Paul A. Cantor (essay date spring 1980)

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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?’

(Wordsworth, The Prelude, XII, 68-74)

Anyone who has seen a good production of The Tempest knows how effective the play can be on the stage. But if one were merely to recount the plot to someone otherwise unfamiliar with it, he might begin to wonder how such material could hold an audience's interest. Consider what happens in The Tempest, or rather what does not happen. A pair of would-be murderers are just about to strike their helpless victim in his sleep, when he awakens to prevent the crime. A handsome youth and a beautiful maiden fall in love, but on the advice of her father decide to keep their passion in check until they are married. A group of low-born conspirators set out to overthrow the island's ruler, but on the way notice a display of gaudy clothing and forget about their rebellion. Stated abstractly, the plot of The Tempest seems lacking in sustained dramatic tension. Whenever a decisive event is about to take place, something happens to forestall it. Action seems to evaporate into inaction, and the passions portrayed in the play seem more notable for the ease with which they are eventually restrained than for the force with which they are originally set loose.

We have, of course, been discussing only the subplots of The Tempest, and one might object that they become dramatically exciting solely in the context of the play's main plot, the story of Prospero's return to power in Milan. Every frustration of the schemes or desires of the subordinate characters in The Tempest marks an advance in the overarching plan of the play's protagonist. But grounding the dramatic quality of The Tempest in the story of Prospero merely shifts the problem of the play's peculiarity to a new level. Prospero is not a dramatic character in the ordinary sense of the word dramatic. He is a wise man, distinguished by his knowledge of the world, not by the force of his passions—the sort of character one would expect to find in a subordinate role counseling the hero of the play, not a character who is the focus of the action himself.

Looking down the cast of characters in The Tempest, one has no trouble finding likelier candidates for the role of protagonist than Prospero. One can readily conceive of Shakespeare creating a tragedy out of ambitious conspirators like Antonio and Sebastian, or a comedy out of pretentious fools like Stephano and Trinculo. A passionate and spirited young man like Ferdinand would be a natural hero for either a tragedy or a comedy. Ordinarily we expect the heroes of plays to be moved by the basic human passions, such as sexual desire, greed, or ambition. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, when Nick Bottom learns that he is going to play the part of Pyramus, he naturally assumes that Pyramus must be the leading role and thus can think of only two possibilities for the character: “What is...

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Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?”1 It never even occurs to Bottom that Pyramus might be a wise man.


One realizes how unusual a hero Prospero is by considering how small a role his passions play in involving him in the action, how many of his deeds are the result of reasoned judgment. Prospero is not wholly without passions, to be sure, for he is a human being, not a god or a philosophical abstraction. But as human beings go, he is relatively free of passions to begin with, and remarkably in control of those passions he is subject to. Characteristically, his first words in the play are “Be collected” (I. ii. 13), and from the very beginning his emphasis is on allaying storms of passion, not arousing them (I. ii. 1-2). He participates in the love interest in the play only vicariously, with a father's moderate concern for seeing his daughter well married. Throughout the play Prospero is seeking to re-establish himself in power in Milan, and in that sense he might be called ambitious. But one hardly thinks of Prospero as power hungry: in fact his problems in the past arose precisely because he was not sufficiently interested in power, and one senses that he now has to force himself to be concerned about political things. It is still all too easy for him to become absorbed in the world of his own imagination and forget about a threat to his rule, as happens, for example, when he is displaying the masque for the benefit of Ferdinand and Miranda and momentarily neglects Caliban's conspiracy (IV. i). If Prospero wants to return to rule in Milan, then, it is not out of a lust for power, but out of a sense of duty or fitness.

The one passion that seems to have a strong effect on Prospero is anger, and yet even in this case one often gets the feeling that he yields to the emotion because of a conscious decision that anger is called for in the circumstances. At times he even seems to be consciously playing the part of an angry man. In order to test the strength of the love between Ferdinand and Miranda, for example, he says that he must act the role of the senex iratus and supply some obstacles for the young lovers to overcome:

They are both in either's pow'rs; but this swift business
I must uneasy make, lest too light winning
Make the prize light.

(I. ii. 451-53)

The one time anger seems to well up spontaneously in Prospero (when he remembers Caliban's conspiracy), his audience is genuinely surprised:

This is strange. Your father's in some passion
That works him strongly.
                                                                                                    Never till this day
Saw I him touch'd with anger, so distemper'd.

(IV. i. 143-45)

If this occasion is the greatest outburst of emotion in Prospero's life, then he truly is a temperate man. Instead of giving way to Lear-like curses, he replies with a speech designed to calm Ferdinard and Miranda by means of a vision of the transitoriness of all things earthly, including, presumably, passion itself. And, unlike Lear, Prospero requires only a minimum of effort to calm his awakened passions: “A turn or two I'll walk / To still my beating mind” (IV. i. 162-63).

Prospero's temperament is evidently so equable that in Act V he actually thinks it necessary to remind Ariel that he is after all a human being and subject to passions:

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. 21-24)

But even as he claims to “relish all as sharply / Passion as” other humans, Prospero reveals his difference from them. His passions are firmly in the control of his reason, which he regards as the true source of nobility:

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

(V. i. 25-28)

However angry Prospero may get, he chooses not to let his passions govern his actions. Prospero's statement, “the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance,” is no doubt sound philosophy, but it is an inversion of the normal principle of drama. Ordinarily, audiences prefer to see a character who is swept away by the passion of a vendetta, rather than one who deals rationally with the injustice he has suffered. Even Hamlet, who of all of Shakespeare's tragic heroes has the most philosophical nature, is incapable of Prospero's calm renunciation of vengeance. Hamlet has a high regard for reason and admires the man who “is not passion's slave” (III. ii. 72), but he cannot help responding to images of heroic action, irrational but impassioned, such as Fortinbras' marching off to Poland to “find quarrel in a straw” (IV. iv. 55). A Hamlet who could coolly prefer “virtue” to “vengeance” might avoid his tragic fate, but he would be a less exciting character.2

One reason why Hamlet reacts differently from Prospero is, of course, that he is a considerably younger man; his passions still have their youthful strength. Prospero, by contrast, is a man whose age has put him beyond the grip of most passions. Most of his life is behind him. In the end, he declares that “every third thought” will be his “grave” (V. i. 312); looking ahead to his death, he has already begun to detach himself from ordinary human concerns. His knowledge of the world—the fact that he has experienced everything at least once—makes it difficult for Prospero to get excited about whatever happens to him, and he maintains a philosophical calm even in the face of what would normally seem to be dramatic developments. He reveals the wise man's detachment when he contrasts the way Ferdinand and Miranda are wrapped up in their love with the way he temperately takes pleasure in contemplating the results:

So glad of this as they I cannot be
Who are surpris'd with all; but my rejoicing
At nothing can be more.

(III. i. 92-94)3

With his sober and clear-headed view of reality, Prospero would normally be found standing in the background of a play, futilely counseling the other characters against their foolish but dramatically exciting passions. But Shakespeare has brought Prospero into the foreground of The Tempest. The wise counselor steps forward to dominate the action, while the normal hero-types must content themselves with subordinate roles. It is as if the noble philosopher Lear meets on the heath (III. iv) were to occupy center stage for the rest of the action, turning the story of the passionate king's fall from power into something incidental to the drama.

The heart of what distinguishes Prospero as a dramatic hero, then, is his inclination to the contemplative rather than the active life. With the true scholar's spirit, he says at one point “my library / Was dukedom large enough” (I. ii. 109-10). A dramatist has no trouble portraying action on the stage; indeed that is his main aim. But portraying contemplation is difficult, because it must of necessity appear passive, static, and dull, if not simply ridiculous, when brought out before the footlights. One thinks of Socrates' comic entrance in Aristophanes' The Clouds, staring off into space and proclaiming: “I walk on air, and contemplate the Sun.”4 “Actions speak louder than words” is a basic principle of drama, and surely actions speak louder than thoughts.5 And yet the contemplative Prospero holds on to center stage in The Tempest. Somehow The Tempest inverts our normal standards of drama: we are less impressed by the activity of the characters in pursuing their ends than by the wisdom or foolishness of the ends they pursue.

This dramatic transformation is accomplished by means of the subplot structure of the play. Shakespeare mutes the normally exciting dramatic material in The Tempest by subordinating the stories of the lovers and the tyrants to the story of Prospero's return to power. The main action of The Tempest becomes Prospero's managing things so that the other characters fail to act out their desires. As a result, we are more interested in Prospero's wisdom in ordering events than in the way the other characters pursue their ends, especially since Prospero's overarching perspective allows us to see the limited and distorted nature of those ends. The special relation of the mainplot to the subplots in The Tempest is the source of the peculiar tragicomic effect of the play. The Tempest absorbs potentially tragic material by confirming it to the subplots, in effect neutralizing it and transforming it for an overall comic purpose. In the process, The Tempest subordinates the usual heroic types to a new kind of hero, or at least one who rarely appears in drama—a hero whose distinguishing characteristic is his wisdom, rather than his force of passion or greatness of soul.


We can explore the relation of The Tempest to Shakespeare's tragedies by focusing on one of Nick Bottom's archetypically dramatic figures: the tyrant, or rather the would-be tyrant. Usurpation is a theme Shakespeare treats both tragically and tragicomically, as is evident if one compares the conspiracy of Antonio and Sebastian against Alonso in The Tempest with the conspiracy of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth against King Duncan. The basic situations in the two plays are remarkably similar—kinsmen plotting against the life of a sleeping king in an effort to gain his crown—and several verbal parallels suggest that Shakespeare had Macbeth in his mind when he composed this portion of The Tempest.6

When Macbeth learns of the death of the Thane of Cawdor, he says:

                                                                      Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme.

(I. iii. 127-29)

Similarly, Antonio, thinking ahead to the ‘fated’ death of Alonso, wants

                                                            to perform an act
Whereof what's past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.

(II. i. 252-54)

The theatrical imagery of prologues and acts points to the element common to the real usurpers of Macbeth and the would-be usurpers of The Tempest: the way they plot out their crimes with the imagination of a playwright. It is in their imaginations that Antonio and Sebastian resemble Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Antonio tempts Sebastian in just the way the Witches and later Lady Macbeth tempt Macbeth, by making him imagine himself already a king:7

                                                                                                                        What might,
Worthy Sebastion, O, what might—? No more—
And yet methinks I see it in thy face,
What thou shouldst be. Th' occasion speaks thee, and
My strong imagination sees a crown
Dropping upon thy head.

(II. i. 204-9)

Lady Macbeth has the same ability to foresee a “golden round” crowning her husband's head (I. v. 28-30). A “strong imagination” seems characteristic of Shakespeare's usurpers: they can leap ahead in their minds to picture themselves already possessed of what they most desire. As Lady Macbeth tells her husband:

Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.

(I. v. 56-58)

The usurper's strong imagination is what makes him potentially forceful as a character. Believing that what his imagination shows him is real, the usurper can proceed with strength and conviction to achieve his goals. But to impress us, the usurper must in fact act. The most conventional man can idly dream about becoming king, as Gonzalo proves just before Sebastian and Antonio begin conspiring, when he wonders what would happen if he had “plantation” of the isle (II. i. 144-58). The mere desire to rule proves nothing: to distinguish oneself, one must show the force of one's desires by acting upon them. As the term is ordinarily understood, one can be heroic only in deed, not in thought. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth undergo the heroic test of translating their thoughts into deeds. Though they both bend under the strain of trying to realize their dreams, and Lady Macbeth eventually cracks, they do have a chance to establish their heroic stature. They are not run-of-the-mill human beings; they are great-souled figures, if only in the single-minded determination with which they pursue their ambitions. The difference in the situation in The Tempest is obvious: Antonio and Sebastian are denied a chance to show whether they have greatness of soul because they are denied a chance to act out their schemes. They can never impress us as heroic in their villainy. We are aware of the evil in what they want to do, but we never see whether they have the strength to accomplish their purposes, to live with the consequences of their crime. The usurper who acts complicates our response because we can be impressed by the strength with which he acts, even as we are repelled by the goals of his actions. Because the designs of Antonio and Sebastian are frustrated by Prospero, however, our attention is focused on how their imaginations deceive them, rather than on how their imaginative force lifts them above ordinary men.

The problem with the usurper's imagination is that while it can give him the force to realize his desires, it also blinds him to the reality of his desires. The usurper's view of reality is colored by the way he wants to see it, and hence distorted. We can observe how desire infects perception in Antonio's description of the situation of Claribel of Tunis, Alonso's daughter, who would presumably succeed him if he were killed:

                                                            … she that dwells
Ten leagues beyond man's life; she that from Naples
Can have no note, unless the sun were post—
The Man i' th' Moon's too slow—till new-born chins
Be rough and razorable. …

(II. i. 246-50)

Antonio waxes poetical here, and his inflated language contrasts sharply with the prosaic view of Sebastian:

                                                            What stuff is this? How say you?
'Tis true, my brother's daughter's Queen of Tunis;
So is she heir of Naples; 'twixt which regions
There is some space.

(II. i. 254-57)

Antonio's desire that Sebastian, rather than Claribel, succeed Alonso, has led Antonio to exaggerate the distance across the Mediterranean. This hyperbole is only one example of how the force of desire can distort perception.

The essential blindness of the usurper's imagination is also evident in Macbeth. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth think that they are embarking upon their course of crime with open eyes, knowing what it will involve. Yet characteristically they both want to commit their crimes in darkness, so that they will not have to see what they are doing:

                                                                                Stars, hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires;
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

(I. iv. 50-53)

LADY Macbeth:
                                                                                Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes.

(I. v. 50-52)

Ironically, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do act with their eyes closed when they kill Duncan. They do not foresee the consequences of their action, or how they themselves will react to it.8 The ultimate metaphor for their life of crime is sleepwalking. Lady Macbeth ends up literally acting without seeing: “A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep and do the effects of watching!” (V. i. 9-11). The idea that the usurper is sleepwalking is repeated in The Tempest:

                                                                                          What? art thou waking?
Do you not hear me speak?
                                                                                                                        I do, and surely
It is a sleepy language, and thou speak'st
Out of thy sleep. What is it thou didst say?
This is a strange repose, to be asleep
With eyes wide open—standing, speaking, moving—
And yet so fast asleep.

(II. i. 209-15)

By portraying his potential and actual usurpers as sleepwalkers, Shakespeare suggests that they live in a world of their dreams, but not in the sense in which they desire to do so. Too easily tempted to take their dreams for reality, they build up a world of flattering illusions, forgetting how quickly a dream can turn into a nightmare.9


The treatment of usurpation in Macbeth and The Tempest reveals the limitations in the usurper's imagination, the way the force of his desires deceives him about reality. He thinks he knows what his crime will entail, but in his eagerness he underestimates the obstacles that stand in his way and overestimates his ability to live with the consequences of his deed. But the usurper is also blind in a deeper sense: he does not even see clearly what he is striving for. Shakespeare's usurpers are obsessed with the crown in a way that shows that they think of kingship as something external, something that can simply be taken off one man and put on another. When Sebastian questions Antonio about his usurping Prospero's power, Antonio replies: “And look how well my garments sit upon me, / Much feater than before” (II. i. 272-73). These lines ought to remind us of the garment imagery in Macbeth, particularly Macbeth's tendency to think of honor as something one puts on like a fancy robe:

                                                                                I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

(I. vii. 32-35)

The usurpers are obviously concerned with acquiring the trappings of kingship, not in becoming true kings themselves. Totally unconcerned with the common good, Antonio, Sebastian, and Macbeth display little interest in the actual business of ruling. Hence they do not think that becoming a king involves any internal process of development. One need only get possession of the crown; in the deluded eyes of the usurper, all the other benefits of kingship will automatically follow.

This occupational delusion of the usurper is parodied in the Caliban-Stephano-Trinculo subplot of The Tempest. Although this conspiracy ripens in late afternoon, Caliban invokes the dark world of Macbeth: “All's hush'd as midnight yet” (IV. i. 207). Caliban supports Stephano's faltering spirits the way Lady Macbeth gives strength to her husband. Stephano must live up to Caliban's opinion of his great manhood:

This is the mouth o' th' cell. No noise, and enter.
Do that good mischief which may make this island
Thine own for ever, and I, thy Caliban,
For aye thy foot-licker.

(IV. i. 216-19)

Stephano responds in the mode of Macbeth: “Give me thy hand. I do begin to have bloody thoughts” (IV. i. 320-21). But he is diverted from the assassination attempt when Trinculo notices the gaudy clothing Prospero ordered Ariel to hang out for the fools. What appears metaphorically in Macbeth and in the Antonio-Sebastian conspiracy happens on the literal plane in the Caliban-Stephano-Trinculo subplot. The comic conspirators end up reaching for actual clothing, and this materialization of their aspiration points up the hollowness of their desires.10 In Act III, scene iii, Prospero provides Antonio and Sebastian with a parallel emblem of their way of life: they have been reaching for a banquet that disappears when they grasp at it. In similar fashion, Macbeth discovers that the kingship disappears when he reaches out for it. He becomes a king in name only, and “that which should accompany” it, such “as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,” he “must not look to have” (V. iii. 24-26).

To sum up the view of the usurper in Macbeth and The Tempest: if one looks at the force of his desires, one is impressed with his strength of soul, but if one looks at the object of his desires, one sees that he is deluded. That is why the usurper must act out his desires in order to impress us. As Macbeth proceeds, we become increasingly aware of how blind Macbeth's striving is. Nevertheless, we cannot help being struck by the power of ambition in his soul. His desires are very real, and they have very real consequences in the world of the play. As a result, Macbeth remains the focus of our dramatic attention. But in the world of The Tempest, the would-be usurpers lose their heroic stature because they lose their chance to act. In order to focus on how Antonio and Sebastian are deluded in their desires, Shakespeare never allows them beyond the stage of desire. And on the level of pure desire, conventional distinctions among men are hard to maintain; the aristocratic usurper can be just as mistaken in his goals as a base-born conspirator, even though he would be better able to achieve his goals in action. The Caliban-Stephano-Trinculo subplot in The Tempest has a kind of mock-heroic function within the play. The parallels between the two conspiracies suggest that the distance between Stephano and Trinculo, on the one hand, and Antonio and Sebastian, on the other, is less than that between Antonio and Sebastian, and Prospero.11 Compared to the truly wise man, all other men are as fools: differences in mere cunning become trivial in the face of Prospero's profound understanding of human nature. The sphere of the heroic, as ordinarily conceived, is deflated in The Tempest. Instead of stressing the differences among men in strength of soul, their ability to translate their desires into action, the play stresses the differences among men in wisdom, whether they aim at higher or lower ends. Only in this way is Shakespeare able to make a wise man his hero.


One would come to similar conclusions if one compared in similar detail the romantic subplot in The Tempest with Shakespeare's love tragedies. What impresses us about the love of Ferdinand and Miranda is not the depth of their passion but the wisdom of the match. To be sure, from the point of view of the lovers themselves they are acting out a highly romantic drama: shipwrecked young prince meets beautiful goddess on enchanted isle. And to add excitement to their story, Prospero, as we have seen, deliberately plays old man Capulet to their Romeo and Juliet (I. ii. 451-53). In reality, the union of Ferdinand and Miranda is the cornerstone of Prospero's plan for returning to power in Milan. The exotic beauty with whom Ferdinand falls in love is in plain fact the girl next door, and what strikes him as a romantic affair will actually culminate in a dynastic marriage. One might well wonder whether Ferdinand and Miranda would fall as deeply in love if they knew that Prospero intended them for each other. Prospero wisely lets them play at being Romeo and Juliet, or Antony and Cleopatra, building a bond between them by letting them think that the whole world opposes their love. But Ferdinand and Miranda are only playing. When they echo the heroic accents of Antony and Cleopatra, they are talking about a game of chess:

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.

