(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Tempest

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 of the early modern period, Caliban is undeniably a recalcitrant slave, whom Vaughan and Vaughan argue should be viewed as human, despite numerous theatrical interpretations that have suggested otherwise.

The considerable potential for character interpretation offered by The Tempest has made it an enticing text for contemporary directors and actors. Nevertheless, early twenty-first-century performances of the drama continue to demonstrate the widely acknowledged difficulty of satisfactorily staging this work, which relies on romance, magic, and spectacle, and requires both an eloquently realized Prospero and a strong ensemble cast. Karen Fricker reviews director Conall Morrison's 2000 production of The Tempest at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, finding its exaggerated metatheatrical themes overdone, and its superficial references to political unrest in Northern Ireland out of place. While noting that individual performances by its cast members were generally good, Fricker laments the failure of Lorcan Cranitch's “inconclusive” Prospero to unite the cast and effectively orchestrate the action of the play. According to critic Matt Wolf, Vanessa Redgrave proved to be a disappointing Prospero in the 2000 staging of the drama directed by Lenka Udovicki at the Globe Theater in London. Wolf contends that the solid supporting cast, including excellent comic performances by actors in the roles of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano, failed to save this production. Wolf's assessment of another Tempest, (see Further Reading) under the direction of Jonathan Kent in 2001 at the Almeida Theater, again suggests the central importance of Prospero to the drama on stage. Skillfully played by Ian McDiarmid, Prospero delivered a vital performance matched by an elaborately designed stage, which Wolf considers a mirror into Prospero's clouded psyche. Amy Rosenthal deems director Michael Grandage's 2003 Tempest, after its transfer from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield to the Old Vic in London, far less inspired. Overly traditional in the critic's view, this staging suffered from a somewhat uneven cast, save for a compelling Daniel Evans in the role of Ariel. In her final assessment, Rosenthal contends that the production was only partially redeemed by its emotionally satisfying, if conventional, ending. Colonialist themes predominated in another 2003 production of the drama by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In his review, Thomas Larque commends the production and admires the strong performances by Kananu Kirimi as Ariel and Geff Francis as Caliban, noting the deftness of both actors as they emphasized their characters' exploitation by an authoritarian Prospero.

The multidimensional text of The Tempest has inspired a rich variety of critical analyses on such themes as human salvation, power, magic, and politics. Surveying the play as a whole, Charles Stephens (1994) studies its historical context, mythic resonance, political overtones, etymological signification, and concern with magic and illusion. The critic describes the work as fundamentally “a play about the salvation of ordinary individuals” from natural, supernatural, and human threats. Power is the principal focus of Alexander Leggatt's (1999) reading of The Tempest. Leggatt follows Prospero's efforts to finally surrender control of his servants, his daughter, and his enemies once he becomes aware of the ultimate emptiness of his power over others. David Daniell (1989) surveys critical approaches to The Tempest from the second half of the twentieth century, including those that emphasize a conflict between nature and art, and study allegorical, mythic, and ritual elements in the drama. John S. Mebane (1989) explores the occult context of The Tempest in its varied depiction of magic. In Mebane's interpretation, Prospero's access to supernatural forces should be viewed in terms of his closeness to divinity. The critic thus sees Prospero as a benevolent magus figure who wields redemptive powers temporarily granted by God. In the critic's view, Prospero's final act of burying his magical book and forsaking his magical knowledge, therefore, can be taken as a reminder of the limits of art and the efficacy of faith. Lastly, Kevin Pask (2002) examines the genre and politics of The Tempest. Pask describes the drama as an inversion of the pastoral tradition that displays politicized motifs of colonialist, aristocratic, and sexual domination. Identifying the drama as “counter-pastoral,” Pask emphasizes political themes associated with Caliban's conspiracy, Prospero's colonialist control of his underlings, and the magician's strict domination of his daughter's sexuality—motifs that combine to undercut the ostensibly romantic framework of The Tempest.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Stephens, Charles. “Shakespeare.” In Shakespeare's Island: Essays on Creativity, pp. 6-31. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Stephens presents an overview of The Tempest and surveys such subjects as setting, historical context, theme, and character. The critic describes the work as fundamentally “a play about the salvation of ordinary individuals” from natural, supernatural, and human threats.]

