James E. Phillips (essay date spring 1964)

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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 withdrawal from active professional life. Others have found it a covert commentary on England's colonizing efforts in the New World, or more generally, on the impact of civilization on primitivism. Some have explained its significance in terms of Christian concepts of ethical and political morality, some in terms of neoplatonic doctrine, and some in terms of Renaissance ideas about white and black magic. Almost all concur, however, in a general feeling that beneath its splendid surface of poetry and theater The Tempest is somehow concerned with man's effort to overcome his worser self. Or as John Middleton Murry put it, “The Island … is what would be if Humanity—the best in man—controlled the life of man. And Prospero is a man in whom the best in man has won the victory: …”2

In their efforts to define “the best in man” as exemplified in The Tempest, all but a few commentators have tended to ignore ideas on the nature of man widely held in Shakespeare's day and frequently expressed in treatises on moral philosophy, learned and popular alike. Theodore Spencer, among the few, has suggested that Renaissance ideas about the animal, human, and intellectual elements in man can be made to account respectively for the character and actions of Caliban, of the conspirators, comics, and lovers, and of Prospero. Ariel is not clearly incorporated into this scheme.3 With similar reference to sixteenth-century thought about the nature of man, Donald Stauffer equated Caliban with “instinct and passion”, Ariel with “Imagination”, and Prospero with “Noble Reason” in interpreting The Tempest as a drama symbolically portraying (among other autobiographical and moral concerns) the ultimate triumph of ethical control over passion.4

Neither critic, however, nor any other that I know of, has observed the striking similarity between the functions of Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban in the play and the functions of the three parts of the soul—Rational, Sensitive, and Vegetative—almost universally recognized and described in Renaissance literature on the nature of man. Upon closer examination, this similarity appears to be more than coincidental. The parallels which I propose to point out suggest, I think, a way of looking at the activities and relationships of the island trio that might contribute ultimately to a more complete understanding of the play as a whole. They cannot be made to account for every detail of the history and character of Prospero and his two aides, nor can they be extended, directly at least, to the other characters and incidents of the play. As Frank Kermode admonishes us in his introduction to the Arden text of the play, the temptation to allegorize Shakespeare is strong but to be resisted; on the other hand, Theodore Spencer, echoing other critics, acknowledges that The Tempest is “a play with so many layers of meaning that no single interpretation can do it justice”. A brief reminder of Renaissance thought about the nature of man and his soul will provide, I hope, an adequate basis for suggesting one more element of meaning in the play.


Studies by Lily B. Campbell, Ruth Anderson, Lawrence Babb, and others have made generally familiar to students of Shakespeare a concept of the tripartite soul widely accepted in his day and expounded in such discussions of moral philosophy as Batman uppon Bartholome (1582), Sir John Davies' Nosce Teipsum (1599), Philippe de Mornay's The True Knowledge of a Mans Owne Selfe (1602), and Pierre de la Primaudaye's The French Academy (1618).5 Ultimately derived from Plato and Aristotle, the concept was also indebted to Galen, Augustine, Avicenna, and Aquinas. In the sixteenth century the soul of man, which animates the body and directs its activities for good or ill, was usually described in terms of three sub-souls, to each of which particular functions were attributed. The lowest of these was known variously as the vegetative or quickening soul. To this soul or power, which man has in common with vegetable and animal life, were ascribed the faculties of nourishment, growth, elimination, reproduction, and the other instinctive physiological processes. Often referred to as the “housekeeper of the body”, charged with supplying the basic needs, the vegetative soul, as Sir John Davies described it, “doth employ her oeconomicke art, / And busie care, her household to preserue”.6 The second sub-soul or power, possessed by man in common with animal life, was known as the sensitive or sensible soul. It includes the faculty of knowing, in the sense of perceiving and apprehending, and the faculty of moving, in the sense of physical and emotional activity alike. The faculty of knowing includes, in turn, the activities of the five senses, and the activities of common sense, imagination or fantasy, and memory. The faculty of moving includes in its turn the power of bodily movement and the power of the passions or affections, as the emotions were termed. The third and highest of the sub-souls, in the possession of which man is unique among all worldly creatures, was variously termed the intellectual power or rational soul. As Professor Babb describes the concept of it generally held in the Renaissance:

It has two divisions—intellectual and volitional, that is, reason and will. The former … is capable of perceiving the essence, not merely the appearance [of things]. It seeks truth through a logical train of thought. It draws conclusions regarding truth and falsehood, good and evil; in other words, it is capable of judgment. The reason determines what is good and what is evil and informs the will of its conclusions. The will because of an instinct implanted in it by God, desires the good and abhors the evil which the reason represents to it. … When the will conceives a desire or aversion, a corresponding passion normally arises in the sensitive soul. Thus the will causes physical action indirectly through the sensitive passions.7

Or as Miss Campbell puts it, “The rational soul has two great powers: … It knows what 'twere good to do and has the power of desiring to do that which it judges good to do.”8

When these three sub-souls or powers operate together in the way God originally designed them to operate, man lives virtuously and knows true happiness in this world. The vegetative soul keeps the organism running. The knowing power of the sensitive soul collects the impressions of experience through the senses and identifies the data by means of the common sense; with the imagination it forms the data into images or transforms them by its creative ability, then evaluates them as pleasurable or painful; and with the memory it retains the data for future use. At this point, the rational soul takes over the data thus processed. Reason proceeds to evaluate it, determining general principles from the particulars, judging what is true and what is false, and above all, distinguishing between good and bad. It so informs the will, which, with its God-given instinct to choose good, decrees man's action accordingly by directing the sensitive soul, in its function of moving, to provide the appropriate emotional response (desire for good, for example, or hatred of evil), and to effect the appropriate physical action through the muscles, sinews, and tendons.

Unfortunately, however, man's tripartite soul does not always function in the way that God intended. As a result of the Fall, man's life and happiness are constantly threatened by a persistent tendency in the soul to short-circuit itself. Or as Davies put it, a “declining pronenesse unto nought, / Is euen that sinne that we are borne withall” (p. 57). That is, the sensitive soul collects and processes the data as it should, but then it by-passes the rational soul and sends the data directly to the motive faculties of the sensible soul. The passions, with no control by the judgment of reason or the moral choice of will, are aroused by what is pleasurable or what is painful, not by what is true or false, good or bad, and they direct action accordingly. And that way lie madness, misery, and death. Consequently, man since the Fall has faced a constant struggle to keep his vegetative and sensitive souls the servants of his rational soul, and above all to keep the passions subject to the control of his reason. In this control lies the essential humanity that distinguishes man from all other creatures. The man who achieves this victory is the virtuous man and therefore, inevitably, the happy man. As Professor Babb concludes, quoting Pierre Charron's Of Wisdom from the English translation of 1606:

The summum bonum, the greatest good possible to man in his earthly life, is ‘tranquillitie of the spirit. … This is that great and rich treasure, which … is the fruit of all our labors and studies, the crowne of wisdome’. To achieve this enviable condition, the reasonable soul must keep continual watch over the sensitive powers and must continually exert itself in curbing them.9

Such, then, is the concept of the nature of man's soul which, even in the latter days of the Renaissance when disturbing doubts were already beginning to be expressed, was still widely accepted.10 Re-examined in the light of this concept, the functions and relationships of Caliban, Ariel, and Prospero take on new meaning.


Caliban has been interpreted by commentators in different ways too numerous to be conveniently detailed here.11 All agree, however, that in Caliban Shakespeare intended to represent some form of life or activity below that of civilized man, whether it be the primitive savage encountered in England's colonial ventures, the monster frequently described in contemporary travel literature, the devil-daemon of black magic and medieval Christian tradition, or the cannibal, from which his name seems to be derived. Many critics see in Caliban a symbol of the brutish or animal element in human nature, a representation of the instincts and passions in man. John E. Hankins, for example, has argued that he is Aristotle's “bestial man”, possessing the attributes of the sensible soul but not those of the intellectual.12

If we regard only the history, the appearance, and the drunken, conspiratorial character of Caliban, each of these suggested interpretations appears plausible. But when we regard the function of Caliban on the island and his relationship to Prospero, his activities are remarkably like those attributed in the Renaissance not to the sensitive or animal soul, but instead to the vegetative or quickening power. Sir John Davies, it will be recalled, in describing the quickening power as it should function ideally, wrote:

Her quick'ning power in euery liuing part,
          Doth as a nurse, or as a mother serue;
          And doth employ her oeconomicke art,
          And busie care, her household to preserue.
Here she attracts, and there she doth retaine,
          There she decocts, and doth the food prepare;
          There she distributes it to euery vaine,
          There she expels what she may fitly spare.
This power to Martha may compared be,
          Which busie was, the household-things to doe;
          Or to a Dryas, liuing in a tree:
          For euen to trees this power is proper too.

(Pp. 63-64)

Like the vegetative part of man's soul, Caliban is the “housekeeper” of the island. Only at the end, of course, does Caliban come to regard his duties with anything like an attitude that might be called “busie care”. But from the beginning the activities expected of him are consistently similar to those assigned to the vegetative soul. Like this lowest power in man, Caliban is regarded as essential to simple existence on the island. When Miranda exclaims of him at the outset, “'Tis a villain, sir, I do not love to look on”, her father replies:

                                                                                                    But, as 'tis,
We cannot miss him: he does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices
That profit us.


Soon these “offices” are more specifically indicated. It was Caliban, we learn, who first provided nourishment for Prospero and Miranda when they arrived on the island, showing them “all the qualities o'th'isle, / The fresh springs, brinepits, barren place and fertile” (I.ii. 339-340). Later, Prospero commands him, “Fetch us in fuel, and be quick, thou'rt best, / To answer other business” (I.ii. 368-369). Even when he would change masters, Caliban speaks of his service function in terms of providing heat, drink, and nourishment. He promises Stephano:

I'll show thee the best springs; I'll pluck thee berries;
I'll fish for thee, and get thee wood enough.
A plague upon the tyrant that I serve!
I'll bear him no more sticks, but follow thee,
Thou wondrous man. …
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 marmoset; I'll bring thee
To clustering filberts, and sometimes I'll get thee
Young scamels from the rock.


Caliban summarizes the housekeeping duties which he has performed for Prospero (and will perform again) when he sings:

No more dams I'll make for fish;
          Nor fetch in firing
          At requiring;
Nor scrape trenchering, nor wash dish.


Finally brought to recognize his true master and his true function, Caliban willingly accepts Prospero's order to trim the cell handsomely (V.i. 290-295). It is possible that we are also meant to identify Caliban with the generative or reproductive functions of the vegetative soul, as well as with its maintenance functions. It does not appear to be the passions of love or lust in the sensitive soul that motivate Caliban's attempt to violate the honor of Miranda, but simply the instinctive urge to reproduce his own kind. As he tells Prospero:

O ho, O ho! would't had been done!
Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.


Apparently he is incapable of thinking of the relationship of man and woman in any other than these fundamental terms, for he later tells Stephano, with reference to Miranda, “she will become thy bed, I warrant, / And bring thee forth brave brood” (III.ii. 102-103). But be that as it may, in all the services that Caliban can and does perform on the island, his powers are consistently limited to those attributed in Renaissance moral philosophy not to the knowing and moving power of the sensitive or animal soul, but to the quickening powers of the vegetative.

As in his functions, so in his relationship to Prospero does Caliban resemble the vegetative soul in its relationship to the nature of man as a whole. A more pertinent examination of this resemblance can better be made when Prospero himself has been considered later. Suffice it to say for the moment that the Renaissance moral philosophers repeatedly insisted that, insofar as man is concerned, the vegetative soul is simply the servant of the higher human powers. As Davies put it, “The best the service of the least doth need” (p. 80). To enumerate Prospero's frequent references to Caliban as “slave” and “servant”, or Caliban's references to the “master” he serves, is probably unnecessary. To this ordained servant, even freedom itself means only that “Caliban / Has a new master”. His relationship to Prospero further resembles the Renaissance concept in the fact that, just as man's vegetative soul, like his sensitive soul, must constantly since the Fall be kept under control by man's rational soul, so also Caliban must constantly, and often by vigorous means, be kept under control by Prospero. Howsoever we may regard Prospero in the Renaissance scheme at this point, the fact in itself that Caliban must be controlled from above in performing his “housekeeping” functions completes the striking similarity to the vegetative or quickening power of man's soul.


Ariel, like Caliban, has been subject to almost as many different interpretations as there are commentators on the play.13 He has been variously explained as Shakespeare's own poetic imagination or, more generally, a symbol of man's higher imaginative powers; as the beneficent spirit or daemon of the elements in Hebrew or Neo-platonic tradition; and as the fairy creature sometimes reported in the travel literature of the period. All agree, however, in identifying him with the spiritual and intangible, in contrast to the earthiness of Caliban. But again, if we regard the activities of Ariel and his function in relation to Prospero, as distinct from his history and character, his similarity to the sensitive soul in Renaissance man appears to be more than coincidental. Not all of the powers ascribed to the sensitive soul by the moral philosophers of Shakespeare's day can be found in Ariel, perhaps, but all of Ariel's functions can indeed be found in contemporary descriptions of this aspect of man's nature.

The sensitive soul, it will be recalled, was regarded in the Renaissance as possessing two classes of powers, the knowing or apprehending and the moving or feeling. In the first of these are found the activities of the senses, which enable man to receive impressions from the world outside himself. As Sir John Davies wrote of man's soul:

She hath a power which she abroad doth send,
Which views and searcheth all things every where.
This power is Sense, which from abroad doth send
          The coulour, taste, and touch, and sent, and sound;
          The quantitie, and shape of euery thing
          Within th'Earth's center, or Heauen's circle found.
This power, in parts made fit, fit objects takes,
          Yet not the things, but forms of things receiues;
          As when a seale in waxe impression makes,
          The print therein, but not itselfe it leaues.

(Pp. 64-65)

And he concludes, with particular reference to the eyes and ears, “These conduit-pipes of knowledge feed the Mind” (p. 68).

One of Ariel's principal functions in The Tempest is reporting to Prospero what he sees and hears, for Prospero himself does not always see or hear the crucial actions he controls. Ariel describes for him the sights and sounds of the storm and the wreck. He announces that he will report to his lord what he has observed of the conspiracy against Alonso (II.i. 321), and what he has overheard when Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo are hatching their plot (III.ii.113). Later, he describes for Prospero the discomfiture of the comic plotters, even to the point of suggesting the smell of “the foul lake” that “O'er-stunk their feet” (IV.i.182-184). And finally, it is Ariel who reports the helpless state of the aristocratic prisoners which is the basis of Prospero's crucial decision to forgive (V.i.7-18).

In addition to the sensory faculties, Renaissance moral philosophers also assigned to the sensitive soul the faculty of imagination, both in its power to retain and recreate images received through the senses, and in its power to create new images. As Professor Babb summarizes the commonly received opinion on this point:

Sensory impressions are next conveyed to the imagination. This faculty can retain and consider them for some time. It evaluates them as pleasant or painful. It has the power of conceiving circumstances and situations other than those existing at the moment and of forming synthetic images from disparate elements as it pleases (hence, centaurs, griffons, and chimeras). This is the creative power of the imagination. It is a faculty which never rests; even when the other sensory and intellectual powers are in repose, a stream of images flows aimlessly through the imagination, and when one is asleep, this stream continues in his dreams.14

This is the faculty which enables man's soul to achieve the remarkable feat of traveling outside the body to any point in time or space. In Nosce Teipsum Sir John Davies marvels at this power:

When she, without a Pegasus, doth flie
          Swifter then lightning's fire from East to West,
          About the Center and aboue the skie,
          She trauels then, although the body rest. …
She is sent as soone to China as to Spaine,
          And thence returnes, as soone as shee is sent;
          She measures with one time, and with one paine,
          An ell of silke, and heauen's wide spreading tent.

(Pp. 31, 45)

Several of Ariel's powers and functions are similar to these attributed to the imaginative faculty in the sensitive soul. In fact, the first thing we hear of him is his sleepless ability to travel instantaneously to any point in space. When Prospero summons him at the outset of the play, Ariel responds:

All hail, great master! grave sir, hail! I come
To answer thy best pleasure; be't to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curl'd clouds, to thy strong bidding task
Ariel and all his quality.


And a few moments later he recalls

                                                                                                    the deep nook, where once
Thou call'dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
From the still-vex'd Bermoothes, …


Prospero acknowledges this power, somewhat backhandedly, perhaps, when in rebuking Ariel for ingratitude he charges that the sprite

                                        think'st it much to tread the ooze
Of the salt deep,
To run upon the sharp wind of the north,
To do me business in the veins o'th'earth
When it is bak'd with frost,


a charge, incidentally, which Ariel promptly denies with “I do not, sir”. Some of Ariel's most important activities in the play, however, are those associated in Shakespeare's day with the creative function of the imagination. Prospero usually wills the poetry, music, and drama that are part of the action, but Ariel is charged with producing the works themselves. He creates the lyric poetry which leads Ferdinand to Miranda (I.ii. 377-405), and the song which alerts Gonzalo to Antonio's conspiracy (II.i. 295-300). He performs, and presumably composes, the music which puts the stranded aristocrats to sleep (II.i. 177-180). He designs, directs, and participates in the lavish spectacle of the banquet, rich in settings, music, and dance, whereby the crimes of the aristocrats against Prospero are revealed to themselves. So effective is Ariel in this particular creative achievement that Prospero compliments him:

Bravely the figure of this Harpy hast thou
Perform'd, my Ariel; a grace it had devouring:
Of my instruction hast thou nothing bated
In what thou hadst to say: …

(III. iii. 83-86)

And finally, of course, at Prospero's command Ariel creates, and acts a principal role in, the masque of Iris and Ceres, a production where, in accordance with Renaissance theories, the arts of music, dance, and poetry are made to serve a moral function by instructing Ferdinand and Miranda in proper pre-nuptial conduct (IV.i. 34-138).

In addition to these functions which Shakespeare's contemporaries associated with the knowing and apprehending part of the sensitive soul, Ariel demonstrates others that are similar to those assigned to the moving and feeling part. In Renaissance moral philosophy, as Miss Campbell has observed, “The sensible soul … is also generally regarded as the soul that has the moving power which resides in the sinews, muscles, ligaments, etc., by which power the soul [i.e., the rational soul] effects its purposes” (p. 67). Or as Davies describes this power in the sensitive soul:

This makes the pulses beat, and lungs respire,
          This holds the sinewes like a bridle's reines;
          And makes the Body to aduance, retire,
          To turne or stop, as she them slacks, or straines.
Thus the soule tunes the bodie's instrument;
          These harmonies she makes with life and sense;
          The organs fit are by the body lent,
          But th'actions flow from the Soule's influence.

(Pp. 74-75)

One of Ariel's principal functions in The Tempest is, of course, to effect the purposes of Prospero. From the raising of the storm in the beginning to the calming of the seas at the end, Ariel regularly puts into action the judgment and will of his master. Again it is worth noting that just as Prospero sees and hears little of the crucial developments directly, so he does little directly in actuating the developments he decrees. It is Ariel who brings Ferdinand to Miranda, leads the conspirators, noble and comic alike, to their respective confusions, brings the mariners back to Prospero, and effects the release of Caliban and his companions—to cite only a few of the ways in which he translates Prospero's will into action. The relationship is epitomized, perhaps, in the dialogue between the two when Prospero suddenly recalls Caliban's proposed rebellion. He summons Ariel: “Come with a thought”. Ariel immediately responds: “Thy thoughts I cleave to. What's thy pleasure?” “We must prepare to meet with Caliban”, his master answers, and Ariel proceeds to carry out the order to fetch the “trumpery” of royal vestments that will trap the conspirators (IV.i. 164-166). So Ariel, like the motive power of the sensitive soul, promptly gives each proportioned thought its act.

With one notable exception there is little evidence in The Tempest to suggest that Ariel, in addition to his sensory, imaginative, and motive powers, possesses the power of feeling or passion attributed by Shakespeare's contemporaries to the moving part of the sensitive soul. As a result, commentators who have concerned themselves with the matter are inclined to deny to Ariel any capacity for feeling or emotion at all.15 But at a critical juncture in the play, Prospero himself seems to attribute such a capacity to his sprite. At the beginning of the fifth act, when Ariel reports that the aristocratic conspirators are now under Prospero's control, he adds:

                                                            Your charm so strongly works 'em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
                                                                                Dost thou think so, spirit?
Mine would, sir, were I human.
                                                                                                                                  And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier mov'd than thou art?

(V.i. 17-24)

This passage suggests that Ariel may feel less deeply than Prospero, but nonetheless possesses a capacity for feeling. In this connection we recall the insistence of Renaissance moral philosophers that man's tripartite soul, when it functions as it was designed to function, brings the passionate potential of the sensitive soul into action only after the rational soul has determined that a true and good cause for an emotional response exists. More will be said on this subject below in connection with Prospero. But at least Ariel's one expression of feeling, as qualified by his master, is not inconsistent with contemporary ideas of the powers of the sensitive soul. Ariel's reiterated demands for freedom, like Caliban's, can perhaps also be better understood when Prospero's function in the scheme is considered. Suffice it to observe for the moment that Ariel's desire to be free of Prospero is in general agreement with the Renaissance view of the sensitive soul as constantly seeking to escape from rational control.


Prospero, variously identified as Shakespeare himself, a magician, a theurgist, a civilizing influence in the colonies, a symbol of art or nurture as opposed to nature, and a representation of higher reason, is recognized by all commentators to be the power controlling all that is and all that happens on the island.16 For many of Prospero's attributes and much of his history, Shakespeare apparently drew on contemporary knowledge of magical art. But whatever the sources of the character, the fact remains that at least some of his more significant functions and relationships on the island are remarkably like those assigned by the Renaissance to that highest of the three faculties in man, the rational soul.

The rational soul, it will be recalled, was thought by Shakespeare's contemporaries to consist of two powers, the reason or wit, and the will, both of which are sustained by the vegetative soul and served by the sensitive. On the basis of impressions collected and processed by the apprehending faculty of the sensitive soul, the reason determines the true and the good, and informs the will accordingly, whereupon the will directs the moving part of the sensitive soul to effect an appropriate action. Enough has perhaps been said above to suggest that the similarity between Prospero's employment of Ariel and the rational soul's employment of the sensitive provides in itself some basis for identifying Prospero's function with that of the rational soul. Also, as we have seen, his constant struggle to keep Caliban and Ariel under his control is consistent with the stuggle which the rational soul has had since the Fall to keep the lower faculties in check. But Prospero's relationship to both Caliban and Ariel also recalls the insistence of Renaissance moral philosophers on the interdependence of the three component powers when man's soul functions as it should. As Davies concluded:

This is the Soule, and these her vertues bee;
          Which, though they haue their sundry proper ends,
          And one exceeds another in degree,
          Yet each on other mutually depends.
Our Wit is giuen, Almighty God to know;
          Our Will is giuen to loue Him, being knowne;
          But God could not be known to vs below,
          But by His workes which through the sense
                    are shown.
And as the Wit doth reape the fruits of Sense,
          So doth the quickning power the senses feed;
          Thus while they doe their sundry gifts dispence,
          The best, the seruice of the least doth need.

(Pp. 79-80)

Prospero's reiterated gratitude to Ariel and, at the end, his willingness to pardon Caliban, suggest a similar recognition of the indispensability of these lower powers to the higher when man is demonstrating his true humanity.

Other aspects of Prospero's role strengthen the parallel with the function of the rational soul. He distinguishes between good and evil, then wills the action necessary to repulse the evil and advance the good. His function in this respect is generally exemplified in the complete direction which he exercises over all three of the principal plot threads in the play—aristocratic conspiracy, comic conspiracy, and love story. He orders the storm which precipitates the action of each. To achieve his virtuous ends he frustrates the aristocrats, misleads the servants, and imposes the test of log-carrying on Ferdinand. Finally, he effects a resolution for all that is just and happy. Even Prospero's deep learning, howsoever we may describe its content, is reminiscent of the fact that Renaissance moral philosophers insisted on the education of the rational soul, particularly in self-knowledge, if it is to achieve the control that God designed it to exercise.17

Although many of his activities and functions thus resemble those attributed to the rational soul alone, Prospero emerges, by the end of the play, as the complete Renaissance man within whose own character the rational will directs all the faculties of the soul toward the attainment of true felicity in this life. It may be worth noting in this connection that Sir John Davies, in describing the three powers of the soul, also recognized three types of men, or creatures, whose basic natures are determined by the domination in each of one of the three sub-souls:

And these three powers, three sorts of men doe make:
          For some, like plants, their veines doe onely fill;
          And some, like beasts, their senses' pleasure take;
          And some, like angels, doe contemplate still.

(P. 80)

But throughout his account Davies is mainly concerned with defining the three faculties as parts of one soul, the soul of man. As he insists at the end:

Yet these three powers are not three soules, but one;
          As one and two are both contained in three;
          Three being one number by itself alone:
          A shadow of the blessed Trinitie.

(P. 81)

In the soul of Prospero it is the triumph of reason over passion that most clearly links him with the contemporary view of the nature of man and human happiness. As Sir Thomas More had observed of his Utopians, they thought true felicity to consist in virture, and virtue to be defined as the governance of reason in human behavior, as nature had ordained.18 More concretely, Juan Luis Vives, in An Introduction to Wisedome, had warned the age with reference to the perturbations, or passions:

As it is … a poynt of treason, that suche lewed perturbations … should rage rebell & take vpon them the rule of the hole man, contemptuously despysynge the auctorytie of the mynde, so it is extreme foly for the mynde, to be slaue vnto fonde affections, and to serue at a becke, the vyle carkeys, neyther the dignitie of nature, neyther the expresse lawe of god, any thyng regarded.19

It has already been suggested, with reference to Ariel, that Prospero keeps under his control and service that faculty in which the passions were thought to reside. But on more than one occasion he demonstrates a considerable capacity for passion in himself. He reveals anger against the complaining Ariel that mounts to fury against the rebellious Caliban, and at the end of the masque he is so perturbed that Ferdinand says to Miranda, “Your father's in some passion / That works him strongly”, to which she replies, “Never till this day / saw I him touch'd with anger, so distemper'd” (IV.i. 143-145). But in all these instances, the passion is made to serve, as passion should, the reasonable ends which Prospero pursues. His triumph is finally, and much more dramatically, illustrated, appropriately enough, at the very climax and turning point of the whole play. Informed by Ariel at the beginning of Act V that his enemies are now completely within his power, Prospero faces the choice of letting his passion or letting his reason direct and determine his action. His decision is the one which Shakespeare's contemporaries would have regarded as the truly virtuous one, and therefore the only one conducive to felicity. Thus he replies to Ariel:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th' quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel:
My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

(V.i. 25-32)

When, shortly thereafter, the conspirators do indeed become themselves again, Prospero describes their recovery in terms of their return to reason's control. “The charm dissolves apace”, he says,

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.

(V. i. 64-68)

And a few moments later he observes again:

                                                                                          Their understanding
Begins to swell; and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore,
That now lies foul and muddy.

(V.i. 79-82)

Prospero is thus not only the reasonable man himself, but he is also the cause of reason in others. And from a Renaissance point of view, men in whom the rational soul has been restored to its proper function can truly be regarded as goodly creatures in a brave new world, and mankind as beauteous indeed.


  1. For a review of interpretations to 1954, see The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (The Arden Shakespeare, London, 1954), pp. lxxxi-lxxxviii. To these should be added the general discussions of the play in Donald Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images (New York, 1949), pp. 301-311; D. C. Allen, Image and Meaning (Baltimore, 1960), pp. 42-66; and Leo Kirshbaum, “The Tempest—Apologetics or Spectacle?”, Two Lectures on Shakespeare (London, 1961), pp. 19-41. All Shakespeare quotations are from Kermode's text in the new Arden edition.

  2. Shakespeare (New York, 1936), p. 332.

  3. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (New York, 1945), p. 195.

  4. Shakespeare's World of Images (New York, [1949]), pp. 304-305.

  5. In the following summary I have relied mainly on Ruth L. Anderson, Elizabethan Psychology and Shakespeare's Plays (Iowa City, 1927); Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes (Cambridge, 1930), pp. 51-72; and Lawrence Babb, The Elizabethan Malady (East Lansing, 1951), pp. 1-20. The last contains a useful bibliography of primary and secondary works on the subject (pp. 189-197).

  6. Nosce Teipsum (1599), ed., from the 1622 edition, by A. B. Grosart, The Complete Poems of Sir John Davies (London, 1876), I, 63. Subsequent quotations are from this edition.

  7. The Elizabethan Malady, pp. 4-5.

  8. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, pp. 66-67.

  9. The Elizabethan Malady, p. 19.

  10. Cf. Spencer, pp. 1-50.

  11. Cf. note 1, above, to which should be added J. E. Hankins, “Caliban as the Bestial Man”, PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association], LXII (1947), 793-801, and N. Coghill, “The Basis of Shakespearian Comedy”, Essays and Studies (1950), pp. 1-28.

  12. “Caliban as the Bestial Man”, p. 799.

  13. Cf. note 1, above, to which should be added W. Stacy Johnson, “The Genesis of Ariel”, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], II (1951), 205-210.

  14. The Elizabethan Malady, p. 3. Babb cites M. W. Bundy, The Theory of the Imagination in Classical and Medieval Thought (Urbana, 1927), Chap. IX, as a fuller account of the subject.

  15. Cf., for example, Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images, p. 305: “Ariel has no human feelings, though he can observe them clearly”.

  16. Cf. note 1, above, to which should be added F. D. Hoeniger, “Prospero's Storm and Miracle”, SQ,, VII (1956), 33-38; G. H. Durrant, “Prospero's Wisdom”, Theoria, VII (1955), 50-58; and Harold Wilson, “Action and Symbol in Measure for Measure and The Tempest”, SQ, IV (1953), 375-384.

  17. Cf. Babb, The Elizabethan Malady, p. 19.

  18. Utopia (London, 1910, “Everyman's Library”), p. 73.

  19. Translated by Rycharde Morysine (London, 1540), sigs. Dii-Diii, quoted in Babb, The Elizabethan Malady, p. 17.

W. H. Auden (lecture date 1947)

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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 Shakespeare's farewell piece. Whether or not Shakespeare was conscious of it is irrelevant. I don't believe people die until they've done their work, and when they have, they die. There are surprisingly few incomplete works in art. People, as a rule, die when they wish to. It is not a shame that Mozart, Keats, Shelley died young: they'd finished their work.

The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was written for a command performance, are the only plays of Shakespeare with an original plot. The Tempest is also his only play observing the unities of time, place, and action—which accounts for Prospero's long, expository narrative at the beginning of the play instead of action. Maybe he made a bet with Ben Jonson about whether he could do it or not.

Lastly, in The Tempest, Shakespeare succeeds in writing myth—he'd been trying to earlier, not altogether successfully. George MacDonald's children's books, such as The Princess and the Goblin, are very good examples of mythopoeic writing. C. S. Lewis remarks, in discussing MacDonald and myth, that

the Myth does not essentially exist in words at all. We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version—whose words—are we thinking when we say this?

For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone's words. … What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all—say by a mime, or a film. And I find this to be true of all such stories. … Any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, “done the trick.” After that you can throw the means of communication away. … In poetry the words are the body and the “theme” or “content” is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul: the words, or mime, or film, or pictorial series are not even clothes—they are not much more than a telephone. Of this I had evidence some years ago when I first heard the story of Kafka's Castle related in conversation and afterwards I read the book for myself. The reading added nothing. I had already received the myth, which was all that mattered.

The great myths in the Christian period are Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, the Wandering Jew. Among the great modern myths are Sherlock Holmes and L'il Abner, neither of which exhibits a talent for literary expression. Rider Haggard's She is another example of a myth in which literary distinction is largely absent. Comic strips are a good place to start in understanding the nature of myths, because their language is unimportant. There are some famous passages of poetry in The Tempest, including “Our revels now are ended” (IV.i.148ff) and “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves” (V.i.33ff), but they are accidental. Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear only exist in words. In The Tempest only the wedding masque—which is very good, and apposite—and possibly Ariel's songs are dependent on poetry. Otherwise you could put The Tempest in a comic strip.

Like other mythopoeic works, The Tempest inspired people to go on for themselves. You can't read Don Quixote without wanting to make up episodes that Cervantes, as it were, forgot to tell us. The same is true of Sherlock Holmes. Great writers such as Cervantes or Kafka can do this sort of thing. On the other hand, so can Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. Browning wrote an extension of The Tempest in Caliban on Setebos, Renan did one in Caliban, and I've done something with it myself.

Let's begin with the comic and rather dull passage that is partly based on Montaigne, Gonzalo's imagination of the Utopia he would create if he had “plantation of this isle” and “were king on't”:

I' th' commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty.
                                                            Yet he would be king on't.
The latter end of his commonweath forgets the beginning.
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of it own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
No marrying ‘mong his subjects?
None, man! All idle—whores and knaves.
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T' excel the golden age.


One of the chief themes of The Winter's Tale is the idea of the Garden of Eden. Here we have an allied theme: the nature of the commonwealth, of the good society, which is presented by a good but stupid character whose fault is the refusal to admit evil in others that he knows to be there. In the commonwealth Gonzalo describes, there would be no money, no books, no work, no authority. This would be possible if all men were angels, which Antonio and Sebastian's reactions alone show they are not, and if nonhuman nature were perfect and obedient. Each character in the play has his daydream. The absence of evil is the daydream of all: of the good like Gonzalo, who shut their eyes to evil in others, and of the bad like Antonio and Caliban, who shut their eyes to evil in themselves.

There are various types of society represented in the play. It opens with the commonwealth of a ship, which is reminiscent of a similar scene in Pericles (III.i)—the parallel between ship and state is conventional. In the storm, authority belongs to those with professional skill: the Master and Boatswain take precedence over the King. The characters of the people are already revealed by their response to the situation: Alonso accepts it, Gonzalo is a little shocked, Antonio and Sebastian are angry. Gonzalo tries to cheer himself up—he tries always to look on the bright side of things. At the end of the opening scene of the play, Antonio says, “Let's all sink with th' King” (I.i.66). Gonzalo should say it—the line is misplaced.

What is society? For St. Augustine, society consists of a group of people associated in respect of things they love. Who has authority in the society of a sinking ship? How is the magic of authority maintained? All the people are threatened by death on the ship. When Gonzalo tells the Boatswain, “yet remember whom thou hast aboard,” he answers, “None that I more love than myself” (I.i.20-22). Everyone is equal in the face of death, as well as of suffering. The magic of authority belongs to the person who has professional skill and courage in a crisis.

After the prologue of the ship in the storm, we listen to Prospero's narrative of the past and look back to two political states, Milan and Naples, which were at enmity with each other. We are not told why. Within Milan itself there was conflict. Prospero, “rapt in secret studies,” entrusted the “manage” of his state to his brother Antonio (I.ii.77, 70). Prospero wished to improve himself, and that takes time, but government has to go on now, which poses a political problem. It is desirable for the best people to govern, but we can't wait—government must go on now.

Does Prospero tempt Antonio? Yes. Since Antonio is actually doing the work of governing, he is tempted to want the position of rightful governor. He abuses his trust and conspires with a foreign state, thereby not only breaking faith with his brother, but also committing treason to his city. Politically, the two states, Milan and Naples, soon become friends. Before, Milan had been independent, now it must pay tribute. Antonio, with the aid of Alonso, turns his brother and Miranda out. Prospero is helped by Gonzalo, who is not strong enough to break with Alonso, since he can't bear unpleasantness, but who won't countenance violence. Prospero loves self-improvement, Antonio loves personal power, Alonso loves political glory somewhat, but mostly he loves his family. He is devoted to his son Ferdinand. There is the curious story that he has been to Tunis for the marriage of his daughter, Claribel. It is suggested—and not denied—that this was an advantageous marriage of convenience, a marriage for family glory. Alonso is a fundamentally decent person who is led by his wishes for his family into deeds of which he has to be ashamed. He regards Prospero as an enemy.

The story of the island's past starts with Sycorax, who was banished from Algiers for sorcery—they would not take her life. It echoes the story of a witch who raised a storm when Charles V besieged the city in 1421. Sycorax gave birth to Caliban, the father being either the Devil or the god Setebos. Sycorax obtains Ariel either in Algiers or on the island, and confines him to a pine tree. When Prospero comes to the island, he releases him and finds Caliban. Sycorax introduces into the play a world of black magic like that of the witches in Macbeth, and her counterfeit city of malice and discord is presented as a parody of the city of concord and love. She saved the city of Algiers by raising a storm, but it was by accident. She can do a malicious deed, but not a good one—she can't release Ariel, for example.

Prospero is like Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he is like the Duke in Measure for Measure in his severity, and as a puppet master, he is Hamlet transformed. Prospero tried to make Caliban a conscious person, and only made him worse. He has lost his savage freedom:

For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king;


and he has lost his savage innocence:

You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse.


Caliban could move from simple feeling to consciousness and from appetite to passion, but no further. He nonetheless remains essential to Prospero and Miranda.

There is a significant parallel between The Tempest and The Magic Flute. The problem posed in both works is the nature of education. Sarastro is like Prospero, the Queen of the Night like Sycorax, Monostatos like Caliban, and Tamino and Pamina like Ferdinand and Miranda. How do people react to education? You must go all the way if you start. You can be lowbrow or highbrow, you can't be middlebrow. Caliban might have been his “own king” (I.ii.342) once, but when he becomes a conscious being, he has to govern himself and he can't. Tamino, like Ferdinand, goes through tests in order to win Pamina. Papageno, who is living off the Queen of the Night, also wants things—he wants to be married. The Priest warns Tamino of his trials, and Tamino professes himself willing to undergo them. Papageno says he'll stay single if he has to submit to tests and risk death. An old woman appears and makes love to Papageno, and he eventually gives his hand to her rather than live a tough life. Though he refuses the ordeal, Papageno does get the prize when the old woman turns into Papagena. Why? He's rewarded because he's willing to pay his own kind of price—to stay single or marry an old woman. Like Monostatos, Caliban wants to have his cake and eat it. Why, through education, should he have to be obliged to exercise self-control? He wants a princess, too. Monostatos says, “Lieber guter Mond, vergebe, / Eine Weisse nahm mich ein”: Dear good moon, forgive me, a white woman has taken my fancy. He wants to force himself on the princess and must be prevented by Sarastro. White magic, the city of love, works beneficently with Miranda, but it has to rule some by fear.

Ariel and Caliban both want freedom. Caliban wants freedom to follow his appetites, Ariel wants pure freedom from any experience. In Renan's version of The Tempest, Caliban goes back to Milan. He revolts and conquers, and says he's angry with Prospero for his deception, for instilling superstition in his subjects. Prospero is arrested by the Inquisition, and Caliban defends and later frees him. Prospero says that now that the people are positivists, no magic will work. But that means no government will work, because people believe only what they can touch and feel.

Hal's kingdom in The Tempest includes Alonso, who resembles Henry IV, a good but guilty king, Gonzalo, who is a nice Polonius, and Antonio, who is like Iago, toned down—he can govern himself, but his ego controls his conscience. It also includes the weaker Sebastian, and Adrian and Francisco, who are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and take suggestion as a cat laps milk. The political reconciliation and equality of Milan and Naples is effected by both good and evil means, by Antonio and Sebastian's plotting as well as by Prospero's. Antonio suggests the death of Alonso to Sebastian, and since no immediate benefit is apparent, one suspects he has a further card up his sleeve. Antonio and Sebastian govern, but also love, their selves. Alonso loves others, especially Ferdinand, and through that love is made to suffer more.

Falstaff's kingdom is made up of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. Trinculo recalls all of Shakespeare's earlier clowns, Stephano resembles Sir Toby Belch, and Caliban recollects both Bottom and Thersites. Together, they resemble the crowds in Henry VI, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus. If Hal's kingdom becomes smaller, less glorious, Falstaff's becomes much uglier. Compare the filthy, mantled pool in The Tempest and Falstaff's being thrown into the water in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Stephano and Trinculo desire money and girls, Caliban wants freedom from books, work, and authority. Their magic is drink, not music, like Prospero's, and they are ruled by appetite. There are differences among them. Trinculo is good-natured, Stephano is quite brave, and both lack the passion that Caliban has, the passion of resentment. Caliban deifies those like Stephano who gives what he likes, not what he ought to like. Caliban, however, is the one who recognizes that Prospero's books—consciousness—are the danger. “Remember / First to possess his books; for without them / He's but a sot, as I am. … Burn but his books” (III.ii.99-101, 103). Caliban is worse, but less decadent, than the townees, Stephano and Trinculo. When Ariel plays on the tabor and pipe, the three have different reactions. Stephano is defiant. Trinculo cries, “O, forgive me my sins!” (III.ii.139). Caliban, on the other hand, is capable of hearing the music:

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 sometime 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 wishes to go back to unconsciousness. Gonzalo, on the contrary, sees Utopia in an ideal future. Both are unrelated to the present. Caliban knows what's to be done when they reach Prospero's cell. Stephano and Trinculo forget it and go for the clothes. On one side, they're not murderous people, on the other, they've no sense of direction.

Then there is the kingdom of Ferdinand and Miranda. Ferdinand is descended from Romeo and Florizel, Miranda from Juliet, Cordelia, and Marina. Both are good but untempted and inexperienced—they think that love can produce Gonzalo's Utopia here and now. In the scene in which they make vows of marriage to each other, Ferdinand says he is willing to serve Miranda and do Caliban's job of carrying logs, and Miranda offers to carry the logs herself. For both of them, love, service, and freedom are the same.

                                                                                To be your fellow
You may deny me; but I'll be your servant,
Whether you will or no.
                                                                                My mistress, dearest!
And I thus humble ever.
                                                                                          My husband then?
Ay, with a heart as willing
As bondage e'er of freedom.


Ferdinand and Miranda are far off both from the witty characters who fight for freedom in the comedies and from the great poetic tragic lovers like Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra. They are not allowed to say the wonderful poetic things that are so suspicious when they're said.

Before he presents the wedding masque to Ferdinand and Miranda, Prospero warns them against lust:

Look thou be true. Do not give dalliance
Too much the rein. The strongest oaths are straw
To th' fire i' th' blood. Be more abstemious,
Or else good night your vow!


In the masque itself, where Ceres represents earth, Iris water, Juno sky, and Venus, sinisterly, fire, there is the curious and interesting remark by Ceres to Iris, that Venus and Cupid had thought

                                                                                                              to have done
Some wanton charm upon this man and maid,
Whose vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid
Till Hymen's torch be lighted; but in vain.


Ferdinand and Miranda don't realize these difficulties and so are spared.

The Tempest ends, like the other plays in Shakespeare's last period, in reconciliation and forgiveness. But the ending in The Tempest is grimmer, and the sky is darker than in The Winter's Tale, Pericles, and Cymbeline. Everybody in the earlier plays asks forgiveness and gets it, but Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, Gonzalo, and Alonso are the only ones really in the magic circle of The Tempest. Alonso is forgiven because he asks to be. He is the least guilty, and he suffers most. Gonzalo, who is always good, needs to be forgiven his weakness. Neither Antonio nor Sebastian say a word to Prospero—their only words after the reconciliation are mockery at Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban. They're spared punishment, but they can't be said to be forgiven because they don't want to be, and Prospero's forgiveness of them means only that he does not take revenge upon them. Caliban is pardoned conditionally, and he, Stephano, and Trinculo can't be said to be repentant. They realize only that they're on the wrong side, and admit they are fools, not that they are wrong. All this escapes Miranda, who says:

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

To which Prospero answers, “'Tis new to thee” (V.i.181-84). And the play hardly ends for Prospero on a note of great joy. He tells everyone:

I'll bring you to your ship, and so to Naples,
Where I have hope to see the nuptial
Of these our dear-belov'd solemnized;
And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.