(V. i. 172-75)

Whereas Antony and Cleopatra wrangle over kingdoms in their deeds, Ferdinand and Miranda do so only in their thoughts. Unlike the tragic lovers in Shakespeare, Ferdinand and Miranda never get the chance to prove the depth of their passion by literally sacrificing the world for each other.12 With the obvious suitability of their getting married, and the long happy life promised for them, their love story cannot by itself generate much dramatic tension.

Prospero helps the romance along by appearing to oppose it at first, but as the marriage approaches he works to keep the lovers' desires in check. With warnings of the evil consequence of yielding to passion, and promises of wedded harmony, Prospero does everything he can to prevent any carpe diem thoughts from cropping up in the young lovers' heads (IV. i. 14-23, 51-54). Precisely because they are assured “honor, riches, marriage-blessing / Long continuance, and increasing” (IV. i. 106-7), their love does not develop the tragic intensity experienced by Romeo and Juliet, who are granted only a brief time to share their passion. Protected by Prospero from the pressure of time, Ferdinand and Miranda can afford to wait to consummate their love:

                                                                                          As I hope
For quiet days, fair issue, and long life,
With such love as 'tis now, the murkiest den,
The most opportune place, the strong'st suggestion
Our worser genius can, shall never melt
Mine honor into lust.

(IV. i. 23-28)

Ferdinand's reasonable concern for “quiet days, fair issue, and long life” shows what a good husband he will make for Miranda, but it inevitably makes him a less interesting character dramatically than a Mark Antony, who is always capable of throwing security to the winds and living dangerously. One cannot imagine Antony sincerely saying as Ferdinand does: “The white cold virgin snow upon my heart / Abates the ardor of my liver” (IV. i. 55-56). But Shakespeare does not want a Mark Antony in The Tempest. Such a heroic figure would inevitably compete with Prospero for the center of the stage (and successfully, one might speculate, given theatre audiences' usual preference for soldier-lovers over scholars). By muting the intensity of the love story in The Tempest, Shakespeare assures that Prospero remains the focus of dramatic interest. Ferdinand and Miranda are a very attractive and charming couple, but their love is so uncomplicated, so lacking in problems, that their story in itself would be rather boring. Prospero must intervene to spice up their romance and give their love a larger dramatic meaning; as a result, their love story remains subordinate to the story of his return to power.13


Noticing the way Shakespeare echoes his tragedies in his final play, the way he recreates their fundamental situations, we can appreciate his remarkable technical achievement in The Tempest. The tragedies depend on desires being translated into action for their dramatic excitement. In The Tempest desires are held in check. One cannot imagine Shakespeare creating a whole drama out of an assassination that fails to take place; Act II, scene i of The Tempest would make a rather lame play if it had to stand on its own. But of course Shakespeare incorporates the Antonio-Sebastian conspiracy into the larger dramatic framework. The subplots of The Tempest are in effect plays within the play created by Prospero, who can wield the power of illusion and thus becomes a surrogate for the playwright himself.14 The subplots are dramatic precisely because of the disparity between Prospero's knowledge and that of the characters directly involved in the action he sets up. From the second scene on, The Tempest develops a consistent double perspective for the audience. We see events as the characters think they are unfolding, and we see events as Prospero is ordering them. If most of the characters could share Prospero's perspective, they would not continue to act as they do. The very dramatic structure of The Tempest therefore stresses the difference between knowledge and lack of it.

By elevating Prospero above the lovers and tyrants of conventional drama, Shakespeare provides an important counter-statement to his own tragedies, reminding us that there are forms of heroism besides the heroism of the passions. Heroism of the mind is difficult to represent on the stage, but Shakespeare has made it come to life in The Tempest. The secret of his achievement lies in his assigning to his philosophical hero something analogous to the role of the playwright within the play. Perhaps, then, Prospero's heroism is ultimately an image of Shakespeare's.


  1. A Midsummer Night's Dream, I. ii. 22. All quotations from Shakespeare are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. Cf. Shelley's comments on his tragic heroine, Beatrice Cenci, in his Preface to The Cenci (ed. Alfred Forman and H. Buxton Forman [1886; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1975], p. 4): “… the fit return to make to the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance, and a resolution to convert the injurer from his dark passions by peace and love. Revenge, retaliation, atonement, are pernicious mistakes. If Beatrice had thought in this manner she would have been wiser and better; but she would never have been a tragic character: the few whom such an exhibition would have interested, could never have been sufficiently interested for a dramatic purpose, from the want of finding sympathy in their interest among the mass who surround them.”

  3. In line 93 I have restored the Folio reading “with all,” instead of Theobald's conjectured “withal.” The Folio reading makes perfect sense, and in fact sharpens the contrast between ignorant youth, which is surprised and delighted with everything it sees (consider Miranda's “O brave new world,” V. i. 183) and wise old age, which has seen everything already and hence is moderate in its reactions.

  4. The Clouds, 225. Quoted in Aristophanes with the English Translation of Benjamin Bickley Rogers, 3 vols., The Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1930), I, 285.

  5. The natural preference of dramatists for action over contemplation may go a long way toward explaining the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry, and in particular why Plato has Socrates express a wish to see certain poets, presumably among them the tragedians, barred from the just city in The Republic (398a-b, 605b). On this subject, see Allan Bloom, trans., The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1968), pp. 359-60, 426-34. In showing how the wise man can be made the hero of a play, The Tempest may be regarded as an answer to Socrates' objections to dramatic poetry.

  6. Compare Lady Macbeth's “The sleeping and the dead / Are but as pictures” (II. ii. 50-51) with Antonio's “Here lies your brother, / No better than the earth he lies upon, / If he were that which now he's like—that's dead” (II. i. 280-82). Compare also Lady Macbeth's “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our pow'r to accompt?” (V. i. 37-39) with Antonio's “They'll tell the clock to any business that / We say befits the hour” (II. i. 289-90).

  7. Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (New York: Doubleday, 1969), p. 617.

  8. See Traversi, p. 437, for a discussion of “the divorce between ‘eye’ and ‘hand’ (I. iv), consciousness and act” in Macbeth. Consider in this context especially III. iv. 138-39 and IV. i. 145-49.

  9. Northrop Frye, “Introduction to The Tempest,” in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 1370: “When Antonio and Sebastian remain awake plotting murder, they show that they are the real dreamers, sunk in the hallucinations of greed.”

  10. On the materialization of aspiration as the principle of comedy, see José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), p. 158.

  11. One might express the difference between Macbeth and The Tempest by saying that in the tragedy we are made aware of the gap between a tyrant and a drunken porter (II. iii), while in the tragicomedy we see instead the ways in which they are similar, if not equivalent. The porter in Macbeth reveals his comic status by stressing his inability to act out his desires. In speaking of the effects of drinking, he says: “it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance” (II. iii. 29-36). On the parallels between the court party and the fools in The Tempest, see Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Terence Hawkes (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1959), pp. 206-7.

  12. For a discussion of the importance of proofs of love in Antony and Cleopatra and the difference between tragic and comic treatments of love, see Paul A. Cantor, Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 160-63.

  13. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 224: “His primacy unchallenged by the lovers, Prospero is unmistakably the central figure throughout The Tempest.” The deprecation of passionate love in The Tempest is symbolized by the exclusion of Venus from the world of the play (IV. i. 86-101).

  14. Cf. Rabkin, p. 224.


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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.

John S. Mebane (essay date 1989)

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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 to its logical extreme in the occult tradition. Hamlet's discovery of lust and treachery begets his profound disillusionment with human nature, and he tells Ophelia that he himself, as a representative of humankind, is “proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” he continues, “We are arrant knaves, believe none of us” (III.i.126-29).1 He tells her to enter a nunnery, to abandon the world and the flesh which Hamlet sees as thoroughly corrupted. In his earlier speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet juxtaposes the eloquent praise of humanity which we find in earlier Renaissance thinkers such as Pico and Ficino with his own intense awareness of human mortality and corruption: “What [a] piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor women neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so” (II.ii.303-10).

King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, and other plays of the early 1600s dramatize the discrepancy between the noble ideals of Renaissance philosophers and the actual world in which we live. In theory, human beings are rational creatures who can control their own souls and the world around them. They are capable of being motivated by love, faith, and honor. In reality, these plays at times seem to imply, we are subject to bestial lust and selfish ambition, and the world we create in attempting to fulfill our desires is one of anarchy. Although it is difficult to say precisely what answers the tragedies may or may not offer to the questions raised within them, it is readily apparent that many Shakespearean plays of the first decade of the seventeenth century center upon a crisis of faith.

A loss of faith in humanity in Shakespeare is often paralleled by a loss of faith in Providence and by an inability to love. Human nature at times threatens to become merely a part of an amoral realm of nature which is ruled by totally selfish appetites. Perhaps the most powerful, desperate statements and questions occur in King Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.


If that the Heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame [these] vild offenses,
It will come,
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.


The catastrophe of Othello is caused by the protagonist's loss of faith in Desdemona and, by implication, in the values with which she is associated. One recalls the magnificently suggestive lines,

                                                            Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.


In the romances Shakespeare reaffirms the faith in humanity which he permits us to question in the tragedies.2 The final plays are a series of experiments in developing a genre which encloses the perspective of the tragedies in a broader frame of reference, permitting us to acknowledge the consequences of human evil while simultaneously emphasizing that such consequences are not ultimate. The romances affirm the possibility of regeneration in a more emphatic manner than most of Shakespeare's previous works: the villains of Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest inflict genuine suffering upon others, but the emphasis—especially in The Tempest—falls upon the process of restoration rather than the period of destruction. While we are never permitted to forget the bestial, potentially destructive dimension of human nature, we are reminded forcefully of the human capacity for love, faith, and spirituality, and each of these plays suggests that human beings, as they exert the transforming power of love, can choose to act as agents of a beneficent providential order.

It is quite natural that in The Tempest, the most fully realized of the romances, Shakespeare would focus upon the figure of the magus, the most fully developed expression of Renaissance hopes for the development of humankind's moral, intellectual, and spiritual potential. Through years of study, contemplation, and reflection upon his experience, Prospero has brought his own soul into harmony with the cosmic order, and consequently his art is a means through which God's will is accomplished. On one level of the play Prospero's magic orders the vital forces of nature so as to make them fruitful rather than destructive. It strives to bring about the harmonious union between the natural and the supernatural dimensions of reality which is symbolized by the marriage of earth and heaven in Prospero's hymeneal masque. But it is highly significant that the masque is never quite completed: the final, harmonious dance is interrupted by “a strange, hollow, and confused noise” (IV.i.138 SD), and at this crucial moment Shakespeare stresses the limitations of Prospero's art. By forcing Prospero to halt his spirits' enchanting performance in order to deal with Caliban's plot against his life, the playwright reminds us that there are some creatures on whose nature nurture will never stick. Because there are dimensions of evil in human nature which can never be entirely eliminated from it, the magicians' vision of universal harmony will never be perfectly realized in this world. In his portrait of Prospero Shakespeare confirms the belief of the magicians—and of many of the civic humanists, as well—that human art can become a vehicle of divine power, and he also affirms the importance of the visionary imagination. Shakespeare's conception of human nature is more conservative than Ficino's or Pico's, however, as he suggests that no one can live entirely the life of the mind and thus escape the limitations associated with our physical nature. In addition, The Tempest questions the sometimes excessive emphasis on self-assertiveness which we often find in the occult tradition. Pico's Oration and Conclusions, we recall, placed greater emphasis upon self-assertion in the process of spiritual purification than upon an attitude of submission or repentance, and even for Ficino the awareness of one's divine potential could rationalize the desire for conquest: the individual's unwillingness to serve and the desire to dominate others were the consequence of “the immeasurable magnificence of our soul.”3 To some degree Shakespeare is similar to Jonson—and to Pico, Agrippa, and perhaps even Marlowe at certain moments in their lives—in that he returns to a more traditional emphasis upon confessing one's mortal passions and excessive ambitions. He is unlike Jonson, however, in the extent to which he believes that once the individual is fully aware that there are elements of human nature which must be disciplined and restrained, one can exert considerable control over one's own personality and one's destiny. We fulfill ourselves not by escaping the physical aspect of our nature, as some of the occultists had believed, but by bringing it into harmony with the spiritual. It is well to remember that Prospero is a mortal who must continually struggle to maintain the degree of self-mastery which he has attained, but we may also recognize that it is Prospero's attainment of an unusual degree of harmony within his own personality which has conferred upon him his magical power. By mastering his passions and cultivating his higher faculties, Prospero has obtained the power to command the forces of nature, and in the course of the play he brings all of the other characters under his control. But the most impressive of his feats—indeed, the one to which all of his other powers serve as means to an end—is his power to bring others toward the same self-knowledge he has found within himself.

The fact that Shakespeare does not adhere in a doctrinaire fashion to the details of magical theory has led some very well-informed and sensitive readers to suggest that the relationship between Prospero's art and the benevolent magic described by Renaissance occult philosophers is ambiguous. Robert West, while conceding that Prospero in many ways resembles the beneficent Renaissance magus, argues that Prospero and his art are, nonetheless, of ambivalent moral status. Shakespeare does not stress the relationship between the magician's art and divine providence, West believes, and, since Prospero commands spirits, he must have attained his power through ceremonies—not depicted on the stage—which orthodox theologians condemned as damnable. “No magician, however ‘white,’” West writes, “could be supposed to rule in the hierarchy of being all the way to its top. At some stage he had to supplicate, and unless he was a ‘holy magician’ like the Apostles, this supplication was directed well short of the Christian Godhead. Prospero's impious need to pray to finite spirits the Globe audience could have been well aware of, for it was an item of pulpit theology that all spirit magic was illicit because all required such praying.”4 Ariel himself is of ambiguous nature, West argues, especially because Prospero refers to him at I.ii.257 as “malignant,” and in Prospero's description of his “rough magic” at V.i.33-57 he includes magical acts of dubious moral character:

                                                                                                                        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.


Professor West, always admirably faithful to the evidence of the primary sources, concedes that some Renaissance texts assert that there are means of raising the dead which derive directly from God and which consequently hold the status of miracle rather than of evil magic. Although raising the dead typically was condemned by orthodox demonologists as evil necromancy, he continues, “Prospero's claim, made but in passing, saying nothing of ends and little of means, may be held ambiguous rather than clearly evil. But it is hardly redeemable for an effect of an unmixedly good magic, and certainly Shakespeare makes no effort to redeem it. It must, then, signify the dubiety of Prospero's magic” (92).

Barbara Mowat, in a thoroughly researched and carefully reasoned essay which builds upon West's prior arguments, emphasizes that Shakespeare has drawn not only upon the Hermetic and Cabalist sources which were the foundation of Renaissance occult philosophy, but also on classical myth and legend, the wizards of medieval and Renaissance romances, and popular entertainers, or “jugglers.” Professor Mowat believes that this conflation of sources, as well as Prospero's abjuration of his art, underscores the ambiguity of magic in The Tempest, a mysteriousness which is appropriate, she suggests, for a work which reveals the ambiguities of life itself. While C. J. Sisson felt that the lines quoted above (V.i.41-50), based on Ovid's portrait of Medea, reveal that Shakespeare has been careless in introducing apparently negative elements of his source material into an otherwise positive characterization of Prospero, Mowat sees the ambivalence as the essence of the play.5 In view of the work of West, Mowat, and others, it no longer seems tenable to view Prospero and his magic as essentially evil, but the arguments in favor of the ambiguity of Shakespeare's magician and his art are formidable.

I would certainly agree that in The Tempest as in other plays Shakespeare drew on a variety of sources in an eclectic fashion, adapting and transforming what was appropriate to his own unique artistic vision and ignoring what did not suit his purposes. Yet, as I shall endeavor to show in greater detail in the following sections of this [essay], our knowledge of specific ideas from the occult tradition can illuminate many important facets of the play. Our awareness of the significance of Hermetic/Cabalist magic in Renaissance intellectual history is of fundamental importance in encouraging us to recognize the extent to which one of Shakespeare's central purposes in The Tempest is to reflect upon the vision of humankind initiated by Renaissance humanists and carried to its logical extreme in the occult tradition. In addition, while I shall emphasize that Prospero's art is a multifaceted symbol which must be interpreted on several parallel levels, an awareness of the influence of Renaissance occult philosophy upon The Tempest helps to confirm that on all of these levels Prospero's art is benevolent, and Shakespeare is affirming—although with significant qualifications—the belief of Ficino and his successors that human beings obtain genuine power by aligning themselves with the order of Providence. Shakespeare draws upon a panoply of sources, and his response to the occult tradition is complex, but it does not necessarily follow that The Tempest is characterized essentially by unresolved conflict; instead, I would suggest, Prospero's magic functions on several harmonious levels simultaneously. On one level Prospero's art is, quite literally, Hermetic magic; on another, as Frank Kermode has recognized, it is “art” in the broadest sense of the term, the civilizing power of education and moral self-discipline. On yet another, Prospero's magic is theatrical art, which Shakespeare sees as analogous to magic not only in that it creates visions, but also in that it strives to effect moral and spiritual reform. One of the most fascinating aspects of The Tempest is the manner in which Shakespeare correlates all of these dimensions of the play, so that they complement and enrich one another. He draws upon those aspects of occult philosophy which reinforce the parallels among magic, learning, and drama as forms of art which endeavor to perfect nature.