‘Frisch weht der Wind der Heimat zu.’

Tristan und Isolde

‘Oed’ und leer das Meer’


William Shakespeare's The Tempest takes place on an island surrounded on all sides by an ocean, but it is no New Atlantis or Citta del Sole. Prospero's island is not named, but it is clear that it must lie somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. Alonso's fleet was sailing from Naples to Tunis, where his daughter Claribel was to be married to the King, when Prospero's tempest caused its shipwreck. In Shakespeare's time, there was no King of Tunis. The ruler of that domain was called the Bey of Tunis. Tunis was a pirate base and part of the Ottoman Empire, whose Sultan, as recently as 1529, had laid siege to Vienna. In the following year, his fleet wintered in Toulon. Philip II, who mounted an ‘armada’ against England in 1588 and on two subsequent occasions, spent most of the early part of his reign conducting campaigns against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean and on the North African littoral. The capture of Tunis was one of the principal objectives of this latterday crusade.

A fleet sailing from Naples to Tunis would be most likely to be wrecked on the western coast of Sicily. Sicily was an island associated with witchcraft, and oddly enough it was the base of Aleister Crowley's commune, Cefalu, but it seems too large for the island in Shakespeare's play. The Mediterranean, as St Paul knew, is subject to violent storms and one of these could have blown Alonso's fleet onto the rocks of Malta where, between 1530 and 1565, the Knights of St John withstood a fierce siege by the Ottomans. The raising of that siege was a turning point in the contest between Christianity and Islam in the Mediterranean. Six years later Don John of Austria defeated the Sultan's fleet at the battle of Lepanto (1571). Although no mention of Islam is made in The Tempest, it is inconceivable that Shakespeare and his audiences were not aware that Prospero's island was situated in the ‘Dar-al-Islam’. Philip II, the victor of Lepanto and most tenacious antagonist of the Ottoman Sultan, was also King of Naples.

The Tempest has often been associated with the ‘new’ world discovered by Columbus. This is mistaken. The sea which Prospero commands Ariel to conjure into a storm is the Mediterranean, the mare nostrum of the Romans, not the Atlantic. From the seventh century till the present, that sea, in which the adventures of Odysseus, Aeneas and St Paul took place, has been divided between Christian and Muslim. Prospero's island is therefore situated in the finis terrae of Christendom, the place at which everything can be understood, or not, as the case might be.

In The Tempest, ‘nature’ is represented by the ocean which encompasses Prospero's island. It is also embodied in the figure of Sycorax, the mother of Caliban. To the protagonists of The Tempest, ‘nature’, like Islam in the cosmology of a sixteenth century European, is categorically the ‘other’. It is alien, dangerous and emphatically not part of the human world. The action of Shakespeare's play takes place within the circle of human society, the realm of ‘creativity’. The audience is left with no illusions as to what lies beyond the edge of that circle. Intriguingly, ‘God’ is also set outside the bounds of the play. The nature of whatever ‘God’ presides over the cosmos of which Prospero's island is a part remains completely opaque. It is even arguable that Sycorax's ‘mistress’ or ‘master’ has some kind of theological role in the scheme of things, but this is not made clear. There are no priests, and no hierophants, in The Tempest. Prospero is a Magus, a very different creature. Although there is considerable evidence of Christian values in the play, it is unclear whether they are present because they are part of the human worlds of society and ‘creativity’ or because they have some transcendental sanction.

For all of its magic and its attendant spirits, The Tempest, like King Lear and indeed most of Shakespeare's plays, is resolutely non-transcendental and non-clerical. Shakespeare's metaphysics, such as they are, seem to be closer to those of Ovid than those of St Augustine or St Thomas Aquinas. Oddly, the one obvious orthodox Christian theological reference in the play is developed in a very unorthodox manner indeed. A case can be made for the idea that Prospero, Miranda and Ariel represent the three elements of the Christian Trinity. It is striking for instance how, in Act One Scene Two, Miranda ‘intervenes’ on behalf of the sailors in the shipwreck with her Godlike Father. Nonetheless, Prospero, Miranda and Ariel make up a very strange ‘image’ of the Trinity. Prospero is a very unsatisfactory ‘God’. Ariel owes more to the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage, a fifteenth century goetic manuscript with which Shakespeare may have been familiar, than to the Paraclete. Miranda, like Proust's Albertine, may be a young girl in a budding grove, but she is not the most obvious orthodox symbol of God made flesh. However, like Proust and Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare had somewhat unconventional views about young girls. Unlike them, he saw them as vehicles of grace rather than fantasy.