We come now to the inner and outer music of The Tempest. There are Ariel's songs:

Come unto these yellow sands,
          And then take hands.
Curtsied when you have and kiss'd,
          The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
          Hark, hark!


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,
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:


Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In a cowslip's bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
          On the bat's back I do fly
          After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.


There is music to put people to sleep and to waken them, “strange and solemn music” at the banquet (III.iii.18), “Soft music” for the wedding (IV.i.59), and “Solemn music,” after Prospero buries his staff (V.i.57), to charm the court party. The sounds of the play also include the storm, thunder, and dogs. Some music is associated with Caliban's hate and Antonio's ambition, as well as with Ferdinand's grief for his father. There is more music in the scenes with Prospero and Miranda, Ferdinand and Miranda, and Gonzalo and Alonso than anywhere else in the play.

The nature of the magician, which is legitimately allied with that of the artist in the play, has to do with music. What does Shakespeare say about music in his plays? In the Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo says:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.


In later plays, music is often used as a medicine. The Doctor in King Lear calls for music as Lear awakens from his madness (IV.vii.25). Cerimon in Pericles awakens Thaisa to the accompaniment of music (III.ii.88-91), and Paulina calls for music as Hermione's statue comes to life in The Winter's Tale (V.iii.98). In Antony and Cleopatra, sad music is played in the air and under the earth as we learn that “the god Hercules, whom Antony lov'd, / Now leaves him” (IV.iii.15-16). Balthazar's song in Much Ado About Nothing, “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more! / Men were deceivers ever” (II.iii.64-76) is a warning against the infidelity of men and the folly of women's taking them seriously. In Measure for Measure, when Mariana says that a song has displeased her mirth, “but pleas'd my woe,” the Duke replies by stating the puritanical case against the heard music of the world:

'Tis good; though music oft hath such a charm
To make bad good, and good provoke to harm.


Even the worst of characters, Caliban, is sensitive to music.

Prospero's magic depends upon his books and his robes. By himself he is an ordinary man, not Faustian. He depends also on “bountiful Fortune” and “a most auspicious star” (I.ii.178, 182) to bring his old enemies to the island. What does he do? He says, in his speech to the “elves of hills” and “demi-puppets” that with their help he has

The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azur'd 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 bas'd promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar; graves at my command
Have wak'd their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art.

“But this rough magic,” he says, “I here abjure” (V.i.41-51). The first thing we hear of Prospero doing on the island is releasing Ariel. What magic he does between that action and the storm with which the play begins we don't know and don't care. He raises storms to separate characters so that they may become independent. He allays the water by music, he leads on and disarms Ferdinand, he sends all but Antonio and Sebastian to sleep so that they can reveal their natures, he wakes Gonzalo, he saves Alonso's life, he produces a banquet to force guilt upon the consciousness of the members of the court, he creates a masque just to please the lovers, he engages in fooling Stephano and Trinculo and Caliban, and he produces the solemn music of his charms. With the help of immediate illusions, he leads characters to disillusion and self-knowledge, the opposite of the effects of drink and of Venus.

What can't magic do? It can give people an experience, but it cannot dictate the use they make of that experience. Alonso is reminded of his crime against Prospero, but he repents by himself. Ferdinand and Miranda are tested, but the quality of their love is their own. The bad are exposed and shown that crime doesn't pay, but they can't be made to give up their ambition. That art thus cannot transform men grieves Prospero greatly. His anger at Caliban stems from his consciousness of this failure, which he confesses to, aside and alone—he doesn't explain it to Ferdinand and Miranda:

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.


You can hold the mirror up to a person, but you may make him worse.

At the end Prospero himself asks forgiveness in the epilogue. Some say the epilogue is not by Shakespeare, but it is still beautiful:

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 confin'd by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd 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 reliev'd 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.

Rilke, at the end of his poem “The Spirit Ariel,” writes of the epilogue to The Tempest:

                                                                                Now he terrifies me,
this man who's once more duke.—The way he draws
the wire into his head, and hangs himself
beside the other puppets, and henceforth
asks mercy of the play! … What epilogue
of achieved mastery! Putting off, standing there
with only one's own strength: “which is most faint.”

Rose Abdelnour Zimbardo (essay date winter 1963)

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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 was bored, or because he was pandering to the tastes of a new audience? Is The Tempest a pastoral drama, a dramatic rendition of masque and anti-masque, or a religious parable? To each question there is a most ingeniously contrived reply. But, however sharply the critics disagree in their interpretations of The Tempest, there are two points upon which they stand together almost to a man. The first is that the last plays must be considered together; as Tillyard puts it, The Tempest “gains much in lucidity when supported by the others”.1 The second point of agreement is that all of the last plays are concerned with the theme of regeneration, and that The Tempest realizes this theme most perfectly. It is upon these two points, I think, that the critics are most completely in error. The Tempest does not gain in being considered as part of a thematic whole that includes the others, rather its meaning becomes obscured in such a context. And the first error of tying the plays together leads inevitably to the second; it is always after a recapitulation of Thaisa's resurrection from the sea and Hermione's revival from the dead that the critics make an unjustifiable extension of the regeneration theory to include The Tempest. It is their unshaken belief that regeneration is the theme of the play that makes them slide over the key speech,

Our revels now are ended: 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-capped 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; we are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

This speech and the epilogue sound the keynote, but it is a note that jars with the triumphant harmony that the last plays are thought to express.

The meaning of The Tempest can best be approached if we contrast it with the other late plays. The most immediately perceptible difference between The Tempest and the romances is structural. Almost all critics of the play remark upon the closeness with which Shakespeare adheres to classical formulae in this work, a method both contrary to the poet's usual practice and almost inimical to the traditional structure of romance. For example, the unities of time, place, and action are preserved. Exposition of past action and the presentation of all the characters (except Stephano and Trinculo) occur before the end of the first act. The second act introduces the disturbance that must be resolved by the end of the play. In the third act the turbulence is intensified according to the formula for epitasis. The fourth act continues the epitasis with the threatened revolt of Caliban, but it also prepares for the comic ending with the union of the lovers. The peculiar insistence of the poet upon the classical structure becomes obvious at this point. As Kermode notes, “The apparently unnecessary perturbation at the thought of Caliban may be a point at which an oddly pedantic concern for classical structure causes it to force its way through the surface of the play.”2 The function of the disruption of the masque by the thought of Caliban will be treated later on, but one must agree with Kermode that here as well as elsewhere in the play, the rigorous formality of the structure forces itself upon the reader's attention. It is a fact impossible to ignore that Shakespeare deliberately constructed the play in accordance with neo-Terentian rules. But why, one is led to ask, did he choose so formal a structure in dealing with the extravagant materials of romance? Clifford Leech, in his article on the structure of the last plays has an interesting idea that may shed light on this strange paradox. The last plays, he says, deal not with single, limited incidents, as the comedies and tragedies, for example, do. Rather, they deal with situations that follow upon one another in haphazard concurrence with the flux that is the governing pattern in actual life. That is, in the last plays the beginnings and endings of the plays are not inevitable, but are arbitrarily set, so that we could imagine the characters having more adventures after the ending of the play. In The Tempest, because of the controlling magic of Prospero, the flux is arrested, but it remains as part of the undercurrent of the play, “in contra-puntal relationship to the act-structure”.3 This idea, when it is pursued, can lead us to the heart of the play, for the theme of The Tempest is not regeneration through suffering, but the eternal conflict between order and chaos, the attempt of art to impose form upon the formless and chaotic, and the limitations of art in this endeavor.

In proving this hypothesis, it might be well to begin with an examination of the character of Prospero and the relation of the other characters to him. Prospero is not, as Tillyard would have him, a king who has made a tragic mistake and then repented it, nor is he Wilson Knight's superman, nor Churton Collins' idea of God. It would be going too far to say, with D. G. James, that Prospero is a poet and Ariel his imagination; but without falling into an allegorical interpretation we can safely say that Prospero is an artist of a kind. He uses music, the very symbol of order, in creating his effects, he attempts to manipulate the other characters to the end of creating or preserving order and form. We can say that for Prospero, as for the poet who is creating the play, all time is present and all the action fore-known to and controlled by him. However, to counterbalance this image, which by itself might well cause a critic to mistake him for God, Prospero is also at times irascible, at times a bit ridiculous, and always under necessity to combat those forces of disorder which he cannot control. We might outline his role in this way: Prospero at the beginning of the play is in a position in which he can take his enemies (who represent disordered mankind, since they are usurpers) out of the flux of life—which is emphasized by their voyage from a marriage feast back to the affairs of state. His enemies are Antonio and Sebastian, the center of the forces of disorder, and Alonso and Ferdinand, who will be permanently influenced by their experience; with them is Gonzalo, who already stands on the side of the forces of order. Prospero will place the travellers on an enchanted island which he controls almost completely through order and harmony—I say almost because he cannot wholly bring Caliban, the incarnation of chaos, into his system of order. He takes Alonso, Antonio, and Co. out of the flux of life and into a kind of permanence, a change which Ariel describes:

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.

The process is not one of regeneration into something more nobly human, and despite the interest of the Twentieth Century in Frazier's Golden Bough, there is nothing here that suggests fertility, rather the human and impermanent is transfixed into a rich permanence, but a lifeless one. Potentially corruptible bones and eyes become incorruptible coral and pearls; form and richness are fixed upon what was changing and subject to decay. Prospero takes the travellers out of the world of change and places them on his enchanted island, which is permeated with an ordering harmony. Caliban describes the effect of the harmony upon him,

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That if I 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 wak'd
I cried to dream again.

This harmony first renders the animate inanimate and then reveals riches. Prospero will subject the travellers to the ordering influence of his art. Upon some of them he will impose an order that (we suppose) will stay with them even after they have returned to the world of change, some of them will be influenced only for the moment, as Caliban in the passage quoted, because they are agents of disorder. But in the end, all of them, even Prospero once he has abandoned his art, will have to return to the world of mutability.

I have said that Prospero is an artist who controls through his art. There is no suspense in the play because Prospero can control future as well as present action. His foreknowledge enables him to control all that occurs within the confines of the play. Kermode says that “… the qualities of the poor isle which gave [the characters] new birth, which purged Alonso's guilt and taught the princely skill to submit his fury to his reason, are the main theme of the play” (p. xxx). But the qualities of the isle have nothing to do with Prospero's art. In the exposition he tells us that he brought his art with him to the island, that Sycorax, the very mother of chaos, had employed the qualities of the island before Prospero's art brought them under the control of form and order. Nor can we believe that Prospero has yet to bring his fury under the control of reason. If he really had to wait for Ariel to persuade him to mercy, would he have arranged the union of his daughter with Ferdinand? Prospero has already brought order to himself and his island before the play opens. In the play he will take disordered men out of the world and place them under a control that has already been established. There is no real conflict in Prospero's world and therefore no suspense. The play is not one in which the theme evolves, it is rather displayed. The characters who are, as Pettet suggests,4 more than half pasteboard, are lined up as representatives of order or disorder. Open conflict between the two forces never really occurs, but we are shown the ways in which chaos is always threatening to overflow the boundaries which form has set upon it. And finally we are shown by Prospero the nature and limitations of his art.

We must first discuss the forces of order and the forces of chaos as they are lined up in the scheme of the play. Prospero, of course, is the center of order, but Ferdinand and Miranda, under his tutelage, become agents of order, and Gonzalo represents an order of his own which exists even before he is manipulated by Prospero. It is significant that the images of an orderer and creator are applied to Gonzalo as well as to Prospero. For instance, in the scene where we first encounter Gonzalo, Antonio and Sebastian are mocking him thus,

His words are more than the miraculous harp
He hath raised the wall and houses too.
What impossible matter will he make easy next?
I think he will carry this island home in his pocket and give it to his son for an apple.
And sowing kernels of it in the sea, will bring forth more apples.
[having pondered] Aye.

Gonzalo, who we are told in the exposition was the one man who aided the exiled Prospero, is described by the men who mock him as a builder, a planter of seeds. It is true that he is a comic character; much of what he says is ridiculous. But the desire for order in a world governed by change is, to an extent, ridiculous. Prospero lives on an enchanted island where his word is law. Gonzalo lives in a world of mutability, governed by agents of disorder, like Antonio. His dream of order in such a world is bound to seem ridiculous. It is significant, however, that Gonzalo is made to long for the return of a golden age.

                                                                      … treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun or need of any engine
Would I not have; but Nature should bring forth
Of its own kind all foison, all abundance
To feed my innocent people.

Preposterous as it is, his account of an ideal kingdom makes its point. His fantasy is, at least, constructive; the chaffing of Antonio and Sebastian, destructive. There are two tests provided in the play that distinguish the advocates of order from the agents of disorder: obedience to laws governing political order, and obedience to laws governing personal, emotional order.

The emphasis that Prospero puts upon chastity and the sanctity of marriage has been interpreted as an indication that this play is a kind of elaborate fertility rite, or that a new, more mature love relationship is being considered here. But the love of Ferdinand and Miranda, as love, is unimportant. The lovers hardly come alive as characters, there is little actual wooing involved, and since we know from the beginning that Prospero approves of the match, suspense plays no part in our reaction to the love affair. But why should Prospero impose the rather meaningless task of log-carrying upon Ferdinand, and why should he be so insistent in urging the lovers to be chaste until the marriage ceremony is performed? Surely in comedy or romance the audience takes for granted that the lovers will be chaste until the wedding day. If there were to be some conflict involved, some reason to suspect that they would break, or at least be tempted to break, their promise to Prospero, this would be sufficient reason for the emphasis that he puts upon their vow of chastity. But Ferdinand and Miranda are so obviously chaste, so obviously obedient, that one questions why the issue should be raised at all. The answer is that ceremony, vows, all attempts to train human behavior to order are important. Ferdinand is made to carry logs, not because logcarrying is necessary, but because he must submit himself to the discipline of a test to win Miranda. He must submit will and pride to order, and when he does, Prospero gives him Miranda as “thine own acquisition / Worthily purchased”. Chastity before marriage is necessary because it is part of the formal code to which human beings must submit that life may be meaningfully ordered. Ferdinand vows chastity in the hope of gaining “quiet days, fair issue and long life”, a good and orderly existence, not wildly romantic love. He promises not “to take the edge off the [wedding] day's celebration”. The emphasis is not upon love, nor upon fertility, but upon order, ritual, ceremony.

However, the emphasis is not achieved through action (Ferdinand's trial is purposely made the dull chore of carrying logs) but through contrast. If Gonzalo, Ferdinand and Miranda, with Prospero in the fore, are the creators of and submitters to a system of order, Antonio and Sebastian, Stephano and Trinculo, with Caliban in the center, are creators of disorder. Again the two qualities that distinguish them as agents of chaos are sexual intemperance and the refusal to submit to political authority. Since Caliban is the very incarnation of chaos and an active creator of disorder (as Prospero is of order) it may be well to consider him first. Kermode has said that Caliban is the natural man, unqualified for nurture and existing on the simplest level of sensual pain and pleasure. But Caliban is not just nature stripped of grace and civility, he is unnatural; he is not simply unformed nature, he is deformed. He is not only incapable of receiving form, but he is also potentially able and eager to extend his own disordered nature. To begin with, Caliban is not a pastoral figure, a natural inhabitant of the island. He is not a man at all, but is “legged like a man and his fins like arms”, he is an unnatural half-man, half-fish. His very birth was inhuman, for his mother was Sycorax, a witch, and his father was the devil; he is, therefore, the offspring of active malignancy. G. Wilson Knight has said that Caliban is part of Prospero's nature, basing his argument upon the speech at the end of the play wherein Prospero owns Caliban his. But Caliban is not part of Prospero, he comprises that element of the disordered that Prospero's art cannot reach, and Prospero claims him as a deficiency or limitation of his art. Caliban is actively opposed to Prospero's order. Prospero cannot enchant him into goodness, he controls him with agues and pinches. Caliban is a “lying slave / Whom stripes may move not kindness”. At times he can be enchanted by the harmony of the island, but only for brief moments. Prospero's order must be constantly enforced and preserved against the ever-threatening encroachment of Caliban's disorder. It is significant that it is those very bulwarks of order, temperance and obedience, those qualities which Prospero so insistently exacts from Miranda and Ferdinand, which Caliban's disordered nature resists. In the first scene in which the monster appears we learn that his past response to the ordering influence of Prospero has been an attempt to ravish Miranda. His thwarted design is the desire to “people … this isle with Calibans”, almost a symbol of chaos threatening to overwhelm order. The idea recurs when Caliban promises Stephano that Miranda “will bring thee forth brave brood”. Just as Ferdinand's obedience to order promises to reward him, after due ceremony and in proper time, with “fair issue”, so Caliban's rebellion against order threatens to people the isle with monsters or drunken usurpers. This brings us to the second manifestation of Caliban's disordered nature, rebellion. G. Wilson Knight's description is apt. Caliban, he says, “symbolizes all brainless revolution such as Jack Cade's in 2 Henry VI, and the absurdity of the mob mentality in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.5 The whole scene with Stephano and Trinculo is an exquisite parody of the power-quest theme. Stephano's attempts at high diction, “by this hand I will supplant some of thy teeth”, and “the poor monster's my subject and he shall not suffer indignity”, are delightfully comic. But there is a serious undertone throughout. Caliban's mistaking a drunken churl for a god, the alacrity with which he would exchange worth for worthlessness,

A plague upon the tyrant that I serve!
I'll bear him no more sticks, but follow thee
Thou wondrous man.

But more important is the unrelenting malignancy of Caliban. Stephano and Trinculo are clowns who are drunken and silly; they can be diverted from their usurpation by the sight of a few glittering garments, but Caliban's is an active evil. He prods them to their task constantly with, “When Prospero's destroyed”, and “Let's alone and do the murther first”. His will is set upon the destruction of order and goodness even when he has almost nothing to gain from his revolt, for he is, after all, merely exchanging one master for another. He has promised the same service to Stephano that he had begrudged Prospero, “I'll pluck thee berries / I'll fish for thee, and get thee wood enough”. His expected freedom is illusory for he has already pledged himself to slavery. His desire then is for the destruction of order and the creation of chaos.

Just as Gonzalo represents Prospero's kind of order as it appears in the world outside of the enchanted island, so Antonio represents Caliban's kind of disorder as it appears in life. Antonio, like Caliban, promotes evil for its own sake. He has nothing to gain from the usurpation by Sebastian of Alonso's throne, yet he prods Sebastian into rebellion and attempted murder for the sake of disrupting order. G. Wilson Knight finds countless verbal and imagistic echoes of Macbeth in the scheming of Antonio with Sebastian. This scene, by recalling the tragedies and histories, achieves a seriousness of tone that is rather startling in the atmosphere of the enchanted island. The serious undercurrent that runs through the Caliban-Stephano-Trinculo scenes here breaks the comic surface, and evil for its own sake, the urge of disorder to extend itself, stands fully revealed. Of course, Prospero's magic can control this manifestation of disorder; Ariel wakes Alonzo, and all the travellers are put under a spell; but this control is only temporary. As Wilson Knight says, “… poetic honesty leaves Antonio's final reformation doubtful” (p. 213).

This brings us to the final question considered by the theme, the limitations of art in imposing order upon chaos. Prospero is a great artist, as we have said, but he is not to be confused with God. He has limitations. In the first place, he is mortal. His great art is a power which is not constant but which is assumed and which must finally be abandoned. Prospero's humanness is revealed to us at the very beginning of the play in two different scenes. The first is that in which he is revealing his past history to an almost completely inattentive Miranda. “Dost thou attend me?”, he asks. “Thou attend'st not”, he gently chides. “I pray thee, mark me”, he insists. A slight diminution from the great magician to dear old Daddy occurs here. But in the scene with Ariel where the mighty magician threatens the wisp of a spirit, “If thou murmur'st, I will rend an oak / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howl'd away twelve winters”, Prospero earns the name that many critics have bestowed upon him of a crusty and irascible old pedant.

But though the artist is proved a man, that does not answer the question of the limitations of his art. What, we must ask ourselves, does Prospero's art finally accomplish? It has established an ordered future for Ferdinand and Miranda; it has wrought a permanent change upon Alonzo; but it has not been able to touch the deeply disordered natures of Antonio and Sebastian and it had never been able to fix form upon Caliban. Prospero's art then can order what is amenable to order, but it can only affect temporarily that which is fundamentally chaotic. W. H. Auden seems to have recognized this problem of the inadequacy of Prospero's art. At the end of “The Mirror and the Sea” he has a stanza which is Antonio's:

Your all is partial, Prospero
                    My will is all my own
Your need to love shall never know
                    Me! I am I, Antonio
By choice myself alone.

The will, the refusal to submit to order, is at the center of the evil that cannot be reached by Prospero's art.

Prospero is himself aware of the limitations of his art. The masque which has been the jumping-off place for so many of the theories that would describe the play as a fertility celebration, is, we are told by Prospero, only the enactment of his wishes for the blessing of an ordered life upon Ferdinand and Miranda. He describes the figures in the masque as,

                    Spirits which by mine art
I have from their confines called to enact
My present fancies.

The masque reveals Prospero's desire for order and goodness, but his wish cannot be realized unless those upon whom he wishes this blessing themselves desire it. The masque is simply the projection of Prospero's imagination; it shows its frailty by dissolving when the great artist thinks of something else. The stage directions are quite explicit at this point. “They join with the nymphs in a graceful dance, toward the end whereof Prospero starts suddenly and speaks, after which to a strange hollow and confused noise, they heavily vanish.” Prospero tells us that they are airy nothing, and as they vanish, he warns, all the endeavors of men at creation, palaces, cloud-capped towers, solemn temples are doomed to fade away. It is significant too that it is the recollection of Caliban, the threat of disorder and the coming of chaos, that drives the masque into thin air. The ordering influence of art can throw up only temporary bulwarks against change, disorder and decay. Prospero is fated, at last, to abandon his art and his enchanted island and to return to being a mere man in a world of change, facing final decay:

Now my charms are all o'erthrown
And what strength I have's my own
Which is most faint. …
                                                  … Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant
And my ending is despair
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer. …

Only in a world of art, an enchanted island, or the play itself, does order arrest mutability and control disorder; but art must at least be abandoned, and then nothing is left mankind but to sue for grace.


  1. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Last Plays (London, 1954), p. 49.

  2. Frank Kermode, Introduction to The Tempest (The New Arden Edition, London, 1954), p. lxxv.

  3. Clifford Leech, “The Structure of the Last Plays”, Shakespeare Survey 11 (1958), p. 27.

  4. E. C. Pettet, Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition (New York, 1949).

  5. G. Wilson Knight, The Crown of Life (London, 1947), p. 211.


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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.

Robert Brustein (review date 4 December 1995)

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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 puppets, Indonesian shadow play, Caribbean carnivals, Macy's Day floats, Asian stiltwalkers, death masks, stick dancing, magical transformations effected through a haze of smokepots. Don't look to spend any quiet time here. The stage is in constant motion. This may be the busiest Tempest in history.

It has the advantage of a confident central performance by Patrick Stewart in the role of Prospero, the wronged Duke of Melon (this actor's way of pronouncing “Milan”). Best known to American audiences as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stewart comes to the part with considerable stage experience, particularly in England (perhaps this explains why his bio is seven times the length of any other actor's). Although Stewart is clearly better trained for Shakespeare than William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy, his star presence nevertheless tilts the production, It's hard to believe that this cool self-possessed Englishman could be father to Carrie Preston's hyperactive Miranda or brother to Nestor Serrano's hot-blooded Antonio. Stewart represents a calm island of RSC acting in a confused sea of American multiculturalism. Usually, two worlds are represented in The Tempest; here I counted at least eight.

Alas, none of them is very deeply probed. Aside from Serrano's Antonio, a darkly brooding misanthrope with considerable emotional resources, few of the other characters display an internal life. Even Stewart left me relatively unmoved, though he certainly enjoys moments of transcendence, particularly during his renunciation speech, spoken with great suffering at the pace of snails making love. I would guess that Wolfe lavished more time on devising theatrical effects than on deepening character or clarifying action. This is understandable, given his need to hold a distracted spectator's attention in big spaces like the noisy Delacorte and the cavernous Broadhurst. But I left the theater thinking that, rather than being a transplant, this Tempest truly belonged on Broadway, in company with such other stage spectaculars as Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard.

In the tradition of current historical revisionism, Wolfe has interpreted the play as a critique of European imperialism. Not only Caliban but also Ariel behave with overt hostility toward their slaveholding colonial master. Because these black islanders treat Prospero more like a malignant Simon Legree than a benign Robinson Crusoe, lines like “So, slave, hence!” and “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” ring with new racial meaning. Something is gained in this interpretation. Something is also lost. Played by Aunjanue Ellis in what looks like a decaying Balmain gown. Ariel always seems to be scowling and threatening other characters when she is not hopping, dancing and twirling as if auditioning for Merce Cunningham.

As for Caliban, Wolfe's casting and directing of Teagle F. Bougere in the role strikes me as a major miscalculation. His head shaven and painted red (he looks like he's wearing a colorful bathing cap), Bougere is a slender actor with a winning quality, given to broad smiles, worldly winks and graceful bows. He'd make a fine Puck. I'd even like to see him play Ariel. But a smiling, worldly, winning, graceful Caliban? In his effort to redeem the natives, Wolfe seriously underplays Caliban's brutal, lecherous quality. This “monster,” after all, represents man in a state of nature (his very name is an anagram for “cannibal”). Wolfe also chooses to gloss over the fact that, rather than being allies, Caliban and Ariel fear and loathe each other, and that he almost raped Miranda.

And what a Miranda! Behaving as if she trained for the part by flipping between network sit-coms, Carrie Preston indulges in such goofy glandular mannerisms she manages to persuade us that the girl is not only ignorant but simpleminded. Preston is mismatched with Paul Whitthorne's lyrical Ferdinand. Trinculo and Stefano are simply tiresome vaudevillians. And the courtiers, with the exception of Serrano and MacIntyre Dixon's gentle Gonzalo, seem to be as stranded in their characters as in the Bermoothes.

What I did admire were the elements of physical production: Riccardo Hernandez's setting—a circular ramp, miraculously covered with sand after the opening storm at sea; Paul Gallo's shafts of pinpoint lighting; the thunderous sound design of Dan Moses Schreier; Barbara Pollitt's mask and puppet designs; Hope Clarke's lively choreography; and the usually unendurable masque of Juno, Ceres and Iris (played on stilts). All of Wolfe's design collaborators, in fact, have united to provide a visual and aural feast. And the epilogue constitutes a breathtaking piece of stagecraft, as Prospero, with no art left to enchant, speaks his lines in front of a disappearing set, revealing a naked stage wall illuminated by bare stage lights. But because of Wolfe's emphasis on racial divisions, a play about forgiveness is not sufficiently allowed to enjoy its reconciliations. Near the end of the show, Antonio refuses Prospero's hand, and Caliban almost clubs him. Shakespeare's isle “is full of noises / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” Wolfe's enchanted island is certainly full of delight. But, lacking sufficient human dimension, it offers not much depth or warmth. …

Mariacristina Cavecchi (review date 1997)

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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, I am suggesting that the filmmaker reinterprets the Shakespearean text as a mannerist text and creates a new, artificial, and mannerist world by making use of devices and techniques which constitute a cinematic equivalent to Shakespeare's theatrical illusionism. He exasperates and amplifies those aspects, which were already there in Shakespeare, where the sense of the crisis makes itself felt most fully and explicitly (Hoy 49-67),2 namely the meta-dramatic reflection upon the concept of art and the work of art-artist-spectator relationship and the mannerist tendency to disrupt the spatial unity and to combine things from different spheres of reality (Hauser).

In spite of his cinematic translation and exasperation of certain Shakespearean “tricks,” the filmmaker imposes his meaning on the original text and, by reducing it to a formal mechanism and to a huge stock of images and languages, he creates his own cerebral world which, in turn, offers him the opportunity for a discourse upon the cinema. The film is directed by a filmmaker who is also a painter, who tries to redefine the properties of the filmic frame. Greenaway's magic, like Prospero's, is a strange mixture of science and art. If Shakespeare, like Prospero, is a playwright who exploits all his “charms” (Tempest 1)3—namely, the technical tricks of his days, to stage “the direful spectacle of the wrack” (I.ii.26)—Greenaway uses both conventional film techniques and the resources of high-definition television to layer image upon image, superimposing a second or third frame within his frame. As a matter of fact, his use of the digital Graphic Paintbox, which he defines as the “newest Gutenberg technology” (Greenaway, Prospero's Books 28),4 offers a relatively new way of producing cinematic space; and the frame, no longer two-dimensional, reveals multiple layers of spatial dimension. One of those layers refers to the plot traced by Shakespeare's plays; the others are not chronologically or spatially continuous with previous frames. Since Greenaway's premise is that Gonzalo stowed away twenty-four magic books on the leaky boat he provided for Prospero and Miranda's escape from Italy, his film opens each book, offering the spectator the possibility to read Prospero's developing play in relation to the books he has already read. Each book is placed over the frame of the play's action, only partially covering the image, so that it gives virtually every frame at least two space-time orientations.

The film shows the enactment of the plot of The Tempest as Prospero writes and delivers it. We see and hear Prospero building up the scene before us while we simultaneously witness him taking pleasure in this creation. The magical force of his words conjures up his characters before our eyes in elaborate dumb shows.

Within the space of a completely artificial world Greenaway offers his audience spatial dynamics that counterbalance Shakespeare's dramaturgical design. Throughout his film Greenaway/Prospero creates two different space fields: the space of word and the space of image. The word/image juxtaposition parallels not only the relationship of a playwright to a scene—of Prospero/dramatist to Prospero/actor—but also that of a filmmaker to his spatial field. Prospero's activities can thus be interpreted as a metaphor for director Greenaway's filmmaking strategies and for Gielgud's long career as a Shakespearean actor. What prevails is this deeply complex identification, Prospero-Gielgud-Greenaway-Shakespeare, which is crucial in a film characterized by the continuous interplay of parallel creations, reflections, overlaps, and duplications.


Greenaway experiments with the possible relationships between the word pronounced, written, and materialized; and in the film there is an extraordinary amount of writing: words etched—in air, on water, in stone, on parchment, in the image itself—create a dimension of writing, unusual for the cinema. In addition, Prospero's books are obviously placed prominently and written pages and sheets of paper are scattered throughout the film. The film is also highly literary and self-referential in its constant reminders that The Tempest is a text: Greenaway conceives the play as Prospero's own creation and we see the magician-play-wright speaking each verse until the final act, as well as his pen as it moves across the parchment. The recurring image of the inkwell is like a “magician's hat” (Rodgers 15), where anything can appear, as an acknowledgment of Shakespeare's creation of the original text. According to Greenaway himself, the film “deliberately emphasizes and celebrates the text as text, as the master material on which all the magic, illusion and deception of the play is based” (9). As a matter of fact, from the very beginning Greenaway emphasizes the importance of books, and the film opens with Gielgud as a voice-over uttering the words from The Tempest as he writes them in close-up: “Knowing I lov'd my books, he furnis'd me / From mine own library with volumes that / I prize above my dukedom” (I.ii.166-68).

Greenaway presents shots of Prospero standing white and naked, like a De la Tour St. Jerome or a Bellini St. Anthony (Prospero's Books 39-40),5 in a bathhouse, which he deftly contrasts with his close-ups of words being written on a blank sheet of crisp, off-white paper. Prospero begins to conjure up the idea of a scenario for a storm by using the single word “boatswain.”6 He plays with this word by experimenting with different recitative styles and by repeating it ruminatively, curiously, interrogatively, while close-ups of the word, handwritten on a sheet of paper, repeatedly fill the screen. The evocation of the word “boatswain” in conjunction with the first book of the film, which is the Book of Water, supposedly compiled by Leonardo Da Vinci,7 opens the film; and this link between the ink and the tempest in a game of interference between the graphic sign and the image referent is significant.


Thanks to the classical/manneristic columns of the bathing room, the architectural capriccios scaled prophetically to Piranesi's Romanticism, the books superimposed, and the connotation of characters and situations with reference to precise figures and tableaux vivants in the history of painting, there is an artificiality about that world, deeply reminiscent of the theater itself. But the spectacle of the shipwreck is enhanced by a plurality and density of images, achievable only through cinema.

Thus the tempest is created through an accumulation of metaphors: a series of associations with watery elements, linked together by the recurring image (and the loud and abrupt noise) of drops of water splashing—in slow motion—into a black pool, probably also an echo of Gonzago's words “every drops of water swear against it” (I.i.56) and authorial self-reference to the first sequence of Greenaway's film Making Splash (1984). Pages from the Book of Water are the first to be framed with their drawings of seas and climate and with the small design of an ink-drawn galleon floating on the choppy water. This same three-masted galleon (or a similar one) is soon seen in the hands of Prospero, who sets it on the bath water where it trembles and bucks in the rough water caused by the urinating (but the word used by Greenaway in his film script is “peeing”) Ariel—a Spirit of Air inspired by the dancing child in Bronzino's mannerist masterpiece Allegory of Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time.8 As Prospero, in the bathhouse, is confronted by a mirror-image from the Book of Mirrors of the drenched ship's company, the storm he has conjured up becomes a reality (but one might ask which level of reality) and on the line “Out of our way, I say!” the sound track suddenly grows more complex with the “massive burst of aggressively musical sound” by Michael Nyman (Greenaway 43). When the peak of magic is attained we see a pattern of alternative images of smiling Ariel, hovering above the edge of the bath-side and still urinating into the pool; of a full screen flame (appearing eight times throughout the sequence), probably an echo of the strong perception of fire in Ariel's vision of the shipwreck in The Tempest (I.ii.196-206); and of Prospero dressing himself with linen under-robe and a black cloak, magically changing its color, to look like the Venetian Doge Leonardo Loredan in Bellini's portrait.

At the very beginning of the film the audience realizes that Greenaway attempts to create a very particular kind of illusionism. In the decision to create an outdoor effect indoors, the filmmaker follows Shakespeare's mounting a storm complete with a shipwreck on an indoor stage.9

Indeed in Shakespeare it is a bravura staging device and the effect dictates the ruling conceit for the whole play. The Tempest, in fact, depends on the initial illusionism of the shipwreck scene, which is the verification of Prospero's magic and the declaration that it is all the work of illusion, a harmless “spectcle” (I.ii.26). Against the scenery of the Banqueting House at Whitehall,10 the shipwreck is set off by Prospero's magic, consisting in scenic and mechanical skills, the same magic Inigo Jones deployed in his masques. At the beginning of the play the spectators watch the “direful spectacle of the wrack,” which they recognize as having the conventions of Elizabethan courtly drama. There is nothing in the text to suggest any doubt about what they are seeing and the brief scene is marvelously evocative as well as terminologically exact. But this first perception of the shipwreck is then replaced by the compelling pictures of Miranda's (I.ii.1-13) and Ariel's (I.ii.195-206) perspectives, alluding to the other spectacle of the theatrical devices employed to mount the storm.11 The pattern of shifting perception (Pierce 167-73) characterizes The Tempest as a play which consistently arouses, challenges, and disappoints the spectators' expectations. The audience is being kept in suspense and like the courtiers in the shipwreck is never shown which layer of illusionism is presented on the stage.

In Prospero's Books, the image of the model galleon, which is also a hint at the special effects of the cinema (since many storm scenes have been shot using model ships), is followed by an accumulation of images and figures taken from literature and painting and therefore existing at a different level of reality (or illusion). Spirits impersonating classical and Old Testament myths associated with water—such as Moses, Leda, Neptune, a drowning Icarus, Jason, Hero, Leander, and Noah—indicate the growth and wrath of the storm.12 The storm is also visualized through reference to painting and in particular, according to Greenaway himself, to Botticelli's Birth of Venus: the storm of papers swirling around the library, constructed to look like a facsimile copy of Michelangelo's Laurentiana Library in Florence, is in fact stirred up by naked mythological figures standing on tables, grouped in pairs, their cheeks puffed out, like Botticelli's winds. But, as a matter of fact, this intertextual reference to the winds also has a different source, since Robert Fludd used the image of the blowing winds in the frontispiece of his Meteorologia Cosmica (Yates 60), which is a source of inspiration for Greenaway's Book of Universal Cosmography.

In the film, far from any attempt at realism, Prospero's island has become a place of illusion and deception, full of superimposed images, shifting mirrors, and mirror images where pictures conjured by texts, such as the one of the galleon, can be “as tantalizingly substantial as objects; and facts and events constantly framed and re-framed” (12). Thus, the film's multilayered narrative, with Prospero writing the story in which he is also a character, is matched by a kaleidoscope of images inset in other images so that Shakespeare's island “full of noises” (III.ii.133) and voices, since Prospero's is just one of the possible versions of the story—Caliban's, for example, is a different one—has become an island overflowing with superimposed images derived from the original text by association and contiguity.

In the film I have identified three main kinds of relationships between the images which contribute to visual density: frames-within-frames, mirrored images, and iterated images.


In Prospero's Books framing and re-framing becomes “like a text itself—a motif—reminding the viewer that it is all an illusion which is constantly fitted into a rectangle, into a picture frame—a film frame” (12). The recurring geometrical figure of the film—that of a rectangle, alluding to the frame, to the proscenium arch stage, and also to the cinema screen—reveals Greenaway's deep concern with the medium he is using, so that the references to theater, literature, and painting contribute to his self-conscious reflection upon the cinema, its nature, and its possibilities. Thus, there is an interesting coincidence between the number of the books and the twenty-four frames a second in cinema, and often in the film the camera frames Prospero's image reflected in a TV screen; in particular, at the end of the film, on the last lines of the Epilogue, the camera retreats on Prospero's close-up to show, disruptively, that it is a close-up on a huge screen.

Greenaway uses the frame-within-frame as the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare's play-within-play: it offers him the possibility to analyze the work of art/artist/spectator relationship; and, besides, however imperfectly, each frame-within-frame undermines the credibility of the surrounding action. He not only revives this Shakespearean device but he also exasperates and exploits it to the utmost so that almost every frame contains a frame within or refers to one outside the screen by means of intertextual quotations to literature, architecture, art, etc.

Frame-within-frames and mirrors contribute to that representation of different kinds and levels of reality, which is a feature Shakespeare himself shared with sixteenth-century mannerist painting (Hoy 49-67).

In The Tempest Shakespeare deals centrally with ideas and concepts of art, and in Prospero's magic he gives full expression to a theme close to the core of his artistic self-consciousness. Despite its realistic dialogue and details, the shipwreck is a show, and in the Epilogue (1-20) Shakespeare deliberately eliminates any barrier between the play world and the real. The audience is invited to enter the play world and assume a role since their hands must release Prospero and their “gentle breath” (Epilogue 11) supply the “auspicious gales” (V.i.314) which he has promised Alonso. The Epilogue thus serves as a bridge between play and audience: a transitional link between art and reality (Egan 171-82).

The artful world of Prospero's Books is built upon different levels of illusion as well: the world of animated books melts into the world of the written words on the off-white pages and into the images of the bathing room with its many columns. The model ship itself enjoys different levels of illusion since it is at the same time an animated picture in a book, a model galleon on the desk of Prospero/dramatist, a toy in his hands as actor, and it is actually the ship transporting the members of the court. In addition, the film animates textual images: the Vesalius Anatomy of Birth disgorges bloody organs, while from the Book of Architecture three-dimensional buildings spring out like models in a pop-up book and Prospero is shown descending “textual” stairs. Furthermore, each character enjoys inter-textual links with literature and painting and the island is referenced with the architecture, paintings, and classical literature Prospero has imported. Greenaway delights in baffling the audience as to where reality (if there is one) actually turns into illusion.


Mirrors are also recurrent in the film, adding a further layer of illusion and therefore a further element of confusion between reality and illusion. But these mirrors, held by minions and spirits of a Roman/Greek/Renaissance mythology, are very particular “distorting mirrors” (Eco 25-28) since they reflect Prospero's imaginings—good and bad—as though he always needs a mirror to make them manifest. In the first sequences of the film we first see Prospero reflected in the carried mirror and soon after, with a flash, the mirror shows what Prospero sees, the victims of the storm.

The recurring rectangular mirrors contribute to enrich the “framing game” and, because of their nature, to disrupt the link mirror image/image referent,13 therefore reflecting optical illusions.


As a matter of fact, repetition is a fundamental recurring stylistic device in The Tempest. … Lexical repetition is largely responsible for the incantatory appeal of The Tempest (Bower 131-50, McDonald 15-28).

In the same way the film derives much of its metaphoric power from the interplay of repeated images during a sequence, such as the images of the galleon or of the inkwell, or the visual allusions to fire and water. In addition, the Shakespearean text undergoes a further process of duplication; just to quote an example from the first scenes, Shakespearean lines such as “Bestir, bestir” (I.i.4) or “Here, master: what cheer?” (I.i.2), and on the one hand, are repeated more than once as if they were an echo effect, and on the other hand, are also reiterated by Prospero's writing them in full screen many times. In the film the characters are multiplied, too: Gielgud interprets two Prosperos and Ariel is played by four actors.

Verbal patterns are congruent with and supported by larger networks of reiteration, most of them narrative and structural; the symmetries and parodic constructions are obvious in The Tempest and many critics have pointed to the density and congruity of its mirrored actions, which are even more emphasized in Greenaway where the mechanism of doubling is further amplified by multiple intertextual references. The Tempest is also flagrantly intertextual and this audacious kind of authorial self-cannibalism contributes another layer of complexity, on which Greenaway himself feeds (Liberti 24).

The prominence of the figure of repetition in both the verbal style and dramatic structure of The Tempest encourages the audience to analyze the linguistic and structural patterns for meaning, but the text never fulfills the expectations of clarity which the discovery of such patterns engenders (McDonald 15-17). Since order and comprehension are continually promised but never thoroughly realized, the audience participates directly in the atmosphere of evanescence and instability of the play.

Iteration of images, characters' multiple layers of illusion, mirrors and frame-within-frames in Prospero's Books work in the same way and carry out the same function to entice the audience by promising and withholding illumination, demonstrating the impossibility of “significational certainty and creating an atmosphere of hermeneutic instability” (McDonald 16). As a matter of fact, Greenaway's film is informed with a precise pattern made up of the twenty-four magic books,14 but this pattern is built up by an intricate network of allusions and intertextual references so that, in the end, the filmmaker provides the elements of spectacle but leaves the task of ordering them to the viewer, who becomes, therefore, the final interpreter of the film's shape.15 The audience is thus established as the subject of the film, occupying a polysemic site where a multiplicity of possible meanings and intertextual relations intersect. To the Shakespearean text Greenaway adds a visual and conceptual density that seems to defy any possibility of finding a stable pattern or meaning. What Derrida terms “the seminal adventure of the trace” (“Structure Sign and Play” 265) is nowhere better exemplified than in Greenaway's film. We move around among the sights, sounds, and accidentals which constitute the film, assembling and disassembling meanings as they fleetingly present themselves.