Doubts concerning the benevolence of Prospero's art derive in part from many interpreters' emphasis upon the attitudes of the orthodox “pulpit theologians,” to use Professor West's term, rather than on the attitudes of Ficino's Theologia Platonica, Pico's Oration and Conclusions, Agrippa's Occult Philosophy, or other works in the occult tradition which had captured Shakespeare's imagination at the time he wrote his last plays. Magical acts of the kind Prospero describes in the lines prefacing his promise to abjure his “potent art” (V.i.50) were precisely those which, Ficino tells us, the perfected magus, as agent of God, can perform: a human soul dedicated to God may be granted the power to “command the elements, rouse the winds, gather the clouds together in rain,” cure human diseases, and perform other miraculous feats which may suit God's purposes.6 In prominent references to “Providence divine” (I.ii.159; cf. V.i.189), Shakespeare carefully aligns Prospero and his art with the workings of the cosmic order. In this context, as Agrippa and others tell us, even Prospero's raising of the dead could be sanctioned. As Jackson Cope has recognized, the lines may be read in connection with “a motif of miraculous resurrection” which becomes prominent in Pericles and Cymbeline, as well as The Tempest, as a corollary of Shakespeare's intensified concern with the visionary and potentially redemptive character of art; like Ariel's mysterious song at I.ii.397-405, the image of resurrection may remind us, on one level, of the process of regeneration which Prospero's art endeavors to bring about as it leads Alonso and others to reflect upon their past transgressions.7

Prospero's application of the term “malignant” to Ariel is a major consideration, for in Shakespeare's day one of the most common meanings of the word was “disposed to rebel against God or against constituted authority; disaffected, malcontent” (OED). In context, however, “malignant” probably refers to Prospero's somewhat exaggerated accusation that Ariel is resistant to the magician's orders, not that he is essentially evil, and the accusation itself evokes speeches from Ariel which develop the contrast between Prospero's art—which the airy spirit does, in fact, obey—and the witchcraft of Sycorax, with which Ariel had refused to comply. Moreover, Prospero's intellectual and spiritual self-purification has given him a degree of control over his spirits which is based not on supplication of these lower spiritual orders, but on the participation of the awakened human soul in the very highest levels of the cosmic hierarchy. … [O]ccult philosophers had asserted that the magus becomes aware of the innate ideas within the Mens, the intuitive, suprarational faculty within the soul, and once this occurs, the magician possesses the power to connect, in contemplation and/or transitive magic, the things of this world with the archetypal forms that govern them. Alchemy, in particular, is an attempt to purify the fallen world by bringing earthly creatures into more perfect unity with their governing ideas, and Shakespeare may well have been aware of the alchemical meaning of the term tempest: it is a boiling process which removes impurities from base metal and facilitates its transmutation into gold. Because the human Mens is a part of the series of minds which constitutes the order of Providence, the magus gains intimate knowledge of God's providential purposes and consequently becomes an agent of the divine Creator. Through assent to Providence the magus could then liberate himself from the control of Fortune, gaining the true freedom which comes from aligning oneself with the will of God. The magus possesses the power to manipulate stellar influences and to contribute to the course of earthly events, but the power of the benevolent magician consists solely of the ability to help fulfill providence, never to thwart it: Ariel's assertion that he and his fellows are “ministers of Fate” (III.iii.61) is literally true. An evil magician, such as Faustus or Sycorax, might obtain rudimentary powers, but never anything approaching Prospero's. In fact, many Renaissance occultists agreed with orthodox theologians that an evil magician's powers are almost entirely illusory.8

Prospero's renunciation of his art suggests a qualification of the ideals of the magicians, but not a fundamental doubt concerning the moral status of the art. Although Renaissance occultists themselves stressed that the magician must use his art in the service of humankind, they nonetheless placed somewhat more emphasis on the virtues of pure contemplation than Shakespeare wishes to do at the end of his play. Prospero's promise to drown his book before he returns to Milan and resumes his political office suggests that contemplation, book learning, and theatrical art are not permanent escapes from life, but preparations for it. Just as Prospero removes his magic robes in scene 2 before his intimate paternal conversation with Miranda, he resolves to make involvement in the human community, not the retreat into his library, his first priority after he dons once again his ducal robes. If one notices the many assurances throughout the play that Prospero's aim is to reform his enemies, not to seek vengeance, his promise to renounce his “rough magic” appears as a part of his initial plan, rather than a change of heart. In order to ensure the success of his project he continues, in fact, to practice his magic until the very end, closing the final scene itself with an order to Ariel that he provide “calm seas, auspicious gales” (V.i.315) for the journey homeward. The adjective “rough” quite probably carries the meanings of “rigorous, severe,” or perhaps “stormy, tempestuous” (OED), with reference to the literal and the psychological tempests which Prospero creates in order to stimulate reflection upon human limitations. Professors West and Mowat have clearly established that among the members of a Renaissance audience one could expect to find a variety of attitudes toward magic, and I certainly agree that our appreciation of the play is enhanced if we retain a sense of wonder in our response to Prospero's art. In my reading of the play, however, the text as a whole encourages us to see Prospero as benign from the very outset, and Shakespeare is affirming the position enunciated in The Winter's Tale's scene of apparently magical resurrection: “If this be magic,” Leontes proclaims after witnessing Hermione's apparently magical restoration to life, “let it be an art / Lawful as eating” (WT V.iii.110-11).

Those who see Prospero's promise to renounce his art as a suggestion of its moral ambivalence often argue that Prospero suffers from excessive pride and vengefulness in the beginning of the play and that he undergoes a transformation in act 5, scene 1, when he tells Ariel that he will feel compassion for all of those—even his enemies—who are now in his power. There is little or no motivation, however, for a major change of heart in Prospero at the outset of act 5, nor do the magician's plots assume a new direction at this point. The dramatic climax of the main action occurs not when Prospero converses with Ariel, but in act 3, scene 3, when Alonso's repentance makes it possible for the magician to free Milan from its subjugation to Naples and to reassume his position as duke. If Prospero had initially planned vengeance, he could easily have annihilated his enemies in the initial storm scene; instead, he endeavors to bring the wrongdoers to repentance. At the outset of the play he takes pains to demonstrate that the magician intends to harm no one:

                                                  Wipe thou thine eyes, have comfort.
The direful spectacle of the wrack, which touch'd
The very virtue of compassion in thee,
I have with such provision in mine art
So safely ordered that there is no soul—
No, not so much perdition as an hair
Betid to any creature in the vessel.


Central to The Tempest are symphonic variations upon two major symbols: the first is the storm, which is associated with tragic experience and which can, if we perceive events appropriately, become a blessing in disguise. Prospero's initial shows of severity are mere pretenses, and they provide a specific instance of the general principle that events which appear threatening can, if we respond properly, lead to spiritual rebirth. The second major symbol is the “sea-change” of which Ariel sings in act 1:

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.


As G. Wilson Knight has suggested, the song may intimate a change from a mortal state to an eternal one. Most obviously, however, it foreshadows the change of heart in Alonso which, in turn, makes possible the restoration of proper order in Milan. In the broadest terms, the changes which Prospero's art facilitates are from discord to harmony, tragedy to comedy, and they occur on the psychological, political, and spiritual levels. The agent of change, the sea, is time and experience, as Shakespeare draws upon the traditional analogy between life and a sea voyage, and simultaneously it is the mind, as suggested by the lines which announce the rising consciousness of Alonso and the court party in act 5:

                                        Their understanding
Begins to swell, and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable [shores]
That now lie foul and muddy.


Changes must sometimes occur in modes of human perception before the restoration of harmony can occur in human history. Prospero's art seeks to restore love and faith, qualities which lead to creativity and to genuine self-fulfillment within the human community; these powers are contrasted throughout the play with the destructive forces of self-aggrandizement, vengefulness, and cynicism. Shakespeare draws a close parallel between the faith which envisions a benevolent order beneath the apparent meaninglessness and disorder of earthly events, and interpersonal faith, an ability to see the potential for goodness, as well as evil, in human nature. Only those who are willing to develop their capacity for this kind of vision can respond to Prospero's art or participate in the harmonious order which it helps to establish.

Acting in concert with the cosmic order, Prospero's magical art provides experiences through which various characters are granted an opportunity to acknowledge their mortality and, consequently, learn that the human community must be based on mutual forgiveness. Through the storm, which is itself an instance of magical/dramatic art conceived by Prospero and enacted by spirits whom he subsequently terms his “actors,” Alonso and the others in his party are confronted with events that impress upon them the limitations of human power. Prospero himself had learned of his mortal limitations years prior to the opening of the play, when he, like King Lear, was deprived of his throne and began his own tempestuous, redemptive voyage. An example of his awareness of the subordinate status of his art within the cosmic order occurs when he informs Miranda that his success

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


Although the entire plot of The Tempest is in a sense a product of Prospero's magic, there are several brief theatrical performances within the larger play which assist the characters in interpreting the events of their own lives and which consequently exert a potentially redemptive influence. One of these is the broken feast in act 3, which symbolizes the communion from which Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio have exiled themselves. Obviously this spectacle, along with the admonitions composed by Prospero and spoken by Ariel, is intended not merely to torment Prospero's enemies, but to teach self-knowledge and evoke repentance. In Alonso's case the scene has the desired effect:

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


At the moment when Alonso feels remorse, his perception of events begins to change. In his imagination the discordant sounds of the tempest are miraculously transformed into music.10 The storm is a mysterious song that whispers to Alonso the secret of his own soul.

Awareness of our mortality and our capacity for evil is only one component of the self-knowledge which Prospero's art endeavors to convey to us. The other is an awareness of the spark of the divine which Antonio correctly associates with the moral conscience but refuses to acknowledge as his own. When asked by Sebastian how his “conscience” could permit him to supplant Prospero, Antonio reveals his thoroughly materialistic conception of human nature:

Ay, sir; where lies that? If 'twere a kibe,
'Twould put me to my slipper; but I feel not
This deity in my bosom.


Much of The Tempest is a dramatic debate over the question of whether humanity is bestial or godlike, Caliban or Ariel; the implied answer is that we are both and that our lower faculties must be guided and disciplined by the mind and spirit. One of the central symbolic scenes of the play is the masque of Juno, Ceres, and Iris, which reveals to us that the power of heaven both stimulates creativity and, at the same time, restrains nature within its proper boundaries. The symbolic union of earth and heaven suggests, among many other things, that the marriage between higher and lower faculties within the human personality can create a harmonious and properly ordered life. In the occult tradition, the metaphor of marriage refers to the magician's ability to reform nature by bringing earthly creatures into more perfect conformity with their governing Ideas.11 In The Tempest, Shakespeare stresses the reformation of the self which may occur as a consequence of the harmonious union of higher and lower faculties within the individual personality. In spite of Prospero's reference to it as a “vanity of mine art” (IV.i.41), the masque reveals to us an essential aspect of the vision of The Tempest as a whole.

The disruption of the concluding dance of the masque by Prospero's remembrance of the rebellious plot of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo does not entirely invalidate the scene's symbolic vision. Quite recently A. Lynne Magnusson has argued that the interruptions of various scenes and speeches in The Tempest suggest that Shakespeare is confessing that art expresses the need of the human mind to create more order and coherence than exists in external reality. Like many modern critics, Magnusson feels that The Tempest dramatizes relativism rather than revelation.12 While the interruption does remind us that Prospero's “majestic vision” (IV.i.118) excludes the destructive forces ever-present in human life, The Tempest as a whole, I believe, suggests that the masque embodies an ideal which may be fully realized in the lives of those who choose to align themselves—as Prospero has done—with the order of Providence. The interruption of the masque reminds us that in the fallen world not all mortals will choose to assume their rightful places within the natural order, and consequently the power of Prospero's art to reform life is limited: the artist is genuinely powerful, but he is far from omnipotent. As both Alvin Kernan and Barbara Traister have emphasized, Shakespeare is intensely aware that the artist has no power over the minds and souls of members of the audience who do not respond with a sympathetic imagination.13 Throughout Shakespeare's canon there are oracles, ghosts, and prophetic visions which are associated both with fantasy and with a genuine spiritual dimension of reality, and faith in Providence in Shakespeare very often entails a willingness to trust these objects of imagination. In The Tempest, the plays enacted by Prospero and his spirits serve much the same function that dream visions or other forms of prophecy and magic serve in Julius Caesar, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and other plays.14 Ferdinand and Alonso respond positively to Prospero's art and consequently learn profound truths from it; Antonio and Sebastian resist the power of Prospero's magic and remain unaffected by it.

Shakespeare emphasizes the subjective element in our perception of reality itself, as well as art, in the scene in which we first see Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Gonzalo, and the others after their shipwreck. As the scene opens, Gonzalo and Adrian are attempting to persuade the other members of Alonso's party to count their blessings. Although they have been stranded on a mysterious island, Gonzalo says, they somehow have been miraculously preserved, and therefore they have cause to rejoice. “The air breathes upon us here most sweetly,” Adrian comments, and Gonzalo points out that the isle contains “every thing advantageous to life.” To Sebastian and Antonio, however, the air breathes “As if it had lungs, and rotten ones” or “as 'twere perfumed by a fen” (II.i.47-9). Even the physical appearance of the island is subject to dispute:

How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!
The ground indeed is tawny.
With an eye of green in't.
He misses not much.
No; he doth but mistake the truth totally.
But the rariety of it is—which is indeed almost beyond credit—
As many vouch'd rarieties are.
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.
If but one of his pockets could speak, would it not say he lies?
Ay, or very falsely pocket up his report.


Shakespeare provides several hints that Gonzalo's view of things is the correct one. In the scene just prior to this one, for instance, Ariel has already assured Prospero that the travelers have been protected, and “On their sustaining garments not a blemish, / But fresher than before” (I.ii.218-19). Another confirmation of Gonzalo's perspective occurs as the conversation turns to the marriage of Alonso's daughter, which has just taken place at Tunis, and Gonzalo remarks that the city has not had a comparable queen “since widow Dido's time.” The remainder of the party are surprised by the mention of Dido, since she was queen of Carthage and not, they insist, of Tunis. Gonzalo replies, “This Tunis, sir, was Carthage,” but Sebastian and Antonio are incredulous:

His word is more than the miraculous harp.
He hath rais'd 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 his son for an apple.


The point here is that the site of Tunis actually is contiguous with the site of ancient Carthage, and in the Renaissance the two cities were often referred to as one and the same; many geographers used the term “Tunis” to refer to the entire region in which both cities were located. More importantly, historians such as Leo Africanus, whose account was incorporated into Richard Hakluyt's Voyages and Richard Eden and Richard Willes's The History of Travayle in the West and East Indies (from which Shakespeare apparently took the name “Setebos”) asserted that the survivors of the ruined Carthage founded Tunis, so that the latter city was, in a sense, Carthage reborn.15 Gonzalo is correct, despite the incredulity and cynicism of Antonio and Sebastian, and the action of The Tempest as a whole confirms that he is correct in his optimism concerning the events of the shipwreck as well. The Tempest not only suggests that there are subjective elements in our perception of the world; it endeavors, furthermore, to persuade us that some interpretations of life are more valid than others: events which seem “impossible” or “miraculous” to some observers may eventually be proven literally true.

Norman Rabkin is correct when he points out that “Shakespeare reminds us in his last plays of the Renaissance commonplace that the artist is a second God creating a second nature … in order to share a more profound perception that God has created our universe as a work of art”;16 Prospero's description of the physical world, “the great globe itself,” as an “insubstantial pageant” which shall one day “dissolve, / And … Leave not a rack behind” (IV.i.153-56) underscores the analogy between the playwright's art and that of the divine Creator. Moreover, Shakespeare also suggests that the human artist, working in concert with the divine, can help us to interpret life correctly. Just as the drama of the broken feast revealed to Alonso the meaning of the previous events of his life, the art of The Tempest as a whole is intended to assist the audience in seeing beyond the literal level of the events of earthly history and apprehending their significance; the purpose of genuine art in The Tempest is to reveal which interpretation of reality is genuine. In the epilogue, however, when the analogy between Prospero's art and Shakespeare's becomes most prominent, the playwright makes clear that he has no power without the audience's imaginative participation—our faith, as it were—in the work of art. It is our “gentle breath”—our higher faculties, associated with the airy spirit, Ariel—which will either confer a degree of reality upon the play, and hence send Prospero to Naples, or leave him confined upon the “bare island” of an empty stage. Prospero's closing lines draw attention to the very close similarity between participation in a community of grace and willing participation in a work of theatrical art:

                                                                                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.

(Epilogue, 13-20)

As Prospero responds charitably to those within his power, so he requests from us a charitable response and an exertion of our visionary imagination which will permit us to assist the artist in his miraculous transformation of the brazen world in which we live into the Golden World of art.


The Tempest arrives at its final vision of human nature through a dialectical process which initially presents us with two diametrically opposed extremes of the Renaissance debate concerning the limits of the human personality. The first clear statement of the pessimistic view of humankind occurs in Miranda's description of Caliban in act 1, scene 2: he is an “Abhorred slave / Which any print of goodness wilt not take, / Being capable of all ill” (I.ii.351-53).17 If Miranda's lines on Caliban remind us of Jean Calvin's view of fallen human nature, her response to her first sight of Ferdinand recalls Pico's Oration: “What, is't a spirit?” she exclaims, “Lord, how it looks about! Believe me, sir, / It carries a brave form. But 'tis a spirit” (I.ii.410-12). Prospero seeks to qualify her naive enthusiasm about Ferdinand by telling her that although “A goodly person,” he is still—at least in part—a mere mortal: “it eats, and sleeps, and hath such senses / As we have” (I.ii.417, 413-14). Unaffected by the moderate words of her father, the young, enraptured lover remains awestruck:

                                                            I might call him
A thing divine, for nothing natural
I ever saw so noble.


Miranda retains her innocent faith in humankind throughout the play. When she first sees Alonso and his company in the final scene, she expresses her admiration in what may well be the most famous lines in The Tempest:

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


Although Shakespeare places these lines in the mouth of a naive adolescent, they nonetheless epitomize the sense of exhiliration felt by those early Renaissance humanists and philosophers who proclaimed that they were entering a new era in which human nature would fulfill its divine potential. Since the audience has become familiar with Antonio, Sebastian, and the others by this point in the play, we hardly need Prospero's line, “'Tis new to thee” (V.i.184), to underscore the irony of the speech; and yet I do not believe that Shakespeare's aim is to discredit Miranda's assessment of humankind entirely. Her faith needs to be qualified, not destroyed, and her innocence and trust are necessary components of the genuine charity which exerts its transforming power throughout the play. Such innocence can be destroyed by experience, but it may subsequently be restored in a more mature form, as it has been in Prospero, whose trial, like that of Pericles and of Leontes in Shakespeare's previous romances, restores to him the somewhat qualified trustfulness and the ability to love which enable him to forgive his enemies in spite of his awareness that some of them may not respond to his clemency. The difference between Miranda's faith and her father's is that Prospero is always aware of the tragic discrepancy between what human beings can become and what most of them actually are; the similarity between Miranda and her father is their shared awareness that humankind possesses a divine spirit which confers upon us a potential for benevolence and creativity. When Miranda tells us that “nothing ill can dwell in such a temple” as Ferdinand's “brave form” (I.ii.457, 412), we should recall Saint Paul's well-known words in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Know ye not, that your bodie is the temple of the holie G[h]ost, which is in you, whome ye have of God? and ye are not your owne.

For ye are bo[u]ght for a price: therefore glorifie God in your bodie, and in your spirit: for they are God[']s.18

An echo of this same passage reverberates in the final line of Gonzalo's summary of the events of The Tempest:

                                                                                In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost; Prospero, his dukedom
In a poor isle; and all us, ourselves,
When no man was his own.

(V.i.208-13, my emphasis)

Shakespeare emphasizes humanity's divine potential in his romances much more insistently than he had in most of his previous works, and this change of emphasis correlates with a striking alteration in Shakespeare's treatment of magic. In the history plays and the tragedies, from the witchcraft of Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part One, and the sorcery of Owen Glendower in Henry IV through the player-villain's poison produced by “natural magic” in Hamlet (III.ii.259) and the evil witches of Macbeth, Shakespeare typically associates magic and sorcery with subversion of proper order and with deception. In Love's Labor's Lost he suggests that the ambition to seek knowledge of “Things hid and barr'd … from common sense” (I.i.57) springs from a proud and foolish attempt to distinguish oneself from ordinary mortals, whom Dumaine terms “the gross world's baser slaves” (I.i.30), and in this early comedy Shakespeare repeatedly mocks the suggestion that study can make us “godlike” (I.i.58).19 While there is some precedent for benevolent magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream and for a positive view of Paracelsian medicine in All's Well That Ends Well and elsewhere,20 only in the romances does Shakespeare affirm boldly the belief that humankind possesses a divine potential which may be fully realized through knowledge, self-discipline, love, and faith. The most explicit statment occurs in act 3 of Pericles, when Cerimon, a magus like Prospero, tells us that “Virtue and cunning” are “endowments greater / Than nobleness and riches,” since the latter are things which one's worldly heirs can dissipate, whereas “immortality attends the former, / Making a man a god” (III.ii.27-31). To the sound of mysterious music, Cerimon miraculously resurrects Thaisa; his art, inspiring wonder in those who witness it, is a means through which heaven rewards those whose love and faith are constant. Similarly, Paulina, in the final scene of The Winter's Tale, instructs the repentant Leontes to awaken his faith as she calls for music and restores to him his lost queen in a scene obviously modelled on the account of the magical animation of statues in the Hermetic Asclepius. Although Paulina's art is not literal magic, as is Prospero's, the scene suggests the extent to which Hermetic sources have stimulated Shakespeare's imagination as he seeks to perfect a genre which will affirm the power of love and faith to dignify humankind and to renew life. Paulina's art achieves its effect through an illusion which becomes reality as Leontes responds to it, and the scene thus suggests the same metaphorical identification between benevolent magic and theatrical art which Shakespeare develops in further detail in The Tempest.