In Shakespeare's ‘last’ plays, daughters are vehicles of redemption, as well as future vessels of profane love. In Pericles, it is Marina, despite the abuse to which she is subjected by her father and the world, who brings about the harmony which prevails at the end of the play. Though Cordelia cannot save her erring father Lear, her death helps him to regain his humanity and equilibrium. Perdita and Imogen in The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline are instrumental in the resolution of the conflicts which have led their parents and kingdoms to the brink of chaos and catastrophe. At the end of Henry VIII, Shakespeare's last play, the infant Elizabeth, who is born to Anne Boleyn and baptised by the ill-fated Thomas Cranmer, is presented as an adumbration of Astraea. For Shakespeare, daughters are the healers of harms. It was no accident that the breakdown of Lear's relationship with his daughters led to the virtual destruction of his kingdom and his people. The ‘blasted heath’ is a symbol of the collapse of society and the dominion of violence, a state in which all men and women are subject to ‘necessity's sharp pinch’. Richard III, Macbeth, Claudius, Henry IV, Coriolanus and King John commit crimes against their male peers and the ‘law’ of society. The consequences of their actions are dire and fatal to themselves, but they do not bring their realms to the brink of a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’. By breaking his bond with his daughters, Lear precipitates a catastrophe which threatens to bring about the end of ‘civilisation’ and unleash the unmediated tyranny of brute nature. The daughter, like the ‘Great Goddess’ of ancient times, is the guarantor of mankind's survival. Her violation is the greatest crime of all. …

The absence of mothers in The Tempest, with the egregious exception of Sycorax, strikes an ominous note which echoes the miserable relationships which develop within the motherless families of Pericles, Cymbeline and Lear. The bitterly divided family of Leontes who, oddly enough, is King of Sicily, is effectively motherless. Hermione's return from the dead and Perdita's return from the lost provide a ‘fairytale’ ending which serves to emphasise the family catastrophes which can follow the death or loss of a mother. It is tempting to see Shakespeare's ‘Mediterranean’ plays, The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, as complementary stories. One concerns a father, Prospero, who loses his wife through death and keeps a daughter. The other is about a father, Leontes, who casts out his wife because of irrational jealousy, suffers the death of a son, and also loses a daughter. Prospero saves himself by his own renunciation of power and revenge and by giving away his daughter in marriage to the son of one of his oppressors. Leontes is saved, despite himself, by the long-suffering love of his wife and the fortunate marriage of his daughter to Florizel, the heir of the King of Bohemia.

Both The Tempest and The Winter's Tale end in marriages and a welter of images of nature's abundance. These ‘happy endings’ are qualified by the knowledge that life will continue; Prospero will return to Milan, Miranda and Ferdinand to Naples. ‘They lived happily ever after’ is no more than a trite sentiment in this context. It is more than likely that they will not or that, at the least, their ‘happiness’ will be tarnished by cares and disputes. The putative ‘creativity’ of the young love and young marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda is severely tempered by one's knowledge of how fathers such as Leontes, Pericles, Cymbeline and Lear can blight the promise of ‘golden lads and girls’.

The destructive influence of the politics of Shakespeare's day on the hopes borne of royal marriages, seen notoriously in the fate of the marriage between Henry of Navarre and Marguerite of Anjou (1572), which was ‘celebrated’ by the Massacre of St Bartholemew, and, perhaps more relevantly, in that of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick of the Palatinate (1613) which ended tragically in the Battle of the White Mountain (1620), must qualify the ‘happy ending’ of the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, royal marriages could be very mixed blessings. The marriage between Henry VIII's sister Margaret and James IV of Scotland in 1502 led, eventually, as intended, to the Union of Crowns which took place in 1603 when James VI and I ascended to the throne of England. However, only a loyal Jacobite would argue that the Stuarts were anything other than a devious and mediocre dynasty who visited unacceptable foreign alliances with Catholic powers, civil war and revolution on their subjects. Though James VI and I married a good Protestant in Anne of Denmark, Charles I married a French Catholic, Charles II a Portuguese Catholic and James VII and II an Italian Catholic. These marriages menaced the legitimate Protestant interests of the English and Scottish people.

