighting himself in Shakespeare's complex tragicomedy in order to master his own baser passions (ranging from irascibility and impatience to violent thoughts of vengeance) as well as the daemonic spirits who serve him in his attempts to secure a good future for Miranda and to regain his dukedom.9 We should also remember, however, that Orpheus was thought to be the first priest and prophet of the wine cult of chthonic Dionysus, who is as obviously celebrated in The Tempest as is his brother celestial Apollo. Cosmic harmony depends on the music of both Apollo/Orpheus and Pan/Dionysus, as Robert Fludd indicates in his engraving of “The Temple of Harmony” (fig. 1) from Utriusque Cosmi Historia,10 and Prospero regulates both with the help of Ariel, whose name (although biblical) suggests Air (the melody) and music as breath or pneuma.

The magical powers of Orpheus, like those of Shakespeare's Prospero, allowed him in antiquity to charm even the winds and the seas, as the chorus leader announces in a Greek ode by Pindar: “I shall imitate in my songs … that siren-sound which silences the Zephyr's swift winds when Boreas, shivering with the storms' strength, rushes upon us with his blasts and stirs up the wave-swift sea.”11 Shakespeare echoes this power over the sea in the famous Orphic “Song” of his Henry VIII: “Every thing that heard him play, / Even the billows of the sea, / Hung their heads, and then lay by” (III.i.9-11). The occult spells of Orpheus are equally praised by Pausanius, who hails him as “wondrously skilful at magic” like Amphion, who built the stone walls of Thebes with his music. Pausanias' conflation of Orpheus with Amphion continues as a commonplace throughout the Renaissance. However, Shakespeare chooses to announce this central Orphic theme of the artist as the builder of cities and of civilization ironically in The Tempest by having his entirely unmusical villains Antonio and Sebastian make fun of Gonzalo's conflation of Tunis with Carthage in Act II, scene i: “His word is more than the miraculous harp. … He hath rais'd the wall, and houses too” (ll. 87-88). The seven strings of this miraculous harp (sometimes a lute or a lyre) represent both the harmony of the spheres and the harmony of a well-organized society of men and women living together in mutual rhythm and in tune with nature and the cosmos.12 Antonio and Sebastian sneer at this possibility, and it is true, of course, that musical instruments do constantly need to be retuned, as does the human psyche itself.13

Shakespeare and other Renaissance poets also conflated Orpheus with the mythic poet-musician Arion. As Arion was tossed overboard by thieving mariners to die in the waves, so Prospero and his infant daughter were placed in a rotten wine butt and thrown into the sea by his rebellious and ambitious brother Antonio, aided by King Alonso of Naples. Emblem X in Book I of A Collection of Emblemes by George Wither on the Arion topos (fig. 2) makes the meaning of such retold stories quite clear. Under the motto “An Innocent no Danger feares, How great soever it appeares,” Wither writes the following explanatory verse:

When some did seeke Arion to have drown'd,
He, with a dreadlesse heart his Temples crown'd;
And, when to drench him in the Seas they meant,
He playd on his melodious Instrument;
To shew, that Innocence disdayned Feare,
Though to be swallow'd in the Deeps it were.
Nor did it perish: For, upon her Backe
A Dolphin tooke him, for his Musick's sake:
To intimate, that Vertue shall prevaile
With Bruitish Creatures, if with Men it faile.

In his final verse, the emblematist insists that virtue will always save innocent poets from the world's malice.

Arion-like, the Malice of the World,
Hath into Seas of Troubles often hurl'd
Deserving Men, although no Cause they had,
But that their Words and Workes sweet Musicke made.
Of all their outward Helps it hath bereft them;
Nor meanes, nor hopes of Comfort have been left them;
But such, as in the House of Mourning are,
And, what Good-Conscience can afford them there.
Yet, Dolphin-like, their Innocence hath rear'd
Their Heads above those Dangers that appear'd.
God hath vouchsaf'd their harmelesse Cause to heed,
And, ev'n in Thraldome, so their Hearts hath freed,
That, whil'st they seem'd oppressed and forlorne;
They loyd, and Sung, and Laugh'd the World to Scorne.(14)

Much as Arion was thrown overboard with his musical instrument, the defeated Prospero was given his magical books by Gonzalo to take along in the wine butt, and these in turn allowed the magus to free Ariel (the daemonic spirit of music and poetry) from a tree on the island15 and ultimately to overcome his enemies.

No real distinction was made either in antiquity or in the Renaissance between the cosmic aspects of Orphic music and human politics. They were one and the same, or ideally should be, as Exeter observes in Shakespeare's Henry V:

For government, though high and low, and lower,
Put into parts, doth keep in one consent,
Congreeing in a full and natural close,
Like music.


In fact, James Daly reminds us in his excellent analysis of “Cosmic Harmony and Political Thinking in Early Stuart England” that the ideal of “Cosmic harmony never allowed anything to exist in isolation, since everything from the firmament to the humblest parts of the human body reflected the same analogical principles.”16 The place of Orpheus within this system was that of a numinous figure of political rhetoric or eloquence who would persuade through magical song rather than force others to behave well.17

However, Shakespeare obviously had some doubts about the ability of music and poetry to achieve this high ideal, since Lorenzo observes in The Merchant of Venice that certain people (such as Antonio and Sebastian) are simply tone deaf and cannot be persuaded by reason's measure:

The man that hath no music in himself
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as [Erebus]:
Let no such man be trusted.


Not surprisingly, Prospero as a Jacobean Orpheus finds it necessary to use the negative persuasion of pinches and cramps as well as the positive charms of sweet harmony to temper the rebellious humors of such primitives as Caliban, who is eventually redeemed, and his drunken cohorts Stephano and Trinculo in The Tempest. Vigilance is the only answer in the case of the born traitors and entirely tone deaf Antonio and Sebastian, who can never be trusted. Thus, the ruler of a harmonious state must ideally practice both the active and the contemplative modes of life, rather than retreat into his study as Prospero had previously done in Milan. As Richard Hooker puts it, “Where the King doth guide the state and the lawe the King, that commonwealth is like an harpe or melodious instrument, the stringes whereof are tuned and handled by one hand.”18

Yet, while the king plays the melody or air on the harp, Caliban, or others like him, must be persuaded by any means possible to bear the burden—or the bass musical accompaniment—of the daily workings of human society.19 According to the Oxford English Dictionary (s.v. “Burden,” IV):

Apparently, the notion was that the bass or undersong was “heavier” than the air. The bourdon usually continued when the singer of the air paused at the end of the stanza, and (when vocal) was usually sung to words forming a refrain, being often taken up in chorus. … As the refrain often expresses the pervading sentiment or thought of a poem, this use became coloured by the notion of “that which is carried” by the poem: its “gist” or essential contents.

On the other hand, Shakespeare also points out that rulers are expected to work as hard at the business of good government as others work at more humble occupations such as cooking, washing up after meals, and bringing in firewood. In fact, we never see the watchful Prospero at rest in The Tempest, although Miranda and Caliban believe that he takes a nap every afternoon in his cave.

In addition to his magical powers, Orpheus was also understood to be a civilizer of barbaric peoples through his eloquence. According to John Warden, “The locus classicus is Horace Ars Poetica 391ff: Orpheus the first poet is the first to soften the hearts of the ‘stony and beastly people’ and set them on the path to civilization. His instrument is his eloquence (for Boccaccio the lyre is ‘oratoria facultas’).” Warden adds that “Humanism represents the moral action of the word fashioning the raw materials of primitive man into a civilized member of a community.”20 This fundamental logocentrism of Orpheus is reflected by Shakespeare in Prospero's determined efforts to teach Caliban human language, which the wild man then uses primarily for cursing.

Not always, however. We must remember that Caliban speaks some of the finest poetry in the entire play in order to praise the musical qualities of his island to Stephano and Trinculo and to calm their fears:

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak'd
I cried to dream again.


Caliban not only responds to music's charms but he has also learned from Prospero the importance of an education in words. He reminds his fellow rebels to “Remember / First to possess his books; for without them / He's but a sot, as I am” (III.ii.91-93). Learning is apparently the one factor that makes the difference between ruler and servant, according to the wild man. However, if Caliban considers Prospero to be a “tyrant” (III.ii.42) because of the magician's efforts to restrain the wild man's sexuality and self-indulgence, the drunken Trinculo is far more realistic about the results of unrestrained Dionysian celebrations when he observes, “They say there's but five upon this isle: we are three of them; if th' other two be brain'd like us, the state totters” (III.ii.5-7).

Since Orpheus was famous for the taming of wild men, the presence of a barbaric creature like Caliban in The Tempest is further evidence of the play's Orphic tendencies. Caliban is an iconographic example of the traditional European wild man.21 He is compared to a fish by Trinculo mainly because of his bad smell, although the comparison is a just one when we also consider the monster's unrestrained lust, believed to be a typical characteristic of most such imaginary wild men living a solitary life in nature. The fish, of course, is an ancient symbol of the phallus, while one type of acknowledged wild man in art is the lustful ithyphallic satyr commonly associated with Dionysus/Bacchus. An example of this figure in iconography and his musical association with wind instruments—pipes or recorders—appears in Edward Topsell's The History of foure-footed Beastes (fig. 3), where we read that

The Satyres are in the Islands Satiridae, which are three in number, standing right ouer against India on the farther side of Ganges; of which Euphemus Car rehearseth this history: that when he sayled into Italy, by the rage of winde and euill weather they were driuen to a coast vnnauigable, where were many desart Islandes inhabited of wilde men, and the Marriners refused to land vpon some Islands, hauing heretofore had triall of the inhumaine and vnciuill behauiour of the inhabitants; so that they brought vs to the Satirian Islands, where we saw the inhabitants red, and had tayles ioyned to their back not much lesse then horsses. These, being perceiued by the Marriners to run to the shippes and lay hold on the women that were in them, the ship-men for feare, tooke one of the Barbarian women and set her on the land among them, whom in most odious and filthy maner they abused, not onely in that part that nature hath ordained, but ouer the whole body most libidinously, whereby they found them to be very bruit beasts.22

This richly illustrated book, which emphasizes the primitivism and innate beastliness of wild men, was easily available both to Shakespeare and his audience.

Topsell has much more to say about satyrs, including the “fact” that they were hunted with dogs in Saxony (as in The Tempest). He relates that after one male satyr was captured, “he was brought to be tame, and learned to go vpright, and also to speake some wordes, but with a voice like a Goat, and without all reason: he was exceeding lustfull to women, attempting to rauish many of what condition soeuer they were, and of this kinde there are store in Ethiopia.23 As a member of this fictitious family of ithyphallic wild men, Caliban cannot control his lust for Miranda, in contrast to the civilized and restrained sexual behaviour of Ferdinand under Prospero's watchful paternal eye.

Many Renaissance emblems praise the magical power of music and reiterate the significance of Orpheus to the Renaissance as a figure of eloquence capable of taming all kinds of brutes, including wild men. Henry Green has shown that the verses of such emblems are very similar to the comments on music and Orpheus which we find in The Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Henry VIII.24 We might begin here with Pierre Coustau's 1560 emblem “Sur la harpe d'Orpheus” or “La force d'Eloquence” (fig. 4). The picture shows Orpheus playing his harp and leading men and beasts out from the forest toward a city that boasts a tall obelisk.25 Green translates the French verse as follows:



With sound gentle and very melodious
Of an instrument Orpheus caused to move
Rocks and pastures from their place and home.
                    It is eloquence having force and power
To steal the hearts of all his learning shows,
It is the orator who by strength of eloquence
First brings even under influence
Brutal people, and from fierceness
Gathers them; and who to benevolence
From fierceness then reclaims.(26)

Nicholas Reusner's 1581 emblem on “The Power of Music and Poetry” conflates Orpheus and Amphion in the verse, but his woodcut (fig. 5) depicts only the harpist Orpheus sitting under a tree and charming the birds and animals with his song. The Latin verse (in translation) tells us that

Orpheus tamed terrible tigers, raging lions and wild birds also by his singing.
Amphion, likewise, moved stones with the sound of his alluring lyre, when he built Thebes without using his hands.
That is, he civilized rustic spirits and wild men, and he instructed ignorant people by his art.
He moved them with friendly enticements and eloquence, and he taught them to follow law and justice.
Thus Music, like divine Poetry, has great strength through the harmonious cooperation in its measures.
If you have a voice, sing! If the spirit moves you, dance the song. But fit the song to life, give thanks to God.
Minds are charmed by the songs, ears by the singing. Each stream flows from heavenly fountains.(27)

Geffrey Whitney's Orpheus emblem entitled “Orphei Musica” offers more of the same observations (fig. 6).

As Orpheus brings art to nature, so in The Tempest the magus Prospero brings the arts of civilization to an island once ruled by nature alone and attempts to endow it with the divine harmony dramatized in the wedding masque. In this performance for Miranda and Ferdinand, reapers of cultivated fields dance with forest nymphs. Like music and poetry, dance was believed to reflect through its ordered patterns the sacred harmony of the spheres. Sarah Thesiger reminds us of Sir Thomas Elyot's observation in The Boke of the Governour that dancing is excellent exercise and that it symbolizes Prudence and matrimony as well as the Aristotelian notion of the mean. “The mean is seen as the concord to two qualities, or of two dancers symbolizing two qualities, rather than as a somewhat paradigmatic quality in itself.”28

In contrast to Orphic harmonies of the Apollonian variety on the island, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo perform the wild music of Dionysus or Bacchus with drunken songs and capers, and they make a religion of intoxicating wine in II.ii. The farcical action of kissing the book, or the bottle in this case, is actually a parody of Christian eucharistic ritual, which itself derives from the earlier Dionysian and Orphic mysteries. However, the sober emblematist Whitney prints a disapproving Bacchus emblem “In statuam Bacchi” on the page directly opposite his Orpheus emblem, just as Shakespeare himself contrasts Prospero's Apollonian art with the parodic Dionysian songs of the clowns. Under the woodcut of a fat Bacchus playing pipe and tabor (fig. 7), Whitney writes:

The timelie birthe that SEMELE did beare,
See heere, in time howe monsterous he grewe:
With drinkinge muche, and dailie bellie cheare,
His eies weare dimme, and fierie was his hue:
His cuppe, still full: his head, with grapes was croun'de;
Thus time he spent with pipe, and tabret sounde.(29)

The fiery hue of Bacchus reminds us not only of the effect of wine on one's capillaries but also of the fiery passions that wine helps to liberate from rational control. Another name for Dionysus or Bacchus was, of course, Liber (Free).

In The Tempest, Ariel enters immediately after the controlled Apollonian dance in the masque to report on the drunkards to Prospero. He tells his master that although “they were red-hot with drinking” (IV.i.171), he managed to lead them to their punishment with the only kind of music they could understand:

                                                  Then I beat my tabor,
At which like unback'd colts they prick'd their ears,
Advanc'd their eyelids, lifted up their noses
As they smelt music. So I charm'd their ears
That calf-like they my lowing follow'd through
tooth'd briers, sharp furzes, pricking goss, and thorns,
Which ent'red their frail shins.


While satirizing the Dionysian aspects of human life in this particular instance, Shakespeare was well aware that men and women need both gods—Apollo and Dionysus—in their lives. In fact, the classical view of human nature describes humanity as possessing both intellect and discordant passions, or, as the Renaissance would have it, angelic minds and beastly bodies. The perennial question was and still is, as Theseus puts it in A Midsummer Night's Dream, “How shall we find the concord of this discord?” (V.i.60).

Despairing of ever improving Caliban “on whose nature / Nurture can never stick” (IV.i.188-89), Prospero then subjects him and his fellow bacchanalians to the Dionysian ritual of the hunt. To the cacophony of barking and baying dogs set on by Prospero and Ariel, the roaring rebels are driven off stage to suffer the kind of ultimate chaos meted out in tragedy to King Lear on the heath. There is no concord to be heard as yet, although in the previous “glistering apparel” scene Caliban has finally shown the first signs of using his human capacity for reason. While Stephano and Trinculo grab for the fancy clothing Ariel has hung on the lime tree to tempt them from rebellion into common thievery (as even today rebels are often distracted from their political ends by the attractions of looting), Caliban sees through the trick and identifies the garments as mere outer appearances. He rudely says to his new king Stephano, “Let it alone, thou fool, it is but trash” (IV.i.224), leading us to believe that there is hope for him after all.

As suggested above, the magician Orpheus was often depicted in the visual arts as the ruler through musical eloquence of a peaceful garden in which the lamb could safely lie down with the lion. For example, such an ideal kingdom was sculpted in plaster bas relief on the major chimneypiece at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire (fig. 8). In apparent contrast to this hopeful vision of political concord, Prospero's island is filled with dangerous creatures, from snakes to murderous rebels within the very highest and the very lowest social groups. Antonio and Sebastian plot to murder Alonso, King of Naples, and his advisor Gonzalo; while Caliban and his “civilized” European cohorts intend to murder Prospero and rape Miranda. Meanwhile, the ordinary workers of this world, or the mariners, are safely locked in sleep below hatches in their foundered ship, which is probably as good a way as any to describe what we now call “middle class complacency.” Despite its fantasy qualities, Prospero's island is thus real rather than ideal. Yet, with the help of Ariel's music and his own magical spells, Prospero manages to maintain at least some control over all the discordant elements—including his own passionate desire for revenge—until he has achieved his ends. This, along with the merciful treatment of wrongdoers or clemency, is what was expected of a good king in the Renaissance.

Indeed, the emblem tradition concerned with Orpheus includes the notion of clemency as necessary for harmonious rule. Under the motto “Peragit Tranquila Potestas” (“Use power peacefully to get things done”) and the usual picture of Orpheus taming the animals and trees (fig. 9), Julius Wilhelm Zincgreff writes the following epigram:

La clemence d'vn Roy conduit tout aisement
Le plus barbare peuple, & doucemente le force,
Et mene ou bon luy semble; autrement par la force
Il n'en viendra iamais à son contentement.
(The clemency of a king leads the most barbarous populace quite easily and gently forces and leads it where good appears to it; otherwise, by force it will never arrive at its contentment.)(30)

In other words, persuasion and mercy rather than force will help to achieve an harmonious and happy kingdom.


Shakespeare imaginatively combines garden imagery with musical references throughout The Tempest. This conflation begins with Prospero's narrative of his deposition by his brother in Milan. While Prospero was in his study, Antonio, he says,

                                                  Set all hearts i' the' state
To what tune pleas'd his ear, that now he was
The ivy which had hid my princely trunk,
And suck'd my verdure out on't.


This commonplace of the parasitic ivy winding itself about the ruler, who is described here as a tree trunk, and thus destroying its host, is the antithesis of the fruitful association of the elm and the vine. The latter topos was often employed in poetry to symbolize marriage. It could also represent the metaphor of a fruitful spousal relationship between a benevolent prince and his people, as Shakespeare uses the elm and vine image to represent the relationship between Duncan and Banquo in Macbeth.31 Deriving from Catullus' Carmen LXI, the elm and ivy topos, in contrast, symbolizes an illicit love (see Comedy of Errors II.ii.174-81) that ultimately kills the male tree.32 Indeed, an alert gardener is needed in the ideal kingdom to prevent such disasters by constantly weeding his garden and pruning his trees (see Richard II III.iv).

Thomas Combe's The Theater of Fine Devices contains an emblem on the destructiveness of ivy compared to the similar destructiveness of ungrateful kinsmen like Antonio (fig. 10). This is an English translation of Guillaume de la Perrière's Emblem 82 in Le Théâtre de bons engins of 1539. Under the motto “Ungratefull men breed great offence, / As persons void of wit or sence,” the woodcut illustrates ivy winding up and around an oak tree. According to the verse,

The Oke doth suffer the yong Ivie wind
Vp by his sides, till it be got on hie:
But being got aloft, it so doth bind,
It kils the stocke that it was raised by.
So some proue so vnthankfull and vnkind
To those on whom they chiefly do rely,
By whom they first were called to their state,
They be the first (I say) giue them the mate.(33)

Combe advises checkmating such people, which is exactly what Prospero finally does to his greedy and ungrateful brother.

Of course, gardens may be either green or withered in iconography. Shakespeare seems to imply in The Tempest that the garden's appearance depends on our own perspective or our own willingness to love it and care for it, since the optimistic Gonzalo sees Prospero's island as green and fertile, while Antonio and Sebastian perversely describe it as withered.

Here is every thing advantageous to life.
True, save means to live.
Of that there's none, or little.
How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!
The ground indeed is tawny.


Adrian takes the middle point of view: “Though this island seems to be desert … Uninhabitable and almost inaccessible … Yet … It must needs be of subtle, tender, and delicate temperance” (II.i.35, 38, 40, 42-43). The word “temperance” refers not only to moderation but also to the state of being in tune musically. As we know, Queen Elizabeth, during her coronation celebrations, witnessed a pageant depicting the change from a withered garden to a green garden kingdom by the very fact of her royal presence. The topos thus signifies the communal hope for regeneration and renewal under a benevolent and temperate ruler.

In The Tempest, the courtly characters not only are psychologically “amazed” by the wonders of the island but are also required to walk endlessly through an actual maze, always a popular component of the formal Renaissance garden and an excellent image for the complexities of political life at a Renaissance court. Moreover, according to James J. Yoch, Jr., “The familiar gardening and literary image of the labyrinth forms an important part of Prospero's plot to transform his enemies. Each sloughs off his old life by coming to a strange landscape and a different part of the island.”34 The exhausted Gonzalo finally complains that “My old bones aches. Here's a maze trod indeed / Through forth-rights and meanders” (III.iii.2-3). The maze image is later repeated by Alonso:

This is as strange a maze as e'er men trod,
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of.


Indeed Prospero's garden kingdom, as well as being a primitive wilderness, is as complicated as the intricate dance of the reapers and nymphs in the wedding masque; both are the products of an Orphic civilization within nature.

Royal entries and civic pageants are also pertinent to our understanding of the iconography in The Tempest since many pageants presented Orpheus surrounded by birds and animals in an enclosed garden. For example, in 1515 the city of Bruges welcomed the young Prince Charles of Spain, who was to become Emperor Charles V, with exactly such a pageant. The woodcut of this scene depicts two wild men with clubs (one of which was decorated with the rooster of vigilance) standing outside a garlanded fence in front of the pageant. The wild men wear wreaths on their heads and around their waists. The entire series of pageants for this celebration was designed by local rhetoricians, who hoped that Charles would help the city economically and allow the people to live in a peaceful and harmonious kingdom like that of the musician Orpheus.35

The 1550 entry of Henry II of France into Rouen featured a street show of Orpheus and the Nine Muses, all playing musical instruments.36 A 1562 woodcut of a Spelen van Sinne (fig. 11) shows another civic pageant illustrating Orpheus enchanting the animals. It is stated in the accompanying poem “De Pioen Bloeme van Mechelen” that Orpheus and the animals represent “princely harmony.”37 A similar pageant welcomed Mary Tudor and Philip II of Spain into London in 1564. This was the third pageant, which was constructed at the end of Ironmonger Lane in Cheap:

In the height wherof was one playing on a harpe, who signified the most excellent musician Orpheus, of whom and of Amphion we reade in the fables of old poetes; where also were nyne faire ladyes playing and singing on divers swete instrumentes, signifying the nine Muses. And not farre from them were men and children decked up like wilde beastes, as lions, wolfes, foxes, and beares. So that the moste swete strokes, noyse, and soundes of Orpheus, with the nyne Muses playing and singinge, in the sayd pageant, and also the counterfeated beastes daunsing and leaping with Orpheus harpe and the Muses melodye, exhilarated and rejoysed their majesties very much.38

Many years later, on Princess Elizabeth's wedding night, 14 February 1613, she and her bridegroom the Prince Palatine were entertained by Thomas Campion's The Lord's Masque in which Orpheus appeared to bring both sexual-poetic frenzy and the harmony of the spheres into their marriage. The Tempest was also performed during the celebrations of this important Protestant wedding.

Seventeenth-century civic pageants in honor of London's Lord Mayor by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Heywood employed the same Orphic topos in respect to civic government in England and for the same reasons that it had been used for earlier royal entries.39 The importance of all such shows (except for the court masque) is that, since they were paid for by the guilds and merchants, they represented the political aspirations of the middle class so noticeably absent from the action in The Tempest. As Ferdinand comments of the ordered sexuality in the wedding masque shown him by Prospero, “This is a most majestic vision, and / Harmonious charmingly” (IV.i.118-19). However, it was actually offered to Prince Ferdinand and to the audience by an actor-playwright named William Shakespeare, one of “the middling sort” in England at that time, rather than by a representative of majesty like Ferdinand himself.

If a melodious garden was the political ideal of Renaissance Europe, the reality always fell short of perfection because not everyone had a musical ear or was willing to work cooperatively at performing the composition. A good musical performance, after all, depends on playing in tune, coming in at the right time, observing the measure, not drowing out other parts, etc. As Prospero suggests throughout The Tempest, discipline and hard work are thus both necessary in the ideal harmonious kingdom, in contrast to Gonzalo's utopia where no one works and Nature generously provides for all.40 For this reason, Prospero trains Ferdinand for both kingship and marriage by making him carry burdens. A loving Miranda wants to help the young prince carry logs in what is probably Shakespeare's most subversive scene in this play. Ferdinand protests that “I had rather crack my sinews, break my back, / Than you should such dishonor undergo, / While I sit lazy by” (III.i.26-28). To this Miranda replies, “It would become me / As well as it does you” (III.i.28-29). Everyone must work both in a civilization and in the microcosm of a happy marriage as they are presented in The Tempest.

Of course, marriage itself is another traditional Renaissance topos referring to the king's relationship, which must be loving, restrained, and harmonious, with his nation. This is undoubtedly why Shakespeare contrasts the Ferdinand-Miranda love scenes with the drunken and quarrelsome cacophony of the rebels' scenes. As Donna Hamilton has argued in her provocative study of The Tempest as a constitutionalist rewriting of the imperialist Aeneid, Shakespeare through emphasizing the Neoplatonic “idea of service” also “makes central to the play a dialectic on the relationship between bondage and freedom. … Instead of mystifying absolutism, he mystifies the other choice—the constitutional relationship between subject and ruler that depends on reciprocity, on meum et tuum.41 Indeed Ferdinand agrees to marry Miranda “with a heart as willing / As bondage e'er of freedom” (III.i.88-89), a reference to the Petrarchan conceit of the lover's willing bondage to his beloved. As the two parties agreeing to a marriage contract, Ferdinand and Miranda will then exemplify the mutual bearing of burdens and loving cooperation proper to the marriage between an ideal king and his subjects.

In The Tempest, Prospero symbolizes not only the powerful magic of Orpheus, a rough magic he relinquishes when he drowns his book, but also the industry or Art necessary to lead others well and to correct or improve Nature in his realm. Whitney depicts this political art based not on magic but on hard work in his emblem “Industria naturam corrigit” (“Industry corrects nature”) in which Mercury (often a symbol of Intellect) repairs a lute, while in the background a bearded man plays on a lute and a woman dances (fig. 12). Both activities symbolize harmony, as we have previously seen. Whitney's verse reads as follows:

The Lute, whose sounde doth most delighte the eare,
Was caste aside, and lack'de both stringes, and frettes:
Whereby, no worthe within it did appeare,
MERCVRIVS came, and it in order settes:
Which being tun'de suche Harmonie did lende,
That Poëttes write, the trees theire toppes did bende.

It is interesting to notice the conflation here of Mercury as industry with Orpheus and his magical control over nature. The emblem continues with an expression of the same kind of hope Prospero feels for the court party after the punishment and the training to which he has exposed them.

He had no hope, however, for the civilizing of Caliban, would-be rapist and murderer, and apparently incurable rebel. Whitney says otherwise:

Euen so, the man on whome doth Nature froune,
Whereby, he liues dispis'd of euerie wighte,
Industrie yet, maie bringe him to renoume,
And diligence, maie make the crooked righte:
Then haue no doubt, for arte maie nature helpe.
Thinke howe the beare doth forme her vgly whelpe.(42)

In any case, the point of this English emblem is that politics is much more a matter of art than it is of force, which is nature's untaught way and invariably provokes more violence in response.

Of Caliban, Prospero bitterly complains in the play that he is

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;
And as with age his body uglier grows,
So his mind cankers.


But this same Caliban, after his painful experience as the roaring quarry of an instructional hunt by Prospero and Ariel, and after sobering up in a foul pond of horse piss, changes his savage manner. The wild man suddenly appears to be reformed, despite his fears of further punishment, as does his social opposite King Alonso at the top of the hierarchy. Instead of further punishment, Prospero merely orders Caliban to clean up the cave (symbolically a place of transformation), which is the first actual work that Caliban seems willing to do.

Ay, that I will; and I'll be wise hereafter,
And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
Was I to take this drunkard for a god,
And worship this dull fool!


Civilized at last, or so we hope, even Caliban's quality of speech has now changed radically back to blank verse to match his master's final decision, also stated in blank verse, to overcome his own baser passions through a noble act of clemency:

Though with their high wrongs I am strook to th' quick,
Yet, with my nobler reason, 'gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.


This final success of Prospero as a type of Orpheus in bringing harmony to his garden kingdom, controlling his own passions, and civilizing the wild man is, of course, only an illusionary vanity of Shakespeare's theatrical art. Yet it is also the artistic reflection of an ever recurring human dream.43


  1. Robin Headlam Wells, “The Tempest: New Historicism and the Director,” in Shakespeare from Text to Stage, ed. Patricia Kennan and Mariangela Tempera (Bologna: Editrice Bologna, 1992), pp. 51-61. In particular, Wells points out that “Post-structuralist historicism says it wants to return literature to its cultural context. But instead of showing me what is unique about The Tempest's political vision, these critics are showing me how it reveals a trans-historical truth about the way power works, something that, provided we have read our Nietzsche and our Foucault, we already knew before we reread the play. Instead of inserting the text into history, these critics are taking it out of the cultural history of its own time” (p. 55).

    See also Wells' important book Elizabethan Mythologies: Studies in Poetry, Drama and Music (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 63-80, which appeared after my essay was completed. Wells and I have obviously been working along similar lines in respect to Orpheus and Shakespeare for a number of years. See “The Tempered Music of Orpheus” in my Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's “Cymbeline” (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1992), pp. 334-63.

  2. David Norbrook, “‘What cares these roarers for the name of king?’: Language and Utopia in The Tempest,” in The Politics of Tragicomedy, ed. Gordon McMullan and Jonathan Hope (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 21. This is an interesting and provocative essay containing insights that we must take seriously.

  3. I use the term “daemon” in the sense of Plato and Ficino as a word referring to a higher intellectual spirit that serves the magician as his intermediary.

  4. All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), and are cited parenthetically in my text.

  5. Mythological figures were often used by Renaissance artists symbolically for certain aspects of their personalities, while other aspects were suppressed. For example, Jupiter was a famous lover of mortal women and boys, but there is certainly no suggestion of this in his thunderous appearance as a god of justice and providence in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Likewise, Ganymede could symbolize either homosexuality or the love of the soul for God and wise counsels. Alciati clearly chooses the former meaning in his Emblem 4, while other writers and artists emphasize the latter.

  6. See David Armitage, “The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Mythic Elements in Shakespeare's Romances,” Shakespeare Survey, 39 (1986), 123-33.

  7. See Charles Segal, “The Magic of Orpheus,” in Orpheus: The Myth of the Poet (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 1-35.

  8. Ibid., p. 9.

  9. In this effort Prospero is the direct opposite of Shakespeare's tragic hero Hamlet, who struggles to arouse himself to passion and thus to an irreligious act of vengeance.

  10. Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi Historia (Oppenheim: Johan-Theodore de Bry, Typus Hieronymi Galleri, 1617-19), p. 168.

  11. Quoted in Segal, Orpheus, p. 12.

  12. See John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961), p. 44. Other important studies of the harmonist theory to which I am greatly indebted include Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1963); Catherine M. Dunne, “The Function of Music in Shakespeare's Romances,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 20 (1969), 391-405; and S. K. Heninger, Jr., Touches of Sweet Harmony: Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1974). See also Peggy Muñoz Simonds, “‘Killing care and grief of heart’: Orpheus and Shakespeare,” Renaissance Papers (1990), pp. 79-90.

  13. There is an interesting reference to the problem of achieving personal and social harmony in the Hermetica XVIII: “On the soul hindered by body's affections.” The passage begins with the observation that “If someone promises to bring harmony out of a piece of music played on many instruments, his effort will be laughable if during the performance discord among the instruments hinders his zeal. Since weak instruments are altogether unequal to the task, inevitably the spectators will jeer at the musician” (Hermetica, trans. Brian F. Copenhaver [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992], p. 63). Hermes' advice to kings facing this problem is to “tune the inward lyre and adjust it to the [divine] musician” (p. 64) who never loses control over his instrument, the world lyre.

  14. George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes (London, 1635), p. 10.

  15. This story of Ariel's liberation may remind us of a famous riddle on the making of a musical instrument from a tree. After the cruel ax has killed the tree, once again the wood sings with new life as an instrument: “Viva fui in sylvis sum dura occisa securi / Dum vixi facui mortua dulce cano” (“I was alive in the woods: I was cut down by the cruel axe. While I lived I was silent: In death I sweetly sing”). The idea derives from the myth of Hermes, who changed a tortoise shell into a lyre and gave it to Apollo to calm his anger. Shakespeare seems to be playing with this ancient tradition of upward metamorphosis in his creation of Ariel. At least Shelley apparently thought so when he wrote his poem “With a Guitar, to Jane” in which Ariel tells the above story of transformation and song after death to Miranda.

  16. James Daly, “Cosmic Harmony and Political Thinking in Early Stuart England,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 69 (Oct. 1979), 21.

  17. According to John Hollander, “The association of Orpheus with abstract eloquence and concurrently with the power of actual secular music can be seen very early” (Untuning of the Sky, p. 63), and Robin Headlam Wells quotes the English rhetoricians George Puttenham and Thomas Wilson on the association of Orpheus with political persuasion instead of force (“The Tempest: New Historicism and the Director,” pp. 57-58).

  18. Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, The Works of Richard Hooker, ed. W. Speed Hill (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977-82), IV, 342. Wells explains that “It has to be one hand that plays the harp of state, because, if you live in a universe governed by the rule of analogy, it follows with inescapable logic that, ‘As one God ruleth the world, one master the family … so it seemeth no less natural that one state should be governed by one commander” (“The Tempest: New Historicism and the Director,” p. 59).

  19. For a full discussion of this musical accompaniment, see Joan Hartwig, “Cloten, Autolycus, and Caliban: Bearers of Parodic Burdens,” in Shakespeare's Romances Reconsidered, ed. Carol McGinnis Kay and Henry E. Jacobs (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1978), pp. 91-103.

  20. John Warden, in “Orpheus and Ficino,” Orpheus: The Metamorphoses of a Myth, ed. John Warden (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1982), pp. 89-90.

  21. I am in complete agreement here with the conclusions of Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan in Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 60-72. See also Frank Kermode, ed., The Tempest, 5th ed. revised, Arden Edition (London: Methuen 1954), pp. xxxviii-xxxix.

  22. Edward Topsell, The History of foure-footed Beastes (London: William Jaggard, 1607), p. 13.

  23. Ibid., p. 15.

  24. Henry Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London: Trübner, 1870), pp. 273-74.

  25. Pierre Coustau, Le Pegme (Lyons, 1560), p. 389.

  26. Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers, p. 272.

  27. Nicholas Reusner, Emblemata (Frankfurt, 1581), p. 129 (Emblem 21); translation by Roger T. Simonds.

  28. Sarah Thesiger, “The Orchestra of Sir John Davies and the Image of the Dance,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 36 (1973), 283.

  29. Geffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (Leiden: Christopher Plantin, 1586), p. 187.

  30. See Julius Wilhelm Zincgreff, Emblematum Ethico-Politicorvm (Heidelberg: Johan Theodore de Bry, 1619), Emblem 51. The English translation is by Roger T. Simonds.

  31. I explain the embrace between Duncan and Banquo as analogous to the elm and vine topos in my Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's “Cymbeline,” p. 267, as follows: “‘Noble Banquo,’ [Duncan] says, ‘That hast no less deserv'd, nor must be known / No less to have done so, let me infold thee / And hold thee to my heart.’ Accepting his role as the fruitful vine supported by the elm, Banquo gracefully replies, ‘There if I grow, / The harvest is your own’ (I.iv.27-33). In the tragedy of Macbeth, the subject must accept the submissive role of a wife to the royal husbandman.”

  32. Peter Demetz supplies an excellent survey of these contrasting topoi in “The Elm and the Vine: Notes Toward the History of a Marriage Topos,” PMLA, 73 (1958), 521-32.

  33. Thomas Combe, The Theater of Fine Devices (London, 1593 and 1614), Emblem 82.

  34. James J. Yoch, Jr., “Subjecting the Landscape in Pageants and Shakespearean Pastorals,” in Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, ed. David M. Bergeron (Athens, Georgia: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), p. 209. Yoch also points out that Prince Henry had the figure of Orpheus placed in his garden at Richmond (p. 213), and that “Prospero uses positive elements from Medea's great speech (Metamorphoses, 7.191-214) about her control over the landscape to reveal his similar powers and, surprisingly, to announce his plan to surrender them (V.1.33-57)” (p. 212). Yoch argues persuasively that the drama is organized around the theme of royal restraint.

  35. For the woodcut, text, and a complete description of the pageant series, see Sydney Anglo, La tryumphante Entree de Charles Prince des Espagnes en Bruges 1515 (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarvm, n.d.).

  36. For the woodcut, text, and a complete description of this entry, see Margaret M. McGowan, L'Entrée de Henri II à Rouen 1550 (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarvm, n.d.)

  37. Spelen van Sinne: Volscoone moralifacien … zijn (Antwerp: M. Willem Silvius Drucker, 1562), sig. Gggi. I am indebted to Elizabeth McGrath and Paul Taylor of the Warburg Institute Library for this reference.

  38. Quoted in Sydney Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 333. Some Protestants resented the imagery of this pageant, however, interpreting the charmed animals as Philip's image of the beastly English people captivated.

  39. See David Bergeron, English Civic Pageantry 1558-1642 (London: Edward Arnold, 1971), pp. 190-92.

  40. Caliban, of course, supplies the answer to Gonzalo's dream of a Golden Age of leisure by pointing out in prose the hard work of primitive life: “I prithee let me bring thee where crabs grow; and I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts, show thee a jay's nest, and instruct thee how to snare the nimble marmazet. I'll bring thee to clust'ring filberts, and sometimes I'll get thee young scamels from the rock” (II.ii.167-72). Survival skills are needed to live off the land. Stephano immediately makes him their leader but, at the same time, he insists, “Here! bear my bottle” (II.ii.175-76).

  41. Donna Hamilton, Virgil and “The Tempest” (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1990), p. 93.

  42. Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes, p. 92. The same emphasis on reason and hard work and the same woodcut appear earlier in the 1564 Emblemata by Johannes Sambucus.

  43. I am indebted to Stephen Orgel, David Evett, and Robin Headlam Wells for their useful questions and suggestions.

Richard Wilson (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10049

SOURCE: “Voyage to Tunis: New History and the Old World of the The Tempest,” in ELH, Vol. 64, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 333-57.

[In the following essay, Wilson contrasts colonial New World interpretations of The Tempest with the view that the play centers on European concerns.]