Aware of the dangers of asserting individual freedom, dignity, and power to the exclusion of the value of sustaining the human community, Shakespeare distinguishes carefully in the romances between true and false conceptions of human nobility. In act 2 of The Tempest, when Antonio endeavors to persuade Sebastian to kill Alonso, he tells him, in speeches which may remind us of Tamburlaine or Dr. Faustus, that a man who bears a noble mind should assert his power over his fellow human beings. If Sebastian boldly seizes the opportunity which Fortune has offered him, Antonio suggests, he can master his own destiny. As I suggested in the previous section, Antonio's false conception of nobility is a corollary of his materialistic and cynical conception of the human personality, his denial of the “deity” within the human bosom (II.i.278). Genuine awareness of one's spiritual potential in The Tempest, tempered by an acknowledgment of human passions and limitations, leads not to the desire to dominate, but to the desire to serve; the attempt to destroy the bonds which unite the individual with all of humankind leads, ironically, to enslavement to one's own passions and ambitions.

False conceptions of human nobility and freedom are associated with goetia, such as the evil magic of Sycorax, a travesty of Prospero's benevolent art. Although I am indebted to Frank Kermode's discussion of this contrast between magia and goetia in his important introduction to The Tempest, I would qualify his suggestion that the goetia of Sycorax is “natural” magic, whereas Prospero's is “supernatural” (xxiv-xxv, xl-li); the contrast, as I perceive it, is between evil magic, which is unnatural, and benevolent magic, which draws upon both natural and supernatural powers in order to bring nature to fulfillment. Benevolent art such as Prospero's is in a sense “natural” in that it restores harmony within the natural order. In addition, benevolent art is effected through the human mind, itself a product of nature, although disciplined by art and enlightened by grace. A pertinent explanation occurs in The Winter's Tale, when Polixenes explains to Perdita that

Nature is made better by no mean
But Nature makes that mean; so, over that art
Which you say adds to Nature, is an art
That Nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. This an art
Which does mend Nature—change it rather; but
The art itself is Nature.


Polixenes' explanation of how art “mends” or “changes” nature is similar to Pico's description of benevolent magic in his Oration and to Prospero's art in The Tempest. It is an art which improves uncultivated nature—“the wildest stock”—by marrying it to something more noble. The change occurs when art releases the potential of nature and guides the development of that potential purposefully. It is helpful to recall the emphasis in The Tempest upon marriage as a means of guiding natural creative powers into constructive channels: the physical dimension of nature becomes fulfilled through institutions which are associated with the controlling power of our higher faculties, and the process is completed through religious ceremonies which invoke the aid of divine grace. Our natural powers are gifts which, if used properly, enable us to participate in the process of creative love which defeats time and change; if we abuse them, they become destructive. Prospero's repeated admonitions to chastity, although they may seem overly zealous or even comical to a modern audience, are in accordance with this principle: if Ferdinand keeps his procreative desires within the bounds of the divinely sanctioned institution of marriage, his union with Miranda will be harmonious and fruitful; if not, it will be barren and filled with discord (IV.i.13-22). The marriage ceremony itself is a form of divinely inspired art, just as Prospero's masque or Ariel's music is. It is a means through which grace effects a miraculous change in nature.

The second scene of The Tempest introduces several important terms which help to convey this conception of magic as an art that amends or reforms uncultivated nature. When Prospero describes Antonio's usurpation of Prospero's dukedom, he says that Antonio,

Being once perfected how to grant suits,
How to deny them, who t' advance, and who
To trash for overtopping, new created
The creatures that were mine, I say, or chang'd 'em,
Or else new form'd 'em; having both the key
Of officer and office, set all hearts i' th' state
To what tune pleas'd his ear, that now he was
The ivy which had hid my princely trunk,
And suck'd my verdure out on't.


Antonio's “art” is of course evil, a form of goetia which saps the life of the proper order rather than invigorating it, and it is thus an inverted parody of Prospero's benevolent art, but the words “perfected,” “new created,” “changed,” and “new formed” nonetheless help to establish at an early stage of the play the central emphasis on transformation. The passage also alludes to the magician's marriage of the elm and the vine, and to music, both of which refer in the occult tradition to the influence of heavenly powers upon earthly creation. Music, in particular, was widely believed to possess the power to restore harmony among the faculties of the human personality.21 The passage thus contributes to our growing awareness that Prospero's art seeks to effect restorative transformations. To summarize the contrast between magia and goetia in The Tempest, one should say that benevolent magic fulfills and perfects natural processes, whereas evil magic endeavors to destroy or pervert them. Prospero's art brings nature into conformity with the rational and spiritual planes of reality and thus with Providence. It renews the bonds uniting the human community, whereas goetia seeks to destroy those bonds in order to confer illegitimate power upon a single individual.

The subplot involving Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano dramatizes a comic version of the goetia which parodies Prospero's benevolent art. Caliban ironically subjugates himself to Stephano in an attempt to escape his true master, Prospero, and his false sense of freedom is contrasted with the genuine liberation found by Ferdinand when he submits to Prospero's discipline. While Ferdinand and Miranda become united through mutual service and devotion, the characters in the subplot are united only by self-interest, and hence their union is unstable and transitory. And just as Ferdinand and Miranda perceive each other as godlike, so Caliban regards Stephano as “a brave god” who “bears celestial liquor” (II.ii.117). He wonders whether Trinculo and Stephano have just dropped from heaven. The irony of his remarks is underscored by Stephano's gross jest (II.ii.105-7) that Trinculo, who has been hiding under Caliban's cloak, appears to be the monster's excrement. The episode reminds us of Prospero's reference to Caliban himself as “filth” (I.ii.346). The effect of the scene may be to render absurd—at least temporarily—the idea that the individual is a kind of deity, but the absurdity is relevant only to those characters who exist on a level of development far below Prospero's. The low humor contributes to the debate concerning human nature by reminding us of the basest elements of the human personality, but the purpose of the comic plot, with its perverted worship and its attempt to commit murder in an effort to further the ambitions and lusts of a trio of misguided fools, is to contrast the genuine magic and genuine fulfillment dramatized in the main action. The use of liquor is prominent in the subplot because drunkenness tends to extinguish the higher faculties and leave the appetites without conscious control.22 The clowns' drunkenness also produces a false sense of self-expansion which contrasts with the true self-fulfillment found by Ferdinand and Alonso. This false sense of self-realization entails severing one's ties with one's fellow human beings, whereas true self-fulfillment entails a commitment to the good of the human community.

As Arthur Lovejoy and others have pointed out, The Tempest is in part a satirical commentary upon the optimism concerning uncultivated human nature which Montaigne seemed to express in his essay “On the Cannibals.”23 This “soft” primitivism, which claims that art corrupts rather than perfects nature, is expressed in somewhat whimsical fashion by Gonzalo when he says that if he had “plantation” of the isle, he would establish an ideal commonwealth that would “excel the golden age” (II.i.144, 169). His scheme, reminiscent of the utopianism mocked by Jonson in The Alchemist, would restore humankind to its lost innocence and thus eliminate the need for law or social organization. There would be no hierarchy, no private property, no learning. Although it is possible that Gonzalo is expressing his own naive optimism, it seems more likely that he himself is aware that he is indulging in a fantasy and that Shakespeare is utilizing Gonzalo's speeches to introduce a more extreme optimism concerning the possibility of social reform than any character in the play would seriously profess. Sebastian and Antonio's cynical commentary provides immediate qualification of this naive point of view, not least because we are soon reminded of the human capacity for brutality embodied by Antonio in particular. But perhaps the most devastating critique of the apparent idealization of “natural” humankind is Shakespeare's characterization of Caliban, who serves as a flesh-and-blood example of what uncultivated human nature is really like. Although Caliban develops into a character who eludes complete categorization, he is, in part, representative of human nature in a fallen and perverted condition, a reminder of what human beings may become if our baser elements are uncontrolled. In the tragedies, perhaps most notably King Lear, unnatural cruelty and egotism are repeatedly described as “monstrous”; in The Tempest, the verbal image is replaced by a visual one, an actual monster whom we find to be “as disproportion'd in his manners / As in his shape” (V.i.291-92). One of the ways in which The Tempest contains the potential for tragic destruction epitomized in Caliban is by the creation, in Prospero, of a character who has attained the power to master the destructive potential of such a beast. Moreover, The Tempest suggests the process through which such mastery is achieved, as we watch Prospero teaching both Ferdinand and Alonso to remember not only their potential for godlike benevolence but also the guilt which is their mortal inheritance. As Prospero admits his own mortal limits when he points to Caliban and says, “this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (V.i.275-76), the play closes with an admonition that our better selves can be liberated only if we remember those aspects of our personalities which must be controlled if they are to be fulfilled and, perhaps, transcended.

Each of the works explored in this study is unique in its artistic methods and its philosophical implications, and it is obvious that no final comparison can be exhaustive. Yet I would venture to say that the distinctive character of The Tempest derives in large part from its calm—one is tempted to say serene—sense of balance. The play permits us to entertain the possibility that humankind possesses an unknown, perhaps indeterminate, creative potential, and yet the heart of the work is its insistence that we cannot fulfill ourselves until we discover our proper relationship with our fellow human beings. One of Shakespeare's most impressive achievements is his ability to face the truth about the human capacity for destruction, yet leave us with a feeling of hope. As we appreciate the intricacy of the symbolic structure of The Tempest, we may also feel that the quality of our aesthetic experience is derived from the play's power to make us feel with renewed intensity the validity of those insights, attitudes, and values which confer upon human life its deepest significance.

Eugenio Garin has described with moving eloquence the essential motivation behind the studies and the teaching of the humanist movement initiated in the Renaissance. To the humanists, Garin writes,

antiquity was indeed not only a field in which to exercise their scholarly curiosity, but also a living example. In their eyes, classical antiquity had achieved a wonderful fullness of life and of harmony and had both expressed these achievements and handed them down in works of art and thought as perfect as that life itself. To come into contact with these monuments and with the minds behind them was like an ideal conversation with perfect men and allowed one to learn from them the meaning of existence. If one opens one's heart humbly to those wonderful works and transforms oneself, as it were, through love into them, one can regenerate oneself by absorbing so much human richness and thus reconquer the mastery over all the treasures of the mind.24

The critical habits of mind which Professor Garin himself admires make it difficult for us to accept the word “perfect,” and modern criticism has raised formidable doubts concerning the possibility of the form of communion which Garin describes. The Tempest itself makes us aware of the limitations of art, and it encourages us to affirm the revelatory and redemptive power of Shakespeare's work only with significant qualifications. And yet the play also invites us to an act of faith. It suggests that if we exert our imagination, our vision may, in fact, coincide with that of the artist. If such a miracle does in fact occur, it may contribute to a magical transformation of our perception of ourselves and the world around us.


  1. References to Shakespeare's plays are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans and others.

  2. Douglas Peterson provides fine commentary on the restoration of faith in the romances in Time, Tide, and Tempest, esp. 3-36. I should add, however, that I do not think it necessary to abandon altogether G. Wilson Knight's suggestion that the last plays embody what Knight terms “the triumphant mysticism of the dream of love's perfected fruition in eternity stilling the tumultuous waves of time” (The Crown of Life, 26). Professor Peterson implies (e.g., 45) that he feels obliged to disagree with Knight in this respect, arguing that in Shakespeare's view of time, “the Augustinian dichotomy between the eternal and the temporal no longer separates this world from eternity, but is now manifest in things. Thus man can no longer simply dismiss temporality for the sake of contemplation” (21). While I agree with much of Peterson's commentary, I would stress that Renaissance thinkers often regarded the eternal as both immanent and transcendent; an ambivalent attitude toward the mutable world is therefore characteristic of much of Renaissance literature, including Shakespeare. Moreover, the central, unifying metaphor of the “sea-change” in The Tempest points toward the operation of universal principles of order on more than one ontological level: love and faith renew life both on the level of the world of generation on which Professor Peterson focuses and on the transcendent level with which Professor Knight is concerned.

  3. Ficino, Theologia Platonica, 2:260.

  4. West, Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery, 86, emphasis altered. My contention, of course, is that Prospero is a “‘holy magician’ like the Apostles,” in accordance with Renaissance Neoplatonic theory.

  5. Mowat, “Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus Pocus”; C. J. Sisson, “The Magic of Prospero.” See also Mowat's The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare's Romances, esp. 30-31. The comparison of the magus to the benevolent monarch is developed in various ways by Sisson; Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power, 44-49; Gary Schmidgall, Shakespeare and the Courtly Aesthetic; and R. A. D. Grant, “Providence, Authority, and the Moral Life in The Tempest.” Additional discussions of Prospero's art as corrupt or ambiguous include Cosmo Corfield, “Why Does Prospero Abjure His ‘Rough Magic?’”; Patrick Grant, “The Magic of Charity: A Background to Prospero,” esp. 8-9; and David Young, The Heart's Forest, 146-91.

    Barbara Traister, in Heavenly Necromancers, 1-64 and 125-49, recognizes the multiple sources of The Tempest while developing a convincing argument concerning the benevolence of Prospero's art. Walter Clyde Curry's Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns, 141-99, contributed much to our understanding of the nature of Prospero's magic, but his book was written long before the important recent research on Renaissance occultism. Relying more heavily on ancient and Hellenistic philosophers than on Ficino, Pico, or Agrippa, for example, Curry asserts that the goal of the magician was to attain the impassive status of the gods (cf. also Traister, 140-43); more characteristic of Renaissance occultists—and of The Tempest—is the conviction that the magus imitates God by caring providentially for the lower world.

    I am indebted to Derek Traversi's discussion of the pattern of disruption and restoration of harmony in “The Last Plays of Shakespeare” and his Shakespeare: The Last Phase, 193-272; and to Frank Kermode's treatment of Prospero's art as a civilizing force in his Introduction to The Tempest, xxiv-lxiii. While specific points of indebtedness and disagreement appear below, I may say in general that whereas Traversi and Kermode tend to stress Prospero's rational control of the passions, my own primary emphasis is on the suprarational and visionary dimensions of the magician's art.

  6. Ficino, Theologia Platonica, 2:229: “Hinc admiramur quod animae hominum Deo deditae imperent elementis, citent ventos, nubes cogent in pluvias, nebulas pellant, humanorum corporum curent morbos et reliqua.” All of bk. 13, chaps. 4 and 5 (2:229-45), is relevant.

  7. Jackson Cope, The Theater and the Dream, 236-44. Barbara Mowat, in “Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus Pocus,” points out correctly that Agrippa is, quite typically, inconsistent on the matter of raising the dead, condemning it in his initial disclaimer and subsequently “claiming that sometimes the magus ‘receiveth this miraculous power’ to ‘command the Elements, drive away Fogs, raise the winds … raise the dead’”; this quotation from Agrippa (obviously revealing Agrippa's debt to Ficino's Theologia, 2:229 et passim) is from the 1651 translation, 357, quoted by Mowat, 288, n. 14.

  8. See Ficino, Theologia Platonica, 2:206 and 243-45; and cf. Curry, 177 ff. On the “tempest” as an alchemical process, see Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, 191. On the limitations of evil magic, see Pico's Oratio (De hominis dignitate), ed. Garin, 148-54; Lambert Daneau, A Dialogue of Witches, sigs. F1r-G2v et passim; William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 157-59; and James I, Daemonologie, 4 et passim.

  9. See also I.ii.217. Prospero's concern extends not only to Ferdinand, whom he wishes to marry Miranda, but to every soul on the ship.

  10. On this scene, see Reuben Brower's “The Mirror of Analogy: The Tempest,” 116-17, and Traversi, Shakespeare: The Last Phase, 251-54.

  11. See Pico's Oratio, ed. Garin, 152: “Et sicut agricola ulmos vitibus, ita Magus terram caelo, idest inferiora superiorum dotibus virtutibusque maritat” (“As the farmer marries elms to vines, so the magus marries earth to heaven, that is, lower things to the gifts and virtues of higher things”). Pico also refers to humankind as the intermediary between the spiritual and material worlds, the “nuptial bond” which unites “the steadfastness of eternity and the flow of time”: “Horum dictorum rationem cogitanti mihi non satis illa faciebant, quae multa de humanae naturae praestantia afferuntur a multis: esse hominem creaturarum internuntium, superis familiarem, regem inferiorum; sensuum perspicacia, rationis indagine, intelligentiae lumine, naturae interpretem; stabilis aevi et fluxi temporis interstitium, et (quod Persae dicunt) mundi copulam, immo hymenaeum, ab angelis, teste Davide, paulo deminutum” (Garin ed., 102). Pico goes on to praise the human soul's marvellous powers of self-transformation as the basis of human dignity and freedom.

  12. A. Lynne Magnusson, “Interruption in The Tempest.” Among the most important and closely reasoned arguments in favor of the relativism and/or ambivalence of The Tempest are those of Barbara Mowat's “Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus Pocus,” David Young's The Heart's Forest, 146-91, and David Lindley's “Music, Masque, and Meaning in The Tempest.” D. D. Carnicelli has argued, in “The Widow and the Phoenix: Dido, Carthage, and Tunis in The Tempest,” that Shakespeare's art “stands closer to Pirandello and to Beckett and Ionesco and the Theatre of the Absurd than to the techniques we have come to expect of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama” (433).

  13. See Alvin Kernan, The Playwright as Magician, 129-59; and Traister, Heavenly Necromancers, 125-49. Robert Egan, in Drama within Drama, 90-119, has argued that because Prospero himself cannot initially accept human imperfections, his art, throughout most of the play, is too highly idealized to withstand the intrusions of reality.

  14. Cf. Kenneth J. Semon, “Fantasy and Wonder in Shakespeare's Last Plays”; Cope, The Theater and the Dream, 236-44. Joan Hartwig, in Shakespeare's Tragicomic Vision, 137-74, comments perceptively on the “transference of ultimate control to a human actor” (137) in the play, as well as upon Prospero's art as an effort to expand the vision of other characters. My own previous study of dream visions in Shakespeare occurs in “Structure, Source, and Meaning in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

  15. On the geography of the region, see, for example, Abraham Ortelius, Epitome of the Theater of the World, sigs. 106v-107r. I am also indebted to Professor Carnicelli's thorough reserch in “The Widow and the Phoenix” on the historical and geographical works by Africanus, Hakluyt, and Eden and Willes. (Richard Eden's Decades of the New Worlde was enlarged by Eden and his follower Richard Willes and published as The History of Travayle.) Professor Carnicelli argues, however, that because there were various traditions concerning Dido's moral character and, to a lesser extent, the question of whether Tunis and Carthage were identical or merely contiguous, the scene suggests a form of relativism rather than a confirmation of Gonzalo's point of view. I find it difficult to see how this conclusion follows from Carnicelli's research on Carthage and Tunis, especially in view of his own important observation that among the texts available in Shakespeare's day there was “an almost eerie unanimous willingness—almost an eagerness—to accept Carthage as a vivid example of the endless process of historical decay and renewal” (432).

  16. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, 139.

  17. Many modern editors (G. B. Harrison, for example, in Shakespeare: The Complete Works) have attributed Miranda's speech to Prospero. Except for sentimentality with regard to Miranda, however, there is little justification for thus altering the reading of the folio. In fact, assigning this speech to Prospero tends to diminish the contrast between Miranda's lines on Caliban and her description of Ferdinand.

  18. 1 Cor. 6:19-20, quoted from the Geneva Bible. On Shakespeare's use of the Geneva Bible, see Peter Milward, Shakespeare's Religious Background, 86.

  19. See also Berowne's comic reference to himself as being “like a demigod” at IV.iii.78. Occult philosophy is only one of several kinds of false learning which Love's Labor's Lost satirizes, however; studies such as Frances Yates's A Study of Love's Labor's Lost and Muriel Bradbrook's The School of Night, although they offer some tantalizing suggestions, ultimately become lost in speculation concerning topical references rather than focusing upon the spirit of the plays as a whole. Similar problems occur in Yates's discussion of the romances in Shakespeare's Last Plays.

  20. Allusions to the Paracelsian emphasis on spiritual and psychic harmony are explored by J. Scott Bentley in “Helena's Paracelsian Cure of the King: Magia Naturalis in All's Well That Ends Well.