James VI and I, a homosexual who nonetheless granted his wife her conjugal rights to the extent of fathering four children on her, would have been one of the first to see The Tempest, whose ‘masque-like’ quality owed a great deal to the fact that it was intended for royal performance. The marriage of Margaret Tudor and James IV eventually had something of the happy ending intended for that between Ferdinand and Miranda, the union of Scotland and England finding its echo in that between Naples and Milan. However, James' mother, Mary Queen of Scots, the granddaughter of Margaret and James IV, had a grimmer time of it. Her marriages to Francis II of France, Darnley and Bothwell destroyed her authority and disrupted the peace of her realm. Mary I of England's marriage to Philip II, another King of Naples, who was also Duke of Milan, did her little good since he was unable to provide her with the only thing that she needed, a child. Henry VIII also went to great and infamous lengths to acquire an heir. Mary I was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, who was in turn the niece of Charles V, at that time King of Naples and Duke of Milan. Anne Boleyn, who displaced Catherine in Henry's bed and the Pope from his allegiance, produced Elizabeth. Henry eventually obtained a son from Jane Seymour whose uncle, the Vice-Admiral of England, raped Elizabeth thus denying her the status of ‘virgin intacta’. Elizabeth, who was Shakespeare's Queen, never married and to that fact she owed the greater part of her political success. Though not a true virgin, she could play the part of Astraea and the Fairy Queen to perfection. Elizabeth I started out as a piece of ‘soiled goods’ whose mother was executed for adultery. She ended up as a ‘Virgin Queen’ who had had a few lovers on the way. It was a remarkable, and politically astute, performance.

Though Miranda will become a Queen when she marries Ferdinand, it is unlikely that she will be another Elizabeth I. As Prospero, and the prothalamium which he provides, both make clear, she is a ‘virgin intacta’, the image of Astraea. During The Tempest, Miranda is what Elizabeth I made herself out, and made herself up, to be. However, when she returns to Naples with her husband, her ‘virgin-knot’, so vehemently guarded by her father, will finally be broken and she will become an ordinary woman. Whatever the political or personal fate of her marriage, Miranda will lose the aura which makes her shine like an Artemis in the temenos of the island. Such is the nature of the ‘real’ world to which Prospero and his companions return when the ‘indulgence’ of their audiences releases them from the ‘paradise’ of the island.

Ariel, released at last from the thraldom of Prospero's dominion, also returns to the ‘real’ world, but his ‘reality’ is not that which awaits Prospero, Alonso, their children and the others. Ariel's world is a realm to which humans, in this case Prospero, only gain access by means of ‘magic’, an art so potent that it can grant communion with whatever exists beyond the veil of appearances. Ariel is a mediator between the realm of divinity and that of mankind. In Shakespeare's day, Dr John Dee had traffic, a deal of it, with angels. Dee evolved a system of magic, called Enochian and still practised today, which facilitated intercourse with these ‘spirits’. Another source for such knowledge, with which Dee would certainly have been familiar, was the fifteenth century French translation of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage.

Shakespeare probably visited Dee's house in Mortlake, which is just west of Barnes and Roehampton and a mile to the north of Richmond Park. A warm summer evening outing on the river, ending in a drink or a meal with Dee at Mortlake, a little village at the river's edge surrounded by countryside, would make a pleasant escape from the stews of Southwark and the cares of the theatre. On one of these outings, Dee might have shown Shakespeare some of his books, including the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage. The figures of Prospero and Ariel may have taken their first bow on the stage of the playwright's mind as he rowed back up the river to London in the grey and violet of a midsummer dusk, conjured, as it were, from the ‘baseless fabric’ of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage.