A recent pairing by the Royal Shakespeare Company of The Tempest with Edward Bond's Bingo has reminded critics of the persistence of what they long ago discounted as the “totally spurious” identification of Prospero's story with the dramatist's.1 While this last comedy has been Americanized on campuses as a tragedy of colonialism in the New World, the professional theater continues to connect its ending to New Place and a retirement in Stratford. These popular and academic traditions seem, in fact, to straddle the play's two hemispheres, and it may be that the New Historicist success in relocating The Tempest in Virginia has transported it too far from Virgil, and the Old World of Aeneas where its action is set, between Tunis and Naples. For it is now axiomatic that, as Frank Kermode stated in the Arden edition, Shakespeare had America “in mind” when he wrote his “Virginian masque,” based Ariel's songs on Algonquian dances, and intended Caliban “to be a representative Indian, and Prospero a planter.” Yet this certainty about the American context is matched by agnosticism over the play's European pretext, which seems, Kermode presumed, to have been “a wedding in 1611 of which we know nothing.” Ever since 1809, when Malone noted analogies with the Jacobean Virginia Company pamphlets, the Americanization of The Tempest has been accompanied by obliviousness towards its festive occasion, typified by Kermode's belief that “there is no need to imagine such a wedding.” So, though Stephen Orgel's Oxford edition ventured an affinity with King James's dynastic plans, no attempt has yet been made to explain how these might relate to the Shakespearean realpolitik that necessity makes “strange bedfellows” (2.2.38), or motivate a plot which seems to carry its actors irresistibly away from the “still vex'd Bermoothes” (1.2.129), towards “quiet days, fair issue, and long life” in Warwickshire (4.1.24), through the spectacular effects of a firestorm in the Mediterranean, off the Barbary coast of Africa.2

“It will be difficult to denote with precision the role played in the age of Philip II by the ill-defined sea between Africa and Sicily, with its deep waters full of fish, its reefs of coral and sponges, and its many islands, often uninhabited because they are so small”: Braudel's words in his great history of the Mediterranean suggest a location both mysterious and concrete enough for the setting of The Tempest.3 In fact, Braudel's Mediterranean is a reminder that the topography which American critics elide was charged with cultural and economic significance for Shakespeare's audience; and that this intersection of the east-west shipping lane from the Levant to the Atlantic, with the north-south axis from Italy to Africa, defines Prospero's condition, and the “direful spectacle of the wreck” with which he engineers revenge (1.2.26), in terms for which the region was infamous: as piracy. Prospero is that “gentleman of fortune,” a king of pirates: “The only fear and terror of the cruel pirates of Argier, / That damned train, the scum of Africa.”4 Critics efface this elementary fact of maritime law, yet it confirms their insight that Prospero's magic occupies the metaphoric space of gunpowder, and accounts for his otherwise gratuitous plea, kneeling beside his own victims, for mercy from the London spectators: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free” (5.1.337-38). For when Ariel “boarded the King's ship” and “flamed … the topmast, / The yards and bowsprit” with “fire and cracks of sulphurous roaring” (1.2.196-200), the discursive context of this brigandage was not American propaganda but the death sentence decreed by James I for “carrying munition to Algiers and Tunis,” and on pirates who “commit most foul outrages, murders, spoils, and depredations within the Mediterranean, to the great offence of our friends, and extreme loss of our Merchants.” It was a context, moreover, that may explain some of the complexity of The Tempest, for as Braudel writes, the villains of these decrees, issued to protect international shipping from the Barbary corsairs, were English:

By the end of the sixteenth century the English were everywhere in the Mediterranean, in Moslem or Christian countries … They had two strings to their bow, Islam and Christendom, and fell back on a third—piracy. The English had been pirates from the very beginning and of the worst kind … Their cannons were not merely used to force a passage through the Straits … They were fired indiscriminately at anything considered worth taking—Turkish, French, or Italian, it was all the same to the English.5

With the hulk of the burned vessel hidden in harbor, “The mariners all under hatches stowed” (230), and the royal passengers held to ransom, the wreck on which Prospero builds his fortune corresponds closely to the marine disasters which set bells tolling in the financial markets in the period of The Tempest, when “insurance rates tell the whole story,” as Braudel comments, and in Venice soared to 20 percent in 1611 and 25 percent in 1612. Indeed, in the view of Alberto Tenenti, it was the irruption of English piracy that precipitated the decline of the Republic, which he dates from about the year 1610 and the sack of galleons like the 1500-ton Reniera e Soderina: abandoned with a cargo valued at £100,000, after its sails had been set on fire with shot, in a plan “designed to terrify, which succeeded excellently,” in the words of the maritime inquest. The commander of that pyrotechnic raid was Jack Ward, who according to John Smith, the Virginia planter, typified the war veterans for whom James I had no use, and who “turned pirates; some because they became slighted by those that had wealth; some for that they could not get their due; some that lived bravely and would not abase themselves to poverty; others for revenge.” It was Ward who reputedly introduced gunpowder to Tunis, where he had “turned Turk,” travelers reported, and built a palace, “with fifteen circumcised English renegades” for servants. Braudel estimates that over 3000 Venetian ships were captured by such buccaneers between 1592 and 1609; but the ethical confusion of their crimes, he believes, was as disturbing as the cost to insurers. For as pirate superseded privateer, “it was not only in Algiers that men hunted each other, sold or tortured their enemies, and became familiar with the miseries and horrors of the ‘concentration camp’ world: it was all over the Mediterranean.” So, though it was reckoned that some 466 English ships were seized and their crews enslaved in the Berber states between 1609 and 1616, the irony was that they fell victim to a system commanded not by barbarians, but by Christians such as Prospero.6

Power at its most barbaric is everywhere in Braudel's Mediterranean, and not limited, as the so-called Barbary Legend would have it, to Islam. “What kind of history have we been taught,” he asks, in the acid style of his protégé, Foucault, “that these acts, familiar to seamen of all nationalities, should seem so astonishing?”7 It is a question which helps situate those successive deeds of enslavement and liberation which propel the plot of The Tempest, from the moment when Sycorax employs techniques perfected in Algiers to “confine” Ariel “By help of her most potent ministers … Into a cloven pine” (274-79). For like Marlowe in The Jew of Malta and Dido Queen of Carthage, Shakespeare highlights what the New Historicists occlude, that to sail to the Ottoman Regencies of Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis, was to traffic in an entire economy driven by the corso (or lottery) of the slave market, and regulated, as Stephen Clissold details in The Barbary Slaves, for the lucrative turnover of capture and ransom. Prospero's exacting negotiations to free Ariel, Caliban, Ferdinand, and his aristocratic hostages, belong precisely to this trade in redemption, which confounded Eurocentrism by revolving not on the enslavement of Africans, who were employed as “more potent ministers” or guards, but the bondage of Europeans, captured in raids on Naples, Provence, or even, in 1627 on Iceland. In 1631 237 peasants, including wives and children, seized from Baltimore in Ireland, were auctioned in Algiers, according to the redemptionist priest Pierre Dan, who guessed that a million Europeans had at one time tasted slavery, in a white slave population of 25,000 at Algiers and 7,000 at Tunis.8 This was the cycle, then, into which Shakespeare's Neapolitans traded “the King's fair daughter Claribel,” to be one of the wives of the Dey of Tunis; and out of which came Caliban, bastard of Sycorax, a “blue-ey'd” Algerine slaveowner (2.1.70; 1.2.269). So, as Prospero prepares to “manacle” the neck and feet of Ferdinand (462), the chain forms a link in that grim nexus that bound captor to captive across Braudel's Mediterranean; as when:

A Redemptionist Father returned to Leghorn from a mission to Tunis just as a shipload of captured Moslems was brought in. They were Tunisians, and amongst them the Christian ex-slaves recognized some who had been their own masters. Some of the ex-captives jeered over this sudden turn of fortune. But others were filled with fear at the sight of their old masters. They could not believe that they were free. These victims had lost their chains, but their minds still bore the brand of slavery: “Your turn today, mine, perhaps, tomorrow.”9

“It was mine art, / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / The pine and let thee out”: though he threatens to “peg” Ariel in oak fetters until he “hast howled away twelve winters” (291-93), Prospero's intervention in this slave economy is evidently less that of a colonist than that of a redemptor. The complexity of this role can be glimpsed from the story of one of the most famous of hostages, Miguel de Cervantes, captured by corsairs in 1575 on a voyage, like that of Shakespeare's (presumably Spanish) courtiers, from Naples. Enslaved in Algiers for five years, Cervantes led four mass escapes before being ransomed by redemptionists, but was compromised by his sexual liaisons with a Moorish woman and his master, Hassan Pasha, a Venetian pirate. These experiences inspired both the “carefully shaded picture of relationships between Christians and infidels” in his play, Life in Algiers, and the portrait of the typical renegade in Don Quixote as “morally a good man, who treated his captives with much humanity.”10 It is not necessary to imagine, as Spanish critics do, an actual meeting between novelist and playwright, to see how this Cervantine empathy with “the drama of the thousands lost in the clash of civilizations” might influence Shakespeare's referral of the events of The Tempest back to “Algier” and the ironic banishment of Sycorax from the metropolis of bondage (261). In 1609 Cervantes would join a redemptionist Confraternity of Slaves; but in England the instant legacy of this ex-slave was a genre of pirate plays, with titles like A Christian Turn'd Turk, invoking not the barbarity of Islam, but the reversibility of slave and master. For when the Spanish writer ended his comedy with a chorus of ransomed captives praying for pardon, he broke “the conventions of a Manichean universe that would oppose good and bad,” according to his biographer, by staging his own belief in “the ambiguity of the exchanges transacted between Christendom and Islam.”11 It was a relativism unprecedented in Renaissance theater, but which would later be crucial to Prospero's traffic with the Barbary slaves and slavers:

                              Two of these fellows you
Must know and own. This thing of darkness I
Acknowledge mine.


For three centuries the escape from the seraglio would form one of the salacious themes of orientalism; but in The Tempest there is no release from the underworld for Claribel. As O. Mannoni commented in his study of the psychology of colonization, Prospero and Caliban, “The colonial situation is portrayed in The Tempest even more clearly than in Robinson Crusoe,” as one of dependence by the colonizer.12 So, if Mannoni's work is not quoted by New Historicists, that may be because it depicts slave and slave-trader as mutually incarcerating. Yet reoriented towards a Mediterranean context, the cries of Prospero's captives for “Freedom, highday!” and “release from my bands” (2.2.181; 5.1.327), seem as keyed to the medieval discourse of redemptionism, with its Catholic missions and Jewish brokers, as to the modern discourse of colonialism. The Tempest is no Fidelio; but its spectacle of sailors freed with “roaring, shrieking, howling, jingling chains” (233), had its analogue in the processions of ransomed hostages which danced through European cities, in France as late as 1785. And it is in this quest for escape and repatriation that Shakespeare's comedy departs most from the Virginia pamphlets, with their commitment to westward domination. Here, as even the New Historicists concede, “Prospero's Mediterranean isle steadfastly resists the colonial analogy,” since his prisoners “had been traveling east; had been trying to go home, and do go home in the end.”13 They do so, moreover, in exchange for the pardon of their captor, whose own freedom is thereby made conditional on their emancipation. In July 1611 James I did indeed grant English pirates pardon on condition they released their victims and returned all ships as “bravely rigged as when (they) first put out to sea” (224). That one of them, Peter Easton, chose to remain “a king himself,” and was promptly made a marquis by the Duke of Savoy, says a lot about power in Shakespeare's Mediterranean. But that Prospero does realize the fantasy of a contemporary ballad about the pardon of Jack Ward, suggests how much was at stake in London:

Strike up, ye lusty gallants, with music loud and drum,
For we have descry'd a rover upon the sea is come …
For he hath sent unto our king, the sixth of January,
Desiring that he might come in, with all his company;
“And if your king will let me come, till I my tale have told
I will bestow for ransom full thirty ton of gold.
Go tell the King of England, go tell him this from me,
If he reign king of all the land, I will reign king at sea.”(14)

“Thy dukedom I resign, and do entreat / Thou pardon me my wrongs” (5.1.118-19): the ironic reversal of king and pirate on which The Tempest ends can be keyed very precisely to the transformation of English policy in the period of its commission. For the specific problem of Mediterranean piracy had been staged already in London, when the young Prince Henry was saluted as Prince of Wales by the Lord Mayor in a sea pageant that climaxed, on 6 June 1610, with pyrotechnics to represent a merciless military solution. Anthony Munday's text, London's Love to Prince Henry, shipped a “worthy fleet of citizens” onto the Thames to enact a water fight in which “A Turkish Pirate, prowling on the seas to find a booty,” raked a flotilla of merchant vessels with “shot upon shot very fiercely,” until “two men of war made in to help,” and “after a long and well fought skirmish,” in which “divers men were hurled over into the Sea … proved too strong for the Pirate,” whose flagship was finally blown up with “a whole battery of rare and admirable fireworks.”15 Preceded by tableaux in which the “deformed sea-shapes” of a dolphin and whale were changed into Amphion and the nymph Corinea to bring greetings from Wales and Cornwall, this spectacle was designed to publicize the need for armed convoys to protect English shipping from the “spoil and rapine” of the Barbary corsairs; so it was the more pointed that when Shakespeare set his scene with an act of gunpowder piracy on the same high seas, it was as an overture to a drama of marine salvage. The Tempest has recently been connected with Munday's romance Primaleon, featuring escape from an Enclosed Isle;16 but Shakespeare's revision of the bellicose London's Love suggests a more immediate dialogue between the court playwright and City propagandist. And the topicality of Prospero's benign metamorphosis of naval fire-power is only amplified by new research which suggests that the very costumes worn by Richard Burbage and John Rice of the King's Men as Amphion and Corinea were recycled for Caliban and Ariel.17 Shakespeare was generating a comedy of seachanges, it appears, out of some very “fishlike” yet “marketable” material (2.2.26; 5.1.266).

An aristocrat “for the liberal arts / Without a parallel,” who forfeits the title of “prime duke” to his rapacious family through absorption in “secret studies”; is hurried into exile accompanied only by a young girl; plots revenge with his books and “brave utensils”; arms a roving force to raid and seize “the King's ship”; confronts his hostages in ducal robes to demand his restoration; but agrees to break his “staff” and retire to his library in return for pardon (1.2.71-77, 110, 224; 3.3.94; 5.1.54, 310): Prospero's story has been idealized as a Virgilian epic, but belongs as much, it seems, to the genre of pirate adventure. Its first recorded performance was at Whitehall on 1 November 1611, and this firework display on All Saints' Day might offer some clue to its theme of persecution and pardon. In fact the occasion has been ignored in favor of a later date in 1613, when the comedy was restaged to honor the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine, and the Virginia colony had survived long enough to seem a viable investment. No one has considered the implications of what may have been the original context: one of feverish diplomacy over the proposed marriage of the Prince of Wales to Caterina, daughter of Grand Duke Ferdinand of Tuscany. Yet Prospero's plot to regain his dukedom does coincide exactly with Tuscan policy, which was to restore independence to Milan, whose usurping Duke was actually Philip II, and to blockade Naples, the other Italian city under Spanish occupation. In 1610 Henry IV of France had been about to liberate Milan by arms when he was assassinated; and it was to maintain his anti-Spanish league that his namesake now acquiesced in a Medici alliance. In August 1611 portraits were exchanged; in September the bride won freedom of worship in consideration of a dowry of 600,000 crowns; on 21 October the Medici envoy gloated how English Catholics were rejoicing that the “prince now turns to Tuscany for a bride;” and a week later The Tempest was performed.18 It cannot be chance, therefore, that the match depended at that moment on a pardon offered to an exiled duke whose story was precisely Prospero's.

“He was a person of great learning and parts,” recorded the antiquarian William Dugdale, “of stature tall and comely, strong, valiant, and famous at the art of tilting, singularly skilled in all Mathematic Learning, but chiefly in Navigation and Architecture, a rare Chemist and of great knowledge in Physic.” To Antony Wood he was “a complete gentleman, an exact seaman, a good navigator, and an excellent architect;” but Horace Walpole ironized that “considering how enterprising and dangerous a minister he might have been, and what talents were called forth by his misfortunes, it would seem to have been happy both for this duke and his country that he was unjustly deprived of the honors to which his birth gave him pretensions.”19 Don Roberto Dudleo, Duca di Northumbria, as he styled himself, was the son of Elizabeth's favorite, the Earl of Leicester, and grandson of the Northumberland who lost his head and dukedom for installing his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, as queen. Roberto's claim to this dukedom was formally accepted by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1620, as much for his “knowledge and rare ingenious inventions,” as his blood; but when he burst into Tuscany in 1607 he announced himself to the Grand Duke with the title. He was first in a position to “require” his dukedom, as Prospero does (132), in 1611, because it was he who was charged with securing papal indulgence for a Medici to marry the militant Protestant Prince. Through the influence of a “good old lord” (5), Sir Thomas Chaloner, Prince Henry's Chamberlain, who had tutored them both and was the “chief foundation of this match,” Dudley thus found his zenith dependent on “a most auspicious star,” which he could either court or let his fortunes “ever after droop” (1.2.181-84).20 Editors infer some link between The Tempest and Henry, eulogized in stellar imagery by poets such as Dryaton for his naval and colonial ambitions, but it is Dudley's role in this strategy that suggests how fraught a commission this may have been. For what had made this pretend duke so indispensable was his success as the most enterprising of pirates.

“We granted you leave to travel,” King James thundered, “in hope that you might thereby prove of service to our State. We now understand that you bear yourself inordinately, attempting many things prejudicial to our Crown, which we cannot suffer to endure.” Dudley had created a sensation in 1605 by abandoning his wife and eloping to France with a teenage cousin, Elizabeth Southwell, a maid of the Queen, in fury at failure to prove his legitimacy in a melodramatic Star Chamber trial. After converting to Catholicism, the couple sailed to Pisa early in 1607 with a pair of servants, it was said, and £80 (though Dudley had transferred £40,000 to his Italian account). In Florence, however, Ferdinand had instantly made Dudley overlord of the Tuscan shipyards, on the strength of his expertise as “nephew of three Grand Admirals of England” and brother-in-law of Cavendish, the circumnavigator.21 The first ship built to his design, the John the Baptist, was launched in March 1608, in time to ambush the Turkish treasure fleet and “with but little help,” he bragged, “capture 9 vessels, 700 prisoners, and jewels valued at two million ducats.” At Dudley's instigation the Grand Duke then began “to entice English mariners and shipwrights into service,” Sir Henry Wotton relayed, buy “ordance from English ships and take English pirates under his protection,” until his “fleet consisted principally of English sailors.” One of these “sailors corrupted from religion and allegiance” was the corsair, Ward, whom James condemned in January 1609, as it became clear that Dudley, declared a rebel by the English envoy, planned to rig a blockade between Tunis and Leghorn, which he had fortified.22 This private war would eventually lead the renegade to secure a papal embargo on English trade, “by reason of the unjust occupation and confiscation of his Dukedom”; but its targets were obvious from 1608, when he equipped an expedition to the Caribbean, crewed by English slaves and “commanded to those parts by order of Grand Duke Ferdinand, his lord.”23 They were his Rich and Sidney cousins, who had stolen his birthright by contesting his legitimacy, and as projectors of the Bermuda and Virginia Companies, were changing America into something “rich and strange” (402) for England.24

In his six-volume treatise published in 1646 as Arcano del Mare, pride of place goes to the maps the Duke had had engraved; and of these, the one that prompts most pride is the chart of Trinidad drawn for the 1608 expedition, by means of which, “and instructions in the author's own hand, the Captain went and returned prosperously, and although he had never been in the West Indies before, yet he achieved his voyage without loss.” Dedicated to Ferdinand II, Dudley's map provides a perfect analogue of the overdetermined text of The Tempest, with its inscription of English and Italian politics onto a New World geography and people: “who were of those Caribs who eat human flesh,” we are advised, “six of whom were presented to their Highnesses in Florence,” though but “One survived, who afterwards served for some years the Cardinal Medici, and learned to speak the Italian tongue passably well.”25 Like the designs for forts Dudley smuggled him, this map illustrates those “secret studies” which drew Henry to the Duke, who “entertained no small hopes of returning to England by means of the Prince's favor,” Dudley Carleton attested, “to be employed in some special charge about the King's Navy.”26 And it suggests a new source for Shakespeare's passage to America via Tunis, being based on Dudley's own expedition of 1594, when he had explored the Orinoco Delta a few weeks before Raleigh, and even named an island Dudleana. In 1600 he summarized this adventure for the Voyages of his brother-in-law, Richard Hakluyt; but the log kept for Robert Cecil by an officer, Abram Kendal, was never published, presumably because its realism would have upstaged Raleigh's self-promotion. It records, for instance, how, having claimed Trinidad for the Queen, the fleet suffered a tempest off “the Bermudes: a climate so far differing from the nature of all others, that we might think ourselves happiest when furthest from it.” One of his few biographers, James Pope Hennessy, wonders what impact Dudley's voyage had on writers, such as his cousin, the Countess of Pembroke at Wilton, where he stayed after his return.27 In fact, Leicester's son would earn most fame fighting at Cadiz in his bark, the Nonpareil; but what resonates with The Tempest is his ordeal off “the still vex'd Bermoothes” (229), in a boat named after the Dudley emblem, the Ragged Staff:

For often before we have had dangerous gusts … but these were ever ordinary and their dangers still extraordinary, their dreadful flashing of lightning, the horrible claps of thunder, the monstrous raging of the swelling seas forced up into the air by the outrageous winds, all together conspiring in a moment our destruction and breathing out, as it were, in one breath the very blast of our confusion, so that, this being of all seafaring men delivered of a verity … hell is no hell in comparison (to the Bermudas) … But, at last when we expected nothing less than the splitting of sails, breaking of shrouds, spending of masts, springing of planks—in a word, the dreadful devouring of us all by some sea-swallowing whirlpool—we were most miraculously delivered … Thus as men prepared for God, always leading our lives as if we should die hourly, we passed on forward of our course towards the islands of Flowers (Azores) with a most foreseeable wind, sailing between the Bermudes and these islands with an incredible swiftness.28

Editors have tracked the tornado in The Tempest to William Strachey's True Repertory of the Wrack, reporting the salvage of the 1609 Virginia convoy off Bermuda, which the dramatist is presumed to have read in manuscript; but as Kenneth Muir objects, “There is hardly a shipwreck in fiction” that does not itemize the same catalogue of wind and wreckage.29 The Virginia pamphlets, which declare themselves tragi-comedy, read like a prospectus for financial disaster. By comparison, Dudley's logbook may be a corrective to Raleigh's Eldorado, but what characterizes it is its Elizabethan faith in a comic ending, imaged in the metaphor, to be deployed by Shakespeare, of the “never-surfeited sea” belching survivors (3.3.55). It was surely the contrast between the English fiasco and its Tuscan precursor which recommended Dudley, then, as a Prospero to London investors. It was he, after all, who had at first promoted the Levant trade by persuading Ferdinand to declare Leghorn a free port, “exceedingly open to all points of the compass,” in the words of the Persian traveler, Robert Shirley.30 And if this Prometheus had tamed the elements, it was because, like Prospero, he had conjured his firepower “From the still-vexed Bermoothes” (1.2.229): that Isle of Devils where he had harnessed what the log calls “a substance resembling a fiery dragon, which fell into our sails and upon deck, passing from place to place, ready to set all on fire.” As he plotted his revenge by piloting a royal wedding, Dudley must indeed have seemed blessed by “this warning messenger, that vanished without any harm done unto our ships or any of our company,” which was “not so strange as true.” Strachey's report on St. Elmo's Fire for the Virginia Company, on which Ariel may draw, in fact echoes this older text, but without its belief that the fire “foretelleth some great thing to come.” Since Cecil was a key promoter of the Medici marriage, however, it seems likely Shakespeare had access to both manuscripts, and followed Dudley, now at a climacteric over his usurpers, in greeting the aerial message as propitious:31

                                                  At this hour
Lies at my mercy all mine enemies.
Shortly shall all my labours end, and thou
Shalt have the air at freedom.


Prospero's promise of liberty to Ariel has always seemed to underwrite what Stephen Greenblatt calls the “magic of art,” which “resides in the freedom of the imagination” from discourses of power. Thus, Ariel's capacity “to fly, / To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride / On the curl'd clouds” (1.2.190-92), figures for Greenblatt the plenitude of the aesthetic space, which so transcends “coercion, discipline, and pardon,” that “it doesn't matter whether the story ‘really’ happened.”32 But what if, as Dudley's logbook hints, the fiery demon was once an avatar of gunpowder, and Prospero identifiable as the magus who had done most, according to the Tuscan envoy, to release English crewmen and cannon into the Mediterranean from Barbary and Bermuda?33 The episode that follows the hurricane in the log begs just such a question about the relation of text to context, when it records how Dudley inspired his gunners during a battle in the Atlantic by staging a scene from The Spanish Tragedy on deck, and how, reciting “those verses of old Hieronymo,” he rewarded a page with a rifle, to replace one that “by charging and recharging, brake about his ears,” and a wounded sailor with “promise of an alms room in his hospital of Warwick.”34 What Greenblatt calls the “unresolvable doubleness” of Prospero's isle, as site of both art and empire, was the very element, it seems, of this pretender, whose hope of pardon from King James was based partly on his friendship with Galileo, and readiness to divulge “the discoveries revealed in his telescope.”35 Like Shakespeare's mage, this heir apparent could both reach for the stars, in Greenblatt's terms, and manipulate wretches who clung to “barren ground, long heath, brown furze” (1.1.66), or a hospital bed in Warwickshire. So, whether or not his voyage did inspire The Tempest, Roberto's scheme to reclaim his title does suggest how much its vision of plenitude, of “barns and garners never empty” (4.1.111), might have been prompted, as Greenblatt senses, by the “want, craving, and absence” of actual material possession.36

Diplomatic correspondence from the time of The Tempest is punctuated by signals in which the disgraced duke promises London that in return for pardon he will “deliver all … calm seas, auspicious gales, / And sail so expeditious that shall catch / Your royal fleet far off” (5.1.313-16). Thus, he pledges that “Though unknown to him, he rejoices in zeal for the King's service, and wishes to be an instrument of good for his country.” Like Shakespeare's wizard, he riddles that “Though the matter, by its great importance, may seem strange and difficult,” it is vital “to the security of England. He has had long study and practice and can perform what he offers.” He makes these overtures, he swears, “out of pure loyalty, having received too many discourtesies from his friends and kindred, the greatest persons in the kingdom, to desire his return;” but will, as earnest, “gladly make of use to his country” his invention of a new type of battleship, “of such extraordinary force and swiftness that no three of the King's ships could stand against it.”37 What concerns ministers, however, is Dudley's part in incidents like the one reported on 11 July 1611, when “Certain merchants of London are taken off Scilly by English pirates,” who now “have 40 ships and 2,000 men at their place of rendezvous in Barbary.”38 For as their agents suspected and historians confirm, from Africa “English pirates headed for Leghorn with their plunder and sold it … Clearing-houses for such booty emerged by 1610,” and “Goods arrived there in abundance.” Thus, in October 1614, “two English pirate ships presented the Grand Duke with a gift of slaves” for safe-conduct of no less than nine galleons laden with spoils. According to Tenenti, it was this clearing-system, orchestrated by Dudley, which transformed piracy into a multinational business; so prospects would have looked alarming when on 5 October 1611 the Privy Council minuted that “The pirates refuse pardon and are gone to Florence to be commanded by Sir Robert Dudley.”39 What London required most urgently from this sorcerer, evidently, was exactly the reassurance about its vanished crews and cargoes that Prospero gives Miranda:

Have comfort.
The direful spectacle of the wreck, which touched
The very virtue of compassion in thee,
I have with such provision in mine art
So safely ordered that there is no soul,
No, not so much perdition as an hair
Betid to any creature in the vessel
Which thou heard'st cry, which thou saw'st sink.


Editors have long concluded, as does Anne Barton, that any connection between the plot of The Tempest, with “its emphasis upon the sea, upon loss and recovery, travel, chastity, parents and children,” and the performance “at Court on Hallowmas night 1611 … is likely to remain a mystery;”40 yet at least one member of that audience had been primed to decipher its topicality. He was the Venetian Ambassador, who reported on 19 July that with “the goods plundered from English vessels sold at Leghorn … many see the only remedy in the marriage of the Tuscan woman to the Prince of Wales.”41 Venetian dispatches in fact offer an ironic commentary on the cynicism of Shakespeare's audience, as they reveal that while the match was “generally loathed” in England, the marriage and pardon were urged as necessities by “merchants who have been plundered,” and specifically by the Levant Company.42 They orient the play, therefore, within a struggle that has been analyzed by Robert Brenner: between an emergent American lobby, led by Puritan adventurers such as Robert Rich and Robert Sidney, and the East Indian establishment, chaired by grandees such as Dudley's uncles, the Catholic Earls of Nottingham and Northampton.43 And they confirm that it was Dudley, in concert with the latter, who prompted the marriage, “by means of letters to the Prince's Chamberlain,” expressly “to remove difficulty about the pirates, and grant them a port where they can bring goods without taxation, which would cause Leghorn to flourish.” So, if the Earl of Warwick, as he currently titled himself, was one model for Prospero, he lived up to the name, since, as Queen Anne let slip, “the quantity of gold passing” in bribes “into the hands of private individuals” in London “amounted to a million.” No wonder that Henry “lent his authority to this scheme, and wished to see the mariners of his kingdom augmented by those seeking refuge at Leghorn;” nor that his father now “condoned past crimes and turned his attention to sharing the piratical loot.” As spies counted the trees felled for Dudley's ships and pirates he converted, the only mystery in the autumn of 1611 was whether this Midas would accept a pardon or be “tempted to enter the service of the King of Spain,” since, as the Venetian envoy wrote in August:

The interested parties have begged a pardon, but as the pirates have already made great plunder, there is a doubt whether they will accept the conditions under which it has been obtained. If they do not, seeing that there are a number of very rich ships making now for London, which cannot escape the ambuscades, this market will receive a severe shock, and nor will the royal ships which they may send out be sufficient, for they cannot be in every place at once.44

In her essay, “The pirate and the emperor: power and law on the seas,” Anne Pérotin-Dumon traces an epochal shift in cultural attitudes towards the English privateer, who begins the seventeenth century, like Ward, proclaimed in ballads as “a prince with authority to make war on the world,” but ends it despised by writers such as Defoe as a menace to the “bonds that unite civil society.”45 It is therefore within a dying ethos that Prospero's appeal to be neither confined to an island nor “sent to Naples” to stand trial meets an expedient response (5.1.323); and all the ambiguities of the “gentleman of fortune” were present in Dudley's case, at the last hour of remission. Thus, though a royal navy squadron would not enter the Mediterranean to rescue the estimated 1500 English slaves until 1620, at the moment of The Tempest the Duke's power was so analogous to Prospero's that he could indeed offer to Prince Henry's mediator, Edward Cecil, to trade their lives. And in the wedding negotiations, where entreaties from his Catholic uncles, and even a secret letter from the Queen professing Catholicism, failed to move the Pope, the most famous English émigré, suspected of complicity in the Gunpowder Plot, might yet prevail. Three weeks after Shakespeare's play was acted, at any rate, having had his crime mitigated from treason to contempt, Dudley signed a contract with Henry drafted to expedite his pardon: the sale for a song of the mansion he had forfeited when “proclaimed as a rebel,” to house the newly-weds. This deal saved the property from his grasping cousins; but in a memorandum the Duke set on record that “no motive induced him to pass so rich a castle at so low a price, except to give satisfaction for contempt … as Prince Henry was so confident the King would pardon the contempt, he sent to make a pardon ready for the King to grant it.”46 We can guess Shakespeare had wind of this contract when he ended his play with Prospero's plea for an “indulgence” to set him free (338), for the castle in question was none other than Kenilworth: Leicester's “gorgeous palace” (4.1.152) in Warwickshire.

“Our revels now are ended” (148): if the banishment of Don Roberto did influence The Tempest, it was apt that a voyage to Trinidad via Tunis should end at Kenilworth, where young Shakespeare is supposed to have “heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back” saluting Elizabeth, and to have worn the badge of bear and staff as one of Leicester's players. But though the heir to Kenilworth rose to be Chamberlain to the Medici and devise court masques, he never justified Drayton's hopes, in a 1593 dedication, to be the patron of English drama. Nor did he ever flaunt in England the finery he designed for himself as Grand Master of his own Caesarean Order.47 A year after The Tempest, he was still awaiting pardon when he wrote to remind the Prince how he had sold “Kenilworth for a small matter, only reserving to myself the Constableship of the Castle … so I may have some command there whenever I shall happen to be in England.” With this letter went a tome arguing that “Whoever is patron of the sea commands the land,” but before they arrived, Henry suddenly died, and with him the mercy for which the Don had bargained to break his ducal staff and abjure his rough piratic powers. Long ago he had lost Essex House and Warwick Castle to his cousins; but failure to win a papal indulgence for the “sun-rising” on which he “fastened all his hopes” cost him the last of his “cloud-capp'd towers” (152). Thus, amid “the lamentations of many gentlemen now at Florence who were the late Prince's servants,” the player-duke returned to the slave-trade “to outride sorrow;”48 as his cousins pillaged the New World to buy the earldoms he claimed of Warwick and Leicester. Such is the narrative of empire and bondage New Historicism projects from The Tempest; but restored to Old World archives, Shakespeare's gunpowder plot also pleads for liberty and pardon. So, while Americans may be right to transpose the play to Virginia, Europeans can respond that had this Prospero retired to his “Milan” in Warwickshire, one of the many titles restored “in one voyage” (5.1.208) would have been his lost Lordship of the Manor of Stratford.

“In this worthy enterprise of bringing two hemispheres into one world,” trumpeted the publisher of the Arcano del Mare, “if one man is more eminent than others, it is this Duke of Northumberland, who, to make himself master of marine science, tore himself away from the great House where he had princely birth, and sacrificed full forty years in unveiling the mighty secrets of the sea.”49 “No source has been discovered for the plot of The Tempest,” Muir regrets;50 but it seems improbable that Shakespeare was unaware of this global impresario, whose tale must have taken the ears of Stratford “strangely” (313). For like Prospero, Roberto had grown a stranger to his estate by “being transported / And rapt in secret studies” (1.2.76-77), such as the planning of the 1597 Islands Voyage, which sailed with “A Commendation by Her Majesty to the Great Emperor of China,” Hakluyt stated, “principally at the charge of the honourable Sir Robert Dudley.” And like Shakespeare's dethroned magician, the discoverer of Dudleana had found his dukedom “in a poor isle” (5.1.212), after being thrust from his palace by a treacherous conspiracy: “through forcible entry,” the Sheriff of Warwickshire deposed, “by servants of the Countess of Leicester on the castle of Kenilworth, then in the sole and quiet possession of Mr. Robert Dudley.” “Hurried aboard” the Nonpareil in “dead of darkness” (1.2.130, 144), with his young companion disguised as a page, Roberto had indeed been supplied by his old tutor with volumes he prized “above his dukedom” (168), and that today grace the Florentine Natural History Museum, beside his astrolabe and apparatus “to find the ebb and flow of tides.” So, whether or not Prospero's magic does refer to those black arts with which the Warwickshire seadog “set roaring war” in the Mediterranean sky, it seems unlikely that the circle which he draws to compass “the ebbing Neptune” (5.1.35-44) was imagined in ignorance of the work for which Dudley was hailed as “the world's wonder” in his own time: the study of “scientific or spiral navigation by Great Circles” he wrote at Kenilworth in 1599.51

“By far the greatest English chart-maker,” Dudley had completed four volumes of his magnum opus in English by 1611, yet critics of The Tempest have forgotten this magus who spanned its worlds;52 “probably suggested” the unpopular marriage it legitimated to engineer his own revenge;53 set slaves logging to build the fleet that terrorized the seas where it takes place; and may even have cued its subplot of Trinculo and Stephano through his exploitation of the twin redemptionist orders: the Trinitarians and Knights of San Stephano.54 Yet it is his claim to the escheated Stratford, one of “diverse fair lordships” he looked to inherit from his uncle Ambrose, which raises the most intriguing implications for The Tempest.55 For had Henry carried his Italian bride to Kenilworth, the manor's usurping Lord, the Puritan Edward Greville, would have been displaced by this convenor of the “knot of bastard Catholics” who had made Florence a hotbed of conversion. Such were the hopes conveyed to Rome by a mysterious “English visitor,” who affirmed to the papal inquiry on the marriage that, while “English Catholicism is almost extinct … the English will follow the Crown into Jewry, if need be.”56 Whether or not this emissary was Dudley, the quip illuminates the religious subtext of Shakespeare's comedy, which, as Orgel perceives, has more to do with James's ecumenical plans for his children than the actual Protestant wedding The Tempest was performed to celebrate in 1613. Editors such as Kermode who assume that Prospero's masque is redundant in “the version played in 1611, when no marriages or betrothals were celebrated,” have allowed their New World to eclipse the Old; but it cannot be coincidence that the nuptials Shakespeare's exorcism did precede on All Saints' Day were to be contingent on the homecoming of a persecuted Catholic Lord to Stratford. Nor that, through all his years of exile, Dudley's staunchest allies were two other cousins, William and Philip Herbert: that “most Noble and Incomparable Pair of Brethren,” the dedicatees of the First Folio, where the first text printed was The Tempest.57

“Amongst the famous rank of our sea-searching men,” boasted Drayton in 1622, Warwickshire could claim “Sir Robert Dudley, by sea that sought to rise,” and “Hoist sails with happy winds to th'Isles of Trinidado.”58 As Hugh Trevor-Roper exclaims, it seems extraordinary that this transatlantic voyager, who was “the most important Englishman in Italy,” should be “so forgotten, in Tuscany as in England.” And it seems equally surprising that this “Italianized duke” from Stratford, who stood at the center of the world of “shipwrights, cartographers and pilots,” is never associated with The Tempest, even though the expedition to which it may allude foundered on a shore where, a dozen years before, Dudley had “landed / To be the lord on't” (5.1.161).59 The reason was implicit, however, when Drayton insinuated that the winds which swept a Midlander to Trinidad would never waft him safely home. James I sealed the papers on which Dudley had staked his legitimacy to appease his cousins, who by 1612 were in hock to the Duke of Savoy, a rival for the Stuart match.60 And after Prince Henry's death, his bid to ingratiate himself with yet another treatise, exhorting the King to “bridle the impertinency of parliaments” by martial law and gunboats, consigned him to oblivion as a despotic Machiavel.61 Though he survived to see Charles I approve his title, by the time he died in 1649, he was remembered chiefly as patentee of the Earl of Warwick's Powder: a panacea prescribed by Shakespeare's son-in-law, John Hall. Yet this anti-Duke, whose crimes chained Kenilworth to Barbary and Bermuda, may explain some paradoxes of Prospero, such as a fixation on marriage and silence about his own wife: with the deserted Duchess Dudley, a friend of the Lucys, residing at Stoneleigh Abbey, a mere “ten leagues” from Stratford, Shakespeare could glance only obliquely at the fate of “Widow Dido” (2.1.80, 245). Above all, this pirate's plea for pardon reprieves The Tempest, however conditionally, from the tragedy of colonialism, prompting us to share with our “good hands” (5.1.329) a fortune in ransom and redemption.

“Sometimes he was contemptibly childish. He desired to have kings meet him … on his return from some ghastly Nowhere, where he intended to accomplish great things”: Conrad's characterization of the missionary Kurtz alerts us to the probability that even at the outset of the imperial enterprise the creator of Prospero would have seen in it the avidity for “lying fame, sham distinction, all the appearances of success and power,” which propelled the ships and men as they sailed from London: “adventurers and settlers; king's ships and ships of men on 'Change; captains, admirals, the dark ‘interlopers’ of the Eastern trade, and commissioned ‘generals’ of East India fleets. Hunters of gold and pursuers of fame.”62 But in a recent essay entitled “All Saints' Night” the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy asks us also to honor the ghost of “a colonial humanism that might be thought of as stupid, absurd, or reprehensible, and has been condemned by history, but which cannot be described as infamous.” In particular, it is the European involvement in North Africa, Lévy argues, which proves empire “an event the nature of which muddies our terms of reference,” as “any distinction which appears clear-cut in the light of historical judgment, or behavior I would be embarrassed to countenance today, was infinitely more blurred at the time,” when someone could be implicated in colonialism “without being a monster.”63 Such is the ambivalence restored by returning The Tempest to its Mediterranean context, where for three centuries, historians remind us, it was the problem of white slavery which necessitated a European presence in Africa, and where “the massive campaigns to raise funds for ransoms, the widely circulated accounts of the redemptionist fathers, the processions held when ransomed captives returned, the visibility of former captives begging alms, the chains and shackles hanging in churches,” all confirmed the complexity of the relationships between races and religions, slaves and slavers.64 And no one personified that complexity more than Duke Roberto Dudley: pirate, redemptor, and renegade Lord of Shakespeare's Stratford.


  1. Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (London: Routledge, 1986), 115.

  2. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Methuen, 1954), xxiii and xxxiii-iv; and The Tempest, ed. Stephen Orgel (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 31; Edmund Malone, An Account of The Incidents from which the Title and Part of the Story of Shakespeare's Tempest were derived (London, 1809). All quotations of Shakespeare are from the Arden editions and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, tr. Sîan Reynolds, 2 vols (London: Collins, 1972), 1:116.

  4. Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, Part One, ed. James W. Harper (London: Black, 1971), 3.3.55-56.

  5. Stuart Royal Proclamations, ed. J. F. Larkin and P. L. Hughes, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), 1:146 and 574, documents 67 and 242, 13 June 1606 and 6 April 1623; see also the proclamations against pirates of 30 September 1603; 12 November 1604; and 8 January 1609, 1:53-56; 98-99; and 203-6. Braudel, 629 and 35.

  6. Stuart Royal Proclamations, 2:880-87; Alberto Tenenti, Piracy and the Decline of Venice, 1580-1615 (London: Routledge, 1967), chap. 4, esp. 77 and 86; John Smith, True Travels and Adventures of Captain John Smith (London: 1630), quoted in Christopher Lloyd, English Corsairs on the Barbary Coast (London: Collins, 1981), 72; William Lithgow, The Total Discourse of the Rare Adventures of William Lithgow (London: 1632), quoted in Lloyd, 53.

  7. Braudel, 867.

  8. Braudel, 869; Stephen Clissold, The Barbary Slaves (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1992), esp. 52-55 and 102-30. The most important account of the Mediterranean slave economies remains Godfrey Fisher, Barbary Legend: War, Trade and Piracy in North Africa, 1415-1830 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957).

  9. Clissold, 52.

  10. Jean Canavaggio, Cervantes, tr. J. R. Jones (New York: Norton, 1990), 273; Ellen G. Friedman, Spanish Captives in North Africa in the Early Modern Age (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 73.

  11. Canavaggio, 91, 123, 222 and 273. Robert Osborne's 1612 play, A Christian Turn'd Turk, was based on the adventures of Jack Ward in Tunis.

  12. Dominique O. Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, Pamela Powesland (New York: Praeger, 1956), 105.

  13. Jeffrey Knapp, An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature from Utopia to The Tempest (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992), 221.

  14. “The Famous Sea Fight between Captain Ward and the Rainbow,” anon.; quoted in C. Firth, Naval Songs and Ballads (London: Navy Records Society, 1908), 30. The offer of a pardon was repeated frequently during the months preceding and following the first performance of The Tempest: see Calendar of State Papers Domestic, James I, (London: Longman, 1858), vol 9, 17 July 1611; 7 February 1612; and 26 November 1612. Hereafter abbreviated CSPD. For Peter Easton, see Lloyd, 66.

  15. Pageants and Entertainments of Anthony Munday, ed. David M. Bergeron (New York: Garland, 1985), 43-44.

  16. See Gary Schmidgall, “The Tempest and Primaleon: A New Source,” Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1986); 423-39.

  17. Michael Baird Saenger, “The Costumes of Caliban and Ariel Qua Sea-Nymph,” Notes and Queries 42 (1995), 334-36. I am grateful to Dr. Gabriel Egan of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, for drawing my attention to this article.

  18. For a detailed account of this sequence of events, see Roy Strong, “England and Italy: The Marriage of Henry Prince of Wales,” in For Veronica Wedgwood: Studies in Seventeenth Century History, ed. Richard Ollard and Pamela Tudor-Craig (London: Collins, 1986), 59-88. The relationship of The Tempest to the Hallowmas themes of persecution and pardon is discussed in R. Chris Hassel, Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1979), 167-70.

  19. William Dugdale, The Antiquities of Warwickshire (London: John Osborn, 1730), 252; Antony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses 2nd ed. (1721; London: 1813), 3:260. Dudley's life was not in the first edition (1691); Horace Walpole, Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors (London: 1806), 5:339.

  20. The patent of the Emperor Ferdinand II recognising Dudley as legitimate heir of his grandfather is reproduced in John Temple Leader, Life of Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland (Florence: Barbera, 1895), 197-201. For Dudley's letter of introduction to Grand Duke Ferdinand, dating from early in 1606, where he claimed “la Duchee de Northumberland, la Comtee de Warwick et celle de Leicester,” see Leader, 182. For Dudley's role in the Medici marriage negotiations and his friendship with Sir Thomas Chaloner, see Leader, 65; R. Strong, 71; and Henry Prince of Wales and England's Lost Renaissance (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), 80-81. For Chaloner as the “chief foundation” of the Medici marriage, “to whom promises have not been wanting if he should dispose the Prince to the match,” see Thomas Birch, The Life of Henry Prince of Wales (London: 1760), 218, and 16 April 1612 in Calendar of State Papers Venetian, ed. Horatio Brown (London: Longman, 1905), 12:329. Herafter abbreviated CSPV.

  21. See Arthur Gould Lee, The Son of Leicester: The Story of Sir Robert Dudley, Titular Earl of Warwick, Earl of Leicester, and Duke of Northumberland (London: Gollancz, 1964), 123-25, 129. For the Howard navy connection, see Robert Dudley, Direttorio Marittimo, unpub. ms., quoted in The Voyage of Robert Dudley to the West Indies, 1594-1595, ed. George F. Warner (London: Hakluyt Society, 1899) 2nd series, no. 3, xii. The first of Dudley's three wives was Margaret Cavendish, a sister of the circumnavigator, Thomas. When the latter died at sea in 1592, his ships, the Leicester and Roebuck, were inherited by Dudley for his Trinidad expedition. Dudley's connection with the American colonists was further cemented by the marriage of Margaret's sister, Douglas, to Richard Hakluyt: (Voyage of Dudley, x-xi).