Prospero's Books is a cultural caprice: The flow of textuality overflows the traditional barriers of what we use to call a “text” into what Derrida calls a “differential network, a fabric of traces, referring endlessly to something other than itself” (qtd. in Atkins and Bergeron 40). The visual and symbolic hyper-stratification and the endless process of quotations lead to a disruption of the filmic unity so that the film absorbs The Tempest's imagery and text and turns into an encyclopedic container of images drawn from literature, painting, architecture, music, etc. By presenting too much to take in at a glance, Greenaway pushes to the limit his ideal of a “painterly cinema” (Masson 36-37) and to complete the effect, text, image, and sound constantly blur into each other in an infinite overlapping of languages and images: “Words making text, and text making pages, and pages making books from which knowledge is fabricated in pictorial form” (Greenaway, Prospero's Books 9).

Like the written word, the oral word also changes into a visual image: The linguistic richness and nuances of Shakespeare's characters turn into the powerful and authoritative, but monotone, voice of Gielgud-Prospero, who speaks the Shakespearean lines aloud, shaping the characters so powerfully through his words that they are conjured before us. In Greenaway's mannerist (or post-modern) interpretation, the Shakespearean word becomes flesh, or metal, or any of the other metamorphoses the books exhibit. A mannerist hieroglyphic. A post-modern hieroglyphic. Celluloid. Cinema.


  1. “Since the film is deliberately built and shaped around the writing of the text of The Tempest, the script follows the play, act by act and scene by scene, with few transpositions and none of any substance to alter the chronology of the original. There have been some shortenings, the greatest being the comedy scenes with Stephano and Trinculo” (Greenaway, Prospero's Books 12).

  2. See also Georg Weise, Il Manierismo (Firenze: Olschki, 1976).

  3. The Arden edition of The Tempest has been adopted throughout this study.

  4. See also John Wrathall, “Mosaic Mindscapes,” Screen International 824 (September 13, 1991): 16-18; and Michael Ciment, “Une conflagration de l'art,” Positif 368 (October 1991): 43.

  5. See also Liberti 22-24.

  6. In an interview with Adam Barker, Greenaway notes that the first word of the play is “Bosun … which is a very interesting word because it is one that is never written down. It was used by seamen who were basically illiterate, so that when they came to write the word down it was ‘boatswain. It's a nice opening point about the topsy-turvy use of oral and written language” (28).

  7. According to Greenaway, Da Vinci “was an indefatigable enthusiast for the quality, motion and substance of water and an ideal authority to consult in the creation of a tempest” (Prospero's Books 38). It is also to note the fascinating analogy between Leonardo's calligraphy in his drawings and Greenaway-Prospero's handwriting. See also J. Kott, “Prospero's Staff,” Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London: Methuen, 1964): 197-202.

  8. It is Greenaway himself who gives the indication in Prospero's Books 42.

  9. The Tempest was the first play Shakespeare unquestionably wrote for the Blackfriars rather than for the Globe. It was besides presented by Shakespeare's company at court on Hallowmas Eve in 1611 and again during the winter of 1612-13, as part of the astonishing round of entertainment provided during the period of the Elector's visit, particularly between the betrothal and the marriage. See Frank Kermode's introduction to The Tempest, Arden Edition, xxixxii.

  10. A sustained attempt to visualize a court performance of the play is Sir Ernest Law's “Shakespeare's Tempest as originally produced at Court,” Shakespeare Association Pamphlet (1919).

  11. For a visualization of the performance see also Anna Anzi Cavallone, Varie e strane forme. Shakespeare: il masque e il gusto manieristico (Milano: Edizioni Unicopli, 1984): 55-61.

  12. In one of the sections of Greenaway's exhibition Watching Water (Venice, Palazzo Fortuny, June-September 1993), the video A Walk through Prospero's Library (1991) presents one by one all the characters that in Prospero's Books are somehow connected with water.

  13. The expression “image referent” is my translation of Eco's referente dell'immagine (20; see also 9-37).

  14. “I have not infrequently made use of mathematical structures, numbers and counting as an adjunct and companion to the narrative of a film. As author in control of the plot I can choose and dictate the fall-out of events from any number of infinite possibilities—which is a very volatile state of affairs, suggesting the ephemerality of fictional narrative”; (Greenaway, Watching Water 28).

  15. “I am interested in an audience that moves, that is not necessarily subject to a fixed frame, that does not have to remain in a fixed seat. Audiences that move are not unknown, but they are rare. Should we attempt to achieve audience movement as a prerequisite of cinema” (Greenaway, Watching Water 49)?

Works Cited

Atkins, G. Douglas, and D. M. Bergeron. Shakespeare and Deconstruction. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.

Barker, Adam. “A Tale of Two Magicians.” Sight and Sound (May 1991).

Brower, Reuben A. “The Mirror of Analogy.” Shakespeare: The Tempest: Casebook Series. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Buchman, Lorne M. “Spatial Multiplicity: Pattern of Viewing in Cinematic Space.” Still in Movement. Shakespeare on Screen. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure Sign and Play.” The Structuralist Controversy. Ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1970.

Eco, Umberto. “Freaks: gli specchi deformanti.” Sugli specchie e altri saggi. Milano: Bompiani, 1985.

Egan, Robert. “This Rough Magic: Perspectives of Art and Morality in The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly XXIII. No. 2 (Spring 1972).

Greenaway, Peter. Prospero's Books. A Film of Shakespeare's The Tempest. London: Chatto & Windus, 1991.

Greenaway, Peter. Watching Water. Milano: Electa, 1993.

Hauser, Arnold. Der Manierismus. Die Krise der Renaissance und der modernen Kunst. München: C.H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Oscar Beck, 1964.

Hoy, Cyrus. “Jacobean Tragedy and the Mannerist Style.” Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973).

Liberti, Fabrizio. “Autoreferenzialità di Prospero's Books.” Cineforum 311 (Jan.-Feb. 1992).

Liberti, Fabrizio. “Prospero e San Girolamo.” Cineforum 311 (Jan.-Feb. 1992).

Masson, Alain. “This insubstantial pageant. Prospero's Books.” Positif 368 (Oct. 1991).

McDonald, Russ. “Reading The Tempest.” Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production 43 (1991).

Pierce, Robert B. ‘“Very Like A Whale: Scepticism and Seeing in The Tempest.Shakespeare Survey 38 (1965).

Rodgers, Marlene. “Prospero's Books—Word and Spectacle. An Interview with Peter Greenaway.” Film Quarterly 45.2 (Winter 1991-92).

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Arden edition. London: Methuen, 1989.

Yates, Frances. Theatre of the World. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Virginia Mason Vaughan (essay date winter 1985)

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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 toward primitive man. Shakespeare's monster once represented bestial vices that must be eradicated; now he personifies noble rebels who symbolize the exploitation of European imperialism.

Caliban's malleability derives, perhaps, from his scant 180 lines and his ambiguous image in Shakespeare's text. In the 1623 Folio (where The Tempest was first printed), Caliban appears in the cast of characters as a “salvage and deformed slave.” Of his slavery the text leaves no doubt: throughout the play he is called a slave, and he ruefully admits it himself. The text is also persistent, though imprecise, about Caliban's deformity. Before the monster appears on stage, Prospero says that except for Caliban, the island had not been “honored with a human shape” when he arrived (I.ii.282-83); later Prospero calls Caliban a “mis-shapen knave” (V.i.268). But the play's only details about Caliban's appearance are several references to fish-like features. Trinculo initially calls him a “fish” who is “Legg'd like a man; and his fins like arms” (II.ii.25-35). On closer view, however, Trinculo decides that “this is no fish, but an islander” (II.ii.36-37). Later Trinculo describes Caliban as a “debosh'd fish” (III.ii.25) and “half a fish and half a monster” (II.ii.28). Near the end of the play Antonio refers to him as “a plain fish” (V.i.266). Prospero once calls him “thou tortoise” (I.ii.317), though the epithet probably refers to Caliban's dilatoriness rather than to his appearance. Not surprisingly, Caliban has often been portrayed on the stage or in illustrations with scales, fins, and other aquatic attributes.

“Monster” is Caliban's most frequent sobriquet. The term appears in the text 40 times, usually with a pejorative adjective: “shallow,” “weak,” “credulous,” “most perfidious and drunken,” “puppyheaded,” “scurvy,” “abominable,” “ridiculous,” “howling,” “drunken,” “ignorant,” and “lost.” Only “brave” might be considered a favorable modifier, but it is almost certainly meant sarcastically. More neutral are “servant-monster,” “man-monster,” and “poor monster.” To the extent that monster implies physical deformity, these abundant reminders strengthen the notion of Caliban as grotesque. They do nothing, however, to clarify our picture of him.

Neither do other references to Caliban. He is often called “mooncalf,” suggesting stupidity and an amorphous shape. According to Pliny's Natural History, translated into English in 1601, a mooncalf is “a lumpe of flesh without shape, without life.”2 Once Caliban is called “this thing of darkness,” possibly to imply a dusky skin though more likely to indicate a faulty character. And once Prospero calls him “thou earth.” On other occasions he is termed “a freckled whelp hag-born,” and once he is “Hag-seed.” Several times Caliban's parentage—his mother was an Algerian witch, his father was the devil—is invoked, as in “demi-devil” and “a born devil.” From this confusion of epithets no clear image emerges. Shakespeare seems to have invited his actors and directors to see Caliban however they wished. They have not been reluctant to accept his invitation.


Edmond Malone reported in his 1821 Variorum edition that Caliban had always appeared dressed in animal skins:

The dress worn by this character, which doubtless was originally prescribed by the poet himself, and has been continued, I believe, since his time, is a large bearskin, or the skin of some other animal; and he is usually represented with long shaggy hair.3

How Malone knew what Shakespeare prescribed we cannot say. The closing of all public theatres during the Interregnum destroyed all but the most scattered clues about how Shakespeare's plays were originally performed. When the playhouses opened again in 1660, Shakespeare's fellow actors were dead; the theatre as Shakespeare had known it was transformed to suit Restoration audiences.4

In 1660 William Davenant, who claimed a close relationship with Shakespeare, formed an acting company under the Duke of York's patronage. An agreement of 12 December 1660 gave Davenant's actors exclusive rights to nine of Shakespeare's plays, including The Tempest. But Shakespeare's text struck Davenant as unsuitable for Restoration tastes. Collaborating with John Dryden, in 1667 he produced an adaptation: The Tempest; or, The Enchanted Isle. Dryden and Davenant simplified Shakespeare's characters, added an extra boy and girl (Hippolito and Dorinda) and a she-monster named Sycorax, inserted moralistic songs and sayings, and rearranged scenes and changed episodes—all in accord with contemporary notions of decorum. Dryden and Davenant also padded the Stephano-Trinculo plot with two new sailors, Ventoso and Mustacho, who join in comic machinations to take control of the island and to win the affections of Sycorax. This version, later combined with songs and scenes from Shadwell's operatic treatment (1674), became extremely popular.5 Other operatic productions were staged in the 1690s (Purcell), 1756 (Garrick), and 1776-79 (Covent Garden). Even non-operatic versions had more music, song, and dance than Shakespeare's text indicates. From the Restoration to the mid-eighteenth century, then, The Tempest was a musical extravaganza.

Caliban in the Dryden-Davenant Tempest is a lecherous drunk. As a burlesque slave to Stephano and Trinculo, he makes love to his sister, Sycorax. Later he tries to couple Sycorax with Trinculo, a scheme motivated by his own ambition. Caliban's lines from the original Tempest are so cut and altered that he becomes the epitome of monstrousness, a non-human symbol of human iniquity.

Shakespeare's text portrays Caliban as a primitive man who poses basic questions about the values and benefits of Jacobean “civilization.” In the Dryden-Davenant Tempest, this function belongs to Hippolito, a beautiful young man who is kept in a cave by Prospero, separated from Miranda (and her sister Dorinda), because of the magician's fear that the youth will be destroyed by a woman. Hippolito is of noble birth but is brought up without the benefits of culture and education. He was designed by Davenant, says Dryden in his Preface to the 1670 edition, as a counterpart for Miranda. Hippolito is “a Man who has never seen a Woman; that by this means those two Characters of Innocence and Love might the more illustrate and commend each other.”6 Drawing upon long-established European traditions, Dryden and Davenant may have meant Hippolito to represent a benign version of the wild man.7 He lives in a state of nature. He uses reason to understand his world, but he is unsophisticated in the courtly arts of love and dueling. He does not understand the difference between love and lust, nor can he comprehend that he is to pledge himself to one woman only. Dorinda, Miranda, Ferdinand, and Prospero undertake his education, and as the play concludes it is Hippolito who exclaims “O brave new world that hath such people in't!”

Where does that leave Caliban? He is no longer natural man but a savage monster who reflects European fears of the non-European world. Two of Dryden's mariners reveal their conception of “salvages”:

Our ship is sunk and we can never get home agen: we must e'en turn Salvages, and the next that catches his fellow may eat him.
No, no, let us have a government; for if we live well and orderly, Heav'n will drive the Shipwracks ashore to make us all rich, therefore let us carry good Consciences, and not eat one another.(8)

Dryden's Caliban is just such a “salvage.” As the play closes, he resolves to be more wise, but he is incapable of suing for grace as did Shakespeare's Caliban.9

When Samuel Pepys saw The Enchanted Isle, he described it as “the most innocent play that ever I saw.” He admired the Dryden-Davenant echo song between Ferdinand and Ariel, but he did not mention Caliban.10 In ensuing years, this version—with songs and scenes from Shadwell's opera added—played continually to crowded audiences. This Tempest was produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, almost every year from 1701 to 1756, its popularity unabated.

In March 1756, however, David Garrick, actor-manager for the Drury Lane, experimented with a new operatic Tempest. Garrick pruned Shakespeare's lines, incorporated Dryden-Davenant material, and added 32 songs by John Christopher Smith. Larded with arias for the major characters, the opera had even less space for Caliban. In an early scene, Trinculo refers to Caliban as an amphibious monster, but no sooner is the “dear tortoise” introduced than he is forgotten. The opera contains no resolution to the Stephano-Trinculo subplot except a drinking song in Act III.11 This opera, not surprisingly, failed. After a short run and some bad reviews, Garrick admitted defeat and closed it.

The following year (20 October 1757) Garrick offered a new version, billed as “written by Shakespeare.” It returned to the First Folio, minus 432 lines and with 14 added. Part of Garrick's growing effort to restore Shakespeare's original text, the production was a success.12 It ran nearly every year until 1787, when John Philip Kemble substituted his own acting text. Kemble reintroduced Dorinda and Hippolito, but he eliminated Sycorax, Ventoso, and Mustacho. His Caliban had Shakespeare's original lines.13 This hodgepodge persisted until 1838 when William Charles Macready returned to Shakespeare's text.

Despite the paucity of details about the actors who played Caliban during the Restoration and the early eighteenth century, it is clear that Caliban was a minor role. Actors were selected for a voice and figure that could portray the monster's grotesque qualities. Edward Machan, a lame actor who failed as Richard III, acted Caliban at Phillips' Booth in Bartholomew Fair during 1749.14 Edward Berry (1700-1760), Caliban in Garrick's restoration of the original text, was notable for his huge body and booming voice and was accused of howling on all occasions.15 James Dance, also known as James Love (1721-74), acted Caliban at Drury Lane from 1765 to 1769. As one commentator notes, “Roles like Jaques, Sir Toby Belch, Caliban, Jobson, and Falstaff were suited to his manner, his unwieldy figure, and a voice described … ‘as somewhat asthmatical, and abounding with many inharmonious tones.’”16

Caliban was also played by comedians who had some musical talent. Charles Bannister, Drury Lane's Caliban for nearly thirty years (1777 into the 1800s), was praised for a voice “which he used … both as a tool of the mimic's trade and with near-operatic skill in dramatic singing.” He also boasted a “Herculean figure.”17 Another comedian, Charles Blakes, portrayed Caliban from 1759 to 1763. Blakes sang sea songs during most intervals. In Tempest productions, this must have seemed an appropriate pastime for the fishy monster.18

Caliban's relative insignificance to eighteenth-century productions is understandable. Caliban did not suit the age's notions of comedy. As early as Shadwell, argues Stuart M. Tave in his study of eighteenth-century comic theory, theatre critics had “ruled out natural imperfections as fit objects for satire.” Caliban's grotesque deformities were not the proper vehicle for good-natured wit. Moreover, his natural folly was inappropriate to an art form that should deal with artificial follies. Only with the Romantic movement's appreciation of humor mixed with pathos could theatre-goers respond to Caliban's poetic imaginings and longing for freedom.19

Caliban did not suit the eighteenth-century definition of a Noble Savage. If anyone in the Dryden-Davenant version had that role, it had to be Hippolito. In an age of reason that believed “the proper study of mankind is man,”20 Caliban was too irrational, too inhuman, to warrant serious consideration. To generalize broadly, the eighteenth century was concerned with mankind as a social unit, civilized by generally accepted norms of behavior and commonly held beliefs. The poet's province was human nature—the collective wisdom of human experience. Thus, when Samuel Johnson praised Shakespeare in his Preface, he admired the poet's “just representations of general nature.”21 Subhuman, idiosyncratic, passionate (as opposed to rational), and uncivilized, Caliban was not likely to become the age's favorite dramatic character.

Unlike the Noble Savage, Caliban did not point to the possibility of progress by civilized man if left untrammeled by social institutions.22 Instead Caliban suggested the absolute need for such institutions. Like Gulliver's Yahoos, Caliban's monstrousness revealed the lower aspects of human appetite. Since he represented bestial desires without the control of right reason, he could never be considered sympathetically as a human being.

Caliban's image would shift with the times. With the rise of romanticism, the Noble Savage no longer had to be a man of reason. He could be instead a creature of emotion and sensibility. He could be seen as one who depended on intuition for a direct apprehension of nature. Like Wordsworth's poet, Caliban could express his natural affinities in the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”23 As a result, Caliban's image was to change drastically during the nineteenth century.


In the early nineteenth century, Caliban's role became more desirable. When John Emery (1777-1822) played Caliban to John Philip Kemble's 1806 Prospero, he captured more than the audience's laughter, according to an anonymous witness:

… this roughness as well as awe, Emery most inevitably displayed, particularly in the vehement manner and high voice with which he cursed Prospero, and the thoughtful lowness of tone, softened from his usual coarse brutality, with which he worshipped his new deity. … [He] approached to terrific tragedy, when he described the various tortures inflicted on him by the magician, and the surrounding snakes that “stare and hiss him into madness. …” The monster hugged and shrunk into himself as he proceeded, and when he pictured the torment that almost turned his brain, glared with his eyes, and gnashed his teeth with an impatient impotence of revenge.24

Emery's dramatic interpretation invoked elements of Caliban that had been neglected in earlier productions. Now there was scope for Caliban's poetic sensibilities and tragic suffering as well as for his grotesquerie.

Contemporary critical assessments of Caliban also revealed a shift from dismissal based on his lack of enlightened reason to a romantic appreciation of his poetic suggestiveness. In his lecture on The Tempest (1811-12), Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Caliban not as a sotted monster, but as a “noble being; a man in the sense of the imagination, all the images he utters are drawn from nature, and are highly poetical.”25 William Hazlitt agreed. He saw Caliban as Shakespeare's portrait of “the human animal rude and without choice in its pleasures, but not without the sense of pleasure or some germ of the affections.”26

In the privacy of their studies, Coleridge and Hazlitt were free to respond to Shakespeare's original text. Yet on stage, both at Drury Lane and at Covent Garden, the Kemble-Dryden-Davenant version persisted. William Charles Macready played Prospero in 1821, 1824, and again in 1833, but he did so unhappily. Later he described the acting version he was forced to use as a “melange that was called Shakespeare's Tempest, with songs interpolated by Reynolds among the mutilations and barbarous ingraftings of Dryden and Davenant.” Macready found the performances tedious and lamented that his role was a “stupid old proser of commonplace which the acted piece calls Prospero.”27 It is not surprising then that when in 1838 Macready revived the Tempest as Shakespeare had originally conceived it, the new production confirmed the romantic critics' more sympathetic conceptions of Caliban.

Caliban was by then a more important character, played by George Bennett, an actor who excelled in tragic as well as comic roles. Besides Caliban, he was remembered for performances of Sir Toby Belch, Pistol, Enobarbus, Bosola, and Apemantus. Bennett's performance inspired at least one member of the audience to see Caliban in a fresh light. Bennett, argued Patrick MacDonnell, delineated “the rude and uncultivated savage, in a style, which arouses our sympathies.” To MacDonnell Caliban was no longer merely a comic butt; he had become “a creature, in his nature possessing all the rude elements of the savage, yet maintaining in his mind, a strong resistance to that tyranny which held him in the thraldom of slavery.”28 Bennett began the stage tradition of lunging at Prospero during the opening confrontation, then recoiling from a wave of the magic wand, and finally writhing in impotent fury.29 Here the modern Caliban, victim of oppression, was born.

Macready's Tempest ran for 55 performances, netting an average income of 230 pounds a night. In his journal Macready confessed his pleasure: “I look back on its production with satisfaction, for it has given to the public a play of Shakespeare's which had never been seen before, and it has proved the charm of simplicity and poetry.” Macready's journal entries indicate that even when he felt he had been “cold” or “indifferent” in the part, he was well received and generally called back by the audience.30

Macready's innovative production was soon followed by rival versions. Two surviving promptbooks provide valuable insights into Caliban's new role. The first was Samuel Phelps's (1804-78) at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1847. Phelps had performed with Macready at Covent Garden and portrayed Antonio in the 1838 Tempest. When Parliament withdrew the exclusive privileges of Drury Lane and Covent Garden in 1844, Phelps formed a company that specialized in higher drama. In his 1847 Tempest Phelps acted Prospero; George Bennett again portrayed Caliban.

According to the promptbook, the 1847 Caliban was still fairly bestial. Nevertheless, he was a man-beast, not simply a monster. His first entrance is carefully described: “Enter Caliban. Opening L of Flat / Crawling out on all fours as a Beast, rises & threatening Prospero, who raises his wand & checks him. Caliban recoils as if spell struck” (p. 24).”31 As he describes the fresh springs and brine pits, Caliban is to be “stamping and gabbling with fury” (p. 25). (Much of this stage business was to become standard, repeated in promptbooks throughout the century.) Prospero's reminders of his magical power make Caliban afraid, and he exits “tremblingly.” He rebels in II.ii, indignantly discarding his burden of wood. He drinks thirstily throughout the scene, while crawling and kneeling at Stephano's feet. In III.ii Caliban, like Stephano and Trinculo, is literally falling-down drunk. Says the promptbook: “Caliban speaks his other speeches either kneeling or sitting on all fours like a beast” (p. 62). When Ariel mischievously causes Stephano to strike Trinculo, “Caliban shows a strong and savage expression of joy” (p. 64). This Caliban is surely comical, but both in his anger and his poetry he displays human dignity.

By the mid-nineteenth century Shakespearean drama was being acted regularly in America as well as in England.32 On 11 April 1854, the comedian William Burton portrayed Caliban at his own theatre in New York. Visitors from the Northeast thronged to his theatre to see Burton impersonate Dickensian characters. They expected broad and coarse humor. His Caliban, however, was more than comic. His friend and biographer W. L. Keese recalled that

His Caliban we have tried to forget rather than remember, it terrified us and made us dream bad dreams, but for all of that, we know that it was a surprising impersonation.33

An anonymous author, writing in the New York Times on 20 June 1874, recalled Burton's Caliban:

A wild creature on all fours sprang upon the stage, with claws on his hands, and some weird animal arrangement about the head partly like a snail. It was an immense conception. Not the great God Pan himself was more the link between man and beast than this thing. It was a creature of the woods, one of nature's spawns; it breathed of nuts and herbs, and rubbed itself against the back of trees.

The stage directions from Burton's promptbook bear out this portrayal. Throughout his speech to Prospero (I.ii), Caliban “roars or yells with rage.” His gaberdine is a large skin, not a cloak. Later he clings to Stephano's keg, growls when he loses it, and paws Stephano's leg to get it back again. Burton's Caliban was meant to be animal-like; and his ferocity was awesome.34

Prompt copy for Charles Kean's extravagant 1857 production at the Princess's Theatre is equally revealing. In accord with standard stage business, John Ryder's Caliban flies at Prospero after his opening speech and then shrinks back when Prospero extends his magic wand. The gaberdine scene is milked for all its humor with the following interplay:

Trinculo nudges Stephano not to give all the wine to Caliban and then goes round at back to RH. Cal takes a long pull at the bottle. Trin. looks at him in surprise. Cal turns and looks savagely at Trinc.35

Ryder's costume was later described in Thomas Barry's acting edition:

Brown fleshings, covered with hair, green nails, toes and fingers, fins on shoulders and arms, calf of legs, webbed fingers and toes, goggles on eyes, wolf skin skirt, wild wavy wig, beard, and moustache.36

In the Kean costume book at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Caliban has long toenails and fingernails and is covered with bushy brown fur.37 The era of the apish Caliban had begun.


During the mid-nineteenth century, costumes such as John Ryder's emphasized Caliban's animal characteristics. Occasionally, however, the costumer went to extremes. Dutton Cook insisted in a 1871 review that George Rignold's “Caliban is perhaps needlessly repulsive of aspect, and the tusks and pasteboard jaws worn by the actor have the disadvantage of hindering his articulation.”38 Despite such difficulties, from Emery's performance on, actors conveyed not only Caliban's savagery but his tragic sense of Prospero's injustice. The result was performances human in their emotional power, animal in appearance and behavior.

The conception of Caliban as an amphibian, somewhere between brute animal and human being, was made more explicit and timely in Daniel Wilson's book, Caliban; the Missing Link (1873). Wilson associated Caliban with Darwin's missing link; to him, Shakespeare's monster personified the evolutionist's theoretical “intermediate being, lower than man.” Wilson noted Caliban's fishlike appearance and related it to Darwin's view that humanity evolved from some species of aquatic animal. At the same time he contended that “though by some scaly or fin-like appendages, the idea of a fish or sea-monster, is suggested to all, the form of Caliban is, nevertheless, essentially human.” Wilson concluded that “We feel for the poor monster, so helplessly in the power of the stern Prospero, as for some caged wild beast pining in cruel captivity, and rejoice to think of him at last free to range in harmless mastery over his island solitude.”39

Gradually Caliban the ape man evolved on stage. Lady Benson recalled in her memoirs that in preparation for productions of The Tempest during the 1890s, F. R. Benson “spent many hours watching monkeys and baboons in the zoo, in order to get the movements and postures in keeping with his ‘makeup.’” She described his costume as “half monkey, half coco-nut,” and noted that he “delighted in swarming up a tree on the stage and hanging from the branches head downwards while he gibbered at ‘Trinculo.’” Benson also initiated the stage business (continued by Beerbohm Tree) of appearing with a real fish in his mouth.40

Tyrone Power's costume for the 1897 Augustin Daly production was similarly apish. The color sketch in Daly's souvenir album shows a human form covered with brown fur. He wears a green tunic (shades of Tarzan) and sports metallic scales around his calves. His long nails and hairy face bespeak his animal qualities; his erect posture and expression suggest the human.41

Power's costume, according to a New York Times critic (7 April 1897) is conventional, but his ‘mask’ and wig are “most unhappy, while his delivery of the poetry lacks melody.” To William Winter, reviewer for the New York Daily Tribune (also 7 April 1897), Caliban represented a “brutish creature, the hideous, malignant clod of evil, in whom nevertheless, the germs of intelligence, feeling and fanciful perception are beginning to stir.” Winter praised Power's “half-bestial, half-human aspect, the rude grisly strength, the intense, sustained savage fury and the startling gleams of thought.” However one judges Power's performance, it is clear that he—and Daly—saw Caliban as a precivilized missing link. Caliban the ape man had crossed the Atlantic.

Beerbohm Tree also stressed Caliban's humanity in his production of 1904. In the preface to his acting edition, Tree argued that Caliban had a human shape and that “in his love of music and his affinity with the unseen world, we discern in the soul which inhabits this elemental man the germs of a sense of beauty, the dawn of art.”42 Tree's costume consisted of fur and seaweed; significantly, he also wore a necklace of shells and coral. When this Caliban hears the island's music, he dances and tries to sing. At the beginning of Act III, scene ii, he listens to the isle's sweet music while weaving a wreath of flowers for Stephano: “Placing the wreath on his head, he looks at himself in the pool.” The most famous scene of this production was a final tableau that shows the Neapolitans sailing home:

Caliban creeps from his cave and watches. … Caliban listens for the last time to the sweet air [Ariel's song], then turns sadly in the direction of the departing ship. The play is ended. As the curtain rises again, the ship is seen on the horizon, Caliban stretching out his arms toward it in mute despair. The night falls, and Caliban is left on the lonely rock. He is king once more.

(p. 63)

Tree noted that at this moment “we feel that from the conception of sorrow in solitude may spring the birth of a higher civilization.”43 Despite his primitive origins, Tree's Caliban expressed deep human sensibilities and aspirations. Perhaps this “deformed savage”—image of humanity's earliest ancestors—could become civilized.

Belief in human progress also animated Caliban's portrayal in Percy MacKaye's mammoth community masque, performed at Lewisohn Stadium in New York (1916). MacKaye wanted his Caliban to symbolize “that passionate child-curious part of us all [whether as individuals or as races], groveling close to his aboriginal origins, yet groping up and staggering—with almost rhythmic falls and back-slidings—toward that serener plane of pity and love, reason and disciplined will, where Miranda and Prospero commune with Ariel and his spirits.”44 Caliban is aspiring humanity; his education consists of pageants depicting human civilization from ancient Egypt to the present. He is also entertained by scenes from Shakespeare's plays, manufactured through Prospero's art. Although a monster at first, MacKaye's Caliban learns by trial and error to reject Lust, Death, and War. Finally, he learns how to love. Caliban illustrates MacKaye's conviction that humanity had progressed from bestiality to civilization.

The Darwinian Caliban persisted well into the twentieth century. Gordon Crosse praised Robert Atkins' Caliban at the Old Vic (1920-25) because “He showed with superlative art the malevolent brute nature with the dim, half-formed, human intellect just breaking through.”45 G. Wilson Knight records that he played Caliban at Toronto (1938) wearing heavy gray furs over a complete covering of green grease paint which blended “the slimy reptilian and savagely human.”46 In 1938 Robert Atkins again depicted Caliban, this time as an aspiring and frustrated Neanderthal. English productions of 1940 and 1951 presented Caliban as a prehistoric figure, newly crawling out of the slime.47

The Darwinian Caliban demonstrated humanity's capacity for continued growth and improvement. He sensed the island's beauty and slowly learned to sue for grace. During World War II, however, Western civilization plunged back into the savagery from which it had supposedly emerged. The Tempest no longer seemed an airy comedy, as the play darkened, Prospero became a cruel taskmaster, Caliban his unwilling victim.


After 1945 a growing number of literary critics began to view The Tempest as Shakespeare's study of the colonists' adventures in the New World. If Prospero's enchanted island was an image of America, then surely Caliban, the island's indigenous inhabitant, must be Shakespeare's portrait of an American Indian.48 In addition to Caliban's North American image, here emerges an association between Shakespeare's monster and Third World native peoples—of whatever continent or country—who had been colonized by Europeans and were now throwing off their foreign governors and asserting independence. Like Caliban (so the argument goes), most colonized peoples are disinherited, subjugated and exploited. Like him, they learned a conqueror's language and values. Like him, they endured enslavement and contempt by European usurpers. Eventually, like Caliban, they rebelled.

Though it began as a source of discussion during the 1950s—with precursors in the 1930s and '40s—Caliban's politicized image did not penetrate the theatre until the late 1960s. By then Caliban had become a role often reserved for black actors. In the all-white theatrical world of the 1940s and '50s, few parts were open to members of minority groups. Caliban, an alien creature, could be played by a black man; the strangeness, seemingly part of the costume, need not startle the predominantly white audience. But once the tradition was established, the role became politicized.

Canada Lee first broke the color barrier. In 1945 he portrayed Caliban in Margaret Webster's New York Tempest. Lee wore a scaly costume and grotesque mask, moved with an animal-like crouch, and emphasized Caliban's monstrousness. The Saturday Review noted that “Canada Lee's Caliban is a monster, fearsome, badgered, and pathetic. His only trouble is that he keeps all of Caliban's poetry earth sprung, too.”49 Lee's performance won modest praise; the role of Caliban was now open, but the transformation was slow. Earle Hyman assayed the part in 1960 at the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut. Hyman too played up Caliban's monstrosity, wearing inflated belly and legs and a grotesque headpiece. Judging from the photograph in Shakespeare Quarterly, he looked anything but human.50 In 1962 James Earl Jones used similar tactics, though his interpretation was more reptilian. Alice Griffin described Jones's Caliban as “a savage, green-faced lizard darting his red tongue in and out, lunging clumsily at what he wanted, and yelping when he was denied it.”51

Jones's and Hyman's Calibans looked to the past. For the rest of the 1960s and beyond, Caliban changed from monster to vehicle for contemporary ideas. The following survey is admittedly cursory, but it does reflect the breadth of Caliban's politicization during the 1960s and '70s.

Influenced by Jan Kott's harsh interpretation of the play as a study in violence, Peter Brook directed a production in 1963 at Stratford-upon-Avon in which Roy Dotrice played Caliban as a Java man “who represented emergent humanity.”52 His phallic gestures conveyed primitive man's raw sexuality. Brook continued this motif in 1968 with an experimental rendition of The Tempest at the Round House in London. Brook used Caliban and his hypothetical mother Sycorax in order to

represent those evil and violent forces that rise from man himself regardless of his environment. The monster-mother is portrayed by an enormous woman able to expand her face and body to still larger proportions. … Suddenly, she gives a horrendous yell, and Caliban, with black sweater over his head, emerges from between her legs: Evil is born.

As the action proceeded in Brook's version, Caliban raped Miranda, escaped from Prospero, and took over the island. The experiment continued in a mime of homosexual rape, Caliban on Prospero. And the play ended with broken voices intoning Prospero's epilogue.53

Brook's experiment clearly differed from Shakespeare's original, but it charted the way to new interpretations of Caliban. Now the role represented power more than subjugation. Henry Baker, for example, embodied Caliban's violence in the 1970 Washington Summer Shakespeare production. Jeanne Addison Roberts described Baker as “darkly beautiful in his glistening fish scales” and “powerful and intractable from beginning to end.” Baker never obeyed Stephano's command to kiss his foot, never cowered, never uttered the final resolve to be wise and sue for grace. To Roberts, “Baker's black skin, his somewhat flawed enunciation, a minstrel-show mouth painted grotesquely in a greenish face, and the use of the word ‘slave’ evoked instantly for the Washington audience the American Negro.”54 Caliban was now a black militant, angry and recalcitrant.

Jonathan Miller employed similar dynamics in his 1970 production at the Mermaid Theatre. Miller's Caliban, Rudolph Walker, was an uneducated field Negro “in contrast to Ariel, a competent, educated ‘houseboy.’” Set in the world of Cortez and Pizarro, Miller's version reflected the complex interrelations of colonial masters and their subjugated natives.55

Variations on the colonial theme persisted through the 1970s. The New York Shakespeare Festival presented Jaime Sanchez as a Puerto Rican Caliban in 1974,56 and in the same year Denis Quilley's Caliban at London's National Theatre was likened by reviewers to James Fenimore Cooper's Chingachgook. Quilley's Caliban was the noble savage, “with one side of him as a man, and the other side half emerging from animality.”57 David Suchet's Caliban (Stratford-upon-Avon, 1978) was a composite version of the Third World native, a generalized conception of primitive man. John Velz reported that Suchet's Caliban combined both West Indian and African.58 Another reviewer described Suchet's Caliban as a “naked, dark-skinned primitive, with a bold head and bloodshot eyes; … his exploitation was strongly emphasized.”59

The climax of Caliban's politicization came, perhaps, during 1980-81, when productions around the world emphasized what had become the standard interpretation. In the popular imagination Caliban now represented any group that felt itself oppressed. In New York, he appeared as a punk rocker, complete with cropped hair, sunglasses, and Cockney accent.60 In Augsburg, Germany, Caliban continued as a black slave who performed African dances and rituals during the Stephano-Trinculo scenes.61 In Connecticut, Gerald Freedman viewed Caliban as an aspect of Prospero's character—the libido that cannot be controlled. At the same time, he cast Joe Morton, a black actor, in the part and had him sing his freedom catch to jazz tunes. Libido or no, this Caliban still symbolized a repressed minority.62 The Globe Playhouse of Los Angeles, using a cast of mixed nationalities, assigned Caliban to Mark Del-Castillo Morante, who portrayed him as an American Indian. The Shakespeare Quarterly review suggests that Del Castillo-Morante's interpretation reflected Montaigne's essay and the historical background of the American Indian circa 1610.63

While 1981 marks the apogee of Caliban's colonial image, it may also indicate the shape of things to come. Joe Morton, the black actor who played Caliban for Gerald Freedman in Connecticut, performed the role a second time at The Mount, a summer theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts. This time, however, the actor's blackness was insignificant. Peter Erickson describes the effect:

Caliban's costume consisted of a narrow, flared leather cape as a tail; a daggerless scabbard dangling from his waist; leather gloves, which, blended in with his blackened skin, gave the illusion of enormous hands; a mask of light brown body paint which … left large circles around the eyes. … This Caliban was typically on or near the ground—he walked bent over at the waist, torso swaying up and down or shaking vigorously in an animal-like posture. … An assortment of convincing groans and growls served as background, imbuing his language with striking visceral impact.64

No longer a political symbol, Caliban had returned to his monstrous origins.


Ralph Berry wrote in 1983 that “Nowadays, directors have gone off Caliban: I suspect that they are bored with symbols of colonial oppression, and have wrung all the changes they can on Red Indians and Rastafarians.”65 Future productions will test this observation, but it seemed apt enough during the Trinity Repertory Company's 1982 production in Providence. To convey Caliban's monstrousness, Adrian Hall strapped Richard Cavanaugh's feet to three foot stools. As Caliban clomped across the stage, he was grotesque indeed. Some in the audience worried more about how Caliban would fall to his hands and knees than about his lines or characterization, but at least the portrayal was original. This production suggests, however, that even with Caliban, there are limits to innovations.

But rather than a forecast of things to come, the Trinity Theatre Caliban will probably remain an aberration. For, as this survey suggests, when Caliban speaks Shakespeare's original lines, he usually stirs an audience's imagination. Shakespeare's monster continues to provoke horror at his appearance, awe at his language, and laughter at his antics. He is in many respects society's image of the “other”; but he is also, as Auden mused, that thing of darkness we must acknowledge as our own. As we ourselves change, our perceptions of Caliban—our own darkness—change. In the evolving image of Caliban we see a reflection of Anglo-American intellectual history. But we also see our ever-changing selves.


  1. Citations from The Tempest are taken from the Arden edition, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Methuen, 1954). I am grateful to both Charles H. Shattuck and Alden T. Vaughan for editorial and substantive advice on early versions of this article.

  2. C. Plinius Secundus, The Historie of the World, trans. Philemon Holland (London, 1601).

  3. Edmond Malone, ed., The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, et al., 1821), xv, 13. Malone suggests that Caliban was Shakespeare's version of a Patagonian. See pp. 11-14.

  4. See George Odell, Shakespeare From Betterton to Irving (1920; rpt. New York: Dover Publications, 1966) i, 1-42 for a full account of changes in the Restoration theatre. Also see Montague Summers, Shakespeare Adaptations (London: Jonathan Cape, 1922), pp. xvii-cvii.

  5. Christopher Spencer, ed., Five Adaptations of Shakespeare (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1965), p. 5.

  6. John Dryden, The Tempest: or, The Enchanted Isle (London, 1670), sig. A2v. A facsimile edition is George Robert Guffey, ed., After the Tempest (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1969).

  7. See Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1950).

  8. Dryden, p. 19.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974), viii, 522.

  11. See David Garrick, The Tempest: An Opera (London, 1756). Reproduced in Guffey.

  12. Charles Beecher Hogan, Shakespeare in the Theatre: 1701-1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), ii, 636-38.

  13. See John Philip Kemble Promptbooks, ed. Charles H. Shattuck (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1974), viii.

  14. Philip Highfill, Jr., Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward A. Langhans, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, ix (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1982), 402.

  15. Ibid., ii, 64.

  16. Ibid., ix, 360.

  17. Ibid., i, 262.

  18. Ibid., ii, 150.

  19. Stuart M. Tave, The Amiable Humorist (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 94.

  20. See Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man,” The Poems of Alexander Pope (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1963).

  21. Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare,” Johnson: Prose and Poetry, ed. Mona Wilson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967).

  22. For a discussion of the Noble Savage, see Robert F. Berkhofer, The White Man's Indian (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), pp. 72-79.

  23. See the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), reprinted in William Wordsworth, Selected Poems and Prefaces, ed. Jack Stillinger (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 445-64.

  24. From a transcription in the flyleaf of Folger Tempest Promptbook No. 4. Source unknown.

  25. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge on Shakespeare: The Text of the Lectures of 1811-1812, ed. R. A. Foakes (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1971), pp. 112-13.

  26. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1817), pp. 118-20.

  27. The Journal of William Charles Macready, 1832-1851, abr. and ed. by J. C. Trewin (London: Longmans, Green, 1967), pp. 15-16. A description of Caliban's costume at Drury Lane (1824) and Covent Garden (1827) in the Folger Tempest Promptbook No. 7 reads, “Entire dress of goat skin; long claws on the fingers; very dark flesh legs; the hair long, wild, and ragged.”

  28. Patrick MacDonnell, An Essay on the Play of The Tempest (London: John Fellowes, 1840), pp. 16-19.

  29. See Arthur Colby Sprague, Shakespeare and the Actors: The Stage Business in his Plays, 1660-1905 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1944), p. 41.

  30. The Diaries of William Charles Macready, 1833-1851, ed. William Toynbee, 2 vols. (London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1912), i, 474-504; ii, 5-9.

  31. Citations of stage directions for the Samuel Phelps 1847 production are taken from Folger Tempest Promptbook No. 13. Page numbers are indicated in parentheses.

  32. See Charles H. Shattuck, Shakespeare on the American Stage: From the Hallams to Edwin Booth (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976); and Lawrence W. Levine, “William Shakespeare and the American People: A Study in Cultural Transformation,” American Historical Review, 89 (1984), 34-66.

  33. William L. Keese, William E. Burton: Actor, Author, and Manager (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1885), p. 175.

  34. See Folger Tempest Promptbook No. 12.

  35. See Charles Kean's promptbook, Folger Tempest Promptbook No. 10, p. 37.

  36. Cited from Folger Tempest Promptbook No. 4.

  37. Charles Kean's costume book, Folger Art Volume d 49, dated 1853.

  38. From a clipping inserted in Folger Tempest Promptbook No. 4. Source unknown.

  39. Daniel Wilson, Caliban: The Missing Link (London: Macmillan and Co., 1873), p. 9.

  40. Lady Benson, Mainly Players: Bensonian Memoirs (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1926), p. 179.

  41. Augustin Daly's Souvenir Album, Folger Art Volume b 31, includes color drawings for each character in addition to photographs, playbills, and clippings from The Tempest's stage history.

  42. Shakespeare's Comedy The Tempest as Arranged for the Stage by Herbert Beerbohm Tree (London: J. Miles & Co., 1904), p. xi. The ensuing stage directions are cited from this edition.