The ‘Abra-Melin’ magic, as it is known to its aficionados, is the single most potent ritual that has come down from the ‘grimoires’ of the Middle Ages. The successful worker of the magic summons up, from within himself, his ‘holy guardian angel’ and is then granted power to manipulate and control all the orders of demons and angels in the universe. The great peril of the Abra-Melin magic is that one slip, in purity of mind or body, lays the practitioner open to the violence of these demons and makes it likely that he will be devoured by them. In the course of the practice of the Abra-Melin magic, fires, storms and earthquakes are liable to occur spontaneously. The magic must be practised, for these and other reasons, in an oratory set up in a very secluded place which has unobstructed access from all four points of the compass. Prospero's island would be a perfect venue for a practitioner of the Abra-Melin magic. Many of the events that take place in the play—the tempest itself, the Masque with its cast of ‘sylphs’ and ‘undines’ and the chthonic rebellion of the ‘gnomish’ elementals Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo—are characteristic of the phenomena which are, reputedly, manifested during the practice of the Abra-Melin magic.

Indeed, Ariel's name, with its plain suggestion of Hebrew and Hermeticism, comes straight out of the tables of ‘angelic intelligences’ listed in the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage. The numerous ‘quality’ which accompany Ariel, his powers over the elements and his capacity to manipulate the ‘reality’ of the island, indicate incontrovertibly the type of entity with which Prospero is having intercourse. Few practitioners have ever completed the Abra-Melin magic and none have emerged unscathed. Not a few, it is said, have spontaneously combusted. The Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage was translated into English by McGregor Mathers and became one of the ‘secrets’ of the Golden Dawn. Only Aleister Crowley dared to invoke the ‘intelligences’ to which practice of the rituals gave access, in order that he might, as he put it, ‘have conversation with his Holy Guardian Angel’. Crowley, a man who managed to fit Prospero, Trinculo, Stephano, Antonio, Sebastian, Ariel and Caliban into a single soul, performed the ritual on two occasions, at Boleskine, near Foyers, on the eastern shore of Loch Ness, in 1900, and in Yunnan, in south-western China, in 1906. On both occasions, he was obliged to break off his devotions before their proper conclusion. The consequences, as he admitted, were serious. It is tempting to attribute the catastrophic turn taken by Crowley's fortunes after 1908 to the attentions of ‘demons’. He certainly lived a life in which the phenomena of The Tempest were routine. It is small wonder that Prospero chooses to break his staff and bury his books and no surprise that he should seem to be a broken man by the end of the play.

Intercourse with angels and demons is the most sublime and potent of all the arts known to mankind. It is also touched with the marks of the forbidden and the illegitimate. Its fascination, for the ambitious or the curious, as the case of Crowley indicates, has not abated since Shakespeare's time. Orthodox belief in God may have declined, but enthusiasm for magic, by those who believe in no Gods, or in many, has never been greater. The services of Ariel, and his ‘quality’, however they are acquired, will always be valued and will always exact their traditional price from those who avail themselves of them.

The powers of Ariel's behest create the magical illusions of the island which work Prospero's purpose, but, like those of the Abra-Melin magic, they could, if wrongly handled, destroy the island, illusions, people, everything. Prospero can call up a storm to wreck a fleet of ships, but that same elemental power could turn on him and rend him. One can only guess what might have happened if Prospero had reneged on his pact with Ariel. If the ‘Sacred Magic’ is any guide then the consequences of such a betrayal would make the storm in King Lear seem like an April shower. Ariel would very likely unleash a fury which could be compared, using the crude terminology of the second half of the twentieth century, with the detonation of a modest thermo-nuclear device.

In many ways, Ariel is a more fearsome creature than Caliban. Oddly, Prospero, the great Magus, is more frightened of Caliban. He shows no fear of Ariel, which probably explains his success as a practitioner of magic. Ariel and his ‘cerulean’ world is, up to a point, familiar territory for a man like Prospero who is accustomed to staring into space and watching the clouds go by. Caliban's ‘earthy’ universe is one on which he has no purchase other than that provided by fear and the threat, and use, of violence. Prospero is too canny and too assured of his skill to make any slips with Ariel, but it is different with Caliban. He fears that his decidedly unsubtle control over his chthonic servant could break at any moment. Were it to do so, he has no doubt that he would be murdered and Miranda would be raped, and then bear a brood of Calibans. Interestingly, Prospero's hatred of Caliban is fully shared by his otherwise ‘decorative’ daughter, who abuses Caliban as fulsomely as Scarlett O'Hara would have cursed a black plantation worker at Tara. It is hard to avoid the impression that Prospero and his daughter react to the ‘threat’ of Caliban with a degree of hysteria that is absent from their dealings with the other inhabitants of the island. Their assessment of Caliban is at odds with that of others, Trinculo and Stephano for instance, who see him as a comic fairground monster that reeks of rotting fish rather than a ravening beast. One is driven to conclude that Prospero is ‘protesting too much’ about the wickedness of a slave whom he seems to abuse so wantonly as to invite, even insist on, a response of rebellion and revenge.

