Among Shakespeare's last plays, The Tempest (c. 1611) is generally categorized as romance and frequently interpreted as his farewell to dramatic art. Considered to be one of Shakespeare's most original plays, no source for the central plot has been definitively identified. The Tempest is set in an unidentified age on an unnamed island, which some critics have suggested evokes themes of European colonialism in the New World. The plot centers on the magician Prospero, exiled Duke of Milan, who has been unfairly deposed and set adrift in the ocean with his daughter Miranda. After arriving on the island he uses magic to free the fairy-like Ariel and enslave the bestial Caliban. Prospero then punishes his usurpers, his brother Antonio and King Alonso of Naples, by luring them to the island and destroying their ship in a magical storm. After exacting his vengeance, Prospero closes the drama with a gesture of reconciliation by announcing the union of his daughter and Alonso's son, prince Ferdinand. In the final scene, Prospero confronts his brother, who rules in his place, and demands his dukedom back. He leaves the island under the control of Caliban, forsakes his magical powers, and returns triumphant to Milan. The character of Prospero, who some critics believe represents Shakespeare himself, has long fascinated critics, and many believe that the key to understanding the play's philosophical message lies in understanding his character.
Critical analyses of the principal characters of The Tempest has frequently sought to understand the interpersonal dynamics of the relationships among Prospero, his servants, and his daughter. Sharon Hamilton (2003) focuses on the relationship between Prospero and Miranda, and views the play, in large part, as a matter of Miranda's coming of age and betrothal. In Hamilton's reading, Prospero, her magician-father, seeks to guide Miranda through her emergence into womanhood, and in this respect proves himself to be a caring and skilled mentor and protective patriarch. Similarly, Paul A. Cantor (1980) emphasizes the wisdom and heroism of Shakespeare's Prospero, valorizing his contemplative attitude and control of his passions in surmounting threats of conspiracy and in choosing an appropriate romantic match for Miranda. Offering an allegorical approach to character in The Tempest, Grace R. W. Hall (1999) interprets the drama as Shakespeare's imaginative reworking of a medieval Mystery Play, arguing that the play shares much in common with these didactic dramas designed to instruct audiences in Christian morality. While Hall does not seek to reduce the play to an exclusionary formula, she does examine its major characters in terms of their scriptural counterparts. According to this scheme, Prospero may be aligned with Moses, the Judeo-Christian lawgiver. The pure and innocent Miranda bears a certain resemblance to the Virgin Mary, and Ferdinand willingly suffers for others in the manner of Christ. Ariel figures as an agent of divine law or Providence, Caliban a stand-in for Adam, and the remaining characters constitute a chorus of fools and doubting cynics. Presenting a more traditional survey of character in The Tempest, Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (1999) summarize the qualities of the drama's four central figures: Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban. They discuss Prospero's multiple roles as enlightened philosopher, authoritarian figure, vengeful magician, and slave master. His daughter Miranda presents herself as a somewhat demure but willful individual, who largely embodies Prospero's obsessions with chastity, fertility, and obedience. Ariel would likely have evoked ideas of angels or spirits to Jacobean audiences, the critics observe, and is indeed described as a magical sprite or nymph associated with the elements of air and water. Ariel's earthly counterpart Caliban, however, remains a much more controversial figure. A savage, possibly evocative of New World cannibals to audiences...
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