  21. On the role of music in magical theory, see above, Chapter 2. In addition to the uses of music in Shakespeare's romances, one may recall the prominence of music in the restoration scene in act 4 of King Lear.

    The relationship between magia and goetia in The Tempest illustrates yet another facet of Shakespeare's use of parody and analogical structure, techniques which have been explored in detail by Joan Hartwig in Shakespeare's Analogical Scene; for Hartwig's discussion of these devices in The Tempest, see 182-90.

  22. See Traversi, “Last Plays,” esp. 444-45.

  23. Arthur Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas, 238, cited by Kermode, xxxiv. Kermode expands Lovejoy's point on xxxiv-xliii.

  24. Garin, Italian Humanism, 77.

Works Cited

Bentley, J. Scott. “Helena's Paracelsian Cure of the King: Magia Naturalis in All's Well That Ends Well.Cauda Pavonis: The Hermetic Text Society Newsletter, n.s. 5, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 1-4.

Bradbrook, Muriel C. The School of Night: A Study in the Literary Relationships of Sir Walter Ralegh. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936.

Brower, Reuben. “The Mirror of Analogy: The Tempest.” In The Fields of Light, 95-122. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1951. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Carnicelli, D. D. “The Widow and the Phoenix: Dido, Carthage, and Tunis in The Tempest.Harvard Library Bulletin 27 (1979): 389-433.

Cope, Jackson I. The Theater and the Dream: From Metaphor to Form in Renaissance Drama. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973.

Corfield, Cosmo. “Why Does Prospero Abjure His ‘Rough Magic’?” Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 31-48.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1937. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1968.

Daneau, Lambert [Danaus, Lambertus]. A Dialogue of Witches. London: R. W., 1575.

Eden, Richarde, and Richarde Willes, eds. and trans. The History of Travayle in the West and East Indies, and other countreys lying eyther way. London: Richarde Iugge, 1577. Often catalogued under “Anglerius, Petrus Martyr,” or Peter Martyr, the author of the Decades of the Newe Worlde, a work incorporated into the History. See Carnicelli, “The Widow and the Phoenix” (q.v.), 422.

Egan, Robert. Drama within Drama: Shakespeare's Sense of His Art in “King Lear,” “The Winter's Tale,” and “The Tempest.” New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1975.

Ficino, Marsilio. Platonic Theology, Book 3, Chapter 2; Book 13, Chapter 3; Book 14, Chapters 3 and 4. Trans. Josephine L. Burroughs. Journal of the History of Ideas 5 (1944): 227-39.

Garin, Eugenio. Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance. Trans. Peter Munz. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Grant, Patrick. “The Magic of Charity: A Background to Prospero.” Review of English Studies 27 (1976): 1-16.

Grant, R. A. D. “Providence, Authority, and the Moral Life in The Tempest.Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 235-63.

Haklvyt, Richard. Voyages. London: Everyman's Library, 1962.

Harrison, G. B., ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1948.

Hartwig, Joan. Shakespeare's Tragicomic Vision. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1972.

James I of England. Daemonologie. Ed. G. B. Harrison. 1924. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966. Originally published in Edinburgh in 1597 and reprinted in London in 1603. Also contains Newes from Scotland, an account of a witchcraft trial in which James was personally involved.

Kermode, Frank. Introduction to The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. The New Arden Shakespeare. 6th ed. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1958.

Kernan, Alvin. The Playwright as Magician. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Crown of Life. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947.

Lindley, David, “Music, Masque, and Meaning in The Tempest.” In Lindley, The Court Masque (q.v.), 47-59.

Lovejoy, Arthur. Essays in the History of Ideas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1948.

Milward, Peter. Shakespeare's Religious Background. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1973.

Mowat, Barbara. The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare's Romances. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976.

———. “Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus Pocus.” English Literary Renaissance 11 (1981): 281-303.

Orgel, Stephen. The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1975.

Ortelius, Abraham. Epitome of the Theater of the World. Rev. M. Coignet. London: I. Shawe, 1603.

Perkins, William. A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft … Framed and Delivered by M. William Perkins, in his ordinarie course of Preaching, and now published by Tho. Pickering. Printed by Cantrel Legge, Printer to the Universitie of Cambridge, 1608.

Peterson, Douglas L. Time, Tide, and Tempest: A Study of Shakespeare's Romances. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1973.

Peterson, Richard S. “The Iconography of Jonson's Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue.Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 5 (1975): 123-53.

Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni (1463-94). De hominis dignitate, Heptaplus, De ente et uno, e scritti vari. Ed. Eugenio Garin. Florence: Vallechi Editore, 1942.

Rabkin, Norman. Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981.

Schmidgall, Gary. Shakespeare and the Courtly Aesthetic. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1981.

Semon, Kenneth J. “Fantasy and Wonder in Shakespeare's Last Plays.” Shakespeare Quarterly 25 (1974): 89-102.

Shumaker, Wayne. The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1972.

Sisson, C. J. “The Magic of Prospero.” Shakespeare Survey 11 (1958): 70-77.

Traister, Barbara. Heavenly Necromancers: The Magician in English Renaissance Drama. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1984.

Traversi, D. A. Shakespeare: The Last Phase. London: Hollis and Carter, 1954.

West, Robert. Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery. Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1968.

Yates, Frances. A Study of “Love's Labor's Lost.” Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936.

Young, David. The Heart's Forest: A Study of Shakespeare's Pastoral Plays. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1972.

Karen Fricker (review date 10 January 2000)

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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 Frawley.

This Tempest was not only the Abbey's final production of the millennium but the last under Patrick Mason's six-year tenure as artistic director. Interestingly, and generously, Mason opted not to helm here, choosing instead Conall Morrison, an Abbey associate director and Irish theater's golden boy of the moment (his production of Martin Guerre is currently touring the U.S. on the way to Broadway).

Morrison's past large-scale productions have reveled in the metatheatrical, displaying an ability to marshal all the forces of theater into a celebration of the medium itself; pairing him with the play that is often read as Shakespeare's own reckoning with the theatrical art would therefore have seemed inspired.

And Frawley's set indicates that the creative team has chosen to engage the play's meta-theatrical themes: The stage is dominated by a huge, dilapidated Victorian proscenium arch with its crimson velvet curtain still hanging in place; a matching tier of box seats is propped on the other side of the stage, past a sand-covered playing area, and several rows of clapped-out theater seats slant crazily up- and offstage.

The island where the action takes place is clearly meant to represent a theater (the Theater itself, perhaps), and its magical, supernatural qualities—the “rough magic” that Prospero harnesses and then abjures—are theater's ability to enchant an audience.

But that the script has been altered here to make the production's first line a frustrated shout from Prospero—“This island's mine!”—also establishes a political reading. This makes good, topical sense; Prospero's domination of the island and its native inhabitants is often seen as a parable of colonialism and its ending a model of reconciliation. Parallels to Ireland's troubled colonial past and the current spirit of peacemaking would seem to abound.

But after the vigorous launching of these thematic currents, the treatment of the play itself feels like something of an afterthought. The problems begin with the opening storm scene: There's so much energy put into the stagecraft—the mariners and nobles struggle on and around a rope ladder while Prospero's sprite-servant Ariel swings madly on a chandelier—that the dialogue gets completely lost.

There's nothing magical in the episodic presentation of different plotlines, which have never felt so unrelated. Miranda and Ferdinand meet, court, and fall in love; the displaced Italian nobles wander the island punning and plotting; and the angry native Caliban and the lost Italian servants enact their own master-slave drama.

A solid company of actors are allowed to do what they're individually good at, but there's no sense of ensemble. That Shakespeare is rarely performed in Ireland is clear in the company's uneven skill levels in speaking verse. The value of training is clearly in evidence in RSC veteran Lalor Roddy's wonderfully crystal-clear line readings as the chief schemer Antonio.

Lorcan Cranitch, in contrast, makes an inconclusive Prospero: His understanding of the verse seems uncertain, and when he's not visible, there's little sense that he is controlling everything through his magic. Ariel and the spirits look wild enough, with their long beaded braids and half-streetwise/half-wispy togs, but David Bolger and Muirne Bloomer's dances come off as set pieces rather than natural extensions of the action.

And what is the overall message here? At the end of the play, Prospero releases Ariel from slavery and she flees into the auditorium. The actors then all seem to drop character, chat among themselves, and settle down for a nice onstage nap. So theater is a pretense, an “insubstantial pageant,” and after conflicts are resolved we can all lie down together? Swell.

But the vile plotters Antonio and Sebastian, who have the production's strongest Northern Irish accents, stay in character; they sneer at the peaceful scene as the lights go to black. The pessimistic implication—that the current atmosphere of peace in Ireland won't last because the North is still angry—feels simplistic and tacked-on.

There have been many merits of Mason's reign as Abbey supremo, bringing bright lights like Morrison into the fold not least among them. But the pairing of this still-young director (he's 33) and Shakespeare's late play clearly feels premature. The Abbey, as a result, sees out the millennium with a whimper.

Matt Wolf (review date 12 June 2000)

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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 can that be, one might well ask, having watched this performer take so many risks throughout her career that merely inheriting a role once played by her father would seem the least of her exercises in bravado? The problem, I suspect, lies in the lack of an authoritative outside eye to shape an intriguing array of ideas that, for the moment, doesn't equal a performance. The play's eloquent appeal to “melting the darkness” notwithstanding, Redgrave has yet to reach that alchemical destination.

That's in no way to question the casting of an actress who, on paper at least, is a tremendous prospect for the role. Having launched her career with a Rosalind that has become the stuff of legend, it surely makes sense for Redgrave—now in her 60s—to turn to another Shakespearean character who steps outside the play at the dose, albeit in a more melancholic guise than the heroine of As You Like It. Nor should a woman cause any confusion taking on this male assignment.

It's not just that Redgrave, with her considerable frame and build, can easily suggest a mannish demeanor: As clothed with Wellington boots and a fez by Bjanka Ursulov, the actress first resembles the Vita Sackville-West whom she played Off Broadway in 1994, until the addition of a leather coat in the second act puts one in mind of Mata Hari.

More important than attire is the fact that Prospero—much like Richard II when Fiona Shaw took on that part at the National Theater five years ago—in some ways exists beyond gender: He is displaced duke of Milan, exile and even enchanter first, whatever we mean by man (or woman) afterward.

The best way, indeed, to approach this Tempest might be to banish expectation, so that the often surprising strengths of Lenka Udovicki's staging—and they are real—are released as quietly as Geraldine Alexander's white-faced Ariel, whose own best moment comes with her final disappearance into the audience once she has been liberated by Prospero.

The Globe has very much presented itself as a theater about play in the four years that artistic director Mark Rylance (last season's cross-dressed Cleopatra) has been programming plays there. And this production, more than any I have seen at this address so far, is nothing if not playful.

That's not only to do with breaking the fourth wall, an accomplishment dubiously arrived at with Redgrave's sternly spoken “no tongues,” followed by a “you be silent” to the crowd lest any of us giggle at Prospero's overinvestment in Miranda and Ferdinand's locked lips. (Not at all funny are the amateurish perfs of the lovers.)

Far more resonant is the triumphant teamwork of this play's comic triple act, Caliban (Jasper Britton), Trinculo (Steven Alvey, an utterly endearing Simon Russell Beale look-alike) and Stefano (Steffan Rhodri), the collective bane of many a staging who—in a play about usurpation—here manage to do precisely that.

Of course they address the “groundlings” (those audience members standing throughout the play), characterizing at least one unwitting onlooker as a “hedgehog.” But the three also reach out to one another, enacting their own calamitous ceremony of misrule until Caliban—in Britton's bravely stirring performance—reminds us of the poet buried beneath the mud-caked brute.

(If the actor manages to survive the run without getting pneumonia, that will be an act of sorcery beyond any in Prospero's charge, given Britton's largely unclothed presence on a cold, damp stage.)

What this almost defiantly pre-Freudian Tempest doesn't convey are the psychological underpinnings of a play steeped in issues of power, domination and freedom, as embodied first by Prospero with Miranda and then with Ariel, as well as by Caliban and his drunken, debauched sidekicks.

That's partly because Redgrave's newly acquired low, harsh voice—an accent inexplicably flecked with Celtic (an editorial comment on England's domination of Ireland? Who knows?)—seems willfully short on rapture, as if to surrender to the sheer humanity of the play would be to “feminize” it in some indefinable way.

If Redgrave had to alter her voice at all, and I'm in no way sure that she did, a golden opportunity is let slip near the end after the reference to “all of us ourselves.” There, one feels, is the chance for a singular talent to give vent to her own startling and singular voice—what one might call Redgrave herself.

But no: The actress remains glum-voiced and one-note even as Prospero bids us farewell, the “revels” ended of a performance in which, sadly, they never really began.

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

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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' Marina, Imogen and Perdita. Despite the echoes of past creations, the characters in The Tempest are as much sui generis as the play's structure and language.

Ben Jonson included a Prospero and a Stephano in the first version of Every Man in his Humour (1598), which makes it tempting to imagine that Shakespeare, who appears in Every Man's cast list, once performed Jonson's Prospero. But the resemblance between the two characters is in name only. Prospero, ironically enough, means ‘fortunate’ or ‘prosperous’ but, like Shakespeare's magician, the name has often belied reality. For example, William Thomas's Historie of Italie (1549), sometimes suggested as a direct source for The Tempest (Bullough, 8.249-50), describes the fate of Prospero Adorno, who was established by Ferdinando, Duke of Milan, as the Governor of Genoa. According to Thomas, Prospero was deposed; the citizens ‘(remembryng how thei were best in quiet, whan they were subjectes to the Duke of Millaine) returned of newe to be under the Milanese dominion: and than was Antony Adorno made governour of the citee for the Duke’ (Thomas, 182). Whether or not Shakespeare took the names of Ferdinand and the brothers Prospero and Antonio from Thomas, the latter's account of a brother's treachery provides an intriguing analogue.

Prospero is ‘fortunate’ in that after twelve years of suffering on a lonely island he sees his daughter happily betrothed and is at long last restored to his dukedom. He is clearly the play's central character; he has far more lines than anyone else1 and manipulates the other characters throughout. One's reaction to Prospero almost inevitably determines one's response to the entire play. In the eighteenth century, when the magus was perceived as an enlightened and benign philosophe, the play seemed a magical comedy; by the late twentieth century, when Prospero had come to be viewed as a tetchy, if not tyrannical, imperialist, the play itself seemed more problematic.

Congruent with these changing interpretations were different physical images of the magus. From the eighteenth century into the twentieth, he was customarily depicted on stage and in visual representations as an old, grey-bearded sage; in many late twentieth-century commentaries, he is presented as middle-aged, which reflects partly a better knowledge of Renaissance royal culture and partly the influence of Freudian theories. Renaissance princes usually married early. Since Miranda is apparently his only offspring (whose mother presumably died giving birth) and is now approximately 15, Prospero could be as young as 35. The range of his emotions attests to a nature still in development, and his comment at the play's finale that ‘Every third thought shall be my grave’ is most likely the mature reflection of middle age that time is not limitless. When Richard Burbage (1567-1619) performed Prospero's role in 1611, he was 44 (Shakespeare was 47), which reinforces our impression of Prospero as between 40 and 45, but no older. If this is indeed the case, an underlying motive for his urgency for the match with Ferdinand may be incestuous feelings for his own daughter. As some recent critics and performances have emphasized, he needs to get her off the island and married, for his own sake as well as hers.

Throughout the play Prospero displays ‘a superb combination of power and control’ in his relations to others (Kahn, 239). His stance throughout is authoritarian, which may explain the changing reaction to his role over the centuries. As Duke, he was reponsible for the health of his duchy; his inattention to politics invited Antonio's coup d'état twelve years before the play begins; when Prospero resumes his ducal robes at the play's conclusion, there is some question as to what kind of ruler he will be now. His willingness to relinquish his books, the source of his earlier distraction, suggests that he will take a more ‘hands-on’ approach, perhaps replacing the information gathered by Ariel by using his own surveillance techniques to monitor Antonio and Sebastian.

Prospero is also … a magician. He wears magic robes, uses a magic staff and refers to his books on magic. Magic is his technology, a means to the end of getting what he wants. But a central ambiguity in the play is what he wants. Does he plan a spectacular revenge against his enemies? His disjointed language and palpable anguish in 1.2.66-132 suggest the rage that has festered for twelve years, but his plan for Miranda's marriage to Ferdinand makes it less likely that he intends real harm to her future father-in-law. Prospero's angry outburst in the midst of the masquers' festive dance in 4.1 reveals a mind distempered by crimes he cannot forgive, yet he claims to have forgiven the courtiers at the play's conclusion, partly in response to Ariel's remonstrance and partly because he must if Miranda's union with Ferdinand is to succeed. Prospero's darker side, moreover, is emphasized by his being the mirror image to Sycorax. Like Prospero, she arrived with a child, though hers (Caliban) was still in the womb; like him, she used her magic (witchcraft) to control the elements. But Sycorax's powers are presented as demonic, and until he echoes the sorceress Medea's invocation in 5.1.33-50, Prospero construes his own magic as benign: ‘There's no harm done’ (1.2.15). Still, the parallel underlies the play and casts an ambiguous shadow on the magician.

Perhaps Prospero's most controversial role is that of master. In his service are Ariel, who serves under oral contract for an unstated period (1.2.245-50), and Caliban, enslaved by Prospero a year or two earlier, the text implies, for his sexual assault on a recently pubescent Miranda. Although Prospero handles both subordinates with threats of confinement and bodily pain, and although he is, in many modern interpretations, unduly strict and often petulant towards them, at the end he sets Ariel free ahead of schedule and, perhaps, leaves Caliban to fend for himself when the Europeans return to Italy. Prospero is equally impatient with Ferdinand, whom he temporarily forces to do manual labour. Ferdinand's service is short-lived, however, and he is rewarded with Miranda as a bride.2

In the effort to control his fellows, Prospero also seeks to monopolize the narrative. He burdens Miranda in 1.2 with one of the lengthiest expositions in all Shakespearean drama, and at his concluding invitation to the courtiers to pass the night in his cave, he promises to recount the events of his twelve-year exile. His anger at the plot devised by Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo may result in part from their threat to set up a competing narrative; Caliban wants to get his island back (even if Stephano is king), just as Prospero wants to get his dukedom back, and Caliban's plot to kill Prospero would, if successful, destroy the magus's plans. Caliban's and Prospero's conflicting perspectives produce contrary accounts of key events.

If Prospero can be said to ‘prosper’, Miranda is also aptly named with the feminine form of the gerundive of the Latin verb miror, ‘wonder’. Ferdinand exclaims, ‘O, you wonder!’ when he first meets her, and her response to her newly discovered relatives in the famous line, ‘O wonder! … O brave new world!’ (5.1.181-3), bespeaks her own amazement at a world now opening before her.

Miranda's role within The Tempest's authoritarian framework is first as a daughter and then as a future wife. But even though she conveniently (or magically) falls in love with the man of her father's choice, Miranda is not as meek and submissive as she is often portrayed. She clandestinely (she thinks) meets Ferdinand without permission and then disobeys her father's command not to reveal her name. Earlier, her stinging rebuke of Caliban (1.2.352-63) reveals an assertive young woman. Still, despite occasional disobedience and outspokenness, Miranda remains the chaste ideal of early modern womanhood. Central to Prospero's ‘obsession with themes of chastity and fertility’ (Thompson, 47), Miranda is his raison d'être, her marriage and future children his promise of immortality.

