(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Tempest

Frequently considered Shakespeare's last drama, The Tempest encapsulates many of the issues that occupied the dramatist near the end of his career. The romantic tale, one of Shakespeare's rare original plots, takes place on an enchanted island inhabited by the exiled former Duke of Milan and magician Prospero, his young daughter Miranda, and his servants, the fairy-like Ariel and bestial Caliban. Its action obeys the classical dramatic unities of time and place, restrictions that Shakespeare generally ignored in his other works, and relates Prospero's scheme to punish his usurpers—his power-hungry brother Antonio and King Alonso of Naples—by luring them to the island and destroying their ship in a magical storm. Scholars have variously interpreted the play as a Christian or political allegory, a study of European colonialism in the New World, and as Shakespeare's farewell to dramatic art. While none of these estimations has proven entirely satisfying, elements of such readings continue to appear in contemporary assessments of the drama. W. H. Auden (1947) represents a characteristically mid-twentieth-century appraisal of The Tempest, emphasizing its mythic qualities, as well as its Edenic and utopian design and final thematic movement toward reconciliation and forgiveness. In a 1966 essay centered on the figure of Caliban—the only native inhabitant of Prospero's island—Philip Brockbank inaugurated a trend in modern scholarship on The Tempest by observing its depiction of colonialist exploitation. In addition, Brockbank's essay explores the drama's various textual sources, including travel and exploration literature of the early modern period, and studies their significance in contemporary estimations of The Tempest.

Traditionally, character-based study of The Tempest has been centered on Prospero, the drama's resourceful, if occasionally authoritarian, protagonist. Nevertheless, many late-twentieth-century commentators have also focused on the play's minor figures, as well as on the ensemble of other characters. James E. Phillips (1964) favors a schematic understanding of character in The Tempest by describing Prospero and his two servants Ariel and Caliban as embodiments of a Renaissance conception of the human soul. According to Phillips, Prospero represents a human's higher rational faculties, while the ethereal Ariel signifies sensitive and passionate qualities, and Caliban denotes the base and bodily, or vegetative, functions. Offering a survey of Caliban as he has been interpreted in stage performance, Virginia Mason Vaughan (1985) highlights changing perceptions of this enigmatic figure over the centuries. Beginning with seventeenth-century interpretations that emphasized Caliban's monstrous nature, Vaughan goes on to cite nineteenth-century depictions of the character as a noble savage and late-twentieth-century performances that described his political status as a militant rebel or New World native subjugated by European imperialists. A contemporary approach to the figure of Miranda is represented by Jessica Slights (2001, see Further Reading) who argues that Prospero's daughter has too frequently been sentimentalized if not critically dismissed as naïve, and suggests that she evinces an assertiveness and autonomy that is usually denied her. Slights also acknowledges, however, that Miranda's moral agency and humanity largely rest on her domestic ties to her father and future husband, Ferdinand.

Though visually diverse and potentially challenging to stage, The Tempest has supported sustained theatrical interest. Evaluating George C. Wolfe's 1995 production of The Tempest on Broadway, Brad Leithauser (see Further Reading) finds Patrick Stewart's Prospero deserving of acclaim and praises Wolfe's “eclectic” design and interpretation, but notes inadequacies among the remaining cast. Robert Brustein offers a matching reaction, commending the “dazzling and spectacular” design of Wolfe's production and sparing only Stewart and Nestor Serrano's Antonio from criticism. Robert Smallwood finds nothing to praise in Jude Kelly's 1999 Tempest in West Yorkshire, with the notable exception of Sir Ian McKellen's remarkably interpreted, fascinating, and humanly earnest Prospero. Richard Hornby expresses similar feelings in regard to director Lenka Udovicki's production of the drama at the Restored Shakespearean Globe in 2001. For Hornby, Vanessa Redgrave's commanding Prospero was brilliant, while the rest of the staging was disastrous. Regarding two more British productions of The Tempest, Catherine Bates praises Jonathan Kent's 2001 staging at the Almeida Theatre as an excellent and timely exploration of reality and illusion, while Russell Jackson finds James MacDonald's 2000 to 2001 Stratford production technically innovative, but emotionally lacking. A final area of contemporary critical interest in The Tempest as a performance piece follows the accelerating trend of translating Shakespearean drama to a celluloid medium. Mariacristina Cavecchi (1997), evaluating director Peter Greenaway's film adaptation entitled Prospero's Books, finds it an intriguing cinematic expression of Shakespeare's work in a postmodern idiom, which, though it departs significantly from its source text, expands upon the illusionistic themes and intertextual signification of the original.