  22. Launched in March 1608, the San Giovanni Battista had been the “ship made at Leghorn by the Earl of Warwick,” to be “more perfect than any,” whose design had been sent in 1607 to Sir Thomas Chaloner in London: (Voyage of Dudley, 55). Wotton quoted in Lee, 136; Lloyd, 48-53 and 85; Tenenti, 85; Larkin and Hughes, 203-6. Tuscan attacks on English shipping date from Dudley's arrival in 1607. On 29 January 1609 Venetian despatches reported “great resentment” in London against the Grand Duke, a proposal to prohibit Florentine imports in retaliation for the blockade, and a threat to expel the Tuscan Ambassador (CSPV, 11:224).

  23. Roberto Dudley, Arcano del Mare (Florence: Francesco Onofri, 1646-7), 3:47-48, reproduced in Warner, 93-97. For Dudley's promotion of the Florentine expedition, see English and American Settlement on the River Amazon, 1550-1646, ed. Joyce Lorimer (London: Hakluyt Society, 1986), 2nd series, no. 171, 29-34. And for his private trade war, see Lee, 192-94. The “letters of marque” issued by the Curia Apostolica authorising him to recover eight million ducats compensation for loss of his dukedom by impounding all English vessels “wherever they may be found,” are reproduced in Leader, 203-4.

  24. For the American investments of Robert Sidney, Viscount Lisle, afterwards Earl of Leicester, see “The Names of the Adventurers for Virginia” (1620), The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, ed. Philip L. Barbour, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1992), 2:278. For the American interests of the Rich clan, especially Sir Robert Rich, second Earl of Warwick, see The Rich Papers: Letters from Bermuda, 1615-1646, ed. Vernon A. Ives (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1984).

  25. Quoted in Warner, 95.

  26. Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain, 1603-1624, ed. Maurice Lee (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1972), 135-36.

  27. “The Voyage of Sir Robert Dudley to the isle of Trinidad,” in Principal Navigations, ed. Richard Hakluyt (London: 1600; repr. 1903-5), 10:203-12; “Robert Dudley's Voyage to the West Indies, Narrated by Abram Kendal, Master,” in Warner, 52-53; James Pope-Hennessy, West Indian Summer (London: Batsford, 1943), 32.

  28. Extracted from Warner, 53-57.

  29. Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (London: Methuen, 1977), 278.

  30. Quoted in Lloyd, 77. For the importance of Leghorn in the development of piracy, see also Braudel, 878-79.

  31. Warner, 56. For Cecil as the “Right Honourable” to whom the log of Dudley's voyage is apparently addressed, see Warner, 54; as chief promoter of the Medici match, Strong, 71; and as “General Cecil, the person entrusted with the negotiations,” see CSPV, 12:329, 6 April 1612. For the evil reputation of Bermuda, see especially Jean Kennedy, Isle of Devils: Bermuda under the Somers Island Company, 1609-1685 (London: Collins, 1971).

  32. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 158-63, esp. 159 and 163.

  33. Lee, 131.

  34. Warner, 61-62.

  35. Greenblatt, 158; for Dudley's friendship with Galileo, which dates from 1609, see Lee, 163.

  36. Greenblatt, 160.

  37. CSPD: James I, 9:222, 233 and 245: 31 January, 11 May and 15 July 1614.

  38. CSPD: James I, 9:55.

  39. CSPD: James I, 9:79; Tenenti, 85.

  40. The Tempest, ed. Anne Barton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 23-24.

  41. CSPV, 12:396, 19 July 1612.

  42. CSPV, 12:42 and 283, 16 September 1610 and 4 February 1612.

  43. Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London's Overseas Trade, 1550-1653 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993). In 1609 the Venetian Ambassador recorded that “the King wishes to extirpate” the pirates and “said he would never pardon them,” but “the avarice” of the Earl of Northampton, who “earnestly requests permission to reprieve them,” and “the interests of some great minister [Cecil] place obstacles in his way” (CSPV, 11:311-12 and 394, 6 August and 8 December).

  44. CSPV, 11:301, 309, 311-12, 430 and 435, 18 July, 1 and 6 August 1609; 25 and 27 February 1610; 12:42, 44, 67, 170, 192, 274, 283, 300, 327-9 and 388-89, 16 and 18 September, 8 November 1610; 25 June, 9 July, 11 August 1611; 4 February, 2 March, 6 April, 5 and 7 July 1612. For Dudley's activities at Leghorn, and the hostile reactions in London, see also 11:224, and 12:53, 101, 121, 138, 140, 178, 289 and 393

  45. Anne Pérotin-Dumon, “The pirate and the emperor: power and law on the seas,” in The Political Economy of Merchant Empires: State Power and World Trade, ed. James D. Tracy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), 196-227, esp. 214-17.

  46. Sir Edward was the nephew of Robert Cecil; for his role as intermediary, see Strong, 46-47 and 80-81. For the letter from England's Catholic peers, see Strong, 81, and for Queen Anne's letter to Pope Paul V, signed “humilissima et diligentissima figliuola et serva,” in the Archivio de Stato, Florence (Miscellanea Medicea 293, inserto 29, no. 2), Strong, 70. For Dudley's memorandum on the sale of Kenilworth in exchange for a royal pardon, see Lee, 149; and for the suspicions of his sympathy with the Gunpowder Plotters, see CSPD, 8:317, 21 May 1606.

  47. A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1.150. For Dudley's, later Leicester's Men, and the “princely pleasures” at Kenilworth in 1575, see Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), 89; Michael Drayton, The Shepherd's Garland (London: Thomas Woodcock, 1593); “To the Noble and Valourous Gentleman, Master Robert Dudley: Enriched with all Virtues of the Mind and Worthy of all Honourable Desert,” in The Works of Michael Drayton, ed. J. W. Hebel, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), 1:46. See also Lee, 55. Dudley's manuscript Habiti delli Duchi et Principi dell'ordine Cesaro armati secondo l'inventione del Signor Duca di Nortumbria is reproduced and illustrated in Leader, 102-5.

  48. Lee, 156-57; Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain, 14 December 1612, in Carleton, 135. Within weeks of The Tempest being acted it was already being said that “the pardon offered the pirates comes too late” to stop them “going over to Florence” (CSPD, 9: 60, 109 and 115, 17 July 1611, 4 and 29 January 1612).

  49. Arcano del Mare, ed. Jacopo Lucini (2d. ed., Venice, 1661); quoted in Lee, 228.

  50. Muir, 278.

  51. Lee, 50-51, 90-91; Leader, 39-40.

  52. Edward Lynham, British Maps and Map Makers (London: Nelson, 1904), quoted in Lee, 229.

  53. Leader, 65.

  54. For the rival Redemptionist orders of San Stephano and the Holy Trinity, see Clissold, 12-14, 108-10, 117-18 and 122-25.

  55. Lee, 192; Edmund K. Chambers, Sources for a Biography of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946), 10.

  56. Sir Henry Wotton to Cecil, quoted in Lee, 128; James D. Mackie, Negotiations Between King James VI and I and Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany (St. Andrews: Humphrey Milford, 1927), 93 and 98. On the basis of talks with the “English visitor,” the memorandum concludes that “the Pope may sanction the match,” because “The coming of the princess will ease the sufferings of English Catholics,” and her “followers will begin to convert England” (75, 85 and 89). In a long list of reasons, the marriage is recommended as likely to “issue happily,” just as a Bourbon-Valois match led to the St. Bartholemew's Day massacre (78). This was precisely the fear expressed in London, where it was “openly said that if a Tuscan woman comes here she will cause the same damage that a Tuscan woman has caused to France” (CSPV, 12:396, 19 July 1612).

  57. The Tempest, ed. Stephen Orgel (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 31; F. Kermode, xxiii; Schoenbaum, 258. For Dudley's reliance on the Herbert brothers, see Lee, 92, 168, 176 and 199. Philip's son, Lord Charles Herbert, died on a visit to Dudley in Florence in 1635 (Lee, 208-9).

  58. Michael Drayton, The Second Part of Poly-Olbion (London: Augustine Mathews, 1622), 14:372-73, in Hebel, 406.

  59. Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Anti-Dukes of Northumberland,” Journal of Anglo-Italian Studies, 2 (1992): 50-70, esp. 61, 64 and 68.

  60. In 1612-13 Robert Rich organised expeditions to both East and West Indies under commission of the Duke of Savoy; see Ives, 391.

  61. Robert Dudley, A Proposition for His Majesty's Service to Bridle the Impertinences of Parliaments, quoted in Lee, 169-72. Possession of copies of the Proposition severely compromised Sir Robert Cotton in 1630 and the Earl of Strafford in 1642 (197-98).

  62. Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, ed. Cedric Watts (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), 137 and 237-38.

  63. Bernard-Henri Lévy, “All Saints' Night: The French Algerian Cause,” in Adventures on the Freedom Road: The French Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century, tr. Richard Veasey (London: Harvill Press, 1995), 288.

  64. Friedman, 166.

A version of this essay was first given as a lecture to the 35th Congress of the Société des Anglicistes de l'Enseignement Supérieur at the Université Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand, in May 1995.


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The Tempest

The Tempest, written circa 1611, typifies Shakespeare's writing in the final period of his career. The play is a tragicomedy, combining elements of tragedy with the positive resolution of comedy. Shakespeare set the play on an unnamed island in an unidentified age. In the play, Prospero has been unfairly deposed and set adrift in the ocean with his daughter Miranda. Upon arriving on the island he uses magic to free the spirit Ariel, enslave a half beast named Caliban, and to engineer the shipwreck of his brother Antonio, the king of Naples, and the king's son Ferdinand. Under the control of Prospero, Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love. In the final scene, Prospero confronts his brother, who rules in his place, and demands his dukedom back. He leaves the island under the control of Caliban, and returns to Milan with the others. The lack of a clear location and time has intrigued critics since the play's introduction. Although no source for the plot has been identified, scholars have noted the influence of various literary sources and the advent of colonialism on the play. In addition, critics have studied the nature of Prospero and the possibility that he represents the author.

Concern with the role of colonialism has dominated scholarship on The Tempest for a century. Some critics have challenged the interpretation that Prospero benignly reestablishes the order of the natural world at the end of the play, maintaining instead that the play reflects the inherent oppression and tyranny of the colonial system. However, recent scholarship has redefined these arguments. In his 1999 essay, Robert B. Pierce examines the apparent discord between the emerging metatheatrical and historicist readings of the play. He suggests that by applying both readings—by viewing The Tempest both as a work of literature and a historical document—that a more accurate and full interpretation can be determined. Through the years, critics have also debated whether Shakespeare meant the play to be set in the new colony of Virginia or Bermuda. Richard Wilson (1997) discards existing arguments by positing that the play is set neither in Virginia nor Bermuda but in the Mediterranean. Through the application of the work of recent historians, Wilson shows how the play's meaning is clarified by locating the play off the coast of northern Africa.

Benefitting from advancements in the study of social and cultural history, Shakespearean scholars have focused on aspects of Elizabethan society for clues to a clearer understanding of the playwright's intent. For instance, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1997-98) considers the role of alchemy as a metaphor in the play. She argues that Prospero uses alchemy as a means of reforming and improving society. In an earlier article, Simonds (1995) advocates rejecting misleading postmodern readings of the play in favor of a more accurate historicized viewpoint. She applies her knowledge of Renaissance iconography, particularly emblems and woodcuts, to the play. In addition, emerging evidence on the life of the playwright and his environment has fostered new lines of debate about the autobiographical aspects of the play. Critics have long maintained The Tempest represents one of Shakespeare's most intensely autobiographical works. Building on the interpretation that Prospero represents Shakespeare, David Beauregard (1997) argues that the play reveals Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic. Paul Cantor (see Further Reading) makes the case that the play reflects Shakespeare's concepts on politics and society and represents the playwright's efforts to provide a clear statement of his personal philosophy. Cantor concludes that Shakespeare believed the knowledge of how to rule did not necessitate authority to rule and vice versa. The critic posits The Tempest represents Shakespeare's ultimate summary of justice.

Scholars of The Tempest are drawn particularly to the concepts of the natural world versus the unnatural or monstrous as it was understood in Shakespeare's time. Many critics focus on the relationship of Prospero, who represents modern and rational humanism, and the savage and barbaric Caliban. Scholars believe that Shakespeare's central thesis of the play can be found within his representation of the natural and unnatural state. For instance, Mark Thornton Burnett (1997) considers the nature of the monstrous in Elizabethan culture and concludes that Prospero shares equally in Caliban's distinction as monstrous. In her 2000 essay, Julia Reinhold Lupton discusses the universality of Caliban, placing him within the order of the cosmos. She states that Caliban is neither universal nor particular but exists in between. Finally, John Gillies (see Further Reading) rejects earlier arguments about the location of the island in the play. Rather, he states the island is allegorical and symbolic, representing the state of disorder and the problems in the lives of the characters.

David N. Beauregard (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “New Light on Shakespeare's Catholicism: Prospero's Epilogue in The Tempest,” in Renascence, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring, 1997, pp. 158-74.

[In the essay below, Beauregard charges that Prospero's epilogue provides convincing evidence that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic.]

Shakespeare's religious affiliation has never been convincingly determined. It has long been known, of course, that Shakespeare's family background was heavily Catholic. His mother Mary was from the Catholic Arden family. His father John concealed in the roof of his house a signed Spiritual Testament in the popular Roman Catholic form devised by Charles Borromeo, in the recent judgment of Patrick Collinson “very nearly conclusive” evidence that he was a Catholic (38). Similarly, we have long been aware that, during Shakespeare's youth in the 1570s, two out of three of the teachers at Stratford's grammar school were Roman Catholics (Schoenbaum 66).

Over the last twenty-five years, some interesting evidence has surfaced and suggested even more strongly that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic. In 1972, on the basis of the records of the Stratford ecclesiastical court for May and December 1606, E. R. C. Brinkworth concluded that Susanna Shakespeare and Hamnet and Judith Sadler, for whom the Shakespeare twins were named, were most probably “church papists.” He cautiously admitted that “although Susanna Shakespeare appears among Stratford Church papists we cannot be absolutely certain that she was indeed one of them. But it certainly looks like it.” Less plausibly, and somewhat inconsistently, he went on to suggest that Susanna and her father were “primitive anglo-catholics” (46-48, 132-34). Subsequently, E. A. J. Honigmann, in 1985, argued that the young Shakespeare had spent some time in Lancashire as a school teacher in the employ of a Catholic family. Following the research of D. L. Thomas and N. E. Evans of the Public Record Office, Honigmann further maintained that John Shakespeare's Spiritual Testament and withdrawal from meetings of Stratford's Corporation “drives us to the conclusion that [he] was a Catholic” (118). In 1989, after a study of the recusancy return of 1592 for Stratford, F. W. Brownlow came to the same conclusion. Somewhat earlier, examination of the communion rolls of the parish of Southwark, carefully kept during the period Shakespeare lived there (ca. 1599), revealed that the poet did not take communion in the Church of England, a fact suggesting that, like his father and daughter, he did not conform (Schoenbaum 222-23; Collinson 38-39; Duffy, “Shakespeare” 537). All of these recent lines of converging evidence point to a Catholic Shakespeare and to a continuity of Catholicism in the Shakespeare family. Thus, it is not surprising that several recent books and articles by Peter Milward (24-42), Gary Taylor (99-100), E. A. J. Honigmann (114-25), Eric Sams (11-16), Ian Wilson (410-12), and Margarita Stocker (318-20) contend that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic, albeit not always throughout his entire lifetime.

Moreover, if we place all of this in the context of recent revisionist historiography of the English Reformation, which has documented a popular reluctance to accept the Protestant revolution, the probability of Shakespeare's Catholicism does not appear at all incredible (Todd 1-32; for Stratford specifically see Collinson 36-38). The tide of opinion in favor of a Protestant Shakespeare may indeed be going out. After recently surveying all the evidence, Eamon Duffy has justly concluded that “whether or not Shakespeare can be claimed as a Catholic writer, he was certainly not a Protestant one” (“Shakespeare” 538). Even the skeptical Samuel Schoenbaum, who gives the nod to an Anglican Shakespeare, admits that we “need not find [a Catholic Shakespeare] too puzzling” (62). Nevertheless, one must concede that conclusive and unambiguous documentary evidence of Shakespeare's Catholicism is still lacking. I will argue that such evidence exists in the plays, particularly in The Tempest.

Let us begin with a bit of late seventeenth-century “tradition.” The testimony of Richard Davies (d. 1708), chaplain of Corpus Christi College and Archdeacon of Coventry, that Shakespeare “dyed a papist” (Chambers 2: 257) has been generally considered a bit of unsubstantiated seventeenth-century legend and has never been accorded full credibility. Yet nearly every biographer of Shakespeare mentions Davies, indicating perhaps a lingering suspicion that his notation might be more than an idle and unfounded report. E. K. Chambers himself refused to accept Sidney Lee's dismissal of Davies' report as irresponsible “idle gossip” and assessed Davies as “a man of scholarly attainments” (1: 86).

Coming in the form of a notation on the record of Shakespeare's birth and death dates by William Fulman, scholar of Corpus Christi, Davies' claim at first carries some impression of historical and biographical accuracy, largely because of his credentials as an antiquarian scholar and non-Catholic clergyman, as one who would be expert in matters of parish records. That impression dissipates somewhat with the realization that on two counts Davies displays an imperfect memory. In mentioning Shakespeare's youthful poaching of deer, he cannot remember Sir Thomas Lucy's first name—he leaves the space blank—and he confuses Justice Clodpate from Thomas Shadwell's Epsom Wells with Justice Shallow from The Merry Wives of Windsor. To be sure, there is a difference between remembering the name of an obscure character from a play and remembering Shakespeare's deathbed papistry, but even the fact that Davies has the substance of Shakespeare's epitaph right—“He lays a Heavy curse vpon any one who shal remoove his bones”—does not carry enough weight to warrant accepting his final statement—“He dyed a papist”—as an unquestionable fact.

The possibility that Davies' notation is accurate, however, cannot be summarily dismissed, for there exists a very plausible line of tradition from Judith Shakespeare-Quiney—whose Stratford wedding took place two and a half months before her father died—to John Ward—vicar of Stratford from 1662-81—to Richard Davies, who was chaplain of Corpus Christi (ca. 1675-6 to 1681) and whose notations were made sometime between 1688 and 1703 (Chambers 2: 255-57). Ward in his Diary (for 1661-63) mentions the apparent fever that led to Shakespeare's death, knowledge that Judith Quiney (d. 1662) would have had:

Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jhonson, had a merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feaver there contracted …

And at the same time he makes an intriguing mention of Judith, indicating he apparently knew her:

A letter to my brother, to see Mrs. Queeny, to send for Tom Smith for the acknowledgement.

(Chambers 2: 249-50)

As Oxford clergymen with antiquarian interests and a curiosity about Shakespeare, both Ward and Davies had certain things in common. Since Davies seems to have visited the grave and read its warning, it would be odd if he had not talked with the vicar during his visit. And since both Ward and Davies provide information about Shakespeare's death, it seems clearly possible, if not likely, that Davies got his information from the vicar who got it in turn from Judith Shakespeare. This is all conjecture, of course, and without further substantiation Davies' testimony still stands on a fragile, but not entirely implausible, base.

However open to question is Davies' notation, there is one piece of significant evidence that confirms his claim, though not without ambiguity. And that is the final couplet of Prospero's epilogue in The Tempest: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free.” The Catholic tenor of the last line was noticed long ago by DeGroot (174) and by Mutschmann and Wentersdorf (248-49), but the full theological meaning of the epilogue has never been fully explored. What I shall argue is that The Tempest, most pointedly in Prospero's epilogue, contains a peculiar series of references to sin, grace and pardon that are the expressions of a sensibility rooted in Roman Catholic doctrine.

In its general dimensions, of course, the entire play is concerned with bringing “men of sin” to a penitent state, restoring them to their “proper selves” (3.3.53-60; 5.1.28-30; 212-13), and making them aware of the need for grace, a larger concern of Prospero's project that is repeated in the epilogue where it is applied to the author himself. Not only the characters, but the author as well, are in need of the grace of indulgence and “pardon.”

On a more particular level in the play, there are two minor allusions to Roman Catholic doctrine touching on grace. In remembering Miranda as a child, Prospero describes her as “Infusèd with a fortitude from heaven” (1.2.159), a phrase that alludes to the distinction between infused and acquired virtues. And while the infusion of supernatural virtues—especially faith—is a cardinal point in Reformed doctrine, the infusion of a moral virtue seems more probably Catholic. Another doctrine involving grace, that of the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is also alluded to by Prospero in consoling Alonso:

Irreparable is the loss [of his son]; and patience
Says it is past her cure.
I rather think
You have not sought her help, of whose soft grace
For the like loss I have her sovereign aid
And rest myself content.


Grammatically, “her help” refers to the help of Patience, but the sense of the passage precludes that meaning since Alonso has already sought the help of Patience who has told him she cannot cure him. Previously, in a phrase analogous to “her [Mary's] sovereign aid,” Shakespeare refers to Juno as “the queen o' the sky … with her sovereign grace” (4.1.70-72). Thus, it seems clear what Shakespeare has in mind. He takes care to avoid explicit expression of the intercession of the Blessed Virgin but, especially with the phrase “her sovereign aid,” puts us in mind of her. Understandably, Shakespeare's references to Catholic doctrine are non-explicit, a discreet practice, or perhaps inadvertent lapse, we would expect of a “church papist” concerned with avoiding detection. In view of these general and particular indications, then, it is not surprising to find a concentrated but cleverly ambiguous expression of Roman Catholic doctrine on grace in the epilogue of the play, culminating in the last two lines.

Before turning to the final couplet, however, it is necessary to point out that Prospero's epilogue can be plausibly interpreted as Shakespeare's personal farewell to the stage (I hasten to add that such an interpretation is not essential to my argument—the lines still are among Shakespeare's last and still have a Catholic tenor). There is a strong autobiographical motif in the play itself. Prospero gives an early recounting to Miranda of their past life (1.2), and in the play's concluding lines he promises to tell “the story of my life,” a phrase twice repeated (5.1.303, 312). In conjunction with these lines, the referential discontinuities between the play and Prospero's farewell occur with their rich suggestiveness. Everyone is familiar with the “revels” speech in which the phrases “our revels,” “our actors,” “the great globe itself,” and “this insubstantial pageant” (4.1.148-58) allude to dramatic realities outside the play itself. So also with the epilogue. At the finish of the action of the play itself, Prospero-as-character is not bound, he is no longer confined to “this bare island.” His project has not been merely to please, he is not in despair, and he has no need of the aid of others, discontinuous details which would seem clearly to provoke an autobiographical interpretation of the speech. Shakespeare-as-actor is bound and confined to the stage, he has been concerned to please, his old age would dispose him to despair, and he clearly would have need of others. These dramatic discontinuities force us to look for referential continuities outside the speech itself in the actor's life. The objection that The Tempest was not Shakespeare's last play can be easily answered by a simple distinction between actor and composer. Very probably this was Shakespeare's last play as an actor, but not as a playwright, although Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen by virtue of their composite authorship suggest that even as a playwright Shakespeare had retired. To be sure, he visited London during his last years, but this too suggests a state of permanent retirement to Stratford. Several elements in the speech, in any case, require and are completed by an extended sense, an extra-dramatic sense, beyond the literal. Why, for example, Prospero as lead character, or Shakespeare as lead actor, should need prayer, mercy, and “indulgence” is not at all clear, unless there is some fuller personal sense beyond the immediate literal words. Certainly if Shakespeare is speaking autobiographically and out of character anywhere, it is here (Yachnin 130-33).

To return to the epilogue: given voice by a persona who appeals for intercessory prayers to relieve his despair at his impending death, the twenty lines of the epilogue are interlaced with the technical language of sin and grace.

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint. Now 'tis true
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

In the religious context of Jacobean England and the court of James I, “indulgence” was obviously an important and risky word, a word fraught with powerful theological implications to which Shakespeare could not have been insensitive. Indeed English theologians seem to have preferred the term “pardon” to “indulgence.” “Indulgence” was the Latinate technical term, “pardon” a more vernacular English one. Typically, Hooker in his Learned Discourse of Justification refers to partial and plenary indulgences as “pardon for terme” and “plenary pardon” (5:112). Interestingly, Spenser and Marlowe never use the Latinate word.

As an originating cause of the larger controversy over justification, the indulgence question had an important sixteenth-century history, beginning with Luther's debate against Johannes Tetzel in 1517. Luther, Baius, Bañez, Suarez, and Bellarmine all wrote on indulgences, and it is unlikely that Shakespeare was ignorant of the question. The Council of Trent propounded the essential doctrine on indulgences for general instruction. In a work like Bellarmine's An Ample Declaration of the Christian Doctrine (1602-06), an elementary catechetical source, the terminology of “captive” souls, bound by their “faults” and sins in purgatory, able to be “loosed and freed” by Papal powers through the intercession of indulgenced prayers on the part of the living faithful, is clearly in evidence. Regarding the words of absolution spoken by the priest in the sacrament of penance, Bellarmine writes that

so God inwardly by meanes of those words of the Priest, looseth that soule from the band of sinne, with which it was tyed, and restored it to grace, and deliuereth it from that it had deserued, to haue been cast head-long into hell.


The same terminology occurs in his definition of an indulgence:

Indulgence is a Liberty which God doth vse by meanes of his Vicar, with his faithful, by pardoning their temporall paine, either all or some part, which they were to suffer for their sinnes in this life, or in purgatory … [but] by Indulgence is satisfied onely, for the bond of paine, or punishment …

(214, 217)

Prior to the Council of Trent, the Council of Constance (1414-18) had directed questions against the Wycliffites and Hussites on the subject of indulgences using the same phraseology as the epilogue with its appeal to “the help of your good hands”:

Likewise, whether he believes that the pope, for a pious and just reason, especially to those who visit holy places and to those who extend their helping hands, can grant indulgences for the remission of sins to all Christians truly contrite and having confessed. And whether he believes that from such a concession they who visit these churches and they who lend helping hands can gain indulgences of this kind.

(Denzinger 217)

Again, in referring to “faults” and “crimes,” Shakespeare uses terms implying the distinction between venial and mortal sin. In Reformed theology all sin tended to be the same, all sins making the sinner equally damnable before God (McAdoo 98-119), and the distinction between mortal and venial sins was usually rejected by the Reformers. King James I, before whom The Tempest was first performed at court on November 1, 1611, shows a self-conscious awareness of this Roman Catholic distinction, linked with the vocabulary of “faults” and “crimes.” In the Basilicon Doron he advises his young son:

A moate in anothers eye, is a beame into yours: a blemish in another, is a leprouse byle into you: and a veniall sinne (as the papists call it) in another, is a great cryme into you. Thinke not therefore, that the highnes of your dignity diminisheth your faults (muche lesse giueth you a licence to sinne) but by the contrarie, your fault shall be aggrauated, according to the height of your dignity.

(James I 1:27)

The language of indulgences or “pardons”—with such words as “bands,” “helping hands,” “faults” and “crimes”—is not, then, unique to the epilogue of The Tempest and was used in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theological contexts.

More pertinent to the matter at hand, one can see implicit in Prospero's epilogue a constellation of four important doctrines that have a bearing on its meaning. The presence of one doctrine might perhaps amount to simple coincidence, but the presence of four distinctly Catholic doctrines in an interrelated complex constitutes rather formidable evidence of a Papist sensibility at work.

First, the uncertainty of salvation. Halfway through the epilogue Prospero expresses anxiety over the prospect of his death:

Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.

In the Reformed theology predominant in the Church of England, the merits of Christ sufficed completely to atone for sin, and at the moment of death the sinner was either redeemed or not. In the ordo salutis, or order of salvation, of Reformed theology, the stages of predestination, calling, justification, sanctification, and glorification proceeded with the assurance that the elect could not fall away, that salvation was certain (Wallace 44-46; Lewalski 16-20). Thus Reformed theology saw no need for prayers for the dead, whose salvation or damnation had been decided before the moment of death, nor apparently for the living about to die who were urged to rely on the certainty of faith. In the funeral service of the Prayer Book, the minister was required to declare of each person about to be buried that he died “in sure and certain hope” of salvation (Duffy, Altars 590). In the Homilies, the sermon “An Exhortation against the feare of Death” urges us to have faith over against the fear of death:

Now the third and speciall cause why death indeede is to bee feared, is the miserable state of the worldly and vngodly people after their death: but this is no cause at all, why the godly and faithfull people should feare death, but rather contrariwise, their godly conuersation [sic] in this life, and beliefe in Christ, cleauing continually to his mercies, should make them to long fore after that life, that remaineth for them vndoubtedly after this bodily death. Of this immortall state, (after this transitory life) where wee shall liue euermore in the presence of GOD … there be many plaine places of holy Scripture, which confirme the weake conscience against the feareof all such dolours, sicknesses, sinne, and bodily death, to asswage such trembling and vngodly feare, and to encourage vs with comfort and hope of a blessed state after this life.

(Certaine Sermons 65)

With Roman Catholics, on the other hand, there was no such assurance and certainty. Trent pronounced some three times on the matter.

… everyone, when he considers himself and his own weakness and indisposition, may entertain fear and apprehension as to his own grace, since no one can know with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God. … Let those “who think themselves to stand, take heed lest they fall,” and “with fear and trembling work out their salvation” in labors, in watchings, in almsdeeds, in prayers and oblations, in fastings and chastity.

(Denzinger 253-55).

Prospero with his need to be “relieved by prayer” lest his “ending [be] despair” faces just such an uncertainty of salvation. The issue of his salvation remains in doubt. In conformity with the formulation of Trent, Prospero considers his “own weakness and indisposition,” and entertaining “fear and apprehension as to his own grace,” works out his salvation by recourse to “prayer.” The certainty of salvation by faith does not find expression in the epilogue, as it should according to the doctrine of assurance.

Second, the efficacy of intercessory prayer. Prospero can only be “relieved by prayer.” On three counts the kind of prayer suggested here is Catholic. For one thing, while personal prayer may be implied, the lines clearly appeal for intercessory prayers on the part of the audience. Thus the call for “the help of your good hands.” The Reformed tradition conceived of prayer as a direct and unmediated appeal to God for mercy. The Roman Catholic tradition allowed for intercessory mediation through the saints and others. Indeed, the driving motive behind the foundation of the pre-Reformation chantries, those “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” (Sonnet 75), was precisely by means of intercessory prayer to secure relief for souls suffering in purgatory (Kreider 40). A second point is that the emphasis on the human action of prayer in “relieving” and “freeing” Prospero of “faults” suggests a Roman Catholic form of “works,” as does the hyperbolic description of prayer as actively “pierc[ing] and assault[ing] Mercy itself.” The phraseology smacks strongly of the human effort implicit in the Tridentine formulation of “working out” one's salvation. Finally, one must note that the work of prayer brings about the effect of “freeing all faults” or remitting all sin. Both Aquinas (ST 3a 87.3) and the Council of Trent maintained that venial sin could be remitted by recitation of the Lord's prayer and other means (Denzinger 275). This notion was attacked by the Reformers (e.g. Hooker 5: 111-12).

Again, the reference in the epilogue to intercessory prayer, not only in the light of the uncertainty of salvation but even more pointedly in view of purgatorial suffering, is not unique in Shakespeare's works, when we remember the “charitable prayers” mentioned at the Catholic funeral of Ophelia (Noble 84) and the narrator's request concluding “The Phoenix and Turtle”: “For these dead birds sigh a prayer.” Additional lines in Romeo and Juliet (1.5.103-7) and All's Well That Ends Well contain the same sense of intercessory prayer working the “relief” of the sinner:

                                                                                                    What angel shall
Bless this unworthy husband? he cannot thrive,
Unless her prayers, whom heaven delights to hear,
And loves to grant, reprieve him from the wrath
Of greatest justice.


Third, the doctrine of justification and the remission of sin. In the sixteenth-century Reformed tradition, salvation was achieved through a forensic or imputed justification—“Impute me righteous,” as John Donne has it—in which the still sinful soul was covered or cloaked over by the merits of Christ, as opposed to the Catholic conception which claimed that a real and interior transformation of the soul took place. The Council of Trent defined the matter carefully in its Sixth Session (Jan. 13, 1547):

Justification itself … is not merely remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man [sanctificatio et renovatio interioris hominis] through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts, whereby an unjust man becomes a just man, and from being an enemy becomes a friend.

(Denzinger 251)

According to this conception, justifying sanctification consists of two movements, the negative remission of sins and the positive interior renewal of the sinner by an infusion of grace. Justification is instantaneous and complete in the remission of all sin. Thus Aquinas argues that it is impossible for the sacrament of Penance to take away one sin without another, since this would both imply imperfect contrition on the part of the sinner and be contrary to the perfection of God's mercy (ST 3a 86.3). The crucial point is therefore that the grace of justification in Roman Catholic theology works a thoroughgoing instantaneous remission of sin, not a partial and gradual one, as the Reformed tradition maintained (Allison 1-30, 178-89; Wallace 51). The sinner is immediately sanctified by an interior renewal, not ultimately sanctified after an initial external or “imputed” justification. Richard Hooker, in his “A Learned Discourse of Justification” (1612), articulated the essential distinction and difference between the two positions, employing a distinction between the grace of justification and that of sanctification:

The righteousnes wherewith we shalbe clothed in the world to comme, is both perfecte and inherente: that whereby here we are justefied is perfecte but not inherente, that whereby we are sanctified, inherent but not perfecte. … This grace they [Roman Catholics] will have to be applied by infusion … so the soule mighte be rightuous by inherente grace, which grace they make capable of increase … the augmentacion whereof is merited by good workes, as good workes are made meritorious by it … But the rightuousnes wherein we muste be found if we wilbe justefied, is not our owne, therefore we cannott be justefied by any inherente qualitie. … Then although in ourselves we be altogether synfull and unrightuous, yett even the man which in him selfe is ympious, full of inequity, full of synne, hym god beholdeth with a gratious eye, putteth awaie his syn by not ymputing it, taketh quite awaie the ponishemente due therunto by pardoninge it, and accepteth him in Jesus Christe as perfectly rightous as if he had fullfilled all that was comaunded hym in the law.


In the light of the theological distinction between imputed and inherent justification, the phrase “frees all faults” clearly refers to the remission of all sin and implies a real and complete alteration of the soul, an inherent, instantaneous grace, by which it is freed from sin and restored to its former whole integrity, as opposed to an imputed justification in which the justified soul paradoxically remains partially in its sinful condition—“simul iustus et peccator,” as Luther put it (Allison 181-89). In the more general context of the play itself, a similar conception appears at work in Prospero's actions, wherein those who have sinned against him are by his merciful ministrations moved to penitence and restored to their former undistracted “proper selves” (3.3.60; 5.1.28, 212-13). The overall movement of the action is from the penitential confinement of sin to the recovery of nature and “their clearer reason,” implying once again an interior restoration (5.1.66-68, 79-82).

Fourth, indulgences. The last two lines allude to the indulgence controversy, but, it must be observed, with considerable reserve and careful ambiguity:

As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

The subject of indulgences was normally closely related to that of purgatory, where departed souls were confined for the duration of their punishment for sins and relieved of such temporal punishment upon the saying of intercessory prayers. Indulgences could be had for the living as well as the dead, whether for oneself or for others, by way of absolution and suffrage (Denzinger 239). At the Council of Trent, indulgences and Purgatory were discussed at the 25th session (Dec. 3-4, 1563), and the doctrinal formulations respective to each were included in the same paragraph of its final profession of faith.

On the Protestant side, the efficacy of indulgences in remitting punishment was denied. As perhaps the most well-known doctrinal expression in Shakespeare's English milieu, there is the condemnation contained in the Thirty-Nine Articles appended to the Book of Common Prayer, again linking the two subjects of purgatory and indulgences:


The Romish Doctrine concerning purgatory [and] pardons [Doctrine Romanensium de purgatorio, de indulgentiis] … is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the word of God.

(Bicknell 347)

Prior to this there is Luther's claim that indulgences are necessary only for convicted criminals, a claim reiterated and condemned by the papal bull “Exsurge Domine” of Leo X in 1520:

21. Indulgences are necessary only for public crimes, and are properly conceded only to the harsh and impatient.

22. For six kinds of men indulgences are neither necessary nor useful; namely, for the dead and those about to die, the infirm, those legitimately hindered, and those who have not committed crimes, and those who have committed crimes, but not public ones, and those who devote themselves to better things.

(Denzinger 241-42)

In general, the text of Prospero's epilogue shows a consistent use of these interwoven theological terms and doctrines. The central dramatic posture of a man facing final despair and appealing for relief to intercessory prayers to set him free from his “faults” or sins is emphatically not Protestant. Neither is the concluding statement that an indulgence can set him free from the pain of purgatorial confinement. Moreover, Shakespeare's discreet use of doctrinal language is consistent with what we might expect of the sensibility of a “church papist,” ambiguously alluding to but not explicitly stating the whole complex of doctrines surrounding indulgences.

Indeed, it is precisely in the last eight lines, with the mention of “my ending,” “despair,” “prayer,” “mercy,” and “faults,” that the sense of the epilogue becomes clearly religious and purgatorial: the artist has faults which cause him to despair, but he can be freed of his sins, given hope, and relieved only by intercessory prayers on the part of his audience. The last two lines seal this interpretation, but, as I have said, with considerable reserve and careful ambiguity:

As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Thus, they can be read in two ways, as a dual appeal employing a clever ambiguity. They are, on the one hand, a courtly plea for special favor and permission to retire from the stage, in which case the terminology employed still alludes to Catholic doctrine on indulgences. And they are, on the other hand, an allusive religious plea for prayers, with Shakespeare addressing his audience in terms of an apparent contrast, i.e., as you English Protestants would be legally pardoned for your public crimes or sins, let me, as a Catholic, be set free from temporal punishment and purgatorial confinement by an indulgence. The terminology of “crimes” and “pardon” expresses an English Protestant tendency, “faults” and “indulgence” a Latinate Catholic one. The lines thus reflect the contrast between the Protestant notion of grace as mercy pardoning “crimes” over against the Roman Catholic conception of it as the rectification and restoration of nature, freeing one from “faults” and from temporal punishment or purgatorial confinement (Gustafson 9, 11). Rather summarily, they conclude a series of allusions to Roman Catholic doctrine—the doubtful issue of salvation, the power of prayer as effective intercession in relief of souls living or dead, the inherent nature of justification, and the efficacy of indulgences in remitting temporal punishment.

Before a theologically sophisticated audience, a non-religious sense of the lines, it seems clear, cannot have been intended as the only meaning. If here Shakespeare is asking for freedom to leave the stage through “your indulgence,” the foregoing contextual thrust of the words “prayer” and “mercy” and “faults” generates an undeniably theological meaning in the final couplet. The phrase “your indulgence” is no doubt ambiguous, but it is unquestionably more continuous with the preceding theological context. If we read it in a purely mundane and secular sense, it is discontinuous with that context, not to mention its being a potential affront to king and court in accusing them of public “crimes.” In either case, the vocabulary and phraseology are those of a Roman Catholic sensibility well-schooled in Tridentine doctrine and diverging from the Reformed theology of grace embraced by the Church of England.

Quite obviously, the double meaning of the lines implies a dual audience, Reformed Protestant and Roman Catholic. The court was composed mainly of “Protestants,” and King James I was a man who had a known interest in poetry and theology. Hence Shakespeare had to employ a careful ambiguity with his courtly plea asking this first group to “indulge” him by allowing him to retire from the stage. But there were also Catholics enough in the audience to serve as receptive auditors of the disguised religious meaning of the final line, the allusion to an indulgence. Queen Anne and some of her retinue, various ambassadors, and perhaps others would have constituted a small but significant Catholic presence at court. In fact, Queen Anne had refused to receive communion at her husband's coronation, had requested of Pope Clement VII “absolution and a blessing” for having attended Protestant ceremonies, and was discreet enough to confuse those around her on the matter of her religion (Loomie 305-06). If Shakespeare was in sympathy with such a group, his epilogue and final couplet would have been in accord with their sensibilities. They too would have felt the same sense of exile and confinement, and the same need for cautious expression, that had come with the tempest of the Reformation.

The notation that mysteriously emerges with Davies, therefore, accords with the language and substance of Shakespeare's farewell. Recognition of its validity would force us to rewrite some of our description of Shakespeare's background and education, namely the rather recent tradition of the poet's English Protestant education and supposed conformity, for which there is very oddly no hard evidence. One would expect Shakespeare's conformity to have achieved at some point documentary recording or explicit expression, whereas one can easily understand why his Catholicism did not. Even the closely documented biographical study of Schoenbaum, while attempting a balanced account of the poet's faith and knowledge, still gives the final nod to the notion of a Protestant Shakespeare, steeped by the educational system in the literature of the Elizabethan Settlement, the Bible, the Prayer Book, and so on (55-62). But much of this “background” is merely assumed, useful to fill in for a lack of more specific context, yet ineffectual in explaining the presence of Catholic matters in the plays. The favorable treatment of religious life (called “thrice blessèd” in A Midsummer Night's Dream 1.1.74, a very early play), the ethical structures in several of the plays (Beauregard passim), the scholastic theological terminology in “The Phoenix and Turtle” (Cunningham 203-09), the change of name from Oldcastle to Falstaff in 1 Henry IV (Taylor passim), the purgatorial sufferings of Hamlet's father, the indulgence language in The Tempest, all suggest a Catholic and not a Protestant perspective. The whole evidence, a complex compound of allusions to Catholic belief and echoes of Protestant liturgy, seems to increasingly project the profile of a church papist, vindicating Richard Davies' claim that “He dyed a papist.”

Works Cited

Allison, C. F. The Rise of Moralism: The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter. New York: Seabury, 1966.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. 60 vols. Eds. Thomas Gilby et al. New York: McGraw, 1963-75.

Beauregard, David N. Virtue's Own Feature: Shakespeare and the Virtue Ethics Tradition. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1995.

Bellarmine, Robert. An Ample Declaration of the Christian Doctrine [1602-5]. Volume 341 in English Recusant Literature 1558-1640. Ed. D. M. Rogers. The Scolar Press, 1977.

Bicknell, E. J. A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. 2nd ed. London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1925.

Brinkworth, E. R. C. Shakespeare and the Bawdy Court of Stratford. London and Chicester: Phillimore, 1972.

Brownlow, F. W. “John Shakespeare's Recusancy: New Light on an Old Document.” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 186-91.