  43. Ibid., p. xi.

  44. Percy MacKaye, Caliban by the Yellow Sands (Garden City: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1916), p. xv.

  45. Gordon Crosse, Shakespearean Playgoing, 1890-1952 (London: A. R. Mowbray and Co., 1953), p. 58.

  46. G. Wilson Knight, Shakespearian Production (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 164.

  47. See William Babula, Shakespeare in Production, 1935-1978: A Selective Catalogue (New York: Garland, 1981), pp. 307-21.

  48. See Charles Frey, “The Tempest and the New World,” Shakespeare Quarterly [SQ], 30 (1979), 29-41.

  49. Saturday Review, 10 February 1945, p. 29.

  50. Claire McGlinchee, “Stratford, Connecticut, Shakespeare Festival, 1960,” SQ, 11 (1960), 469-72.

  51. Alice Griffin, “The New York Season 1961-1962,” SQ, 13 (1962), 555.

  52. Robert Speaight, “Shakespeare in Britain,” SQ, 14 (1963), 419-32.

  53. Margaret Croyden, “Peter Brook's Tempest,The Drama Review, 3 (1968-69), 125-28.

  54. Jeanne Addison Roberts, “The Washington Shakespeare Summer Festival, 1970,” SQ, 21 (1970), 481-82.

  55. Robert Speaight, “Shakespeare in Britain,” SQ, 21 (1970), 439-40.

  56. M. E. Comtois, “New York Shakespeare Festival, Lincoln Center, 1973-74,” SQ, 25 (1974), 405-6.

  57. Robert Speaight, “Shakespeare in Britain, 1974,” SQ, 25 (1974), 389-94.

  58. John Velz, “The Tempest,Cahiers Elisabethains, 14 (1978), 104-6.

  59. Roger Warren, “A Year of Comedies: Stratford 1978,” Shakespeare Survey, 21 (1979), 203.

  60. Maurice Charney and Arthur Ganz, “Shakespeare in New York City,” SQ, 33 (1982), 218-22.

  61. Werner Habicht, “Shakespeare in ‘Provincial’ West Germany,” SQ, 31 (1980), 413-15.

  62. For a description of Morton's performance, see Errol G. Hill, “Caliban and Ariel: A Study in Black and White in American Productions of The Tempest from 1945-1981,” Theatre History Studies, 4 (1984), 1-10.

  63. Joseph H. Stodder and Lillian Wilds, “Shakespeare in Southern California and Visalia,” SQ, 31 (1980), 254-74.

  64. Peter Erickson, “A Tempest at the Mount,” SQ, 32 (1981), 188-90.

  65. Ralph Berry, “Stratford Festival Canada, 1982,” SQ, 34 (1983), 95.

Philip Brockbank (essay date 1966)

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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.

And it may be that Prospero quietens the fretful oracles in his first audience with a tongue-in-cheek assurance:

                                                                                                                                            at pick'd leisure
Which shall be shortly single, I'll resolve you,
Which to you shall seem probable, of every
These happen'd accidents; till when, be cheerful,
And think of each thing well.

The tense marvellings of the play are oddly hospitable to moments of wry mockery. Things are never quite what they seem.

The play's mysteries, however, are authentic not gratuitous; they touch our sense of wonder and they are accessible to thought; and we need no oracle, skilled in the subtleties and audacities of Renaissance speculation, to rectify our knowledge. We must nevertheless seek to attend with the apt kind of attention, to get the perspectives right, and the tone. For, as often in the comedies, the perspectives and the tone are precisely secured, and it is only too easy to upset the balances of convention, of innocence and scepticism, that keep the allegory of the play at an appropriately unobtrusive distance.

There is a multiple, complex allegory. It has to do with the social and moral nature of man, with the natural world, with the ways of providence, and with the nature of art. Yet this very complexity is the source of the play's simplicity—of its power to entertain, to move, and to satisfy our playgoing and contemplative spirits.

The Tempest is about a human mess put right by a make-belief magician. Or, to recast the point in the suggestive neo-platonic phrases of Sidney, it is about a golden world delivered from the brazen by providence and miracle. But there remain more specific ways of saying what it is about. In relation to its immediate sources it touches the colonizing enterprise of Shakespeare's England. In relation to one strain of dramatic tradition it is a morality, about the cure of evil and the forgiveness of sin; in relation to another, it is a pastoral entertainment, fit to celebrate the fertility and order of nature; and it owes to the masque its felicitous handling of illusion, spell, and rite. In relation to Shakespeare's own art, it seems to recollect much that has gone before, and to shadow forth (Sidney's phrase) the playwright's role in the theatres of fantasy and reality.

The several kinds of expressiveness found in the play owe much to the fragmentary source material on the one hand and to the tactful management of stage convention on the other. Theatrical techniques are so used that they illuminate an area of Elizabethan consciousness that was expressing itself also in the activities and in the literature of exploration and empire. Long before we pursue ‘meanings’ (after the play, brooding upon it) we recognize that the allegory is anchored in the instant realities of human experience. Its aetherial affirmations are hard-won, spun out of substantial material. The truths which offer themselves as perennial are made very specifically out of and for the England and the theatre of Shakespeare's own time. The play is as much about colonization as initiation, as much about the intrigues of men as the tricks of spirits.

The principal documents behind The Tempest are well known if not wholly easily accessible; they are William Strachey's True Repertory of the Wreck, published in Purchas his Pilgrimes together with an extract from the anonymous True Declaration of Virginia, and Sylvester Jourdan's A Discovery of the Barmudas. The uses to which the play puts these materials would have been very different had it not been for the hospitality of the contemporary theatre (whose tastes Shakespeare himself did most to fashion) to the techniques and interest of the late comedies.

Strachey and Jourdan tell how Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Summers were driven away from the rest of the fleet, bound for Virginia in June, 1609, by a storm which finally lodged their ship—the Sea Venture—between two rocks off the coast of the Bermudas. After many ‘rare and remarkable experiences’ they built a new boat, The Deliverance, and a pinnace, Patience, and set sail for Virginia in May, 1610. Their survival (like many another in the pages of Hakluyt) had about it something of the miraculous, and it invited as much comment on the ways of Providence as on the skill and resourcefulness of English sailors.

Shakespeare, with the storms of Othello, The Winter's Tale, and Pericles freshly accomplished for the theatre, would recognize occasion enough for a play in the story of the Bermudas wreck. And the material offers itself most invitingly to a playwright whose interest in the ways of Providence, and in the conversion and salvation of man had matured through long practice in allegoric, romantic comedy. The prose accounts of the wreck are constantly suggestive in ways that would be less noticeable were they read without knowledge of the play. It is often so. The masterpiece illuminates the sources, more than the sources the masterpiece. It is no longer possible to read the collections of Hakluyt and Purchas without recognizing that they offer as much to Shakespeare and to Coleridge as to Captain Cooke.

In the True Repertory the storm is both a physical ordeal and a moral:

a dreadfull storme and hideous began to blow from out the Northeast, which swelling, and roaring as it were by fits, some houres with more violence than others, at length did beat all light from heaven; which like an hell of darkenesse turned blacke upon us, so much the more fuller of horror, as in such cases horror and feare use to overrunne the troubled, and overmastered sences of all, which (taken up with amazement) the eares lay so sensible to the terrible cries, and murmurs of the windes, and distraction of our Company, as who was most armed, and best prepared, was not a little shaken.

(p. 6)

The ‘unmercifull tempest’ is a terrible leveller; death at sea comes ‘uncapable of particularities of goodnesse and inward comforts’, and gives the mind no ‘free and quiet time, to use her judgement and Empire’. There are hints enough for the play's opening scene in which hope is confounded by the counterpointed roarings of crew, court, and elements; the dignities of seamanship and of prayer are subdued to ‘A confused noise within’. For the dignity of Gonzalo's wit (that alone survives the horror and the test) there is no equivalent in the source. But Strachey has his own way of wondering at man's powers of survival:

The Lord knoweth, I had as little hope, as desire of life in the storme, & in this, it went beyond my will; because beyond my reason, why we should labour to preserve life; yet we did, either because so deare are a few lingring houres of life in all mankinde, or that our Christian knowledges taught us, how much we owed to the rites of Nature, as bound, not to be false to our selves, or to neglect the meanes of our owne preservation; the most despairefull things amongst men, being matters of no wonder nor moment with him, who is the rich Fountaine and admirable Essence of all mercy.

(p. 9)

And it is easy to see in retrospect how, at a touch, the observations, the marvellings, and the pieties of Strachey might be transformed into the language of The Tempest with its capacity for dwelling upon the preservation of life, the rites of nature, and the ‘admirable Essence of all mercy’.

The pieties of the prose accounts are more than conventional; they owe their awed intensity to the sequences of catastrophe and miracle that the voyagers endured. We need not hesitate to treat the play as allegory since that is how Shakespeare's contemporaries treated the actual event. After God has delivered the seamen from the ‘most dreadfull Tempest’ of ‘tumultuous and malignant’ winds, the authority of the Governor is required to deliver them from what The True Declaration calls ‘the tempest of Dissention’. Reviewing the mutinies that threatened the survival of the Bermudas party, Strachey writes:

In these dangers and divellish disquiets (whilest the almighty God wrought for us, and sent us miraculously delivered from the calamities of the Sea, all blessings upon the shoare, to content and binde us to gratefulnesse) thus inraged amongst our selves, to the destruction each of other, into what a mischiefe and misery had wee bin given up, had wee not had a Governour with his authority, to have suppressed the same?

(p. 32)

Reading this passage (and some similar ones) with the poet's eye, we can see how Prospero might have taken shape. From his experience of the theatre Shakespeare's imagination and invention readily made a single figure out of the miraculous deliverer from the sea's calamities, and the ‘Governour with his authority’ stopping the victims of the wreck from killing one another. It is an apt opportunity to take after Measure for Measure, which is about the saving powers of a governor, and Pericles with its miraculous deliveries from the sea.

A more specific occasion for the play's rendering of the storm as a feat of providential magic is offered by Strachey's description of the St. Elmo's fire that danced like Ariel about the rigging:

Onely upon the thursday night Sir George Summers being upon the watch, had an apparition of a little round light, like a faint Starre, trembling, and streaming along with a sparkeling blaze, halfe the height upon the Maine Mast, and shooting sometimes from Shroud to Shroud, tempting to settle as it were upon any of the foure Shrouds: and for three or foure houres together, or rather more, halfe the night it kept with us; running sometimes along the Maine-yard to the very end, and then returning. At which, Sir George Summers called divers about him, and shewed them the same, who observed it with much wonder, and carefulnesse: but upon a sodaine, towards the morning watch, they lost the sight of it, and knew not what way it made.

(p. 11)

The elusive, mockingly playful fire and light in the encompassing total darkness, observed with wonder and carefulness by the crew, is poignantly ironic. Strachey leaves the natural phenomenon very ripe for transmutation into stage symbol. ‘The superstitious Sea-men’, he says, ‘make many constructions of this Sea-fire, which neverthelesse is usual in stormes.’ The Greeks took it for Castor and Pollux, perhaps, and ‘an evill signe of great tempest’. The Italians call it ‘Corpo sancto’. The Spaniards call it ‘Saint Elmo, and have an authentic and miraculous Legend for it’. The irony is that it could do nothing to help the seamen, but rather quickened their torment:

Be it what it will, we laid other foundations of safety or ruine, then in the rising or falling of it, could it have served us now miraculously to have taken our height by, it might have strucken amazement, and a reverence in our devotions, according to the due of a miracle. But it did not light us any whit the more to our knowne way, who ran now (as doe hoodwinked men) at all adventures.

(p. 11)

It is one of the play's discoveries that this mocking hell is providentially (and indeed playfully) contrived. While allowing Ariel's tale to mimic the lightning, Shakespeare recalls the sonorous miseries described in an earlier passage:

our clamours dround in the windes, and the windes in thunder. Prayers might well be in the heart and lips, but drowned in the outcries of the Officers: nothing heard that could give comfort, nothing seene that might incourage hope. It is impossible for me, had I the voice of Stentor, and expression of as many tongues, as his throate of voyces, to express the outcries and miseries, not languishing, but wasting his spirits, and art constant to his owne principles, but not prevailing.

(p. 7)

By personalizing, in Prospero, the natural processes of the storm and its happy outcome, Shakespeare displays theatrically the exacting cruelties of a providence that works to saving purpose:

                                                                                My brave spirit!
Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil
Would not infect his reason?
                                                                                                                        Not a soul
But felt a fever of the mad, and play'd
Some tricks of desperation.

Human reason is ‘infected’ and human skill disarmed in order that all might be brought to shore safely:

                                                                      Not a hair perish'd
On their sustaining garments not a blemish,
But fresher than before.

This allusion to the shipwreck of St. Paul at Malta (Acts xxvii. 34) reminds us that catastrophic voyages and the ways of Providence are readily considered together. God uses shipwrecks. But the play is more insistent than the New Testament upon the waywardness and apparent arbitrariness of Providence (men hoodwinked, in a maze, amazed) and it has taken its signals from the prose of the voyagers.

At the utmost point of their despair, when skill and energy can do no more, the sailors are ready to surrender passively to the sea. As Jourdan puts it:

All our men, being utterly spent, tyred, and disabled for longer labour, were even resolved, without any hope of their lives, to shut up the hatches, and to have committed themselves to the mercy of the sea, (which is said to be mercilesse) or rather to the mercy of their mighty God and redeemer.

(p. 195)

That drift from the commonplace ‘mercy of the sea’ through ‘said to be mercilesse’ to ‘their mighty God and redeemer’, is not inertly conventional. It testifies to the quite palpable presence in both stories (but particularly in the opening paragraphs of Jourdan's) of the sequence—storm, fear, death, miraculous renewal of life. While Shakespeare follows Strachey in his treatment of Ariel's description of the last moments of the wreck, he follows Jourdan where he hints at a ceremonious leave-taking on the stricken ship (‘Let's all sink wi'th'King … Let's take leave of him’):

So that some of them having some good and comfortable waters in the ship, fetcht them, and drunke the one to the other, taking their last leave one of the other, until their more ioyfull and happy meeting, in a more blessed world.

(p. 195)

The play does not allow too intrusive a ceremonious piety, but rather a wry nostalgia for ‘an Acre of barren ground’ tempering Gonzalo's patient acquiescence: ‘The wills above be done! but I would faine dye a dry death.’ The ‘more blessed world’ is offered nevertheless when all hope is dead, for, as Strachey reports ‘Sir George Summers, when no man dreamed of such happinesse, had discovered, and cried Land’.

After the ordeal by sea, the island inheritance. Both Jourdan and Strachey are moved by the paradox that made ‘The Devils Ilands’ (the name commonly given to the Bermudas) ‘both the place of our safetie, and meanes of our deliverance’. Jourdan is particularly eloquent in confronting general, superstitious expectations of the islands with his own ecstatic experience of them. ‘But our delivery’, he says, ‘was not more strange in falling so opportunely and happily upon the land, as our feeding and preservation, was beyond our hopes, and all mens expectations most admirable.’ It has the quality of Gonzalo's marvellings. Jourdan tells us that the islands were never inhabited by Christian or heathen but were ever esteemed ‘a most prodigious and inchanted place affording nothing but gusts, stormes, and foule weather’. ‘No man was ever heard, to make for this place, but as against their wils, they have by stormes and dangerousnesse of the rocks, lying seaven leagues into the sea, suffered shipwrack.’

Jourdan's phrases seem to license the play's magical, paradisial, and mysterious atmosphere, and some may be the germ of the rival versions of Shakespeare's island voiced on the one hand by Gonzalo and Adrian, and on the other by Sebastian and Antonio:

Yet did we find there the ayre so temperate and the country so abundantly fruitful of all fit necessaries for the sustenation and preservation of man's life … Wherefore my opinion sincerely of this Island is, that whereas it hath beene, and is still accounted, the most dangerous, infortunate, and forlorne place of the world, it is in truth the richest, heathfullest, and pleasing land (the quantity and bignesse thereof considered) and merely natural, as ever man set foot upon.

(p. 197)

Shakespeare intervenes to associate the auspicious vision of the island (‘The air breathes upon us here most sweetly’) with the innocent courtiers, and the inauspicious (‘As if it had lungs, and rotten ones’) with the culpably sophisticated. But Strachey and Jourdan are equally clear that ‘the foule and generall errour’ of the world distorts the truths about the islands which are in time revealed to those who experience it.

In the sources, as in the play, the island deliverance is a beginning and not an end. Once saved from the wreck, the survivors have still to be saved from each other. Strachey tells how Sir Thomas Gates dispatched a longboat (duly modified) to Virginia, moved by ‘the care which he took for the estate of the Colony in this his inforced absence’ and ‘by a long practised experience, foreseeing and fearing what innovation and tumult might happily arise, amongst the younger and ambitious spirits of the new companies’. The Governor's authority, however, proves equally essential to the prosperity of both the communities, of the Bermudas and of Virginia. Strachey writes of the onset of the island mutinies:

And sure it was happy for us, who had now runne this fortune, and were fallen into the bottome of this misery, that we both had our Governour with us, and one so solicitous and carefull, whose both example (as I said) and authority, could lay shame and command upon our people: else, I am perswaded, we had most of us finished our dayes there, so willing were the major part of the common sort (especially when they found such a plenty of victuals) to settle a foundation of ever inhabiting there … some dangerous and secret discontents nourished amongst us, had like to have been the parents of bloudy issues and mischiefs.

(p. 28)

And the True Declaration discloses the analogous issues and mischiefs in Virginia:

The ground of all those miseries, was the permissive Providence of God, who, in the fore-mentioned violent storme, seperated the head from the bodie, all the vitall powers of Regiment being exiled with Sir Thomas Gates in those infortunate (yet fortunate) Ilands. The broken remainder of those supplyes made a greater shipwracke in the Continent of Virginia, by the tempest of Dissention: every man over-valuing his owne worth, would be a Commander: every man underprizing anothers value, denied to be commanded.

(p. 67)

The play's second act does most to explore the mutinous disaffections that attend upon and threaten ‘the vitall powers of Regiment’. Its Neapolitan courtiers fittingly convey the temper of Virginia's ‘younger and ambitious spirits’:

                              There be that can rule Naples
As well as he that sleeps; lords that can prate
As amply and unnecessarily
As this Gonzalo; I myself could make
A chough of as deep chat.

‘Every man underprizing anothers value, denied to be commanded.’ And the drunken, anarchistic landsmen represent the discontents of the ‘common sort’ on the Island. By extending the powers of Ariel and Prospero over both groups of conspirators, moreover, Shakespeare allows a fuller expression to the moral ideas that issue in the True Declaration's reflection on ‘the permissive Providence of God’. The conspiracies are at once permitted and constrained.

It is altogether appropriate that the Governor's authority should be represented as a care for ‘the state of the Colony’ and not as a bent for empire and sovereignty. The True Declaration finds for the word ‘colony’ its richest meaning and fullest resonance: ‘A Colony is therefore denominated, because they should be Coloni, the Tillers of the Earth, and Stewards of fertilitie.’ ‘Should be’; but are not, for:

our mutinous Loyterers would not sow with providence, and therefore they reaped the fruits of too deere bought Repentance. An incredible example of their idlenesse, is the report of Sir Thomas Gates, who affirmeth, that after his first comming thither, he hath seen some of them eat their fish raw, rather then they would go a stones cast to fetch wood and dresse it.

(p. 68)

The tillers of the earth and the fetchers of wood, runs the argument, are the heirs to God's plenty: ‘Dei laboribus omnia vendunt, God sels us all things for our labour, when Adam himselfe might not live in Paradise without dressing the Garden.’ It is this thought that seems to hover mockingly behind the log-bearing labours of Ferdinand. Prospero, imposing the task, does not do as Sir Thomas Gates and set his own hand ‘to every meane labour’ dispensing ‘with no travaile of his body’. He rather exercises over the Prince (himself a potential governor) the rule of Providence's dominant law; he sells Miranda (the richest of the island's bounties) only in return for work.

Once the recalcitrant passions of the Virginian colonizers have been tamed, once they have ceased to ‘shark for present booty’ out of idleness and lawlessness, they may hope to enjoy the bounty of nature. This idea is in itself almost enough to suggest the invention of Caliban. Strachey speaks of the ‘liberty and fulness of sensuality’ that drew the ‘idle, untoward and wretched’ to murmuring discontent, and ‘disunion of hearts and hands’ from labour (p. 28). The grotesque, spectacular figure of Caliban, and his conspiracy with the butler and the jester, enable Shakespeare to make Strachey's point within the conventions of masque and comedy.

Caliban, however, seems like Prospero to be doubly fashioned from the travel literature. Not only is he a theatrical epitome of the animal, anarchic qualities of the colonizers, he is also the epitome of the primitive and uncivilized condition of the native American. Strachey tells how the Virginian Indians severely tested the magnanimity of the Governor ‘who since his first landing in the Countrey (how justly soever provoked) would not by any meanes be wrought to a violent proceeding against them’. But, like Caliban, they have natures on which nurture cannot stick; pains humanely taken are quite lost. One of the Governor's men—alas for tractable courses—is carried off into the woods and sacrificed; and the Governor ‘well perceived, how little a faire and noble intreatie workes upon a barbarous disposition, and therefore in some measure purpose to be revenged’ (p. 62).

But when Caliban consorts with Trinculo and Stephano the play expresses, with joyous irony, both the common appetites and the distinctive attributes of man primitive and man degenerate. Caliban's scorn of Trinculo's tipsy acquisitiveness, ‘Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash’, measures the distance between them. Fittingly, the strictures of the True Declaration fall most heavily upon those delinquent colonizers who ‘for their private lucre partly imbezeled the provisions’, spoiling the market by leaving the Virginians ‘glutted with our Trifles’ (p. 70).

As witnesses both to the fine energies of Caliban and to his truculence, the first audiences of The Tempest might well have asked for themselves the questions that Purchas sets in the margin of The True Repertory:

Can a Savage remayning a Savage be civill? Were not wee our selves made and not borne civill in our Progenitors dayes? and were not Caesar's Britaines as brutish as Virginians?

(p. 62)

To this last question Cymbeline had already supplied something resembling Purchas's own answer, ‘The Romane swords were best teachers of civilitie to this & other Countries neere us.’ The Tempest leaves us to wonder at a range of possible answers to the first. For Shakespeare's understanding of Caliban is not co-extensive with Prospero's. ‘Liberty’ and ‘fulness of sensuality’ (to recall Strachey's terms) are auspicious when opposed, not to temperance, but to constraint and frigidity. Hence Caliban's virtue and dignity, and the quickness of his senses accords with his love of music—an Indian and a Carib characteristic remarked by the voyagers.

As his name may be meant to remind us,1 Caliban is conceived as much out of the reports of the Caribana as of those of the Bermudas and Virginia. Purchas his Pilgrimage2 tells of the Caraibes, the priests of the Cannibal territory in the north of Brazil, to whom ‘sometimes (but seldome) the Divell appears’, and of their witches ‘called Carayba, or holiness’. There is here just enough pretext for associating Caliban with the blacker kind of sorcery that Shakespeare allows to Sycorax.

Sycorax represents a natural malignancy (‘with age and envy … grown into a hoop’) consonant with her negative and confining skills. Unlike the Carayba of Purchas's account, however, she does not embody a native devilry and priestcraft, but is a disreputable exile from Argier with only a casual claim to dominion over the island. Thus the play qualified the righteousness of Caliban's resentment and complicates the relationships between native and colonial endowments. We are left to wonder about the ultimate sources of the moral virus that has infected what might have been a golden world, and Prospero's account of Caliban's genesis (‘got by the devil himself Upon thy wicked dam’) may be taken either as imprecation or as a fragment of bizarre biography.

When Shakespeare confronts Prospero with Caliban he does not restrict the range of his implications in the theatre to the command that a colonial governor might seek by kindness and by torment to secure over a native. That relationship itself is only one expression of what Montaigne, in a passage familiar to Shakespeare from the ‘Essay On Cannibals’, called the bastardizing of original naturality by human wit. Shakespeare's scepticism, like Montaigne's, recoils upon authority itself. Prospero's malice (‘tonight thou shalt have cramps’) is a comic instance of the barbarism of civilization that Montaigne finds more shocking than cannibalism; we mangle, torture, and mammock our living neighbours not from natural perversity but ‘under pretence of piety and religion’.

The secret dialogue that, metaphorically speaking, Shakespeare conducts with Florio's Montaigne is an intricate one. Gonzalo's Utopian vision is at its centre. Much of Florio's prose is assimilated into the routine of the verse, but the quiet climax of Gonzalo's musings—to do with the fecundity of the anarchic paradise—is intensely in the mode of the last plays:

                              Nature should bring forth,
Of it own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

Florio says that his admirable savages have no need to gain new lands, ‘for to this day they yet enjoy that naturall ubertie and fruitfulnesse, which without labouring toyle, doth in such plenteous abundance furnish them with all necessary things, that they need not enlarge their limits’. Gonzalo is mocked by the sophisticated conspirators for, as it were, his reading of Florio. Shakespeare contrives to vindicate Montaigne's contempt for the ‘unnatural opinion’ that excuses the ‘ordinary faults’ of ‘treason, treacherie, disloyaltie, tyrannie, crueltie, and suchlike’; for however apt and amusing the taunts of Antonio and Sebastian, their persistent malice is seen for what it is, and Gonzalo's words are never quite out of key with the mood that the island scenes have created in the theatre. At the same time, Montaigne's sanguine vision of uncultivated innocence is exquisitely, and critically, related to the dreams that a benign but vulnerable ageing courtier might have of sovereignty. Where Montaigne believes (or pretends to believe) that the wild nations in reality ‘exceed all the pictures wherewith licentious Poesie hath proudly imbellished the golden age’, Shakespeare leaves the notion to an old man's fantasy. But a significant fantasy, properly entertained by ‘Holy Gonzalo, honourable man’.

When ‘foison and abundance’ are again at the centre of attention we are contemplating the betrothal masque. The masque has several kinds of appropriateness in a play about colonization. It accords with Strachey's concern with bounty and the proper regulation of passion, and it reminds us of the indivisible integrity of the laws of nature and government. Miranda's presence on the island has some occasion, perhaps, in the story of Virginia Dare, grand-daughter of Captain John White, born in 1587 in the first English colony of Virginia and left there in a small party.3 But it matters more that Purchas comments in his marginal note to Strachey's account of the marriage of one of Sir George Summers's men: The most holy civill and most naturall possession taken of the Bermudas by exercise of Sacraments Marriage, Childbirth, & c. (p. 38). The sacrament of marriage is looked upon as the perfection of the island's sovereignty. Prospero's admonition that Ferdinand should not break Miranda's ‘virgin-knot before ❙ All sanctimonious ceremonies may ❙ With full and holy rite be minister'd’, is not only in character (the officiously solicitous father), it is also a full recognition that heaven rains down blessings only upon those who honour the sanctities of its order:

No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate,
Sour-ey'd disdain and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both.

The metaphors take life from the island truths about ‘the tillers of the earth and the stewards of fertility’; life flourishes best by cultivation and restraint.

The masque decoratively, but with a quick pulse, endorses the sustaining idea; the ‘sweet aspersion’ that the heavens let fall is recalled by Ceres' ‘upon my flowers ❙ Diffusest honey-drops, refreshing showers’. There is much to remind us of the continuity of the play with pastoral comedy—with As You Like It and The Winter's Tale. ‘So rare a wondered father and a wise’, says Miranda, ‘Makes this place Paradise’.

Purchas almost immediately follows his note on the marriage sacrament with another on a camp atrocity—‘Saylers misorder’. The effect in the narrative is a paler version of that in the play when Prospero suddenly remembers ‘that foul conspiracy ❙ Of the beast Caliban and his confederates’. Strachey tells how a sailor murdered one of his fellows with a shovel, and how others conspired to rescue him from the gallows ‘in despight and disdaine that Justice should be shewed upon a Sayler’. The ‘mischiefs of mariners’ reported by Strachey are intensified by the activities of ‘savage spies’ from among the disaffected Indians (p. 50). The Governor's nerves and moral resolution are, like Prospero's, severely tested.

The Tempest does not, however, return to the moral antinomies of pastoral comedy—opposing the seasonal, fecund processes of nature to human sophistication. Its most memorable nature has little to do with that which fills the garners and brings shepherds and sheep-shearing into The Winter's Tale. It is not the ‘great creating nature’ that Perdita honours in her festive ceremonies. It is an elemental nature, made of the air, earth, and water that meet on a tempestuous coast, and in listening to the play's many mysterious and subtle evocations of the ways of the elements we may be aware still of the poet's transfigurations of the sailors' experience.

Shakespeare is sensitive to the narrative sequence (already noticed) of storm, fear, death, and the miraculous renewal of life in the island's ‘temperate air’. Shakespeare's tact sustains the sequence without surrender to superstition (pace Gonzalo's marvellings) and without inviting moral exegesis. In Ariel's opening songs and in Ferdinand's exquisitely mannered reception of them, the truth of the sequence becomes lyrical and musical:

                              Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the King my father's wreck,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air.

The quieting of storm and sorrow have in the theatre become the same process. Grief is transposed into melody. The word ‘air’, like Ariel's song itself, hovers elusively between atmosphere and melody:

This is no mortal business, nor no sound
That the earth owes. I hear it now above me.

The island's airs are themselves melodious, and when Ferdinand finds Miranda ‘the goddess ❙ On whom these airs attend’ the suggestions of aetherial harmony are perfected.

Ariel's second song offers what is perhaps the play's most eloquent and characteristic symbol:

Those are pearls that were his eyes:
          Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
          Into something rich and strange.

The sea-change metaphors are a more searching expression of moral change as The Tempest presents it than the overtly pastoral convention could supply, and can touch more closely the mysteries of death.

Its beginnings in Shakespeare are familiar in Clarence's dream in Richard III—significantly a dream, and a reaching-forward to the mood and tenor of the last plays:

O Lord, methought what pain it was to drown,
What dreadful noise of waters in my ears.

The pain and noise of drowning were still ‘beating’ in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote The Tempest, and the consolatory transformations are remembered too:

                                                                                and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
That woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatter'd by.

It is (as A. P. Rossiter once said) ‘submarine Seneca’; but it is ready to become ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’. The marine fantasy seems to owe nothing to seaman's lore (Hakluyt and Purchas collect mostly matter-of-fact accounts of the genesis of pearls) although the travel books have much to say about the ‘great store of pearl’ to be found in Bermuda seas. It suffices that Shakespeare's early experience in the mode enabled him to refine and to amplify his distinctly surrealist vision of death by water. But Clarence expresses too the continuing physical ordeal:

                                                  but still the envious flood
Stopp'd in my soul and would not let it forth
To find the empty, vast, and wand'ring air;
But smother'd it within my panting bulk,
Who almost burst to belch it in the sea.

The sentiments and images are soon quite subdued to the English Senecal conventions—the ‘melancholy flood With that sour ferryman which poets write of’; but not before Shakespeare had written:

O, then began the tempest to my soul.

The sequence, storm, fear, death, is in Clarence's experience uncomsummated by the liberation that the strange word ‘belch’ seems to promise.

It is otherwise in Pericles, another play in which marine nature is more poignantly mysterious, more eternal and more consolatory than pastoral nature:

                                        Th'unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time
To give thee hallow'd to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffin'd, in the ooze;
Where, for a monument upon thy bones,
The aye-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o'erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells.

In Timon of Athens too, the sea retains its cleansing sanctity when the pasture that lards the rother's sides and the sun that breeds roots in the corrupt earth are forgotten:

Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood,
Who once a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover.

The sea ‘whose liquid surge resolves ❙ The moon into salt tears’ is symbol too of a perpetual compassion:

                                                                                                    rich conceit
Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye
On thy low grave, on faults forgiven.

The prose accounts behind The Tempest offer Shakespeare new opportunities for this morally expressive sea-eloquence.4 Ariel admonishes the courtiers as if their survival from the wreck were owed to their destined unfitness for the sea's digestion:

You are three men of sin, whom Destiny,—
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in't,—the never-surfeited sea
Hath caus'd to belch you up.

But the sea-swell of the rhythm subdues the joke to the solemnity of the occasion. Prospero, in a slow movement of the play (the still figures and the leisured speech) that makes it remarkably fitting, uses the figure of the cleansing, clarifying sea:

                                                  Their understanding
Begins to swell, and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore
That now lies foul and muddy.

The sea is an almost constant presence in the play's verbal music; both the dancing kind:

And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune,

and the more sombre:

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 bass my trespass.
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 moral sonorities are the sonorities of the sea. The apprehension of final judgement is expressed by way of sea, wind, and thunder; but ‘deep and dreadful’ and ‘bass’ are as apt for the sea as they are for the thunder; while the thunder lingers upon the next lines stirring the words ‘deeper’ and ‘sounded’ as they are used of the plumb-line, and coming to rest in ‘mudded’.

Elsewhere, language used about music and about haunting noises is not directly about the sea, but might well have been:

Even now we heard a hollow burst of bellowing.

It might be a breaking wave. Recalling the ‘humming water’ of Pericles, it is apt that Caliban should speak of instruments that ‘hum’ about his ears. Humming is a common spell of the play's language:

The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds.

What is manifest in the detail of the play's accomplishment is manifest still in its large design—which owes more to the literature of sea-survival. The suggestion that the action of The Tempest takes place under the sea is witty and illuminating. The first scene is about men drowning, and its conventions are decisively naturalistic—there at least the storm is not merely symbolic. But the second scene changes the mood and the convention; the perspectives shift; time and place lose meaning, and characters and events shed a measure of their routine actuality. The play becomes a masque; and not improbably a masque resembling a masque of Neptune, with Ariel and Caliban seen as mutations of triton and sea-nymph. If contemporary productions, however, had looked for hints for figures and décor in the literature of Virginian colonization, they would have found them in John White's ‘True Pictures and Fashions’.5

To dwell upon the ‘sea-sorrow’ and ‘sea-change’ processes of the play is to recognize the difference from the more usual changes associated with pastoral in other comedies and late plays. Only Pericles resembles The Tempest. In The Winter's Tale moral growth is presented as a seasonal process, enabling Leontes to greet Perdita, when innocence returns to Sicilia in the last act, with the words: ‘Welcome hither as is the spring to earth’, and ‘the blessed gods ❙ Purge all infection from our air ❙ Whilst you do climate here’. But conversion and repentance are not in The Tempest, simple processes of growth. They are elusive mysteries, requiring strange mutations and interventions; occurring within dream states, under spells, conditionally ruled by laws that Shakespeare is content to offer as ‘magical’. But it is the sea, as the Elizabethan imagination dwelt upon it, that supplied the language of moral discovery.

Shakespeare's gift, it might be said of this and other plays, was to allegorize the actual; to conjoin his responsiveness to the moral order with his sense of turbulent, intractable realities. In lesser degree that was Strachey's gift too, and Jourdan's. But to the reconciliations accomplished in this play, Shakespeare's theatrical art brings a severe qualification—one that might be expected at this mature and resourceful phase of English drama. It is brought home to us that harmony is achieved in the human world only by allowing to Prospero and to Providence the powers of a playwright; particularly of a playwright skilled in masque—for the cloud-capped towers and all the things that vanish when the magician forfeits his power are recognizably the paraphernalia of masque. In this sense Prospero is indeed Shakespeare, but not Shakespeare the private man (whether retired or exhausted) but Shakespeare the professional playwright and masque-maker, perceiving that the order he seems to reveal in the world that the voyagers disclose to us is a feat of theatrical illusion. The magic does not work everywhere and for ever. From the poetic world there is the return to Milan where Sebastian and Antonio will keep their hard identities. Prospero returns himself and the audience to vulnerable humanity.

The end of the play, however, does not wholly determine its final impression. The climax of the moral magic discovers Ferdinand and Miranda playing at chess. We may remember that a world chess master, Giacchino Greco (il Calabrese), was much about that time visiting England from Italy. Or we may take it that the game is a proper symbol of comedy—of conflict transposed into play. As T. E. Hulme once said—‘Many necessary conditions must be fulfilled before the chess-board can be poised elegantly on the cinders’. Life is only provisionally, for the span of a play which obeys all the unities, a perfectly coherent moral order; and where there is no art—no play—we have leave to doubt that there can be order. Unless it is to be found among Montaigne's savages.


  1. Gustav H. Blanke, Amerika im Englischen Schrifttum des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts (1962), points out that one Bodley atlas has the version ‘Caliban’ for ‘Cariban’. The genesis of names is always elusive. It is noticeable that Strachey (p. 14) names the historian of the West Indies, Gonzalus Ferdinandus Oviedus, which might have supplied Gonzalo and Ferdinand.

  2. Op. cit. 3rd ed. (1617), Book IX, Chap. 5, p. 1039

  3. See Wright, The Elizabethans' America, p. 133.

  4. See for example Purchas his Pilgrimage (1617), p. 654.

  5. The Trve Pictvres and Fashions of the People in … Virginia … draowne by Iohn White, appended to A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (Frankfurt, 1590). See particularly the figure of The Coniuerer or The Flyer.

Richard Henze (essay date autumn 1972)

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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 suddenly remembers Caliban, “after which, to a strange, hollow, and confused noise” the figures “heavily vanish.” Although this masque is contained in only one scene, the theme of which it is a part, how a man should live, pervades the play. Prospero, as he grows in knowledge and strength on the island, discovers that man cannot live in a fantasy apart from this world, and the rejection of the masque becomes part of a larger rejection of passive life in general. In this paper, I want to explore this larger rejection and the dramatic context in which it takes place.

Critics of The Tempest have recognized that the play lends itself quite easily to a symbolic or allegorical interpretation. As Mark Van Doren notes, “The play seems to order itself in terms of its meanings; things in it stand for other things, so that we are tempted to search its dark backward for a single meaning.”2 Most of these searches for meaning have centered in three characters in the play: Caliban, Ariel, and Prospero. According to G. Wilson Knight, Ariel is “a personification of poetry itself,” Caliban represents “the animal aspect in man,” and Prospero “is a god-man, or perhaps the god in man.”3 Theodore Spencer, in his book Shakespeare and the Nature of Man, calls the play Shakespeare's last treatment “of the three levels in Nature's hierarchy—the sensible, the rational, and the intellectual.”4 And James E. Phillips describes the play in terms of the three sub-souls of man. Caliban is the “vegative or quickening power” in man's soul, Ariel is similar to the “sensitive soul in Renaissance man,” and Prospero is “the rational soul.”5 While most critics would not agree on any one interpretation of the play, most do agree with Van Doren that the characters in the play seem to represent something more or less than individual human beings.

But there have been critics too, like Elmer E. Stoll and Virgil Whitaker, who have disagreed with Van Doren's kind of reading. Whitaker, in Shakespeare's Use of Learning, feels that “Ariel, Caliban, and the other spirits are a mechanism in the plot of the play and a means of making its meaning clear, but not a part of that meaning.”6 And in Shakespeare and Other Masters, Stoll decides that he “cannot believe that there is any allegory (which … says one thing and means another), or symbolism (which … means the thing it says and suggests another), or even ‘veiled biography’ here.” This is “only a rather simpler story of his than usual, a romantic fantasy”; the search for inner meaning is “unwarranted by the text and the spirit of the poet”; Ariel and Caliban are “beings more actual and convincing than Miranda and Ferdinand themselves.” But then, in attempting to deal with the characters, Stoll admits that Ariel does seem to represent something—“a power of nature, like wind and water, harnessed for the time to man's service, and delighting in it, yet ever ready to break loose.”7

I think that the characters are a part of the meaning and that things in the play do stand for other things. Characters like Ariel, Caliban, even Prospero, seem to be other than individual human beings. At times the play seems even to become an outright allegory. In order to discuss Caliban and Ariel, one needs to treat them as allegorical figures and use them as a key to the rest of the play. Although I shall be concerned here with one set of symbolic meanings in The Tempest, I do not therefore exclude or deny the multitude of other topics, problems, and oppositions that Shakespeare glances at in the play. Nor do I deny that other interpretations of Caliban and Ariel are possible.

Caliban and Ariel, rather than simply existing separately in a recognizable world, also personify parts of every man's being—in The Tempest, of Prospero himself. To begin, it is profitable to go back to Erasmus and his discussion of the common Renaissance idea of the three parts of man:

The first part is the flesh, wherein the malicious serpent through original trespass hath written the law of sin, whereby we be provoked unto filthiness and coupled unto the devil, if we be overcome. The second part is the spirit, wherein we represent the similitude of the nature of God; who after the eternal law of his own mind hath graven therein the law of honesty, whereby we be knit into God, and made one with him. The third part is the soul, partaker of the sensible wits and natural motions, which if she, forsaking the flesh, cleave unto the spirit, becometh spiritual; but if she follow the corrupt affections of the flesh, then joineth she herself unto an harlot, and is made one body with her that, being an evil, strange, flattering, foolish, and babbling woman, breaketh her promise, and forsaketh the husband of her youth. Wherefore if we incline unto the spirit, it maketh us not only blessed, religious, obedient, kind and merciful; but also teacheth us to desire celestial and necessary, pure, perfect, and godly things, to obey God more than men, and though some affections be disguised with visors of virtue, yet not to be deceived with them. If we incline to the flesh, it maketh us beasts, despisers of God, disobedient, unkind, and cruel. …8

Now perhaps Shakespeare did not know this passage from the Enchiridion, but, as Virgil Whitaker tells us, it is more important to see where Shakespeare shared the ideas of his age than it is to determine precisely where he derived them (p. 9). And Walter Clyde Curry points out in Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns that Shakespeare had “an astonishing capacity for absorbing traditional materials without the exercise of any great scholarly efforts.”9 This separation of spirit and flesh is traditional. In the ninth article of The Thirty-Nine Articles, which Shakespeare must have known, we hear that because of original sin, “the flesh lusteth contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world it deserveth God's wrath and damnation.”10 It follows, therefore, that one's conduct is proper when one leans away from the lusts of the flesh toward the freedom of the spirit. I think that the distinction Erasmus so neatly made works for The Tempest, and as Whitaker notes, the only proof that we can have, finally, that Shakespeare “knew or used a philosophic concept will normally be the pragmatic one that it ‘works’ as a key to his meaning” (p. 6).

Caliban works as an allegorical figure representing the flesh that, without conjunction with spirit, can be filthy and malicious. Ariel represents spirit, that portion of man that is in likeness unto God. The third part of man, soul, is represented by Prospero himself.11 As he, soul, controls Caliban, flesh, and frees Ariel, spirit, he achieves his highest expression; he becomes kind, merciful, and wise. When Prospero governs Caliban and Ariel freely serves Prospero, the man represented by the three together is conducting himself properly. It is not easy, as Prospero discovers, to resist the lust of the flesh. To do so he must consider, as Erasmus did, “how filthy and beastly it maketh us,” how it “withdraweth us from all honest studies, taketh away the use of reason” (p. 523). Since fleshly lust often afflicts man, the struggle against Caliban is a constant one. Prospero tells Miranda,

We'll visit Caliban, my slave, who never
Yields us kind answer.
'Tis a villain, sir,
I do not love to look on.
But as 'tis,
We cannot miss him. He does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices
That profit us. What, ho! slave! Caliban!
Thou earth, thou! speak!

(I. ii. 308-14)

Caliban nearly succeeded in an attempt to rape Miranda; so Miranda does not like to look upon him. Prospero, however, realizing that the flesh, properly subjugated, is necessary to do the chores required of man since his first fall, accepts Caliban for what he is.