Caliban represents ‘nature’ in its most atavistic form. Whereas man seems inclined, out of curiosity and a need for power, to traffic with the realm of ‘God’ through familiar spirits such as Ariel, he would often prefer, if he had the choice, to divorce himself altogether from ‘nature’. It is no accident that Caliban is always complaining of cramps, pinches, sores and fevers. ‘Nature’ subjects the flesh to disease, deformity and death. Human beings prefer to see ‘nature’ in her fruitful, beneficent aspect. ‘Ceres’ in the Masque which Prospero, with the vivid assistance of Ariel, presents as a prothalamium for Ferdinand and Miranda is an emblem of this sub-Theocritan view of ‘nature’ in which nymphs and shepherds disport themselves prettily. It is no accident that the Arcadian illusion of the Masque should be broken up by Caliban who represents ‘nature’, in her most atavistic, and characteristic, guise.


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Paul A. Cantor (essay date spring 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cantor, Paul A. “Shakespeare's The Tempest: The Wise Man as Hero.” Shakespeare Quarterly 31, no. 1 (spring 1980): 64-75.

[In the following essay, Cantor probes Shakespeare's depiction of Prospero as the contemplative hero of The Tempest, a figure who displaces the drama's conspiratorial, comic, and romantic subplots in favor of his philosophical return to power.]

‘Go to the Poets, they will speak to thee
More perfectly of purer creatures;—yet
If reason be nobility in man,
Can aught be more ignoble than the man
Whom they delight in, blinded as he is
By prejudice, the miserable slave
Of low ambition or distempered love?’


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Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Vaughan, Virginia Mason, and Alden T. Vaughan. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: The Tempest, edited by Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan, pp. 1-138. London: Thomson Learning, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Vaughan and Vaughan analyze the main characters of The Tempest—Prospero, Miranda, Caliban, and Ariel—and briefly summarize the remaining, minor characters.]

Like the location of the enchanted island, the origins of [The Tempest's] characters are elusive. There are, to be sure, links to Shakespeare's earlier endeavours: Prospero has often been compared to Measure for Measure's Vincentio, Miranda to the late romances'...

(The entire section is 4032 words.)

Grace R. W. Hall (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hall, Grace R. W. “Shakespearean Typology: The Several Identities of Characters in The Tempest.” In The Tempest as Mystery Play: Uncovering Religious Sources of Shakespeare's Most Spiritual Work, pp. 49-71. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Hall argues that The Tempest may be read as Shakespeare's version of a Mystery Play, and surveys its characters in terms of their biblical counterparts.]

“Who's there?” “Are you a man?”

Macbeth 2.3.8, 3.4.57

Bethell averred, “More has been written about character than about any other theme in Shakespearean criticism....

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Sharon Hamilton (essay date 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Sharon. “The Father as Inept or Able Mentor: Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.” In Shakespeare's Daughters, pp. 13-34. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Hamilton studies the relationship between Prospero and his daughter Miranda in The Tempest, considering the play “a fable of fatherly wish-fulfillment and ideal nurture.”]

The Tempest is Miranda's coming of age ritual. It begins with the revelation of her true identity and ends with her betrothal. Every stage in this initiation process is overseen by her magician-father. Prospero is one of the earliest examples in...

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Karen Fricker (review date 10 January 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Fricker, Karen. Review of The Tempest. Variety 377, no. 8 (10 January 2000): 119-20.

[In the following review of director Conall Morrison's 2000 production of The Tempest at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, Fricker laments the lack of “magic” in this staging and reflects on its facile political overtones and episodic presentation.]

The Abbey has clearly tried to conjure a major theatrical event out of its first-ever production of The Tempest, but the one crucial thing that got left out was a clear interpretative take on the play. What results is a magic-free, plodding evening only partially redeemed by a magnificent set design from Monica...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Matt Wolf (review date 12 June 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of The Tempest. Variety 379, no. 4 (12 June 2000): 25.