Contemporary thematic assessments of The Tempest have asserted a range of interpretations, many of which attempt to explain its elements of wonder, fantasy, and illusion, as well as Prospero's role as an artist-magician. Rose Abdelnour Zimbardo (1963) comments on the mythic, romantic, and tragic patterns in The Tempest, and centers her study on the expansive quality of the play. Zimbardo maintains that the drama depicts a conflict between the forces of order and chaos, and focuses on Prospero as an artist figure who attempts to control the powers of mutability and disorder through his art. Featuring an allegorical understanding of The Tempest, in which Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban respectively symbolize the soul, spirit, and body, Richard Henze (1972) finds the drama's theme in Prospero's spiritual control of the corporeal, and in his ultimate rejection of idealized fantasy in favor of worldly reality. The reconciliation of illusion and reality features prominently in Kenneth J. Semon's (1973) reading, in which wonder and amazement become mechanisms of knowledge and freedom. Peter G. Platt (1997) follows a similar line of inquiry by analyzing The Tempest as a dramatic exploration of the powers of wonder and of its complex, paradoxical relationship to wisdom and reason. Finally, John D. Cox (2000) responds to twentieth-century idealist and Marxist-materialist studies of The Tempest by defending the viability of a Christian, moral reading that coexists with allegorical and cultural/historical evaluations of the drama.

W. H. Auden (lecture date 1947)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Auden, W. H. “The Tempest.” In Lectures on Shakespeare, edited by Arthur Kirsch, pp. 296-307. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, reconstructed from a 1947 lecture, Auden highlights the principal elements of The Tempest, including its mythopoeic quality, major themes, and representation of music.]

The Tempest is the last play wholly by Shakespeare, written in 1611 at or before the time he retired to Stratford. He was later brought in as a collaborator in the writing of Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. People have very naturally and in a sense rightly considered the play...

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Philip Brockbank (essay date 1966)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Brockbank, Philip. “The Tempest: Conventions of Art and Empire.” In Later Shakespeare, pp. 183-201. London: Edward Arnold, 1966.

[In the following essay, Brockbank examines the ways in which Shakespeare fashioned allegory from his textual and generic sources—exploration narratives, pastorals, and masques—for The Tempest.]

There is enough self-conscious artifice in the last plays to allow us to suspect that Shakespeare is glancing at his own art when Alonso says:

This is as strange a maze as e'er men trod;
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of: some oracle
Must rectify our knowledge.


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James E. Phillips (essay date spring 1964)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Phillips, James E. “The Tempest and the Renaissance Idea of Man.” Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 2 (spring 1964): 147-59.

[In the following essay, Phillips evaluates three principal figures of The Tempest—Caliban, Ariel, and Prospero—in terms of the Renaissance conception of the tripartite soul, divided into vegetative, sensitive, and rational spheres.]

Most students of The Tempest are agreed that there is more to Shakespeare's last play than charms the eye and delights the ear.1 Some have regarded its deeper meaning as autobiographical in nature, communicating Shakespeare's view of his own art and announcing his...

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Virginia Mason Vaughan (essay date winter 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Vaughan, Virginia Mason. “‘Something Rich and Strange’: Caliban's Theatrical Metamorphoses.” Shakespeare Quarterly 36, no. 4 (winter 1985): 390-405.