The danger on the isle is that one will ignore Ariel, spirit, the part of man “wherein we represent the similitude of … God,” and “incline to the flesh,” Caliban, a “poisonous slave, got by the devil himself” (I. ii. 319), and become “beasts, despisers of God.” That Caliban represents corrupt flesh is indicated by several things: his gluttony and drunkenness, his role as a slave of Prospero, his constant punishment by pinching, as well as Prospero's statement that Caliban is necessary to carry out menial chores. Caliban is not naturally a part of man; man's flesh is not in itself corrupt. Saint Augustine decides in The City of God that “it is not the body as such but only a corruptible body that is burdensome to the soul. … The soul is weighed down not by the body as such, but by the body such as it has become as a consequence of its sin and punishment.”12 Before flesh can become corrupt, man must commit a spiritual sin, the sin of pride, and turn himself voluntarily from the godly within himself. But after the spiritual sin has been committed, Caliban, fleshly sin, easily follows and makes beasts of his servants.

Caliban's mother was a “damn'd witch” who was banished from the society of reasonable men, but “For one thing she did / They would not take her life” (I. ii. 266-67). This one thing was to become pregnant. The father of her child, according to Prospero, was the devil. Since Caliban's mother mated with the devil to produce corrupt flesh, she seems to represent man's first capacity for sin, the spiritual sin of pride that led him to eat of the fruit, a sin not because the fruit was evil but because it was forbidden. Saint Augustine said, “if they were forbidden to eat of that one tree, it was not because of any evil in the tree but for the sake of the value of a pure and simple obedience which is the great virtue of a rational creature subject to its Lord and Creator. … The only sin was disobedience” (p. 330). She, man's first spiritual sin, was not immortal; each man, if he is to commit spiritual sin, must commit it himself; if he chooses, he may avoid spiritual sin. But fleshly sin, the offspring of spiritual sin, remains; ready to trouble any who come its way, and equally ready to avoid men who live without spiritual sin. Caliban continually threatens man, but only those men who are brought by the accidents of fortune to his island. Prospero, with the strength of his art, which is a reasonable trust in Providence gotten through study of the proper books, is able to avoid despair and pride and to make Caliban his slave rather than his master.

Caliban reminds Prospero that when he first arrived on the island he

          strok'dst me and mad'st 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;

(I. ii. 332-36)

If the soul continues to cultivate the flesh so, Caliban soon will make the island his. As Prospero discovered, Caliban is by nature a rebellious slave who can only be controlled by strict, but patient, authority.

When flesh is chastised, as Caliban is, Ariel, the spiritual in man, can freely serve man. When Prospero first came to the island, Caliban ruled and Ariel was imprisoned because it would not serve lust: “for thou wast a spirit too delicate / To act her earthy and abhorr'd commands, / Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee” (I. ii. 272-74). Prospero freed Ariel: “It was mine art, / When I arriv'd and heard three, that made gape / The pine, and let thee out” (I. ii. 291-93). That art and the patience and wisdom that it reveals controls the action of the play.

This action takes place on an island, to which Prospero was borne by stormy seas after he was driven from his dukedom. The island, “this most desolate isle” (III. iii. 80), and the ocean itself may be treated as symbols. The island represents the condition one is in when separated from fortune, when one can either despair or continue to trust in Providence. “O the heavens!” says Miranda, “What foul play had we that we came from thence? / Or blessed was't we did?” “Both, both, my girl!” answers Prospero. “By foul play, as thou say'st, were we heav'd thence, / But blessedly holp hither” (I. ii. 59-63). Hither is the place of despair or of recognition of proper place in the order of nature. Prospero, tossed from his state by unnatural rebellion and his own neglect of duty, makes of the island a blessed state of recognition.

Prospero's rightful realm, however, was his dukedom, in which he failed to wear properly the mantle of rule. As he tells Miranda:

          Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed
In dignity, and for the liberal arts
Without a parallel; those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.

(I. ii. 72-77)

A ruler, whether duke or king, should not be so rapt in studies that he neglects his duty to his subjects.

Whether Shakespeare took his view on order, “divine right and the mutual relation of monarchs and subjects from the official Book of Sermons” as Alfred Hart says in Shakespeare and the Homilies,13 from Hooker sometime after 1594 as Whitaker thinks,14 from Hall and Holinshed,15 or from any one of a dozen other sources, he did hold it. The ruler, for Shakespeare and his age, was God's vicegerent on earth who must fulfill his God-given role if disorder is to be avoided. If he neglects his duty, confusion follows. Perhaps Richard II contains more references to divine right and kingly rights and duties than the other plays, but the doctrine appears in at least twenty of Shakespeare's plays.16 Rebellion is always wrong, but so is lack of attendance to duty. Prospero, “rapt in secret studies” neglects responsibility, and, as for Lear and Richard II, disorder follows.

This interest in duty is part of the Renaissance concept of nature; as man fulfills his role in life, he is most noble. When Prospero turned to studies instead of government, he selfishly violated his duty to society in order to satisfy his private pleasure. This conflict between private pleasure and the pleasure of duty was recognized generally. According to Bacon's Advancement of Learning,

There is formed and imprinted in everything an appetite toward two natures of good; the one as everything is a total or substantive in itself, the other as it is a part or member of a greater body; whereof the latter is in degree the greater and worthier, because it tends to the conservation of a more general form. The former of these may be termed “Individual or Self-good,” the latter the “Good of Communion.” … Thus it is ever the case, that the conservation of the more general form control and keeps in order the lesser appetites and inclinations.

[V, 7]17

Since one's lesser appetites are best controlled when one performs one's duty in society, the contemplative life is less worthy than the life of active duty. The contemplative life that Aristotle preferred has as its support “private good, and the pleasure or dignity of a man's self; in which respects no question the contemplative life has the pre-eminence” (V, 8). But the public good is the one that men should desire, for “men must know that in this theatre of man's life it is reserved only for God and Angels to be lookers on” (V, 8). Prospero gives up his role of onlooker to become a participant when he becomes again a ruler. In choosing to return to society, he chooses the greater good which cannot be envisaged in a Christian society, Anders Nygren says, “from the point of view of the isolated individual, but rather from that of man in society, man in his relation to God and to his fellowman.”18

Prospero on the island, then, has not been always as patient and wise as we see him in the play. Faced with the threat of malicious flesh and the pleasant temptation of intellectual solitude he has risen finally to a higher level of being, to a cultivation of the godlike within himself. This progression from one level of being to another seems itself allegorical. While a duke, Prospero cultivated knowledge and engaged in secret studies. Driven to the island, he attempted to cultivate Caliban. When Caliban accuses Prospero of mistreating him, Prospero replies,

                                        Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have us'd thee,
(Filth as thou art) with humane care, and lodg'd thee
In mine own cell till thou didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.

(I. ii. 344-48)

“In mine own cell” here is in his own self—until the danger of Caliban's corruption became apparent. Then, after he discovered that Caliban's lusts should be ruled, not cultivated, Prospero returned to his books and from them gained the philosophic mind. Finally, Prospero leaves his books also as he rises to a third level of being, that where the spiritual is free to guide him.

In this threefold progression, Prospero achieves in turn each of the three perfections that Renaissance writers like Hooker recognized in man. Man, according to Hooker,

doth seek a triple perfection; first a sensual, consisting in those things which very life itself requireth either as necessary supplements … ; then an intellectual, consisting in those things which none underneath man is either capable of or acquainted with; lastly a spiritual and divine, consisting in those things whereunto we tend by supernatural means here, but cannot here attain unto them. They that make the first of these three the scope of their whole life, are said by the Apostle to have no god but only their belly, to be earthly-minded men. Unto the second they bend themselves, who seek especially to excel in all such knowledge and virtue as doth most command men.

[I. xi. 4]19

But man is not satisfied with either of these two because he has a soul that makes him somewhat divine: “So that Nature even in this life doth plainly claim and call for a more divine perfection than either of these two that have been mentioned” (I. xi. 4).

While a duke, Prospero had already risen to the second pleasure, that of study. After cultivating Caliban for a while on the island, he soon returns to his books. But the final pleasure is a spiritual one, standing above both mind and body. Prospero finally balances books and duty in order to rise to the highest level. He learns that, as Erasmus said, “all manner of learning should be tested in due season and measure, with good judgment and discretion” (p. 498).

Apparently Prospero has not yet achieved complete knowledge of proper measure and degree by the beginning of the play. If he had, he would realize that a duke should prize his dukedom above all but his God. But, according to the Folio reading, he can now still say, “Gonzalo, … / Knowing I lov'd my books, he furnish'd me / From my own library with volumes that / I prize above my dukedom” (I. ii. 161-68). If the Folio “prize” were emended to “Priz'd”—perhaps a d-e misreading—the chronology would be more appropriate. In that case, although Prospero “priz'd” his books “above my dukedom,” he has already learned on the island to reorder his values. We do not see him prizing his books at all during the course of the play's action; instead we see him giving full attention to the business of regaining his dukedom. Since he is willing a few hours later to “drown my book,” surely he has already, in Act I, learned that a duke's primary responsibility is his dukedom. With either reading, however, the point remains that Prospero's studies have helped him discover his proper role.

On the island he properly throws off the mantle of study and takes up the scepter of rule while retaining his supremacy over fleshly lust and his affinity with spirit. To study books, Prospero discovers, is not in itself enough, but from his books Prospero is able to gain the art, the patience, and the wisdom that enable him to control Caliban. “I must obey,” says Caliban. “His art is of such pow'r / It would control my dam's god, Setebos, / And make a vassal of him” (I. ii. 372-74). Reasonable patience, trust in Providence, natural imposition of order on himself—these are his art, art capable of controlling Caliban, of preventing him from working any mischief, and, finally, of making Caliban himself seek wisdom and grace. Caliban, aware of the importance of the books, advises Stephano and Trinculo to first destroy them; then Prospero will lose his magic and have no “spirit to command” (III. ii. 102).

The magic that Prospero is able to perform seems to derive from knowledge. This combination of knowledge and magic was a relationship recognized by Renaissance writers.20 According to Bacon in The Advancement of Learning, the “honourable meaning” of “magic” is knowledge:

I must here stipulate that magic, which has long been used in a bad sense, be again restored to its ancient and honourable meaning. For among the Persians magic was taken for a sublime wisdom, and the knowledge of the universal consents of things. … For as for that natural magic which flutters about so many books, embracing certain credulous and superstitious traditions … it will not be wrong to say that it is as far differing in truth of nature from such a knowledge as we require, as the story of King Arthur of Britain … differs from Caesar's Commentaries in truth of story.

[IV, 366-67]

Magic that converts

silver, quicksilver, or any other metal into gold, is a thing difficult to believe; yet it is far more probable that a man who knows clearly the natures of weight, of the colour of yellow, of malleability and extension … may at least by much and sagacious endeavour produce gold; than that a few grains of an elixir should in a few moments of time be able to run other metals into gold by the agency of that elixir, as having power to perfect nature and free it from all impediments.

[IV, 367-68]

Magic can be true wisdom or the vain effort of the lazy man to get something for nothing; Prospero's magic is that of wisdom. From the knowledge he has he is able to divine that certain events are going to happen in the near future. He hears the storm approaching, sees the ship, and foresees by means of his magic that a shipwreck is imminent.

Prospero tells Miranda that fortune has brought the ship to the shore:

By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune
(Now my dear lady) hath mine enemies
Brought to this shore; and by my prescience
I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes
Will ever after droop.

(I. ii. 178-84)

Although fortune is now in his favor, Prospero himself must take advantage of this “most auspicious star” if the fortunate occurrence is to do him any good. If Prospero neglects his opportunity, he will bind himself to an unnatural order; his fortunes “will ever after droop.” As Prospero, with the help of Ariel, does take advantage of the confusion to further the cause of order, he affiliates himself with spirit and regains his dukedom. The “best pleasure” that Ariel serves is not the study of books or the cultivation of Caliban, but the attempt by Prospero to become again a proper duke. And, as Prospero becomes again a ruler rather than a scholar, Ariel is freed while Prospero serves the greater good.

The tempest blows, and all but the mariners abandon ship. Most of those from the ship immediately begin to feel despair and sorrow. Prospero asks Ariel,

Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil
Would not infect his reason?
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 …

(I. ii. 207-11)

Refusing to trust Providence as Prospero did when adrift, those from the ship become victims of fortune. The ship here seems a symbol of the confused state which Prospero, having again taken upon his shoulders the responsibility of ruling, will return to order. Prospero says,

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 …

(I. ii. 28-31)

Before that art brings order on the island, however, most of the wanderers suffer. Two, Stephano and Trinculo, drunk and unreasonable, become connected immediately to the fleshly Caliban. The others, except for Ferdinand and Gonzalo, despair or attempt to perpetrate additional misdeeds until they are finally led with Prospero's aid to patience and repentance.

Of the others, Alonso puts off hope, and Sebastian and Antonio plan to kill him. At this point (III. iii.) we have “Solemn and strange music” and Prospero enters invisible to the men below. Several “strange shapes” also appear, bearing a banquet. They “dance about it with gentle actions of salutation; and, inviting the King, etc., to eat, they depart.” When the men attempt to eat, Ariel flies in as a harpy, “and with a quaint device the banquet vanishes.” Then Ariel accuses Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio of sin and threatens punishment.

If Prospero represents soul and Ariel spirit, then we might say that they represent, in this scene, soul and spirit within the King Alonso and his followers. The feast, then, becomes an image created within each man by his own soul and spirit. Some direct evidence supports this interpretation. Gonzalo apparently sees the feast spread and hears the harmonious music at the beginning of the scene: “Marvellous sweet music!” he says. And he sees the strange creatures. But apparently he does not hear the harpy accuse the others and threaten retribution. For after Alonso's fearful reaction to Ariel's speech, Gonzalo asks him, “I' th' name of something holy, sir, why stand you / In this strange stare (ll. 94-95). Alonso replies, “O, it is monstrous, monstrous! / Methought the billows spoke and told me of it” (ll. 95-96). Quite clearly Gonzalo has seen only the harmonious part of the vision, the feast spread; only the three accused ones have witnessed the disharmonious interruption.

Banquet spread and banquet interrupted, then, are separate visions; and they are internal visions—imagined rather than actual. The banquet is an image of order, satisfaction, fullness; it is in fact a momentary utopian dream. But unless the man himself be orderly, the utopian dream will be immediately destroyed by guilt and fear as it is destroyed for the three guilty men. For loyal Gonzalo, however, the interruption does not occur.

When the feast is brought in by Prospero's “meaner ministers” (perhaps doubts, hopes) everyone notes the harmony. Antonio says that he will now believe any traveler's tale: “Travellers ne're did lie, / Though fools at home condemn 'em” (ll. 26-27). Alonso decides to “stand to and feed,” to partake of the order, the fullness. But such satisfaction is not possible when one is disorderly. “Thunder and lightning” occur, Shakespeare's usual emblems of disorder. Ariel, as a harpy, claps wings on the table and the banquet vanishes. Then he calls Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian “three men of sin” whom destiny has brought to this island that “man doth not inhabit.” Ariel continues, “I have made you mad; / And even with such-like valour men hang and drown / Their proper selves” (ll. 58-60). The criminals have lost their “proper” selves, have brought themselves to the madness of guilt, doubt, and fear. Antonio and Sebastian draw, and the harpy cries, “you fools! I and my fellows / Are ministers of Fate” (ll. 60-61). If Ariel and the shapes are, as the play seems to indicate, parts of the essential makeup of every man, and if they are ministers of fate, then the agents whereby fate works are no more or less than man's own character and being. Fate still remains outside man; Ariel says that he is a minister of fate; he does not say that he is fate itself. But fate works through man's character; and so, in a sense, a man, the subject and ruler of his own character, is the subject and ruler of fate. How he orders the elements within himself or allows them to order him determines what his fate will be. Or another way to put it is that a man's choices determine his salvation or damnation.

Ariel now accuses the criminals of supplanting Prospero. As spirit, that part which helps a man maintain order within himself, Ariel is quite properly fulfilling his function at this point. Under the direction and control of Prospero, he is leading sinful men back to nature, to “clear life ensuing.” Prospero compliments Ariel on his effectiveness: “They now are in my power” (l. 90). The unnatural men, through the prompting of spirit, through guilt, have now been led back toward reason, but they have not yet attained that order within themselves that will lead to order in the realm. Alonso decides to commit suicide; he needs to learn patience. Sebastian and Antonio attempt to fight the visionary shapes; they remain incapable of repentance just as Caliban remains incapable of nurture. At the end of the play, they, like Stephano and Trinculo, are two that a ruler must “know and own” just as Caliban is a “thing of darkness” that Prospero must “acknowledge mine.” Although Prospero includes Sebastian and Antonio in the general forgiveness, their only “repentance” is Sebastian's remark that “The Devil speaks in” Prospero (V. i. 128).

Even while he is guiding Alonso back to patience and order and preparing for the attack by Caliban, Prospero supports Ferdinand in his patience. Ferdinand swims to shore and hears Ariel sing (I. ii. 387): “Where should this music be? I' th' air or th' earth?” At first, close to despair, he is able to hear only at a distance the song of spirit:

It sounds no more; and sure, it waits upon
Some god o' th' island. Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the King my father's wrack,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air.

(I. ii. 388-93)

Then, after he meets Miranda—innocence—and falls in love with her, he bears patiently the trials put upon him and proves himself worthy of being united with Miranda. Finally he is able himself to witness spirit; he, like Prospero, has learned patience and has not let flesh overcome him; he has asserted the spiritual within himself. To celebrate this “Fair encounter / Of two most rare affections” (III. i. 74-75), Prospero calls forth the masque.

This masque is performed by Ariel and “the rabble” under the direction of Prospero: “A contract of true love to celebrate / And some donation freely to estate / On the blest lovers” (IV. i. 84-86). The masque continues until Prospero remembers Caliban; then it vanishes abruptly. Prospero calls the masque a “vanity,” an illusion: he tells Ariel,

                    Go bring the rabble,
O'er whom I give thee pow'r, here to this place.
Incite them to quick motion; for I must
Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple
Some vanity of mine art. It is my promise,
And they expect it from me.

(IV. i. 37-42)

Such a vanity is achieved by the spiritual in man, by Ariel and Prospero's art. The masque is not based on actuality; it is derived from the imagination. The rabble seem to be the various impulses of the imagination that the spiritual in man can gather into an orderly vision. Prospero tells Ferdinand that these are

                              Spirits, which by mine art
I have from their confines call'd to enact
My present fancies.
Let me live here ever!
So rare a wond'red father and a wise
Makes this place Paradise.

(IV. i. 120-24)

While the masque is playing, we are momentarily in an imaginary paradise. The first paradise, which Gonzalo wishes to re-establish, is past, and his wish, as he knows, is only a fancy. So with Prospero's masque too; it is a fanciful fiction that lasts only so long as one is able to forget Caliban.

The reapers enter, and join with the nymphs in a graceful dance “towards the end whereof Prospero starts suddenly, and speaks; after which, to a strange, hollow, and confused noise, they heavily vanish.” Prospero says,

I had forgot that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates
Against my life. The minute of their plot
Is almost come.—[To the Spirits] Well done!
                    Avoid! No more!
This is strange. Your father's in some passion.
That works him strongly.

(IV. i. 139-44)

The masque, a thing of spirit as well as are the books that teach Prospero patience, cannot, like patience, subdue the passions of unrestrained flesh. It is chased away by the coming, by even the remembrance of the treachery of Caliban. A spiritual utopia is impossible even to imagine when one feels passion. The moment Prospero is troubled by passion his art fails him—his patience and trust in Providence are momentarily disturbed. The confusion and hollowness that end the masque will continue until Prospero is again able to conquer his vexation and subdue Caliban.

Miranda recognizes that Prospero is “touch'd with anger,” more touched in fact than ever before, when he tells Ferdinand that the actors, “all spirits,” have “melted into air.” Thus too shall men disappear: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (IV. i. 156-58). But then Prospero qualifies his pessimistic outline of man by admitting that he is vexed:

                    My old brain is troubled.
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity.
If you be pleas'd, retire into my cell
And there repose. A turn or two I'll walk
To still my beating mind.
We wish your peace.
Come with a thought!

(IV. i. 159-64)

It is easy to be thrown off the track here by the very magnificence of Shakespeare's poetry. But when one pays attention to exactly what is being said by that poetry one discovers, first of all, that Prospero is angry. Since he is speaking from passion, not from reasoned consideration, his pessimistic view of the world as unsubstantial pageant is not authoritative. Although the spiritual, the masque in this case, has vanished for a time when the anger persists, it will and does return with the return of reason and peace. Prospero himself immediately realizes, and tells Ferdinand, that he has spoken in the weakness of anger. His brain was troubled and momentarily infirm. He wants to still his beating brain, and peace returns with the thought: thought, i.e., reason, overcomes passion and permits the return to reliance on spirit and control of flesh. Ariel returns immediately with the return of reason to Prospero. And although the masque itself does not return, although it is merely pageant that feeds the spirit and not the body, the thing of which it is a part, the spiritual of man, does return and remains with Prospero for the rest of the play.

The masque in The Tempest is a fanciful ideal world, a world than man can inhabit only momentarily because man's permanent place is in this world where the lusts of the flesh as well as duty have their place. The imagined ideal of a paradise is not finally achievable in The Tempest, or in life, because it is a fantasy in which a man's duty has no part. The greater good for man is the good of life in society, and utopian dreams do not support this greater good of fellowship. According to Hallett Smith, “Ethically, pastoral supports the contemplative life, and as such it is always vulnerable to the objection that virtue can consist only in action.”21 The very thing that makes a dream of an ideal world possible also makes it unattainable. The civilized man, like Prospero, is the one who desires a return to simplicity and nature in order to escape the responsibility and disorder of life. But such escape is only fanciful, for the place to correct disorder is at home. Prospero must finally realize that he cannot turn from himself or his dukedom; he must attend to Caliban and his misled subjects.

Although man must live in a world other than that of fanciful masque, man can yet be reasonable and responsible. So Prospero proves as he rights affairs in his realm and guides his subjects back to order. First, with the help of Caliban, he proves his power to resist corrupt appetite. Ariel returns to Prospero:

Thy thoughts I cleave to. What's thy pleasure?
We must prepare to meet with Caliban.
Ay, my commander. When I presented Ceres,
I thought to have told thee of it, but I fear'd
Lest I might anger thee.

(IV. i. 165-69)

Ariel cleaves to thought; spirit cleaves to reason. Prospero calls on spirit in order to meet another attack by flesh, but Ariel will not remind him of Caliban because the remembrance may cause anger which will force the retreat of spirit and the improper advance of flesh. Prospero asks where Ariel left “these varlets.” Ariel replies that, “redhot with drinking,” the drunkards stumbled into the “filthy mantled pool beyond your cell” (IV. i. 182). So drunkenness leads them foully astray.

The King finally finds his way and repents after approaching despair. Prospero forgives him—as well as the less-moved Sebastian and Antonio:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th' quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.

(V. i. 25-30)

Earlier Prospero was angry; he still needed his magic robes. Now he is able to forgive wrong and to act as the agent of returned order. With order achieved, he is able to put aside his magic, for he has learned enough to be patient and charitable.

Clearer reason brings awareness of fault: “their rising senses / Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle / Their clearer reason” (V. i. 66-68). Prospero reminds the three of their guilt and tells them that they are “pinch'd fo't now” (V. i. 74). With the pinching, reason returns:

                    Their understanding
Begins to swell, and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore,
That now lies foul and muddy.

(V. i. 79-82)

The son is found and Gonzalo calls on the gods to bless the young couple, “For it is you that have chalk'd forth the way / Which brought us hither” (V. i. 203-4). The gods lead men to order and peace when men cooperate. Prospero rejoices that so much has been found: a wife for Ferdinand, a dukedom for Prospero, and each man for himself “When no man was his own” (V. i. 213). The return to nature and order that a man accomplishes on the island is a finding of his true and higher self. Alonso says, “These are not natural events; they strengthen / From strange to stranger” (V. i. 227-28). He is wrong, for although strange, they are natural.

Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban are brought forth to be accused. Prospero says, “Two of these fellows you / Must know and own; this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (V. i. 274-76). Caliban fears he will be “pinch'd to death,” but Prospero accepts the flesh as part of himself, but a part that henceforth will be kept in order. Some indication exists that Prospero has finally succeeded in imposing decency upon Caliban. The constant danger of rebellion is past, Caliban has lost, and he accepts his defeat: “I'll be wise hereafter / And seek for grace” (V. i. 294-95). He will not only be useful but, possibly, good.

Prospero, now attuned to the spiritual and in control of the corporeal, no longer needs to rule by magic or force. The free state that he attains apart from his magic is his noblest. But that freedom requires that he return to his dukedom, for the same reason that his passive, ideal life was not achievable. Bacon tells us in The Advancement of Learning,

After the creation was finished, it is set down unto us that man was placed in the garden to work therein; which work so appointed to him could be no other than work of contemplation; that is, when the end of work is but for exercise and experiment, not for necessity; for there being then no reluctation of the creature, nor sweat of the brow, man's employment must of consequence have been matter of delight in the experiment, and not matter of labour for the use.

[III, 290]

But after the fall, man had to labor for his daily food, and work of activity became more important than work of contemplation. And so things remain. Each man labors according to his place in the order of things, and the place of the duke is at the head of his dukedom.

But Prospero returns to his dukedom a different man, for he has learned patience; he has learned to control flesh; he has learned to balance learning and responsibility and to bear affliction, neither delighting in being afflicted, for such is pride, nor despairing; he has learned to think of death without wishing for it or fearing it, considering, as Erasmus would have one do, “how full of grief and misery, how short and transitory, this present life is; how on every side death lieth in wait against us, and suddenly catcheth us; how unsure we are of one moment of life; how great peril it is to continue that kind of life, wherein if sudden death should take us, as it often fortuneth, we were but lost for ever” (p. 522). Prospero is surely prepared for any accident.

The Tempest indicates that in this world where men pass their transitory lives, no utopia exists where one can entirely escape the weight of his own being. He may escape momentarily the complexities of life by imagining for himself an ideal world where love and reason reign or where fruit grows without cultivation, but the imagined world can exist only as long as he is free from the moment at hand. The very men who most feel the yearning for escape, sophisticated men like Prospero, are the men who have least chance to escape, for they have too little time to pass in fanciful worlds. The masque in The Tempest is part of a larger context. As a creation of the contemplative imagination, it springs from the same desire for a passive life that leads one to study and seclusion. And like passive life apart from the world, the fanciful world of the masque cannot be sustained by a reasonable and proper man, for he must live in the real world of duty and action.


  1. All Shakespeare quotations are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. George Lyman Kittredge (Boston, 1936).

  2. Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York, 1937, 1947), p. 322.

  3. G. Wilson Knight, The Crown of Life: Essays in Interpretation of Shakespeare's Final Plays, 2d. ed. (London, 1948), pp. 210, 211, and 242.

  4. Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man, 2d. ed. (New York, 1949), p. 195.

  5. James E. Phillips, “The Tempest and the Renaissance Idea of Man,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], XV (1964), 150, 152-53, and 157.

  6. Virgil Whitaker, Shakespeare's Use of Learning (San Marino, Calif., 1953), p. 323.

  7. Elmer E. Stoll, Shakespeare and Other Masters (Cambridge, Mass., 1940), pp. 281-84.

  8. Miles Coverdale, “Abridgement of the Enchiridion of Erasmus,” in Writings and Translations of Miles Coverdale, ed. George Pearson for the Parker Society (Cambridge, 1844), pp. 504-5.

  9. Walter Clyde Curry, Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns (Baton Rouge, La., 1937), pp. 165-66.

  10. Cited in Whitaker, op. cit., p. 79.

  11. Interpretations of Caliban and Ariel as the “gross genius of brute matter” and “the spirit of the elements” or as various Aristotelian souls may work just as well as this one, but perhaps they work no better.

  12. The Fathers of the Church, trans. Gerald S. Walsh, S. J., and Grace Monahan, O.S.U., vol. XIV (New York, 1952), bk. xiii, p. 319.

  13. Alfred Hart, Shakespeare and the Homilies (Melbourne, Australia, 1934), p. 5.

  14. Whitaker, pp. 198-209.

  15. E. M. W. Tillyard, in Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944), feels that Hall deserves as much credit as Holinshed, if not more.

  16. See Hart, p. 27.

  17. The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 7 vols. (London, 1861-70). In parentheses I give volume and page number.

  18. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (London, 1953), p. 45.

  19. Richard Hooker, The Works, ed. John Keble, rev. R. W. Church and F. Paget, 7th ed., 3 vols. (Oxford, 1888). In parentheses I give book, chapter, and paragraph number. Virgil Whitaker assures us that Shakespeare knew Hooker; see Shakespeare's Use of Learning, pp. 198-209.

  20. Whitaker notes that Shakespeare's system of magic is not very carefully worked out (p. 323). Its significance seems clear, however.

  21. Hallett Smith, Elizabethan Poetry: A Study in Conventions, Meaning, and Expression (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), p. 57.

Robert Smallwood (review date 2000)

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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 upon by reviewers. The play was offered in a grim and ugly prison-cell set by Robert Innes Hopkins, draped at the back with polythene sheeting, chains hanging from walls decorated with a daily chalk-mark to record the long months and years of Prospero's exile, piles of logs on either side, pieces of polythene strewn around, a few battered buckets, a circle of large boulders, and, centre-stage, a decayed old sofa. Since the sound-effects of wind and storm were nothing if not realistic, the requirement seemed to be that we take these visual objects at face value too, the miserable flotsam of a tide-washed island, though the polythene, it seemed (an awkward duality), had intermittently symbolic properties too, for of it Prospero's magic garment was made, from it Ariel appeared, in it Prospero became invisible, from within cones of it the goddesses spoke their amplified whispered blessings in the masque, and by its allure on Prospero's clothes-line we had to suppose that Stephano and company were diverted from their murderous purpose. The Chekhov and Coward of the rest of the company's repertoire meant that the trio of men of sin had to be played by women hardly old enough to have been actively wicked twelve years earlier, while their ‘Burlington Bertie’ appearance in tailcoats, and their tendency to strut and swagger like Portia practising to Nerissa for her courtroom performance, robbed all their scenes of credibility and left a terrible gap in the production where the opposition to Prospero should have been. The comic scenes went for little too, though Will Keen worked hard at his wistful little stand-up Ulster comedian Trinculo.

It was, however, Sir Ian's Prospero that one had come to see. Onto the stage he shuffled as the performance began, slightly unsteady on his pins, in his battered straw hat, ragged trousers that finished half way down very white calves, ancient brogues, and moth-eaten cardigan, chuntering to himself as he inscribed this day's chalk-mark on the wall and, putting on the long polythene stole that represented Prospero's magic cloak (kissing it like a priest as he did so) and opening an ancient volume taped up against final disintegration, lit a little night-light within each of the boulders. Then he threw a toy boat into one of the buckets, began clicking a split bamboo cane over a little collection of not-very-voodooish woollen dolls, and lay back on the sofa and waited for the storm to begin. The words of the shipwreck scene were more or less inaudible for the overwhelmingly realistic sound effects, but its action was not uninterestingly eerie in a strange blue light behind the upstage polythene sheets.

Although the production as a whole was deeply disappointing, at its centre was an eccentric but fascinating reading of its principal role. McKellen presented a profoundly weary, disillusioned Prospero, crotchety and aloof and slightly dotty, though with a touching, gruff affection for his daughter. There was never any urgency about this Prospero's behaviour: it was as if he had always known that he would one day gain vengeance over Antonio and the process of achieving it was tiring and depressing. He had a habit of flapping his arms in an uncoordinated way, as though undecided about how to proceed. Anger could still be stirred in him as he remembered past wrongs, but there was never any sense of struggle to find the ability to overcome it; to punish his enemies really wasn't worth it, for they would never learn, and, anyway, was his own earlier behaviour really beyond reproach? There were little surges of hard-won energy here and there, glimpses of approval for Paul Bhattacharjee's notably unrebellious Ariel (all in blue paint), wry half-smiles at the eagerness of Claudie Blakley's spirited if rather vulgar little Miranda, assertions of power over Timothy Walker's absurdly fang-toothed Caliban and Rhashan Stone's finely spoken Ferdinand that involved a certain amount of grim (or mock-grim) jangling of the keys which he carried to their fetters. This last, and the fact that he had Ariel and Caliban dressed in replicas of his own hat and cardigan (Caliban threw his off in glee as he subjugated himself to Stephano), were the only gestures in the direction of the recently fashionable colonial-oppressor version of Prospero. Weary old fuddy-duddy, his old brain more or less permanently troubled, was what we were mostly offered here—along with a virtuoso command of Shakespearian verse-speaking.

This was a Prospero one couldn't stop listening to—partly because some of the phrasing was so wilful that total attention was essential to stay abreast of meaning. But the sudden little spurts, the musicality with which certain phrases were slowed or speeded, language orchestrated as much as spoken, the apparent throwaway nonchalance that was in fact so precisely calculated, the mixture of the conversational and the majestic, the sheer bravura brilliance of technique unashamedly on display, were a constant source of fascination. There was a sense of bleak pathos, even doom, about ‘Our revels now are ended’, a detached resignation to loneliness and to every third thought being his grave which appeared again, with a lingering over the phrasing that gave an even deeper sense of world-weariness to ‘Ye elves of brooks …’. And at the end, after his amusement at the bewilderment of the lords of Naples and Milan and their rather indecisive dismissal (had they learned anything or not?), and after a semi-affectionate pat on the head for a penitent Caliban, and with the magic polythene stole and the bamboo wand safely dispatched down the trapdoor, it was as if a weight had been lifted from him, physically and vocally, and the Epilogue had a remarkably exhilarating directness, and simplicity, and freedom, that provided a genuine climax to the piece, a Prospero earnestly begging for the audience's attention, rather than the dying fall that is one's usual theatrical experience. One had travelled to Leeds to hear a star actor speak Shakespeare and the surprises were worth the journey. Nothing else in the production was.

Kenneth J. Semon (essay date spring 1973)

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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 and with fantastic events, but in the last phase of his career we find his most daring experimentation. The central problem of presenting a fantastic world, a world divorced from “reality” as one normally experiences it, is to reconcile the tension between the fantastic and the verisimilar. In the last plays there are several different solutions to the problem: Gower, in Pericles, continually asserts that the play is an old tale which requires the audience to use their imagination if the play is to succeed; in The Winter's Tale the choric gentlemen in V.ii reflect the audiences' disbelief in the plausibility of the fantastic discoveries and at the same time draw them into the fantasy.2 But neither of these solutions is as successful as that in The Tempest.

Throughout the play Prospero takes great delight in the practice of his “Art.” After many years of study he has become an accomplished mage and is now able to order and even control his experience. Unlike a “normal” man Prospero has the unusual ability to control his environment, to act out his will on the external world. For Prospero it seems there is no distinction between the secondary world of magic (i. e., his art) and the primary world of experience. Thus it would seem that Prospero is not subject to the analogous artistic, or more specifically, poetic problem with which Shakespeare must deal: the reconciliation of art and experience. I emphasize “seem” because, in fact, it becomes apparent that both Shakespeare and Prospero ultimately do confront the problem of reconciliation, each within the realm of his respective art.


Any work of poetry creates a world within itself, and in the sense that it is not the world of everyday experience, it is a “secondary world.” A secondary world may be either “realistic,” in so much as it maintains a marked resemblance to life in the primary world; or “fantastic,” in so much as it maintains only a limited resemblance to the primary world; or it may be, as most poetic worlds, a mixture of realistic and fantastic elements.3 Regardless of which category we impose upon a secondary world, it is essential that the secondary world, like the way in which we describe the primary world, be consistent within itself. We describe the primary world as a series of inter-related propositions since language is necessarily logical. In order to create a credible secondary world which is consistent within itself, the artist must also base his creation on a series of inter-related propositions, though the propositions need only observe the logical form of the primary world and need not be made of the same substance. Thus, in The Tempest, the first proposition to which all others relate is that Prospero is able to control events and actions within certain limits of his island. It is a given we could not accept in the primary world and Shakespeare does not postulate that control until the second scene of the play. First we see the men aboard a ship in the midst of a storm—not an unlikely occurrence in the primary world—and then we learn that Prospero has made the storm. Thereafter we witness further evidence of Prospero's control.

Just as action takes place in the primary world according to laws which we may determine and describe, so does the first action of The Tempest take place according to the law we describe when we say that Prospero controls the actions on or near his island. The need for clearly stated laws in art is most apparent in fantasy, where, if the writer cannot supply the reader in one way or another with his laws, the reader will not be able to understand the action of the work—nor will he be able to understand the meaning of the work relative to the primary world. In fantasy, individual laws may be nonsensical outside of their immediate context. Prospero's ability to control characters and events is a good example; yet, within the world of the play, our knowledge of Prospero's power is essential to our understanding of the main action. The maker of fantasy presents a series of propositions which may, then, be nonsensical (indeed, this is probably the major difference between fantastic and realistic fiction) but when considered along with other propositions, each related to others in a logical and consistent way, those propositions provide the framework for a successful secondary world.

If Shakespeare's artistic problem is to reconcile the fantastic secondary world with the experiential primary world, Prospero's artistic problem is apparently of a different nature. For Prospero the problem becomes one of how he is going to use his art, that is, his magic—a moral rather than a poetic consideration—since he need not worry about the distinction between secondary and primary worlds because his magic does more than just shape experience, more than just give “airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” Rather it governs experience within certain established limits; and for that reason The Tempest, almost from the beginning, presents us with fantastic events and with a perspective which we do not find in any other play. Since we accept and are aware of the central law, Prospero's magic and the power of that magic, we do not share the response of the characters in the play who are subject to his power. (It is in this subjugation that Prospero is most like Shakespeare.) The characters respond to his manipulation with “wonder,” an allusive term, the usual response to events of a fairy tale. We respond with delight and “wonder” to the ending of Cymbeline (and, no doubt, hilarity) for example, just as we respond to fantastic events in Shakespeare's other comedies.4 In the last act of The Winter's Tale the First Gentleman notes the difficulty in defining the particular sense of wonder Leontes and Perdita experience at their first meeting:

A notable passion of wonder appeared in them; but the wisest beholder, that knew no more but seeing, could not say if th' importance were joy or sorrow; but in the extremity of the one it must needs be.

(WT, V.ii.15-19)5

Wonder, in The Tempest, usually means “amazement”; the characters are amazed at the fantastic events caused by Prospero's magic. But wonder also takes on more complex meanings.


If the first scene of the play, the storm and “sinking” of Alonso's ship, is ambiguous, Prospero's exposition in the second scene provides the necessary perspective to understand the storm and the events which result from it. Miranda expresses her compassion as she describes the storm and the struggle of the ship:

The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to th' welkin's cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those I saw suffer! a brave vessel,
(Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,)
Dash'd all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perish'd!


Prospero quickly assured her that “There's no harm done” (l. 15) and that she should feel “no more amazement” (l. 14). Her wonder at the storm is not ambiguous and she is fearful that her father's “art” has been directed toward a destructive end. With his assurance comes the long exposition of his true identity and the story of how he lost his dukedom and along with his small child was placed on a “rotten carcass of a butt” left adrift in the sea. Prospero explains his reason for creating the tempest:

I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes
Will ever after droop.


His explanation is not altogether clear but it is sufficient. His ultimate purpose is left unarticulated: there is no indication whether he seeks only his title or whether he seeks revenge as well on those who usurped him.

After causing Miranda to sleep, Prospero summons Ariel for a report on the success of the storm. Ariel describes the way in which he “flam'd amazement” and caused all on board to feel a “fever of the mad.” Prospero is pleased with Ariel's performance and we see Miranda's amazement as well as the amazement of those on board the ship is the result of Prospero's power and skill.6 There is no need for fear; all is carefully controlled and Prospero seems to be a beneficent magician. Though he causes the storm and stirs the fears of his daughter and Alonso's party, he is careful that no harm is done. His last question to Ariel concerns the safety of those on whom he has practiced, and he is pleased to hear that “not a hair perish'd” (l. 217).

The amazement or fear which casts a momentary shadow over the opening of the play loses its force when Ferdinand meets Miranda. Their encounter sets the dominant tone of the play and presents another definition of wonder. Ariel leads Ferdinand from the bank with a song which seems to Ferdinand to allay both the fury of the storm and his grief over the apparent loss of his father. Miranda sees the prince and thinks that he is one of Prospero's spirits. When Prospero tells her that he is a man she responds: “I might call him / A thing divine; for nothing natural / I ever saw so noble” (ll. 420-22). Like the storm, their meeting has been set up by Prospero and he is delighted to see that it goes as his “soul prompts it.” Ferdinand responds in much the same manner as Miranda. He has heard the strange music and thought it attended “Some god o' th' island” (l. 392). Now he sees Miranda and concludes, “Most sure the goddess / On whom these airs attend!” (ll. 424-25). His fear and grief turn now to wonder:

          … my prime request,
Which I do last pronounce, is, O you wonder!
If you be maid or no?

(ll. 428-30)

Unknowingly Ferdinand puns on Miranda's name and she answers his question, informing him that she is indeed a maid but “No wonder, sir” (l. 430); that is, she assures him she is as mortal as he.

Like Ferdinand, Alonso mourns his loss and though the king has heard no songs to allay his own fear, Gonzalo, the noble counselor, tries to mitigate Alonso's grief:

Beseech you, sir, be merry; you have cause,
So have we all, of joy; for our escape
Is much beyond our loss. Our hint of woe
Is common. …
                                                                      but for the miracle,
I mean our preservation, few in millions
Can speak like us: then wisely, good sir, weigh
Our sorrow with our comfort.

(II.i.1-4; 6-9)

Their deliverance is miraculous and even more “rare” is the condition of their clothes which are as fresh as when they first put them on in Africa. But Alonso cannot be comforted even when Francisco maintains that Ferdinand may still be alive. Alonso does not wish to hear of wonders, nor does he wish to hear the sarcastic remarks of Antonio or Sebastian.

Though we do not see Prospero in the course of this scene, we do see evidence of his power. Like Miranda in the previous scene, the king and his company suddenly experience a drowsiness, their eye-lids become “wondrous heavy” and, with the exception of Antonio and Sebastian, they soon are asleep. Antonio, the usurper of his brother's dukedom, counsels Sebastian to dispose of his own brother as Antonio had disposed of Prospero and thus gain the crown of Naples. As they are about to kill Alonso and Gonzalo, however, Ariel sings of their treachery into Gonzalo's ear and thus preserves the king and his counselor. Prospero's will, enacted by Ariel, seems all-powerful.

The wonder which Ferdinand and Miranda experienced in I.ii is parodied by the meeting of Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban in II.ii. Wonder here takes on the meaning of sensation. Miranda first mistakenly thought that Ferdinand was one of Prospero's spirits, his form was so “brave.” Caliban makes a similar mistake about Trinculo, whom he takes to be a spirit, and later about Stephano, whom he takes to be a god. But Prospero is not present to correct Caliban's mistake as he had corrected Miranda's. Afraid of further “torment” for his laziness when he first sees Trinculo, Caliban hides himself. Trinculo is also afraid, though of the storm, and as he searches for a place to hide, he finds Caliban:

What have we here? a man or a fish? dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish: a very ancient and fish-like smell; a kind of, not of the newest Poor-John. A strange fish! Were I in England now, as I once 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.