[In the following review of Lenka Udovicki's 2000 production of The Tempest at the Globe Theatre, Wolf finds Vanessa Redgrave's Prospero disappointing, but praises a solid comic supporting cast.]

There can't be an actress alive who's as elemental as Vanessa Redgrave, so the first thing to note about her gender-bending Prospero in The Tempest, the Globe's season-opener in its summer lineup of four plays, is the decidedly earthbound nature of her portrayal, even as (on opening night, at least) nature unfurled a genuine London tempest around her. Redgrave, dogged? How...

(The entire section is 857 words.)

Thomas Larque (review date winter 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Larque, Thomas. Review of The Tempest. Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 1 (winter 2003): 17.

[In the following review of the 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of The Tempest, Larque commends the production and admires the strong performances by Kananu Kirimi as Ariel and Geff Francis as Caliban, noting the deftness of both actors as they emphasized their characters' exploitation by an authoritarian Prospero.]

It remains to be seen whether Adrian Noble's policy against the RSC's use of traditional proscenium stages like the Barbican and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre survives his resignation, but this Roundhouse production of The Tempest...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)

Amy Rosenthal (review date 3 February 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosenthal, Amy. Review of The Tempest. New Statesman 132, no. 4623 (3 February 2003): 46.

[In the following review, Rosenthal characterizes the dramaturgy of Michael Grandage's 2003 staging of The Tempest at the Old Vic in London as “disappointingly conventional and ponderous,” and contends that the production was only partially redeemed by its emotionally satisfying, if conventional, ending. ]

Michael Grandage's production of The Tempest, newly transferred from the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, opens on a bare, uncurtained stage with only a silky, greenish backcloth and a rope ladder suspended at the front. With the house lights still...

(The entire section is 755 words.)

John S. Mebane (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Mebane, John S. “Magic as Love and Faith: Shakespeare's The Tempest.” In Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare, pp. 174-99. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Mebane concentrates on the theme of magic in The Tempest as it relates to Renaissance conceptions of human nature. The critic stresses Prospero's status as a benevolent magician who employs his powers for the good of humanity.]

In his Jacobean tragedies Shakespeare calls into question the idealistic conception of humanity which had been developed by Renaissance humanists and carried...

(The entire section is 11897 words.)

David Daniell (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Daniell, David. “Themes.” In The Tempest, pp. 38-63. London: Macmillan, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Daniell surveys critical approaches to The Tempest from the second half of the twentieth century.]

Watching Shakespeare's Tempest [in the seventeenth century, one] would see a pastoral tragicomic romance, with masque elements. It is not only in order, it is essential, to discuss, in dealing with The Tempest, both the traditions of romance drama in England, and the special literary conventions of pastoral romance as they appear, for example, in Sidney's Arcadia and Spenser's Faerie Queene, and to know how the play shares...

(The entire section is 9576 words.)

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Leggatt, Alexander. “Shakespeare, The Tempest.” In Introduction to English Renaissance Comedy, pp. 109-34. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Leggatt analyzes The Tempest, suggesting that its principal concern is with the inversion and possible dissolution of various forms of power: individual, social, sexual, and linguistic.]

Modern criticism has put The Tempest, along with Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, among Shakespeare's ‘romances’; but that category is a recent invention. The Tempest appears in the Folio of 1623 at the head of the comedies, making it the...

(The entire section is 10766 words.)

Kevin Pask (essay date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Pask, Kevin. “Prospero's Counter-Pastoral.” Criticism 44, no. 4 (2002): 389-404.

[In the following essay, Pask describes The Tempest as an inversion of the pastoral tradition that displays politicized motifs of colonialist, aristocratic, and sexual domination.]


At the beginning of the period in which Caliban was to acquire his strongest association with revolutionary energies of every sort, William Hazlitt lodged what remains a powerful if underappreciated critique of this association. Writing in response to the report of a lecture in which Coleridge described Caliban as “an original and caricature of Jacobinism, so fully...

(The entire section is 6647 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.

Curry, Walter Clyde. “Sacerdotal Science in Shakespeare's The Tempest.” In Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns, pp. 163-99. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1937.

Focuses on the spirit of Renaissance Neoplatonism that informs The Tempest.

Dobson, Michael. “‘Remember / First to Possess His Books’: The Appropriation of The...

(The entire section is 735 words.)