Certaine Sermons or Homilies: Appointed to be Read in Churches In the Time of Queen Elizabeth I (1547-1571). Eds. Mary Ellen Rickey and Thomas B. Stroup. Gainesville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1968.

Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.

Collinson, Patrick. “The Church: Religion and Its Manifestations.” Vol. 1. William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence. Ed. John F. Andrews. 3 vols. New York: Scribners, 1985.

Cunningham, J. V. The Collected Essays of J. V. Cunningham. Chicago: Swallow P, 1976.

DeGroot, John. The Shakespeares and “The Old Faith.” New York: Columbia UP, 1946.

Denzinger, Henry, ed. The Sources of Catholic Dogma. Trans. Roy J. Ferrari. London: Herder, 1957; Latin text in Enchiridion Symbolorum: Definitionum et Declarationum De Rebus Fidei Et Morum. Ed. Henry Denzinger and Adolfus Schonmetzer. 34th ed. Rome: Herder, 1966.

Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-1580. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.

———. “Was Shakespeare a Catholic?” The Tablet 27 April 1996: 536-38.

Gustafson, James M. Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978.

Honigmann, E. A. J. Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1985.

Hooker, Richard. The Works of Richard Hooker. Gen. ed. W. Speed Hill. 5 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981-90.

James I. The Basilicon Doron of King James VI. Ed. James Craigie. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Blackwood & Sons Ltd., 1944.

Kreider, Alan. English Chantries: the Road to Dissolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1979.

Lewalski, Barbara. Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.

Loomie, Albert J. “King James I's Catholic Consort.” Huntington Library Quarterly 34 (1971): 303-16.

McAdoo, H. R. The Structure of Caroline Moral Theology. London: Longmans, 1949.

Milward, Peter. Shakespeare's Religious Background. Chicago: Loyola UP, 1973.

Mutschmann, H., and K. Wentersdorf. Shakespeare and Catholicism. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1952.

Noble, Richmond. Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge and Use of the Book of Common Prayer. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

Sams, Eric. The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Alfred Harbage. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969.

Stocker, Margarita. “Shakespeare's Secrets: Family, Politics, Religion, and a Source for Love's Labours Lost.Shakespeare Yearbook 6 (1996): 301-25.

Taylor, Gary. “The Fortunes of Falstaff.” Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 85-100.

Todd, Margo, ed. Reformation to Revolution: Politics and Religion in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 1995.

Wallace, Dewey D., Jr. Puritans and Predestination: Grace in English Protestant Theology, 1525-1695. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1982.

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Mark Thornton Burnett (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “‘Strange and Woonderfull Syghts’: The Tempest and the Discourses of Monstrosity,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 50, 1997, pp. 187-99.

[In the essay below, Burnett argues that Shakespeare's depiction of the monstrous reflects Elizabethan culture.]

On the seventeenth of July, 1583, the town chronicler of Shrewsbury recorded in his diary an extraordinary event, an Elizabethan ‘freak show’:

cam to the towne … one Iohn Taylor … a marchant of loondoon and free of the coompany of fyshmoongers there who … brought … with hym strange and woonderfull syghts that ys to saye a dead childe in a coffyn which had ij heades and … ij bake boanes. More a lyve sheep beinge a tupp the which had … ij foondementes vnder hys tayle, also ij pyssells and ij paire of codds … and yf the partee which keapt hym wold aske hym and saye be thosse people welcoom he wold lyft vp hys foorefoote and Crye heighe, heighe, heighe … And also more a glasse artyfycially made beinge but ij candells therin and a chayne with ij faces or pycturs which wolld represent inwardly to the sight of the beholders soondrye candells, chaynes facys, Iuells and other things myraculously …1

The chronicler's breathless narrative offers a powerful registration of some of the period's deepest fears and aspirations. In early modern England, ‘monsters’, defined in a 1634 translation of a medical treatise by Ambroise Paré as ‘things … brought forth contrary to the common decree and order of nature’, occupied vexed places in popular culture and scientific debate.2 Monstrous births were quickly versified in ballads, while fairs with monster booths drew holiday crowds.3 As monsters appealed to the amusement of the fairground populace, so did they tax the minds of the period's most established philosophers and authorities. Attempting to determine how monsters might have been generated, Paré included ‘the glory of God’, ‘mens wickednesse’, ‘abundance of seed’, ‘deficient’ seed, ‘the force … of imagination’ and ‘the craft … of the divell’ in his catalogue of chief ingredients.4 It is an index of the fascination monsters exercised that he should have produced a text in which divine intervention, biological complication, intellectual speculation and supernatural visitation are all countenanced as valid interpretative frameworks.

In this paper I shall concentrate on Shakespeare's The Tempest (1610-11), taking as a point of departure its preoccupation with questions of monstrosity and portentous occurrence. In realizing ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ phenomena as signs to be read and deciphered, the play reveals charged connections with contemporary wonder books in which monsters and prodigies are an area of vigorous enquiry. The discourses of monstrosity in the play, however, are neither stable nor consistent. Several monstrous topoi interweave and contradict: monsters blur with wonders, and Prospero is as much a monster as the servants and spirits of his magic kingdom. In the English Renaissance, a number of discursivities shaped monstrous constructions, illuminating points of contemporary debate as well as the evolving philosophy of a more ‘rational’ establishment. If The Tempest is a work deeply implicated in the colonial endeavour, then, it is also one concerned with peculiary English habits and institutions. Like John Taylor's marvellous glass and the monster pamphlets themselves, the drama can finally be viewed as a mirror, which deflects audiences away from monstrosity abroad and back towards the local, domestic forms that it may always inhabit.5


If the theatre is the institution with which The Tempest is most commonly compared, the fairground would seem to be an equally striking component of its dramatic design. The spirits' performances, for instance, have charged local meanings and associations, such as Ariel's willingness ‘to fly, / To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride / On the curled clouds’, like a circus acrobat.6 The number of references to puppets makes clear that such acts, which played within striking distance of the monster booths, formed only one part of a multitude of entertainments crowded together on a single site: it was at the fair, Henry Farley observed in 1621, that Londoners could enjoy ‘a strange out-landish Fowle … a Gyants bone … a Puppit play … A Woman dancing on a Rope … a Iuglers cheats, / A Tumbler shewing cunning feats’.7 In the play, puppets are evoked in allusions to the ‘living drollery’ (3.3.21) of the spirits and the ‘demi-puppets’ (5.1.36) Prospero commands, while the fair lies behind Caliban's refrain, ‘'Ban, 'Ban, Ca-Caliban / Has a new master—get a new man! / Freedom, high-day!’ (2.2.179-81): on holidays (high-days or hire-days), servants attended hiring fairs to look for new employment.8

Part of the complex effect of The Tempest is to suggest at one and the same time the fair and the ethnographic claims that, in a later, vulgarized form, it came to represent. For Prospero is less the showman than the Renaissance collector and, in giving shape to his performative dimension, the play allows him to slip between a range of very different entertainment categories. While still Duke of Milan, Prospero amasses books; in exile, he collects daughters, memories, courtiers, spirits and natural forces. ‘Be collected’ (1.2.13), he instructs Miranda, arranging the shards of her past as he reflects upon his dedication to the ‘study’ of the ‘liberal arts’ (1.2.73-4), and the ‘volumes’ given to him by Gonzalo from ‘mine own library’ (1.2.167). Prospero's ‘cell’, in fact, might be seen as an oblique version of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’, the assembly of bizarre artefacts, monstrous aberrations and miscellanea that was to grow into the museum of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (illustration 9).9


We find the fair and the museum hinted at more forcibly in the scenes with Caliban, which bring into play rival explanations for the generation of monstrous creatures. At Trinculo's entrance, a process of defining and displacing is quickly initiated. The jester likens the cloud to ‘a foul bombard that would shed his liquor’ (2.2.21) and, seeing Caliban, cannot decide if he is a ‘man or a fish’ (2.2.24):

A strange fish! Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday-fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man—any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian. Legged like a man, and his fins like arms! Warm, o' my troth! I do now let loose my opinion, hold it no longer: this is no fish, but an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt.


Employing the techniques of the ballad, in which a picture of the monstrous birth or ‘strange fish’ is followed by a textual commentary, Trinculo runs through various categories to fix Caliban in the world he has left (illustrations 10 and 11).10 The speech enacts a colonial defamiliarization: Caliban is re-presented in terms of the domestic, and Trinculo, imagining a fresh fairground attraction, plays a comic ethnographer conducting a bizarre autopsy experiment. In a final twist, moreover, he creeps under the gabardine, highlighting the attraction of the monstrous, the creation of a new form with two sets of members, and the possibility that ‘man’ and ‘monster’ may soon become indistinguishable.

In contrast, Stephano's experience of Caliban leads him to a more elaborate attitude towards exotic anatomies. Initially his interpretative mode, which recalls fairground jugglers, parodies Prospero's earlier arguments: ‘What's the matter? Have we devils here? Do you put tricks upon's with savages and men of Ind?’ (2.2.56-7). But popular instincts rapidly take over from the lure of supernatural enquiry. In assuming that the form beneath the gabardine has ‘four legs’ (2.2.58-9) but only one head, Stephano regards Caliban as a conjoined twin—a type of eusomphalien pygopage or syncephalus ectopagus—and the monster's stakes accordingly rise in the commodity market (illustrations 12a and 12b).11 Now, rather than being part of a sideshow, Caliban will be exhibited to ‘any emperor that ever trod on neat's-leather’ (2.2.67-8), and the ambitions of the drunken butler begin to take on magnificent proportions.

In his essays, first published in English in 1600, Montaigne describes a ‘monstrous Childe’ who was ‘Vnder his paps … fastned and joyned to an other childe, but had no head, and … the conduite of his body stopped, the rest whole’.12 It may have been that Shakespeare, who certainly consulted Montaigne in his composition of The Tempest, found in this passage one prompt for Caliban's fluctuating condition and changing appearance. More pressing influences, I would suggest, are to be found in popular attitudes towards conjoined twins, as Stephano's increasingly frustrated approximations indicate. Once Caliban-Trinculo has spoken with both voices, Stephano's tune alters:

Four legs and two voices; a most delicate monster! His forward voice now is to speak well of his friend, his backward voice is to utter foul speeches and to detract.


This assessment of the passive-active nature of conjoined twins has a medical precedent and chimes curiously with passages in histories and wonder books, in which writers question if attached children possess two souls or one.13 In his chronicles, first published in 1577 and then in an enlarged edition in 1587, Holinshed describes a ‘monster’ born in Northumberland during the reign of King Constantine of Scotland. With ‘one whole bellie from the nauill downe … and from the nauill vpwards … diuided into two bodies’, Holinshed states:

so did it appeare there was two contrarie wils or desires in the same, euer lusting contrarilie, as when the one did sleepe, the other would wake; when the one required to haue meat, the other passed for none at all. Oftentimes would they chide and brall togither, insomuch that at length they fell so far at variance, that they did beat and rent either other verie pitifullie with their nailes. At length the one with long sickenesse wearing away and finallie deceassing, the other was not able to abide the greeuous smell of the dead carcase, but immediatlie after died also.14

For Stephano, however, recognizing that the gabardine creature—with two heads, a type of spondylodymus, ischiopagus or dicephalus dipus dibrachius—is a living body (rather than a dead carcass) necessitates drastic action (illustrations 13 and 14).15 The efforts of the jester and the butler to define the monster culminate in Stephano playing midwife to a grotesque delivery, which is also linked to an evacuation of waste. ‘I'll pull thee by the lesser legs—if any be Trinculo's legs, these are they … Thou art very Trinculo indeed! How cam'st thou to be the siege of this mooncalf? Can he vent Trinculos?’ (2.2.98-102). Parodying Prospero's earlier acts of revelation and his predilection for summoning things into existence, Stephano discovers Trinculo, casting Caliban as a monster and a mother that gives birth to ‘matter’ (2.2.56)—the three terms are locked in a bizarre, triadic relationship. The conjoined twins are surgically separated; Caliban and Trinculo stand again as autonomous; but the strange and threatening properties of the monster remain undiminished.

Ultimately, however, the monstrous in The Tempest ranges far beyond a single character or several scenes. In some senses, the play is primarily concerned with ‘disability’ and ‘imperfection’ in all of their manifestations. The courtiers ‘mar [the] labour’ (1.1.13) of the sailors; Ariel claims that the shipwrecked party has arrived without a ‘blemish’ (1.2.218); and Ferdinand refused earlier offers of marriage because of ‘some defect’ (3.1.44) in the ‘women’ (3.1.43) to whom he was introduced. Behind these details lies an apprehension about the exact consequences of heterosexual intercourse. Birth can never be mentioned in the play without the possibility of complicating factors. In particular, Prospero broods obsessively on ‘that which breeds’ (3.1.76) between the lovers, as his warning to Ferdinand indicates:

If thou dost break her virgin-knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be ministered,
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate,
Sour-eyed disdain, and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both.


Curiously for the Renaissance, a period in which high infant mortality constantly endangered the patrilineal system, Prospero wishes for quality not quantity of issue. While the prevailing metaphors in his speech are horticultural—parasitic vegetation will foul the paradisial garden—the spectre of the monstrous birth and another Caliban (who has already threatened to people the island with his own kind) is the dominant idea, one consequence of sexual incontinence. As Ferdinand's reply makes clear, moreover (he also hopes for ‘fair’ (4.1.24) children), the desire for perfect progeny is shared by potential grandfather and son-in-law alike. Judging from The Tempest as a whole, it would appear that the overriding imperative is less the representation of monstrosity than the terror of reproduction itself.


As several critics have observed, Prospero's wish to be self-sufficient has a gendered dimension, which shows itself in anxious constructions of women and the contaminating powers they are thought to exercise. Stephen Orgel writes: Prospero's wife ‘is missing as a character, but [he], several times explicitly, presents himself as incorporating the wife, acting as both father and mother’.16 What has not received notice is the extent to which the play, as a consequence of the banishment of maternal properties, favours acts of parthenogenesis. Notably it is the unregenerate who seem to want to fashion forms according to their own imperatives. Most feared by Prospero is Antonio's part in having ‘new created / The creatures that were mine … or changed 'em’ (1.2.81-2), and even Sebastian recognizes the ability: ‘The setting of thine eye and cheek proclaim / A matter from thee, and a birth, indeed, / Which throes thee much to yield’ (2.1.227-9). And conspiracy and treason, hatched by Antonio parthenogenetically, have indeed a monstrous shape.

Equally overlooked in critical assessments have been the precise connections between parthenogenesis, the monstrous birth and the artist. The single author's work is invariably figured as a monstrous delivery. In the Arcadia, first completed in 1580, Sir Philip Sidney states that if his ‘idle work … though in itself it have deformities … had not been in some way delivered, [it] would have grown a monster’, a perception which informs a similar remark in his An Apology for Poetry (1580-1); the poet, he writes, ‘lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, [delights] … in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like’.17 Such relations between monstrous progeny and artistic production are at the heart of The Tempest's aesthetic. Giving birth to Ariel from a tree (1.2.292-3) permits Prospero to demonstrate his ‘art’ (1.2.291) and to use the spirit for tasks of an essentially theatrical nature. With Ariel's aid he produces from the heavens the masque of Ceres, Iris and Juno, who join in harmony to banish famine (4.1.116-17), a prodigious token sent by God as a judgement.18 Prospero's parturition of wonders is more sharply observed still. As a ‘wondered father and a wife’ (4.1.123), Prospero ‘discovers’ Ferdinand and Miranda at chess by pulling aside a curtain, adding, ‘I will requite you with as good a thing, / At least bring forth a wonder to content ye / As much as me my dukedom’ (5.1.169-71). Between Sycorax, the witch who brings forth monsters, and Prospero, the magician who brings forth wonders, there may be little room for manoeuvre.

In delivering Ariel from his sylvan hysteria, Prospero avails himself of the opportunity to use the spirit for providential purposes. Ariel's transformation into the monstrous creatures of myth and legend enables the magician to bring the courtiers to a semblance of repentance. The central stages map his efforts to produce in his enemies a spiritual change as dramatic as his spirits' prodigious performances. With the villains Prospero's schemes fail to achieve even a measure of success. For instance, when Antonio's plot is foiled by Ariel, he explains away his behaviour with the ruse of a noise, which implies that the ultimate monstrosities are his own dissimulations: ‘'twas a din to fright a monster's ear, / To make an earthquake’ (2.1.312-13). The ‘monstrous shape’ (3.3.31) of the spirits similarly makes little impression on Sebastian, who only sees in them justification for hackneyed fantasies: ‘Now I will believe / That there are unicorns; that in Arabia / There is one tree, the phoenix’ throne, one phoenix / At this hour reigning there’ (3.3.21-4). But with the rest of the company Prospero's art reaps greater rewards. Appalled by the warnings of Ariel as a harpy (a mythical creature described in a 1626 dictionary as one of a group of ‘Monstrous devouring birds’), Alonso laments the death of his son: ‘O, it is monstrous, monstrous! / Methought the billows spoke and told me of it, / The winds did sing it to me … and the thunder’ (3.3.95-7).19 The exclamations of the King of Naples offer a final demonstration of the magician's strategic powers. Like Sidney's artist, Prospero produces prodigies which inspire wonder and threaten terrible developments. Having appropriated the maternal function, he forces his captives to read their landscape, and to discover in its strange operations corroboration of a monstrous interior or hope for a miraculous recovery.


For the majority of early seventeenth-century spectators, wonders in the air, such as Ariel's prodigious pyrotechnic displays before the mariners and the courtiers, had a key role to play in scriptural tradition and exegesis. Almost all extraordinary phenomena were regarded as tokens of the far more disturbing judgements that were to accompany the end of the world, the apocalypse. As a devotional work of 1610 detailed:

the Sun shall be turned into darknesse, and the Moone into blood, and the starres shall fall from heauen, the aire shal be full of whirle winds, stormes, correscations, flashing meteors, and thunders: the earth with fearefull tremblings, and swallowing Gulfes: the flouds of the sea shall swell so high, as if they would ouerflow the whole world … an Archangel shall … giue a signe to all that are dead, to rise againe, and to come to Gods iudgement.20

Eclipses and, not surprisingly, monstrous births were invoked as additional indications of the time of great reckoning, and it was in Revelation that they were granted their most forceful realization.21 With its multiple monstrous forms, such as plagues and seven-headed beasts, Revelation, the discovery of God's word, takes us back to the monster's etymological derivations. In Latin, ‘monstro’ means ‘To show … demonstrate … expound, [and] reveal’; a ‘monstrum’ is a ‘portent, prodigy, [or] sign’; and ‘moneo’ translates as ‘to give warning of, presage’.22 Many of these meanings are at work in Renaissance uses of the discourses of monstrosity, and lie behind the warnings threatened in the vision of Saint John the divine, which also takes us forward to the apocalyptic concerns of The Tempest.

By 1610-11, when The Tempest was composed, millenarian ideas had lost none of their Elizabethan popular appeal. In addition to enlisting the obvious apocalyptic sign of the tempest, the play invests with contemporary meanings Prospero's appeal to an army of spirits to come to his assistance:

                                                  I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar. Graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art.


It has long been recognized that the passage derives from Medea's incantation in Golding's 1567 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, but more apposite would appear to be its apocalyptic dimensions—the eclipses, thunder and lightning, earthquakes and revelation of the graves' contents.23 As earlier dramatic representations indicate, moreover, Prospero's sentiments have a recognizable precedent: the speech illuminates the specific events of its historical moment and gains energy from an established theatrical lineage.24

As the ‘revels’ (4.1.148) end and Prospero's ‘pageant’ (4.1.155) dissolves, we are once again reminded of the arresting connections between popular entertainment and divine judgement. To ‘reveal’ is etymologically related to the old French, révéler (to revolt, make a din and make merry), from which are derived the verb, to ‘revel’, and the noun, ‘revel’, a parish fair.25 In the final scene the play's prevailing metaphors are deployed in innovative combinations—Prospero discovers himself and passes judgement on the assembled courtiers. But Prospero is fallible, and his strange remark—‘this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine’ (5.1.275-6)—expresses several tendencies—an attraction to the monstrous, which entails a twin-like dependency. Dependency is certainly the hallmark of his epilogue:

                                                  Now 'tis true
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples …
                    release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands …
                                                  Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer …

(5.1.321-3, 327-8, 331-4)

The main idea is of being freed from a cage: presenting himself as a kind of limbless wonder, Prospero is finally twinned to the audience, on whom he depends for favourable judgement. In requesting release and relief, Prospero is also asking for deliverance—it is only through being monstrously reborn, with the theatre's spectators as a parthenogenetic parent, that the magician can become the actor and abandon the part, that he can clarify the already blurring perimeters of a dissolving playworld. The performance concluded, Prospero, finally more of a monster than a showman, solicits applause.


As we approach another millennium, it is sobering to contemplate the very different inflections that are now placed on monstrous phenomena and apocalyptic possibilities. If Shakespeare does enjoy a prophetic ability, then it resides in his glimpses into the remarkable power of technology. Prospero's magical ambitions have their counterpart in the modern conquest of space. Indeed, with so much of the world available to the eye of the scientist, monsters have been relocated to areas which lie outside an earthly perimeter. In Prospero's destruction of books, moreover, are the seeds of another apocalyptic tendency for, in this theoretical climate, the author is dead, the future of the book is in jeopardy, and text has been superseded by hypertext.

The ‘freak show’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is no more, only surviving in a handful of ‘museum pieces’ still on tour in American carnivals.26 But the logic and discourse with which it was associated are still alive. In the tabloid newspapers of the summer of 1995, for instance, the ‘monster’ is the schoolboy who has failed his A-Levels, as a cartoon in The Mail on Sunday reveals (illustration 15).27 The academic manifestations of the monstrous aside, and our own status as hawkers of intellectual progeny, the technological dimensions of the question require further comment. In the twentieth century technology is such that monstrosity can either be created or destroyed. The biological effects of global war are still fresh in the imagination. Cases of children with microcephaly increased dramatically following the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki; Dioxin, contained in ‘Agent Orange’, which was used in Vietnam, has been linked to the malformation of infants' limbs; and babies have been born without ears or spleen to Gulf War veterans.28 There may be little finally separating Prospero's tempest and the mushroom cloud of the holocaust. The world of wonders captured in the miraculous glass of John Taylor, the Elizabethan Shrewsbury showman, has now dissolved. But we continue to discover in the past reflections of our own anxieties, and look to Shakespeare for revelations of mysteries and demonstrations of things to come.29


  1. J. Alan B. Somerset, ed., Records of Early English Drama: Shropshire, 2 vols. (Toronto, Buffalo and London, University of Toronto Press, 1994), vol. 1, p. 237.

  2. Ambroise Paré, The workes of that famous chirugion (London, 1634; STC 19189), p. 961.

  3. Henry Fitzgeffrey, Satyres: and satyricall epigram's (London, 1617; STC 10945), sigs. A7v-A8r. For exhibitions of monsters in the period, see Katharine Park and Lorraine J. Daston, ‘Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France and England’, Past and Present, 92, August (1981), pp. 20-54; Somerset, ed., Shropshire, vol. 1, pp. 219, 221, 226.

  4. Paré, The workes, pp. 962-3.

  5. The association of the monstrous races, monstrous births and Africa was proverbial. See Henry Miller, God the protector of Israel (London, 1641; Wing M2060A), p. 18; Sebastian Munster, Cosmographiae universalis lib. VI (Basileae: apud Henrichum Petri, 1554), p. 1151. Wonder and monster books often advertised themselves as instructive mirrors; see William Averell, A wonderfull and straunge newes (London, 1583; STC 982.5), sig. Avir. For an excellent local reading of The Tempest, see Douglas Bruster, ‘Local Tempest: Shakespeare and the work of the early modern playhouse’, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 25 (1995), 33-53.

  6. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Stephen Orgel (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1990), 1.2.190-2. All further references appear in the text.

  7. Henry Farley, St. Paules-Church her bill for the parliament (London, 1621; STC 10690), sigs. E4r-v. See also Ben Jonson's parody of The Tempest in Bartholomew Fair (1614), ed. E. A. Horsman (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1979): ‘If there be never a servant-monster i' the Fair, who can help it? he says; nor a nest of antics? He is loth to make Nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget Tales, Tempests, and such like drolleries’ (Induction, 128-32).

    Barbara A. Mowat has recently argued that Prospero ‘belongs more to the mundane world of the streetcorner “art-Magician” or “Jugler” (these are Reginald Scot's terms for Houdini-type illusionists) than to the arcane, terrifying Hermetic or demonic spheres … Performing magicians … played on street corners, in “Fayres and Markets”, in provinces, and in London theatres' (‘Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus Pocus’, English Literary Renaissance, 11 (1981), 297-8).

  8. See Michael Roberts, ‘“Waiting upon Chance”: English Hiring Fairs and their Meanings from the 14th to the 20th Century’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 1, June (1988), 119-60.

  9. See Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor, eds., The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe (Oxford, Clarendon, 1987); Susan M. Pearce, On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition (London and New York, Routledge, 1995).

  10. For accounts of strange and monstrous fish in wonder books, medical works and ballads, see Pierre Boaistuau, Certaine secrete wonders of nature (London, 1569; STC 3164.5), fos. 47r-54r; Paré, The workes, pp. 1002, 1007; Hyder E. Rollins, ed., A Pepysian Garland: Black-Letter Broadside Ballads of the Years 1595-1639 (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 440-1.

  11. These terms are taken from Ambroise Paré, On Monsters and Marvels, ed. Janis L. Pallister (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 177-80.

  12. Michel de Montaigne, The essayes or morall, politike and millitarie discourses (London, 1600; STC 18041), p. 409.

  13. Boaistuau, Certaine secrete wonders, fo. 36r; Paré, The workes, p. 966; Park and Daston, ‘Unnatural Conceptions’, 22.

    In a recent BBC documentary, it was stated of the conjoined twins, Dao and Duan: ‘one twin—Dao—is smaller and weaker than her sister. Even though they share a third leg, Duan appears to have more control over it. Wherever Duan wants to go, Dao must follow.’ Following a successful separation operation, ‘[Dao's] personality is just as strong now as Duan's. She has independence, which she never had before. She talks back to Duan, which she never did before—she was always the one that was quiet and let Duan dominate.’ See Horizon: ‘Siamese Twins’ (London, Broadcasting Support Services, 1995), pp. 5, 19.

  14. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 6 vols. (London, Johnson, 1807-8), vol. v, p. 228.

  15. The terms are from Paré, On Monsters and Marvels, ed. Pallister, pp. 177-80.

  16. Stephen Orgel, ‘Prospero's Wife’, in Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy J. Vickers, eds., Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 54. See also Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, ‘Hamlet’ to ‘The Tempest’ (New York and London, Routledge, 1992), p. 237; Anny Crunelle-Vanrigh, ‘“Unmixed with baser ‘mater’”: Le monstre et la matrice’, in Claude Peltrault, ed., Shakespeare ‘La Tempête: Etudes Critiques (Besançon, Université de Franche-Comté, 1994), pp. 99, 109.

  17. Sir Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (The Old Arcadia), ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 3; Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1973), p. 100. In an unpublished paper, ‘Masculine Parturition and the Generation of Monstrous Prodigies’, William E. Engel suggests that the idea of the author's parthenogenesis leading to monstrous births may derive from Montaigne's essays. I am grateful to Professor Engel for sending me a copy of his paper.

  18. Charles Fitz-Geffrey, The curse of corne-horders: with the blessing of seasonable selling (London, 1631; STC 10938), p. 31; Samuel Hieron, A helpe unto devotion (London, 1608; STC 13406.3), p. 207; Ludwig Lavater, Three christian sermons, of famine and dearth of victuals (London, 1596; STC 15322), sig. A4r.

  19. Henry Cockeram, The English dictionarie (London, 1626; STC 5462), sig. T4v.

  20. Thomas Tymme, A silver watch-bell (London, 1610; STC 24424), pp. 48, 51, 54, 56.

  21. Gods handy-worke in wonders (London, 1615; STC 11926), sigs. BIv-B2r; A true relation of the French kinge his goode successe (London, 1592; STC 13147), sig. B3r. For scriptural antecedents, see Lloyd E. Berry, ed., The Geneva Bible: A facsimile of the 1560 edition (Madison, Milwaukee and London, University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), New Testament, Revelation (VI.12-14), fos. 116v, (VIII.5, 7, 10, 12), 117r, (XVI.21), 120r.

  22. P. G. W. Glare, ed., Oxford Latin Dictionary, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), vol. II, pp. 1130-1.

  23. Arthur Golding, Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses’, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (London, De La More Press, 1904), Book VII, lines 244-89.

  24. See William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London and New York, Methuen, 1987), 1.1.116-18, 120, 123; John Marston, The Malcontent, ed. George K. Hunter (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1975), 2.5.128, 130-1.

  25. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 20 vols. (Oxford, Clarendon, 1989), vol. XIII, pp. 811-12.

  26. Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1988), passim; Randy Johnson, Jim Secreto and Teddy Varndell, Freaks, Geeks and Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway (Honolulu, Hardy Marks, 1996), p. 15; ‘Your Place or Mine?’, BBC Radio 4, 26 June 1996.

  27. Joe Murphy, ‘Shephard orders exam pass probe’, The Mail on Sunday, 20 August (1995), p. 15.

  28. John Pilger, ‘Nam now,’ The Guardian Weekend, 22 April (1995), p. 21; Sean Ryan, ‘Disabled baby “is Gulf war victim”’, The Sunday Times, 20 November (1994), p. 13; Alice Stewart, ‘Children of a lesser god’, The Times Higher, 11 August (1995), p. 19.

  29. I am greateful to the following for their helpful and trenchant comments on earlier drafts of this paper: John Archer, Emily Bartels, Crystal Bartolovich, Doug Bruster, Brian Caraher, Fran Dolan, Neil Kenny and Laura Lunger Knoppers.

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1997-98)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10710

SOURCE: “‘My charms crack not’: The Alchemical Structure of The Tempest,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1997-98, pp. 538-70.

[In the following essay, Simonds examines the significance of alchemy in The Tempest, arguing that through alchemy Prospero transforms and reforms the world.]

In a previous essay I have discussed Shakespeare's Prospero as an Orpheus figure, as the persuasive rhetorician of mythology who leads mankind from barbarity to civilization through music and eloquence.1 That he might also be an alchemist in The Tempest, which is to say an adept in a science that was more often than not an important aspect of the Renaissance magician's art, should not surprise readers and spectators familiar with the kind of alchemical language we hear spoken throughout the play. One of the original argonauts engaged in the Quest of the Golden Fleece, Orpheus himself, was considered by adepts to be an early alchemist as well as a magician.2 Famous Renaissance magicians who also practiced alchemy as part of their repertoire included Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, Giambattista Della Porta of Naples, and the English alchemist Dr. John Dee, who taught chemistry to Sir Philip Sidney and his group. And, as many scholars have noted in other contexts, Shakespeare's audience probably knew alchemical language as well or better than we in the humanities today understand the language of modern physics and chemistry.3 An important part of the intellectual discourse of the time and widely discussed in hundreds of Renaissance books of secrets, alchemy often served as a familiar poetic metaphor for wit, love, death, religious conversion and salvation, and political reform—and even for the transforming art of poetry itself in the works of such authors as John Skelton, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir John Davies, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan, and many others, as Stanton J. Linden has recently argued.4

Linden makes an important distinction in his study of alchemy in English literature between two types of the Opus magnum practiced during the Renaissance: the “Exoteric” or useful science that was “concerned with the physical transmutation of ‘inferior’ metals into ones more precious and, therefore, more perfect,” and the “Esoteric” or philosophical alchemy that sought knowledge of God's creation and tried to improve the spiritual condition of humankind (Linden, 7-8). Of course, the second type was also “useful” in that it attempted to discover medicines to cure man's bodily ills, even as it worked to change him or her spiritually. Another major distinction can be drawn between two types of alchemists and is mentioned in almost all alchemical texts of the period—the difference between the false alchemist, who knows nothing of the art and robs his clients of their gold with the promise of making more gold, and the true alchemist, who seeks for the Elixir, or a universal panacea for human ills, and does not charge anything for his most precious medicine. Gold is simply a byproduct for the true alchemist. Thus it is surely significant, as Harry Levin has pointed out, that Ben Johnson's The Alchemist, a theatrical satire on false alchemists or con men (who are not doing alchemy at all), was performed by Shakespeare's company within the same year as The Tempest,5 and this suggests (1) that there was considerable local interest in the subject of transmutation, and (2) that Shakespeare's virtuous Prospero, whose name literally means “successful,” might be an answer to Jonson's fraudulent Subtle and his cohorts as the portrait of a true alchemist, who is successful both in realizing personal perfection and in restoring the Golden Age.

H. J. Sheppard has defined alchemy in general as “the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity, then immortality and, finally, redemption. Material perfection was sought through the action of a preparation (Philosopher's Stone for metals; Elixir of Life for humans), while spiritual ennoblement resulted from some form of inner revelation or other enlightenment (Gnosis, for example, in Hellenistic and western practices).”6 In 1604, the Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius wrote that from a physical standpoint “The Philosopher's stone, or tincture is nothing else, but Gold digested to the highest degree: For vulgar Gold is like an herb without seed, when it is ripe it brings forth seed; so Gold when it is ripe yeelds seed, or tincture.”7 Such seed or tincture could then be multiplied by the alchemist and used to perfect other material things. From a social point of view, however, the goal of alchemy was the renewal of time and the restoration of a regenerated or reformed humanity to the classical Golden Age or the biblical Eden, where the season is always a happy conflation of spring and summertime. It is not surprising, therefore, that alchemy had important political adherents, including Sir Walter Raleigh, the Wizard Earl of Northampton, and other progressive thinkers of the early seventeenth century, a period when the printing presses produced one utopian proposal after another and some reformers actually organized utopian brotherhoods based on ideals of the Golden Age.8 All this utopian activity led Christopher Hill to argue the relevance of alchemical practice to our understanding of the Cromwellian Revolution in England since “Ralegh's defense of the alchemical tradition, … from Paracelsus to Webster, was more than once associated with religious and political radicalism.”9 On the other hand, the complete innocence of the mythological periods described both in the Bible and in Ovid's Metamorphoses (considered to be a primary alchemical text by Renaissance adepts) could obviously never be restored. What alchemists like Prospero hoped to achieve through their study of God's original creation in Genesis and the practice of their own form of metallurgy as an art of re-creation was a brand new Golden Age founded on knowledge rather than on ignorance. They envisioned a “brave new world” of truth and wisdom that would include a thorough reform of humankind and of all human culture. The latter included the Christian religion, the universities, and the European governments then in power.

Thus the science of alchemy was by Shakespeare's time already a recognized metonym for reform and change that would soon be taken up with considerable enthusiasm by Puritans, Quakers, Levellers, and others, but was then employed later in the century with equal fervor against the Cromwellian revolutionaries by Charles II and his royalist supporters as validation for the restoration of the monarchy. Much as the styles of country houses and gardens played “a variety of coded roles” in respect to politics in Renaissance “country house poems” and in later English fiction,10 the occult language of alchemy was used over and over again politically during the seventeenth century to support many opposing positions. But it was never neutral, as J. Andrew Mendelsohn has brilliantly demonstrated.11 In fact, the radical uses of alchemy were already evident in Italy during the early sixteenth century with the writings of Giovan Abioso da Bagnola, a tutor of the famous Renaissance magician, alchemist, and dramatist Giambattista Della Porta, whose later difficulties with the Inquisition are well known. According to William Eamon, “The quintessence, separated off from the dross of organisms through distillation, was for Abioso a metaphor for the reformation of society”12 in all its aspects. Similarly, in England around the turn of the century, those who portrayed alchemy as false and indeed as a swindle tended to be conservatives, while those who saw it as an exciting philosophy of reformation were at the very least critical of the abuses of monarchy and often far more radical.

Although the conservative Ben Jonson rejected exoteric alchemy as fraudulent in The Alchemist, he also dramatized the fulfillment of the esoteric chemical dream of re-creation in two court masques, The Golden Age Restor'd and Mercvry Vindicated From the Alchemists at Court. In both masques, however, he reserved any enjoyment of the revived Golden Age for the court of King James I, who plays the forgiving Jove at the end of the former masque and the true Sol in the latter. The king is always in control of the alchemical process. In contrast, Prospero's “brave new world” begins with boiling the corrupt brains of the King of Naples and his counselors in order to transmute them into responsible Europeans leaders—a subtle political suggestion on stage, if there ever was one. And, in the end Prospero's new golden age, unlike Jonson's, will encompass everyone, including the rebellious servants Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Always cautious in his political criticism and thus never jailed, Shakespeare maintains the traditional social hierarchy in The Tempest, but there is no courtly flattery of the Jonsonian type in this play. Instead the dramatist issues a challenge to all humankind—from king to wild man—to reform, and Prospero begins the opus by first reforming himself into an attentive, forgiving, and merciful Duke as an aristocratic example to others.13 The purpose of this essay, however, is not to discuss specifically Shakespeare's political strategies but rather to establish that The Tempest is indeed a theatrical exercise in alchemical transmutation, which in turn would have had definite political overtones for a Renaissance audience.

I find it significant that scholars have never discovered an actual literary plot source for The Tempest, although much of the comic subplot is certainly influenced by Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. This apparent originality of the playwright was most unusual during the Renaissance when dramatists characteristically tended to adapt older materials to present needs, except for highly topical works based on current events. But, after studying the many references to Renaissance alchemy in the play, I am convinced that Shakespeare embedded nine clearly defined stages of the alchemical process within the dramatic action of his tragicomedy. I will argue here that Prospero is an alchemist as well as a magician, that his goal in The Tempest is to restore the Golden Age or, in terms of the future, to create a “brave new world” by perfecting the people, including himself, who will live in it, and that the art or science of alchemy thus provides a major shaping pattern for the tragicomedy as a whole.14 Indeed, John S. Mebane, although primarily interested in Prospero's magic, has already observed that the very title of the play is the alchemical term for the “boiling process which removes impurities from base metal and facilitates its transmutation into gold.”15 I will further argue here that Prospero succeeds in this incredible chemical project with the help of his daemon Ariel, who plays the role of volatile Mercurius for his master during the Opus magnum. The stages of alchemy that help to delineate the dramatic structure of The Tempest are (1) separation or divisio, (2) marination or salsatura, (3) nigredo or putrefaction and distraction, (4) dissolution and condensation, or the solve et coagula, (5) the Women Washing Sheets and the dyeing process, (6) the cauda pavonis or the peacock's tail, (7) the conjunctio or the chemical wedding, (8) squaring the circle, (9) the albedo or dawning, and, finally, the achievement of the philosopher's stone or perfection, often indicated in poetry by the number 10. Another major alchemical procedure, that of fermentation, occurs in the parodic subplot, which I shall briefly discuss later in this paper.

A first major step in alchemy is always the separatio. Paracelsus wrote that “the greatest miracle of all in Philosophy is separation,” and he called it quite simply “Magick.”16 This violent act of division is a replication in the heated alembic of God's original act of Creation: “When the great mysterie first separated all things, the first separation was of the Element, so that before all other things the Elements brake forth into their act and essence” (Paracelsus, Three Books of Philosophy, 10). In act 1, scene 1, of The Tempest, the mariners cry out, “We split, we split!”—“Farewell, my wife and children!”—“Farewell, brother”—“We split, we split, we split!” (1.1.61-62). Ariel, who as Mercury has caused the tempest, later describes the shipwreck scene to Prospero in terms of the fiery alchemical divisio or separatio:

I flam'd amazement. Sometime I'ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. Jove's lightning, the precursors
O' th' dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not; the fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege, and make his bold waves tremble,
Yes, his dread trident shake.

(1.2.198-206; italics mine)

This miraculous confusion of fire and water and the trembling or boiling of the waves are such obvious references to alchemy (Srigley, 27-28) that a Renaissance audience would likely have recognized the allusion at once. Such storms were caused in the alembic by the application of fire and the mixing of sulphur, mercury, and salt with the metal to be transmuted.

The initial tempest at sea is echoed by a second storm in 3.3 when Ariel enters with thunder and lightning to judge the Three Men of Sin from above the illusory banqueting table (Srigley, 27). He tells them: “I have made you mad; / And even with such-like valor men hang and drown / Their proper selves” (3.3.58-60). At this point, the storm breaks out within the brains of the members of the shipwrecked court party, who then witness the miraculous disappearance of their food and the even more miraculous defeat of a steel sword by a mere feather or quill from Ariel's wing.17 As the daemon mockingly points out,

                                                                                                    The elements,
Of whom your swords are temper'd, may as well
Wound the loud winds, or with bemock'd-at stabs
Kill the still-closing waters, as diminish
One dowle that's in my plume.


During the alchemical confusion of elements (a return to original chaos), air or winds and salt water command the scene, while metals melt in the alembic, and people themselves return into the primal ooze or mud of creation. The second storm in the play then divides the court party from themselves psychologically, and leaves them physically motionless. We should note here that the human skull was often likened to an alembic or limbeck within which brains could be boiled by heat or by drunkenness (see Macbeth 1.7.61-67). Although these separations and divisions are metaphorically performed on stage, they would have to result from the literal practice (in the form of theatrical imitation) of alchemy within the cave by Prospero, the magician-alchemist (fig. 1). What happens in the laboratory alembic was believed to have a direct effect on both the weather and humankind, on both the macrocosm and the microcosm.

Secondly, Shakespeare indicates the stage of salsatura or marination, a reference to the salt baths in alchemy. According to the Turba philosophorum, which was included in a 1593 collection of alchemical texts entitled Artis Auriferae, “The vessel with the ingredients should be immersed in saltwater, and then the divine water will be perfected. It is, so to speak, gestated in the womb of the sea-water.”18 In The Tempest, both the King and his son as well as the courtiers on the ship are forced by the shipwreck to swim through the salt sea to shore. According to Ariel, “All but mariners / Plung'd in the foaming brine” (1.2.210-11).

Illustrations of the alchemical king swimming in exactly such a salt bath appear in many scientific texts of the Renaissance. My example (fig. 2), from Salomon Trismosin's Splendor Solis, depicts the marination process on the right and the renewed form of the purified chemical king, after his bath, on the left. Such images derive from Psalm 69:1-3:

Save me, O God; for the waters are come in, even unto my soul.
I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is;
I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me.
I am weary of crying.(19)

The close relationship between alchemy and Christianity noted by many scholars becomes quite clear in this particular instance.

In The Tempest, Ariel's first song “Come unto these yellow sands” both magically allays the fury of the waters through music and draws Ferdinand onto the beach with a promise of gold. It also tells the King's son in obvious alchemical terms what has become of the apparently drowned but soon to be transmuted Alonso:

Full fadom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.