Although Miranda is central to The Tempest's story line, Prospero's two servants play more vocal and dynamic roles; both have problematic names. ‘Ariel’ must have had rich resonances for a Jacobean audience: ‘Uriel’, the name of an angel in the Jewish cabala, was John Dee's spirit-communicant during his ill-fated experiments with magic (French, 111-17). Even richer are the biblical nuances. Although the Bishops' Bible equates Ariel with the city of Jerusalem, marginalia to Isaiah, 29, of the Geneva Bible observe that ‘The Ebrewe worde Ariel signifieth the lyon of God, & signifieth the altar, because the altar semed to devoure the sacrifice that was offred to God’. Ariel is thus an appropriate appellation for the powerful magus's agent who contrives a storm and a disappearing banquet. In the Bishops' Bible, the prophet declares that the altar of Jerusalem ‘shall be visited of the Lord of hostes with thundre, and shaking, and a great noyse, a whirlwinde, and a tempest, and a flame of devouring fyre’. Ariel describes his activity in the storm:

Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin
I flamed amazement. Sometime I'd divide
And burn in many places—on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join.


The prophet Isaiah continues, ‘And it shalbe like as an hungrie man dreameth, and beholde, he eateth: and when he awaketh, his soule is emptie … For the Lord hath covered you with a spirit of slomber and hath shut up your eyes’—metaphors that are reified in 2.1 when a ‘strange drowsiness’ possesses the Neapolitans and in 3.3 when ‘the banquet vanishes’. By 1610 Shakespeare probably had heard Isaiah, 29, expounded in church and perhaps had read it at home; whether he turned directly to the bible or drew on subconscious recollections while he wrote, the image of Ariel as the ‘lyon of God’ speaking through flood and fire reverberates in The Tempest.

Prospero describes Ariel as ‘quaint’, ‘delicate’, ‘dainty’, and ‘tricksy’ (1.2.318; 4.1.49; 5.1.95, 226). Although Prospero is angered by the sprite's momentary rebellion in 1.2, usually master and servant seem fond of each other, and for most of the play Ariel gladly and expeditiously complies with his master's requests. (In some recent performances, however, such as Simon Russell Beale's in the 1993-4 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ariel is palpably resentful of Prospero. As an airy spirit, Ariel can be seen as one pole in a neo-Platonic dualism: Air as opposed to Caliban's Earth. Thus Ariel is usually portrayed in illustrations as airborne, sometimes with wings, and is often attached to ropes or wires in stage performances. Caliban, in stark contrast, is usually hunched and close to the earth, often, in illustrations and stage productions, emerging from a rocky or subterranean cave. Ariel is also associated with water: the spirit implements the tempest and is disguised as a ‘nymph o'th' sea’ (1.2.302). Air and water connote lightness, fluidity and grace of movement. Accordingly, Ariel is often enacted by performers trained to be dancers; Caliban is contrastingly awkward, often impeded by fins, or a hunched back, or even, as in the Trinity Repertory production of 1982, in Providence, Rhode Island, with his feet strapped to the tops of stools three feet high.

Although The Tempest's cast of characters and the text itself identify Ariel as a non-human, though rational, spirit, he has independent thoughts and feelings. He refused, says Prospero, to enact Sycorax's ‘earthy and abhorred commands’ (1.2.272-4), and he urges Prospero to choose forgiveness over vengeance (5.1.16-19). Still, Ariel once served the sorceress and is the main instrument of Prospero's illusionistic power. The magician even calls Ariel a ‘malignant thing’ (1.2.257), though admittedly in a moment of pique. In sum, he should not be seen simply as the ‘Virtue’ to Caliban's ‘Vice’, but as a complex character who asks for Prospero's affection: ‘Do you love me, master? No?’ (4.1.48)

Caliban's nature and history are more controversial than his fellow servant's, as is the source of his name. A rough consensus has long prevailed that because Caliban is an anagram for ‘cannibal’, Shakespeare thereby identified the ‘savage’ in some way with anthropophagism. Cannibals were topical in Shakespeare's day (though probably less than in the previous century), partly because reports from the New World insisted that some natives consumed human flesh and partly because simultaneous reports from sub-Saharan Africa, often drawing on ancient myths, made similar claims. In America, the association of anthropophagism with the Carib Indians provided the etymological source for ‘cannibal’, a term that in the sixteenth century gradually replaced the classical ‘anthropophagi’. Simultaneously, ‘Caribana’ soon became a common geographical label, widely used by cartographers for the northern region of South America, while other forms of ‘Carib’ were associated with various New World peoples and locations.3 Shakespeare might have borrowed ‘cannibal’ or one of its many variants from narratives of New World travel, or from contemporary maps, or, as has often been proposed, from the title and text of Montaigne's ‘Of the Caniballes’, to fashion an imprecise but readily recognizable anagram. The necessity of dropping a superfluous ‘n’ or ‘e’ and of substituting ‘l’ for ‘r’—the latter was frequent in transliterations of native languages—would not, perhaps, have interfered with an audience's awareness of the anagram.

If Shakespeare intended an anagrammatic name for his deformed savage, it was too obvious or too cryptic for printed comment until 1778, when the second edition of Samuel Johnson and George Steeven's Tempest attributed to Richard Farmer, a prominent Cambridge University scholar, the notion that Caliban was ‘cannibal’ in verbal disguise. Although adherents to Farmer's exegesis have increased markedly in the succeeding two centuries, sceptics continue to challenge the anagram's theatrical feasibility. As Horace Howard Furness asked in the 1892 Variorum edition:

[W]hen The Tempest was acted before the motley audience of the Globe Theatre, [was] there a single auditor who, on hearing Prospero speak of Caliban, bethought him of the Caribbean Sea, and instantly surmised that the name was a metathesis of Cannibal? Under this impression, the appearance of the monster without a trace of his bloodthirsty characteristic must have been disappointing.

(Var, 5)

The usual retort is that Shakespeare meant not a literal cannibal but a morally and socially deficient savage. Nonetheless, the evidence of authorial intentionality is at best inferential.

Several alternative etymologies have been offered. Among them is the African placename ‘Calibia’, which appeared near the Mediterranean coast on some sixteenth-century maps and is mentioned in Richard Knolles's Generall Historie of the Turks (1603), a book that Shakespeare unquestionably plumbed for Othello only a few years before he wrote The Tempest. A classical possibility is the ‘Chalybes’, a people mentioned by Virgil (Aeneid, Bk 10, 174). Still other proposed sources for Caliban's name are an Arabic word for ‘vile dog’, Kalebon; the Hindi word for a satyr of Kalee, Kalee-ban; and, more plausibly, the Romany (Gypsy) word for black or dark things, caulibon. Gypsies were a major social concern throughout sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, as numerous laws, plays, tracts and sermons attest; ‘caulibon’ may have been an effective theatrical signifier of unruliness, darkness and licentiousness (Vaughan, Caliban, 33-6). But the Gypsy word, like the other proposed etymologies—including cannibal, Carib and Caribana—has no contemporary corroboration.4

The Folio's ‘Names of the Actors’ describes Caliban as a ‘saluage and deformed slaue’, words that may not be Shakespeare's but which do set rough parameters for his characterization though not for his poetic language. Surely in Prospero's and Miranda's eyes, Caliban is a savage, as she specifically calls him (1.2.356); to Prospero he is a creature ‘Whom stripes may move, not kindness’ (1.2.346). Prospero accuses Caliban of being the son of a witch (Sycorax)5 and ‘the devil’ (1.2.263, 320-1; 5.1.269), but the magus's angry words, especially about Caliban's paternity, are not necessarily true; Caliban was conceived before Sycorax's exile from Algiers. Her ‘freckled whelp’ (1.2.283), an islander by birth, grew for his first twelve or so years without the benefits of European culture, religion and language; to Prospero he resembles the bestial wild man of medieval lore—unkempt, uneducated and thoroughly uncivilized. His ‘savagery’ is thus opposed to the ‘civility’ brought to the island by Europeans (see Vaughan, Caliban, 7-8).

The extent of Caliban's ‘deformity’ is woefully imprecise. Prospero describes him as ‘Filth’, ‘Hag-seed’, ‘beast’ and ‘misshapen knave’ (1.2.347, 366; 4.1.140; 5.1.268) and claims that ‘with age his body uglier grows’ (4.1.191), but these vituperative terms are doubtless coloured by the magician's anger at Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda and his subsequent rebelliousness. Trinculo initially mistakes Caliban for a fish and later labels him a ‘deboshed fish’ and ‘half a fish and half a monster’ (3.2.25, 28), epithets that may reflect Caliban's smell instead of his shape, which may also be the case when Antonio calls him a ‘plain fish’ (5.1.266). Stephano and Trinculo persistently demean Caliban as ‘monster’, combining the term with various qualifiers: ‘shallow’, ‘weak’, ‘scurvy’, ‘most perfidious and drunken’, ‘howling’, ‘puppy-headed’, ‘abominable’, ‘ridiculous’ and, in a more positive (but surely sarcastic) vein, ‘brave’. More suggestive of grotesqueness is Alonso's quip that Caliban is ‘a strange thing as e'er I looked on’ (5.1.290). But Caliban is nonetheless of human form and, in most respects, of human qualities. Prospero reports that except for Caliban, the island was ‘not honoured with / A human shape’ (1.2.283-4) when he and Miranda arrived; and she includes Caliban in her list of three human males when she calls Ferdinand ‘the third man that e'er I saw’ (1.2.446), although she implicitly modifies that comparison when she later attests that she ‘may call men’ only Ferdinand and her father (3.1.50-2). Once again The Tempest is indeterminate, yet the bulk of the evidence points to a Caliban who is, despite his possibly demonic parentage and unspecified deformity, essentially human.

Throughout The Tempest's long history, Caliban has nonetheless been burdened with a wide variety of physical aberrations, sometimes in eclectic combination, including fins, fish scales, tortoise shells, fur, skin diseases, floppy puppy ears and apelike brows, to name just a few. The common thread here is, of course, difference. The simple fact of aboriginal nakedness in Africa and America, and to some extent in Ireland, contrasted with early modern Europe's obsession with ornate clothing and reinforced English notions of the natives' inherent otherness. In Prospero's and Miranda's eyes, Caliban was unalterably ‘other’, probably from the beginning but surely after the attempted rape, and the numerous pejorative epithets hurled at him by all the Europeans throughout the play reflect their assessment of his form and character as fundamentally opposite to their own.6

That Caliban is a slave for the play's duration is indisputable, by Caliban's testimony as well as Prospero's. The slave's resentment of his master is also indisputable, as evidenced by Caliban's curses, by his reluctant service (according to Prospero and Miranda), and by his plot with Stephano and Trinculo to kill Prospero and take over the island. Yet this slave seems more determined to gain liberation from his current master than from servitude in general. He shows no reluctance until the denouement in 5.1 to serve ‘King’ Stephano, and even Caliban's ‘Freedom high-day’ song is deeply ambivalent:

Ban' ban' Ca-caliban,
Has a new master, get a new man.


Such clues to Caliban's ingrained dependency have encouraged some actors and artists to portray him as a wistful re-inheritor of the island7 and have reinforced theories of a native dependency syndrome. …

The Tempest offers only shorthand sketches of the remaining dramatis personae. Ferdinand, the handsome prince who deserves the heroine not just by birth but by merit, is descended from a long line of heroes from Orlando through to Florizel. The court party comprises similarly recognizable types, representative of early modern political discourse. Gonzalo, like Polonius, is a garrulous counsellor whose moral platitudes are often ignored, but there the similarity ends. Gonzalo never resorts to Polonius's Machiavellian intrigues but speaks his mind openly and honestly to whoever will listen. Antonio,8 the ambitious Machiavel, tries to corrupt Sebastian into murder in a scene remarkably akin to Lady Macbeth's temptation of her husband; Sebastian is Antonio's less imaginative partner in crime. Both are reminiscent of Cleon and Dionyza in Pericles. Alonso, like Leontes, is a ruler of mixed qualities—guilty of conspiracy against Prospero but capable of repenting and wishing he had acted differently.

The court party is parodied by its servants: Stephano, the drunken butler, and Trinculo, the court jester. Trinculo's name aptly comes from the Italian verb, trincare, to drink greedily, while Stephano is a more generic Italian name that may, in this instance, derive from a slang word (stefano) for stomach or belly. His ‘celestial liquor’ roughly parallels Prospero's magic—it mysteriously transforms people and provides visions of delight. When the two clowns join Caliban in a conspiracy to kill Prospero and take over the island, they parody Antonio's actions of twelve years earlier, not to mention his current plot to kill Alonso. More important, their stupidity in dawdling over Prospero's fancy robes instead of murdering him contrasts with Caliban's superior knowledge that the clothes are ‘but trash’.

The two pairs of disreputable Europeans—Antonio and Sebastian, Stephano and Trinculo—differ in many respects from Caliban to illustrate the issues Montaigne contemplated in his famous essay on Brazilian Indians: which is more barbarous, the educated European who makes a sham of his Christian upbringing, or the ‘savage’ who responds honestly to his natural instincts? Does civilization uplift or corrupt? In contrast to Antonio, Caliban finally learns from his experience to ‘seek for grace’; in contrast to Stephano and Trinculo, he seems to have an innate understanding of nature, of music and of how to achieve his goals.


  1. Prospero has nearly 30 per cent of the lines; the next highest figure is Caliban's at less than 9 per cent. See Marvin Spevack, A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare, 9 vols (Hildesheim, Germany, 1968-80), 1.36-62.

  2. The Tempest's master-servant relations are explored in Andrew Gurr, ‘Industrious Ariel and idle Caliban’, in Maquerlot and Willems, 193-208.

  3. The best discussion of cannibalism and The Tempest is in the first two chapters of P. Hulme.

  4. Another etymological possibility is Kalyb, a female character in Richard Johnson's Most Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom (1596-7), a widely disseminated book and a likely influence on Coriolanus.

  5. Prospero's insistence that Sycorax is a witch (1.2.258, 263, 275-9, 289-91) is confirmed by Caliban (1.2.322-4, 340-1).

  6. We calculate Caliban's age to have been 24 at the time of the play's action, based on the following clues: Sycorax was pregnant with Caliban when she arrived at the island; sometime after, she pinioned Ariel in a tree, where he was confined for twelve years before Prospero arrived and set him free, which in turn was twelve years before the play's action begins (1.2.263-93). Only if there was a lengthy gap, not implied in the text, between Caliban's birth and his mother's imprisonment of Ariel can he be appreciably older than 24.

  7. The text is silent about Caliban's fate, suggesting neither that he is left behind nor that he accompanies Prospero to Milan. Both scenarios have figured prominently in imaginative extensions of The Tempest.

  8. The Tempest's Antonio was Shakespeare's fourth. They are fully discussed in Cynthia Lewis, Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays (Newark, Del., 1997).

Works Cited

Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols (London, 1975)

Peter J. French, John Dee: The World of the Elizabethan Magus (London, 1972)

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

Coppélia Kahn, ‘The providential Tempest and the Shakespearean family’, in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murry M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore, Md., 1980), 217-43

Jean-Pierre Maquerlot and Michèle Willems, eds, Travel and Drama in Shakespeare's Time (Cambridge, 1996)

Marvin Spevack, The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass., 1973)

William Thomas, Historie of Italie (London, 1549)

Ann Thompson, ‘“Miranda, where's your sister?”: reading Shakespeare's The Tempest’, in Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, ed. Susan Sellers (Hemel Hampstead, Herts, 1991), 45-55

Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History (Cambridge, 1991)

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9124

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.

Sycorax, the mother of Caliban, is Prospero's antithesis. Though she is never seen, her presence can be felt in every scene of the play. Through Caliban, her representative, and his drunken associates, Trinculo and Stephano, she comes near, if Prospero's panic is any guide, to overthrowing his magical empire. It is their plot which disrupts the Masque which celebrates the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda. Their marriage, which is intended to restore order, harmony and degree, is Prospero's solution to the conflicts which caused his exile on the island.

If Sycorax were simply Evil then there would be little difficulty in understanding her role in The Tempest. However, the only unequivocal evidence against her comes from Prospero's biased testimony and he is guilty, prima facie, of usurping her, as Antonio usurped him. He has also taken control of her familiar spirit, Ariel, and turned her son into a slave.

At the end of the play, Prospero says of Caliban:

‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’.

(Act 5 Scene 1)

The implication of this surprising admission is that the relationship between himself and Sycorax is more like the Chinese balance between ‘yin’ and ‘yang’, where both are necessary to the pattern of existence, than the Manichean dualism which has intoxicated theologians and fanatics through the ages.

Although Shakespeare allows Sycorax's case to go by default, he has provided clues which indicate his own attitude to her presence in the play. The etymology of her name, together with that of her son, provide suggestive evidence that Shakespeare's attitude diverges from that of Prospero. ‘Caliban’ is often derived, rather weakly, from ‘Carib’, the name of the Indians of the New World at the time of Columbus. This makes convenient sense for those who like to see The Tempest as a play about colonisation, but is not persuasive in any other respect. The two words may have the same first syllable ‘ca’, but the lack of firm resonance between the remaining syllables implies a tendency towards whimsical invention which is not apparent elsewhere in the play. ‘Prospero’, ‘Marina’ and ‘Trinculo’ are all invented names, by comparison with ‘Alonso’ or ‘Antonio’, but their etymology is obvious. If ‘Caliban’ were derived from ‘Carib’ then Shakespeare would have departed from his own rule, for no apparent reason. Fortunately, there is another candidate for the etymology of ‘Caliban’. The Greek word ‘calybus’ means iron. The adjective ‘calybeate’, which is applied to sulphurous mineral waters such as those found at Bath, Tunbridge Wells or Cheltenham, is derived from ‘calybus’. Caliban lives by a spring, but the etymology is confirmed by a further set of correspondences. Calybeate waters spring up from the earth. If Sycorax was the former mistress of the island then her son would spring up, like water, from her womb, the earth. Oddly enough, there were calybeate waters a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, in Leamington Spa, or Lemmington Priors, as it would have been in Shakespeare's day. These waters were mentioned by William Camden in his Britannia (1586), a compendium of British history, prehistory and topography written in Latin.

The ‘Carib’ association is a minor gloss on this straightforward derivation, but the consonantial resonance between ‘Caliban’ and ‘Cythera’ is altogether more suggestive. Cythera was a Greek island famed in antiquity for its Elysian qualities and well known in Shakespeare's time. It is a possible candidate for Prospero's island, but less persuasive than another Greek island with which it shares certain aural features—Corfu. The older name for Corfu was Corcyra. Corcyra was the home of the Coraxi who gave their name to one of the most beautiful families of butterflies in Africa and the Mediterranean, the Charaxes. ‘Corax’ provides as much of Sycorax's name as ‘Calybus’ does of Caliban's. Both derivations have firm associations with, on the one hand, the earth and the other, an island in the Mediterranean area. This is completely consistent with the role of the characters in the play. ‘Corcyra’ (Corfu) also has aural links with Colchis, the home of Medea, and also with Circe. Medea and Circe are appropriate models for Sycorax and they are considerably more dignified, and formidable, than the monster described with such partiality by Prospero. In the Odyssey, Corfu is the home of the Phaeaceans who accept the naked, shipwrecked Odysseus as their guest and hear the tale of his peregrinations since the fall of Troy. Nausicaa is the daughter of their king.

Prospero's island, which once belonged to Sycorax, could also be identified as Malta. Some scholars believe that Malta is the Ogygia on which Calypso detained Odysseus for seven years. By dint of these, admittedly speculative, associations, Sycorax can be linked with Circe and Calypso, the goddesses who tried to hinder Odysseus' return to Ithaca, another island presently ruled by a woman, and the bed of his wife Penelope. Nausicaa, like Miranda, discovers a naked man on a beach. Unlike Nausicaa, Miranda turns her shipwrecked sailor into a husband. In this regard, Miranda is touched with the allure of Circe and Calypso. Like all of them, she is the Princess of an island kingdom. The music of Homer is the subtle descant of The Tempest.