He wonders at Caliban and thinks of how he could exploit such a creature. Stephano's remarks upon seeing the “four-legged” monster are to the same end: “If I can recover him, and keep him tame, and get to Naples with him, he's a present for any emperor …” (ll. 69-71). Both Trinculo and Stephano would use Caliban for their personal gain. They would rather sell wonder than experience it. He is a marvel, a sort of side-show Indian, whose “strangeness” would attract a paying crowd in a civilized country.

Caliban, like Miranda, is struck by the “braveness” of Prospero's guests. Though he sees Stephano and Trinculo instead of the young prince, he thinks that they must be marvelous creatures: “These be fine things, an if they be not sprites, That's a brave god, and bears celestial liquor” (ll. 117-18). He swears his allegiance to his new-found god and promises to provide Stephano with all he needs:

I'll show thee the best springs; I'll pluck thee berries;
I'll fish for thee, and get thee wood enough. …
Thou wondrous man.

(ll. 160-61; 164)

Trinculo laughs at Caliban's credulity and finds him “a most ridiculous monster to make a wonder of a poor drunkard!” (ll. 165-66).

In the third act the idea of wonder is stressed again in the dialogue between Ferdinand and Miranda. The prince has been bearing logs and Miranda tells him her name; a name he finds most appropriate:

                                                                                                                        Admir'd Miranda!
Indeed the top of admiration! worth
What's dearest to the world! Full many a lady
I have ey'd with best regard, and many a time
Th' harmony of their tongues hath into bondage
Brought my too diligent ear: for several virtues
Have I lik'd several women; never any
With so full soul, but some defect in her
Did quarrel with the noblest grace she ow'd,
And put it to the foil: but you, O you
So perfect and so peerless, are created
Of every creature's best!


Miranda far outshines the women Ferdinand has met at court. Like Perdita in The Winter's Tale her beauty and grace are the natural product of her innate nobility, and her essential qualities inspire wonder in those who are best able to measure those qualities. Caliban sees her only as the object of his lust, while Ferdinand, Alonso, and Gonzalo recognize her true merit. Her response to Ferdinand's praise is modest and direct:

                                                                                                              I do not know
One of my sex; no woman's face remember,
Save, from my glass, mine own; nor have I seen
More than I may call men than you, good friend,
And my dear father: how features are abroad,
I am skilless of; but, by my modesty,
The jewel in my dower, I would not wish
Any companion in the world but you;
Nor can imagination form a shape,
Besides yourself, to like of. But I prattle
Something too wildly. …

(ll. 48-58)

Miranda checks herself, perhaps tries to make a joke—she does not really “prattle … too wildly,” but rather makes the point a bit more direct than she thinks she should. Her innocence and sincerity are striking in contrast to the scenes which frame this one. She is a true wonder, and Caliban is but an oddity.

During the banquet scene Sebastian and Antonio swear that they will now believe every traveler's tale they hear:

                                                                                                    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: travelers ne'er did lie,
Though fools at home condemn 'em.


Prospero has used his art to create another wonder which quickly vanishes and leaves Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian in a fit of madness to contemplate their “trespass.” Antonio and Sebastian run off to fight “the legions” who possess them, and the rest of the party follows them at Gonzalo's command to “hinder them from what this ecstacy / May now provoke them to” (ll. 108-09).

In Act IV Prospero creates another wonder for the entertainment of Ferdinand and Miranda and in Act V “wonder” becomes a refrain. As the members of the king's party recover their senses Prospero discovers himself, dressed as “the wronged Duke of Milan.” Gonzalo is first to register his perplexed emotions: “All torment, trouble, wonder and amazement / Inhabits here” (V.i. 104-05). Up to and including this point in the play, he and his fellows have been subject to tempests, plots, distraction, and torment. In the present context “wonder and amazement” are understood to have the same meaning they had in the first scene: the things they have been subject to are “strange” and strangely terrifying. But now Gonzalo and Alonso will begin to feel a more pleasant sense of wonder.

Prospero presents his most miraculous wonder as he draws back the curtain to reveal Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess. It is a dramatic moment, for us as well as for the characters Prospero has assembled. Even Sebastian finds it “A most high miracle!” (l. 177). Alonso wonders at the “restoration” of his lost son and at Miranda, whom he takes to be a goddess. Miranda's reaction is also one of amazement:

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

(ll. 181-84)

Miranda reciprocates the wonder expressed by Sebastian and Alonso. The King is moved to joy and grief at the sight of the noble couple and when Ariel leads in the mariners, whom all have presumed were lost, Alonso observes that “These are not natural events; they strengthen / From strange to stranger” (ll. 227-28):

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.

(ll. 242-45)

But Prospero, now probably gloating over his success, assures Alonso that no oracle need be consulted:

                                                                                                    Sir, my liege,
Do not infest your mind with beating on
The strangeness of this business; at pick'd leisure
Which shall be shortly single, I'll resolve you,
Which to you shall seem probable, of every
These happen'd accidents; till when, be cheerful,
And think of each thing well.

(ll. 245-51)

Once given an explanation, the proper perspective, Alonso will see that everything may be easily explained.

Since we have been aware of the proper perspective almost from the beginning of the play, the events which shock and amaze Alonso and the rest cannot have the same effect on us. Wonder is the dominant tone and setting of the play, and we are confronted throughout by the amazement of the characters who do not share Prospero's perspective: by Miranda's response to the tempest, by Ferdinand's response to Miranda, by Caliban's response to Stephano and Trinculo, by Miranda's response to the “beauteous creatures” she finds marvelling at her. We never share completely in their wonder; like Prospero we feel “So glad of this as they I cannot be, / Who are surpris'd with all” (III.i.92-93). After the second scene we expect the marvelous because it has been made clear that the events of the island world are subject to Prospero's magic.


Prospero can evoke wonder from Alonso and Gonzalo and the rest because he can control their sense of reality. I have already said that our view of the tempest in the first scene is ambiguous. We find a mixture of comic speeches and a sense that the storm is a “natural” one and may prove to have serious consequences for the party aboard the ship. Miranda's concern and Ariel's description enforce the severity of the tempest, though between their speeches Prospero has provided the “correct” perspective: the storm is of his making and no one has been injured.

Ferdinand is the first “victim” of the storm we encounter and after his initial dialogue with Miranda he finds that he is subject to Prospero's will. The success of Prospero's art is manifest in Ferdinand's disorientation:

Thy nerves are in their infancy again,
And have no vigour in them.
                                                                                So they are:
My spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up.
My father's loss, the weakness which I feel,
The wrack of all my friends, nor this man's threats,
To whom I am subdued, are but light to me,
Might I but through my prison once a day
Behold this maid: all corners else o' th' earth
Let liberty make use of; space enough
Have I in such a prison.


In spite of his condition he is able to recognize that even servitude, as long as he is able to view Miranda, would be acceptable. Yet that is all he can be sure of. He cannot be so sure of his feelings regarding the apparent loss of his father and his friends. Without Miranda he could only view his life as if it were as chaotic as the storm.

Antonio also suffers from the illusions which result from the storm, though he does not know it. Convinced that Ferdinand is dead, he counsels Sebastian to kill Alonso and thus succeed his brother to the throne of Naples, for “'tis as impossible that he's undrown'd / As he that sleeps here swims” (II.i.232-33). Even as Ariel sings of their treachery to wake Gonzalo, Antonio does not share our awareness that Prospero knows of the plot and is able to prevent it.

Because of Prospero's ability to control the events on his island world Caliban's conspiracy is rather comic, though within the context of the history play or tragedy it would be far more frightening:

Why, as I told thee, 'tis a custom with him
I' th' afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,
Having first seiz'd his books; or with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
Or cut his wezand with thy knife.


Since Caliban has no power with which to realize his fantasy, neither to effect his plan nor understand its impossibility, he poses no threat.

During the banquet scene, Ariel, who acts out Prospero's will, drives Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian to madness. Alonso is first to speak distractedly:

                                                                                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 bass my trespass.
Therefor my son i' th' ooze is bedded; and
I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded,
And with him there lie mudded.


His distraction though only a momentary one from our point of view, is from his point of view, frightfully real. When Prospero asks about the condition of the king and his followers, Ariel's reply lacks the excitement and humor he had expressed earlier as he described the progress of the ship during the tempest. His words indicate that he has not previously seen this particular emotion:

                                                                                                                        The king,
His brother, and yours, abide all three distracted,
And the remainder mourning over them,
Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly
Him you term'd sir, ‘The good old lord, Gonzalo’;
His tears runs down his beard, like winter's drops
From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works 'em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.


Though Ariel may not be moved to compassion his words are moving. He does not say that Prospero has overstepped his power—Ariel would not perform evil deeds for Sycorax—but the force of his speech falls just short of mild rebuke. Ariel and Gonzalo serve as true measure of Alonso's grief. Whereas the king had dim hopes that his son was alive, the distraction which Prospero has worked upon him forces him to lose all hope.

Prospero sends Ariel to “release” the court party, to bring them forth so that he may “restore” their senses. As the “charm dissolves apace” we see that their sense of reality has been seriously disturbed. Alonso is not convinced that his sanity has returned and when he sees Prospero before him he wonders if it is only another illusion:

                                                                                Whether thou be'st he or no,
Or some enchanted trifle to abuse me,
As late I have been, I not know. …


Gonzalo, though he had not been tormented by madness, echoes his king: “Whether this be / Or be not, I'll not swear” (ll. 122-23). Even after Prospero assures them that he is real and then unveils Miranda and Ferdinand at chess the king is amazed at the sight and uncertain, if only for a moment, that what he sees is not another illusion:

                                                                      If this prove
A vision of the island, one dear son
Shall I twice lose.

(ll. 175-77)

But it soon becomes apparent that the visions have ceased and Prospero assures the king that he will resolve all questions, relate his story and return with them to take up his dukedom. His power has enabled him to control their sense of reality, to drive them to madness and to restore their sanity. Ultimately it leads to their wonder; for Ferdinand was dead only in the king's distraction, and when the distraction is ended Alonso regains his son.


Associated with the idea of Prospero's power is the motif of freedom. Ferdinand is not free to marry Miranda until he proves himself by performing the task which Prospero gives him. Alonso and his company are not free to leave the island nor are they free to perceive reality until they have withstood various torments and returned the dukedom to Prospero. Caliban sees Trinculo and Stephano as new masters who can free him from his bondage, and throughout the play Ariel is intent on gaining his freedom.

The desire for freedom is first expressed by Ariel. After describing the services he performed during the tempest, he seems rather distressed to find that Prospero expects more of him. When he mentions his “liberty” Prospero begins what appears to be the monthly ritual of chastisement. The scene is rather amusing and suggests that a playful relationship exists between Prospero and his “brave spirit”:7

                                                            Dost thou forget
From what a torment I did free thee?
Thou dost. …
                                                                      I do not, sir.
Thou liest, malignant thing! Hast thou forgot
The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy
Was grown into a hoop? hast thou forgot her?
                              No, sir.
                    Thou hast. Where was she born? speak;
                                                                                                                                            tell me.
                              Sir, in Argier.
                                                                      O, was she so? I must
Once in a month recount what thou has been,
Which thou forget'st.

(I.ii.250-52; 256-63)

Though Ariel says he has not forgotten how Prospero rescued him, nor has he forgotten Sycorax, Prospero insists on relating the story once again. We have already seen his fondness for stories at the beginning of the scene in which he describes at length his usurpation to Miranda. Ariel makes no attempt to stop Prospero from relating this story and soon enough is willing to act his part as foil and provide the answers to Prospero's rhetorical questions so that the ordeal may be ended. It appears that Prospero finds the same delight in telling stories as he does in performing his magic, and thus uses every occasion to indulge his own whims and entertain others. When the present lecture comes to its conclusion, Ariel is assured he will be granted his freedom soon and in turn assures Prospero that he will do his “spriting gently.”

Prospero has been confined to his island for twelve years and he takes great delight in the practice of his art. When Ariel returns to tell of his success during the storm it is “To answer [Prospero's] best pleasure,” and his master responds with delight at his telling: “My brave spirit!” (I.ii.206), “Why, that's my spirit!” (1. 215). Prospero finds his greatest delight in bringing together Ferdinand and Miranda. At their first meeting he expresses his joy in an aside to Ariel:

                                                                      It goes on, I see,
As my soul prompts it. Spirit, fine spirit! I'll free thee
Within two days for this.


                                                                      At first sight
They have chang'd eyes. Delicate Ariel,
I'll set thee free for this.

(ll. 443-45)

After Ferdinand has “strangely stood the test,” and agreed to observe all “sanctimonious ceremonies,”8 Prospero consents to the marriage which he had hoped to bring about through his art. Of course, his art is limited in this case: he can only bring the two together; the love they find for one another must come from their own hearts.

Prospero's delight in dramatic presentation of his art extends to the unveiling of Ferdinand and Miranda. After he tells Alonso that he has suffered a loss as great as the loss of Ferdinand he invites the party to his “cell” and tells them:

My dukedom since you have given me again,
I will requite you with as good a thing;
At least bring forth a wonder, to content ye
As much as me my dukedom.


Since they all think that Ferdinand is dead and since Miranda is able to evoke such wonder, Prospero enjoys his most theatrical moment.

In order to celebrate the imminent marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda, Prospero promises to “Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple / Some vanity of mine Art” (IV.i.40-41), and he asks Ariel to bring in the lesser spirits to perform his bidding. During the wedding masque Prospero suddenly becomes disturbed and the creatures who perform the masque vanish amidst “a strange, hollow, and confused noise” (S.D., l. 138). Evidently Prospero has remembered Caliban's ingratitude which has in turn reminded him of Antonio's.9 Both Miranda and Ferdinand are shocked by his sudden anger and he quickly recovers himself: “You do look, my son, in a mov'd sort, / As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful sir” (ll. 146-47). Up until this time the visions which Prospero has presented have all been fully realized, they have all been resolved to the satisfaction of his audience. When Ferdinand sees this momentary loss of control he is naturally shocked—we are too. Prospero's answer to Ferdinand's anxiety is a profound view into the limitations of his art and of the world:

Our revels now are ended. 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 wrack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(ll. 148-58)

The delight he usually feels in his art is disrupted by thoughts of the mutability, not only of his device, but of all material things. For a moment the realization that all is not within his power stuns both himself and the audience. It is a melancholy moment, one in which neither Ferdinand nor Miranda can share, but one which stands in stark contrast to our former conviction that Prospero is in control. We suddenly feel that the wonder that Prospero so ably produces is finite. He apologizes to the couple and the moment passes as he prepares for his encounter with Caliban and company.

The melancholy we feel at the end of the masque scene is the result of a complex of emotions. David Grene has written that at the end of the play we have a sense that Prospero's “drive and vitality, which enabled him to plan and carry out the defeat of his foes and the requisite new start for the future, expired with that moment in the play when these results were formerly achieved.” He continues:

What is left is the weariness of an old man who has no longer any passionate concern. … The doubleness of life in beauty and ugliness, the imperfection of consummation, the frality of humanity, the terror of death's meaninglessness, are too much for him—as a person. And we have really only entered into this story through his person … as he grows weary and ready for death, we enter into his mood.10

Grene's insight is persuasive, but I feel there is a further explanation. Prospero functions as the visions and oracles of the preceding romances, and The Tempest itself is, in a sense, a vision for the audience as well as for some of the characters in the play.11 When Alonso calls for an oracle it is Prospero who answers, “I'll resolve you.” We find in The Tempest that there are two ways of gaining knowledge. Like Marina in Pericles and Hermione in The Winter's Tale Miranda, through her virtue, is in harmony with her universe, and like Perdita she lacks worldly wisdom. Polixenes posed a genuine threat to Perdita and that threat is averted only by the manipulations of the worldly Camillo. When Miranda expresses her wonder at the “beauteous” characters in the “new world” she encounters, Prospero gently corrects her—though she may not hear him—“'Tis new to thee” (V.i.184). His comment follows logically from his own experience with Alonso, Antonio, and with Caliban, and we see that the knowledge which comes through virtue, though necessary to man must be complemented by a more mundane knowledge. By the time the action of the play begins he has attained a certain harmony with the universe. He has reached the point at which his knowledge enables him to control his island world. Furthermore, he has now found it necessary to submit his passion to “nobler reason,” which tells him that mercy is a better course than revenge, even in a context in which actions, like “solemn temples,” ultimately lose their significance.


Because Prospero has gained the knowledge necessary to control his world, he has been able to sustain an atmosphere of wonder for the characters who move within it. Even Caliban experiences it:

                                                                      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 sometime 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.


Though we have not experienced the wonder of the characters subject to Prospero's control, we have shared Prospero's delight in watching the success of his plans. Yet, at the end of the play, we begin to experience a sense of wonder which is not found in the other romances. It is not a shocked extreme of passion beyond grief or joy; rather it is a sense that there is something beyond all knowledge, a sense that when “all” knowledge has apparently been gained, as with Prospero's ability to control people and the elements, there still is some quality we are unable to comprehend.

This wonder is developed in the final act of the play. By the end of Act IV Prospero is able to say “At this hour / Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” (IV.i.262-63) and to assure Ariel of his freedom. Act V begins as Prospero reasserts his success:

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


Prospero must now decide what is to be done. He may either seek his revenge or grant forgiveness, and he tells Ariel that,

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th' quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.

(ll. 25-32)

He sends Ariel to release Alonso and the others and realizes once again that he must now relinquish his powers so that he may return to his political responsibilities. In his final moments as a mage he recalls the nature and extent of the powers he shall now have to part with:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves;
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid—
Weak masters though ye be—I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azur'd 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-bas'd promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have wak'd their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em forth
By my so potent Art. But this rough magic
I here abjure; and, when I have requir'd
Some heavenly music,—which even I do now,—
To work mine end upon their senses, that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.

(ll. 33-57)

At the moment when his power has reached its height, when all his enemies lie within it, he must lay down his staff and book. The force of the “revels” speech plays upon our awareness here and we see that Prospero is also subject to the more powerful forces of mutability. As the other characters derive their wonder from his Art, our wonder derives from possibilities which arise when the art is put aside because it must be put aside.

As the “charm dissolves apace” and Alonso, Gonzalo, Antonio, and Sebastian begin to come to their senses, Prospero's power must also dissolve. As Ariel helps to dress Prospero in his ducal robes, he becomes joyful knowing that now he will be set free. Since he is not human he can feel no compassion for his master: when Prospero tells Ariel that he shall miss him, Ariel does not respond; rather he sets about concluding his work.

In the last scene, then, our perspective has changed. We watch the wonder of the characters as Prospero discovers himself and Ferdinand and Miranda; the effects of his art are still apparent but his delight is colored by the knowledge that his power is coming to an end. Hence, the ambiguous force of his statement to Miranda, “'Tis new to thee.” It is both an acknowledgment of her wonder and a mild corrective which she most likely does not hear. Her response of wonder is something entirely outside of any power Prospero has ever had, and he must feel that he will have no power either to perpetuate her sense of wonder at the “brave new world” or even to warn her that it may not be so “brave.” She has heard of his experience but the story seems to have little effect now. In her wonder she includes Sebastian and Antonio, men whom Prospero could only contain for a short time, and as Rose Zimbardo has written, their will, “the refusal to submit to order, is at the center of the evil that cannot be reached by Prospero's art.”12 Thus the limits of his art become all the more clear. The play concludes as Prospero leads his guests to hear his story, one which, no doubt will produce wonder—a story, as Alonso says, “which must / Take the ear strangely” (ll. 312-13). Finally, he dismisses Ariel: “Be free, and fare thou well!” (l. 318). In the final scene of The Tempest we find that we do not feel the joy one is accustomed to feel at the end of Shakespeare's other comedies and romances. We experience the same melancholy that Prospero feels and it is the result of his developing awareness of the forces outside of his control. Finally we are left, like Prospero, to wonder at the essential mystery which remains outside of any “Art” and beyond the capabilities of almost any artist.

By setting up a fantasy world in The Tempest Shakespeare provides us with a unique perspective from which to view the central “unsolvable” problems which exist outside of the controlled world of imitation. The fantasy world of the play is carefully defined so that the marvelous events which occur in that world are verisimilar within their own context; the possibilities for action are increased because verisimilitude is not limited by what is “real” in the primary world. Ultimately, however, fantasy, like the way in which we perceive the primary world, depends on a series of logical propositions and thus describes metaphorically “the way things are.” In a most profound way Shakespeare's fantasy provides an indirect commentary on the primary world; by setting strict limits on the secondary world we are able to see how little we know once we perceive those limits. Like Prospero, who seemed to know all, we are left with a strong impression that the ability to perceive the limits of our own world only exposes us to the mystery which lies outside of that world.


  1. Helen Gardner, “As You Like It,” in More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1959), rpt. in Shakespeare: The Comedies, ed. Kenneth Muir (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1965), p. 62.

  2. See my forthcoming article in Shakespeare Quarterly, “Fantasy and Wonder in Shakespeare's Last Plays,” and Joan Hartwig, “The Tragicomic Perspective of The Winter's Tale,ELH, 37 (1970), 12-36, esp. 31-33.

  3. It is interesting to note two of the many ways in which the Cinquecento critics deal with the problem of “realistic” or credible elements and the fantastic elements necessary to poetry. Robertello, for example, would have the poet keep the main action of a work “pure,” that is, free from any fantastic events. Yet he realized the need for the marvelous and felt the best way to accommodate that need was to relegate the fantastic events to the subplot (cf. Francisci Robertelli Vtinensis in librum Aristotelis De Arte Poetica Explicationes [Florence, 1548], esp. the Prologue). Giraldi, though he would agree with Robertello in restricting the marvelous to the minor episodes, argues that when the marvelous is based upon poetic tradition it may be admitted into the major plot and thus, he indirectly broadens the criteria for credible material and, in fact, justifies the practice of placing fantastic events within the main action of a work (cf. Giovambattista Giraldi Cinthio, Discorsidi … intorno al compore de i Romanzi, delle Comedie, e delle Tragedie, e di altre di poesie [Ferrara, 1554], esp. pp. 54-56).

  4. J. V. Cunningham presents some interesting ideas on the importance of wonder in Shakespeare's tragedies in his study Woe or Wonder: The Emotional Effect of Shakespearean Tragedy (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1951).

  5. All line references are based upon the “New” Arden editions of Shakespeare's plays.

  6. The Boatswain's speech to Gonzalo emphasizes the apparent impossibility in the fictional world of The Tempest to control the storm:

    You are a counsellor; if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the presence, we will not hand a rope more; use your authority: if you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long, and make yourself ready for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap. … Out of our way, I say.


  7. See Clifford Leech, Shakespeare's Tragedies and Other Studies in Seventeenth Century Drama (London: Chatto and Windus, 1950), p. 144, for an opposing view.

  8. Leech sees Prospero's insistence on chastity as an example of Prospero's “pathological” puritanism (pp. 137-58, esp. 151-53). But Prospero, along with his love for making art, i. e., for imposing order and form upon experience, seems to have a great love for ceremony. He has waited many years to say “The hour's now come” and to relate his history to Miranda. When confronting Ferdinand, Prospero says in an aside that he could control, i. e., contradict, Ferdinand's incorrect conclusions about his situation, “If now 'twere fit to do't” (I.ii.443), but he must wait for the proper time. And in the last act Prospero, having regained his dukedom explains that now is the time to present Ferdinand and Miranda. He even restrains himself from the pleasure of relating his tales of his life on the island until a more decorous moment:

    No more yet of this;
    For 'tis a chronicle of day by day,
    Not a relation for a breakfast, nor
    Befitting this first meeting.


  9. I follow Kermode's explanation in his notes to the Arden edition.

  10. Both quotations are from Reality and The Heroic Pattern: Last Plays of Ibsen, Shakespeare, and Sophocles (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 100.

  11. See D. G. James, The Dream of Prospero (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), who sees the entire play as a dream, and with whom, on this point, I disagree.

  12. “Form and Disorder in The Tempest,” SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly], 14 (1963), 55.

Peter G. Platt (essay date 1997)

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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 attitude toward wonder is certainly part of what Stephen Orgel has called a “double and contradictory movement” and of what Stephen Greenblatt has described as a “model of unresolved and unresolvable doubleness.”2 Orgel's suggestion that the two plays were written virtually simultaneously and that The Winter's Tale may actually follow The Tempest does not alter the nature of my argument:3 in all of the late plays …, it can be argued, Shakespeare is examining the marvelous even as he employs it.

The depth of Shakespeare's examination of wonder in The Tempest, however, is singular. The play addresses at some level nearly every aspect of the marvelous covered in this study: philosophy, the monster and magical traditions, travel writing, marvel books, the masque, dramatic and nondramatic fictions.4 As a way into this expansive treatment of wonder, I explore both the philosophical/epistemological and the aesthetic aspects of the marvelous … but first I focus on two texts to help frame the discussion.

One of these is the proverb … : “Wonder (Marvel, Admiration) is the daughter of ignorance.”5 Without pretending that Shakespeare structured The Tempest around, or even that he necessarily knew, this proverb, I would claim that it nevertheless helps us read Prospero's intellectual movement during the course of the play. Originally believing himself to be a sage, a magus, a scholar of immense power, Prospero—through the help of Wonder (his daughter, Miranda) and wonder—learns to accept his essential ignorance, an acceptance that places him in the tradition of Socrates, Nicholas of Cusa, Erasmus, Agrippa, and Montaigne.6 In the words of Cusanus, “we conclude that the precise truth shines incomprehensibly within the darkness of our ignorance. This is the learned ignorance we have been seeking and through which alone, as I explained, [we] can approach the maximum, triune instruction in ignorance.”7 Prospero's developing interest in the degree to which his magical stagings have a shaping effect allows us to chart his growth to this type of ignorance. Although Prospero has begun his journey before The Tempest starts, its end—such as it is—comes at the close of the play and is figured in Prospero's letting go of his control and accepting that the reception of the marvelous is more important than the making of it.8 Thus the logic of a proverb that reflects the prevailing pejorative opinion of the marvelous is revaluated by Shakespeare in The Tempest as he calls into question conventional approaches to wonder.

The second text comes from a Latin edition of Thomas Harriot's Brief and True Report on Virginia by Theodor de Bry (1590). Part of de Bry's head-phrase describes this “Brief and True Report” as Admiranda narratio, or “wonderful narration.”9 This juxtaposition of true and marvelous, … can be argued to have an important bearing on The Tempest, and not just because travel narratives helped shape structural and thematic aspects of the play. De Bry's commentary on Harriot highlights the clash that Shakespeare explores in The Tempest—between truth and fiction, reality and illusion, reason and wonder—a clash that represents the cultural anxiety about the substance and value of the marvelous. As usual, Shakespeare interrogates both sides of the issue by at once satirizing and championing the power of wonder, and moments of wondrous spectacle and their interruptions foreground Prospero's and Shakespeare's method of shuttling between the marvelous and the “real” worlds, before Prospero interrupts the play for the last time by stepping out of it.

The Tempest's opening storm and shipwreck certainly function on a naturalistic level, but there is little doubt that there is a symbolic dimension to them as well. Noting the psychological and epistemological nature of the tempest, Coppélia Kahn has described it as “the violence, confusion, and even terror of passing from one stage of life to the next, the feeling of being estranged from a familiar world and sense of self without another to hang onto.”10 More generally, Stephen Greenblatt has recently linked epistemological estrangement and the voyages of discovery: “Wonder is … the central figure in the initial European response to the New World, the decisive emotional and intellectual experience in the presence of radical difference.”11 Indeed, one of the apparent sources for The Tempest, the Strachey letter, records the awe and astonishment that a storm at sea could evoke: “a dreadfull storme and hideous began to blow from out the North-east, which swelling, and roaring as it were by fits, some houres with more violence then others, at length did beate all light from heauen; which like an hell of darkenesse turned blacke vpon vs, so much the more fuller of horror, as in such cases horror and feare vse to overrunne the troubled, and ouermastered sences of all which (taken vp with amazement) the eares lay so sensible to the terrible cries, and murmurs of the windes, and distraction of our Company.”12 This is, of course, the kind of “distraction” that the Italian lords are subjected to in Prospero's storm, one he concocts so that the literal journey from Tunis will become an epistemological and moral one toward repentance and reconciliation.

What Prospero does not seem fully to realize is that he has a journey to undergo as well: toward the knowledge that is actually and paradoxically an abandonment of the quest for knowledge and an embracing of ignorance. For the Prospero whom we meet in act 1, scene 2, still relishes control, particularly that of “the seeing done by others. … Such displays master his audiences, reducing them to a wondering passivity.”13 Furthermore, in Howard Felperin's words, “associations of dark and prideful learning still cling to” Prospero's art.14 Indeed, the wondrous effect of the sight of the storm on Miranda—“O! I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer” (1.2.5-6)—seems less important to him than the controlled dissemination of knowledge about their past. Prospero claims that Miranda is

          ignorant of what thou art, nought knowing
Of whence I am, nor that I am more better
Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell,
And thy no greater father.


Whether Miranda has been uninquisitive or has been kept ignorant until now is ambiguous: she first claims that “More to know / Did never meddle with my thoughts” (21-22), but a few lines later she admits that Prospero in the past had “Begun to tell me what I am, but stopp'd / And left me to a bootless inquisition, / Concluding, ‘Stay: not yet’” (34-36). What is clear is that Prospero anxiously delivers his narrative, punctuating each segment with a paranoid question or command: “Obey, and be attentive” (38); “Dost thou attend me?” (78); “Thou attend'st not!” (87); “I pray thee mark me” (88); “Dost thou hear?” (106). We see here Prospero's concern for both the delivery and the reception of his tale. Yet he does not allow his daughter to explore her newfound knowledge, and when he senses that Miranda knows enough, he tells her to “cease more questions” (184)—similar to his “No more amazement” (14) after the storm—and puts her to sleep, telling her, “I know thou canst not choose” (186). Prospero's control, as well as his desire for it, is still quite apparent in this first part of act 1, scene 2, and this rage for order is further evinced in his displays of power before both Ariel and Caliban.

Clearly, Prospero knows the limitations of human reason and agency: devoting himself to the world of contemplation and “the bettering of my mind” (90), he lost control of the world of action, “And to my state grew stranger” (76). Prizing his books “above my dukedom” (168), Prospero allowed Antonio to usurp his power and title. Nonetheless, the lessons of this early treachery threaten to become forgotten during the course of the production of theatrical works meant to redress and purge the past; in short, by attempting to redeem his personal history, Prospero is constantly in danger of recreating it. His intellectual journey in this play, then, is simultaneously one of mastery and one of letting go, at once a display and a surrendering of power.

Late in scene 2 of act 1, we see the first suggestion of Prospero's relinquishing control when he watches Miranda and Ferdinand together for the first time, and it is wonder—Miranda, Wonder personified, and the mutual astonishment of the two would-be lovers—that takes Prospero a step closer to the drowning of his book of knowledge. Prospero's aside, “It goes on, I see, / As my soul prompts it” (420-21), both suggests pleasure and reveals a previous doubt about the effect his magic and design would have on the couple.

Prospero introduces Miranda to her wondrous vision with a metaphor of theatrical discovery—“The fringed curtains of thine eye advance, / And say what thou seest yond” (409-10)—and the effect is, indeed, wonderful:15

                                                                                                              My prime request,
Which I do last pronounce, is (O you wonder!)
If you be maid, or no?
                                                                                          No wonder, sir,
But certainly a maid.


Ferdinand goes on to marvel that Miranda speaks his language and “wonders” (433) to hear Prospero speak of Naples. Prospero seems pleased that “They are both in either's pow'rs” (451), but he also appears concerned about their becoming lost in amazement and perhaps about surrendering his power so quickly. Thus, as a means of breaking the lovers' enchantment, Prospero accuses Ferdinand of treason and subdues him, using the power of his magic to strip Ferdinand of his sword and his muscular control. After Ferdinand goes gladly to prison—he will still be near Miranda, after all—Prospero utters two words that capture the doubleness of his attitude toward his mastery and his ultimate repudiation of it: “It works” (494). Prospero wonders both at his power—he has had few to practice it on—and the effect of his power on others, the effect over which, ultimately, he has no control.

Prospero's interest in the consequences of his magic grows as the play unfolds, and two scenes from act 3 highlight this fact by placing Prospero in them—“at a distance, unseen” (3.1.15 s.d.) and “on the top, invisible” (3.3.17 s.d.)—as an observer.16 In the first, Prospero is again led toward a letting go by the wonder that is Miranda and her love for Ferdinand, although his reaction is again complicated. Miranda goes to help Ferdinand with his log-bearing, and Prospero speaks of her love for the young Neapolitan—something he has hoped and planned for—as a disease: “Poor worm, thou art infected! / This visitation shows it” (31-32). Prospero expresses here the dark side of wonder that he has experienced firsthand (and to which we will need to return). But to Ferdinand love—and its concomitant wonder—is transporting: “Admir'd Miranda, / Indeed the top of admiration! worth / What's dearest to the world!” (37-39). Watching their love further, Prospero himself marvels, calling their meeting the “Fair encounter / Of two most rare affections! Heavens rain grace / On that which breeds between 'em!” (74-76), but concludes the scene somewhat more wistfully: “So glad of this as they I cannot be, / Who are surpris'd withal; but my rejoicing / At nothing can be more” (92-94). Prospero is not yet fully an observer—he is still part creator and marvel-maker—and thus cannot completely share in the amazement and surprise of the two lovers. It will take several more encounters and Prospero's own astonishment for the transformation to be relatively complete.

Prospero is also an observer in the “masque of judgment” of act 3, scene 3.17 As Sukanta Chaudhuri has noted, “the erring courtiers are brought to their moral senses not by the perception of a benevolent order but rather through terror and amazement.”18 Indeed, it is the wonder of the “marvellous sweet music” (19) and then Ariel's banquet spectacle that shows the entire group, including Sebastian and Antonio, their ignorance. Although it is not surprising to hear Gonzalo find confirmation of wonder books and travelers' tales in the banquet (27-34, 43-49), it is somewhat astonishing to hear both Sebastian and Antonio marvel:19

                                                                                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. Travellers ne'er did lie,
Though fools at home condemn 'em.


Alonso wonders as well, claiming

                                                                                I cannot too much muse
Such shapes, such gesture, and such sound expressing
(Although they want the use of tongue) a kind
Of excellent dumb discourse.


Epistemological destabilization reigns in this scene even before Ariel appears “like a harpy” (52 s.d.). The men—or at least some of them—come “to their moral senses” after Ariel's sermon and terrorizing. Gonzalo asks Alonso, “I' th' name of something holy, sir, why stand you / In this strange stare?” (94-95), and the king of Naples replies, “O, it is monstrous! monstrous!” (95). Sebastian and Antonio mutter some words about fighting the fiends later, and Gonzalo describes the three as being in a state of “ecstasy” (108) caused by “their great guilt” (104). Prospero's marvels have made their mark, have had their effect: there are real suggestions of remorse in Alonso, and the two younger villains have without question been affected if not changed. What is fascinating about this scene, though, is that Prospero leaves the stage before he receives confirmation of his magic's transformative power. More interested in his display of power than its effect, he moves on to the next scene without waiting for the moral outcome:

                                                                                My high charms work,
And these, mine enemies, are all knit up
In their distractions. They are now in my pow'r;
And in these fits I leave them, while I visit
Young Ferdinand, whom they suppose is drown'd,
And his and mine lov'd darling.


The power of wonder brings all of the men involved to an encounter with the limitations of their own power and knowledge, although Sebastian and Antonio attempt to deny this discovery. It is not until act 4, scene 1, however, that Prospero is confronted with his lack of knowledge, with his essential ignorance, and part of the reason it takes him so long is the desire for and relishing of mastery that we saw in the previous scene. Although Prospero refers to his betrothal masque as “Some vanity of mine art” (41), he is sufficiently enamored of it to miss its effect on Ferdinand, who becomes so lost in the wonder of it that he utters, “Let me live here ever” (122). Ferdinand does not focus on the message of the masque—the importance of order, culture, civilization, sanctioned desire in marriage—only on the spectacular medium. That this has potentially disastrous implications for Prospero's overall design and threatens to echo Prospero's own earlier error is something to which we must turn in the next section. At this point it is important to note only that Prospero forgets to focus on the reception of his marvels. Strangely, it is his remembering about “Caliban and his confederates” (140) that forces Prospero to think about the effect of his magic and to realize that on some people there will be no effect—that his powers are “baseless” (151) to a large degree. The “revels speech” that follows, then, is as much about the vanity of learning as it is about the insubstantiality of art:

                                                                      the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind.


In the words of Harry Berger, “What he feels this time, for the first time, is that everything golden, noble, beautiful, and good—the works of man, the liberal arts, the aspirations variously incarnated in towers, palaces, temples, and theaters—is insubstantial and unreal compared to the baseness of man's old stock.”20 Arriving at the notion of mankind's—and therefore his own—imperfectability, Prospero begins to shift his attention more fully to the reception of the power of wonder.21 I say “begins” because he is still able to crow to Ariel, near the end of act 4, as Caliban and company are being chased by hounds, “At this hour / Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” (262-63).

Indeed, it is not until Ariel reminds Prospero in act 5, scene 1, that the effect of his magic is what was important all along that Prospero says goodbye to his spirits and promises “I'll drown my book” (57). For Ariel notices what we did at the end of act 3, scene 3: “Your charm so strongly works 'em / That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender” (5.1.17-19). Prospero, to this point, has still not “beheld” the Italian lords, has not cared to notice the effect of his magic. Prospero seems to realize that he has been in danger of overlooking the moral point to his spectacles when he asks his sprite

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier mov'd than thou art?


Finally taking note of the power that his wonders have had over the courtiers, he goes on to observe that “their rising senses / Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle / Their clearer reason …” (66-68).

Yet even when the “charm dissolves” (64), the wonder remains. Gonzalo exclaims, “All torment, wonder, and amazement / Inhabits here” (104-5), and later asserts, “Whether this be, / Or be not, I'll not swear” (122-23). Alonso, who marvels more than anyone else during this scene, is stunned upon seeing Prospero: “Th'affliction of my mind amends, with which / I fear a madness held me. This must crave / (And if this be at all) a most strange story” (115-17). In a very important and under-analyzed few lines, Prospero expresses his new vision of admiratio, one that connects wonder to learned ignorance in a fashion similar to that of Montaigne's “Of Cripples”:22

                                                                                I perceive these lords
At this encounter do so much admire
That they devour their reason, and scarce think
Their eyes do offices of truth. …


Prospero is finally fully aware of the effect of the marvelous on others, and his final “wonder” (170) is one that he can “bring forth” (170) without his magic: the tableau that is Ferdinand and Miranda. This marvel elicits not only Miranda's “O wonder!” (181) at her brave new world but also Sebastian's “A most high miracle!” (177). Soon afterward Ariel enters, “with the Master and Boatswain amazedly following” (216 s.d.), and the language of wonder continues throughout the scene, especially from Alonso:

These are not natural events, they strengthen
From strange to stranger.


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.


This is a strange thing as e'er I look'd on.


                                                                                                                                            I long
To hear the story of your life, which must
Take the ear strangely.


Significantly, besides the negligible Francisco and Adrian, the only character who does not marvel at all in this scene is Antonio. Much has been made of his relative silence and lack of repentance, and I think his incapacity for wonder is connected to these other absences. Strangely, however, Antonio's one comment in the scene can be seen to invoke the world of marvels. After the entrance of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, Antonio responds to Sebastian's “What things are these, my Lord Antonio? / Will money buy 'em?” (264-65): “Very like; one of them / Is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable” (265-66). Here Antonio seems to reprise Trinculo's comments about Caliban in act 2, scene 2, in which the jester speaks of the islander as both a fish and a commodity.23 Shakespeare may, then, be giving Antonio language that has marvelous connections only to point out ironically how far he is from the transformations of mind that most of the other characters experience. Indeed, because the wonder valued in the play is linked to knowledge and learned ignorance, Antonio achieves neither by being unable to marvel. His only moment of unbridled astonishment—in act 3, scene 3—followed what Prospero would later refer to as a “trick” (4.1.37). Considering its effect on Antonio, that is all the “masque of judgment” was: a cheap visual marvel without moral power. Having one's reason devoured by admiration becomes a necessity for epistemological and moral growth in The Tempest.

The epilogue completes Prospero's journey toward learned ignorance facilitated by Wonder and wonder. Chaudhuri notes that “Prospero's final understanding leads him to the very same doubt, awe, and passivity he worked in other people. … He looks beyond the substance of his science to the fantasies he builds up with its aid, fantasies which lead to nescience and the cessation of power.”24 This cessation ends up being a commencement for the audience, who, now empowered with the potency of amazement, become the test case for whether Prospero's marvels have been received, whether there has been substance to the pageant:

                                                                                                    Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd 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.


In a very strong sense, then, Prospero is dependent upon the audience to work a marvel on him: true, it is merely the act of many hands clapping, but as Dennis Kay has noted, “Shakespeare effectively transforms applause, which is the unexceptional, habitual response to any show, into an act of great moment.”25 The spectator, then, becomes the thaumaturge—complete with the power and responsibility of the profession. Shakespeare's revaluation of intellectual wonder—replacing a rage for mastery and order with an acceptance of a certain passivity and ignorance—ends up being a communal, multiple act of making and marveling.

The Tempest's treatment of the aesthetics of the marvelous is even more complicated than its treatment of the epistemology of the marvelous. They are, of course, not wholly separate, for Prospero's growth toward learned ignorance is inseparable from his marvel-making power. Nonetheless, wonder emerges victorious in the philosophical realm, however fragile that victory might be: the characters who grow to goodness do so because they have the capacity for wonder. Yet Shakespeare gives the aesthetic and visual aspect of the marvelous a far greater scrutiny, one that reveals a more profound skepticism about the worth of the very play we are watching or reading. This ambivalence regarding the marvelous in The Tempest has been noted before. Phillip Brockbank has claimed that “the tense marvellings of the play are oddly hospitable to moments of wry mockery.”26 Howard Felperin has asserted that “The Tempest is as much about the limitations of the idealizing imagination as it is about its power.”27 And Stephen Greenblatt has more recently linked The Tempest to the English discovery of the New World, in which the explorers, like Prospero, “are haunted by the emptiness that is paradoxically bound up with the imagined potency of their art.”28 Clearly, then, The Tempest does not unequivocally celebrate the wonder of aesthetic creation.

Indeed, by making his artist-figure a magician, Shakespeare complicates the issue from the outset. In an important article that develops an idea set forth by Alvin Kernan, Barbara Mowat presents several traditions surrounding Prospero's magic.29 For Mowat the tension is between the respectable, serious traditions of magus, enchanter, and wizard on the one hand, and the fraudulent tradition of “art-Magician” or “Jugler”—who succeeds by means of prearranging acts with assistants and by “deceptio visus”—on the other. The shifts between these two poles, then, are at the heart of “the questions the play raises about reality and illusion, about creativity and theatrical fakery, and about disturbing resemblances between the dramatist and the magician.”30

This doubt about the ability of both wonder and fiction to transcend fakery runs throughout The Tempest. In pursuing the aesthetics of the marvelous, then, we may look at three scenes in which the marvelous tradition … is questioned and, to some degree, mocked: the discussion of Prospero's magic in act 1, scene 2; Gonzalo's marveling in act 2, scene 1; and the language of wonder in the first scene involving Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban (2.2). This focus will then inform an examination of Shakespeare's theater of interruption in four moments of wonder. … [T]his strategy allows Shakespeare, mainly through Prospero, to address the potential for wondrous frivolity both by interrupting—and calling attention to—his fiction and by underscoring the necessary distance between truth and illusion.31

We are left with little doubt that during his tenure as duke of Milan, Prospero lost himself in astonishment and wonder, and the incriminating evidence comes from Prospero himself:

And Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed
In dignity, and for the liberal arts
Without a parallel; those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.