Michael Maier's Emblem 32 in Atalanta Fugiens compares the sought-after red stone, or the Philosopher's Stone, to coral, which is fished out of the salt water in the accompanying woodcut. The motto is “As coral grows under water and hardens in the air, so does the stone.” Maier's epigram in a modern translation tells us the following:

A moist plant grows beneath Sicilian waves,
And in warm water multiplies each branch.
It has the name of Coral, and grows hard
When Boreas sends his frost down from the North:
It then becomes a red, much fronded stone,
The stone of Physic well resembling.(20)

The importance of the actual Philosopher's Stone to esoteric alchemists lies in its universal curative powers rather than in its gold content, which is why Maier calls it “The stone of Physic.” But in The Tempest, before the subtle alchemical meaning of Ariel's “Full fadom five” song on marine and alchemical metamorphosis can be understood, both Alonso and Ferdinand must first suffer through the nigredo, or an apparent death through drowning, and bitterly grieve the loss of the other.

It would seem that Prospero's Opus magnum goes well so far with Ariel's help as Mercury, or the Bird of Hermes (Srigley, 43-46). However, imperfections in the world were believed to be the result of Adam's original sin and the following act of fratricide by his son Cain, all of which must be undone through the operations of the alchemist, if the Philosopher's Stone is to be achieved. A repetition of both original temptation and original fratricide by Prospero's brother Antonio and Alonso's brother Sebastian, while King Alonso and Gonzalo sleep, is prevented in the play by an alert Ariel. This attempted murder echoes both Antonio's former betrayal of Prospero and Cain's murder of Abel, the biblical act which initiated all human discord. Ariel awakens the intended victims just in time and forces the murderers to recognize their own villainy in the animal sounds they hear, while others hear only music, and to understand that everyone else now knows what gross matter or lead they actually are, as they stand embarrassed before their “awakened” king with drawn swords. Their punishment, like his, will be madness.

The third stage of the alchemical process in The Tempest is alternatively called the nigredo, putrefactio, mortificatio, and/or distractio, when referring to the alchemy practiced within the alembic of the human skull. This dark period of death and mourning for the old self results chemically from the mixing of mercury and sulphur that immediately turns the metallic substance in the actual glass or ceramic vessel to black. The same darkness, understood to signal the death of the metal, can occur simultaneously in the human psyche as a form of madness signifying the death of reason. Thus Prospero boils the brains of the court party within their skulls in order to mortify and putrefy them in preparation for their ultimate regeneration into human perfection. In Johann Andreae's The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, the process is imagined as the boiling of a blackamoor's head until it releases its metallic impurities and becomes white or silver. This unfortunately racist metaphor is based on a classical rhetorical topos of “Impossibility” that was given wide circulation during the Renaissance by Andrea Alciato's Emblem 59.21 Alciato's pictura shows two Europeans trying without success to wash the color from an Ethiopian's skin. But alchemists, of course, always claimed that they could do what was obviously impossible for others, and the Splendor Solis of Trismosin illustrates a black man turning white as he emerges from the mercurial bath (fig. 3). In The Tempest, the result of this alchemical “brain washing” for Alonso is the miraculous awakening of his conscience:

Methought the billows spoke, and told me of it;
The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounc'd
The name of Prosper; it did base my traspass.
Therefore my son i' th' ooze is bedded; and
I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded,
And with him there lie mudded.


The “plummet” (from the Latin word plomb or lead) measures the amount of water under a vessel and is, of course, made of lead, that same base metal which must be transmuted into gold by Prospero. Alonso envisions himself and his beloved son as both dead and buried like leaden plummets in the mud, which is similar to the kind of mudding imagery used by alchemists either to refer to the stage of putrefaction in their art or to the prima materia. Lyndall Abraham informs us that the mud of the Nile River was particularly potent for alchemy, which seems to have originated in Egypt: “In some treatises the black mud of the Nile was seen as the prima materia or undifferentiated matter of which the miraculous Stone was formed. In others the Philosopher's Stone was reported to be found in the mud of the ‘streamings of the Nile’.”22 On an emotional level, the mortification stage of alchemy is described by Ariel as that of “heart's sorrow, / And a clear life ensuing” (3.3.81-82).

It is not accidental that, as he boils their brains, Prospero also has the court party tread a confusing maze. Gonzalo complains, “Here's a maze trod indeed / Through forth-rights and meanders” (3.3.2-3), while Alonso later observes, “This is as strange a maze as e'er men trod, / And there is in this business more than nature / Was ever conduct of” (5.1.242-44), implying that “art” is at work here. Shakespeare's reiteration of the word “maze” points to one of the most common images used to symbolize the alchemical process of re-creation: the maze or labyrinth. Because the magician-scientist Daedalus was considered to be an early alchemist, Paracelsus entitled one of his books The Labyrinth of Alchymy as a warning to would-be practitioners of the difficulties of this art. Artephius spoke of alchemical secrets using the same image and addressing the initiate as follows:

Poor fool! Will you be simple enough to believe that we teach openly and clearly the greatest and most important of all secrets? I assure you that he who would explain, with the ordinary and literal meaning of words, what philosophers have written, shall find himself caught within the meanders of a labyrinth whence he shall never escape, because he will not have Ariadne's thread to guide him out. And whatever he may spend, that much will be lost in working thus.23

Such a labyrinth of illusion also surrounds the alchemical fortress emblem in Heinrich Khunrath's Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae as a warning to false alchemists, while, according to Abraham, “The Arcanum makes it clear that the thread or clue that leads man out of the labyrinth of illusion is divine illumination” (Marvell and Alchemy, 195).

In The Tempest, however, the human objects of transmutation rather than the adept himself are lost in the maze, which here appears to symbolize both that primal chaos caused by the separation of all the elements and the chaotic mental state of madness. The clowns in the subplot experience a similar return to primal chaos through their drunkenness, as we shall later see. Meanwhile, Prospero watches all this safely from above, having, himself, designed the meanders that the court party must tread during the terrible nigredo or distractio before they are finally purified.

The banquet scene in 3.3 actually initiates the descent into madness or the distractio through a magical trick to convince the members of the court party that they can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion. Spirits enter to the sound of “Marvellous sweet music” (3.3.19) with a banqueting table loaded with food and drink. Sebastian, already beginning to change for the better, responds to this welcome appearance of needed sustenance with wonder:

                                                  Now I will believe
That there are unicorns; that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix' throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.


Antonio agrees and carries belief one step further: “Travellers ne'er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn 'em” (3.3.26-27). The self-immolating phoenix, which rises from its own ashes, is often mentioned and illustrated in alchemical texts as a symbol of resurrection and of the desired Philosopher's Stone that renews the world, while the unicorn is also a common symbol of the Philosopher's Stone since its horn was believed “to possess miraculous healing powers”24 like those of the Elixir.

The fourth stage that Shakespeare dramatizes in The Tempest is dissolution and condensation into dew, or the traditional alchemical series of solve et coagula. During their period of madness and grief, the personalities of the motionless court party are, we may assume, repeatedly dissolved, evaporated, and then condensed into a dew. Ariel is experienced in fetching such potent “dew” for Prospero from the distant Bermouthes or Bermuda, the site of numerous tempests or boilings:

                                                                                                    Safely in harbor
Is the King's ship, in the deep nook, where once
Thou call'dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
From the still-vexed Bermoothes, there she's hid. …

(1.2.226-29; italics mine)

Since this miraculous dew changes the Old Adam into the New Adam, it is the true secret of regeneration. Abraham states that in alchemical literature “‘Rain’ and ‘dew’ were synonyms for the beneficial, healing aspect of the mercurial water which transformed the black nigredo into the white albedo through the miraculous ‘washing’ of the dead bodies. … Through the celestial influence of the ‘rain’, or ‘dew’ inert matter could be animated; the dead brought to life” (Marvell and Alchemy, 115, 117). The source of this notion is Genesis 27:28: “Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine”—a passage that John Dee inscribed in Latin on the title page of his Hieroglyphic Monad (Antwerp, 1564).

Fifthly, we find repeated references in the play to calcination or to the Women Washing Sheets stage of the alchemical process, first in Ariel's assurance to Prospero that in the storm “Not a hair perish'd; / On their sustaining garments not a blemish, / But fresher than before” (1.2.217-19), and later in Gonzalo's four observations on the miraculous renewal of the garments of the court party. Gonzalo observes, “That our garments, being (as they were) drenched in the sea, hold notwithstanding their freshness and glosses, being rather new dy'd than stain'd with salt water” (2.1.62-65). Apparently ignored, Gonzalo repeats himself: “Methinks our garments are now as fresh as when we put them on first in Afric at the marriage of the King's fair daughter Claribel to the King of Tunis” (2.1.69-72). A few lines later, he notes again that “we were talking that our garments seem now as fresh as when we were at Tunis at the marriage of your daughter, who is now a queen” (2.1.97-99), and again, “Is not, sir, my doublet as fresh as the first day I wore it? I mean, in a sort. … When I wore it at your daughter's marriage?” (2.1.103-04, 106). Although Srigley mistakenly identifies this miracle as the cauda pavonis (33), it is a clear reference to the long cooking stage in alchemy known as the Women Washing Sheets. The renewal of the garments is analogous to Maier's Emblem 3 in Atalanta Fugiens which begins with the motto “Go to the woman who washes the sheets / And do as she does” (fig. 4). De Jong explains Maier's meaning as follows: that prime matter must be cleansed through calcination and that this cooking or “woman's work,” as it was called, refers back to the Rosarium Philosophorum, where we find it stated that “the clothes of King Duenach which are dirty with sweat, have to be washed with fire, and they have to be burnt by water” (De Jong, 66-67). Now the prime matter is ready for its new form, which is symbolized through the dyeing process that occurs simultaneously with the washing. An epigram by Daniel Stolcius that accompanies an illustration from Johannes Mylius's Philosophia Reformata states the following:

A woman sometimes mixes various colours, and straightaway washes therein linen or clothes. But the water departs and evaporates into thin air; the linen remains dyed with the desired colour. So the Water of the Sages penetrates the members of the metals, and in its swift flight makes bodies coloured.25

In a similar manner, the clothes of the court party in Shakespeare's play are washed and “new dy'd” by the alchemist Prospero and his assistant Ariel.

The sixth stage of alchemy to be recognized in The Tempest is the famous cauda pavonis or the peacock's tail, which indicates that the alchemist's work is almost completed. Prospero's wedding masque for the young lovers visually dramatizes the fantastic display of colors in the glass alembic of what is often described in alchemical manuscripts as the peacock displaying his tail (fig. 5). Turning from the blackness or nigredo of the court party, which still mourns the presumed loss of Prince Ferdinand, Prospero now causes a theatrical descent from the heavens of the goddess Iris, who displays all the colors of the rainbow in her costume. Then Juno herself also descends in her chariot drawn by peacocks, while Iris announces proudly that “[Her] peacocks fly amain” (4.1.74) to be certain that we notice them. Once the peacocks can be seen by the audience, the two goddesses Juno and Ceres sing a pastoral blessing to Ferdinand and Miranda that actually promises the return of the Golden Age with its perpetual spring and summertime.26

Spring come to you at the farthest
In the very end of harvest.


Aware of the Edenic allusions in the song, Ferdinand exclaims, “Let me live here ever; / So rare a wond'red father and a wise / Makes this place Paradise” (4.1.122-24). Alchemically, the work is now empowered, and transmutation will soon occur.

The seventh stage is the Conjunctio or the Chemical Wedding in preview (since it does not occur in reality until the betrothed couple returns to Italy). The dance of the Naiades or water nymphs and the Reapers called away from the harvest symbolizes the approaching alchemical wedding. This is the mysterious joining of opposites: moist and dry, cold and heat, female and male, moon and sun, body and soul, springtime and summer, Miranda and Ferdinand.

You nymphs, call'd Naiades, of the windring brooks,
With your sedg'd crowns and ever-harmless looks,
Leave your crisp channels, and on this green land
Answer your summons; Juno does command.
Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate
A contract of true love; be not too late.
                                                  Enter certain nymphs.
You sunburn'd sicklemen, of August weary,
Come hither from the furrow and be merry.
Make holiday; your rye-straw hats put on,
And these fresh nymphs encounter every one
In country footing.


The result of this joining of the cool and moist (springtime) with the hot and dry (summer) is, of course, temperance, the ideal of all Renaissance tragicomedies.27 And the country dance that ensues on the green meadow before the lovers is representative not only of the fecund union of opposites in alchemy and of marriage itself, but also of the various aspects of human society as a whole in the new Golden Age.28 A similar dance scene of nymphs and harvesters occurs in Andrew Marvell's alchemical poem “Upon Appleton House,” as Abraham has shown (Marvell and Alchemy, 118). Milton's Comus, which begins with a search for a “golden key,” also ends with a country dance in celebration of a wedding or a conjunctio, which is an essential aspect of the Opus magnum. That which has been rent asunder in the divisio must now be brought back together in a new form by the adept. But Shakespeare does not end the play here, since Prospero has yet another alembic bubbling with the drunken antics of the three rebellious clowns that he must immediately cool down, and the court party is, of course, still putrefying in a mire of grief and madness. Although the masque must be interrupted at this point, the opus itself continues on schedule.

Prospero next causes another important dissolution of his materials with the much quoted speech “Our revels now are ended.” The alchemist announces that his actors all “are melted into air” or distilled in the alembic from a liquid into a gas, an event that will one day have macrocosmic proportions according to the Book of Revelation:

The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind.

(4.1.152-56; italics mine)

The key word in this eschatological speech is the verb “dissolve,” an allusion to the repeated solve et coagula of alchemy. We should also note that an admittedly “vex'd” Prospero is now suffering himself from the effects of his chemicals. His own “old brain is troubled” (4.1.159), while the brains of the court party are elsewhere boiling within their limbeck skulls. These are indeed dangerous moments for the adept as he too undergoes the process of purification before transmutation: “A turn or two I'll walk / To still my beating mind” (4.1.162-63).

In act 5, after next cooling off the clown's overheated alembic and their equally over-heated revolutionary activities, Prospero announces with confidence:

Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and Time
Goes upright with his carriage.

(5.1.1-3; italics mine)

H. H. Furness first noted in the Variorum edition of the play the alchemical importance of the key word “crack,” which often happened to alembics placed over too high a heat. Prospero's speech also tells us that the time or “the sixth hour” is finally ripe for alchemical fruition, and that Saturn, the god of time who presides over the Golden Age, is once more sitting erect and vital in his triumphal chariot, as he is often depicted in alchemical texts showing sequences of planetary gods. Saturn, who represents here “the lead of the wise” (Klossowski de Rola, caption to pl. 47), causes the traditional melancholy of the adept.

Squaring the Circle is the eighth stage of alchemy in Shakespeare's tragicomedy. This is accomplished when Prospero traces out a magic circle with his staff and delivers his speech “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves.” We should not be surprised that the lines here resemble Medea's speech in book 7 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, since Medea was revered as one of the first great alchemists (see Srigley, 158) and was highly regarded as a successful adept by her scientific descendants rather than being reviled as a witch during the Renaissance. She not only helped Jason gain the Golden Fleece or achieve alchemical transmutation, but also rejuvenated Jason's aged father by giving him the first blood transfusion in literature—a transfusion in which she used for youthful and healthy blood what seems to be the alchemical aurum potabile that she has magically achieved in her boiling cauldron. Regeneration of both individuals and the world was the ultimate goal of esoteric alchemy, as I have previously stated.

Prospero's speech ends with the promise to abjure his “rough magic” and finally to bury his magical staff and drown his book once he has achieved his ends. This abjuration probably derives from Agrippa's ironic book The Vanitie of the Arts and Sciences,29 which relates an apparent turning away from outward forms or empty “tricks” of magic, universally understood as “vanities,” to faith alone. Agrippa attacks only magicians who create illusions and false alchemists, however, while admitting that he is himself a properly trained alchemical adept and sworn to secrecy in matters of the “divine art.” In fact, the renunciation of illusionistic magic is an often repeated rhetorical topos in Medieval and Renaissance books of secrets. Almost everyone involved in early science at some point abjured magic, especially necromancy, since such black magic involved dealings with otherworldly spirits—as alchemy usually did not. Here Prospero does indeed appear to be endangering his soul as an alchemist with a daemonic helper. He must abjure such unlawful magic, but not necessarily his alchemy, before he returns to Milan. Eamon points out that even as early as the thirteenth century Roger Bacon makes a careful distinction between experimental science, such as alchemy, and unlawful magic.

Magic, he argued, is always illicit and sinful because it is either fraudulent, as in the deceits perpetrated by jugglers and ventriloquists, or else it is accomplished with the aid of demons. Fraudulent magic is worthless and without power; it is simply sleight of hand. Demonic magic, while powerful, cannot be controlled by human agency; instead, through it demons exercise their power over human souls. Against magic Bacon upheld the power of nature and of “art using nature as an instrument.” …

(Eamon, 67)

Thus Prospero is merely following the fashion in his vow to practice no more magic, which means freeing Ariel from his servitude and offering no more disappearing banquets or illusory court masques (another bit of subversion, no doubt).

In The Tempest, Ariel now brings the distracted court party into the magic circle, a figure which arises alchemically from the square of the four elements, the four seasons, the four directions of the compass, and the four arms of the cross. Abraham explains that the alchemical vessel itself was often called “the vas rotundum, or circular vessel” (Marvell and Alchemy, 47). The squaring of the circle thus “signified the making of the philosopher's stone, the Quintessence, otherwise known as ‘Heaven’” (49), and pointed to the end of the Opus magnum itself. According to Canon George Ripley, “When thou hast made the quadrangle round, then is all the secrett found.”30 Once again Maier has illustrated this crucial alchemical moment in his Emblem 21 (fig. 6) under the inscriptio “Make a circle around man and woman, then a square, now a triangle, make a circle, and you will have the philosopher's stone” (Maier, 147).

His old enemies now before him in the circle, Prospero calls for music to help him cure the madness his alchemy has produced:

A solemn air, and the best comforter
To an unsettled fancy, cure thy brains,
Now useless [boil'd] within thy skull!


Musical performance was common in the practice of alchemy, as we know partly from Heinrich Khunrath's famous engraving of the alchemist's laboratory (fig. 7). The laboratory on the right is combined with an oratory on the left, while musical instruments are as prominent in the foreground as are the chemical utensils necessary for the Great Work. Indeed, music is particularly required to calm the fancy of the adept himself, who often suffered vexations from the effects of mercurial fumes in his laboratory. Inscribed in Latin on the Khunrath engraving is the following reminder: “Sacred music puts melancholy and evil spirits to flight, for the spirit of Jehovah sings happily in a heart filled with joy.”31 Indeed, alchemy was often referred to as the “musical art” since it relied on time and measure as much as did music. Thomas Norton advised in his Ordinal that elements should be joined together both “Arismetically / Bi subtile nombres proporcionally” and “Musicallye”:

… accordis which in musike be [vsed],
with their proporcions cawsen Armonye,
Moch like proporcions be in Alchymye. …(32)

And flasks were often called “viols” by alchemists. The calming and therapeutic effects of music were understood to be beneficial to all aspects of the spagyric art, although, in particular, alchemists used music to achieve ultimately a wresting of materials from Saturn's domination and the achievement of purity in a state of grace. Grace, according to John Donne, is nothing less than “the proper Physick of the soul.”33

The albedo or dawning is the last or ninth step in Prospero's alchemy before the final achievement of the philosopher's stone. Prospero's call for solemn music in the play at once leads to the albedo, when darkness is followed by light, black by white. In Prospero's words,

The charm dissolves apace,
And as the morning steals upon the night,
Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle
Their clearer reason.

(5.1.64-68; italics mine)

We can assume that simultaneously in the cave laboratory, the color of the dissolving mixture in the alembic now whitens to mark the albedo: “as the morning steals upon the night.” And, as the mercurial fumes condense into dew, the brains of the court party mimic the chemical process in Prospero's “brave utensils” (3.2.96). The light of reason slowly returns, but only after the adept himself has used his “nobler reason” to control his own personal “fury” (5.1.26) at his earlier betrayal by the Three Men of Sin. The latter are all now cured of Adam's original sin after having partaken of the Paracelsian healing poison of guilt and remorse during the mortificatio of the alchemical process.

While all this has been going on, however, another pot has been boiling—the parodic brew of prima materia that makes The Tempest so much fun in the theater. Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo must, like their equally murderous courtly counterparts, undergo the alchemical process as the representatives of the lower classes or servants in society, although Prospero has little real hope of reforming the savage Caliban. Yet, we have heard Prospero call Caliban “Thou earth” (1.2.314), the very element that must, in fact, be transmuted in order to achieve the quintessence, and “thou tortoise” (1.2.316), an animal symbolizing “the matter of the alchemical art”34 as well as providing the form of a type of alchemical vessel. Shakespeare's leaden clowns, like the court party, lose their minds in order to discover their souls, but not through madness. Intoxication, another important aspect of alchemy, does the trick.

In her important study of Bosch and alchemy, Dixon observes that in alchemical literature and illustrations,

The Tree of Life does not bear fruit of its own, but serves as host for a graceful vine which bears bunches of reddish and white grapes. Alchemically, red and white grapes symbolized the Elixir of Life, and the “Vine” was a synonym for the distillation process, also referred to as the “Vintage.” Distilled wine was considered a powerful medicine in itself and the “blood of the grape” is, after all, the basic ingredient which is transmuted into Christ's blood in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.35

The vine and grapes entwined about the Tree of Life appear in all of the beautiful “Ripley Scrowles”—hand-painted alchemical manuscripts—that I have seen at the British Library, Beinecke Library, and Huntington Library, but at the top of the tree there is also a precious fruit—the child representing the Philosophical Stone or the Elixir. On either side of the vines of red and white grapes entwined about the Tree of Life stand the alchemical spouses, Sulphur and Mercury as a red man and a white woman, both up to their knees in the mysterious bath of mercurial transformation (fig. 8). We should remember, of course, that alchemists did discover “aqua vitae” (the water of life), which was 96٪ alcohol, in the twelfth century, while 100٪ alcohol was finally achieved by the “philosophers” in the fourteenth century.

In The Tempest, Stephano, the court butler, rides a butt of sack (Spanish wine fortified with distilled brandy) from the ship to the island, where he is hailed by Caliban as “a brave god” who “bears celestial liquor” (2.2.117). The allusion is to the god Dionysus or Bacchus, who represents the emotional and thus irrational life of the body as well as divine fecundity. When Caliban insists that Stephano's “liquor is not earthly” (2.2.126), he thereby suggests an “association between alcoholic spirits and the elixir” (Srigley, 40). Trinculo is little more than a professional drinker, as his name suggests; he is a theatrical satyr or a classical follower of Bacchus. In fact, “trinc” is the sacred word uttered by the Oracle of the Bottle on the “desired island” in book 5, chapter 4, of Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel.36 The bottle is shaped like a breviary and is called “trismegistian” by Panurge, who puts it to his lips and drains it of wine, much as Caliban is told to “kiss the book” (2.2.130) by Stephano in The Tempest. Rabelais's priestess Bacbuc then explains the meaning of the Oracle: “For Trinc is a panomphaean word, that is a word employed, understood and celebrated among all nations. It means simply: Drink!37“Trinken” is, of course, the German word for “to drink.” That we should take these comic scenes of drunkenness as a serious aspect of alchemy is made clear by Cornelius Agrippa, who mentions the “phrensie” of Bacchus in his Occult Philosophy 3.47, and asserts that it “divert[s] the soul into the mind, the supream part of it self, and makes it a fit and pure temple of the Gods.”38 The drunkards in The Tempest are thus maddened by a chemical infusion of divinity. Shakespeare had earlier suggested an involvement of alcohol in the alchemical process in a statement similar to that of Agrippa through Falstaff's famous encomium of sack in 2 Henry IV.39

The comic scene in The Tempest 2.2 ends with a wild song of “freedom,” which, of course, the adept or artist can never allow to enter into his dangerous work with poisonous chemicals and gases for very long. At the same time, the song does remind us of the political implications of the Opus magnum, although in the next scene the opposite state of “bondage” is praised by the king's son. Prince Ferdinand decides to marry Miranda “with a heart as willing / As bondage e'er of freedom” (3.1.88-89). The point seems to be that the subject must consent of his own free will to be ruled. Rabelais's great alchemical comedy of drunkenness also ends, as will The Tempest, with the promise of a marriage—the alchemical wedding between Mercury and Sulphur that finally results in the return of the Golden Age. The marriage is celebrated in the “Kingdom of Quintessence” with an elaborate game of chess symbolizing the Opus magnum itself and performed as a dance. Srigley suggests that the chess game played by Ferdinand and Miranda may derive from this source (39), which is certainly possible.

However, I cannot agree here with Srigley's assertion that the clowns are meant to symbolize “false alchemists” (41), since they are not alchemists at all but the prima materia or lead to be transmuted into something better by Prospero. Srigley offers no evidence from the play in proof of his negative view but rather proves exactly the opposite by his succeeding argument on the alchemical nature of drunkenness. Indeed, the clowns' theatrical transformation is finally as complete and significant as that of the court party, for Shakespeare seems to tell us in The Tempest that the Golden Age cannot return to the world only for aristocrats, as the court masques of the period would have it, but that all humanity must share in its blessings, once they have been taught to overcome their inborn greed for gold and power. By act 4, the native monster or wild man Caliban appears to have advanced in this respect over his shipwrecked fellows from Europe. In the “glistering apparel” scene, Stephano and Trinculo are attracted by the golden threads in the garments offered to them by Ariel, but Caliban sees at once that “it is but trash” (4.1.224) or fool's gold.

Meanwhile, to control the boiling over of the servant-class alembic, whose inhabitants are now “red-hot with drinking” (4.1.171), and their rebellion against authority, Ariel first lures the clowns with pipe and tabor through the mire into a foul lake of horse piss to cool them off. Urine was a commonly used ingredient in alchemy, as Surly mentions in Jonson's The Alchemist (2.3.194), while Gareth Roberts points out that the alchemical purification of prima materia included the use of “waters, salts, acids or sharp liquids (vinegar, urine).”40 Foul odors were also typical at this stage of the alchemical process.

After the “glistering apparel” scene, Prospero and Ariel next hunt the drunkards with hounds. This comic chase may be a theatrical allusion to the metaphor of the hunt employed in the medieval alchemical poem called The Hunting of the Greene Lyon that Elias Ashmole included in his Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum.41 Some alchemical writers thought the lion was a green vitriol, but others believed it to be a kind of salt. We should also note that Maier added a set of three-voiced fugues to his alchemical emblem book Atalanta Fugiens as a similar allusion to the hunting motif in the “divine art.” One voice follows or hunts down another in this music. According to Eamon, the metaphor was carried even further.

The conception of science as a hunt for the secrets of nature was … widely shared by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century natural philosophers. “In these centuries,” observed Paolo Rossi, “there was continuous discussion, with an insistence that bordered on monotony, about a logic of discovery conceived as a venatio, a hunt—as an attempt to penetrate territories never known or explored before.” One implication of this idea was that nature was a great uncharted unknown, and that science had to begin anew. Another was that new methods and guides had to be found to help the intellect weave its way through the labyrinth of experience.42

Thus the hunt became a motif common to all the experimental sciences at the time, not only to alchemy.

When Ariel finally drives the clowns back on stage in the last scene of The Tempest, Alonso asks Trinculo, “How cam'st thou in this pickle?” To this Trinculo replies sheepishly, “I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last that I fear me will never out of my bones” (5.1.282-84); italics mine). To be pickled is to be in a predicament, to be drunk, and also to be preserved in brine (Srigley, 42). The clowns, like the court party, have thus passed through their own marination in salty and acidic baths, have suffered the Bacchic madness of intoxication, have at last emerged in a purified state from the mud or ooze, and are now transmuted. Indeed, Alonso asks in amazement, “Where should they / Find this grand liquor that hath gilded 'em?” (5.1.279-80; my italics). Gilding was a common alchemical reference to the change from lead to gold.

Indeed, ever since Warburton, editors of The Tempest have routinely glossed the king's line on gilding as an alchemical reference to the Elixir (Srigley, 41) but have not been aware, it seems, of how thoroughly the process of alchemy permeates the play as a whole. The resulting gilding by the Elixir should be indicated on stage, perhaps by gold dust on the fancy costumes of the clowns, in order to announce visually the successful outcome of Prospero's work. Above all, we should see a physical difference in Caliban, who has changed psychologically and morally as well. Instead of shirking his work as usual when Prospero orders him to clean out the cave, Caliban replies, “Ay, that I will; and I'll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace” (5.1.295-96). This new attitude is the most remarkable metamorphosis in the entire play and seems to indicate the tenth stage in the alchemical process—perfection.

Apparently unaware that he has miraculously succeeded in transforming “this thing of darkness” (5.1.275) into a willing servant, Prospero at least sees at this point that his Opus magnum has preserved the ship and all its crew, has restored the reborn alchemical king in a purified form to his son and the reborn son to the grieving father, as well as perfecting Antonio and Sebastian who could not have withstood the corrosive boiling of their brains without inner change, and has gently led Ferdinand and Miranda to their projected chemical wedding. Finally, he has regained his own lost dukedom and a second chance at good government. Now richly attired as the Duke of Milan, the erstwhile magus is one with the elegant court party whose outward appearance prompts Miranda's exclamation, “O brave new world / That has such people in't” (5.1.183-84). Her naive admiration heralds the return to the Golden Age, which will finally be celebrated by her nuptials with Ferdinand in Naples. Gonzalo then announces the golden ending to the story (1) by wishing upon the couple “a blessed crown” of gold, and (2) by insisting that the entire wondrous tale be written down “With gold on lasting pillars” (5.1.207-08; my italics). These pillars may well have been inspired by the seven pillars supporting the heavens in the great cosmological temple described by Rabelais in book 5, chapter 42, of Gargantua and Pantagruel. But the return to the Golden Age means also a return to the Age of Saturn, the god whose humour is melancholy. After Prospero has told his story to the regenerated Europeans and has witnessed the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand in Naples, he plans to “retire me to my Milan, where / Every third thought shall be my grave” (5.1.311-12). His melancholy is apparently the price exacted by Saturn of all his alchemical adepts. Another possible explanation is that Prospero has not quite yet attained for himself the tenth step of the process—spiritual perfection, or a state of grace that can exist only between himself and his maker. Unlike Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare never plays God by clearly condemning or saving the souls of his heroes in his dramatic closures. Thus an actual validation of Prospero and Caliban as “sanctified,” in the sense of being purified from original sin, must of necessity take place off stage.

What the dramatist does make clear at the end of The Tempest is that the element of Air is now supreme. After assuring that Ariel will provide the “auspicious gales” (5.1.315) to blow the European ships back to Naples, the actor playing Prospero steps out of his role and, in a conventional if Christianized “plaudite,” asks for the “Gentle breath” of audience applause and prayers to free him, along with Ariel, from the stage that for several hours has represented an imaginary island.

We should also note, in conclusion, that the island setting itself has been one more symbol of the art of alchemy. Rabelais's archetypal “Kingdom of Quintessence” (or “Entelechy”) is an island reached only by those sailors who trust “to the whirlwind and current” (740) and are willing to accept some help from “Henri Cotiral, also known as Cornelius Agrippa or Herr Trippa” (739), a reference to Hermes Trismegistus. In addition, the Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius includes a similar island myth in his alchemical manual A New Light of Alchymie. During a dream vision, Neptune transports the author to a beautiful island filled with trees and flowers, a place comparable to Virgil's Elysian fields (52). Then Saturn arrives and dissolves the fruit of the tree of the Sun (dew) in ten parts of water (Mercury) to make aqua vita, or the Elixir of Life, before the visitor's wondering eyes. Although this completion of the Opus magnum is only a dream, Sendivogius then provides the reader with advice on how to accomplish it in the laboratory. A New Light, available in the Latin edition of 1604, was probably familiar to Shakespeare since it was used as the source of Mercury Vindicated by Ben Jonson (Linden, 132-51), whose grammar-school Latin was surely no better than that of his more famous colleague at the Globe. The difference was that Jonson (no more a university graduate than Shakespeare) flaunted his self-acquired erudition in his published works while Shakespeare wove his own self-acquired knowledge so thoroughly into the fabric of his art that we are still discovering colorful new threads of his thought to analyze. The golden thread of alchemy is of particular importance to our current understanding of The Tempest within its own historical context.43


  1. Peggy Muñoz Simonds, “‘Sweet Power of Music’: The Political Power of ‘the Miraculous Harp’ in Shakespeare's The Tempest,Comparative Drama 29 (1995): 61-90 (reprinted in Emblem, Iconography, and Drama, ed. Clifford Davidson et al. [Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995], 61-90). All quotations from William Shakespeare in the present essay are from The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. According to R. Bostocke, an English apologist for Paracelsian medicine, the difficulties of obtaining the golden fleece “signified the practice of this Arte [alchemy], daungers and perills in this worke, the purging and preparing of the matters and substaunce of the medicine, in the furnaces that breath out fire at the ventholes continually in equal quantities” (R. B., The Difference Betweene the Auncient Phisicke … and the Latter Phisicke (London: Robert Walley, 1585), sig. Hii. See also Antoine Faivre, “An Approach to the Theme of the Golden Fleece in Alchemy,” in Alchemy Revisited, ed. Z. R. W. M. von Martels (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990), 250-55.

  3. For the widespread interest in and knowledge of alchemical practice during the Renaissance, see Lyndy Abraham, “The Alchemical Context,” Marvell and Alchemy (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1990), 1-35; hereafter cited parenthetically; and Charles Nicholl, The Chemical Theatre (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), 1-100.

  4. Stanton J. Linden, Dark Hieroglyphicks: Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996); hereafter cited parenthetically.

  5. Harry Levin, “Two Magian Comedies: The Tempest and The Alchemist,Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969): 47-58.

  6. H. J. Sheppard, “European Alchemy in the Context of a Universal Definition,” in Die Alchimie in der europäischen Kultur- und Wissenschaftsgeschichte, ed. Christoph Meinel (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1986), 16-17, as quoted by Linden, Dark Hieroglyphicks, 11.

  7. Michael Sendivogius, A New Light of Alchymie: Taken out of the fourtaine of Nature and Manual Experience, trans. John French (London: Richard Cotes, 1650), 28; cited hereafter parenthetically.

  8. Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine, and Reform 1626-1660 (London: Duckworth, 1975), 16.

  9. Christopher Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (London: Panther, 1972), 131-49.

  10. Alistair M. Duckworth, “Gardens, Houses, and the Rhetoric of Description in the English Novel,” in The Fashioning and Functioning of the British Country House, ed. Gervase Jackson-Stops et al. (Hanover and London: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., n.d.), 395-413.

  11. J. Andrew Mendelsohn, “Alchemy and Politics in England 1649-1665,” Past and Present 135 (May 1992), 30-78.

  12. William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 198.

  13. To be fair to Ben Jonson, he was, of course, practicing a type of rhetoric that praised the ruler and thus challenged him to live up to the idealized picture presented by the poet. The danger of this strategy was that the king would believe that he had already reached perfection before any reformation had in fact taken place.

  14. I am certainly not the first to argue the presence of alchemy in The Tempest, but scholars have tended to ignore earlier suggestions. In 1899, Morton Luce, editor of the Arden edition of the play, associated Prospero's magic with John Dee and the Rosicrucians, alchemists all. More recently, Michael Srigley has analyzed the text as an alchemical work in “The Furnace of Tribulation: The Tempest and Alchemy,” a chapter of his published dissertation Images of Regeneration: A Study of Shakespeare's “The Tempest” and its Cultural Background (Uppsala: University of Uppsala, 1985), to which I am much indebted. This pioneer work will be cited parenthetically hereafter.

  15. John S. Mebane, Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 181.

  16. Paracelsus, Three Books of Philosophy (London: L. Lloyd, 1657), 8; cited hereafter parenthetically.

  17. One wonders if Shakespeare is suggesting here that it would take an alchemical transmutation of the world to make the pen mightier than the sword in reality.

  18. Artis Auriferae (Basel, 1593), 237, as quoted by Srigley, Images of Regeneration, 32.

  19. See H. M. E. De Jong, Michael Maier's “Atalanta Fugiens”: Sources of an Alchemical Book of Emblems (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969), 224; hereafter cited parenthetically. Psalm 69 is quoted in my text from the version in the Book of Common Prayer.

  20. Michael Maier, Atalanta Fugiens: An Edition of the Emblems, Fugues and Epigrams, trans. Joscelyn Godwin (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Phanes Press, 1989), 168-69. Although Maier's emblem book was not published until 1617, all the material in it was taken from earlier alchemical texts available to Elizabethans and Jacobeans, as De Jong has clearly demonstrated. Maier presented an emblematic alchemical Christmas greeting in 1611 to King James I of England while he was ambassador for the Elector Palatine to the English court. The following Christmas, 1612, the engagement between Frederick, Elector Palatine, and Princess Elizabeth was announced. See also Frances A. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), 1-14.

  21. Andrea Alciati, Emblemata cum commentariis [Padua 1621] (New York: Garland, 1976), 273. The history of this topos, without reference to its inversion in alchemy, has been traced by Jean Michel Massing, “From Greek Proverb to Soap Advert: Washing the Ethiopian,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 58 (1995): 180-201. Solomon Trismosin describes the alchemical version in his Splendor Solis (1582) as follows: “They saw a man black like a negro sticking fast in a black, dirty and foul smelling slime or clay; to his assistance came a young woman, beautiful in countenance, and still more so in body. … She clothed the man with a purple robe, lifted him up to his brightest clearness, and took him with herself to Heaven” (trans. J. K. [London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1920], 31).

  22. Lyndall Abraham, “Alchemical Reference in Antony and Cleopatra,Sydney Studies in English 8 (1982-83): 101.

  23. Artephius, as quoted in Stanislaus Klossowski de Rola, Alchemy: The Secret Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 12-13.

  24. R. J. Forbes, “Alchemy and Colour,” CIBA Review (1961/5): 8.

  25. Daniel Stolcius, Viridarium Chemicum (1627), 251, as quoted in translation in Abraham, Marvell and Alchemy, 200.

  26. This reference to the Golden Age is noted in Graham Parry, The Golden Age restor'd: The Culture of the Stuart Court (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981), 101-02.

  27. For extended definitions of “Renaissance tragicomedy,” see Peggy Muñoz Simonds, Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's “Cymbeline”: An Iconographic Reconstruction (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992), 29-65, 356-63; and James J. Yoch, Jr., “The Renaissance Dramatization of Temperance: The Italian Revival of Tragicomedy and The Faithful Shepherdess,Renaissance Tragicomedy, ed. Nancy Klein Maguire (New York: AMS Press, 1987), 115-38.

  28. For the social symbolism of dancing in the English Renaissance, see Sarah Thesiger, “The Orchestra of Sir John Davies and the Image of the Dance,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 36 (1973): 277-304.

  29. Cornelius Agrippa, Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Science, ed. Catherine M. Dunne (Northridge: California State University, 1974). See especially the chapter “Of Alcumie,” 328-32.

  30. George Ripley, The Compound of Alchymie, in Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London: Nathaniel Brooke, 1652), 117, as quoted in Abraham, Marvell and Alchemy, 42.

  31. Translation from the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica exhibition catalogue, The Silent Language: The Symbols of Hermetic Philosophy (Amsterdam: Pelikaan, 1994), 32.

  32. Thomas Norton, Ordinal of Alchemy, ed. John Reidy, EETS, o.s. 272 (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 53.

  33. John Donne, The Sermons, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1953-62), 1:196.

  34. Martin Ruland the Elder, A Lexicon of Alchemy, trans. A. E. Waite (London: John M. Watkins, 1964).

  35. Laurinda S. Dixon, Alchemical Imagery in Bosch's “Garden of Earthyly Delights” (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981), 19.

  36. Noted by Douglas Brooks-Davies, The Mercurian Monarch: Magical Politics from Spenser to Pope (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983), 92-93; cited hereafter parenthetically; and by Srigley, Images of Regeneration, 41.

  37. François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Jacques LeClercq (New York: Modern Library, 1936), 833-34.

  38. Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, 305; quoted in Brooks-Davies, The Mercurian Monarch, 142, n. 9.

  39. See 2 Henry IV 4.3.96-102: “A good sherris-sack hath a twofold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which deliver'd o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.”

  40. Gareth Roberts, The Mirror of Alchemy: Alchemical Ideas and Images in Manuscripts and Books from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 57. For the alchemical extraction of curative salts from urine, see Eireneus Philalethes (Thomas Vaughan), The Secret of the Immortal Liquor Alkhest or Ignis-Acqua (Edmonds, Washington: Alchemical Press, 1984).

  41. Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, 278-80.

  42. Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature, 269; the quotation within this passage is from Paolo Rossi, Philosophy, Technology, and the Arts in the Early Modern Era, trans. S. Attansio (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 42.

  43. I am grateful to Alden and Virginia Vaughan for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this essay.

Robert B. Pierce (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8202

SOURCE: “Understanding The Tempest,” in New Literary History, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1999, pp. 373-88.

[In the following essay, Pierce attempts to reconcile contradictory interpretations of The Tempest by reexamining the meaning of the play.]

Some years ago I wrote an article1 on Shakespeare's The Tempest in which I gave a reading that was quite sympathetic to Prospero and Miranda. I tried in that article to express an important part of my understanding of the play at that time, and I would still stand behind what I then said. On the other hand, I find much that is appealing and persuasive in a series of New Historical and anticolonialist readings of the play,2 which tend to be not at all sympathetic to Prospero and if anything to turn Caliban into a sort of hero or at least victim. How am I to explain this weak-minded doubleness in my understanding of The Tempest? Is it that I cannot make up my mind about what Shakespeare's play means, or can two contradictory readings be part of the way I understand it? My difficulty with The Tempest is suggestive of a larger problem in assimilating varied interpretations of a complex literary or dramatic text, one that I suspect we all encounter.

The task of adjudicating among different and even contradictory commentaries is dependent on what counts as understanding The Tempest. A stern New Critic would argue that all the writing about the New World and English colonialism is irrelevant to understanding the play, however accurate it may be as history. On the other hand, the New Historicist would condemn a formalist commentary on images and characters as naive and shallow, as incapable of addressing the social and political implications of the text. The two point in very different directions where to look in seeking the meaning of The Tempest. What might it mean to say that one understands a play? And what is the function of critical commentary in providing that understanding? These seem like very basic questions for our enterprise of teaching and writing about literature, including drama, and no doubt we all have developed some personal answers to them, but they are hard to deal with in any definitive way. I would like to suggest that the difficulty comes partly from a misleading picture of what constitutes the meaning of a play, the kind of misleading picture that according to Wittgenstein bewitches much of our thinking.3 This article will not solve all the problems of how to understand a play, but I do hope to sort out some of the issues and confusions in a way that will clarify how to make critical commentary useful and how to judge the usefulness of the criticism we read.