Circe's son was Comus, about whom John Milton wrote a celebrated masque in which Comus, the villain, got all the best lines. Milton's Comus is a kind of ‘Caliban redivivus’. ‘Comus’ is not so much about good and evil as nature and chastity. Comus represents nature in all of its indisputable allure, and Sabrina represents, a little pallidly, Chastity. Prospero's heavy-handed pre-nuptial advice to Ferdinand about virgin-knots suggests that a similar theme may lie at the heart of The Tempest. Sycorax and Caliban represent the darkness of wildness, misrule and chaos rather than moral evil. In principle they can be controlled, but the struggle to educate such recalcitrants is an unequal one. At one point, Prospero says despairingly of Caliban that his is a nature on which ‘nurture will never stick’. Miranda's almost hysterical reaction to Caliban is a response to the all-too-obvious threatening of rape by him, and by his associate, Stephano. Ignorant violence, not the malice of Iago or the machiavellism of Richard III, is the province of Caliban and his dam.

Another derivation of ‘Sycorax’ can be reached by joining the Greek words ‘sus’ (sow) and ‘corax’ (crow). The ‘sow’ and the ‘crow’ are emblems of the Great Goddess. This suggests a precise association of Sycorax with witchcraft, the ‘old religion’ which according to Margaret Murray, an admittedly dubious source, was still active in Shakespeare's time. That may, or may not be so, but it is clear that Shakespeare was well informed about witchcraft. The three ‘witches’ of Macbeth are a celebrated example. Three is the number of the triune Goddess—maid, mother and crone. It is also a potent number for spellmaking; one more or one less and the spell will most certainly fail, due respect for the Goddess will not have been shown. Even more striking is the fact that Sycorax confined Ariel in the crack of a cloven tree. Trees are essential elements in all forms of witchcraft. Their twigs, berries, leaves and familiar spirits are known and used by witches for many purposes, from healing to cursing.

It is more than likely that Shakespeare had some contact with witches. If there had been any in the England of Elizabeth, they would have been found in the Forest of Arden, which was the ‘heart’ of England. Not far from Stratford there was an oak that marked the centre of the kingdom. Shakespeare could well have climbed in its branches, as, according to legend, did Charles II after the battle of Worcester. Oaks, which bear the mistletoe whose juice is like semen, and acorns which look like the tips of penises, are trees of considerable magical import. Prospero threatened to ‘peg’ Ariel into the ‘knotty entrails of an oak’. The oak was associated with the phallus of the Horned God whose spells were more potent than those of Sycorax's dam. However, the Horned God was not the antithesis of the White Goddess. He was her consort, the Oberon to her Titania. In the realms of witchcraft, of which craft both were adepts, Prospero and Sycorax are more like man and wife than ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It is a commonplace that a man and a woman can become implacable foes when their marriage breaks down, but the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ of it all depend on one's point of view rather than an absolute standard.

The most threatening aspect of witchcraft in Shakespeare's day would have been its association with ritual ‘king-killing’. The charming story of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren conceals a more atavistic reality. In the old times, assuming that there were such things, the consort of the Queen, whose body was the ‘temple’ of the goddess, was ritually sacrificed on August 2nd, Lammas Day, in order to ensure the continued fertility of the earth. The King was ‘king for a year’, but the Queen ruled till she died, only to be immediately ‘reborn’ into the body of a younger woman. There are strong resonances of these practices in the Egyptian story of Osiris and in the Mediterranean legends of Attis, Tammuz and Adonis. The death and resurrection of Christ can also be understood in these terms. On August 2nd, 1100, King William II died mysteriously in the New Forest, a traditional centre of witchcraft. It is possible that he was sacrificed, but this allegation has never been proved. Prospero was certainly threatened with such a fate. If Caliban's plot had succeeded then he would have been killed and Sycorax would have reclaimed her domain and, perhaps, the young body of Miranda's intended, Ferdinand. Prospero's fear of Caliban's plot, which is otherwise faintly ludicrous, is explained if he knew that such a sacrifice, of himself, was the one way in which he could be destroyed by Sycorax. Though all his other antagonists were within his power, his charms were still vulnerable to the wild violence of Sycorax, and of her unnurtured son. Secured against the plotting of his worldly rivals, his island dominion was vulnerable to the atavism of ancient witchery.

Despite an acute attack of vertigo, Prospero overcomes Caliban, and therefore Sycorax. As a seal of his victory, his daughter is married to the son of the King of Naples. However, although his authority may have been reestablished, Prospero is obliged to acknowledge Caliban as his own. Sycorax is worsted, but her power is not broken in perpetuity. It is certain that when Prospero and the others have returned to Italy, Sycorax, kin to the Great Goddess and the Queen of the Fairies, will reclaim the island and return it to its ancient allegiances. When Prospero breaks his staff and drowns his book, Sycorax ‘anadyomene’ is born again from the waves adumbrating a ‘seachange into something rich and strange’. As the curtain falls, Prospero's temporary dukedom becomes again what it had been before—the island of Sycorax.

Shakespeare is ultimately equivocal about Sycorax and Caliban. There is a sense in which Shakespeare's island is ruled by the ‘mysterium coniunctum’ of Prospero and Sycorax, twin avatars of the Horned God and the White Goddess. After all, Shakespeare was the subject of a Virgin Queen who, as Edmund Spenser realised, was not averse to being represented as Gloriana, the Faery Queen.

In The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, Pericles and Henry VIII, it is the figure of the daughter who presages redemption and the return of a ‘golden age’. In King Lear, the King's daughter Cordelia dies and with her dies the hope of a fairer world. In The Tempest, she is married and returns to the world as the future Queen of Naples, which was, until the advent of the ersatz ‘kingdom’ of Savoy, the only Italian kingdom and one of the oldest in the Western world. Like England, Naples was conquered by the Normans in the eleventh century. Miranda and Sycorax are two faces of the same goddess, one a maid, the other a crone. Juno, who presides over the epithalamium of Ferdinand and Miranda, is the third face of the goddess, that of the Queen of Heaven. Unlike his Protestant countrymen, Shakespeare venerated Mary the Mother of God. Her presence, like that of her Son, can be felt, if not always seen, in all of his plays.

Although Prospero, and Miranda, do not seem eager to accept the darker side of ‘nature’ represented by Sycorax, they cannot dispense with it. Sycorax is as much a part of their existence as Ariel. They depend upon her son Caliban for food and warmth. Without ‘nature’, in all of her horror and terror, mankind would simply not exist. Sycorax can therefore never be eliminated or rejected, she must be accepted and integrated in a considerably more robust manner than the images of reapers and nymphs conjured up by Ariel for Miranda's prothalamium. Prospero's failure to achieve this task is representative of the failure of mankind as a whole in this regard. He, like us, is happy to dominate and manipulate storms and fires for his own ends, but he is not willing to accept ‘nature’ on her own terms. Like us, he will only recognise her as an object to be used for his advantage and well-being. The debate between Prospero and Sycorax has hardly begun by the end of the play, but it is certain that it must be continued and, in the end, resolved. Prospero might be able to let Ariel fly away into the clouds, but unless he reaches a final understanding with ‘nature’ then it will prevail, over his own frail body, over the illusions of his island and, ultimately, over mankind. In the long run Sycorax has all the cards. If man, in the form of Prospero, is not clever enough to come to terms with her, then she will impose her own terms.

If Prospero's island is threatened by ‘God’ in the form of Ariel and ‘nature’ in the form of Sycorax, then it is also vulnerable to humanity in the form of, on the one hand, the amoral ‘machiavellism’ of Antonio and Sebastian and, on the other, the anarchic ‘revolt of the masses’ represented by Stephano and Trinculo. Antonio has usurped Prospero's dukedom and is actively encouraging Sebastian to murder Alonso and seize the Kingdom of Naples. Such activity, almost routine in parts of Europe in the seventeenth century, brought anarchy, war and destruction in its wake. Although they are not spelled out, as in Macbeth, King Richard the Third, King Henry the Fourth Parts One and Two or King Lear, the consequences, for the rest of society, of actions such as Antonio's and that which he encourages Sebastian to undertake, would have been all too vivid to an audience of The Tempest. The French Religious Wars, in particular the assassinations of Henry III and Henry, Duc de Guise, and the appalling consequences of disorder, anarchy and death which followed, were seen by many as being the consequence of self-serving ‘machiavellism’ as much as of religious conflict. The activities of Mary Stuart, the murders of Rizzio and Darnley, and her espousal of the sinister Bothwell, and, most notably, the English Wars of the Roses, not least as portrayed by Shakespeare himself, were seen in similar terms. Richard Duke of York and Richard III were seen as classical ‘machiavels’ of whom Antonio and Sebastian were emblems.

Antonio and Sebastian therefore represent a very familiar threat to political and social order, but as with Caliban and Ariel, though for different reasons, they cannot simply be excluded from the world of the island, or the ‘real’ world. Richard Duke of York and Richard III conveniently died on the battlefield. After much cousinly prevarication and sheer funk on the part of Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart was executed by an Act of State whose legal foundation was thoroughly questionable. As the case of the Queen of Scots demonstrated most elegantly, troublemakers, particularly those of blood royal, were not easy to eliminate if they preferred not to do the decent thing in a locked room. Like Antonio and Sebastian, they had to be ‘forgiven’ and reintegrated into the scheme of things, even if that integration was effected by an Act of Attainder, a parliamentary declaration of guilt, as occurred in the Wars of the Roses on numerous occasions and, notoriously, in the case of the Earl of Strafford, or by a well-primed capital conviction under the treason laws, which was the approach favoured by Henry VIII. Like Elizabeth I, who let Mary Stuart get away with blue murder, Prospero indulges in the luxury of ‘forgiving’ Antonio, but in the ‘real’ world of the sixteenth century, failure to act with due ruthlessness guaranteed instability. Elizabeth nearly lost her throne because of her prevarications with regard to Mary who had a viable claim on it, through her mother Margaret Tudor. Mary's son, James VI and I, eventually succeeded Elizabeth. The unfortunate Henry VI, a forebear of Elizabeth whose reign was the subject of one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, was unable to ‘integrate’ Richard Duke of York, his ‘Antonio’, into the scheme of things. Henry, like Prospero, was forced into exile, then murdered by Edward IV, the son of Richard Duke of York, soon after he ‘returned’. It seems quite likely that Antonio will attempt another usurpation and, on this occasion, murder his brother. Even ‘forgiveness’, is no guarantee against renewed treachery; the difficulty is that its only alternative, ‘machiavellism’, is certain to produce further disorder and violence. Forgiveness has to be attempted even if it looks very like weakness. Sometimes it is the most ruthless option of all.

Ariel and Caliban have it in them to generate chaos, the end of everything, but so too do Antonio and Sebastian. This is why the full power of Prospero's ‘magic’, won through his control of Ariel, is bent towards the achievement of reconciliation, by means of forgiveness. He uses his creativity to create a situation in which a number of circles, which would never otherwise have been squared, can be brought into some kind of shape. In this sense, ‘art’ serves the good of the ‘real’ world. However, Prospero's grand reconciliation is provisional and qualified, it is not Godlike. The sinners may well sin again, he may not prove to be a competent ruler of Milan and the young couple might disappoint the glowing expectations that surround them. Life will go on, touched, but only faintly, by the brush of Prospero's ‘art’. For all of that, there was nothing less that Prospero could have done. Had he failed to achieve even this partial reconciliation, disorder, and loss of life, would have been all the more grave. By the end of the play, with the help of Ariel and his own artfulness, Prospero has, in however curmudgeonly a fashion, done his duty.

Prospero also had to attend to the threat posed by the ‘lower orders’ in the shapes of Trinculo and Stephano, assisted by Caliban. It is important that the ‘revolt of the masses’ should be so directly associated with the ‘insurrection’ of ‘nature’. Prospero's fear of, and lack of control over, the forces represented by Trinculo and Stephano is closely related to his difficulties with Caliban and all that he represents. In the seventeenth century, ‘nature’—in the forms of violent and unseasonal weather; plague, fevers, ague, smallpox, syphilis and many other diseases; massive crop failures and epidemics which devastated cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry—was an ever-present threat to well being, and survival.

Violence, from city mobs, from brigands, from pirates and from ill-disciplined soldiers, was commonplace. Much of it stemmed from individuals such as Stephano and Trinculo who looked for easy pickings and an easy life, rather than social revolution and justice. The squalor of its motives did not make the turbulence of the ‘lower orders’ at that time any less threatening or any less disruptive of society. The endemic violence—looting, drunkenness, rape, iconoclasm, uncontrolled billeting, illegal seizure of crops and stores, highway robbery and piracy—which followed in the wake of the French Religious Wars and the Revolt of the Netherlands was succeeded, within two years of Shakespeare's death, by the even more widespread lawlessness of the Thirty Years War which stretched across Europe from Barcelona to Breda to Rostock to Moscow to Prague to Venice.

Like Antonio and Sebastian, Stephano and Trinculo were representative figures of their times, and like their noble counterparts, they could not be summarily eliminated. The Stephanos and Trinculos had, somehow, to be integrated into society. The still infamous Thirty Years War revealed the alternative. Then as now, that alternative was unacceptable and presaged the complete destruction of the social order. In parts of Germany during the 1630s, civilisation, as understood by Prospero and his ilk, disintegrated. The names of Magdeburg, Drogheda and Wexford are evocative of what could happen when the ‘plots’ of the Stephanos, Trinculos and Calibans were not foiled. When the ‘plot’ of those three is seen in this light, it seems after all that Prospero had good reason to feel afraid.

Stephano's name is derived from ‘stephanos’ which is a Greek word meaning garland or crown. There is a suggestion of kingship here and it is therefore fitting that it is Stephano, not Trinculo, who will replace Prospero if the ‘plot’ succeeds. The old slogan of Huey Long, the one-time Senator from Louisiana, went ‘Every Man a King, every Woman a Queen’. It is not far-fetched to hear such populistic and democratic echoes in the ‘plot’ of Stephano and his colleagues. Trinculo's name has obvious alcoholic connotations. Indeed, the whole of this ‘plot’ is drenched in intoxication of one kind or another. Mobs were invariably drunk, but drunkenness also threatens the order of Prospero in a more general way. For any magician working with familiar spirits such as Ariel, intoxication or mania was a sure cause of failure, with its attendant catastrophes of rending and spontaneous combustion. Drunkenness is therefore a threat to the order of Prospero's island, as well as to social order anywhere. Intoxication is another door into chaos and dissolution which Prospero must keep firmly locked. However, the implication of the structure of The Tempest is that, just as the ‘revolt of the masses’, or rather the interests which it represents, must somehow be integrated into the generality of the social order, so must a place be found for the dionysiacal frenzy of ‘intoxication’. If this is not achieved, then ‘intoxication’ will take the unwholesome and unsavoury shapes of Trinculo and his boon companions. Although Prospero would like to legislate ‘drunkenness’ out of existence, he is bound, like the prohibitionists in the USA, to fail.

At the height of the tempest that wrecks Alonso's fleet and delivers Trinculo and Stephano into Prospero's power, Gonzalo, Prospero's friend and counsellor, who saved his master and his daughter from sudden death by putting them in a well-provisioned boat and trusting them to the mercy of fate, prays that he could be on a blasted heath, like the one on which King Lear endured his storm, rather than the open sea.

If The Tempest were primarily concerned with the fate of Prospero then it would, like King Lear, be bound to end in tragedy and despair. As Shakespeare, and his Queen, knew only too well, bad government entails catastrophe for the whole realm. The shadows cast by the disastrous reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Richard III, Edward VI and Mary I provided Shakespeare with the models for his ‘bad’ imagined kings—Angelo, Claudius, Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Pericles, Leontes, Antonio and Prospero. Their failings crack their worlds into pieces, and restoration, if it takes place, is often accompanied by unmitigated loss. The evil of inadequate kingship was not ended by the reign of Elizabeth I, England's Astraea. The English Civil War broke out a mere twenty-six years after Shakespeare's death. Some of his children and grandchildren lived through that cataclysm. Failure of leadership is a perennial, and dreadful, eventuality in every land under the sun. The ‘blasted heath’ of King Lear is the symbol of all such disasters. However, the fact that Gonzalo makes a knowing reference to that place of desolation, but sees it as a place of salvation, indicates that, in contrast with many of Shakespeare's plays, The Tempest is not primarily concerned with the deeds and misdeeds of kings and princes. It is Gonzalo, the wise counsellor and loyal friend, who bears the burden of the play.

Apart from Prospero, only Gonzalo can see through the illusions of the island and know the place for what it is. Gonzalo's assessment of Prospero's island is judicious:

All torment, trouble, wonder and amazement
inhabits here. Some heavenly power guide us
out of this fearful country.

(Act 5 Scene 1)

Where everyone else, including Prospero, is involved with one kind of fantasy or another, Gonzalo recognises his peril and puts his trust in God. In his epilogue, Prospero reaches the same conclusion. For all his mastery, Prospero is not in control of the forces which he has unleashed. The teeming phenomena of the island, and everything which troubles the hearts and minds of its inhabitants, are a grand illusion and the grandest illusion of all is Prospero himself who is, when naked of all his amazements, just a tired, embittered old man.

Prospero has no idea as to how he should celebrate the marriage of his only daughter. Grudgingly, he summons up a whimsical masque, which is almost immediately interrupted, as a prothalamium for his daughter and prospective son-in-law. It is left to Gonzalo, who saved Prospero, and the bride-to-be, from certain death, to bless the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. Prospero has, rather brutally, engineered their betrothal, but he is left with nothing else to contribute.

Gonzalo expresses the outcome of The Tempest with characteristic insight:

In one voyage
did Claribel her husband find at Tunis;
and Ferdinand, her brother, find a wife
where he himself was lost; Prospero his dukedom
in a poor isle; and all of us ourselves
when no man was his own.

(Act 5 Scene 1)

The order of Gonzalo's enumeration is significant. The affairs of the Kingdom of Naples, a symbol of political order in its most dignified sense, come first. Although Gonzalo was once a counsellor of Prospero, the readopted Duke of Milan, it is the fate of Alonso's children, Claribel and Ferdinand, which most concerns him. It is Naples, not Milan, that is the instrument of political restoration. The relationship between Prospero and Antonio is marginal to the great affairs of state. Whereas Lear's madness brings the whole world crashing down around his ears, Prospero's usurpation is no more than a ‘little local difficulty’. Gonzalo's final phrase ‘and all of us ourselves when no man was his own’ is the most important. It contains the ultimate meaning of the play of which he is the representative figure.

In contrast with the great tragedies, which examine the destruction of the great, The Tempest is a play about the salvation of ordinary individuals. Gonzalo, who is a kind of Everyman, is able to survive the tempest of illusion which rages over Prospero's island because of three qualities—loyalty, faith and hope. He is unswervingly loyal to Prospero and Miranda. He never doubts that, if it is the will of God, they will all be saved. He expresses this confident faith in a quirkily ironic, but telling, manner as Alonso's fleet founders on the rocks of Prospero's island and he comes face to face with the imminence of his own mortality.

I have great comfort from this fellow. Methinks he hath no drowning mark on him; his complexion is perfect gallows. Stand fast good Fate, to his hanging, make the rope of his destiny our cable, for our own doth little advantage. If he be not born to be hanged, our case is miserable.