[In the following essay, Vaughan surveys four centuries of stage representation of Caliban—ranging from depictions of the character as a beast to an exploited indigene.]

Since Caliban's first appearance in 1611, Shakespeare's monster has undergone remarkable transformations.1 From drunken beast in the eighteenth century, to noble savage and missing link in the nineteenth, to Third World victim of oppression in the mid-twentieth, Caliban's stage images reflect changing Anglo-American attitudes...

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Robert Brustein (review date 4 December 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. Review of The Tempest. New Republic 213 (4 December 1995): 27-8.

[In the following review of director George C. Wolfe's production of The Tempest, Brustein observes that spectacular technical and set design elements were unmatched by poorly realized individual performances in the drama.]

George C. Wolfe's dynamic production of The Tempest, which played last season in the Central Park and has now moved to the Broadhurst, proves once again that Joe Papp's latest successor is a brilliant showman. There is hardly a moment in this New York Shakespeare production that is not alive with dazzling and spectacular effects: Bunraku...

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Mariacristina Cavecchi (review date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cavecchi, Mariacristina. “Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books: A Tempest between Word and Image.” Literature/Film Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1997): 83-9.

[In the following essay, Cavecchi analyzes Peter Greenaway's illusionistic and postmodern film adaptation of The Tempest, entitled Prospero's Books.]

In his film, Greenaway develops and focuses on the aesthetic and mannerist aspects of the Shakespearean text, while he does not seem to care too much about the other very important Shakespearean themes, such as power or history.1 As far as it is possible to generalize about the relation between Prospero's Books and The Tempest,...

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Robert Smallwood (review date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. Review of The Tempest. Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): 244-73.

[In the following excerpted review, Smallwood calls Jude Kelly's 1999 production of The Tempest at the West Yorkshire Playhouse “deeply disappointing” save for Sir Ian McKellen's mesmerizing Prospero.]

From The Winter's Tale to The Tempest is not a long step in most chronological lists of Shakespeare's plays, but the symbolic significance of Sir Ian McKellen's journey from London to Leeds to play in a repertory season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse that included Prospero in a production of The Tempest directed by Jude Kelly was much commented...

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Catherine Bates (review date 12 January 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bates, Catherine. Review of The Tempest. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5102 (12 January 2001): 20.

[In the following review of the 2001 staging of The Tempest at the Almeida Theatre, Bates concentrates on the thematic material of reality, illusion, and disillusion that director Jonathan Kent put to use in his production.]

When The Tempest first appeared in 1611, its airborne spirits, chimerical banquet and various deae ex machina were the latest thing in Jacobean special effects. It has been a machine play ever since. In the eighteenth century, the storm scene was postponed to the beginning of Act Two, so that latecomers could catch...

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Russell Jackson (review date spring 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. Review of The Tempest. Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 107-23.

[In the following excerpted review of the 2000-2001 staging of The Tempest at Stratford, Jackson describes the unique design of James MacDonald's production, finding the director's overall interpretation “innovative” though somewhat lacking in impact.]

The Tempest, directed by James MacDonald, played in The Other Place from 30 November to 6 January before a national tour to twelve venues. The designer, Jeremy Herbert, arranged the space with seating on three sides of a white platform. Its surface consisted of three gentle undulations curving...

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Richard Hornby (review date winter 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. Review of The Tempest. Hudson Review 53, no. 4 (winter 2001): 24-30.

[In the following excerpted review of The Tempest staged at the Restored Shakespearean Globe, Hornby decries the lack of adequate direction by Lenka Udovicki, but lauds Vanessa Redgrave's star performance as Prospero.]

The restored Shakespearean Globe Theatre in London continues to fascinate as a theatrical experiment, but, like so much classical theatre these days, it suffers from bad directing. Artistic Director Mark Rylance and his associates are mercifully not the kind of heavy-handed, gimmicky, “concept” directors who are so prevalent in America....