I plan to take as my test case Shakespeare's The Tempest, partly because the flood of recent commentary on it has raised much controversy and for many of us has radically altered our understanding of the play. How can one play look so different from different perspectives, and how can I make sense of my seeing it in two such seemingly incompatible ways as the traditional and colonialist readings? Should I reject the one or the other view as mistaken or perverse? Can I reconcile them in some larger framework? Or must I simply live with the incongruity?

Let me suggest the nature of the problem by quoting a series of statements about The Tempest, all of which presumably make some kind of claim to truth and to usefulness:

In The Tempest whatever evil remains is impotent, and goodness returns to action. Here, as in all the last plays, there is a re-birth, a return to life, a heightened, almost symbolic, awareness of the beauty of normal humanity after it has been purged of evil—a blessed reality under the evil appearance.4

In Prospero's metastance striving for power, secure identity, and certain belief is transcended through a choice by the whole self to live with faith in a world it knows man can never fully control or predict.5

To come to the island is to start life over again—both his own and Miranda's—with himself as sole parent, but also with himself as favorite child. He has been banished by his wicked, usurping, possibly illegitimate younger brother Antonio. This too has the shape of a Freudian fantasy: the younger child is the usurper in the family, and the kingdom he usurps is the mother. On the island, Prospero undoes the usurpation, recreating kingdom and family with himself in sole command.6

Caliban's retort might be taken as self-indictment: even with the gift of language, his nature is so debased that he can only learn to curse. But the lines refuse to mean this; what we experience instead is a sense of their devastating justness.7

Prospero needs Miranda as sexual bait, and then needs to protect her from the threat which is inescapable given his hierarchical world—slavery being the ultimate extension of the concept of hierarchy.8

Leontes and the others recognize the nobility of Miranda in The Winter's Tale though they do not know who she is.9

The descriptions that these quotations represent surely incorporate or imply some ideas about the play that are inconsistent with one another. Prospero is an admirable figure; he is a self-deceived tyrant and manipulator. The play portrays a victory over evil; the play is a grim anatomy of human ruthlessness and cruelty. Shakespeare is a wise and Olympian observer of the human condition; Shakespeare is the conscious or unconscious servant of a hegemonic state apparatus. In addition the writers illustrate heterogeneous ways of approaching the play, different critical methods which themselves imply judgments about the tools involved: is psychoanalytical thought a better way of understanding human behavior than a commonsense, traditional psychology of purposes and intention? Should we take for granted the author's wisdom or look for signs of authorial implication in bigotry and oppression? Is it important to be rational and accurate, even to be clear what play one is talking about, or is the free play of imagination everything?

How we deal with these contradictions is dependent on how we define the goal of finding the meaning of The Tempest.10 Is that meaning some set of words (other than those of the play itself), presumed to represent what was in Shakespeare's head or what would be in the head of an ideal reader or viewer: the play's comment on life or something like that? Or perhaps the meaning is some idea not to be expressed in words, something deeply ineffable. At any rate, what The Tempest means in this view is a group of ideas, whether expressible in language or not. That picture of meaning as a set of words or thoughts is, I would contend, implied in much of our thinking about drama, even though we might find the picture a bit naive when described so baldly. And such a picture of dramatic meaning seems to me misleading: not wholly wrong, but significantly distorted as a mapping of how we understand a play.

The very term “the meaning of a play” pushes us toward an image of that meaning as a text or mental diagram of some sort, an entity which we think of as both the goal of our attention to the play and our means of understanding it. We read the play in order to get the meaning, but we also use our preliminary sense of the meaning as a tool to find our way through the play. Again, such a description of a play's meaning has considerable truth as an indication of how we behave as readers and viewers, but it is only a map of what goes on when we seek and find meaning. Maps by their nature indicate some parts of what they represent very well while omitting or distorting others. It is no shame to a road map that it fails to indicate the contours of hill and valley or that it represents towns as circles despite their actual variety of shapes, but the usefulness of such a map is limited by its design to represent some things and not others. It can tell us which road to take but not the altitude of some section of that road. In the map I have sketched above of how a play means, what is ignored or misrepresented?

The answer is that this map implies the existence of a thing, the meaning of the play. In our use of language we have to learn over and over again that nouns do not necessarily represent things and thus that there may be no entity, not even an abstract entity in the mind, to which the term “dramatic meaning” refers. Let me suggest an alternative picture that I think maps certain qualities of dramatic meaning better than the traditional one as I have described it. Understanding the meaning of a play is not so much like grasping a concept as like having an ability, for example, the ability to polka. I learned in high school to polka, and I believe that I can still more or less do it, though I have not tried for years. Is that ability to polka some entity in my mind, some consciousness (or some unconscious thought)? I do not think so. Presumably I have the ability even at moments when I am not thinking of polka-ing: I am a person who can polka even though I am now writing at the computer keyboard. And my ability is not to be seen as a pattern in my head approximating some ideal pattern, the perfect polka. That idea of a mental pattern would describe well enough my grasp of the fifty states of the United States. I seem to have some sort of trace in my memory of the fifty states, a mental set which matches the list of the states in a history book. When I do remember the fifty states, my list can be lined up with the list in the book state for state. On the other hand, I may get better (or worse) at polka-ing, but my improvement does not manifest itself in getting closer to that hypothetical ideal, the idea of the polka, so that I would look more like you as both of us approach the ideal. In short, there is no entity, polka-ing, of which I have a more or less accurate copy in my head for my body to match up to when I know how to polka.

How then do I—and how do you—decide that I can polka with some skill? The answer is that there are criteria, an indefinitely large set of rules of thumb, by which we make such evaluations.11 In the first instance I need no criteria: I just know with some degree of confidence that I can polka as I know that I can throw a baseball or speak English. You presumably believe me when I claim to have that ability. Thus one main criterion for you is my avowal of being able to polka, what I said in the previous paragraph. But of course I could be mistaken in my belief, or I could be trying to deceive you, perhaps even trying to deceive myself. And so there are other criteria available in case you and I want to be more careful in our assessment of my skill. Most obviously, I could try to polka, and you could watch me: am I tripping over my feet or my partner's? Am I keeping time? How gracefully do I move? Notice that these criteria vary in their objectivity. Keeping time is more less an exact matter: does my footfall coincide with the musical beat? But grace is a matter of judgment: we learn by experience to evaluate it, and some people have a better eye for it than others.

We could pretend that the concept of knowing how to polka is meaningless because we cannot define it in clear terms, cannot find the entity that constitutes it. But the would be only a philosophical quibble. Our society gets along quite well deciding whether or not people can polka. No doubt there are imprecisions at the margin in such judgments: indeed I am not all that confident that I can still polka. Also I am sure there are people, even among those familiar with the dance, who would make peculiar evaluations of people's skills at polka-ing. But imprecision does not invalidate a concept; the appropriate test is its workability, so that we can communicate with it in our social interactions. Indeed imprecision around the edges is often valuable, as when we find it convenient to use a vague adjective like “close” rather than using only a language of exact measurements. I can say, “You are too close to that cliff edge,” when I lack the information to say, “You are.43 meters from that cliff edge,” and you will probably find my information useful despite the imprecision.

I want to claim that understanding the meaning of The Tempest is more like having an ability—like being able to polka—than like knowing the fifty states or even the structure of the United States government. What are the implications of that statement? Let me begin with some negatives. First, the meaning of The Tempest is not just a series of true statements about it. Thus there is no ideal article, or even book, toward which all the actual critical writing in the world is or should be evolving; there is no possible text that is the meaning of the play. Of course an article should try to make true statements and avoid false ones, and the true statements that it makes may well be useful in helping the reader to understand the meaning, but they will not be sufficient.12 My making all sorts of true statements about The Tempest is no guarantee that I understand its meaning, and indeed no set of true statements that I made could provide such a guarantee.

Second, the meaning is not to be seen as some idea or image in the author's mind, what we often equate with the author's intention. Even if we assume that some Polish genius invented the polka, my ability to polka is not my capacity to mirror a picture in his or her mind—the polka that the inventor created mentally before telling the rest of us about it. The same principle holds for a play: the meaning is not an entity in the author's mind. Information about the author's intention may well be valuable. Only the most dogmatic of New Critics would refuse to take seriously Milton's claim in Paradise Lost that he aims to “assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.” And Prospero tells us that his aim—as character, actor, and perhaps also spokesman for Shakespeare—“was to please.”13 Both of these thoughts were presumably in the authors' minds at some point, and surely they are relevant to understanding the two works, but they do not constitute the meaning in either case.

One might take this description of meaning to suggest that the meaning of The Tempest is multiple—for example, that the play is both a defense of patriarchal hierarchy and a subversion of its pretensions. But that is like saying that there are several ideal polkas rather than just one. Why is that an inadequate picture of the meaning of The Tempest? One main reason is that there are aspects of understanding the play that do not lend themselves to expression as ideas. Would we say that someone who had no sense of the figures of Ariel and Caliban, who did not respond to the poetry of the songs, understood the meaning of the play? Indeed the picture of the mind as a container holding a set of ideas is deeply unsatisfactory, as Wittgenstein demonstrates at length in Philosophical Investigations. Thus the third negative implication is that there is no thing, no entity or group of ideas, whether in the author's mind or the reader's or viewer's, that constitutes the meaning of The Tempest. Ideas are a part but not the whole of the meaning.

Fourth, there is no goal, no endpoint, to the process of coming to understand the meaning of the play. In playing games, there are two characteristic patterns.14 In one the player tries to attain some goal: getting to the top of the mountain, scoring more points than an opponent. In the other the player just tries to carry out some task better and better: skating, finding words in a group of letters. I contend that seeking the meaning of The Tempest is like the second sort of game: since there is no entity, the meaning, there is no one goal line. I can always keep getting better at understanding the play, and no leap of insight is the final truth. But better and worse are perfectly meaningful concepts here. I may well understand The Tempest better after reading the articles from which I have quoted, even though that understanding does not bring me closer to some one ideal body of ideas, just as I get better at polka-ing without approximating some ideal polka.

But if there is no goal line for understanding the play, how do I know how well I am doing, and how do you judge me? That is where the concept of criteria is helpful. Just as we judge my ability to polka by criteria, so we judge my understanding of The Tempest. Perhaps the most basic of these criteria for me individually is the click of enlightenment,15 when I get that sense of having seen of having seen the point. It may be sudden or gradual, but at its most striking it is like a light being turned on in a dark room. Now the elements of the play fall into place, make sense. It is above all that experience that leads me to make an avowal of understanding, which is the primary basis for your deciding that I understand the play. If you were to ask me whether I understand The Tempest, I would with a few modest qualifications answer yes (as I would not for Ulysses); and if you considered me trustworthy, you would probably believe me.

But how can we be sure that I am not mistaken? Or what if I am not so sure about making the avowal? The light may seem a bit dim, so that I am not sure what and how much I see. I can test the validity of my own sense of understanding by trying it out: can I see connections among different parts of the play? Do elements that have confused me in the past now fall into place? Can I persuade other people of my insights? Can I answer their questions about the play? And other people use similar criteria to judge my claim to understanding. Beyond that they can listen to my reading-aloud of parts of the play: does my voice make sense of the lines? Does it sound plausible as Prospero and Miranda and Caliban? No one of these criteria is definitive, and no one yields indisputable results. And yet their cumulative weight is powerful because it is what we mean by understanding the play, the way we have learned to apply the expression.16

But surely, you may well be saying, this is perverse. Either there is a meaning of The Tempest, or there is not. There may not be any single set of words that constitutes that meaning, but sets of words may approximate it more and more exactly. If that were not the case, then I would be forced back on total relativism: The Tempest means whatever I think it does at any moment, which is much the same as saying that it has no meaning, that meaning is purely an arbitrary creation of the individual (or group) consciousness.17

I would contend that that choice between one specific meaning and total relativism is a false dilemma. After all, it is not true that either there is one ideal polka or else anything counts as a polka. We can judge whether given behavior is polka-ing by criteria, and that fact is sufficient to make the concept of the polka meaningful. But it may well be more accurate to say that The Tempest has meaning than that it has a meaning or meanings. The latter expressions create a misleading picture, in that they suggest an entity or entities in Shakespeare's head or yours or mine that constitutes a standard. But no one has explained what sort of thing that entity would be, and anyway it is unnecessary in explaining how we apply the concept of meaning.

Why does this distinction between meaning as entity and meaning as area for the deployment of skill make any difference? In part it helps to clarify what we look for when we seek meaning. First, it makes clear that there is no one unified thing to be sought. Parts of what we count as meaning may be disconnected from one another in our perception. What does this suggest about the critical concept of unity? Surely unity is a valuable concept, one that leads us to new insights as we try to apply it to a text. Yet we really know that not everything about a text is unified. There are attributes that are of no importance—the number of occurrences of the letter “a” is usually one such—and other attributes may be significant in independent ways—a speech may be a funny set piece not closely connected to the rest of the play. Indeed there is no a priori reason to deny that a text may combine incompatible assertions: The Tempest may well both support and undermine patriarchal hierarchy. The fact that not everything fits together in the play is not a disastrous flaw, nor is it the indication of some deeper meaning to be excavated or just postulated as really there despite our incapacity to see it.

Second, meaning may and indeed usually does include elements other than assertions. Comprehension of a character is the most obvious example of that: surely grasping the sort of human being that is Prospero counts as part of understanding the meaning of the play. We might be able to express part of our grasp as a series of statements about him, but that would be an awkward approach to what we do largely by intuitive means: we all know actors who can play a character brilliantly but are blankly inarticulate in trying to describe what they are playing, just as there are people who read other people acutely without being able to express their understanding in psychological language. Will we grant the actor and the shrewd people no understanding of the meaning of the character or person?

On the other hand, there are critical utterances about Prospero which sound to me like possible statements about some play called The Tempest, but which I cannot match up with any Prospero that I, at least, can imagine in Shakespeare's play. Thus I cannot really see Shakespeare's Prospero as thwarting Antonio out of jealousy of the younger brother who has usurped their parents' love. I cannot fit Orgel's description against what I see Prospero say and do in the play. That is for me an insuperable objection to accepting such a critical utterance as useful in understanding the play, though at some future date someone might be able to talk me into seeing such a Prospero, or an actor might be able to show it to me. I believe that Orgel describes a real phenomenon in the world—older brothers can feel such jealousy and act on it; but the idea does not help my grasp of Shakespeare's Prospero. My intuitive sense of what assertions are congruous with the character is surely part of how I grasp his meaning. I would sum up this second point in an apparent redundancy: the meaning of a play is what I try to understand when I try to understand the play. Whether or not an element of that understanding is exactly an idea, something that can be thought of as an assertion and expressed in language, it is still part of the meaning. But an idea that does not help in understanding the play is not part of the meaning no matter how brilliant as an observation of the world or seventeenth-century England or whatever.

Third, meaning is not independent of the reader or viewer. Since there is no entity that constitutes the meaning, there is no one objective thing toward which both you and I are moving. In a sense you and I have to climb our own mountains, though we can benefit greatly from each other's insights and guidance. But what helps you to understand the play may not help me, even though I have no objections to it on grounds of truth or relevance. If I simply cannot see The Tempest from Caliban's perspective, then I cannot incorporate that into my understanding of the play, no matter how helpful it is to you. No doubt I would understand the play better and more fully if I could do so, but that step is further up my mountain than I have yet climbed.

How does this set of observations about dramatic meaning affect my response to the critical quotations at the beginning of this article? Spencer in the first excerpt identifies a traditional theme in the play, rebirth, and he makes a traditional dichotomy between good, associated with Prospero and his project, and evil, associated with Caliban and the plotters. One could offer a great deal of evidence for finding the theme of rebirth throughout the last plays, as many critics have,18 and thinking of it as a theme19 helps to make sense of the imaginative power in such elements of the play as the shipwreck that turns out to be imaginary, Ariel's song “Full fathom five,” and the revival of Alonso, Gonzalo, and the others from the magic spell cast on them. I suspect that almost any reader or viewer who has not yet thought of the theme of rebirth feels a click of recognition, of elements of the play falling into place, when encountering the idea in Spencer or Tillyard or someone else.

More controversial is Spencer's implied judgment of Prospero as associated with good, even embodying it. Leininger, for example, sees him as an embodiment of patriarchal and colonialist manipulation. In some respects the two critics are agreeing about what they see but judging it differently: Spencer finds acceptable and even admirable the very exercise of manipulation and control by a patriarchal figure that Leininger finds offensive. But her sentence includes a somewhat ambiguous claim, all forms of which I think Spencer would dispute. First, it may mean that in the incident referred to at 1.2.353 ff. Prospero has consciously used Miranda's beauty to impel Caliban to attempted rape so that Prospero will be justified in enslaving Caliban. Second, it may attribute such a motive to him unconsciously. Third, it may contend that the social context of patriarchalism and colonialism incorporates this pattern of forces independent of Prospero's intention, conscious or unconscious. Ideology is shaping Prospero's and Miranda's attitudes, but the causal link occurs in the development of the social process, not in Prospero's mind. He idealizes her virtue because he has picked up the values of a social group that needs to justify enslaving other males and so to perceive them as rapists.

Should we take Prospero's—and Miranda's—explanations of their original kindly behavior toward Caliban at face value, as Spencer does, or should we seek for the real reason in Leininger's mode? The first and second versions of her interpretation seem to me dramatically implausible. They purport to know things about an undramatized incident for which the play simply does not offer evidence, and so they invent a past for Prospero just as Orgel does in his quotation. One could imagine a play dramatizing Prospero's behavior toward Caliban in those terms, but that imagined play is remote from the actualities of The Tempest. One way of making this point is to ask how the actor playing Prospero could suggest having had this devious motive for letting Caliban live with them, whether by the way he delivers the lines at 1.2.346 ff. or by behavior elsewhere. The psychology of Prospero that these versions offer is out of keeping with the impression I derive from the rest of the play. Whatever one may think of his educative methods as we see them, he is not using them to undermine Caliban's character.

If, as I suspect, Leininger is really making the third assertion, the issue is more complex. First the claim rides on the justifiability of seeing Prospero as a colonialist, which has to many recent critics seemed almost inevitable.20 It is of course an allegorical interpretation, since literally the island is in the Mediterranean and Caliban is not an Indian. And the colonialist reading is not the only allegorical interpretation that has seemed compelling to critics: Prospero has also been seen frequently as Shakespeare himself, as the artist or dramatist in general, and as God. Mark Van Doren comments, “Any set of symbols, moved close to this play, lights up as in an electric field. Its meaning, in other words, is precisely as rich as the human mind, and it says that the world is what it is.”21 The specific allegorical reading involving colonialism lights up in just that way for our generation. I myself doubt that Prospero is allegorical of the colonialist in the way that Spenser's Faerie Queene stands for Elizabeth: Spenser consciously intended his equation, as the letter to Ralegh makes clear; and the poem is full of signs that point unambiguously in that direction. One might call the reading of Gloriana as Elizabeth a compelled allegory, which the interpretation of Prospero as planter, or as Shakespearean dramatist, is not. But I suspect that most modern readers and viewers feel something like the sentiment voiced by Greenblatt in his quotation, at least at the moment of the play he refers to (1.2.365 ff.), and that is because Caliban is so recognizably in the position of the colonized subject. For us who respond that way, understanding the play involves acknowledging that feeling and making sense of it. Not to feel the force of analogy between Prospero's island and the colonial enterprise is not to be very much at home in either the seventeenth century or the end of the twentieth. I suspect that most who resist the analogy are simply unwilling to move out of the older reading, whether through ideological resistance or through sheer inertia.

A second premise for justifying this version of Leininger's argument is that it represents a plausible account of a recurrent political process: fathers and colonialists behave as she represents Prospero behaving. Leininger argues that the process is represented in the historical reality of the Princess Elizabeth, for whose nuptials the play was performed in 1613: here was an actual woman used as political bait. But is it specifically the case that enterprises of subjugation, especially colonialist ventures, frequently justified themselves by tempting the people to be subjugated with women of the ruling class and then punishing them with enslavement for responding to the sexual temptation? I myself have doubts about the idea since I think it assumes more psychological need for self-justification than most subjugators have felt. Besides, I wonder if it does not extrapolate too far from the psychosexual attitudes of American slave holders and the postbellum defenders of Jim Crow. But those who find the historical theory more plausible than I do may well find explanatory power for Prospero's behavior in an ideology that glorifies virginity and demonizes the subjugated as threats to that virginity. He need not have any plan to entrap Caliban through Miranda; he acts in a way that produces that result because of attitudes shaped by an ideology that exists to justify hierarchy and subjugation.

Spencer and Leininger imply opposite evaluations of Prospero, and indeed nearly all interpretations of the play tend in one or the other of these two directions, though with various qualifications. Is arriving at a judgment of him part of understanding the play, or is it simply a case of de gustibus, one of those value judgments that our students scorn? I would suggest that there is no good reason to doubt the cognitive status of such judgments and indeed that one of the main purposes for reading critical interpretations is to guide us in our own arrival at a considered judgment of Prospero. In a sense we can try out the different perspectives, see how well they work in our process of thinking about him.

In some versions the different evaluations of Prospero may be logically or psychologically incompatible. I can think of him as a kindly old dramatist giving up his art after one last performance by the creatures of his imagination, or I can think of him as a manipulative ruler and colonizer who inflicts pain and pleasure to suit his own plans, but I cannot see both Prosperos at the same time; the two images replace each other like Jastrow's duck and rabbit.22 One element in this dichotomy is that I have to think of characters like Ariel and Caliban either as representing human beings or not—perhaps rather as elements of Prospero's own psyche or as aspects of dramatic creation. Prospero looks very different depending on whether I think of his slaves as human beings. Nevertheless, I may see Prospero in those two aspects as two different potentialities of the play, which can, for example, be brought out in different productions. In a sense I am understanding two plays instead of one, but why not accept that possibility? On the other hand, not all such contradictions demand two different Prosperos. To understand a character is not to find some single explanatory formula, the idea of the character, any more than that is true of the play as a whole or of a human being outside drama. Again, the formulae for Prospero—colonialist oppressor, benevolent father, and so forth—are not the goals of understanding but the tools.

Some critics may feel that it is my duty to accept only the colonialist version of Prospero and the play, to see entirely from Caliban's perspective, as it were. That demand may be a kind of dour secular Puritanism: any time when I am not thinking about political oppression is time wasted on unpolitical frivolity.23 But more often the suggestion is that I am complicit in colonialism if I let myself enjoy the kindly old dramatist. But that is to contend that I am really seeing the duck when I think I am seeing the rabbit: I am being drawn to accept the enslavement of Native Americans when I think I am considering the nature of theater. Surely it is my intellectual task to make sure I do not confuse the two readings, that I do not let the kindly old dramatist justify the colonist. Achieving that kind of nuanced thinking is one of my goals as both critical reader and world citizen.

After all, if I am correct, understanding The Tempest is not to be equated with seeing either the colonialist or the metatheatrical allegory. Rather, seeing and being able to pursue both of them is how I develop my understanding, and being able to explain them to others is one criterion for having that understanding. I do believe that I have a more comprehensive grasp of the play for looking at it from Caliban's point of view and for noticing parallels between the play and the colonial enterprise of Early Modern England, but I can gain that benefit without repudiating allegories like the metatheatrical reading.

Each perspective illuminates certain aspects of Prospero: what is an insignificant spot on the back of the duck's head becomes the rabbit's mouth. Thus the colonial interpretation makes me notice Prospero's irascibility because that feeling is a natural accompaniment to a position of domination: in order to feel superior to the dominated class, the dominator tends to focus on perceived inferiorities that also irritate him. This irritation actually contributes to feeling little guilt at being the oppressor. In short, the irascibility becomes a natural part of Prospero, not a somewhat puzzling eccentricity, perhaps left over from the magician in the commedia dell'arte.24 Power, including the power of the colonialist, is morally dangerous, as is suggested by the idea that the exercise even of white magic is potentially corrupting. Prospero is a kindly man for whom cruelty has become a habitual way of behaving.

Yet a metatheatrical reading of Prospero makes me notice aspects of him that do not fit with an easy condemnation of the colonial master. After all, he is genuinely affectionate toward Ariel, he seems unsurprised and unshaken in his love for Miranda by her defending Ferdinand and her disobedience, and above all he renounces his magical power at the end of the play. Of course these facts that the metatheatrical reading highlights are left over to be dealt with in the colonialist reading, as is the impulse they give toward a less hostile judgment of Prospero. The paradox is that he is the chief giver of freedom in a play that glorifies freedom, but he can play that role only because he is also the chief enslaver, as is vividly dramatized in the enslavement of Ariel and Caliban and the mock-enslavement of Ferdinand.

Prospero is a complex character—irascible, manipulative, occasionally forgetful—yet to most readers and viewers he is on the whole likable, even admirable, especially because of the admirable qualities I have pointed to and because his project seems aimed at benefiting everyone. That likableness is a dilemma for the colonialist reading. One option is to condemn the play as an apology for colonialism and patriarchy: it manipulates us as Prospero manipulates the other characters, but not for our own good: we learn to accept domination and hierarchy, especially over those perceived as different. Presumably the defenders of this theory exempt themselves from the supposed ill effect of the play; they are able to see from Caliban's perspective despite Shakespeare. I am suspicious of such readings; they seem like an inverted version of the old view of Shakespeare as providing sugarcoating for the masses and a deep and very different meaning for the cognoscenti,25 though of course these critics suggest that Shakespeare's heart is in the sugarcoating, while the deep meaning and keen vision come from the critic.

A more fruitful approach in the first instance is to try to incorporate a partly favorable reading of Prospero into the colonialist interpretation. And surely, for a modern reader at least, one implication is that it does not take terrible people to do terrible things. It is the world of melodrama in which all colonialists and enslavers are monsters. But even in the most anticolonialist reading The Tempest is a fable of colonialism, not a realistic map of the process. Given that distorting mirror of fantasy, the differences can be as significant as the similarities. The whole theme of renunciation in the play, including Prospero's aim of emancipation, by which he gives up his magic power, creates a sharp contrast with both the Roman imperialism of the Vergilian analogy and the enterprise of New World colonization. If the adventurers and planters had been more like Prospero, the history of the New World might have been very different.

Having added these thoughts to my earlier cogitations on The Tempest, do I now understand the play? I can hope that my comments have persuaded my readers that I do, that they provide an adequate criterion for my understanding; but I feel sure that many of them consider me wildly eccentric: captive to crackpot theories or politically retrogressive or obsessed with the mechanics of response as opposed to the play itself or pedestrian and literal-minded. However, my primary concern in this essay is to give an accurate picture of the process of attaining meaning in Shakespeare's play. Responding to different interpretations, testing them against my detailed responses to the play and against each other, expecting to find insights in all sorts of odd places: all these are constituent parts of a necessarily sloppy and open-ended process.

Above all I seek to overthrow a traditional picture of dramatic meaning that fosters confusion and misunderstanding. There are several implications of rejecting the old picture in favor of the process I describe. There is no shining goal, the meaning of the play, that I might try to incarnate in my words. The concept of unity is only a heuristic tool, not the standard for accepting or rejecting my various thoughts about the play. I can draw insights from radically opposed interpretations, and I can ignore the most ingenious and cleverly argued constructions of ideas that I cannot connect with my own perceptions of the play. I should look carefully at my own feelings and intuitions, and I should listen sensitively to my voice (and others' voices) reading the play's words aloud. I can only test myself and improve my grasp of The Tempest by engaging in all of these activities, in the whole process of critical discourse. When I—and you—write criticism or teach classes or just talk about Shakespeare, we are using the best tools we have for climbing our individual mountains of understanding, and we will do it better for knowing what the process is really like.


  1. Robert B. Pierce, “‘Very like a Whale’: Scepticism and Seeing in The Tempest,Shakespeare Survey, 38 (1985), 167-73.

  2. In addition to the texts listed below in nn. 4 to 8, some of the notable readings in this vein are O. Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, tr. Pamela Powesland (New York, 1956); Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York, 1972); Paul Brown, “This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine,” Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, N.Y., 1994), pp. 48-71; Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Contexts of The Tempest,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis, 2 vols. (London, 1985), 1:191-205; Karen Flagstad, “‘Making this Place Paradise’: Prospero and the Problem of Caliban in The Tempest,Shakespeare Studies, 18 (1986), 205-33; Thomas Cartelli, “Prospero in Africa: The Tempest as Colonial Text and Pretext,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (New York, 1987), pp. 99-115; Stephen Orgel, “Shakespeare and the Cannibals,” in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, ed. Marjorie Garber (Baltimore, 1987), pp. 40-66; Meredith Anne Skura, “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest,Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), 42-69; Jeffrey Knapp, An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature from “Utopia” to “The Tempest” (Berkeley, 1992); Jeffrey L. Hantman, “Caliban's Own Voice: American Indian Views of the Other in Colonial Virginia,” New Literary History, 23 (1992), 69-81; Richard Halpern, “‘The Picture of Nobody’: White Cannibalism in The Tempest,” in The Production of English Renaissance Culture, ed. David Lee Miller, Sharon O'Dair, and Harold Weber (Ithaca, N.Y., 1994), pp. 262-92; Jean-Marie Maguin, “The Tempest and Cultural Exchange,” Shakespeare Survey, 48 (1995), 147-54; Jonathan Bate, “Caliban and Ariel Write Back,” Shakespeare Survey, 48 (1995), 155-62; Jonathan Baldo, “Exporting Oblivion in The Tempest,Modern Language Quarterly, 56 (1995), 111-44. See also the invaluable book by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History (Cambridge, 1991).

  3. For the idea see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G. E. M. Anscombe, 3rd ed. (New York, 1967).

  4. Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (New York, 1961), p. 200.

  5. James P. Driscoll, Identity in Shakespearean Drama (Lewisburg, Pa., 1983), p. 155.

  6. Stephen Orgel, “Prospero's Wife,” Representations, 8 (Fall 1984), 4.

  7. Stephen Greenblatt, “Learning to Curse: Linguistic Colonialism in The Tempest,” in William Shakespeare's The Tempest, ed. Harold Bloom (New York, 1988), p. 67.

  8. Lorie Jerrell Leininger, “The Miranda Trap: Sexism and Racism in Shakespeare's Tempest,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana, Ill., 1980), p. 289.

  9. Student paper in Shakespeare course at Oberlin College.

  10. More precisely this is one goal of reading and discussing the play. Certainly critical commentary, including the essays I discuss, can have other aims instead or as well, such as exploring some element of early seventeenth-century England, tracing the development of some social phenomenon such as colonialism, or even testing the validity of some intellectual tool. Still, understanding the play seems to me our central activity as teachers and scholars of literature, and a prerequisite to carrying out most of the others well. At any rate, my enterprise here is to describe the place of critical commentary in understanding the play. As a result I am not evaluating the whole intellectual reach of the essays.

  11. For the vexed issue of what Wittgenstein means by “criterion,” see the discussions in Criteria, ed. John V. Canfield (New York, 1986), vol. 7 of The Philosophy of Wittgenstein.

  12. I shall not try to defend my position that there are true and false statements of all sorts, with very different criteria of truthfulness. Thus I have no doubt of the truth of the statement that Miranda is a character in The Tempest, and not in The Winter's Tale. I shall be suggesting that even statements like “The Tempest exposes the patriarchy and colonialism behind Prospero's apparent benevolence” can be evaluated by their own criteria.

  13. Epilogue, line 13. All quotations from the play are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, updated 4th ed. (New York, 1997).

  14. I do not mean to deny Wittgenstein's demonstration that “games” is a family-resemblance concept with no single defining essence. See his Philosophical Investigations, 1:66-71.

  15. For the term “click” and an exploration of this criterion for aesthetic understanding, see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett (Berkeley, 1966), p. 19.

  16. This is Wittgenstein's doctrine of meaning as use, developed at length in Philosophical Investigations. “For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Philosophical Investigations, 1:43).

  17. Thus Stephen Orgel in the Introduction to his invaluable edition asserts, “All interpretations are essentially arbitrary” (Stephen Orgel, “Introduction,” The Tempest [Oxford, 1994], p. 12).

  18. E. M. W. Tillyard emphasizes regeneration as the completion of the tragic pattern in his Shakespeare's Last Plays (London, 1938). Cf. also Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York, 1965), especially “The Return from the Sea,” pp. 118-39.

  19. Barker and Hulme resist the term “theme” as implying an organic unity that they deny in The Tempest (“Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish,” p. 197). Perhaps it is helpful to think of “theme” by analogy with the musical sense rather than as the key that opens a lock. For a subtle attempt to find organic unity in an interplay of themes, see Reuben Brower, “The Mirror of Analogy: ‘The Tempest,’” in his The Fields of Light (Oxford, 1962), pp. 95-122.

  20. A minority deny it on one ground or another. See, for example, Anthony B. Dawson, “Tempest in a Teapot: Critics, Evaluation, Ideology,” in “Bad” Shakespeare, ed. Maurice Charney (Rutherford, N.J., 1988), pp. 61-73; Deborah Willis, “Shakespeare's Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” SEL, 29 (1989), 277-89; John Hunt, “Prospero's Empty Grasp,” Shakespeare Studies, 22 (1994), 277-313; William M. Hamlin, “Men of Inde: Renaissance Ethnography and The Tempest,Shakespeare Studies, 22 (1994), 15-44; Ben Ross Schneider, Jr., “‘Are We Being Historical Yet’: Colonialist Interpretations of Shakespeare's The Tempest,Shakespeare Studies, 23 (1995), 120-45; and Richard Wilson, “Voyage to Tunis: New History and the Old World of The Tempest,ELH, 64 (1997), 333-57.

  21. Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (Garden City, N.Y., 1939), p. 281.

  22. See Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 2:xi, for the figure, a line drawing that can be read as either a duck or a rabbit. Wittgenstein uses the drawing to illustrate the concept of aspect, seeing something as something. E. H. Gombrich discusses the phenomenon in visual perception in his Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton, 1969).

  23. The cliché is that to be unpolitical is to take a political stance in favor of the status quo. But surely the plausible form of that maxim asserts only that one should sometimes be political, not that one should always be.

  24. See The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London, 1994), p. lxxv, for puzzlement, and the discussion by Barker and Hulme, “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish,” pp. 202-3, for an explanation similar to mine.

  25. See, for example, Harold Goddard, who uses this ploy in his The Meaning of Shakespeare, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1951), and justifies it in his preface (p. ix): “The purpose of the poet in this sense is often in direct contradiction with that of the playwright. It may even lead him in the interest of truth to distill ‘Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age's tooth,’ a line which, for our present understanding of him, may be the most important one in all Shakespeare's works.” For a critique of this two-audience view, see Richard Levin, “The Two-Audience Theory of English Renaissance Drama,” Shakespeare Survey, 18 (1986), 251-75.

Nora Johnson (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7800

SOURCE: “Body and Spirit, Stage and Sexuality in The Tempest,” in ELH, Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 683-701.

[In the essay below, Johnson examines early-modern selfhood, sexual identity, and authorship in their relation to The Tempest, contending that “The Tempest demonstrates that sexuality and authorship are nevertheless bound up in compelling ways with the question of identity on the early-modern stage.”]


Writing Plays Confuted in Five Actions in 1582, Stephen Gosson encounters a momentary setback in his condemnation of stage plays. After all, he admits, Gregory Naziancen once wrote “a Playe of Christe.” But, Gosson asks, “to what ende? To be Plaid upon Stages? neither Players nor their friendes are able to prove it.”1 Naziancen's play is morally acceptable because it cannot conclusively be linked to actual performances. This distinction between a written text and a fully-embodied theatrical production becomes crucial for Gosson as he details the abuses to which theater is prone in early modern England:

If it should be Plaied, one must learne to trippe it like a Lady in the finest fashion, another must have time to whet his minde unto tyranny that he may give life to the picture hee presenteth, whereby they learne to counterfeit, and so to sinne. Therefore whatsoever such Playes as conteine good matter, are set out in print, may be read with profite, but cannot be playd, without a manifest breach of Gods commaundement. … Action, pronuntiation, apparel, agility, musicke, severally considered are the good blessings of God, nothing hurtfull of their owne nature, yet being bound up together in a bundle, to set out the pompe, the plaies, the inventions of the divell, it is abhominable in the sight of God, and not to be suffered among Christians.

(C, 178)

Although Gosson wants to demonstrate his respect for action and pronunciation—for embodiment—it is clearly the participation of actors as they “give life” to an author's words that makes plays intolerable. In the process of making an author's words into a physical spectacle, players are both corrupted and corrupting.

As Gosson himself points out, embodying an author's words is especially damaging morally when it requires that men or boys play women's roles on stage. What Gosson here calls “tripping it like a Lady” he elsewhere condemns in more detail, famously invoking divine authority to bolster his sense that “garments are set downe for signes distinctive betwene sexe and sexe” (C, 175). This lack of sexual distinction troubles other writers in the period as well, so that when J. Cocke wants to characterize “A common Player,” he has easy recourse to images of sexual chaos:

[An actor] if he marries, he mistakes the Woman for the Boy in Woman's attire, by not respecting a difference in the mischiefe. But so long as he lives unmarried, hee mistakes the Boy, or a Whore for the Woman; by courting the first on the stage, or visiting the second at her devotions.2

Clearly gender distinctions break down in this description, but Cocke's conflation of transvestite performance with marital sexuality leads to another more surprising claim: courting a boy on stage becomes analogous to “mistaking” a whore for a woman, a formulation which powerfully connects sexual anxieties with worries about performance and economic gain. Prostitutes and players are troubling not only because of their sexual promiscuity, but because of their very professionalism. After all, both can be counted on to produce a facsimile of marital relations for money. Moreover, as has often been remarked, both sexual display and paid impersonation have the power to break down the categories upon which identity is founded, so that apparently stable notions of masculinity, femininity and even authenticity itself are threatened by the work of the professional actor.3

The distaste for professionalism implied by Cocke's conflation of acting and prostitution resonates, of course, with another set of complaints about players, lodged this time by poets whose engagement with theater companies threatened to compromise their (already precarious) social status. As is well testified by the works of Robert Greene, university writers who composed stage plays had a tendency to depict players as parasitical “puppets” and “taffeta fools” who gained wealth at the expense of their social betters. Greene himself even traces the despicable character of the player to the profession's classical origins:

Now so highly were Comedies esteemed in those daies [after Menander began to write moral Comedies], that men of great honor and grave account were the Actors, the Senate and the Consuls continuallie present, as auditors at all such sports, rewarding the Author with rich rewards, according to the excellencie of the Comedie. Thus continued this facultie famous, till covetousnesse crept into the qualitie, and that meane men greedie of gaines did fall to practice the acting of such Playes, and in the Theater presented their Comedies but to such onely, as rewarded them well for their paines … yet the people (who are delighted with such novelties and pastimes) made great resort, paide largely, and highly applauded their doings, in so much that the Actors, by continual use grewe not onely excellent, but rich and insolent.4

In Greene's etiology, the very profession of the player grows out of a usurpation of the moral work of playwrights. Their skill at representing a playwright's text is innately a misrepresentation of the playwright's purpose, a commercialization of his more ennobling exchange with “men of great honour and grave account.” Like Gosson, Greene imagines that the professional staging of plays involves a loss of purity, a moral compromise.

This conflict between players and playwrights shapes our earliest sense of Shakespeare's reputation. Greene's famous attack on the “upstart Crow”—in addition to whatever claims it may be making about Shakespeare as a plagiarist—firmly couples playing with betrayal and usurpation:

To those Gentlemen his Quondam acquaintance, that spend their wits in making plaies, R. G. wisheth a better exercise, and wisdome to preuent his extremities. If wofull experience may moue you (Gentlemen) to beware, or unheard of wretchednes intreate you to take heed: I doubt not but you wil looke backe with sorrow on your time past, and indeuour with repentance to spend that which is to come. …

Base minded men all three of you, if by my miserie you be not warned; for vnto none of you (like mee) sought those burres to cleaue: those Puppets (I meane) that spake from our mouths, those Anticks garnisht in our colours. Is it not strange, that I, to whom they all haue beene beholding: is it not like that you, to whome they all haue beene beholding, shall (were yee in that case as I am now) bee both at once of them forsaken? Yes trust them not: for there is an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey. …

Trust not then (I beseech ye) to such weake staies: for they are as changeable in minde, as in many attyres.5

Greene represents Shakespeare as a player, as another parasite speaking from his mouth, doubly the usurper because he is not from the universities and not an author in the way that Greene imagines himself to be.6

Greene's response to the instability of his own life in the theater is to distance himself from the figure of the player, and especially from the player who dares to supplant him by writing plays. He characterizes Shakespeare in particular and players in general in ways that summarize the perceived dangers of stagecraft. If players have taken Greene's words and left him financially and socially bereft, Shakespeare, by himself becoming a playwright, has usurped Greene's financial and professional prerogatives and has become the ultimate example of the untrustworthiness of “those Puppets who speak from our mouths.” Similarly, by claiming that players are “as changeable in mynde, as in many attires,” Greene registers the power of players to “falsifie, forge, and adulterate,” to break down the distinctions between themselves and the roles they play, just as they break down the distinctions “betwene sexe and sexe” when they wear women's clothing. In fact, Greene's reference to Shakespeare as having “a Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde” subtly incorporates just such an awareness of the player as a figure for gender's instability; the quotation is adapted from Shakespeare's 3 Henry VI, in which that hide belongs not to a player, but to a woman, to Queen Margaret (1.3.137). On some level Shakespeare is playing the woman at the moment that Greene casts him in the part of the upstart player who usurps the role of playwright. His imagined crimes are very much one with the sexual and ontological impurity for which theater was famous in early-modern England.