I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retir'd,
O'er-prized all popular rate. …


“Transported” and “rapt,” Prospero lost control of the real, political world because he preferred the “closeness” of the marvelous realm. If this were not lesson enough for Prospero, he watches as his brother performs a similar act, taking fiction for truth, romance for history, representation for reality:

To have no screen between this part he play'd
And him he play'd it for, he needs will be
Absolute Milan—me (poor man) my library
Was dukedom large enough. …


This early scene sets a tone for the entire play at the same time that it captures a cultural anxiety about magicians and magi: the danger of getting lost in “secret studies,” in the marvelous.32

Prospero's absorption in these studies can be seen as a version of being lost in an ideal green world. Harry Berger has suggested that the return from this state was a self-conscious, moral imperative for Renaissance fiction-makers: the green world's “usefulness and dangers arise from the same source. In its positive aspects it provides a temporary haven for recreation or clarification, experiment or relief; in its negative aspects it projects the urge of the paralyzed will to give up, escape, work magic, abolish time and flux and the intrusive reality of other minds.”33 The rest of The Tempest concerns Prospero's negotiations with the marvelous, his attempts to resist “the urge of the paralyzed will.”

Gonzalo's language in act 2, scene 1 (and later in act 3, scene 3) provides another dramatic interrogation of the marvelous tradition: in this case the wondrous travelers' accounts of the New World. Gonzalo's reading has clearly prepared his mind for the reception of the wonder of strange lands, just as it had Columbus's, Magellan's, and Cortez's:

                                                                                          but for the miracle
(I mean our preservation), few in millions
Can speak like us. …


“But the rariety of it is—which is indeed almost beyond credit—,” Gonzalo continues, “That our garments, being (as they were) drench'd in the sea, hold notwithstanding their freshness and glosses, being rather new dy'd than stain'd with salt water.” (59-60, 62-65). In one sense, then, Shakespeare is satirizing the notion of travelers' marveling at the unimaginable when the accounts seem to be operating within preestablished conventions of wondrous descriptions. François Hartog has taught us that wondrous topoi were, paradoxically, essential to establishing the truth of travel writing, while Charles Frey has written that “we tend not to appreciate the extent to which some themes, situations, incidents, and even phrases in The Tempest were part of the common coin of Shakespeare's day. … Shakepeare shows how what happened and what was hoped for tended to mingle in the minds of far travelers who said they found what they sought, their woes all changed to wonder, and their losses yielding to greater gain.”34

Yet Gonzalo's marvelous speeches are not unequivocally mocked. As we have seen, the capacity for wonder is largely a positive attribute in this play; Gonzalo, though a windbag, is a force of goodness; and the characters who provide the play's internal mockery are Sebastian and Antonio. Indeed, the skeptical duo jeeringly compares Gonzalo to Amphion, whose “miraculous harp” (87) raised Thebes, and yet they are about to witness events that will make them believe in—if only temporarily—unicorns and phoenixes. The ambiguity is most complex in Gonzalo's commonwealth speech (148-57, 160-65, 168-69) based on Montaigne's “Of Cannibals.”35 The inclusion of this defense of pure, unadorned pre-civilization—with the expected interruptive cynicism from Sebastian and Antonio—focuses us on a crucial issue of the play's attitude toward art and culture in general. Civilizing new lands by bringing agriculture and the arts to them could be seen as part of “the bastardizing of naturality by human wit,” or as what tames the Caliban in us, what sends us beyond the raw and natural.36 Shakespeare's doubleness with regard to Gonzalo in this scene is also a doubleness with regard to Montaigne's central argument. Yet Shakespeare takes this dualism a step further by suggesting that the marvels of art, even if one accepts their positive role vis-à-vis the “natural,” can nevertheless corrupt by ensnaring the spectator in a marvelous paralysis. The ambiguous treatment of Gonzalo's language of miracle and wonder reflects [a] larger cultural ambivalence toward the marvelous. …37

Less ambiguous is the satire of the monster and prodigy tradition in act 2, scene 2.38 In this scene, Trinculo tries to describe the indescribable in terms that make sense to him; he attempts to make the strange familiar:39

What have we here? a man or a fish? dead or alive? A fish, he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell; a kind of not-of-the-newest poor-John. 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. Legg'd 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 suffer'd by a thunderbolt.


Shakespeare reveals through Trinculo the commodification of the marvelous, the marketability of wonders and prodigies that re-creates on another level and in a more general sense Prospero's abandonment of the real world for the wonderful: “When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.” Trinculo also provides a comic angle on the epistemological experience of the European encounter with the New World, and unlike others, it can be argued, he does not allow his initial reading to shape his inevitable interpretation: he lets loose his opinion.

Caliban, who is later called a “moon-calf” (106), is not the only one treated as a marvel. Having had a taste of liquor that is “celestial” (117) and “not earthly” (126), Caliban is convinced that Stephano has “dropp'd from heaven” (137), asks him to be his “god” (149), and calls him a “wondrous man” (164). Trinculo, the comic doubter of the marvelous, also becomes jealous at the attention paid to Stephano and chides Caliban: “A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a poor drunkard” (165-66). But whether mistaking a drunkard for a wonder, an inexplicable miracle for an act of careful design, a brother's dukedom for one's own, or magic for reality, the characters of The Tempest are constantly negotiating the boundaries between the fictive and the real.

Through a series of spectacles and their interruptions, I would argue, Shakespeare attempts to address the problems that the marvelous raises—merely suggested by the three scenes above—without allowing himself or his audience to become lost in wonder. The first, of course, is the storm that opens the play and that, we have seen, sets forth a motif of epistemological journey. It is also the first spectacle, and Miranda is so affected by the storm that Prospero has to stop it. Although he becomes more interested in the knowledge he must disseminate, he does seem at first to listen to her pleas, and I think we are to imagine that the storm is still going on when Miranda begins to speak: “If by your art, my dearest father, you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (1.2.1-2).40 Prospero does not want her lost in wonderment because he has so little time to inform her of the important facts of their lives: “Be collected, / No more amazement” (13-14). Miranda—who both wonders and is wondered at—and her astonishment may be another reason Prospero interrupts her so often to make sure she is paying attention. Interruption, then, checks wonder in two ways early in the play: Prospero stops the storm to keep Miranda from being lost in amazement and interrupts his own narrative to make sure that the lingering effects of the storm and the potentially stupefying nature of the tale that “would cure deafness” (106) are not keeping Miranda (and himself?) from paying attention to the present reality.

The second important spectacle comes in the banquet scene (3.3), and it is obviously significant that the magic production of food astonishes such a greedy group. We must remember that this is the only time in the play where Antonio marvels, outstripping Gonzalo in his willingness to believe all travelers' tales: “Travellers ne'er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn 'em” (26-27). Appealing to their visual sense, then, Prospero is able to emphasize, by the interruption of the scene—“with a quaint device the banquet vanishes” (52 s.d.)—the evil of being lost in literal and figurative hunger, lust, and greed.41 Ariel's appearance as a moralizing Harpy is really a second spellbinding spectacle in this scene and one that the lords are not completely released from until act 5 when, ideally, they are able to apply the knowledge and experience gained from these visions to their present lives.

By far the most important moment of wonder is the betrothal masque of act 4, scene 1. Although the intentions of this grand production seem noble—both to bless and to instruct Ferdinand and Miranda about the power of culture and marriage—Prospero's explicitly stated attitude toward it is initially fairly contemptuous. As David Lindley has pointed out, Prospero refers to the upcoming masque as “such another trick” (37), thereby linking it to the banquet and to cheap visual marvels in general. Therefore, “what should be one of the central emblematic statements” is instead treated with disdain.42

In spite of this recognition, however, Prospero still becomes entranced with the power of his art. From line 59, when Prospero exhorts Ferdinand, “No tongue! all eyes! Be silent,” until line 120, when he answers a question from his would-be son-in-law, Prospero says nothing. More importantly, he ignores Ferdinand's deep wonderment at the masque: “Let me live here ever: / So rare a wond'red father and a wise / Makes this place Paradise” (122-24); Prospero, afraid that the “spell” of the pageant will be “marr'd” (127), twice tells Ferdinand not to speak: “Sweet now, silence!” (124) and “Hush and be mute” (126). There are other problems with Ferdinand's astonishment. If “wise” is correct—and recent scholarship suggests that “wife” is actually the proper word43—then Ferdinand can be seen to have shifted his wonder from Wonder to Prospero and his art, excluding love from his vision of the marvelous: the message of the masque would be lost. Second, the implications of Ferdinand's wishing to remain in “Paradise” are tremendous. If Orgel is right that in Miranda's marriage to Ferdinand Milan becomes part of the kingdom of Naples and Antonio is in effect blocked from the dukedom for life—an act not of reconciliation but of closet and nonbloody revenge44—then Prospero is recreating his past error by losing his political senses in the enjoyment of the marvelous. For if Ferdinand is on the island, he is as much of a political nonentity as Claribel is in Tunis.

It takes the thought of Caliban and his plot against Prospero's life to bring Prospero out of his auto-astonishment and to prevent the past from recurring. He reacts by canceling the masque—“to a strange, hollow, and confused noise, they heavily vanish” (138 s.d.)—and describing the insubstantiality of shows, learning, civilization. Prospero addresses Ferdinand in the reveals speech, but he certainly is addressing himself, too, reminding himself once and for all of the transience of the marvelous. Prospero reminds himself—and Shakespeare reminds us—not to become too involved in what we are seeing. As Northrop Frye has commented, “the interruption is a part of the sense of the transient quality of the masque, but that transience gives us an insight into what, perhaps, all dramatic and ritual spectacles are about.”45 What they should not be about, in a Shakespearean scheme, is an utterly pacifying idealism. Stephen Orgel has noted that the betrothal masque effectively banishes winter and death from its vision of nature, establishing “a world of ordered and controlled nature from which all the dangerous potentialities have been banished.”46 This is a masque vision that Prospero—and Ben Jonson—could live with but that Shakespeare could not. He thus forces Prospero to interrupt his own masque, saving him from the harm that can—and in this play would—follow too much wonder and idealization.47

Besides the comic spectacle of Trinculo and Stephano's being seduced by the “trumpery” (4.1.186) in Prospero's cave, the final wondrous display is that of Ferdinand and Miranda before the marveling Italian lords, and especially Alonso. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme have claimed that while the interruption of the masque is the climax of The Tempest, the climax of Prospero's play is the tableau of the lovers, discovered “playing at chess” (5.1.171 s.d.).48 However, even this climax has an interruption, courtesy of Ferdinand, Miranda, and Shakespeare. Not content, as Lindley would have it, to be “subsumed into an iconic gesture,”49 the lovers interrupt their own scene by injecting an element of playful falsehood, disturbing the vision of amorous perfection with quibbling:

Sweet lord, you play me false.
                                                                                No, my dearest love,
I would not for the world.
Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call it fair play.


Shakespeare resists even this chance to stabilize a vision of the marvelous: to keep Prospero's play from ending with a static emblem, he destabilizes the tableau. A strategic parallel can be found in the two endings of book 3 of The Faerie Queene. In the earlier edition (1590), Scudamour and Amoret passionately unite: “No word they spake, nor earthly thing they felt, / But like two senceles stocks in long embracement dwelt” (; in the revised edition, the two continue to look for one another. Like Spenser, Shakespeare resists the frozen emblematic form for his wondrous couple.50

This resistance to rigidity—even in wonderment, even in the state of being astonied—inevitably leads to The Tempest's final interruption: Prospero's epilogue.51 It becomes the responsibility of the audience to applaud and thus release Prospero from the dangers of the marvelous, the perils of the “paralyzed will”: “As you from crimes would pardon'd be / Let your indulgence set me free” (19-20). The audience must to some extent help unmake the wonder it has helped to realize. After a play that has problematized the marvelous—has seen it as both disease and cure, both corrupting and ennobling—Shakespeare, like Prospero, lets go.

While I do not see this play and its ending as an autobiographical farewell, I do see them as Shakespeare's clearest dramatic statement of both the power and the limitations of wonder. At its best, wonder can destabilize certainty, prejudices, and rigid, over-rational thought; it can reveal new worlds and New Worlds; it can discover the ways and habits of others, previously unimaginable; it can restore one's faith in a tired, seemingly dead world by making that world strange again. But at its worst, wonder and the marvelous can entrance and provide escape from responsibility; can lure one away from serious, effective social action—indeed, can provide an excuse for inaction, can establish illusory transcendence as a substitute for sublunary ethical activity.

The marvelous—and his role in making it—seems to have been increasingly fascinating for Shakespeare. But in The Tempest, while he does not evade responsibility, Shakespeare realizes that the real wonder will take place if and when his plays live on—not in the sense of literary immortality but in the actions and futures of the witnesses. As Harry Berger has written so eloquently of Shakespearean epilogues, “Now as the play turns to artifice before our eyes, as the characters turn back into actors, we are asked to share the playwright's responsibility. … This implies that profit is immanent in the very nature of artifice and fiction, but that fiction can fulfill itself only by going and invading life. It does this through open gestures of self-limitation, as when, by revealing itself as mere make-believe, it seals off its image, breaks the transference, releases the audience, and consigns the fate of its rounded image to their wills.”52 Uncertainty resonates in this vision because inevitably there is no guarantee of success. Shakespeare puts into question the power of wonder—that which allows rational certainty to be put in question in the first place. But this is very different from scoffing at the marvelous. Instead, Shakespeare uses the same interrogative methods that help stretch the limitations of the known on the method of questioning itself, investigating vehicle as well as tenor. Shakespeare, in his dramatic questings, establishes new credibility for the marvelous—as did Patrizi, as did Montaigne, as did many others. For while wonder is linked to fiction (and potentially to falsehood), it is also bound up with an unending search for new answers (or questions). As Montaigne declared, “A spirited mind never stops within itself; it is always aspiring and going beyond its strength; it has impulses beyond its powers of achievement. If it does not advance and press forward and stand at bay and clash, it is only half alive. Its pursuits are boundless and without form; its food is wonder, the chase, ambiguity.”53 It is in this ongoing pursuit that wonder can diminish reason, can allow the pressing forward and clashing that the marvelous affords the spirited mind.

The notion of wonder, in the hands of writers like … Shakespeare, has changed: from being a stimulus to knowledge, which then subsumes and dissipates it, wonder becomes what cannot be assimilated rationally but instead exists in dynamic, dualistic play. … It is appropriate that an art that takes the audience out of themselves and suspends them in between the rational and affective should also take the author out of himself, stripping him, at least partially, of the control of his signifying power. In order to experience the marvelous, then, the audience must help to make it, thus becoming author and spectator, reasoner and wonderer.


  1. See Felperin, Shakespearean Romance: “Only in The Winter's Tale is the power of art in human life seen as wholly positive” (275).

  2. Orgel, introduction to The Tempest, Oxford Shakespeare, 13. Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, 158. See also Bradbrook, Living Monument, 215-26.

  3. See Orgel, Oxford Tempest, 63.

  4. G. Wilson Knight writes: “it is precisely such transcension with which The Tempest is concerned, whether in mythology, newly-fabricated symbol, or travellers' tales. It is therefore the revelatory quality of travel, the opening of vistas unguessed, not any particular location that is here important” (The Crown of Life, 250).

  5. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs, 749.

  6. Prospero could be seen as rejecting the ideas of Bacon, just beginning to circulate, about the pursuit of knowledge and mastery of nature that would become the foundation of the Baconian scientific program. But I agree with John S. Mebane that there is a Christian skepticism in Bacon's work that keeps him wary about the extent of human knowledge—a wariness that has a parallel in his hesitance to abandon completely the marvelous tradition. See chap. 3 above, and Mebane, Renaissance Magic, 169-72.

  7. Hopkins, in Nicholas of Cusa on Learned Ignorance, 85. On Cusanus and learned ignorance, see Cassirer, Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Domandi, esp. 23-45; and Levao, Renaissance Minds, 5-38. On Shakespeare and this tradition, see Freedman, Staging the Gaze, 10-20, and the opening of chap. 6 above. For a general overview of the traditions of learned ignorance and the vanity of learning in the Renaissance, see Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance, 76-130.

  8. See Gilman, “‘All Eyes.’” Prospero's is “a lesson learned not by mastering a body of knowledge,” Gilman writes, “but by suffering the loss of mastery and undergoing a therapeutic process of dislocation and recovery” (230).

  9. I owe this reference to Charles Frey's “The Tempest and the New World.”

  10. Coppélia Kahn, “The Providential Tempest and the Shakespearean Family,” in Representing Shakespeare, ed. Schwartz and Kahn, 218.

  11. Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions, 14.

  12. William Strachey, A true reportory of the wracke (1610), in Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimes, vol. 4, bk. 9, chap. 6, p. 1735 (also cited in Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare 8:275-76); emphasis mine. For a cultural-historical analysis of distraction in The Tempest, see Jeffrey Knapp, An Empire Nowhere, 220-42.

  13. Sundelson, “So Rare a Wonder'd Father,” in Representing Shakespeare, ed. Schwartz and Kahn, 43.

  14. Felperin, Shakespearean Romance, 276.

  15. But see Orgel's caveat on this imagery in the Oxford Tempest, 123.

  16. The stage direction at act 3, scene 1, is not in the First Folio and is an emendation by Rowe; Prospero's comments at 74-76 make it clear, however, that he is an observer of this scene. The stage direction at act 3, scene 3, comes from the First Folio.

  17. The phrase is Harry Berger's; see Second World and Green World, 153.

  18. Chaudhuri, Infirm Glory, 203.

  19. See the Strachey letter, in which the author resembles Spenser in the proem to book 2 (stanza 3) of The Faerie Queene: “I hope to deliver the world from a foule and generall errour. … Thus shall we make it appeare, That Truth is the daughter of Time, and that men ought not to deny every thing which is not subject to their owne sense” (A true reportory of the wracke, in Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimes vol. 4, bk. 9, chap. 6, p. 1738; also cited in Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare 8:280).

  20. Berger, Second World and Green World, 173.

  21. See Kernan, The Playwright as Magician, 129-59; and Mebane, Renaissance Magic, 176, 187-89.

  22. “Wonder is the foundation of all philosophy, inquiry its progress, ignorance its end” (Montaigne, “Of Cripples” [3.11], in Complete Essays, trans. Frame, 788). See also Hymen in As You Like It: “Feed yourselves with questioning; / That reason wonder may diminish” (5.4.138-39).

  23. See my discussion of Trinculo's speech below.

  24. Chaudhuri, Infirm Glory, 206.

  25. Kay, “‘To Hear the Rest Untold,’” 224.

  26. Brockbank, “The Tempest: Conventions of Art and Empire,” in Later Shakespeare, ed. Brown and Harris, 183. See also Kermode, introduction to the Arden Tempest, liv.

  27. Felperin, Shakespearean Romance, 274-75.

  28. Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions, 116.

  29. See Kernan, The Playwright as Magician, esp. 146-59. Kernan writes: “the image of the poet as magician, which Shakespeare did not invent but fixed and stabilized, holds in tension both the belief of the poets that their art commands spirits, and the view of a rationalistic and scientific society that art is mere trivial make-believe and an entertainment commodity manufactured for pay” (159).

  30. Mowat, “Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus-Pocus,” 301-2. For a more general discussion of the magical traditions vis-à-vis The Tempest, see Orgel, Oxford Tempest, 20-23. See also West, Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery, 80-95. For analogues to Prospero, see Archelaus in Amadis de Gaula, the hermit in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Ismeno in Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, Archimago in Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and Cornelius Agrippa in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller.

  31. On interruptions in The Tempest, see Frey, “The Tempest and the New World,” 41 n.25; Frye, “Romance as Masque,” in Shakespeare's Romances Reconsidered, ed. Kay and Jacobs, 11-39, esp. 38-39; Lindley, “Music, Masque, and Meaning in The Tempest,” in The Court Masque, ed. Lindley, 52-53; and Magnusson, “Interruption in The Tempest.” Frey's interest is the oscillation between history and romance that interruption affords Shakespeare. Lindley discusses interruption as frustration and notes that this topos is one normally associated with tragedy. Closest to mine, Magnusson's reading links syntactical and theatrical interruptions as indications of the play's restlessness with convention, stable meaning, and artistic order.

  32. See chap. 3 above.

  33. Berger, Second World and Green World, 36.

  34. Frey, “The Tempest and the New World,” 38. See Hartog, Mirror of Herodotus, trans. Lloyd, esp. 230-37. See also Felperin, Shakespearean Romance, 253-61, and, more generally, Brockbank, “The Tempest: Conventions of Art and Empire”; Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference, esp. 140-55; and Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions.

  35. See Montaigne, “Of Cannibals” (1.31), in Complete Essays, trans. Frame, 150-59.

  36. Brockbank, “The Tempest: Conventions of Art and Empire,” 194-95.

  37. On Gonzalo and the limits to his knowledge, see Kay, “Gonzalo's ‘Lasting Pillars.’” See also Mebane, Renaissance Magic, who sees a less ambiguous and more generous treatment of Gonzalo (187-90).

  38. On Caliban and the monster tradition, see Kermode's introduction to the Arden Tempest, xxxviii-xl.

  39. On the role of language in the encounter with the wonders of the New World, see Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 16-39, and Marvelous Possessions, 86-118; and de Certeau, Writing of History, trans. Conley, 209-43, and Heterologies, trans. Massumi, 67-79.

  40. Although I have never seen the play produced in this way, if I were directing it, I would continue to have storm noises blasting in the background until Prospero “lays down his mantle” (24 s.d.). This move would connect this scene with the other moments of interruption to which I think it is linked.

  41. For another version of this topos in Shakespeare, see act 3, scene 6, of Timon of Athens.

  42. Lindley, “Music, Masque, and Meaning in The Tempest,” 51.

  43. See Roberts, “‘Wife or ‘Wise’—The Tempest l. 1786,” and Orgel, “Prospero's Wife,” in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Greenblatt, 228-29.

  44. Orgel, introduction to the Oxford Tempest, 54-55.

  45. Frye, “Romance as Masque,” 38-39.

  46. Orgel, Illusion of Power, 45-46.

  47. See also Spenser's treatment of the Bower of Bliss and the Garden of Adonis, in The Faerie Queene 2.12 and 3.6.

  48. Barker and Hulme, “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. Drakakis, 203.

  49. Lindley, “Music, Masque, and Meaning in The Tempest,” 54.

  50. See Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. Hamilton, 420-21. The absence of the reunion scene in the revised Faerie Queene may be a casualty of Spenser's editing and the unfinished nature of the final edition. But the scene was not reintegrated, and this fact is worth noting given the absence of closure and fixity in the poem as a whole, perhaps epitomized in the Mutabilitie Cantos (first published in 1609). Shakespeare, then, can be seen as engaging in the kind of deferral that is characteristic of Spenser's approach to romance form. On Shakespeare's treatment of the emblematic, see Siemon, Shakespearean Iconoclasm.

  51. For a similar view of the intellectual and aesthetic fluidity urged by The Tempest, see Gilman, “‘All Eyes,’” 229-30.

  52. Berger, Second World and Green World, 37-38.

  53. Montaigne, “Of Experience” (3.13), in Complete Essays, trans. Frame, 818.

Catherine Bates (review date 12 January 2001)

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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 what was evidently the highlight of the show. You might expect the modern director to make use of the latest theatrical hardware (or software), but Jonathan Kent's new production at the Almeida avoids such banalities. Forget illusionism. Here, the effects are for real. As if in sympathy with our sodden island, the stage is submerged beneath several feet of water, producing a sometimes bubbling, sometimes still, narcissan pool into which Aidan Gillen's amphibious Ariel uncomplainingly ducks and dives and around which the rest of the cast wetly splash and wade. The set brings to life all the mystery of the seashore, that ambiguous tideland that is neither completely land nor sea and which, lunar-like, appears and recedes in waves—a fitting place for Prospero's chiaroscuro magic, but not oversolemn either, the perfect setting also for the seaside vaudeville of Stephano and Trinculo. As for the storm scene—well, take your sou'-westers. This is not so much après as pendant le déluge.

Meanwhile, the theatre all around one is a wreck, and that is no illusion either. For the Almeida is in the process of being dismantled and, still in the early stages of an ambitious refurbishment programme, requires the audience to pick its way over tarpaulins and scaffolding rails into what is strictly, no doubt, a hardhat area. Drawing on a valedictory tradition which has, since the nineteenth century, persisted in seeing The Tempest as Shakespeare's farewell to the stage, the Almeida team have chosen it as the perfect play with which to bow out: “our revels now are ended”. As Prospero, Ian McDiarmid solemnly breaks his staff and abjures his theatrical magic on a stage that is about to go dark for twelve months in the interests (one wonders at what cost to atmosphere) of comfort-cooling and improved bar facilities.

The Tempest has always been a timely play. Time is embedded in the very title, and the word “now”, repeated some seventy-nine times in the course of the play, emphasizes the auspicious moment of Prospero's long-awaited seizure of the day. But the timeliness of this present production does more than just suit the occasion. Uniquely, it also tells us something new about the play. All Shakespeare's plays draw attention to their own artifice, and The Tempest—with its morbid interest in the power to conjure and deceive—more, perhaps, than any other. But in this production it is not only the illusion that is real (especially if you are sitting in the front row). The final breaking of the spell and return from illusion to reality—well, that is real too, for all around us the walls of the playwright's magic circle are all too visibly falling down. Illusion and reality are thus equally real, equally true to that datum of empirical philosophy: sense experience. In this respect, Kent is able to take the play further than most in developing the great Shakespearean theme that, in this stage-play-world of ours, illusion and reality are one. It is an opportunity that doesn't present itself too often, depending as it does on the physical disintegration of the company's most valuable asset, its real estate.

Why should this matter, particularly? Because it reminds us how, in normal circumstances, we keep illusion and reality apart. Yet a very particular and, if one thinks about it, negative attitude to art lies behind this habitual assumption: not only Freud's infamous view that art is essentially neurosis but, more fundamentally, a fastidious puritanism which goes back to Plato and which sees art as a fantasy shadowland, where the siren call of tricksy magic irresistibly charms the best away from the pristine, solar truth.

One wouldn't expect Shakespeare to share the philosopher-scientist's suspicion of art. But he doesn't quite turn the terms around either. Illusion, if not good, is at best mixed, and nowhere more so than in The Tempest, where play is as foul as it is fair and where Prospero is both Merlin and Morgan le Fay combined. Although some productions of the play have sentimentalized Prospero's art, this one happily refrains from doing so. Illusion-making isn't pretty. After all, everything goes wrong for Prospero, the moment he gives up the knockabout reality of Italian statecraft for the life of the mind. Deserting his dukedom for his books, Prospero joins a line of delinquent kings who cut a swathe through much of Renaissance literature. McDiarmid's Prospero is not so much the benign old gaffer of Gielgud mode as a kind of demented Jon Pertwee. Ariel, swathed in bandages from the waist up, is, like Frankenstein's monster, visibly the creation of a mad scientist's brain. Malcolm Storry's show-stealing Caliban—rutting and roaring appropriately—is a libidinous degenerate dressed in the garments of a nineteenth-century madhouse. And Ann Livia Ryan's Miranda—incomprehensibly hysterical at first—makes sense as the all-too-easily hypnotizable patient whose problems are, as with all the best neurotics, to be cured by a husband and marriage. With a supporting cast such as this, Prospero emerges more as a mad doctor, whose island is a bedlam and whose fantasy goes far beyond even the wildest of Freud's imaginings—the power to control other people's dreams.

At the same time, however, the playwright is undoubtedly controlling our dream. With his ability to create worlds out of nowhere and to fashion whole fields of experience, the playwright can do as he likes; illusion is all that we know. And it is presumably to emphasize this creative power that, at precisely the point when Prospero comes into his own as a true dramaturge—presenting his masque of goddesses to Ferdinand and Miranda—this production suddenly becomes hallucinatory. All the gestures towards making things real now move, for a spell, in the opposite direction. Where the Jacobeans would have wheeled in their clanking machinery, what this production chooses to give us is the most insubstantial pageant of all: the phantasmagoric images of cinematic projection. The too, too solid goddesses of masque convention here melt away, to be projected instead on to a sky-blue muslin screen, the flimsy surface of which very suitably becomes the baseless fabric of Prospero's vision. Juno, Ceres and Iris are not only disembodied; they don't speak and are not even female. Their mirage-like apparitions are played by boys, and their fleeting appearance glimmers to the strains of a boys' choir wafting cherubically from above. If this is the dramatist's art exemplified, then it is about as illusory as you can get. As we sit behind Ferdinand and Miranda, watching with them the flickering shadows on the opposite wall, we remember exactly where we are: Prospero's cell has become Plato's Cave.

In most productions of the play, the final nunc dimittis of Prospero's epilogue sends us back out into a concrete and brightly lit world where our sense of reality is duly restored. But, played as it is in a collapsing theatre, this clever Tempest opportunely suggests that there is nowhere different out there for us to go. Since it puts illusion and reality on the same plane, it honours Shakespeare's art by inviting us to redraw the lines. For Plato and Freud, the opposite of illusion is what is real; but, for the artist, the opposite of illusion is disillusion. And if, as this production suggests, it is disillusion and not reality that lies outside the magic circle, then it's all right to fantasize and to make art, perfectly acceptable for reality to be the stuff of dreams.

Russell Jackson (review date spring 2001)

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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 up at the back to a white screen, with a narrow platform crossing it about ten feet from floor level and allowing entrances and exits above from either side of the rear wall. A bronze gong was hung to one side of the black backdrop, a thunder sheet on the other. Before the play began, the audience was confronted by this bare, white stage, with a single open book placed toward the back of the lower platform. As the house lights dimmed, a circular monochrome image of waves was projected on the backcloth. The tempest gathered in force, and this projection was replaced by stormy breakers, which presently expanded to fill the whole of the space. Subsequent visions of the island consisted of such images (whether projections or simply colored lighting) melting into one another. They reached their climax during the masque, when a fan of peacock feathers to accompany Juno's arrival succeeded a rainbow for Iris and giant close-ups of waving wheat for Ceres. When Prospero conjured the “elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves” in 5.1, he was lit with a convergence of yellow, green, and red spotlights. He broke his staff, and the lighting suddenly snapped to plain white.

The “noises” and music of the island, performed for the most part by the black-clad “spirits,” complemented these simple but richly atmospheric projections and lighting effects. Their mouth-music for the songs (composed by Andrew Gough) included syllables of the lyrics divided between four voices as accompaniment (so that the texts seemed to emerge from the chanting), rhythmic hums, and vocalises, supported by the occasional use of percussion instruments. It was they who supplied the sounds of the storm, which for once could be keyed perfectly to fit round the lines spoken by the actors on board the ship. The spirits were the ever-resourceful stage-attendants for Prospero's island theater. When Ariel, winged and taloned like a harpy, trampled the banquet, reducing what seemed like a baked Alaska to gray ashes, two spirits with brushes and another with a dustpan tidied up. At the end of the masque, the dance of nymphs and reapers was executed only by Miranda and Ferdinand: they wore gold shoes provided by the spirits, who guided their feet by performing the steps themselves with two similar pairs of dancing shoes on their hands. Ariel himself, a slim young man in black trousers and jacket, moved simply and swiftly but with no “dance” mannerisms. When he appeared as a nymph of the sea, he donned a silver lamé off-the-shoulder shift evoking the Supremes, but otherwise he was a gentle, unelaborated spirit with a gentle, high tenor voice. Observing Prospero's fond gaze on Ferdinand and Miranda, his “Do you love me, master?—No?” was wistful rather than rebuking and Prospero's answer was simple and sincere: “Dearly, my delicate Ariel.”

Caliban (Zubin Varla) was “deformed” in the sense of having a discolored skin, dotted with blisters and scabs, with a curious mark resembling a brand on his back. His posture, leaning forward precipitously from the hips, suggested urgency and pain rather than “savage” qualities. As with several Stratford predecessors in the role, his speech was not so much obscured as overarticulated, giving the sense of a carefully learned language forced through an ill-adapted mouth. This strained eloquence was an effective counterpart to the speech of Philip Voss as Prospero, whose musical voice and careful nuancing of every phrase—although sometimes a little too elaborate—seemed to come from a precision of thought and a lively apprehension of the sensuous quality of words. When Prospero interrupted the masque, he was not at all melodramatic but certainly “vexed.” The postcolonial dimension of the play, while not heavily underlined in the multi-ethnic casting, was clearly enunciated in the “court” scenes (with the king and the duke dressed like Commodore Perry) and in the comic politics of Caliban's subjection to Trinculo and Stephano. When Ferdinand took over Caliban's log-bearing task, he also began to resemble him physically—stripped to the waist, his body discolored by the labor and his posture lowered to a crouch by his burden. Miranda chided Ferdinand mildly over the chess game and wondered sweetly at the brave new creatures of the usurper and his accomplices. This was a satisfying, innovative, but not aggressive production of the play.

John D. Cox (essay date autumn 2000)

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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 readings became the norm, however, with the advent of New Historicism and cultural materialism, so that one now finds virtually unanimous assent to “materialist” ways of understanding The Tempest, as well as William Shakespeare's other plays. The difference is signaled in two remarkable editions of The Tempest: Frank Kermode's Second Arden (1954) and Stephen Orgel's Oxford (1987). Among other things, the transition from idealist to materialist readings seemed to bode ill for a Christian understanding of Shakespeare's last play. Suspicion of Christian motives underlies the materialist critique, especially when Christian affirmation appears in the mouths of the powerful and the privileged, as it does in The Tempest, and especially when Christian aspects of the play are tied to Renaissance social assumptions, as they are in Kermode's edition. What I would like to suggest here is that a distinctive Christian account of the play can be offered apart from either of the dominant interpretive paradigms that developed in the second half of the twentieth century, and that that distinctiveness enables a recovery of Christian interpretation in the heyday of postmodernism.1

Let us begin, then, with Kermode's introduction, an unusually fine and influential example of what we would now be inclined to call “idealist” criticism. Kermode introduces the play as a recapitulation of ideas from classical and Christian tradition in symbolic and imagistic form. Insofar as the play relates to history, it relates to conscious literary and aesthetic traditions that Kermode takes to be characteristic of the period in question—such traditions as the difference between white and black magic, definitions of nobility in terms of virtue, cosmological correspondences, classical (especially Roman) literature, theories of allegory, and the Renaissance genre of romance or tragicomedy.2 For Kermode, The Tempest is important because it testifies to Shakespeare's brilliance in combining disparate elements into an organic imaginative unity that also includes contemporary topical references to New World exploration and fashions of courtly drama, especially the masque.3

Very few people tell such stories about The Tempest any more, at least in publications about the play. In at least two cases influential critics who used to tell such stories in print have openly reversed themselves, retracting what they once said and owning something quite different in its place.4 The difference is broadly describable as “materialist,” because now dominant ways of interpreting The Tempest focus on the social and economic implications of the play rather than its conscious context of ideas and imagination—its “idealist” context. Stories about the idealist context have been widely characterized as intellectually bankrupt, socially oppressive, and even morally suspect. That is because conscious traditions—the history of ideas—are now thought more often to disguise social and economic relationships than to reveal them. That disguising or “occluding” is important for materialist critics because they see social and economic relationships as the basis for power relations, and power relations in turn provide the site where structural social injustice is created and perpetuated. The real business of criticism, then, is to move beyond or behind the explicit or even symbolic ideas of a text in order to understand how its ideas are shaped by material circumstances—by social and economic relations—and thus to expose the power relations implied by writing from the past, especially when that writing is influential in its own turn in shaping culture, as is the case with Shakespeare's plays.5

A useful illustration of the contrast between “idealist” and “materialist” stories about The Tempest is the way each has responded to Caliban. In an idealist reading, insofar as Caliban is sexually lustful, devilish, and “savage,” he is at the opposite pole from the chaste Miranda, or from the white magician and civilized ruler, Prospero, who controls Caliban's rebellious impulses. In other words, Caliban is related allegorically to the monster called Greedy Lust in Edmund Spenser's Legend of Chastity, as well as to the wild man of European folklore, who had been adapted in innumerable ways as a literary and iconographic motif, most recently in court masques, to which The Tempest is related in both general and particular ways.6 In Prospero's estimation Caliban is “A devil, a born devil,” the son of a witch and the devil himself, incapable of improvement, even when exposed to the humane benefits of civilization:

… 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.


In this reading Caliban symbolizes the bestial, the depraved, and the degenerate in human nature and in human society, elements that can only be controlled, because they are inherently destructive, but that can never be expected to change, at least for the better. As Robert Pierce puts it, in his sole reference to Caliban in his “idealist” essay, “the unambiguous evil of Caliban, whose outward ugliness fits his inward state,” is the only evil that the innocent Miranda can recognize (“'Very Like” 173).

The materialist story of Caliban offers another version altogether of what happens to him. It begins with the material circumstances of Caliban's existence, particularly his social status as “a savage and deformed slave,” according to the First Folio's description of Caliban in the list of characters for the play (Orgel, ed., The Tempest, 95). As a slave he is deprived of all human dignity and forced to perform menial but apparently essential tasks for the man who enslaved him and who attempts to keep him in line with repressive physical and psychological punishment. As Prospero explains to Miranda, Caliban is necessary to them as a menial servant:

But as 'tis,
We cannot miss him. He does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices
That profit us.


Caliban's circumstances, moreover, resemble those of New World native peoples in several particulars. His name is an anagram of “cannibal,” suggesting the New World cannibals who are described in Michel Montaigne's essay “Of Cannibals.”7 At first his response to the European newcomers was hospitable and friendly: he showed them “all the qualities o'th'isle, / The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile” (1.2.337-38), just as many native Americans did for newcomers from the Old World. By the time the play opens, however, a powerful European has reduced the native inhabitant of the island to slavery, and the European has accomplished this by using prototechnological control of the four elements to control Caliban's physical movements and to convince him that he can also control Caliban's own god, as Caliban acknowledges fearfully in an aside:

I must obey. His art is of such power,
It would control my dam's god Setebos
And make a vassal of him.


Caliban is thus effectively robbed of any cosmic resources of his own, as native peoples everywhere were robbed by Europeans who came armed with the determination and technology of subjugation, and Caliban therefore falls ready prey to a second wave of exploitative European invaders who make him drunk and mock him when, in his degraded religious outlook, he tries to worship them.8

Most tellingly, the materialist story of Caliban offers a very different account of the pivotal event that Prospero cites as his reason for enslaving the island's only native inhabitant. Here is Prospero's description of that event, in his most angry outburst at Caliban:

I have used thee—
Filth as thou art—with humane care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till though didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.


Caliban has no doubt that Prospero is alluding to attempted sexual relations between Caliban and Miranda, for in his retort he regrets only that he did not succeed: “O ho, O ho! Would't had been done! / Thou didst prevent me—I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans” (1.2.348-50).

Idealist readings of this exchange use it as the basis for identifying Caliban with bestial lust, opposed symbolically to Miranda, the image of noble chastity, but materialists again tell a very different story. Nothing the similarities of Caliban's story in other respects with that of native peoples in the New World, materialist critics point to the widespread colonizers' taboo concerning sexual relations between native men and European women—a taboo that ties together the patriarchal dominance of women with the colonial dominance of native peoples. In this version of events, Prospero's description is not necessarily an objective account of attempted rape; rather, Prospero follows a racist pattern, since he was bound to reject any approach that Caliban might have made to Miranda, no matter how innocent and well meaning it might have been (Orgel, ed., The Tempest 34; Sharp 276; Taylor 143). From this perspective Prospero's rejection of Caliban is paranoid.9 The racism that determines Prospero's reaction to Caliban is a strategy for maintaining colonial power and social dominance that parallels Prospero's patriarchal dominance of Miranda and his class-biased selection of a European prince as the only acceptable mate for his aristocratic daughter.

In the materialist story about The Tempest, Prospero's paranoid perception of Caliban's sexual maturation is consistent with other perceptions on the part of the European invader. Prospero is the sole source of the claim that Caliban is the son of the devil and a witch (1.2.319-20; 4.1.188). But European invaders routinely dismissed native peoples as devil worshippers: what better way to justify enslavement of other people than by mythologizing them as subhuman? Caliban's mother, Sycorax, is a witch, then, only in the perception of her European rival, but behind the status Prospero ascribes to her can be glimpsed the outlines of a shaman, whose power indeed rivals Prospero's because his primitive but effective technology is itself closely identified with the spirit world. In other words, the materialist story of The Tempest emphasizes that the play is a product of its culture—with all that we recognize to be the limitations of that culture—rather than of a superlative imaginative intelligence freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit.

The Tempest includes much more than Caliban, of course, but the contrast I have just outlined is accurate in the way it delineates the difference between idealist and materialist stories about The Tempest as a whole. In the case of materialism, the story is ultimately Karl Marx's: his distinction between a culture's economic and social “foundation” and its ideological “superstructure” is the informing metaphor in a narrative of capitalism's rise and inevitable decline.10 Materialist literary criticism gives first priority to economic and social relationships, because literary theorists' notion of “the material base” is derived from Marx's metaphor of the “foundation,” just as that of “occlusion” is derived from Marx's metaphor of ideological “veils” hiding the economic truth of history (Lash 51-55). The metaphoric and narrative quality of materialist analysis is difficult to recognize only if one takes Marx's analysis as scientifically positive—as a universal, verifiable hypothesis about historical economic and social relationships. But to understand Marx that way is to create an idealist paradigm out of something that claims to be historicist, thus ironically denying the fundamental nature of Marx's enterprise (Lash 61-63, 99).

Recognizing the narrative foundation of materialist criticism helps to distinguish it, at the level of basic assumption, from criticism formed by a different story—the story of God's originating creative power and God's continuing presence in human experience and in the creation, expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.11 The Christian story is just as much about history as the Marxist story is, maybe more so, and neither story can make a claim to universally verifiable scientific validity without denying its own essential nature. In short, they are rival stories.

As rivals, however, they are also siblings, sharing much more than their orientation to history. They share a common concern for justice, for example, which lies at the heart of Marx's social and economic analysis. In fact, what makes the materialist story of Caliban useful to a Christian interpretation is not the materialist story itself but Christian commitment to a story about justice. The moral challenge to slavery, for example, is deep-rooted in the Christian story, from the first attempts among the ancient Hebrews to spell out appropriate treatment of slaves, to Paul's admonition to a slave-owner to treat his slave “not now as a seruant, but aboue a seruant, even as a brother beloued” (Philem. 16),12 to nineteenth-century evangelicals' efforts to eradicate slavery itself as a social institution.

One difference between the Christian story and its materialist sibling is that the former includes more than justice in social and economic relationships. For one thing, the Christian story includes other virtues besides justice: faith, hope, and love, for example, which in turn inform virtues like mercy, forgiveness, and patience. The three cardinal virtues are indeed transcendent in that they derive from something other than the material base, but they are not idealist falsifications as long as those who own them work to construct economic and social relationships in light of them.