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Rose Abdelnour Zimbardo (essay date winter 1963)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Zimbardo, Rose Abdelnour. “Form and Disorder in The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 1 (winter 1963): 49-56.

[In the following essay, Zimbardo asserts that The Tempest principally represents the opposition between order and chaos, and the limitations of artistically created order.]

When one is travelling through that wild terrain of criticism relating to Shakespeare's last plays, there is very little upon which to rely. One is faced with a thousand questions—Are the plays myth, romance, or an elaborate working out of the tragic pattern? Were they written because the poet wished to return to the forms he had used in youth, because he...

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Richard Henze (essay date autumn 1972)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Henze, Richard. “The Tempest: Rejection of a Vanity.” Shakespeare Quarterly 23, no. 4 (autumn 1972): 420-34.

[In the following essay, Henze presents an allegorical interpretation of The Tempest—with Caliban, Ariel, and Prospero embodying the flesh, spirit, and soul, respectively—that articulates a theme of utopian illusions rejected in favor of worldly responsibility and true freedom.]

In the fourth act of The Tempest, Prospero, with the aid of Ariel, calls forth a masque, “a vanity of mine art” (IV. i. 41),1 in order to celebrate the love of his daughter and Ferdinand. The scene plays for a few minutes; then Prospero...

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Kenneth J. Semon (essay date spring 1973)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Semon, Kenneth J. “Shakespeare's Tempest: Beyond a Common Joy.” ELH 40, no. 1 (spring 1973): 24-43.

[In the following essay, Semon probes Shakespeare's thematic reconciliation of fantasy and experiential reality in The Tempest.]

Helen Gardner, in her excellent essay on As You Like It, makes an interesting and unexplored comment on the nature of comedy: “This aspect of life, as continually changing and presenting fresh opportunities for happiness and laughter, poetic comedy idealizes and presents to us by means of fantasy. Fantasy is the natural instrument of comedy. …”1 Throughout the canon Shakespeare experiments with fantasy...

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Peter G. Platt (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Platt, Peter G. “Wonder Personified, Wonder Anatomized: The Tempest.” In Reason Diminished: Shakespeare and the Marvelous, pp. 169-87. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Platt explores Shakespeare's depiction of the epistemological and aesthetic dynamics of wonder, particularly in regard to the relationship between the marvelous and the real, in The Tempest.]

Unlike The Winter's Tale, where wonder is almost unequivocally embraced as a balm to heal the wounds inflicted by an overly rationalistic world, The Tempest interrogates the marvelous virtually from the outset.1 The play's ambiguous...

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John D. Cox (essay date autumn 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cox, John D. “Recovering Something Christian about The Tempest.Christianity & Literature 50, no. 1 (autumn 2000): 31-51.

[In the following essay, Cox offers a Christian interpretation of The Tempest based upon moral elements in the play, while considering contrasting twentieth-century idealist and materialist readings of the drama.]

Approaches to The Tempest have changed remarkably over the last fifteen years or so, as we have witnessed a shift in favor of postmodern literary theory. At one time, what are now thought of as “idealist” or “formalist” approaches were the only way in which the play was understood. Postcolonial...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Beauregard, David N. “New Light on Shakespeare's Catholicism: Prospero's Epilogue in The Tempest.Renascence 49, no. 3 (spring 1997): 159-74.

Finds evidence of a Roman Catholic, rather than Protestant, perspective in the language of The Tempest's epilogue.

Bender, John B. “The Day of The Tempest.ELH 47, no. 2 (summer 1980): 235-58.

Explores the cultural, literary, and thematic significance of the premiere of The Tempest on the Christian holiday of Hallowmas.

Brooke, Stopford A. “The Tempest.” In On Ten Plays of Shakespeare, pp....

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