I offer this passage from Greene as an introduction to The Tempest because it positions Shakespeare solidly in the middle of early-modern debates about theatrical practice, not merely as one member of the theatrical milieu but as the specific focus of a personal attack. In fact, if the work of Henry Crosse is any indication, this was also an influential attack; writing Virtues Common Wealth in 1603, Crosse repeatedly echoes both Greene's sentiments and his language, calling players “weak staties,” “Anticks and Puppets,” and, as Greene calls them in a passage not quoted above, “buckram gentlemen”:

To conclude, it were further to be wished, that those admired wittes of this age, Tragaedians, and Comaedians, that garnish Theaters with their inventions, would spend their wittes in more profitable studies, and leave off to maintaine thos Anticks, and Puppets, that speake out of their mouthes: for it is pittie such noble giftes should be so basely imployed, as to prostitute their ingenious labours to inrich such buckorome gentlemen. … he that dependeth on such weake staies, shall be sure of shame and beggerie in the ende: for it hath sildome bene seene, that any of that profession have prospered, or come to an assured estate.7

Even Crosse's comment that one seldom hears of any playwright who comes to a good end seems to invoke the ghost of Greene and his highly publicized departure from a life of penury. Eleven years after Greene's death and after his initial representation of Shakespeare as an upstart player, one hears Henry Crosse speaking from out of Greene's mouth, reiterating in general terms the mistrust of players by which Shakespeare was judged at the beginning of his career.8 What looks like a purely moral objection on Crosse's part to the theatrical “prostitution” of a writer's potentially wholesome powers is in fact deeply influenced by the efforts of Greene and his peers to distinguish themselves from base players. Sexual and ontological anxieties about theater are in fact inseparable from more quotidian concerns about professional reputation.9

Specific as Greene's attack on Shakespeare was, what Crosse's rearticulation in 1603 makes clear is that the concerns I have outlined here are part of a larger cultural suspicion about theater. They are so much a part of the vocabulary of theatrical practice in early-modern England, in fact, that when Shakespeare turns most famously to consider questions of theater in The Tempest he demonstrates, paradoxically, considerable sympathy with Greene's complaints in Groats-worth of Witte. Although there is a long tradition of reading Prospero's renunciation of magic as Shakespeare's renunciation of the theater, the anxieties reflected at least in Prospero's initial ruminations upon stagecraft could as easily belong to a Nashe or a Greene.10

It is with this larger sense of the reputation of theater—and especially of players—that I begin looking at The Tempest. I want to consider the past that Prospero imagines for himself, the political usurpation that he casts as a theatrical problem, a problem of the physicality and the parasitism of the brother who speaks from out of his mouth. As The Tempest represents theatrical practice, working and reworking the question of theatrical reputation and the status of the player, it registers precisely the complaints I have enumerated above. Skill at representation becomes inseparable from a kind of sexual impurity. Moreover, the play's theatrical self-consciousness extends, I will argue, not merely to the staging of Prospero's renunciation, but to his implicit refiguring of theatrical reputation. What the play begins by imagining as a uniquely theatrical form of usurpation by an actor—ultimately a loss of identity for the author of that actor's words—becomes, in the last analysis, an articulation of theatrical selfhood, an incorporation of the problems of theatrical production into a sense of a theatrical “I.”


Prospero talks about Antonio's usurpation of the Dukedom in terms that suggest both the ontological and the sexual impurity of theater. He categorizes Antonio's ambition as a case of theater run amok; “To have no screen between this part he played / And him he played it for,” says Prospero of his brother's plot, “he needs will be / Absolute Milan.”11 He speaks of the usurpation not merely as a confusion of the actor with the part played (Antonio would have no screen between actor and part), but as the rising up of a fictional representation to overtake its own author. Prospero invents the role of “Prospero,” Antonio plays that role, and Antonio then becomes the role's inventor. Moreover, when Antonio takes on Prospero's role, he begins behaving as if he were staging life in the court of Milan; Prospero says that Antonio

Being once perfected how to grant suits,
How to deny them, who t'advance, and who
To trash for over-topping, new-created
The creatures that were mine, I say, or changed 'em,
Or else new-formed 'em.

(T, 1.2.79-83)

Antonio's insidious performance of the role of Prospero includes usurping the power to stage, create, and change the creatures that were Prospero's. He rewrites Prospero's play.

Prospero's version of Antonio's treason, then, points toward the kinds of usurpation that seem characteristic of actors in the period. As a result of playing Prospero, Antonio has become Prospero before the public. At the same time, Prospero figures this political and theatrical mutiny as a strange and troubling sexual experience. He notes that his own trust in Antonio “begot” upon his brother the “falsehood” he enacted, and he says that Antonio became “the ivy which had hid my princely trunk / And sucked my verdure out on't” (T, 1.2.94-95, 86-87). Although I am not suggesting any particular erotic bond between Antonio and Prospero, I do want to register the eroticization of the language; Prospero imagines his usurpation as a conjunction of the sexual and ontological impurities that inhere in theatrical practice.12

The image of ivy covering a tree is, in fact, a fairly standard image for marriage and sexual coupling. See for example Titania to Bottom:

                                                                                                    the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!(13)

Adriana expresses her devotion to her husband in terms that are especially evocative in this context:

Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine
Whose weakness, married to thy [stronger] state
Makes me with thy strength to communicate:
If aught possess thee from me, it is dross,
Usurping ivy, brier, or idle moss,
Who, all for want of pruning, with intrusion
Infect thy sap, and live on thy confusion.(14)

Whatever else drives this play, the logic of theatrical practice—its particular relation to the status of the self in early-modern England—suggests itself to Prospero as the logic of his own usurpation.15 Prospero is obscured, he implies in part, by the sexuality of staging, the sexual parasitism of the image he has erected before the public. By making use of the theatrical, he has essentially allowed himself to be locked in a public act of fellation that drains him of his manhood and flourishes upon his own “expense of spirit.” Like Daphne, who became an image for the poetic—a laurel tree—because she was pursued sexually by Apollo, Prospero's association with theater is an association with lawless and overpowering sexuality.

If Prospero's new theatrical enterprise—what he will do as he stages his own return to power—is to answer Antonio's crimes, it will apparently need to dislodge theater from its association with illicit sexuality and from its power to call into question the stability of individual identity. It looks as though one task of The Tempest will be to weaken the associations between theater and impurity—whether sexual or ontological—and thus to put Prospero back in control of theatricality before he abjures his art altogether. Indeed, much of the play proceeds upon this agenda, as I will outline below. I will argue ultimately, however, that the play does not answer Antonio's crimes. The association of theater with illicit desire and with the undoing of identity are, I will argue, the very tools Prospero uses in his final act of self-representation.

The suggestion that Prospero wants to purge his own art from the impurities of Antonio's usurpation begins with the very tree-and-ivy image that Prospero uses to condemn Antonio. If that image suggests a kind of entrapment within the stigma of the theatrical, after all, it also resonates strongly with another of the island's famous entrapments. Prospero reminds Ariel

                                                  [Sycorax] did confine thee,
By help of her more potent ministers,
And in her most unmitigable rage,
Into a cloven pine; within which rift
Imprison'd thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years; within which space she died,
And left thee there, where thou didst vent thy groans
As fast as millwheels strike.

(T, 1.2.274-81)

The language Prospero uses to describe this confinement suggests that this is an imprisonment within the womb, a torture inflicted by the island's only real motherly presence (she is an absence, of course, but a more vivid one than the mother of Miranda, whose only function in the play is to have been chaste).16 Prospero celebrates his power over that womb almost ritually, by repeating his story to Ariel once a month:

                                                                                                    It was mine Art,
When I arriv'd and heard thee, that made gape
The pine, and let thee out.

(T, 1.2.291-93)

Prospero locates the maternal in “the damned witch Sycorax” and distinguishes himself from it. He seems here to be saving Ariel the delicate theatrical spirit from enslavement to the “earthy and abhorred commands” of woman and matter.

By the same token, Prospero's blatant strategy of distinguishing Ariel from Caliban suggests a desire to protect theater from association with the physical. Prospero continually associates Caliban with his mother Sycorax, so that Caliban becomes the embodiment of a kind of physicality that seems to have no place in Prospero's new stagecraft. True, Caliban acts for Prospero, bringing him wood and reluctantly obeying orders, but it is Ariel who performs real theater in the play, who stages tempests and provides musical interludes. Ariel is the shape-shifter here, and his status as pure spirit sounds like the ideal solution to the problem of eroticized theatrical role-playing. He is a long way from the concerns of a Gosson or even from the eroticized confusion of identities that allowed Antonio to “suck the verdure” from Prospero's princely trunk.

Prospero's description of Antonio's usurpation has made it plain that an actor's body is dangerous to a playwright. If a “spirit theater” is the answer to Antonio's theatrical usurpation of Prospero's power, then surely the masque of Juno and Ceres is the spirit theater's finest hour. Prospero stages the masque (with Ariel's help) as an antidote to premarital sexuality, offering Miranda and Ferdinand the spectacle of marriage (in the person of Juno) and fertility (in the person of Ceres) but decidedly not desire; Venus and Cupid will not appear. Fertility is acceptable in Prospero's theater after all, it seems, but only as long as it has no connection with actual bodies or sexuality. Venus and Cupid fail to appear in this masque, it is noted, because Miranda and Ferdinand are too chaste to be tempted by them:

Mars's hot minion is returned again;
Her waspish-headed son has broke his arrows,
Swears he will shoot no more, but play with sparrows,
And be a boy right out.

(T, 4.1.98-101)

Spoken by boy actors dressed as goddesses and performing in a masque, boys whose very presence on stage is an enticement to desire, this description of Cupid's return to “natural” boyhood implies the deeroticizing of theater—and specifically the de-homo-eroticizing of theater, an emptying out of the intrinsic sexual content of plays that would regularly present boys in the guise of women both mortal and immortal.

Note, too, that Ceres refuses to participate in the masque if Venus and Cupid do because, she says, “they did plot / The means that dusky Dis my daughter got” (T, 4.1.88-89). Ceres's reference to the rape of her daughter suggests that Prospero's art is being purified of more than just homoeroticism. For Dis stands in here, in a sense, for all of the play's dark men, including both Caliban and the dark King of Tunis, all of whom represent sexual threats to daughters, be they Proserpina, Claribel, or Miranda. This masque is designed as a kind of prophylactic, then, against extramarital sex, miscegenation, rape, homoeroticism, and, perhaps, the threat of incest that accompanies Miranda's status as the only female on her father's island. In a way, this masque is undoing a whole catalogue of sexual crimes that the romances have bodied forth, including the attempted rape in Cymbeline and the incest in Pericles.

So Prospero's return to power—his return to being “absolute Milan,” accomplished in part through this marriage and thus through this masque—seems to depend in part upon his ability to construct a theater devoid of sexual provocation; the eroticized destruction of identity implied in Prospero's having been “played” by Antonio necessitates a clearing away of the sexual component of play-acting. Prospero also seems to clear away the troublesome necessity of relying upon actors as he had relied upon Antonio; he interrupts the masque to muse upon the final unimportance of his own theatrical endeavor:

                                                                                                    These our actors,
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The Cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind.

(T, 4.1.148-56)

Having a spirit theater is perhaps not enough; Prospero wants to imagine even those spirits melting into air. However ringing a conclusion this speech may seem to provide to Shakespeare's play—and his career—it is not the epilogue to The Tempest; the play is not over. Prospero has inserted this fantasy of theater's insubstantiality awkwardly into his own dramatic production. It comes at the height of Prospero's powers, not at the moment he throws away his books.17 The positioning and the content of the speech suggest that there is an authorial motive for unweaving the fabric of drama, that somehow this negation of drama bolsters the playwright as he practices his craft.

Most notably, the fantasy that “our actors are all spirits” would seem to expel the image of Antonio as the actor who replaced his own playwright; we have progressed here from Prospero's dismay at his brother's negative capability—Antonio's aptitude for impersonating and finally becoming someone else—to his defensive and absolutizing vision of a world in which everything is negated. In exchange for a willingness to contemplate his own mortality, Prospero has gained freedom from the need to contemplate his own replacement by Antonio. He acknowledges that he will one day disappear, but he is intent, it seems, upon taking “the great globe itself” with him. In Prospero's own mortality is the comforting notion that the great Globe theater will end, and with the end of theater will come the end of the troubling theatrical selfhood that allows Prospero to be supplanted by the brother-actor who represents him.

Moreover, the speech's very power as a rhetorical set piece becomes an assertion of Prospero's control over his medium: “These our actors / (As I foretold you) were all spirits.” Prospero sees past the apparent liabilities of theater and is able to use them for his own ends. The destruction of the individual self associated with theatrical practice has itself become an authorial effect manipulated by Prospero and therefore implictly tamed to meet his needs. As Prospero dwells upon the possibility of melting “into air, into thin air,” he has in fact ensconced himself within the gorgeous palace of his own rhetoric, tempting audiences to forget that the real difficulty for Prospero lies not in melting into air but in melting so easily into his brother. Even Prospero's confession that “our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” implies that our little lives are rounded (T, 4.1.157-58). The image is of containment, gestalt, and the container is Prospero's belief in the dream-like quality of his own life. A fantasy designed to suggest acceptance becomes in Prospero's hands a fantasy of freedom from his ruling anxieties.


One can trace in Prospero's speech, then, an effort to move away from the instability of the self that his language initially associated with theater. There is as well a movement away from the sexuality of theatrical representation traceable in the intensity of Prospero's fantasy about the insubstantiality of an actor's body; our actors are all spirits.18 But this false ending to the play actually works to establish Prospero more firmly as a theatrical author, since it adds “relinquishing authorial control” to his bag of authorial tricks. In a sense, Prospero is preparing us for his real renunciation, helping to ensure that we recognize that final leave-taking not as a failure of power but as a chosen authorial effect. With its assertion of the insubstantiality of the actors who represent Prospero, its erasure of the sexuality of theater, and its defense against the intermingling of identities that theater occasions, this speech looks like an answer to Antonio's crimes.

But the effort to cleanse playing of its more troubling aspects accounts for only a portion of this text's evident self-consciousness about theater. As suggested above, there are important ways in which The Tempest does not finally undo Antonio's eroticized destruction of the individual self. There are indications, for instance, that this staging by Prospero of authorial control over the very conditions of theatrical practice that seem to militate against the idea of an authorial self obscures the extent to which Prospero's art has been allying itself with illicit sexuality all along. Prospero stages his anti-sexual masque for Miranda and Ferdinand, which seems to maintain the split between a bodiless theater and Caliban's too-physical presence, a split that seems to be reinforced by the fact that awareness of Caliban interrupts this scene. Nevertheless, theater in The Tempest never gets too far away from Caliban and his material necessities.19 It is Caliban who chops wood for the island, and wood is importantly associated with the stage, the “wooden ‘O’”—and of course the trees that Prospero uses to describe his own confinement in the theatrical.20 So Caliban and the physical remain an important part of Prospero's stagecraft. The other great moment of spirit theater in this play, moreover, suggests that spirit-actors sometimes play the part of Caliban, that Prospero sometimes models his own theater on his encounter with Caliban. The Caliban-Ariel split is not an absolute split after all.

When Prospero's spirits provide an illusory banquet to Alonso's courtiers, Gonzalo speaks for them all in remarking upon the spirits' apparent courtesy:

                                                  If in Naples
I should report this now, would they believe me?
If I should say I saw such islanders,—
For certes these are people of the island,—
Who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet note,
Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of
Our human generation you shall find
Many—nay, almost any.

(T, 3.3.27-34)

These are particularly elegant monsters, but they bear more than a passing resemblance to Caliban, who, we have learned, used to have pretty good manners himself:

and then (he says to Prospero) I lov'd thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o'the'isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.

(T, 1.2.338-40)

There is the passing suggestion that Prospero is restaging his own experience of Caliban, here, the only real person of the island, employing the very monster of physicality who was so rigorously kept out of the marriage masque.21

This suggestion that Prospero relies more upon Caliban for his stagecraft than he likes to admit accords, I think, with another of the play's puzzling moments. As Prospero readies himself to stage his final scene of reconciliation, he makes a speech that casts him in the role of Caliban's mother Sycorax. I mean here the speech that Prospero borrows from Ovid's Medea, the passage that begins

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune.

(T, 5.1.33-50)

This is the speech that goes on to claim that Prospero can bring dead people back to life; it generally sounds unlike Prospero's other speeches in its incantatory power, as is appropriate, since it borrows so heavily from Medea's words in Ovid.22

That Prospero should give a speech that reminds the play's audience of witchcraft, and thus of the abhorred Sycorax and the physicality Prospero seems to want to escape, comes as no great surprise if we have gone back for yet another look at those images of entrapment with which this discussion began. For just after Prospero celebrated his power to release Ariel from Sycorax's tree, he threatened to return Ariel to that confinement:

If thou more murmur'st, I will rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails till
Thou hast howled away twelve winters.

(T, 1.2.294-96)

Even at this early point in the play the distinctions between Prospero and Sycorax break down.

Even the initial act of rescuing Ariel from the pine tree turns out to be a more ambiguous statement about physicality than my argument had originally acknowledged. As Brad Johnson has noted, Prospero's reference to Ariel as a “spirit too delicate / To act [Sycorax's] earthy and abhorred commands” raises questions about what those commands might have been.23 “Abhorred” suggests the possibility of “whoring,” and the word “spirit” is a well-known Shakespearean euphemism for semen, as in “Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action” (Sonnet 129). Under the guise of freeing spirit from matter, Prospero hints that he may also be rescuing male spirit from its unhappy heterosexual employment. This secondary meaning opens up the possibility that there is a kind of physicality, a recuperation of sexual stigma, employed in Prospero's art, for in pulling spirit from out of a tree he duplicates the actions of the ivy that sucked the verdure from his own princely trunk. Prospero positions himself as Antonio, in the sense that Antonio is the figure for theater gone awry with terrible sexual implications. Prospero's rescue of Ariel, then, while it may work to separate his art from a feared sexuality that he associates with women, also rejoins his art with the illicit desire Prospero has seemed to want to purge from his theater.

In fact, as Jonathan Goldberg has suggested, Prospero's possession of Ariel is itself an occasion for erotic display.24 In act 1, scene 2, Prospero issues a command to Ariel that makes no real sense:

Go make thyself like a nymph o'th'sea;
Be subject to
No sight but thine and mine; invisible
To every eyeball else. Go take this shape,
And hither come in't.

(T, 1.2.301-5)

Ariel is commanded, essentially, to go offstage and change clothes, and his return in the costume of a water-nymph twelve lines later is pointedly gratuitous. Prospero calls him “Fine apparition,” and whispers commands in his ear. Then Ariel leaves. The point here, apparently, is to let Prospero and the audience enjoy a costume change, even though there is no reason—except pleasure—for an invisible nymph to dress up.

Of course Ariel's cross-dressing implicates him, and Prospero, in more than just an excess of sartorial imagination. Nor are his female roles confined to this one pleasing display. Ariel appears as a Harpy in act 3, scene 3, to Prospero's evident delight: “Bravely the figure of this Harpy hast thou / Perform'd, my Ariel; a grace it had devouring” (T, 3.3.52-53). For all that Prospero's actions have registered the urgency of escape from the physical, and coded that escape as a rejection of an abhorred and earthy femaleness, the pleasure he takes in his own ravishing spectacle suggests a different set of priorities. Ultimately, the theatrical breakdown of signs distinctive between sex and sex is neither as complete nor as threatening as Gosson's condemnations would indicate. As long as there is an “actual” woman—in this case a Sycorax—whose sexuality can be disavowed, femaleness itself can be performed with a devouring grace. Prospero's spirit theater is neither a utopia of spiritual purity nor a utopia of free gender play, but is instead a carefully crafted representation of the theatrical, responsive both to cultural pressures that mandate gender difference and to the pleasures of breaking that difference down. If, by allowing himself to be played, Prospero has been trapped in a realm of eroticized spectacle that usurps him on some profound level, both public and subjective, it seems puzzling and significant that his return to “himself” should incorporate both erotic spectacle and the ontological blurring that was such a scandal for Gosson and his peers. As troubling as it was in early-modern England for authors and players to be feminized—prostituted—by their employment, The Tempest nevertheless models a form of self-staging that renders even feminization powerful.


I have argued that Prospero's gestures toward purifying his art of illicit desire and of the destruction of the individual self have been accompanied by gestures that reconnect theater and illicit desire, and that the autonomy of his self-presentation collapses as he cites Medea. The last moment I want to consider in The Tempest reconnects Prospero very powerfully with the confusion of self and self-representation that have seemed to drive so much of his subsequent theatrical practice.

In the play's Epilogue, Prospero steps forward claiming that his charms have all been overthrown, and he makes an interesting statement about his dependence upon the audience:

                                                  now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.

(T, Epi.3-10)

Who exactly is talking to us here? Prospero the character cannot address the audience without ending the theatrical illusion that makes him real. The actor who plays Prospero, however, cannot be stuck on that island once he steps out of his part. For a character who began this play meditating upon the excesses of his own implication in the theatrical—regretting the power of his actor Antonio to step out of theater and overtake him—this is a strange resolution. Prospero ends up in a predicament very like the one he seemed to be trying to escape; now we see on stage the problem—or the impossibility—of telling the difference between Prospero and the actor who plays Prospero.

Moreover, Prospero's strategy of differentiating gross physicality from his theatrical practice has been predicated upon his ability to keep Ariel and Caliban in separate categories. We have already seen that strategy compromised severely, since Ariel has more to do with the homoerotic than Prospero's strategy of scapegoating Caliban makes immediately obvious, and since Caliban has more to do with theater than the play readily acknowledges. But here the distinctions between Ariel and Caliban break down entirely, as both of Prospero's employees seem to collapse back into Prospero. Remember that Prospero has two last pieces of work to complete; he must pardon Caliban and his companions, and he must set Ariel free. We see neither event take place, but as this new version of Prospero steps before us here he has two requests: set me free and forgive me for my crimes. I am suggesting that as the actor/Prospero steps forward from The Tempest to present the “real”—or actually the unreal—Prospero, he seems not to mind being associated with any of the various sexual or ontological possibilities that Ariel and Caliban have represented. He seems to be Ariel, longing to be freed, and he seems to have become Prospero's image of Caliban, needing to be forgiven.

If the “revels are ended” speech melts the great Globe theater into thin air, here the theater itself takes a kind of revenge. This time it is Prospero who becomes ephemeral when he is shown to depend upon an actor's body in a more radical way than even his earlier language admitted. For all his efforts to control the physicality of staging and the parasitical nature of the image he has erected before the public, Prospero stands before us, ultimately, as merely an effect of the theater, a flickering possibility evoked by the professional skill of the “rich and insolent” actors that Greene had inveighed against.

This final staged version of Prospero complicates not only Prospero's approach to early-modern theatrical practice, but our own as well. In response to the antitheatrical writing of its day, The Tempest articulates what I have called a theatrical “I,” a representation of a mode of selfhood that is made up of the very factors that would seem to militate against a sense of the self: theatrical role-playing, illicit desires that confuse gender categories, the perceived parasitism of the successful actor. It seems to me that this response adds a layer of complexity to our contemporary discussions of early-modern selfhood, sexual identity, and authorship. Before copyright law, before the notion of sexual subjectivity that Foucault traces to the nineteenth century, in a period that many of our theoretical discourses mark as prior to the invention of these concepts, The Tempest demonstrates that sexuality and authorship are nevertheless bound up in compelling ways with the question of identity on the early-modern stage. These are, finally, questions that play themselves out in the body of the actor.


  1. Stephen Gosson, Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582), E5v in Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Salzburg: Institut für Englische Spräche und Literature, 1974), 177. Hereafter cited parenthetically and abbreviated C.

  2. Cocke elaborates upon the actor's participation in an unacceptably protean selfhood: “Take him at the best, he is but a shifting companion; for he lives effectually by putting on, and putting off. … His own [profession] is compounded of all Natures, all humours, all professions” (1615, repr. in E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923], 4:256-70). “A Common Player” is attributed to Cocke by Chambers, who reproduces the text from two variant editions included among the essays of John Stephens.

  3. Accounts of sexuality and theater in this period include Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981); Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1983); Laura Levine, Men in Women's Clothing: Antitheatricality and Effeminization, 1579-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994); Louis Montrose, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theater (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996), ch. 1-3; Meredith Anne Skura, Shakespeare the Actor and the Purposes of Playing (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994), ch. 1-2.

  4. Robert Greene, Francesco's Fortunes, or The second part of Greene's Never too late (1590), in The Life and Complete Works in Prose and Verse of Robert Greene, M. A., ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 15 vols. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1964), 8:131. See similar sentiments expressed by Thomas Brabine, “in praise of the Author,” in his prefatory poem to Greene's Menaphon, and in Nashe's commendatory letter “To the Gentlemen Students of both Universities,” in the same text (ed. G. B. Harrison [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1927], 17-20).

  5. Robert Greene, Groats-Worth of Witte, bought with a million of Repentance: The Repentance of Robert Greene (1592; London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1923), 43-47. For a summary of scholars' attempts to explain the precise nature of the charges Greene is making here, see D. Allen Carroll, “Greene's ‘Vpstart Crow’ Passage: A Survey of Commentary,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 28 (1985): 111-27. Carroll includes a discussion of the nature of Henry Chettle's apology for Greene's attack, which may possibly indicate that Shakespeare or his friends took steps to respond to Greene (115-17).

  6. At a late stage in the preparation of this essay, I discovered Scott Cutler Shershow's wonderful Puppets and “Popular” Culture (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995). Shershow cites this passage in chapter two, “Authorship and Culture in Early Modern England,” which traces the uses of puppets and puppet imagery in the construction of theatrical authorship, both in The Tempest and Bartholomew Fair (43-108). His insights regarding the deployment of puppet theater add tremendously to the questions I have considered here. Although we consider many of the same moments in this play, ultimately I see The Tempest as more willing to own aspects of theatrical practice that mark it as “low” than Shershow's argument suggests.

  7. Henry Crosse, Virtues Common Wealth: Or the Highway to Honour (London, 1603), Q4v.

  8. See Carroll for a discussion of the influence of Greene's descriptions, along with those of Nashe, whom Greene may be echoing, upon Samuel Rowlands and the second Return of Parnassus (120).

  9. Interestingly, after studying at length the financial circumstances of playwrights in the period, Bentley concludes that although it was true that dramatists during this period were beholden to the acting companies for their financial and professional wellbeing, which might explain some of their complaints, “the professional playwrights made more money than other literary men of their time, and more than they could have made as schoolmasters or curates—professions which might have been open to many of them. Not only do the extant accounts of payments show very respectable incomes for the time, but unrecorded payments … certainly added to the income of most professional playwrights” (Gerald Eades Bentley, The Professions of Dramatist and Player in Shakespeare's Time, 1590-1642 [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984], 108-9). Ultimately, neither the alleged sexual excess of the player's craft nor the financial arrangements that governed a playwright's profits can be the entire cause of the occasional antagonism between players and playwrights in this period. Instead, both factors must work together with anxieties about authorial control.

  10. For examples of commentary on the extent to which it is possible to read Prospero as a figure for Shakespeare, see Stephen Orgel, “Prospero's Wife,” in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), 220; and David Sundelson, “So Rare a Wonder'd Father: Prospero's Tempest,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), 51.

  11. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Methuen, 1962) 1.2.107-9. Hereafter cited parenthetically and abbreviated T.

  12. I am indebted to Richard Wheeler for this suggestion. See also David Sundelson, who says that the passage highlights Prospero's androgyny and implicit impotence (35).

  13. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. Harold F. Brooks (London: Methuen, 1979), 4.1.41-43.

  14. William Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Methuen, 1962), 2.2.174-80.

  15. The questions of “self” and “identity” in this period have been debated at length in recent years. To Stephen Greenblatt's early study other critics and historians have added a range of observations. Catherine Belsey, Francis Barker, and Jonathan Dollimore see the concept of subjectivity as anachronistic, as does Peter Stallybrass, who traces the uses of the word “individual” in this period. Recently, Katherine Eisaman Maus has articulated a powerful critique of such theories, noting that the evidence of what she calls “inwardness” is widespread, and arguing against historical difference as a privileged tool for dislodging the hold of the bourgeois subject. My own sense of the question runs parallel to Maus's; something like a self seems to me very much at stake in this text and in the period generally. That selfhood should ultimately remain illusory is inherent in the concept itself, rather than a mark of absolute historical difference. See Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Routledge, 1985); Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London: Methuen, 1984); Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1993); Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980); Peter Stallybrass, “Shakespeare, the Individual, and the Text,” in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), 593-612. Maus is careful to note that what she calls “inwardness” is not identical with subjectivity, and that subjectivity itself is a set of constructions that varies by speaker and instance (Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996], 1-34).

  16. For a variety of approaches to this image and to the problem of mothers in this play, see Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 236-38; Marianne L. Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984), 184-87; Orgel, 217-30; and Sundleson, 39.

  17. This implies, interestingly, that actors' bodies become most dangerous precisely when Prospero is at the height of his powers.

  18. Leah Marcus notes that the performances given at Prospero's command are all the more reflective of his pure intention because they involve no actual play-texts. She sees this disembodied theater as granting Prospero complete control at the expense of “monumentality,” or the opportunity to establish authorial reputation in a written artifact (Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988], 49).

  19. See Mary Loeffelholz, who argues that because Prospero's masque encourages Miranda to see herself as Proserpina and Ceres as her long-lost mother, it implicitly positions Prospero as her “raptor,” and thus as Caliban (“Two masques of Ceres and Proserpine: Comus and The Tempest,” in Re-membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, ed. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson [New York: Methuen, 1987], 29).

  20. I am indebted to Janet Adelman for this suggestion.

  21. Shershow powerfully connects the “islanders'” performance with both the question of theatrical playing and the problem of colonial “othering,” citing Rachel M. Kelsey's “Indian Dances in ‘The Tempest,’” (Journal of English and Germanic Philology 13 [1914]: 98-104; Shershow, 93-96).

  22. See Frank Kermode's Introduction, (T, 147-50).

  23. See Bradley William Johnson, “Birthed Effects: Shakespeare's Generation of Monsters,” diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1995. See especially ch. 5, “The Politics of Pregnancy: Maternity, Monstrosity, and Making a Man in The Tempest.

  24. Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1992), 143.

Julia Reinhard Lupton (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11056

SOURCE: “Creature Caliban,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 1, Spring, 2000, pp. 1-23.

[In the essay below, Lupton contends that Caliban is best understood as a creature who represents neither the universal nor the particular, but that he is “[a]t once monstrous and human, brutely slavish and poignantly subjective.”]

What is a creature? Derived from the future-active participle of the Latin verb creare (“to create”), creature indicates a made or fashioned thing but with the sense of continued or potential process, action, or emergence built into the future thrust of its active verbal form. Its tense forever imperfect, creatura resembles those parallel constructions natura and figura, in which the determinations conferred by nativity and facticity are nonetheless opened to the possibility of further metamorphosis by the forward drive of the suffix -ura (“that which is about to occur”).1 The creatura is a thing always in the process of undergoing creation; the creature is actively passive or, better, passionate, perpetually becoming created, subject to transformation at the behest of the arbitrary commands of an Other. The creature presents above all a theological conceptualization of natural phenomena. In Judaism and Christianity (and indeed it is only via the Latin of late antiquity that the word enters the modern languages), creature marks the radical separation of creation and Creator.2 This separation can in turn articulate any number of cuts or divisions: between world and God; between all living things and those that are inert, inanimate, or elemental; between human beings and the “other creatures” over which they have been given rule; or, in more figurative uses, between anyone or anything that is produced or controlled by an agent, author, master, or tyrant.3 In modern usage creature borders on the monstrous and unnatural, increasingly applied to those created things that warp the proper canons of creation. It can even come to characterize the difference between male and female or between majority and minority: as a term of endearment creature is generally used of women and children, and creatura itself might be said to break into formed and formless segments, with creat- indicating the ordered composition of humanity and the -ura signaling its risky capacities for increase and change, foison and fusion. At various points in the theological imagination of the West, creatureliness has served to localize a moment of passionate passivity, of an abjected, thinglike (non)being, a being of subjected becoming, that precipitates out of the divine Logos as its material remnant.

The word creature appears in one of The Tempest's most famous passages:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!


Miranda's exclamation begins under the sign of wonder, her signature affect, by including the approaching Italians within the expansive world of creatures: “How many goodly creatures are there here!” She then narrows the global copia of the creaturely to its exemplary consummation in humanity: “How beauteous mankind is!” Her apostrophe ends by containing the multitude of creatures within the unity of a “brave new world,” referring at once to the cosmos in its totality, ever renewed and maintained by God's ongoing creative will, and to the particular world of Italian citizens, new to her, which she will soon rejoin.

Caliban, I argue here, takes shape beneath the arc of wonder that moves throughout the play between “creatures” and “mankind,” between animate beings in general and their realization in the form of humanity. Is he man or fish? creature or person? This indeterminacy at the heart of Caliban also sets him adrift between the cosmos in its vast totality—the brave new world of primal Creation—and the particular worlds defined by culture and nation: Bermuda, Algiers, Milan, Naples. Although in The Tempest the word creature appears nowhere in conjunction with Caliban himself, his character is everywhere hedged in and held up by the politico-theological category of the creaturely. As a solitary Adam on an island to which he is native but not natural, Caliban first stood apart from the rest of creation as his “own king” (1.1.342). Now enslaved to a Master-Maker, he finds himself locked within the swarming ranks of scamels, filberts, and the nimble marmoset, a natural wonder in a world of wonders. As such, he becomes an emblem of what Giorgio Agamben has called “bare life,” pure vitality denuded of its symbolic significance and political capacity and then sequestered within the domain of civilization as its disavowed core.4

In the discourse of the creaturely, the image of cosmos—the totality that subsumes the singularity of the Creature in the register of a limited or general Creation—is never distant. The arc of wonder leaps from the sublime variety of creatures to the synthetic unity conferred by a world, cosmos, or order. Hence Miranda's “wonder” at such “goodly creatures” finds rest in the empyrean clarity of the “brave new world” they surely represent. A similar reflex has characterized critical responses to Caliban, which tend to naturalize his strangeness either within the macrocosmic synthesis of a general humanity (as either its exemplum or its exception) or—following the strain of much recent criticism—within the smaller worlds defined by race, nation, or culture. The political theology of the Creature avoids the traps presented by humanist/universalizing readings on the one hand and culturalist/particularizing readings of the play on the other.5 As part of Creation, Caliban shares the universe of Adam, thwarting attempts by both characters and readers to exclude him from the common lot of humanity. At the same time, his creaturely monstrosity foils any normative reading of this humanity which would raise Caliban into an exemplar of basic drives. The play includes him within the cosmos of Adam but only as its chaotic exception.

If the creature Caliban both invites and resists universalizing readings, the same is true for the drive to particularize him. As a monstrous exception to the human norm, Caliban's creatureliness propels him into the conceptual space occupied by ideas of national and racial difference, eliciting a long line of culturalist readings of his oppression. Yet Caliban's exceptionality, both deeply singular and highly indeterminate, also prevents him from becoming the articulate representative of a single race or culture, be it Atlantic or Mediterranean. He subsists within an unredeemed Creation not yet divided into nations, forming the forgotten ground of a heterogeneous universalism irreducible to either the economies of a normative humanity or the semiotic coherence of individual cultures. At once monstrous and human, brutely slavish and poignantly subjective, the creature Caliban takes shape at the negative intersection between (general) Humanity and (specific) Culture. As such, Caliban's creatureliness precedes secular humanism, since the universe of creatures is measured neither by the totality of humanity nor the authenticity of a culture but rather by the infinity of life forms that burgeon around the human as its limit points. Caliban's creatureliness may also exceed the increasingly troubled solutions of secular humanism in its historicist variants, pointing to a new universalism defined by a cosmopolitical community of differences rather than by an exclusive set of national markers. Such a reclaimed universalism just might offer an antidote to the impasses of culturalism, whose investment in identities conferred by national belonging uncannily links the progressive goals of liberal antiracism to the reactionary impulses of ethnic cleansing.6


The German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig initiated twentieth-century discussion of Creation as a category of critical reflection rather than as scientific or religious controversy. His magnum opus, The Star of Redemption (1921), locates Creation as one point in a triad completed by Revelation and Redemption. Creation, Rosenzweig insists, is an ongoing process: “For the world, its required relationship to the creator was … not its having been created once and for all, but its continuing to manifest itself as creature.”7 The creature, writes Rosenzweig, is the subject of a special consciousness: “being created would mean for it manifesting itself as creature. This is creature-consciousness, the consciousness not of having once been created but of being everlastingly creature.”8Everlastingly creature: in this phrase Rosenzweig unfolds the philosophical consequences of the -ura, finding in it the expression of a continuously subjected subjectivity in relation to a Creator who remains sublimely other from it.

In The Origin of the German Tragic Drama (1927), Walter Benjamin read Rosenzweig's existential analysis of the Creature as a political category embedded in the absolutisms of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe.9 Benjamin identifies the creaturely with the peculiarly baroque perception of human finitude, everywhere infused with the sense of both the necessity and the evacuation of theological frameworks:

the baroque … had … a clear vision of the misery of mankind in its creaturely estate. If melancholy emerges from the depths of the creaturely realm to which the speculative thought of the age felt itself bound by the bonds of the church itself, then this explained its omnipotence. In fact it is the most genuinely creaturely of the contemplative impulses, and it has always been noticed that its power need be no less in the gaze of a dog than in the attitude of a pensive genius.10

Following Rosenzweig, Benjamin identifies the creaturely with a peculiar form of consciousness, impelled by idealism yet forever earthbound by the weight of corporeality, at once sullen angel and pensive dog. From one point of view the Creature is too much body, collecting in its leaden limbs the earthenness and passionate intensity of mere life uninspired by form. From another the Creature suffers from too much soul, taking flight as “speculation,” as reason soaring beyond its own self-regulating parameters toward a second-order materiality of signifiers unfixed to signifieds. In Benjamin's analysis, melancholy identifies the psychosomatic foundations of this creaturely consciousness, its violent yoking of an excessive, even symptomatic mental production to the dejected gravity of an unredeemed body. Benjamin encounters this creaturely melancholy in “the gaze of a dog” precisely because the Creature, caught between mud and mind, dust and dream, measures the difference between the human and the inhuman while refusing to take up residence in either category.

In Benjamin's discourse—and here he builds explicitly on the work of the conservative jurist Carl Schmitt—the Creature represents the flip side of the political theology of absolute sovereignty developed in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. In Schmitt's analysis the king is like God in the creative-destructive potential of his decisive word, his juris-diction.11 By extension, his subjects are his creatures, the objects of his continual sovereign activity, which is a power that comes to the forefront during states of emergency, when the normal functioning of positive law is lifted in favor of the king's executive decisions. In English emergency is defined by the state of emerging, a condition in which forms are no longer fixed, when new—potentially dangerous, revolutionary, or counterrevolutionary—forms of political life can arise.12 In German, the Ausnahmezustand—literally, “state of exception”—is ruled by the idea of exception. The Ausnahmezustand is that condition in which what is outside the law—the exception to the rule—comes to define the very essence of the law through the cut of the sovereign's de-cision. In the state of emergency the sovereign stands outside a legal order that includes him as the necessity of its own suspension.

In Benjamin's resolutely materialist analysis of political theology, the sovereign, unlike God, is himself a creature: “however highly he is enthroned over subject and state, his status is confined to the world of creation; he is the lord of creatures, but he remains a creature.”13 The Creature is finally both sovereign and subject, mind and matter, tyrant and martyr, but he suffers the two modalities in a wildly disjunct form that refuses to resolve into a reciprocal or homogeneous economy. The creature is never simply sovereign over himself, in a condition of stable autonomy in which the terms would balance each other in a just distribution: his self-rule is tyrannous, and he suffers that rule as mere creature. His reason takes flight as speculation; his law is that of the state of emergency, not the state of nature; and his body forever speaks in the hagiographics of dismemberment, torture, deformity, and symptom.


Almost all the geographical indicators of The Tempest mark Caliban as an Old World figure, born from an Algerian mother and an unnamed father on an unnamed island between Tunis and Naples, perhaps somewhere off the coast of Sicily.14 In this mapping Caliban might appear to be a sorry cousin of Othello, a young man of North African descent and Punic features who finds himself the unwilling inhabitant of a Mediterranean island newly under Italian control. In this reading “Cannibal” rhymes with “Hannibal,” deriving Caliban from a long line of Semitic ancestors, from Sidonian Dido to Algerian Sycorax. Yet the language of Old World Moorishness rolls off the tempest-tested gabardine of Caliban, who insistently emerges in the world of the play and its criticism as more a New World than an Old World figure. Part of this effect surely arises from the sheer force and power of the play's creative re-appropriations by anticolonial writers beginning in the nineteenth century as well as the renaissance of historicism in our own moment.15 It is not only an accident of the play's reception, however, that leads to this critical disabling of Caliban's Mediterranean genealogy. I would argue that it is also a function of the biblical typing that silhouettes Caliban as creature, exiled to an island of Edenic nature (caught in the register of mere life, of purely animate being) and forever exiled from it, insofar as his melancholic capacity for both depressive pain and poetic speculation separates him from the natural world he emblematizes.

Caliban thus enters the play under the sign of the creature:

This island's mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. When thou cam'st first,
Thou strok'st me and made much of me; wouldst give me
Water with berries in't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night; and then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o'th' isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile—
Cursed be that I did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king, and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o'th' island.


As the proof text of Caliban's language lesson, Stephen Orgel cites Genesis 1:16: “God then made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the less light to rule the night.”16 The allusion places Caliban in the order not of history but of creation, the pristine landscape of the world's birthday. In learning to name “the bigger light and … the less,” Caliban becomes a type of Adam, naming the elements of God's creation in a childlike, naively concrete language.17 Caliban and Adam's shared connection to the earth marks their creaturely status: these primal men are made from dust, fashioned by a divine potter-sculptor, forever emerging (creat-ura, “about-to-be-created”) from the base matter of the elements into the more fixed forms of animate life. “Thou earth, thou” (1.2.314), “A thing most brutish” (1.2.356), “this thing of darkness” (5.1.275): throughout the play, Caliban appears as a thing made of earth, a characteristic that marks the elemental quality of the Adamic creature. Caliban's earthen core recalls the first fashioning of conscious life out of an inert yet infinitely malleable substance, as if the very plasticity of mud prompted the idea of conscious life in the Creator. In this scenario, as in so many creation myths involving an originary pottery, the Golem precedes and informs the Human; the manikin is father to the man.18

In his history of the island, Caliban, like Adam, names the objects of creation, yet, unlike his antitype, he must be taught this language rather than discovering it within himself.19 Whereas Adam's naming project places him at the head of creation, Caliban's language lesson places him within creation, as one creature among others, a creature who bears no obvious resemblance to his Creator. Caliban is Mere Creature, a creature separate (like Adam) from the Creator but (unlike Adam) not reflected back to the Creator as His image. The uncertainty throughout the play as to Caliban's shape—“a man or a fish?—dead or alive?” (2.2.25-26)—reflects this fundamental lack of reflection, this inchoate muddiness at the heart of Caliban's oddly faceless and featureless being, caught at the perpetually flooded border between metamorphic mud and mere life, without the solidifying breath of an instilled form.20 Naming, language, serves to bring some order to this emergent world, this state of emerg-ency; and it is perhaps in search of such clarity that Caliban is taught to name not “every living creature” (Genesis 1:29), as Adam does, but rather the “bigger light and … the less,” placing the swarming dominions of bird and beast beneath his rational gaze.