It is appropriate, then, for Christian stories about The Tempest to look for Christian virtues in action and to ask whether and how those virtues are effective in human relationships. A good place to begin that search is by recognizing the historical existence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of the kind of dramatic story that Robert G. Hunter calls “comedy of forgiveness.” Having suffered injustice and attempted murder at the hands of his brother Antonio and King Alonso years before, Prospero takes advantage of an extraordinary opportunity (not planned by himself) to overwhelm and subdue those who wronged him. In the end, however, when he has them completely at his mercy, his conversation with Ariel reminds him that.

The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.


Prospero's forgiveness of his penitent enemies is undoubtedly an expression of the Christian story in The Tempest, and it is rendered even clearer and more striking by his forgiveness of Antonio, whom he knows to be unrepentant:

You, brother mine, that entertained ambition,
Expelled remorse and nature, whom, with Sebastian—
Whose inward pinches therefore are most strong—
Would here have killed your king, I do forgive thee,
Unnatural though thou art.


This moment, as much as any in Shakespeare's plays, would seem to enact a virtue that derives from the teaching of Jesus: “Ye haue heard that it hathe bene said, Thou shalt loue thy neighbour, and hate thine enemie. But I say vnto you, Loue your enemies: blesse them that curse you: do good to them that hate you, and praye for them which hurt you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44).

Prospero's forgiveness of his enemies is not only a distinctive part of the Christian story in The Tempest; it is also a point at which the Christian and materialist stories about the play diverge sharply. In Orgel's estimation, for example, to take Prospero's forgiveness of Antonio seriously is to sentimentalize the play.13 What is really going on, Orgel argues (or, in other words, what forgiveness and reconciliation “occlude”), is a vindictive power move on Prospero's part. The quondam duke sets up Antonio for moral failure in order to sanction the return of his dukedom:

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault—all of them—and require
My dukedom of thee, which perforce I know
Thou must restore.


Moreover, Orgel argues, Prospero sets up Miranda and Ferdinand for romance in order to ensure that after his own death the dukedom will revert to Naples without reverting to Antonio (ed., The Tempest 53-55). In this reading the point of the young peoples' romance is a power move on Prospero's part, whose design is to cut Antonio out of the succession. Orgel's point is consistent with the materialist assumption that power relations are what really count in human affairs, and other considerations such as virtuous action or romantic love are mere occlusions of power.

This understanding of Prospero's forgiveness is problematic, however, even on its own terms. If vindictive punishment were Prospero's aim, then his sparing of his enemies makes little sense. Rather than spare them and forgive them, the most obvious course would be to destroy them in the tempest while still magically preserving the ship, thus providing himself not only with the means of returning to Naples but also with a half true (but irrefutable) story that his enemies were destroyed in a storm. Preserving Antonio is far messier for Prospero than destroying him outright, and if punitive vindication were his real aim, it is difficult to see why he would choose such an awkward and imperfect way of going about it. This is not the choice of a Machiavellian prince.

More importantly, to ascribe merely political motives to Prospero's forgiveness is to miss the moral significance of what he does when possessed with virtual omnipotence. That he is so possessed and that he is aware of being so possessed the play leaves no doubt: he has worked long and hard to gain control of the natural elements, to prevent weapons from being lifted against him, to create an absolutely reliable and accurate espionage system, and in general to learn how to preserve as he wishes and destroy as he wishes. He literally embodies, in fact, the fantastic vision of kingly power that was repeatedly presented as a flattering image to King James in court masques (see Orgel, Illusion and “Platonic”). That Prospero actually possesses this kind of power and still recognizes the need for self-restraint and forgiveness of his enemies is perhaps the singly most remarkable feature of The Tempest. To deny it or to explain it away is to fail to respond to what is most profoundly miraculous about the play—not magic or the wonders of the island but Prospero's growing moral insight and capacity for moral action.14

Moreover, to construe Prospero's forgiveness of his enemies as a mere political maneuver is to understate the distinction that the play makes between Alonso and Antonio. For both Prospero uses the shipwreck to create illusory circumstances that test their moral fiber: Alonso believes his only son and heir to be drowned, and Antonio believes that he and Sebastian have a chance to effect a coup d'état against Alonso with impunity. In reacting to their respective illusions, each revels his character. Alonso comes to acknowledge his vulnerability and is thus prepared to entreat Prospero's pardon for past wrongs when they first meet again (5.1.117-18). Antonio, however, in strong contrast to his brother, takes advantage of an unexpected chance to attempt another political power play. If we are looking for a political opportunist in The Tempest, we can hardly do better than Antonio.

Orgel acknowledges the difference between Alonso and Antonio, but among Prospero's other faults Orgel identifies the failure of Prospero's magic to resolve Antonio's moral weakness: “Nothing, the action seems to say, not all Prospero's magic, can redeem Antonio from his essential badness; but the corollary to this is that Prospero's magic has not, on the whole, been employed to bring about the reform of Antonio” (ed., The Tempest 51). A misunderstanding is involved here, for what creates moral action is not (and never can be) the circumstances per se in which one demonstrates it but the volition, decision, and action that constitute one's active response to circumstances. In Antonio's case the response is unmistakably his own, and it is unmistakably vicious, given that his circumstances are identical to Alonso's.15 Given Antonio's irreducible viciousness, Prospero would seem admirably to follow the advice that Thomas More seems to offer to himself in Utopia regarding the exercise of juridical power: “What you cannot turn to good you must make as little bad as you can” (101).

Still, Orgel is perceptive about Prospero's ambivalence in forgiving Antonio:

“You, brother mine, that entertained, ambition, / … I do forgive thee” (5.1.75-8), Prospero says, and then qualifies the pardon at once (“unnatural though thou art”), reconsiders it as more crimes are remembered, some to be held in reserve (“At this time / I will tell no tales” 128-9), all but withdraws it (“most wicked sir, whom to call brother / Would even infect my mouth” 130-1), and only then confirms it through forcing Antonio to relinquish the dukedom, an act that is presented as something he does unwillingly.

(ed., The Tempest 53)

Prospero in fact enacts charity (“I do forgive thee”) but struggles against his own inclinations in doing so, an ambivalence that would seem to be well described by Paul in Romans 7.

Whether this deficiency is a courtly dissimulation that merely occludes Prospero's lust for power, however, is not clear. Looked at in Orgel's way, it is a moral failure; looked at in another, it would seem unavoidable given Prospero's political position, Antonio's closeness to him, and Antonio's still treacherous nature—none of which Prospero chose. In the one area of their relationship where he bears responsibility, Prospero acknowledges that he bears it, informing Miranda that in Milan his lack of vigilance provoked the worst in Antonio. Antonio, however, has just proved that he is still as opportunistic as he was twelve years before, and Prospero has renounced his magic, retaining only his own prudence and wariness as means of containing Antonio's viciousness—characteristics that he admits he lacked in Milan.

All this helps to account for Prospero's ambivalence about Antonio, even as he forgives him. Virtue, as John Milton argues, only becomes itself when it is practiced in specific circumstances; otherwise it remains “fugitive and cloistered”—merely potential. That is why the understanding of material circumstances is important for the Christian story as well as for the materialist story: both affirm the uniqueness and particularity of material conditions in which human beings act. The difference is that, in trying to understand the meaning and coherence of moral actions, the Christian story acknowledges the creative and redemptive presence of God as the ultimate enabling factor of and in material circumstances. Some might argue that Prospero would embody the love of his enemies even better if he renounced power altogether, on the model of St. Francis. Such an argument assumes, however, that the exercise of power is itself evil, and whatever the merits of that assumption it does not seem to operate in The Tempest. Nothing indicates that Prospero's retaining his authority is immoral in itself, nor that he retains it by immoral means or for immoral motives; and while the play's comic reconciliation might therefore be less than perfect, as Orgel observes, it is not morally incoherent or ironically self-defeating. Prospero's (and Shakespeare's) acknowledgment of his imperfection and its specifically Christian significance seems to be the point in Prospero's epilogue:

… 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.


The last couplet urges a specifically Christian response to Prospero based on the fourth petition of the Lord's Prayer: “Forgiue vs our dettes, as we also forgiue our detters” (Matt. 6:12).

With regard to Prospero and the Christian virtues of patience and forgiveness, then, it seems reasonable to say that Christian stories about The Tempest can be distinguished from materialist stories and even, perhaps, that the former yield a morally richer and subtler play than the latter. At the same time, however, it is important to note that that difference does not equate Christian stories about Prospero with idealist stories. Kermode, for example, takes Prospero's virtue to be linked to his social class and to his hard-won knowledge. “That gentle birth predisposed a man to virtue, even if it was not absolutely necessary to virtue, was part of the lore of courtesy,” Kermode observes (ed., The Tempest xliii-xliv), and he identifies Prospero's magic as “goetic” because it works by means of elemental spirits (rather than evil spirits) and because it enables the magician's perfection in knowledge, including moral knowledge. Magic is thus, “in a sense, the means of Grace” (ed., The Tempest xlviii), and Prospero parallels Adam in his fall and recovery: “Prospero, like Adam, fell from his kingdom by an inordinate thirst for knowledge; but learning is a great aid to virtue, the road by which we may love and imitate God, and 'repair the ruins of our first parents, and by its means he is enabled to return” (ed., The Tempest 1).

Despite Kermode's attempt to co-opt Milton as a support for his account, his observation has a great deal more to do with Renaissance class prejudice than with the Christian story. Kermode is right about the commonplace equation of true nobility with virtue, but it is a commonplace with Platonic, not Christian, origins, and it is specifically opposed by Augustine's paradoxical equation of true nobility with humility, on the model of Christ, a paradox that animates medieval religious drama and, some would argue, Shakespearean drama as well (Cox, Shakespeare 22-40, 136-44). The moral discovery of one's own vulnerability involves a spiritual journey in the opposite direction from the winning of manipulative knowledge and control (Prospero's “art”), and Prospero's choice of the former therefore entails his renunciation of the latter. Far from affirming the old story (at least as old as Plato) that equates nobility and virtue, The Tempest rejects it about as decisively as any Shakespearean play does, with the possible exception of King Lear.

That rejection is evident not only in Prospero but also in Caliban, whose enslavement by Prospero has been the focus of materialist stories about The Tempest, as we have seen. I would suggest that recovering a Christian sense of Caliban's story also requires distinguishing it from materialist accounts, but in Caliban's case, as in Prospero's, a Christian reading does not have to be identified with idealist narratives like Kermode's, no matter how learned and compelling they may be in their own terms. The first storied response to Caliban as a personification like Spenser's Greedy Lust is in The Tempest, or The Enchanted Island (1670), a rewriting of Shakespeare's play by William Davenant and John Dryden, who much reduced Caliban's part and made him a caricature of what he is in Shakespeare's play (Vaughan and Vaughan 91-95). This caricature embodies the personified contrast between passion and reason that eighteenth-century critics made of the difference between Caliban and Prospero, and that difference is the basis of the idealist story about Caliban, as we have seen. Importantly, the Restoration caricature also embodies a royalist agenda, as Katherine Eisaman Maus has argued. A merely bestial Caliban, whose lawless impulses require the control of royal knowledge and power, is a potent image of lawless commoners, who were likely to run amok and assassinate their royal lord, as the English commons had done in 1649. The Enchanted Island presents art as dynamic control (“judgment”) of lawless imagination (“wit”) and therefore involves an essentially royalist aesthetic, with roots in Renaissance celebrations of centralized power, but that is not the aesthetic of Shakespeare's play (Cox, “Renaissance”). Shakespeare's Caliban is much more complex than the Restoration caricature that shared his name, and the history of response to Caliban therefore bears out not only materialist critics' objection that the idealist story about Caliban is reductive but also their argument that it is politically loaded.

One reason that Shakespeare's Caliban cannot be reduced to an idealist allegory of bestiality is that he is unmistakably human.16 Prospero himself says as much in his reminder to Ariel about conditions on the island before his own arrival:

Then was this island—
Save for the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp, hag-born—not honoured with
A human shape.
Yes, Caliban, her son.


Both Prospero's syntax and Ariel's reply indicate that Caliban is the exception to no “human shape” being on the island before Prospero's arrival (Vaughan and Vaughan 10-11). Prospero is not consistent about Caliban's identity, of course, because Prospero is also the only authority for Caliban's father being “the devil himself” (1.2.319-20), but the two claims are presented very differently. Whereas Prospero acknowledges Caliban's humanity in a relatively dispassionate narrative of the past, his demonizing of Caliban is embedded in cursing and angry invective. Moreover, the charge of devilish parentage would appear to have no basis in fact, since Prospero lacks credible authority for knowing who Caliban's father was. Sycorax herself was dead when Prospero reached the island, and Caliban is unlikely to have divulged the kind of information about his father that Prospero alleges, even in the unlikely event that his mother divulged it to him in the first place. The only other possible source of the information is Ariel, but Sycorax is less likely to have told him than to have told Caliban; and if Ariel told Prospero about Caliban's parentage without hearing it from Sycorax, then the information is no more reliable than if it had originated with Prospero, given Ariel's refusal “To act her earthy and abhorred commands” (1.2.273) and Sycorax's subsequent punishment of him.

More importantly, Caliban's humanity is evident in what he is able to learn. From Prospero and Miranda he learned language, or, more precisely, he learned their language, since nothing says that he did not learn his mother's language before she died: he had been about twelve years old when Prospero arrived, and his mother had died at an unstated time during his childhood.17 Miranda's claim that “thou didst not, savage, / Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like / A thing most brutish” (1.2.354-56) could just as easily be her perception of Caliban's state as an objective description of it. Everyone perceives the sound of unknown languages as gibberish, and if Caliban learned a second language from Prospero and Miranda, he knows more than they do, at least about different languages and therefore about different cultures.

Nor can one find evidence of Caliban's subhumanity in his sullen claim that the profit of his having learned language is his knowing how to curse (1.2.362-63). On the contrary, that knowledge is just as likely a result of the way Prospero treated him after Caliban exhibited a sexual interest in Miranda. For Prospero is always far quicker to curse Caliban and far more resourceful in doing so than the other way around, a pattern that strongly suggests who the teacher is in this case and who the pupil.

The strongest point against an idealist allegorizing of Caliban is his moral character—his ability to grow in goodness.18 He seems to have learned European ideas of just ownership, for example, given his remark to Prospero that “This island's mine by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak'st from me” (1.2.330-31) and his later claim that.

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.


These are not laughable claims. They convey a serious sense of immediate grievance, even without recognizing their possible topical application.19 Importantly, Caliban's claims to be suffering unjustly are trivialized in the Restoration version of The Tempest, thus effectively removing a credible claim to justice on the part of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy and simultaneously relegating them to subhuman status.

Justice, however, is not all that Caliban learns. Having been duped by Stephano and Trinculo, he recognizes his error when they are easily diverted from the plot he had proposed: “The dropsy drown this fool! What do you mean / To dote thus on such luggage? Let's alone, / And do the murder first” (4.1.230-32). Perseverance, courage, recognition of misplaced trust, the ability to weigh comparative goods and to choose the better are all moral qualities that Caliban displays in this situation, even if the cause in which he displays them is morally dubious—and its unqualified dubiousness is by no means clear, given the justice of Caliban's claims against Prospero. After his recognition of his own and his companions' error, Caliban accepts Prospero's offer of pardon with alacrity in a willing spirit of obedience and co-operation:

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!


“Grace” is a word with many shades of meaning for Shakespeare, but not least among them is the theological sense of unmerited favor—the grace of God (Tiffany). Caliban's final resolution is the strongest evidence of his humanity: his awareness of his need for forgiveness and “grace” is what he shares most importantly with others in the play who are capable of the same kind of moral growth. Not surprisingly, Davenant and Dryden removed Caliban's determination to seek for grace from their version of The Tempest.

At the same time, Caliban's spiritual enlightenment is the point on which Christian accounts of Caliban are likely to diverge most sharply from materialist stories about him. If the result of colonialist exploitation was simply to make native peoples more compliant to the will of subjugators, then the result was not justice but false consciousness, especially if religion was the means of inducing compliance, as seems to be the case with Caliban. Looked at this way, Caliban's determination to obey Prospero happily and seek for grace is the sorriest development in the play.

But it is not the play's final development, and the materialist story about Caliban's moral growth is not the last word about The Tempest. After Caliban determines to seek for grace, Prospero declares his intention to leave the island and return to Italy. In other words, he reverses the colonial pattern, not simply emancipating his slave but leaving the land to the one who was “king” of it when the Europeans first arrived. In effect, The Tempest therefore recounts a twelve-year interlude in the life of the island, and if one asks whether Caliban is better off for that interlude, the answer would seem to be that he is. His suffering as a slave cannot be made right, but his encounter with Europeans has been, as it were, a moral and intellectual vaccination, given what he has learned—at least one European language, European ideas of justice, a dignified spiritual life involving self-recognition and grace, both elements of the Christian story, and the ability to discern bad masters from good, an ability he lacked before the arrival of Prospero, Stephano, and Trinculo. Thus forewarned, he would appear to be better forearmed against a future wave of European invaders than he was before the first lot came. One might add that he is also better armed against vice, having learned to examine his conscience.

In addition to leaving Caliban alone in the end, Prospero defies the colonialist analogy in other ways as well. One of the qualities that makes Prospero a better master than anyone else in the play is his ability to improve in goodness, a grace-bestowed human characteristic that he shares with Caliban; and one of the most important moral insights Prospero acquires is his recognition that he has had a share in what Caliban has become: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5.1.275-76). This acknowledgment justifies a great deal of speculation about the relationship between Prospero and Caliban—speculation, for example, that Caliban uses language to curse because that is principally what he hears from Prospero. Though Prospero complains at one point that Caliban has a nature on whom nurture can never stick, Prospero's acknowledgment of his partial responsibility for Caliban's condition reverses and cancels his earlier assessment. To paraphrase Orlando in As You Like It, Prospero recognizes that he has kept Caliban rustically at home—or, to speak more properly, stayed him at home unkept (cf. “here you sty me”), for you cannot call that “keeping” for one of Caliban's birth (“Which first was mine own king”) that differs not from the stalling of an ox.

What I am suggesting is that recovering a Christian dimension to the story of Caliban and Prospero not only distinguishes what happens to them from idealist and materialist accounts but also may act as a corrective to both. In contrast to the idealist story, a Christian account of the play can accommodate the materialist insight, for example, that Prospero may have overreacted to Caliban's sexual interest in Miranda and, if so, that Prospero bears some responsibility for Caliban's reductive sexual outlook. On the other hand, to be fair and accurate, if Caliban was indeed twelve when the three-year-old Miranda reached the island, then he matured sexually long before she did, and it is at least possible that Prospero reacted to what he perceived to be a young man's attempted sexual abuse of a child and that that is why Prospero sees Caliban as a monster and a devil (Taylor 141-42). The point is not certain, of course. The play allows for either view as a real possibility, and that is enough to qualify both the materialist assumption that what happened was simply the result of a cultural imperialism and the psychological assumption that Prospero is fighting his own incestuous desires in reacting harshly to Caliban—though those also remain possibilities that cannot be definitively discounted. About some points the best response is simply to note the possibilities and suspend judgment, neither condemning Caliban as a personification of lust nor Prospero as a racist colonizer.20

In contrast to the materialist story, on the other hand, an understanding of The Tempest with the Christian story in mind would recognize the play's careful differentiation among those who exploit Caliban. Though we see Prospero abuse him more than anyone else, Caliban himself acknowledges that Prospero's first instinct was not cruel but kind:

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.


Prospero's recollection is the same: “I have used thee … with humane care, and lodged thee / In mine own cell” (1.2.345-47). Given Prospero's acknowledgment of his own part in “this thing of darkness,” the play creates the distinct possibility of a tragic misunderstanding at some point in the last twelve years. Such misunderstandings occur not only between cultures but also between generations (fathers and adolescent sons, for example), but in any case this is a misunderstanding that Prospero would seem to recognize when he acknowledges responsibility for what Caliban has become and when he decides to leave the island.

Prospero's erring, self-knowing, repentant, and generally complex humanity is highlighted by the behavior of others who exploit Caliban deliberately: they neither begin by treating him kindly nor end by recognizing what they have done. Stephano and Trinculo have explicit economic designs on Caliban from the moment they meet him, imagining how profitable he could be for them in Europe (2.2.26-32, 66-68) and plying him with sack in order to ensure his cooperation with their designs. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme simply ignore Stephano's and Trinculo's exploitation (one might even say that they “occlude” it), and Paul Brown mentions it only to explain it away with a point about the class exploitation of masterless men: Stephano and Trinculo would not mistreat Caliban, Brown suggests, if they were not “the already excremental products of civility” themselves (64-65). Both arguments limit the moral field to justice by suggesting that all actions are to be discerned only in terms of disproportionate power, thus heaping blame on the powerful (i.e., Prospero) while absolving the powerless of responsibility for their actions, even when they abuse others who are less powerful than themselves. The moral inadequacy of this argument is evident if it is extended to the exploitation and destruction of real native peoples by real disenfranchised (i.e., lower-class) Europeans, who are thereby excused for whatever they did because they were exploited themselves.

Again, The Tempest is more complex. The exploitative instincts of Stephano and Trinculo at the bottom of the social scale are matched by Sebastian and Antonio at the top of it. “Will money buy 'em?” Sebastian asks Antonio, when they first see the three lower-class rebels. “Very like,” Antonio responds, “One of them / Is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable” (5.1.264-65). Kermode asserts that “Antonio is silent” in the closing scene and that his impenitence is therefore inferrable but uncertain (ed., The Tempest lxii). But Antonio is not silent, and his last line betrays the same instinct to exploit Caliban that Stephano and Trinculo had expressed at first. One need not infer Antonio's impenitence from his silence: it speaks eloquently in his continuing lust to dominate and exploit. The fact that Prospero lacks this instinct—that he enslaves Caliban only because of what he perceives to be Caliban's mistreatment of Miranda—is one of the principal differences between the two dukes on one hand and between one of the dukes and the masterless men on the other. These differences make moral sense, but they cannot be neatly tied into deterministic class theories.

Recovering the sense of an archaic text requires more than suspicion; if the culture that produced the text was religious, as Shakespeare's was, then the quest to reconstruct historical meaning requires imagination, if not faith. Though suspicion and faith would seem to be irreconcilable, they in fact have much to offer each other, as Merold Westphal argues, and the claims of each need to be taken seriously in the process of sorting out the messy human record.21 The materialist story of The Tempest has offered persuasive insights about structural social injustice, and those insights are important to a Christian story of the play, because social justice is a serious concern of the Christian story itself. The ultimate concern of the Christian story, however, is not with cultures, social groups and classes, or political systems but with the individuals who comprise them. The moral dignity of Caliban is therefore no less important than the moral dignity of Prospero, and both depend on grace, not on social class, no matter how insistent the demands of a stratified English society may have been in the early seventeenth century. A Christian moral understanding is certainly what Prospero asks for, when he begs our indulgence as we hope to be pardoned ourselves. And it is what Caliban asks for too, in expressions of his humanity that resist demonizing and allegorizing. Caliban's determination to be wise hereafter and seek for grace would in fact seem to be the ultimate expression of anyone's humanity in The Tempest.


  1. I do not mean to suggest that Christian interpretations of the play have not been offered recently; in fact, I have learned from them. See, for example, Beauregard, Esolen, Feuer, and Tiffany. The present essay argues for the possibility of a distinctively Christian reading in the context of theoretical and practical criticism over the last fifty years. In attempting to find a way between idealist and materialist interpretations, it has affinities with Lupton's recent essay in Shakespeare Quarterly. Drawing on her Jewish heritage, Lupton suggests that, in the process of salvaging Caliban's indigenous claims, neohistoricist critics have “necessarily occluded, reduced, or secularized” the “religious foundations of the play” (20).

  2. Kermode, ed., The Tempest xxiv-lxxxviii Kermode candidly acknowledges his dependence on other critics in the same vein, and his notes are a rich mine of sources for idealist critical interpretations of The Tempest.

  3. Kermode, ed., The Tempest xxv-xxiv (on the New World) and lxxi-lxxvi (on the masque), drawing on such studies as Nicoll and Welsford.

  4. Orgel, “New Uses,” and Orgel, ed., The Tempest 13n2. Quotations of The Tempest in this essay are from Orgel's edition, with act, scene, and line numbers indicated in the text. The most thoughtful examination of one scholar's transition from idealist to materialist understanding of The Tempest is in Pierce, “Understanding.” See also Pierce, “'Very Like.”

  5. I take the term “occlude” in this context from Barker and Hulme. In general, however, my summary of the materialist story is not taken from any particular source but more or less accurately represents points in many materialist stories about The Tempest, including Brown, Cartelli, Cheyfitz, Erlich, Greenblatt, Hawkes, Hulme, and Lamming.

  6. On Caliban and various monsters in The Faerie Queene, see Kermode, ed., The Tempest, xliii; on the wild man, xxxix and lxii-lxiii, with pertinent bibliographical references in each case. More recently, see Pinciss. For a New Historicist view of monsters in The Tempest, see Burnett.

  7. According to Vaughan and Vaughan, the anagrammatic character of Caliban's name was first attributed in print to Richard Farmer by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens in their 1778 edition of The Tempest (30). It is repeated by virtually every subsequent editor of the play. Shakespeare's debt to Montaigne was first noted by Edward Capell in 1780 (Vaughan and Vaughan 47). John Florio's translation of Montaigne's essay (published in 1603) is reprinted as Appendix D in Orgel, ed., The Tempest 227-38.

  8. This critique of what Prospero does to Caliban's religious life is not mentioned in any of the materialist criticism of The Tempest that I have read. It nonetheless illustrates what can be gained from a materialist account in the process of constructing a religiously informed critique.

  9. On this point materialist critics and psychoanalytic critics agree, though they disagree on much else. For a perceptive analysis of the differences between them (written from the point of view of a psychoanalytic critic), see Skura. Whereas the materialists see Prospero's paranoia as racist and colonialist (Barker and Hulme 202, for example), Skura sees it as primarily sexual—an upwelling of repressed incestuous desire (60-61).

  10. For Marx's use of the “foundation” metaphor, see his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Marx 29:262-63). My understanding of this point has been greatly assisted by Lash 112-24.

  11. While the narrative quality of Christian affirmation would seem to be self-evident from the Bible, it has recently received a good deal of thoughtful attention from theologians. For a useful summary, see Wright 83-92. My thinking has also been influenced by O'Donovan's argument that the shape of Christian ethics is the shape of the Resurrection story.

  12. Quoted from The Geneva Bible. Most of Shakespeare's biblical allusions are from this source.

  13. More precisely, Orgel rejects what he sees as the sentimentality of taking seriously the reconciliation and restoration at the end of the play. In this judgment he is reacting to a critique of his early article about The Tempest (“New Uses”) by Berger, who refers to Orgel's article as “the best defense of this sentimental reading known to me” (254). Berger's perceptive questions about the play have been influential in subsequent deconstructive readings, including postcolonial readings.

  14. For a persuasive analysis of Prospero's forgiveness as specifically attributable to grace (i.e., not the expected result of lifelong character formation, much less of political calculation), see de Grazia.

  15. For a better explanation of the difference between Antonio and Alonso, see Hunter 239-41.

  16. Lupton offers a thoughtful analysis of Caliban's complex identity as a “creature,” but it is not clear that in her analysis he is as fully human as the Europeans who invade his island. I would argue that The Tempest bestows fuller human status on Caliban than phrases like a “chaotic exception … within the cosmos of Adam” or a “creature … deprived of the imago dei” seem to allow (Lupton 3, 21).

  17. Caliban's age was first calculated by Luce based on 1.2.53 and 269-84 (xxxiv). For discussion see Taylor 140-41 and Orgel, ed., The Tempest 28nl and 1.2.279n.

  18. The extent to which perception governs responses to The Tempest is evident in the Vaughans' description of Caliban. Despite their incisive discussion of his essential humanity, they uncritically repeat reductive idealist truisms—that he “lacks moral perception,” “has no moral awareness,” and “is enslaved by his own desires” (17). They also twice describe him as “crawling” from his cave (16), when the Folio stage direction reads simply, “Enter Caliban” (1.2.320).

  19. Orgel details how “Caliban's accusations against Prospero of usurpation and enslavement reveal an unexpected solidity” in the immediate political context (ed., The Tempest 36-38).

  20. Cf. McDonald: “On the very issues that have most deeply concerned materialist critics and their American cousins—power, social and political hierarchy, the theatre as a political instrument, freedom of action, education, and race—The Tempest is at its most elusive and complicated” (27).

  21. For a reading of The Tempest that takes seriously the claims of faith as well Renaissance suspicion (in the form of Montaigne), see Kirsch.

Works Cited

Barker, Francis, and Peter Hulme. ‘“Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish: The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest.Drakakis 191-205.

Beauregard, David N. “New Light on Shakespeare's Catholicism: Prospero's Epilogue in The Tempest.Renascence 49 (1997): 159-74.

Berger, Harry, Jr. “Miraculous Harp: A Reading of Shakespeare's Tempest.Shakespeare Studies 5 (1967): 253-83.

Brown, Paul. ‘“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism.” Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985. 48-71.

Burnett, Mark Thornton. ‘“Strange and Woonderfull Syghts: The Tempest and the Discourses of Monstrosity.” Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997): 187-99.

Cartelli, Thomas. “Prospero in Africa: The Tempest as Colonialist Text and Pretext.” Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Ed. Jean Howard and Marion O'Conner. New York: Methuen, 1987. 99-115.

Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Cox, John D. “Renaissance Power and Stuart Dramaturgy: Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden.” Comparative Drama 22 (1988-89): 323-58.

Cox, John D. Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.

de Grazia, Margreta. “The Tempest: Gratuitous Movement or Action without Kibes and Pinches.” Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 249-65.

Drakakis, John, ed. Alternative Shakespeares. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Erlich, Bruce. “Shakespeare's Colonial Metaphor: On the Social Function of Theatre in The Tempest.Science and Society 41 (1977): 43-65.

Esolen, Anthony M. ‘“The Isles Shall Wait for His Law: Isaiah and The Tempest.Studies in Philology 94 (1997): 221-47.

Feuer, Lois. “Happy Families: Repentance and Restoration in The Tempest and the Joseph Narrative.” Philological Quarterly 76 (1997): 271-87.

The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1969.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century.” Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. New York: Routledge, 1990. 16-39.

Hawkes, Terence. “Swisser-Swatter: Making a Man of English Letters.” Drakakis 26-46.

Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797. London: Methuen, 1986.

Hunter, Robert G. Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness. New York: Columbia UP, 1965.

Kermode, Frank, ed. The Tempest. By William Shakespeare. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1954.

Kirsch, Arthur. “Virtue, Vice, and Compassion in Montaigne and The Tempest.Studies in English Literature 37 (1997): 337-52.

Lamming, George. “A Monster, a Child, a Slave.” The Pleasures of Exile. London: Michael Joseph, 1960. 95-117.

Lash, Nicholas. A Matter of Hope: A Theologian's Reflections on the Thought of Karl Marx. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1982.

Luce, Morton, ed. The Tempest. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1901.

Lupton, Julia Reinhard. “Creature Caliban.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51 (2000): 1-23.

Marx, Karl. Collected Works. 46 vols. New York: International, 1976-.

Maus, Katherine Eisaman. “Arcadia Lost: Politics and Revision in the Restoration Tempest.Renaissance Drama 13 (1982): 189-209.

McDonald, Russ. “Reading The Tempest.Shakespeare Survey 43 (1990): 15-28.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Ed. Edward Surtz, S. J. and J. H. Hexter. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.

Nicoll, Allardyce. Stuart Masqes and the Renaissance Stage. New York: Harcourt, 1938.

O'Donovan, Oliver. Resurrection and Moral Order. Leicester: Inter-Varsity; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Orgel, Stephen. The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the Renaissance. Berkeley: U of California P, 1975.

Orgel, Stephen. “New Uses of Adversity: Tragic Experience in The Tempest.In Defense of Reading. Ed. Reuben A. Brower and Richard Poirier. New York: Dutton, 1962. 110-32.

Orgel, Stephen. “Platonic Politics.” Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court. Ed. Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong. 2 vols. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. 1:49-75.

Orgel, Stephen, ed. The Tempest. By William Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Pierce, Robert. “Understanding The Tempest.NLH [New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation] 30 (1999): 373-88.

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

Pinciss, G. M. “The Savage Man in Spenser, Shakespeare and Renaissance English Drama.” Ed. G. R. Hibbard. The Elizabethan Theatre VIII. Port Credit (Ontario): P. D. Meany, 1982 for 1979. 69-89.

Sharp, Sister Corona. “Caliban: The Primitive Man's Evolution.” Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 267-83.

Skura, Meredith Anne. “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 42-69.

Taylor, Mark. Shakespeare's Darker Purpose: A Question of Incest. New York: AMS, 1982.

Tiffany, Grace. “Calvinist Grace in Shakespeare's Romances: Upending Tragedy.” Christianity and Literature 49 (2000): 421-45.

Vaughan, Alden T., and Virginia Mason Vaughan. Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Welsford, Enid. The Court Masque: A Study in the Relationship between Poetry and the Revels. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1927.

Westphal, Merold. Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Wright, T. R. Theology and Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.

Richard Hornby (review date winter 2001)

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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. Instead, they exhibit the opposite sin, laissez-faire directing, so loose and casual that you wonder if they bother to show up for rehearsals.

Most Globe productions have lacked focus and clarity. The actors are proficient, especially in their speech; one of Rylance's genuinely good ideas was to assign a “Master of Verse,” in charge of speech for each production, in addition to a director, or “Master of Play,” resulting in the best verse speaking you are likely to hear on any stage today. Unfortunately, however, the staging rarely matches the speech; actors wander around the huge Globe platform looking lost and confused, with no coherent groupings or patterns of movement. Blocking is so random that it can even vary from performance to performance, which would be disagreeable even in a naturalistic play, but for ritualistic, formal drama like that of Shakespeare and his contemporaries is a disaster. How strange that Rylance and his associates are so concerned about effective speaking and so casual about effective action!

The problem of underdirection was most apparent in the key production last summer, an eagerly-awaited version of The Tempest. For several years now, I have been urging the Globe Theatre Company to find a star for one of the great, charismatic Shakespearean roles. (Ensemble acting has been an ideal in the theatre for over a century, but, like it or not, many of Shakespeare's greatest plays were written not as ensemble pieces but as vehicles for a star, Richard Burbage.) Bringing in Vanessa Redgrave to play Prospero in The Tempest is not exactly what I had in mind. Yet Redgrave is undoubtedly a great actress, capable of performing any number of major Shakespeare roles, male or female, with panache. Physically, she can do anything. She is after all over six feet tall, and has a vigorous, low, resonant voice. There is a masculine edge to her acting, which in no way detracts from her sexual attractiveness to men (at least to me!), but which can easily be adapted to an out-and-out male role. Furthermore, although she holds some notoriously weird political views, she is extremely intelligent. For example, a few years ago she rescued Tennessee Williams' early work Not About Nightingales from oblivion, inspiring a superb production at the Royal National Theatre of a play that even Williams scholars had written off.

Her intelligence seemed to be dozing, however, when she brought in Lenka Udovicki, a colleague in Redgrave's Moving Theatre Company, to be Master of Play. (Even women are “Masters” at the Globe.) Redgrave was beautifully spoken, intense, rancorous, paternal, forgiving, and lyrical as Prospero, but she was sabotaged at every turn by Udovicki's slapdash production. The blocking was random and busy. The old stage axiom of never moving when someone else is speaking was broken constantly, so that whenever there was a set speech, like Gonzalo's ruminations on the “commonwealth” he would like to rule, it would be upstaged by actors wandering about like tourists in a cathedral. Similarly, the loud music in the opening scene, to create the effect of a storm, managed to drown out the dialog entirely. Furthermore, a lot of Udovicki's invented business just did not work. She had Redgrave twirl Prospero's magic staff, for example, which looked awkward even when she succeeded, but looked ridiculous when she dropped it, as she did twice during the performance I attended. I said that Redgrave can do anything physically, but she should probably avoid playing drum majorettes.

The costumes, however, were an even bigger disaster than the staging. Designed by Udovicki's compatriot Bjanka Ursulov (both are from the former Yugoslavia), they were not only ugly, but counter-productive. Kanunu Kirimi as Miranda, for example, wore a loose, baggy, beige ensemble that made her look drab and desexed. The effect was intensified by having her carry around a stuffed animal, so that she looked like a homely little child. When Ferdinand fell in love with her, he seemed like a pervert who lacked even good taste.

Similarly, Redgrave herself was dressed in random layers like a bag lady, with a black jersey, an old tweed jacket, a loose padded vest, baggy pants, and even gloves with the fingers cut off. In fact, Prospero specifically tells Miranda that when they were exiled, Gonzalo was able to provide them with “Rich garments, linens, stuffs, and necessaries” (I.ii.164). Costumes were always the most important visual element on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage; here Shakespeare provides an excuse for Prospero and Miranda to look gorgeous. Dressing them like bums was typical of this jerry-built production, which was not only underconceptualized but uncontrolled.

Yet it was good, at last, to see an actor with genuine star power and attractiveness on the Globe stage. Redgrave can dominate a theatre, even when its stage is a big empty platform in partial shadow. Prospero must command. With his magical powers, he can control spirits, strike people helpless or put them to sleep, or order them about so that they must obey. With Redgrave, you never doubted his authority; she moves so well, with that long, smooth stride, and speaks with such clarity and focus, that her Prospero seemed magisterial. She was also particularly good in her fatherly relationship with Miranda. One of the ironies of acting is that the more intensely you can relate to other actors, the more focus you draw upon yourself. Great actors all have the ability to look their partners in the eyes, to talk directly to them, and to listen for every nuance of their speech. Redgrave was wonderfully absorbed in Kirimi's Miranda, and hence was wonderfully compelling to us.

Further Reading

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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. 284-311. London: Constable and Company, 1937.

Survey of plot, character, and theme in The Tempest.

Donaldson, Peter S. “Shakespeare in the Age of Post-Mechanical Reproduction: Sexual and Electronic Magic in Prospero's Books.” In Shakespeare, The Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video, edited by Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt, pp. 169-85. London: Routledge, 1997.

Highlights themes of authorial creation and masculine control of female sexuality foregrounded in Prospero's Books, Peter Greenaway's cinematic adaptation of The Tempest.

Ebner, Dean. “The Tempest: Rebellion and the Ideal State.” Shakespeare Quarterly 16, no. 2 (spring 1965): 161-73.

Stresses a combined political and Christian theme in The Tempest involving the disruption of an ideal state by the revolt of evil men.

Gillies, John. “Shakespeare's Virginian Masque.” ELH 53, no. 4 (winter 1986): 673-707.

Studies the masque-like and New World inspired imagery and contexts of The Tempest.

Hoeniger, F. D. “Prospero's Storm and Miracle.” Shakespeare Quarterly 7, no. 1 (winter 1956): 33-8.

Focuses on the figure of Prospero and the theme of reconciliation in The Tempest.

James, Heather. “Dido's Ear: Tragedy and the Politics of Response.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 3 (fall 2001): 360-82.

Remarks on the significance of allusions to Vergil's Dido in The Tempest and other Shakespearean dramas.

Kott, Jan. “The Tempest, or Repetition” and “The Aeneid and The Tempest.” In The Bottom Translation: Marlowe and Shakespeare and the Carnival Tradition, pp. 69-132. Evanston, III.: Northwestern University Press, 1987.

Illuminates classical references and allusions in The Tempest.

Lamb, Mary Ellen. “Engendering the Narrative Act: Old Wives' Tales in The Winter's Tale, Macbeth, and The Tempest.Criticism 40, no. 4 (fall 1998): 529-53.

Documents Shakespeare's invocation of female oral tradition in The Tempest and two other dramas.

Leithauser, Brad. Review of The Tempest. Time 146 (20 November 1995): 119.

Admires Patrick Stewart's skillful Prospero, but finds the overall production emotionally flat and simplified.

Magnusson, A. Lynne. “Interruption in The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly 37, no. 1 (spring 1986): 52-65.

Traces patterns of interruption in the plot and language of The Tempest.

McAlindon, Tom. “The Discourse of Prayer in The Tempest.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41, no. 2 (spring 2001): 335-55.

Chronicles curses and pious exclamations in The Tempest.

Morrison, James V. “Shipwreck Encounters: Odyssean Wanderings, The Tempest, and the Post-colonial World.” Classical and Modern Literature 20, no. 4 (fall 2000): 59-90.

Examines literary depictions of shipwreck in Homer's Odyssey and Shakespeare's Tempest as mechanisms of plot and character development.

Mowat, Barbara A. “Prospero's Book.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 1-33.

Speculates about Prospero's magic book in The Tempest by drawing evidence from actual conjuring books of the late sixteenth century.

Netto, Jeffrey A. “Sensuous Games: The Iconography of Chess in The Tempest.” In Shakespeare and Intertextuality: The Transition of Cultures Between Italy and England in the Early Modern Period, edited by Michele Marrapodi, pp. 281-91. Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 2000.

Views the chess match between Ferdinand and Miranda in Act V, scene i of The Tempest as a locus of self-reflexivity and intertextuality in the drama.

O'Dair, Sharon. “‘Burn But His Books’: Intellectual Domination in The Tempest.” In Class, Critics, and Shakespeare: Bottom Lines on the Culture Wars, pp. 23-41. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Uses The Tempest as a catalyst for a discussion of intellectual and class divisions in the contemporary United States.

Schneider, Ben Ross, Jr. “‘Are We Being Historical Yet?’: Colonialist Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tempest.Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 120-45.

Argues that new historicist interpretations of The Tempest as a text concerned with colonialism have thus far only inadequately addressed the issue.

Simonds, Peggy Muñoz. “‘My Charms Crack Not’: The Alchemical Structure of The Tempest.Comparative Drama 31, no. 4 (winter 1997-98): 538-70.

Contends that Prospero was an alchemist in addition to being a magician, and that a symbolic pattern of nine steps analogous to those of an alchemical process can be traced in The Tempest.

Skura, Meredith Anne. “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly 40, no. 1 (spring 1989): 42-69.

New historicist interpretation of The Tempest that analyzes the drama as a text that “enacts” colonialist discourse.

Slights, Jessica. “Rape and the Romanticization of Shakespeare's Miranda.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41, no. 2 (spring 2001): 357-79.

Responds to materialist and poststructuralist interpretations of The Tempest by presenting an analysis of Miranda's character that grants her “moral agency” in the drama.

Smith, Irwin. “Ariel and the Masque in The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly 21, no. 3 (summer 1970): 213-22.

Maintains that the masque scene in contemporary versions of The Tempest did not appear as such in Shakespeare's original version of the play.

Vaughan, Alden T. “Shakespeare's Indian: The Americanization of Caliban.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, no. 2 (summer 1988): 137-53.

Emphasizes the status of Caliban as a possible representation of early seventeenth-century English perceptions of American natives.

Wells, Robin Headlam. “Blessing Europe: Virgil, Ovid and Seneca in The Tempest.” In Shakespeare and Intertextuality: The Transition of Cultures Between Italy and England in the Early Modern Period, edited by Michele Marrapodi, pp. 69-84. Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 2000.

Elucidates colonist readings of The Tempest through reference to the Aeneid and Seneca's Hercules Furens.

Wymer, Rowland. “The Tempest and the Origins of Britain.” Critical Survey 11, no. 1 (1999): 3-14.

Suggests possible connections between The Tempest and cultural myths related to ancient British history.

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