Yet sun and moon, purveyors of light and models of Logos, also install within the scene of education the possibility of inveterate rivalry. Rashi, one of the great medieval Rabbinic commentators on the Bible, adduced the following midrash from the passage: “They were created of equal size, but that of the moon was diminished because she complained and said, ‘It is impossible for two kings to make use of one crown.’”21 Abhorring equality, the moon suffers diminishment at the hands of her Maker. Sun and moon, Prospero and Caliban, Creator and Creature, king and subject: the image of the two lights inserts an unequal couple within the apparent innocence of the recollected lesson, an incipient movement toward rivalry and protest that structures the entire speech. The moon's lessened light glimmers in Caliban's closing reminder that Prospero's sovereignty depends on its reflection back to him in the form of his subject's unwilling recognition: “For I am all the subjects that you have, / Which first was mine own king” (1.2.341-42). In the place of divine similitude, the special stamp of Adam, Caliban is left with the baser mimesis born from rivalry and the quest for recognition. The language lesson lessens the “mooncalf” Caliban (2.2.129), indicating his demotion within Prospero's sovereign remapping of the island.


Caliban is thus left with resentment, the creaturely passion that flares up from the hinge of the hierarchical coupling between sun and moon. It is, of course, a passion previously tapped and tested by Shakespeare: resentment describes the chip on the ugly shoulder of Richard III, the incalculable debt of Shylock, and the motiveless malignancy of Iago. And close behind each of these figures is Lucifer, clothed in the secular garments of the stage Vice and Machiavel. Lucifer, the Morning Star, reflectively intensifies Rashi's eclipsed moon in his hatred of subordination and in his sudden fall from originary brightness to darkness visible. In his earlier plays Shakespeare had consistently fashioned Luciferian resentment as an emblem of market modernity, predicting Nietzsche's analysis of ressentiment, in which culture itself in its higher forms reworks an essentially economic relation: “the feeling of guilt, of personal obligation, had its origin, as we saw, in the oldest and most primitive personal relationship, that between buyer and seller, creditor and debtor.”22 In Shakespearean drama resentment is a mark of villainy under the law, the sign of a soulless legalism, a kind of second-order secularized Judaism that separates the modern ethos of markets, contracts, and Realpolitik from the (nostalgically reconstructed) civility of dying feudal institutions of life and love. To restore grace, in its theological and aesthetic registers, to the legalized, economized world of a dispersed and generalized resentment is a dream that animates any number of Shakespeare's plays, from The Merchant of Venice to The Winter's Tale.

The Tempest changes tack by locating resentment not within but prior to the law, as the passion of a prehistoric world that takes shape at the shores of the economic as such. In The Tempest resentment belongs to the protosocial world of the creature, a (living) thing but not yet an object of exchange, subsisting at the threshold of commerce and conversion. The creature does not respond to the exigencies of exchange so much as it functions as a first quantity of subjected, “created” value that sets the possibility of exchange into motion. In The Tempest power requires a moment of enforced inequality in order to mobilize. The name of this originary expropriation is slavery, which maintains a creaturely preserve of bare life within a system of sovereignty and covenant, the latter represented in the play by Prospero's contractual relation to Ariel. Prospero defends the necessity of maintaining Caliban within the oikos, the household, of the master: “He does make our fire, / Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices / That profit us” (1.2.311-13). This reduction of Caliban to his labor places the creature at the heart of an economy governed by the necessities of life. At the same time, Prospero's enslavement of Caliban, founded on the very purity of that reduction, implies the possibility of an economy of exchange, of “offices / That profit us.”

Caliban's counternarrative recounts this originary expropriation: he who was once “mine own king” is now “all the subjects that you have.” His own self-rule, his prior self-possession, can be conceived only in the terms of sovereignty that he experiences under Prospero, in which the latter's kingship depends on the former's exacted recognition. The institution of sovereignty through the enforced establishment of difference creates the conditions for resentment, a passion that looks forward to the possibility of usurpation and backward to the positing of a self-kingship that would be free from (and yet remains fundamentally modeled on) the dialectic of recognition within a hierarchical couple. Resentment brings Caliban to speech at the level of the symptom, a psychosomatic phenomenon that articulates and inflames the creaturely edges of his being. The pinches and cramps that Prospero visits upon Caliban need have no magical or physical source at all; they may simply manifest the passion born of enforced service, the stinging nettles of resentment as it flowers on the body of the creature inhabiting the edge of symbolization. The aches and pains caused by Prospero's commands are the bodily registration and primitive equivalent of Hamlet's “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”: they are a passionate inscription on the body of Caliban of his master's rule, the moon's continued hatred of the sun. “Thou shalt have cramps, / Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up” (1.2.325-26): the phenomenology of the cramp that pens up breath with its suturing side-stitches describes the suffocating, claustrophobic response, the oppressive sense of internal constraint, that occurs in reaction to Prospero's archaic, noncontractual rule over Caliban. Caliban's pains also materialize in the form of the symptom, the protosymbolic dimension of a constraint that as yet bears no epochal force because neither master nor slave is partner to an agreement. Shylock's resentment emblematizes morality under the law—he is the arch-accountant of slights and grudges—and thus takes shape as bonds, contracts, and scriptural commentary. Caliban's resentment is fundamentally preliterate: he can speak but not read; he suffers not under the law but rather outside the law. Lacking access to legal types of accounting, the Creature keeps track of servitude in the only writing available to him: the cramped script, the tattooing side-stitches of the symptom.

Caliban's bodily suffering of resentment comes to speech in two more articulate forms of discourse: as curse and as counternarrative. The punctual, invective quality of the curse as well as its nagging, repetitive strain and its capacity for vivid if profoundly localized expression place it one step away from the symptom, as an act of minimal verbalization of the hieroglyphs of pain, a first gesture toward an act of imaginative creation around the insistent nihil of bodily distress. Caliban's counternarrative represents a more coherently symbolized articulation of bodily resentment into rational speech; in counternarrative the abrupt, pointed, explosive trajectory of the curse unfolds in the fuller form of story and history. Yet counternarrative also remains a limited form of political discourse in the play. Part of the pathos of Caliban's position vis-à-vis Trinculo and Stephano is his inability to communicate his counternarrative to them:

Caliban … 

Wilt thou be pleased to hearken once again to the suit I made to thee?


Marry, will I. Kneel and repeat it. I will stand, and so shall Trinculo.

                                                                                          Enter Ariel, invisible.

As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island.


Thou liest.

Caliban (to Trinculo) 

Thou liest, thou jesting monkey, thou! I would my valiant master would destroy thee! I do not lie.


In a pattern repeated throughout the scene, Caliban attempts to relate his counternarrative, only to be interrupted by the sound of the invisible Ariel mimicking the skeptical voice of Trinculo. The result is inarticulate fist-fighting rather than the creation of a new political community around a shared narrative and set of values. If the symptom instantiates Caliban's bodily transcription of Prospero's law, the voice of Ariel represents the phantasmatic dematerialization of that same law, its ghostly dissemination into every cove and corner of the island, its effective disabling of any counterhegemonic movement.

Symptom, curse, and counternarrative: these are the oppositional forms that the passion of resentment takes in Caliban's discourse. Although they cover a full range of articulate speech and open up the possibility of the creature's own creativity, they share the structure of reaction-formation and do not lead Caliban into successful conspiracy, let alone toward a genuine political program or philosophy. Yet there is a more positive dimension to Caliban's speech: the passion of wonder that characterizes the creature's response to Creation. Caliban (not unlike Miranda) is a wonder who wonders, a creature capable of an affective response to the world around him.23 The key passage here is Caliban's fullest poetic response to the island:

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.


Caliban imagines a rain that would be the fructifying antidote to the violence of Prospero's storm.24 In its positive evocation of place, Caliban's wonder also corrects the negative animus behind the passion of resentment. The passage thus opposes Caliban both to Prospero and to a version or aspect of Caliban himself, and it does so through crafting a response to the island's physical attributes. The passion of wonder affectively relates the Creature to the rest of Creation, finding a home for him there through the re-creative resources of poetic language. An emergent historical dimension structures Caliban's poetry of wonder, since the register of dream introduces an element of linguistic mediation and temporal recollection into the ekphrastic presencing that tends to characterize the poetry of place. When Caliban declares “when I waked, / I cried to dream again,” he represents the island's beauty as a fundamentally lost dimension of his relation to it, a relation interrupted by Prospero's expropriative entry onto the scene but also made available to language by that same emergency. Wonder, that is, occurs across the divide articulated by resentment; it does not precede it as its lost ground but rather succeeds it as its refraction and aftermath, an imaginative arch thrown across the tempest's destructive breach.

Caliban's poetry thus indicates, in a more elaborated, world-making form, the creative potentials of the Creature himself: the creat-ura is a created thing who is himself on the verge of creating. This creativity is still, however, only an incipient one (the emergence or potential marked by the -ura), located at the origins of civilization, at the border of the real and the symbolic. The lovely yet random sound of a “thousand twangling instruments” evokes the classical motif of the Aeolian harp, in which the wind blows through chimes or strings in order to make a natural music; in this it is the primitive antetype of the “miraculous harp” of Amphion (2.1.94), whose more reasoned music had raised the walls of Thebes. The two harps echo each other but in different keys: whereas Amphion's harp is tuned to the political sphere, the Aeolian harp remains within the natural world it passively indexes. So, too, Caliban's poetry of place is not yet a politics of the polis. If Aristotle defines man as the zoon politikon, the Creature lives at the fold of this formula, between the zoo and the polis, at home in the taxonomy of neither. Here Caliban's wonder differs from that of Miranda, who marvels—first at Ferdinand, then at the other Italians—in response to the possibility of intersubjective relations, whether in the form of marital union or of integration in a larger community. It is an established determinant of her character that she is a human creature, and her wonder links her to the brave new world of both a universal and a particular humanity reconstituted in the wake of Prospero's tempest. Caliban's humanity, on the other hand, remains a question rather than a given in the play. This question is raised by the limited vector of Caliban's wonder: he is a mere creature who wonders at creation—without a reflex toward the Creator and also without recourse to a subjective or sexual relation. However full the island is to him, he remains alone on it. The island's plenitude masks its fundamental emptiness for him, its lack of a subjective partner for him within its natural abundance. Caliban's loneliness is a further sign of his imprisonment, of his exile from the island on the island, but it may also represent the possibility of another type of subjectivization, another model of humanity resident in the motif of the creature, that exists somewhere just beyond the conceptual limits of the play.


In the epochs of Christian history, the Creature lies before or outside the law. In The Merchant of Venice and Othello the dominant types of ethnic alterity are identified with the epoch sub lege, under the law, their contracts marked by the Judeo-Islamic signature of circumcision.25 The floating world of The Tempest reaches back to the epoch of the Flood, ante legem, in which unredeemed Creation suffers a sea change on the road to law and grace. Like the Flood, the tempest creates a state of emergency in which primitive instincts emerge in a clarified form, leading to the reassertion of positive law and the reinclusion of the sovereign within its normative order.26 Caliban's island is postlapsarian, faulted by sin and potential monstrosity and not yet brought into the higher significations of Revelation and Redemption.27 The Creature, existing before the law yet in desperate need of its discipline, offered a fitting emblem for the new peoples discovered across the Atlantic, since the figura of the creatura includes within its swampy matrix the possibility for both noble savagery and incorrigible drives, for prelapsarian innocence and postlapsarian lawlessness.28

Prospero's storm threatens Creation much as God's flood does, and the rainbow announcing the marriage masque evokes among other motifs the contract of reconciliation sent by God when the Flood ended. As Northrop Frye noted long ago, “The masque has about it the freshness of Noah's new world, after the tempest had receded and the rainbow promised that seedtime and harvest should not cease.”29 The rainbow, harmonious mixture of sun and rain in the aftermath of a violent storm, announces “A contract of true love” (4.1.84), the union between Ferdinand and Miranda taking on a cosmic significance in the masque's celebration of “Earth's increase” (l. 110, emphasis added), its promise of plenty etymologically linked to creation.

In Genesis, God uses the rainbow to sign a contract, a marriage ketubah, not only with all humanity but with all creatures: “And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth” (Genesis 9:16, emphasis added). Accompanying this broader promise are the Noachide commandments, a set of seven laws addressed to all humanity that locate mankind within the order of living creation.30 In this they differ significantly from the Ten Commandments, at once greater in number, more comprehensive in scope, yet more limited in their address, pertaining initially only to the nation of Israel.31 Re-signing the work of Creation itself (of which the Ark, with its encyclopedic collection of animals, is a kind of summa), God's rainbow covenant with all creatures provides an enduring and comprehensive basis for Jewish, Christian, and Islamic universalisms.

Yet even within the biblical text itself, as well as in the traditions it has spawned, God's covenant with a universe of creatures almost immediately gives way to the first division of the world into the primeval branches of the nations, or ethne. From Noah's three sons, Shem, Japheth, and Cham, stem the subsequent genealogies of mankind, the so-called Table of Nations, a roll of generations marked for the first time by national difference: “These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations [hagoyim]; and of these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32).32 Moreover, this Table is divided into three unequal parts: the progeny of Cham, whose sins may have included intercourse with his wife on the ark, was cursed by his father with slavery: “Cursed be Canaan [son of Cham]; A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (Genesis 9:25).33 In all three monotheisms Cham's curse provided an etiology of blackness as well as a proof text for slavery based on descent; taken together, the two uses of the story would provide a powerful rationale for race-based slavery.34 If the arc of the rainbow embraces the Creature as the constitutive element of an everlasting covenant, the institution of slavery identifies the Creature as mere life, as pure labor deprived of rights within a system of national division. The Flood thus represents a watery dividing line between the shifting shores of universalism and particularism as they have been variously imagined, reconfigured, and reduced in the ethnopolitical legacies of monotheism.

From the broadest of universalisms—a covenant with all creatures—to the narrowest of particularisms—the establishment of slavery based on descent—via a sexual crime: this mapping of the Flood and the successive waves of its exegesis also describes the history of Caliban on his island. “[F]irst mine own king” and now decried as a “savage and deformed slave” of “vile race” by his masters, Caliban passes from freedom to bondage as the result of a sexual crime, the attempted rape of Miranda. Shakespeare had explored some of this typological territory earlier. Several critics have linked Othello to Cham via his “monstrous” sexuality, reading him as a positive instantiation of Cham's slavish blackness. As I have argued elsewhere, however, Othello is as much the typological negation and redemption as the inveterate repetition of Cham.35 For example, Othello and Desdemona arrive in Cyprus, across the “enchafed flood” (2.1.17) of a tempest-riled sea, in separate ships, a decision that, in delaying the consummation of their marriage, may also in the play's typological register prevent Othello from repeating Cham's blackening crime of intercourse on the ark. From this perspective Othello's sexual restraint reverses and redeems Cham's promiscuity, marking his probationary entrance into the universe of Christian brotherhood and its promise of freedom.

Whether understood as the typological redemption of Cham's curse or as its incorrigible replay, the Cham-like face of Othello binds his fate with that of Africa and its peoples, and hence with the history of the postdiluvian world.36 Unlike Othello, Caliban appears to like sex in the rain; at the very least, his attempt on Miranda's honor occurred in the environs of a cave, linked since the Aeneid with tempestuous passions of a Sidonian savor.37 Yet, whereas Othello's links to Cham place him within the order of law and history, Caliban resides just outside the rainbow world of ethnic groups, as primal cause rather than historic symptom or typological redemption of the continental divides brought about by Cham's transgressions. As creature, Caliban straddles the universalist and particularist faces of the Flood, at once included in God's contract with the infinitude of life (but as the measure of difference between the human and the inhuman) and deposited at the scandalous origin of national differentiation (but without clear identification with any racial stem or continent). In the epochal mapping of the play, the creature Caliban exists somewhere over the rainbow, on the far side of the law, an emblem of mere life who treads water in a flooded Eden, fallen from grace and not yet healed by covenant.

Caliban's enslavement, like that of Cham's progeny, is the consequence of a sexual act; in Prospero's account Caliban sought “to violate the honour of Miranda” (1.2.346-47). Caliban's response is ambiguous, neither a denial nor a confession, since his terms for understanding sexuality are at odds with those of Prospero:

O ho, O ho! Would't had been done!
Thou didst prevent me—I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.


For Prospero and Miranda this response reinforces their view of his unregenerate nature, his status as Mere Creature, outside the borders of the human community. His desire to reproduce links him to the animals, to whom God grants the blessing of increase: “And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply’” (Genesis 1:22). Yet Caliban's morphological proximity to the human makes his advances on Miranda all the more heinous, placing him below even the bestial, in the category of the monstrous. According to Prospero, Caliban is

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;
And as with age his body uglier grows,
So his mind cankers.


Caliban's physical deformity mirrors his moral limitations, which, in Prospero's analysis, are inborn and native to him. In this respect he resembles not so much the “swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20) who are characterized by their buzzing multiplicity, their dizzying embodiment of pure increase, as the sublime singularity of Leviathan.38 Leviathan, the rabbis suggested, was first created as part of a couple (“the great sea-monsters,” in the plural, of Genesis 1:21); the female was later slain in order to prevent their disastrous reproduction.39 From this perspective, Caliban's enforced celibacy is designed to prevent him as singular Leviathan from begetting a whole swarm of monsters.

Yet Caliban's desire to have “peopled … / This isle with Calibans” also evokes the Adamic dimensions of a more recuperative typological reading. After all, Caliban's turn to Miranda is not unlike Adam's desire for a mate. Having named “every living creature”—having brought into discourse the fullness of Creation—Adam nonetheless finds himself alone, the very copia of other creatures pointing to his own isolation.40 So, too, Caliban, unique in his ability to apprehend the island's beauties, is not only at one with the island, a part of Creation, but also, like Adam, alone on the island, apart from Creation. To “people” the island with Calibans is to find himself in another, to realize his potential humanity by entering into the sexual couple of man and woman. It is significant here that Caliban does not speak of mere “increase” (with its etymological link to creature) but rather of peopling, rhetorically linking himself to the human kindness from which Prospero and Miranda would exclude him.

Genesis likewise distinguishes creaturely increase from human coupling. Although the phrase “Be fruitful and multiply” occurs in connection with both animals and humans, the rabbis noted that God simply “blessed” the animals with this dictum; whereas he directly addressed Adam and Eve in the form of a command: “God blessed them and God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Genesis 1:28). This apparently minor variation emphasizes the fact of God's linguistic utterance, a scene of heteronomous command that forever reorients and displaces the sexual act it mandates by removing it from the realm of the merely creaturely. What is in effect descriptive in the animal context (though it is an inaugural or creative description) becomes legislative in the human context, a demand from the Other that forever separates human being from biological jouissance.41

Caliban's urge toward Miranda links him to Adam's blessing and identifies him with Adam's sin. In both cases the turn toward woman is a move not only toward fuller humanity but also toward humanity defined as creatureliness, as marked by material urges and base passions. Woman represents the creatureliness of man; in her capacity for increase she separates out the -ura of the creat-ura, its capacity for generation and metamorphosis. In Genesis the urge toward woman marks the beginning of the fall into a secondary creatureliness defined by its growing distance from the Creator: Genesis moves from the order of mere creatures (swarming beasts and single monsters) to the human creature created in God's image, to the epoch of fallen creatures who frantically increase and multiply between Eden and Flood. In the typological imagination such a fall in turn implies the hope of redemption, and this chance distinguishes Adam from Leviathan, the human creature from the monstrous one, the rule from its exception.

Read in this light, Caliban's desire to “people … / This isle with Calibans” aligns rather than separates Caliban and Adam, inviting Shakespeare's creature into the fold of “people” as such, into a common humanity marked by both passion and possibility. The arc of such a reading animates Caliban's final lines in the play, “I'll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace” (5.1.294-95); it also echoes in Prospero's grudging recognition of Caliban, “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5.1.276-77), in which Prospero accepts both commonality with and responsibility for his creature. Yet, like Shylock's conversion, Caliban's passage from a position ante legem to a position sub gratia feels rushed, forced, and dramatically unprepared for; in both plays the typological reading remains somehow incomplete and imperfect, bearing the continued mark of the -ura. In both cases it is a forced conversion, in which entrance into the totality of humankind (conceived in Pauline terms as the potential unity of all nations, or ethne, in Christ) occurs at the cost of a felt singularity.

The universalism implied by such a conversion, that is, fails to account for the particularism implied by Caliban's desire to have “peopled / This isle with Calibans.” “People” implies not only people as such—humanity taken as a whole—but also a people, an ethnos, gens, or nation of Calibans that would take its place among other ethne. Caliban, born on one side of the rainbow (before the law and before the ethnic divisions instituted by Noah's sons), desires through his Cham-like actions to cross over to the other side of the rainbow: to a world of covenant and contract but also to a world of peoples, in which his language and bios, or in Miranda's phrase his “vile race,” would take on a historical identity. It is perhaps in this space of an imagined particularism that the order of the circumcised, called up in the play through the various markers of Semitism (Algiers, Tunis, Carthage), might finally take root. In the speculative space of an island peopled by Calibans—a national homeland called Calibania—the potential kinship between Othello and Caliban might finally gain some dramatic currency, some mimetic viability. This particularism is the endpoint of Stephen Greenblatt's analysis, where it takes the name of “culture.”42

It is precisely the particularism of culture, set against a universalism presumed bankrupt, that neohistoricist readers of Shakespeare have attempted to salvage, whether in the guise of Othello's blackness, Shylock's Judaism, or Caliban's indigenous claims. In the process, however, the religious foundations of the plays' conceptions of these positions are necessarily occluded, reduced, or secularized. Yet, just as Caliban never crosses over into grace but merely sues for it, so, too, Caliban desires to found a people of Calibans but remains radically singular. As with Frankenstein's monster, no female Leviathan joins him at the end of the play, and no brave new world springs from their loins. Shakespeare is interested in Caliban precisely insofar as he embodies the antediluvian moment before ethnos, insofar as he does not and cannot cross over into the post-Noachide Table of Nations. If, in Miranda's vocabulary, Caliban is of “vile race,” his moral and physical deformities marking him for slavery, in conception and composition he remains one of a kind, a lonely monster rather than the representative of a nation or a race, a strange exception born in a state of emergency. But it is here, in this singularity, at once Adamic and monstrous, that another universalism might accrue, one that would acknowledge the creature's difference without resolving that difference into an identity, whether subsumed in the macrocosmic totality of “humanity” or the local habitation of “culture.”

Conceiving of Caliban as creature, Shakespeare manages to isolate within the idea of the human, forever divided between universalist and particularist strains, an elemental category of bare sentience which refuses to resolve into the homogenizing ideal of the one pole or the identitarian tendency of the other. That is, in response to the forced choice between universalism and particularism, the Creature takes shape as their negative intersection. As an Adamic figure, the Creature resides in a concertedly prenational, universal scheme; by definition, the Creature belongs to Creation, not to Nation. Thus the Creature would appear to belong in the general field of universal humanity. At the same time, however, he/it is not equal to Adam. The creature Caliban partakes of Adam's earthenness but is deprived of the imago dei. The creature Caliban shares Adam's sexual passion but, like Leviathan, never finds a mate. The creature Caliban takes up the burden of Adam's labor, the curse of the fall, but as slave, as pure labor separated from human freedom, who does not partake in Sabbath rest. In the chronologic of Creation, we could say that Caliban lives in a perpetual five-day week, created on the fifth day along with the “great sea-monsters” (Genesis 1:21) but living fundamentally unpartnered by the human-defining help-meet created on the sixth day, and finding his burden never alleviated by the suspension of labor instituted on the seventh. This fifth-day Creature cannot become a model or paradigm for the humanity of other creatures; he does not represent the genetic origin or primal design of either a universal or a particular stem. He is forever undergoing creation, forever creatura creaturans; he falls within the field of general humanity but only as the exception to its rule. This exceptionality in turn exiles him to the particularism of ethnos, yet the lack of a sexual relation, of a means of peopling—his both originary and enforced singularity—denies the Creature permanent residence there as well.

The world of Creatures constitutes an infinity rather than a totality since it is made up of a series of singularities that do not congeal into a single set. It is here, in this singularity, at once Adamic and monstrous, that another universalism, a universalism after culturalism, might accrue, one that would acknowledge the creature's difference without resolving that difference into the identity of an ethnos. By preserving Caliban as creature, Shakespeare manages to isolate within the category of the human, with its potential for both universalist and particularist determinations, a permanent state of emergency, of exemplarity in crisis. The creature thus isolates a profane moment within the idealism of theology and defines in its very primitivism a possible face of modernity, understood not as the negation but as the remainder of a theological vision. If we want to find a new universalism in the play (as I believe, urgently, we must), we will do so not by simply reasserting that “Caliban is human” but rather by saying that “all humans are creatures,” that all humans constitute an exception to their own humanity, whether understood in general or particular terms.

If we were to look to the visual tradition for a comparable engagement with the discourse of the creaturely—perhaps in search of dramaturgic cues that might help us to stage Caliban as Creature in the theater—we would do well to situate Shakespeare's Caliban in the dialectical space between the two great Renaissance artists of Creation, Hieronymus Bosch and Michelangelo Buonarroti. The Flemish painter's zoological imagination continuously turns on the exceptionality of the Creature, be it human or inhuman, black or white, hybrid or pure, plant or animal; his is a liquid world in which ponds, streams, and fountains teem with the swarming marginalia of mere life, with animated gargoyles set free to wander the pages of natural history. Bosch's God is the God of creatures, in love and hate with the obscene and wonderful variety of desiring, fornicating, breeding, and crossbreeding life. Michelangelo, on the other hand, endlessly seeks the exemplary—the statue behind the painting, the idea behind the statue, the logos behind the idea—while keeping each template of significance in luminous touch with the next, like God's finger on Adam's. The Sistine Chapel ceiling, which sets forth the history of the world from Creation to Flood, strives to equate the creativity of God with the disegno of the artist, mediated by the great human types of the classical tradition. Such an enterprise takes place on a stage largely devoid of flora and fauna, of creatures in their extrahuman dimension. The separation of light from dark (the primal act of drawing) and the creation of sun and moon (conditions for visibility) stand in for God's creation of the world before humanity, as if Michelangelo had strategically avoided representing nature in its promiscuous plenty in order to focus on the beauty and promise of the human form.

One can imagine Caliban struggling to pass from Bosch's world to Michelangelo's, striving to abandon the Flemish painter's botanical bestiary of mystical symbols for the clarity and dignity of the Italian's anti-landscape. At the same time, in trying to make that crossing, perhaps he stumbles on and, in the process, articulates the necessity of each field to the other, but only as its excluded term. As Ernesto Laclau has argued in his attempt to reclaim universalism within a post-foundationalist paradigm,

Totality is impossible, and, at the same time, is required by the particular as that which is absent, as a constitutive lack which constantly forces the particular to be more than itself, to assume a universal role that can only be precarious and unsutured. It is because of this that we can have democratic politics: a succession of finite and particular identities which attempt to assume universal tasks surpassing them; but that, as a result, are never able to entirely conceal the distance between task and identity, and can always be substituted by alternative groups.43

Or, in the terms developed here, the very intensity of Caliban's incarnation of the creaturely position, itself a kind of particularism-before-all-particularisms, a nondifferential specificity awash in a primal universe, allows him to begin to represent a universal function of political liberation into full humanity for the Trinculos, Stephanos, and Ariels who struggle alongside yet apart from him. That universe toward which he strives, however, remains intrinsically empty, the placeholder that enables but also renders unstable the flux of a democracy always to come.

The universe of liberated humanity is always just beyond the horizon—the horizon of Caliban's world but also of Shakespeare's. The full elaboration of its economy would require recourse to later moments in the articulation of typology and its heritage, not only in the works of Rosenzweig and Benjamin but also in the fundamental rethinking of Rosenzweig's paradigms by Emanuel Levinas. (While Shakespeare did not, of course, read Rosenzweig or Benjamin or Levinas, they surely read him). Caliban's final suit for grace reveals the playwright still caught in the stranglehold of humanism's forced choice. Yet Shakespeare's play is part of the conversation about universals and particulars that grips us still. His decisive crystallization of a certain material moment within the theology of the Creature might help us find a postsecular solution to the predicament of modern humanity, trapped in the increasingly catastrophic choice between the false universalism of global capitalism on the one hand and the crippling particularisms of apartheid, separatism, and segregation on the other.


  1. See Erich Auerbach on figura: “this peculiar formation expresses something living and dynamic, incomplete and playful … the notion of the new manifestation, the changing aspect, of the permanent runs through the whole history of the word” (Scenes from the Drama of European Literature [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984], 11-76, esp. 12).

  2. Creatura does not appear in the Oxford Latin Dictionary. In Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (New York: Oxford UP, 1980), the following entry traces the first uses of the word to the patristic period: “creatura, ae, f. [creo], only concr., a creature, thing created (late Lat.); Tertullian, Apologeticum 30; Prudentius, Ham. [?] 508: omnes creaturae tuae, Vulg. Tob. 8,7.—II. The creation: Deus caelorum et Dominus totius creaturae, Vulg. Jud. 9,17: Dei, id. Apoc. 3,14 al.”

  3. In The Tempest Prospero activates this sense when he tells Miranda that Antonio “new created / The creatures that were mine” (1.2.81-82). Quotations of The Tempest follow Stephen Orgel's 1987 edition of the play for the Oxford Shakespeare. See The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), s.v. creature, 1b, 2a, and 4 (fig.); cf. Romans 1:25.

  4. The originary relation of law to life is not application but Abandonment. The matchless potential of the nomos, its originary ‘force of law,’ is that it holds life in its ban by abandoning it” (Giorgio Agamben, HomoSacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen [Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1998], 29). Agamben's prime example of humanity reduced to mere life is the inmate of the concentration camp.

  5. For a sensitive and eloquent rendering of the universalist approach, see Harry Berger Jr.'s assessment of Caliban: “he stands for the world; a handy and compact symbol of human nature, not as we know it, but as we might have found it at the beginning of time” (“Miraculous Harp: A Reading of Shakespeare's Tempest” (1969) Shakespeare Studies 5 (1970): 253-83, esp. 260. Psychoanalysis comprises the most vital current strain of the universalist approach, as Meredith Anne Skura's psychoanalytic critique of culturalist readings demonstrates; see “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest,Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 42-74. Skura's essay explicitly thematizes the polarization between universalizing and particularizing interpretations. The culturalist view is perhaps best represented in Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990); Paul Brown, “‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’: The Tempest and the discourse of colonialism” in Political Shakespeare: New essays in cultural materialism, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds. (London: Manchester UP, 1985), 48-71; and Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (London: Methuen, 1986).

  6. Etienne Balibar analyzes the paradox of the current situation, in which the idea of cultural identity, the mainstay of traditional antiracism, has become the banner for new forms of racism: “Anthropological culturalism, which is entirely orientated towards the recognition of the diversity and equality of cultures … had provided the humanist and cosmopolitan anti-racism of the postwar period with most of its arguments” (“Is There a Neo-Racism?” in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, eds., trans. Chris Turner [London: Verso, 1991], 17-28, esp. 21-22). Precisely the same arguments, he points out, are used to defend ethnic cleansing and the rhetoric of anti-immigration, mounted in the name of the purity of cultures.

  7. Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. William W. Hallo (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 120.

  8. Rosenzweig, 120.

  9. See Walter Benjamin, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: New Left Books, 1977).

  10. Benjamin, 146.

  11. See Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 31-32 and 46-47.

  12. Emergency derives from the Latin preposition ē-, “out of,” and mergere, “to dip,” with the sense of “To rise by virtue of buoyancy, from or out of a liquid” (OED, s.v. emerge, v. 1). Its fluid associations are resonant with liquefactional theories of creation and creatures as “emergent” from a primal slime or soup. Emergency initially appeared in English as a substantive of this process and a simple variant of emergence: “The rising of a submerged body above the surface of water” (1646; OED 1). But around the same time, the word appears to accrue its modern sense of historic urgency, as “The arising, sudden or unexpected occurrence (of a state of things, an event, etc.)” (1665; OED 3); “A juncture that arises or ‘turns up’; esp. a state of things unexpectedly arising, and urgently demanding immediate action” (1663; OED 4).

  13. Benjamin, 85.

  14. Although New World readings of Caliban have become commonplace in current criticism, the Old World markers are the more insistent and self-evident in the play and indeed have yielded some of the most promising strains in recent interpretation; see, for example, Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1995). Ralph Hexter's analysis of the “Sidonian Dido” would also usefully illumine the Semitic (Punic and Arab) shadings of the play's Mediterranean world; see “Sidonian Dido” in Innovations of Antiquity, Ralph Hexter and Daniel Selden, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 332-84. For a summary of the possible geographical coordinates of Caliban, see Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991), 23-55. I suggest a Sicilian locale because of the literary kinship between Caliban and Polyphemos, that island's Homeric inhabitant, as well as the later history of contestation and communication between Muslim and Christian forces in that region. Sicily was conquered by the Arabs between 827 and 902 but was reclaimed by Christian invaders later in the tenth century. Sicily's Norman rulers exercised some tolerance toward the island's Muslim population. A major geographical work, The Book of Roger, was written by a Muslim geographer in Sicily under the patronage of the Norman king Roger II in 1154. See Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 18, 20, 22, and 147.

  15. On the history of anti- and postcolonial readings of The Tempest, see Trevor Griffith, “‘This Island's Mine’: Caliban and Colonialism,” Yearbook of English Studies, 13 (1983): 159-80.

  16. Orgel, ed., 119n. My own quotations of Genesis and references to the Pentateuch follow the Soncino Chumash: The Five Books of Moses with Haphtaroth (Hebrew and English with English commentary), ed. Dr. A. Cohen (London: Soncino Press, 1983); subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  17. The name Adam is etymologically linked to the Hebrew word 'ădâmâh, “country, earth, ground, husband [-man], … land”; see James Strong, ed., Strong's New Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, 1980), Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, items 119-28, esp. item 127.

  18. For classical midrashin on the Golem, an animate clay figure who is the subject of various Kabbalistic legends, see Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshna Hana Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends / Sefer Ha-Aggadah, trans. William G. Braude (New York: Schocken Books, 1992), 15.

  19. See Genesis 2:19-20.

  20. For the play's systematic association of Caliban with muddy “bogs, fens, [and] flats” (2.2.60-61), see John Gillies, “Shakespeare's Virginian Masque,” ELH (1986): 673-707, esp. 684-85.

  21. Rashi, Chumash with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi's Commentary, ed. A. M. Silberman, 5 vols. (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1934), 1:16. For a narrative amplification of Rashi, see Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, trans. Henrietta Szold, 5 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998), 1:23-24. For a contemporary analysis of Rashi's parable, see Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995), 13-14.

  22. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967), 70.

  23. Critics have often commented on Caliban's special relation to the beauty of the island. Cf. Berger, 259; and Gillies, 702.

  24. If “hurricane” is indeed the unspoken New World coinage behind the play's opening storm, as Peter Hulme has suggested (108), its transcription of “Huracan,” Mayan god of storms, opens onto a world in which rain took both creative and destructive forms, and played a major role in the successive creation and decreation of the orders of the world. See the Mayan epic Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, trans. Dennis Tedlock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996). A fascinating project would involve comparing concepts of creation in The Tempest and the Popol Vuh.

  25. See Lupton, “Othello Circumcised: Shakespeare and the Pauline Discourse of Nations,” Representations 57 (1997): 73-89; and Lupton, “Ethnos and Circumcision in the Pauline Tradition: A Psychoanalytic Exegesis” in The Psychoanalysis of Race, Christopher Lane, ed. (New York: Columbia UP, 1998), 193-210.

  26. This is the emphasis given the story of the Flood in the Renaissance's greatest treatment of it, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco, in which salvation on the ark unfolds far in the background, and the state of emergency brought about by natural disaster dominates the foreground. As Howard Hibbard remarks, “We see brother attacking brother in order to survive, and elsewhere we see examples of what Michelangelo thought of primitive life and instincts—an interest that was common in Florence around 1500. Mothers and children, fathers and sons, husbands and wives are shown in extremis, saving and clutching, fighting and pushing. Yet one woman calmly saves her belongings amidst the rout. Noah, the chosen man, is seated up in his ark in the far distance: what we witness is the effect of God's wrath” (Michelangelo [London: Allen Lane, 1975], 132). On the history of Noah iconography, including Michelangelo's humanist treatment of the theme, see Don Cameron Allen, The Legend of Noah: Renaissance Rationalism in Art, Science, and Letters (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1949).

  27. The rabbis imagined the world before the Flood as an Eden spoiled by its own plenty: “The wantonness of this generation was in a measure due to the ideal conditions under which mankind lived before the flood. They knew neither toil nor care, and as a consequence of their extraordinary prosperity they grew insolent” (Ginzberg, I:152).

  28. For example, the Requerimiento, the document recited by the Spaniards before each battle with the Indians, begins with a statement of common humanity: “the Lord our God, living and eternal, created the heaven and the earth, and one man and one woman, of whom you and we, and all the men of the world, were and are descendants, as well as those who come after us” (quoted here from The Spanish Tradition in America, ed. and trans. Charles Gibson [Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1968], 58-60, esp. 58).

  29. The Tempest ed. Northrop Frye (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970), 15-26, esp. 18.

  30. See Genesis 9:1-7. The Noachide commandments reiterate the commandment “Be fruitful and multiply”; give humanity sovereignty over all living things (who had taken over the world in the aftermath of the Flood); extend this sovereignty to the right to eat meat; forbid, however, eating meat from any living animal or consuming the blood of any animal; prohibit murder (including perhaps suicide); and institute capital punishment. Unlike the Decalogue, the Noachide Laws concern humanity's relation to other creatures, both the rights and responsibilities that accrue to human beings as sovereigns of the earth within the context of renewed creation. In the Noachide setting, the prohibition against murder might be seen as regulating man's relation to other men qua creatures. See commentary to Genesis 9:1-7 in the Soncino Chumash and the JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum S. Sarna, 5 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 1:60-62.

  31. See Exodus 20:1-14 and Deuteronomy 6:1-18.

  32. The Hebrew goyim is translated as ethne in Greek and gentes in Latin. The original Hebrew word does not have pejorative connotations (unlike its modern Yiddish equivalent), but in the plural it does tend to be used of “other nations”—nations other than Israel. In the Christian tradition (e.g., Paul) ethne generally refers to the nations of the world united in Christ. The Table of Nations introduces the word goyim into the discourse of the Bible; as the JPS Torah Commentary notes, “Hitherto, all such accounts in Genesis have related to individuals. Now we are given a genealogy of nations” (1:67). This newly divided world is “of one language and one speech” (Genesis 11:1), but Babel will be built and destroyed shortly after. On the relation between the Table of Nations and the story of Babel that follows it (with reference to the passages' conflicted legacy of universalism), see Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 42-45.

  33. In Ginzberg's synthetic redaction of the midrashic tradition, the curse of blackness is tied to Cham's intercourse on the ark, while the enslavement of his progeny occurs as a consequence of viewing his father naked (1:166-67).

  34. On the role of Cham's curse in the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic rationalizations of African slavery, see Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (London: Verso, 1997), 64-76.

  35. For Othello as the typological overturning of Cham, see Lupton, “Othello Circumcised,” 77.

  36. For identifications of Othello with the negative and monstrous legacy of Cham, see for example, Karen Newman, “‘And wash the Ethiop white': femininity and the monstrous in Othello” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, eds., (New York: Methuen, 1987), 143-62, esp. 147; and Arthur Little, “‘An essence that's not seen’: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello,SQ 44 (1993): 304-24, esp. 306-8.

  37. On The Tempest's extensive borrowing from the Aeneid, see, for example, Donna B. Hamilton, Virgil and The Tempest: The Politics of Imitation (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1990).

  38. On the swarming quality of mere creatures, see Zornberg, 7-14.

  39. See Rashi, 1:5.

  40. See Genesis 2:19.

  41. So, too, in Genesis only humanity is specifically created as “male and female”; sexual difference appears to be a dimension of human being that separates man and woman from other creatures. The JPS Torah Commentary notes: “No such sexual differentiation is noted in regard to animals. Human sexuality is of a wholly different order from that of the beast” (1:13).

  42. Citing Vico, Greenblatt writes: “Each language reflects and substantiates the specific character of the culture out of which it springs” (32).

  43. Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 1996), 15-16.

Further Reading

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Baldo, Jonathan. “Exporting Oblivion in The Tempest.Modern Language Quarterly 56, No. 2 (June 1995): 111-44.

Explores the concepts of memory and forgetfulness among the colonized peoples of the world in relation to The Tempest.

Cantor, Paul A. “Prospero’s Republic: The Politics of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 241-59. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2000.

Outlines the views on political authority and ability in The Tempest, arguing that these views reflect Shakespeare’s concluding opinion on the subject.

Demaray, John G. “On the Symbolism of The Tempest.” In Shakespeare and the Spectacles of Strangeness: The Tempest and the Transformation of Renaissance Theatrical Forms, pp. 110-34. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1998.

Compares The Tempest to other Renaissance drama in order to reconcile conflicting criticism of the play.

Fox-Good, Jacquelyn. “Other Voices: The Sweet, Dangerous Air(s) of Shakespeare's Tempest.Shakespeare Studies 24 (1996): 241-74.

Surveys the criticism concerning the role of music in The Tempest.

Fuchs, Barbara. “Conquering Islands: Contextualizing The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly 48, No. 1 (Spring 1997): 45-62.

Applies historical and social knowledge of the Mediterranean and Ireland to arguments about colonialism in The Tempest.

Gillies, John. “‘The open worlde’: The Exotic in Shakespeare.” In The Tempest: William Shakespeare, edited by R. S. White, pp. 191-203. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Describes the three facets of Prospero's island, outlining their allegorical role in the play.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Martial Law in the Land of Cockaigne.” In The Tempest: William Shakespeare, edited by R. S. White, pp. 97-121. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Examines the relationship between The Tempest and William Strachey's account of a tempest in the English colonies, which is believed to be one of Shakespeare’s sources for the play.

Hall, Grace R. W. “The Language of Belief: Wordplay in The Tempest.” In The Tempest as Mystery Play: Uncovering Religious Sources of Shakespeare's Most Spiritual Work, pp. 93-105. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999.

Surveys the links in text and language between the Bible and The Tempest.

Leggatt, Alexander. “Shakespeare, The Tempest.” In Introduction to English Renaissance Comedy, pp. 109-34. New York: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Places The Tempest within the context of its first performances and considers the influence of Renaissance drama.

Platt, Peter G. “Wonder Personified, Wonder Anatomized: The Tempest.” In Reason Diminished: Shakespeare and the Marvelous, pp. 169-84. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Traces Shakespeare's use of the wonderous in The Tempest, identifying Shakespeare's depiction of its power and limitations.

Stephens, Charles. “Chapter 1: (Shakespeare).” In Shakespeare's Island: Essays on Creativity, pp. 6-31. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1994.

Surveys the characteristics and significance of Prospero's island.

Thundy, Zacharias P. “The Divine Caliban in Shakespeare's Postcolonial Discourse: A Re(De)Construction.” Michigan Academician XXX, No. 4 (August 1998): 399-422.

Reconsiders the nature of Caliban in light of classical sources which reveal a different side of the character.


The Tempest (Vol. 45)


The Tempest (Vol. 72)