(Act 1 Scene 1)

Gonzalo expresses his hope in a remarkable speech which describes his vision of utopia, a vision which accords with the heart-felt hopes of most men and women:

I' th' commonwealth I would by contraries
execute all things; for no kind of traffic
would I admit; not 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—

(Act 2 Scene 1)

It is significant that these starry-eyed, but very appealing, words are spoken by Gonzalo, an elderly court politician with both feet firmly on the ground, rather than by Trinculo, Stephano, Caliban, Ferdinand or Miranda, who had her own vision of a ‘brave new world’. It is not Gonzalo the utopian who is confused, but the great of the world—Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Ferdinand. Whereas Gonzalo, Everyman, remains calm and collected, the princes and potentates are overwhelmed by the force of their amazement. Their majesty and privilege are incapable of saving them from the perils of illusion. Gonzalo's values and hopes are those of ordinary people. His utopia is that of the man in the street throughout time. Like most people, Gonzalo recognises, and respects, the might of power. Such circumspection is necessary if one wishes to see one's middle years, let alone one's old age. The world may always be the toy of those who have power, but there is no need to respect the kind of illusions manufactured by Prospero and his ilk. Fantasies, glamour, unattainable desires and useless longings can all be discarded. The high and mighty may have time to fool with tinsel, but the common people must spurn such trumpery if they wish to avoid the excruciating fates of Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban. As King Lear discovered, ‘necessity's sharp pinch’ respects neither man nor beast.

Faith, hope, charity and an ‘acre of barren ground’ are the sole necessities of a good life. King Lear learned this perennial truth, just before he died, when his daughter Cordelia had been hanged and his kingdom had become a wasteland. Gonzalo knew it all along. It is an ancient truth. The words which Gonzalo utters could have been said by Odysseus:

Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground—long heath, brown furze, any thing. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death.

(Act 1 Scene 1)

The Tempest and the Odyssey are stories about journeys by water and the perils of shipwreck, but we can be confident that their protagonists both died ‘a dry death’. The two tales, both set in the Mediterranean, have many mutual resonances. Like Prospero, Odysseus travels over water to an island. Nausicaa is almost a Miranda to Odysseus' Ferdinand. Eumaeus is the Gonzalo who helps him to recover his inheritance. As The Tempest ends with the union of Ferdinand and Miranda so the Odyssey ends with the joining together of a man and a woman, of Odysseus and Penelope. Like The Tempest, the oldest story of the West is that of a journey in which the protagonist returns home. Oddly enough, Odysseus is something of a liar, but his tale rings true.

The Tempest and the Odyssey are voyages through very stormy weather in which men find themselves and weddings are the images of harmony and restoration. Odysseus has dealings with a variety of Calibans, Ariels, Trinculos, Stephanos, Sebastians, Antonios and Alonsos in the course of his journeyings over the seas which surround Prospero's island. With the help of Athene, represented by Juno in Shakespeare's play, he escapes from the lures of Sycorax in her earlier incarnations as Circe and Calypso. At the end of the Odyssey, the gods depart, dissolving into dreams, like Prospero's masque, leaving a man and a woman together on an island, their home.

There is no ‘happy’ ending. The old story of the world starts all over again. The Odyssey ends with a skirmish in which Odysseus kills Eupeithes. Although Athene, his protectress, has the last word, intervening and arranging a truce, it is clear that peace will not last indefinitely. History has not come to an end. Nor has mythology. Even today, every good story begins, just as it did ‘once upon a time’, with men, women, children, a world and the words they weave around that world. There is also, somewhere or other, a goddess who has never known the love of a man. Like every new-born girl, Odysseus' protector Athene, Mary the mother of Jesus and Miranda the daughter of Prospero were virgins. Most women are not. At the centre of everything, like an island in the heart of the ocean, is a couple, a ‘mysterium coniunctum’. From such stuff our dreams are made, or unmade, into mazes as strange ‘as e'er men trod’.

David Daniell (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9576

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 themes within these conventions. One of the many ways in which Frank Kermode's Arden edition of The Tempest was important was that it first, and most lucidly, set out that:

The Tempest, though exceptionally subtle in its structure of ideas, and unique in its development of them, can be understood as a play of an established kind dealing with situations appropriate to that kind. The Tempest is a pastoral drama; it belongs to that literary kind which includes certain earlier English plays, but also, and more significantly, Comus; it is concerned with the opposition of Nature and Art, as serious pastoral poetry always is, and it shares this concern with the other late comedies, and with the Sixth Book of the Faerie Queen, to which it is possibly directly indebted.

The two following paragraphs must also be quoted in full:

The main opposition is between the worlds of Prospero's Art, and Caliban's Nature. Caliban is the core of the play; like the shepherd in formal pastoral, he is the natural man against whom the cultivated man is measured. But we are not offered a comparison between a primitive innocence in nature and a sophisticated decadence, any more than we are in Comus. Caliban represents (at present we must over-simplify) nature without benefit of nurture; Nature, as opposed to an Art which is man's power over the created world and over himself; nature divorced from grace, or the senses without the mind. He differs from Iago and Edmund in that he is a ‘naturalist’ by nature, without access to the art that makes love out of lust; the restraints of temperance he cannot, in his bestiality, know; to the beauty of the nurtured he opposes a monstrous ugliness; ignorant of gentleness and humanity, he is a savage and capable of all ill; he is born to slavery, not to freedom, of a vile and not of a noble union; and his parents represent an evil natural magic which is the antithesis of Prospero's benevolent Art.

This is a simple diagram of an exquisitely complex structure, but it may be useful as a guide. Caliban is the ground of the play. His function is to illuminate by contrast the world of art, nurture, civility: the world which none the less nourishes the malice of Antonio and the guilt of Alonso, and stains a divine beauty with the crimes of ambition and lust. There is the possibility of purgation; and the tragicomic theme of the play, the happy shipwreck—‘that which we accompt a punishment against evil is but a medicine against evil’—is the means to this end.

(pp. xxiv, xxv)


In the central 35 pages of his introduction, Kermode shows how the current voyage-literature, particularly the 1610 Bermuda pamphlets ‘seem to have precipitated, in this play, most of the major themes of Shakespeare's last years: indeed, that is their whole importance’. He goes on:

The events of 1609 in Bermuda must have seemed to contain the whole situation in little. There a group of men were, as they themselves said, providentially cast away into a region of delicate and temperate fruitfulness, where Nature provided abundantly; brought out of the threatening but merciful sea into that New World where, said the voyagers, men lived in a state of nature. Ancient problems of poetry and philosophy were given an extraordinary actuality.

(p. xxv)

Shakespeare, however, was careful to set his play in the Old World, between Naples and Tunis: he was appealing to an altogether wider set of significances. Kermode writes:

The natural life, the Golden Age, and related themes, giving rise as they do to considerations of justice and mercy, man fallen and redeemed, the reclamation of nature by the ministers of grace—these themes are constantly heard in The Tempest; but although the complex in which they are heard is peculiar to the play, they were not novel to the contemporary reader of travel literature.

(p. xxx)

That literature included the Aeneid, and the fabulous holy voyages of The Golden Legend, and especially Montaigne, as far as his essay ‘Of Cannibals’ (in Florio's translation, which Shakespeare used) can be called travel literature. Montaigne seems to suggest that Natural Men, in a primitive natural society, would be happy, and offers the New World as an example of naturally virtuous life uncorrupted by Civilisation. Shakespeare is sceptical. Both sides of the debate—holding the primitive as Golden, or vicious—found evidence in the narratives they studied. At issue also was whether man's interference with Nature corrupted, or was itself part of Nature—the very topic which King Polixenes and Princess Perdita debate, importantly, in The Winter's Tale [IV.iv.70-108]. So there were two versions of the natural: ‘that which man corrupts … and that which is defective, and must be mended by civilisation. … This latter is the view which suits best the conscience of the colonist’ (Kermode, p. xxxvi).

Prospero assumes, as a European prince, his right to rule the island, ‘to be the lord on't’: the exploitation of the inhabitants of fertile territory, something ‘at once virtuous and expedient’, as Kermode puts it, has been the subject of very sharp recent discussion. ([F]or excellent additional material on the significance of travel literature to the play see Brockbank 1966; James 1967; Frey 1979.)

In The Tempest, Shakespeare uses Caliban partly to indicate how much baser the corrupt civilised world can be than the bestiality of the natural. In the play, nature is complex. Antonio and Sebastian jeer at Gonzalo's view of it. He is wrong, apparently, about some pretty basic things (but see below). Yet Gonzalo pronounces the benediction to the play, and Antonio and Sebastian prove incapable of alteration.

The key is Caliban:

The poetic definition of Nature in the play is achieved largely by a series of antitheses with Caliban constantly recurring as one term. He represents the natural man. This figure is not, as in pastoral generally, a virtuous shepherd, but a salvage and deformed slave.

(Kermode, p. xxxviii)

Kermode's equation of Caliban with a European wild man has been challenged recently, as I shall show. Unmistakably, however, Caliban is the necessarily deformed product of a sexual union between a witch and an incubus—evil natural magic, a natural criterion by which we measure the world of Art, represented by Prospero's divine magic and the supernaturally sanctioned beauty of Miranda and Ferdinand. (I say ‘unmistakably’, but as Stephen Orgel points out, we have only Prospero's word for this, he apparently having got it from Ariel. It is possible that it is ‘an especially creative piece of invective’ (Orgel 1984, p. 5)). Kermode writes:

Caliban is, therefore, accurately described in the Folio ‘Names of the Actors’. His origins and character are natural in the sense that they do not partake of grace, civility, and art; he is ugly in body, associated with an evil natural magic, and unqualified for rule or nurture. He exists at the simplest level of sensual pain and pleasure, as music can appeal to the beast who lacks reason; and indeed he resembles Aristotle's bestial man. He is a measure of the incredible superiority of the world of Art, but also a measure of its corruption. For the courtiers and their servants include the incontinent Stephano and the malicious Antonio. Caliban scorns the infirmity of purpose exhibited by the first, and knows better than Antonio that it is imprudent to resist grace, for which, he says, he will henceforth seek. … Men can abase their degree below the bestial; and there is possibly a hint, for which there is no support in Aristotle, that the bestial Caliban gains a new spiritual dimension from his glimpse of the ‘brave spirits’. Whether or not this is true, he is an extraordinarily powerful and comprehensive type of Nature; an inverted pastoral hero, against whom civility and the Art which improves nature may be measured.

(Kermode pp. xlii-xliii)


The courtiers have a fortunate seed within them, are of good stock, endowed with grace, and ‘nurtured in refinement through the centuries in the world of Art’—though an evil disposition can inhere in good stock, as in Antonio. Prospero's art is both as mage, disciplining through learning and temperance, working towards harmony: and as a symbol of the control of Nature. ‘Art is not only a beneficent magic in contrast to an evil one,’ writes Kermode; ‘it is the ordination of civility, the control of appetite, the transformation of nature by breeding and learning; it is even, in a sense, the means of Grace’ (p. xlviii). Kermode further shows the advantage to Shakespeare of the forms he used—

The romantic story is, then, the mode in which Shakespeare made his last poetic investigation into the supernatural elements in the human soul and in human society. His thinking is Platonic, though never schematic; and he had deliberately chosen the pastoral tragicomedy as the genre in which this inquiry is best pursued. The pastoral romance gave him the opportunity for a very complex comparison between the worlds of Art and Nature; and the tragicomic form enabled him to concentrate the whole story of apparent disaster, penitence, and forgiveness into one happy misfortune, controlled by a divine Art.

(pp. lviii-lix)

This has rightly dominated work on The Tempest in the second half of the twentieth century: editors and major critics all acknowledge its importance.


The Tempest is unique in its open-ness, though that is part of its nature as romance. Hamlet criticism has for several centuries been the playground where anyone with a new theory can feel free to run about a bit. So Hamlet is, or isn't, mad: is, or isn't, Oedipal; is, or isn't, fat, a Catholic, a murderer, a saint, a melancholic, a sceptic, a Modern, an Ancient, too young, too old, a Calvinist, a theatre director (good or bad), a poet (ditto), and so on. Oscar Wilde got it right in the title of his projected essay ‘Are the Commentators on Hamlet Really Mad or only Pretending To Be?’ Yet the puzzle of Hamlet involves moving pieces in and out of the light until a convincing shape appears: too much information seems to be given. The puzzle that is The Tempest is of a quite different order.

Put too succintly, the play has silences and a haunting symmetry. Both are felt to be an invitation to interpret. Patterns emerge easily: structures linking Caliban and Ferdinand, Caliban and Miranda, Caliban and Antonio, Prospero and Sycorax, Antonio-with-Sebastian linked with Stephano-with-Trinculo, and so on. Some of these will be considered presently. For the moment, let us accept Kermode's phrase ‘an exquisitely complex structure’, and consider silences.

The strongly present supernatural, the controlled magic and the sense of wonder match a curious, and unique, bafflement in the reader. There often, undeniably, feels to be far more going on than we are told. Adequate cause is not always shown for the—always strong—feelings in Prospero: he soliloquises, true; but rather than revealing to us interior processes of thought, like Hamlet, or Macbeth, or even Leontes in The Winter's Tale, Prospero makes pictures (see the great ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves’ speech [v.i.33-57 continued in 58-82 to some extent]). Prospero controls the action: but what the action is can puzzle everyone in the theatre—audience, actors, and characters in the play alike. Examining why Prospero does what he does reveals an enigma. That, however, does not too much distress our susceptibilities, because it matches the strange way that a good deal of the play is unknowable.

In the long second scene, Prospero seems over-impatient with Miranda, demanding that she understand. However determined we as readers or spectators may be to understand the play, many details seem to defy understanding. As A. D. Nuttall puts it,

in the unpredictable island of The Tempest, we are denied that prosaic awakening which vividly refutes the night. It seems as if the poet is bent on drawing from us a different sort of credence from that ordinarily given to plays—perhaps a more primitive sort. At III.iii.83 the Shapes (we are given no clearer stage direction) carry out the banquet ‘with mops and mows’, and we never learn what they are or what their dance is about. At V.i.231 we are told how the sleeping sailors awoke to hear strange and horrific sounds and we are never told what made them.

(Nuttall 1967, p. 139)

Unity of time is customarily achieved by creating in the few hours of the drama a sense of the consummation of great events over a telling curve of time: but the past does not seem to dominate The Tempest coherently: we are given little bits of information, for example about Claribel, from whose wedding the court was sailing, or about the earlier history of the island, or about Caliban's mother: but these morsels point to a bigger hunger for information. Claribel married a Muslim, a matter of horror to a Jacobean audience: why had Alonso agreed? What was the ‘one thing’ Sycorax did which reduced her punishment? What were the ‘grand hests’ that Ariel refused? These glimpses can be suggestive, but they do not put enough pressure on the intense present.

There are, furthermore, silences of a more flinty significance. Why is Miranda's mother, Prospero's wife, so remarkably absent, so that Miranda can remember ladies-in-waiting but not her? Why, in spite of all that Prospero has told her about Alonso, does Miranda say nothing at all about him when she knows he is the father of her lover Ferdinand, and greet the courtiers as if nothing had ever gone amiss? How does Prospero travel from his state of mind towards Ferdinand at the start of Act Three, when he has him bearing logs, to his eager betrothal of him to his daughter in Act Four? Exactly how does the conspiracy of Caliban and the others cause the break-up of the masque? What does it mean that Antonio is virtually silent in the last scene? What, precisely, is the state of mind of Prospero at the end of the play? What the play doesn't say can make an unusually long list. There are so-called ‘loose ends’ all over the plays of Shakespeare: here we are dealing with something different.

Consider, further, the unusual poetic resonances. Like many of Shakespeare's plays, The Tempest is almost wholly a poem. It has a new kind of poetry, however, new even for Shakespeare, as if in his maturity he were reaching out to make marvellously advanced experiments. Often a very great artist in his last works can be seen to be taking extraordinary risks (Beethoven springs to mind). It is true of Shakespeare. As well as experimenting with form and structure, he ventures afresh into the relations of art and illusion, nature and nurture, reason and magic, virtue and vileness: and the verbal vehicle for a great deal of new matter is first of all an extraordinary compression, as if only a small amount of what had to be said could be put into words. With the apparently absolute freedom that thought can have here, working through the beat of the five-stress lines, itself especially geared to the expression of powerful feelings, such late-Shakespearean cutting-back to linguistic spareness, with remarkable lyric effects, is in this play carried far beyond expectation.

                                                                                                    … 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 …


Yet this is worked, kneaded in as we might put it, with a strange multivalency. The expected reverberations set up by the lines seem to have fewer limits, or no limits at all: they go in all directions.

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


These famous and magnificent lines, using subtle and sophisticated effects characteristic of the very top of the poetic skills of the English Renaissance, are spoken by no noble courtier. They are the words of the ‘debosh'd [debauched] fish’ Caliban. They come at the end of a low scene of silly drunken foolery, when Ariel's music of invisible tabor and drum causes a moment of terror. The scene begins in prose. It is the ‘monster’ Caliban who moves it into verse, half-way through, using sophisticated words like ‘nonpareil’ and ‘jocund’ on his way to that marvellous paragraph of rich sounds and dreams. His low comic on-stage auditors do not grasp what he has said—only that they'll get music for nothing.

The words reach out far beyond their being an announcement by Caliban, and go on reverberating in the silence around them. Something else, it seems, is invisibly happening. Ariel's tabor and drum were invisible: what ‘reality’ they might have had is a disturbing question. As A. D. Nuttall puts it:

Playgoers are fairly well accustomed to that sane and purposive magic which saves a drowning man or refreshes him with sleep, but the music in the air, the voice crying in the wave, the ‘strange, hollow and confused noise’ which accompanies the vanishing of the reapers and nymphs at the end of the masque, the somnolence of Miranda—these gratuitous paranorma are more disturbing … Ariel vanishes in thunder, the ‘Shapes’ carry out the table, and Alonso tells how he heard the name ‘Prosper’ in the withdrawing roar of the waves, and then in the wind and thunder. Again, the empirical character is strong. Experience will supply many such false configurations which have left us momentarily in doubt whether to form a natural or a supernatural interpretation.

(Nuttall 1967, pp. 139, 145)

The multivalency of a few simple sounds can be kaleidoscopic, to mix the metaphor. There is, for example, more music in The Tempest than in any other play of Shakespeare; and some of the words to the music which ‘crept by’ Ferdinand ‘upon the waters’ (whatever that means) have a lyrical singularity which makes them among the most haunting in the language:

Full fathom 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 …


These words both are themselves, and refer to, illusions; transformations through art itself. The Tempest is full of new compound words, some beginning with ‘sea-’ (sea-sorrow, sea-storm, sea-swallowed, sea-marge) as if even the way language works can in this play be as shifting and powerful (and in Ariel's hands as transforming) as the sea. Throughout the play, the sense of always-altering perceptions is like that which comes in sleep and with dreams: there are several wakings from sleep in the play, and six strong references to dreams. There is the same evanescence, too. Imaginative insight, which can have such power, has to be seized in the moment, however it comes:

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


All this is only a part of that strong feeling the play can communicate that it is ‘about’ something just out of sight. If only whatever it is could be grasped, then essential truths about life, the universe and everything might become life-changingly clear. That silent burden of possibility in so much of the poetry is only a fraction, indeed, of the organisation of the play. It is therefore not at all surprising that a good deal of criticism has been aimed at ‘explaining’ this play. Because it is not so commonly seen in performance (a process which does anchor notions to some kind of reality) it is also not surprising that such ‘keys’ to the play are usually at best contradictory and at worst dotty.


Romantic criticism of, and absorption of, The Tempest, found Prospero the wizard-like Poet, his magic that of the Romantic poet's imagination. The most insistent allegorical readings of the play, from quite early in the nineteenth century, simply extend that to the equation Prospero = Shakespeare. The location of the play in Folio does give it a certain prominence: from that fact it is easy to conclude that it was especially important to Shakespeare, and then go on to declare that that was because it was the epitome of his career. Thomas Campbell in 1838 was probably the first to make the connection: he found ‘a sacredness as the last work of a mighty workman’. This notion has survived lustily, and is—especially since the establishment of the chronology appeared to make the play Shakespeare's last—still one of the first comments made by people who have heard something of The Tempest, that it is Shakespeare's-farewell-to-his-art. The equation is indeed attractive. Prospero is so conveniently Shakespeare, consummating his career, making his final theatrical illusion, breaking his staff, drowning his book, sailing away from London to Stratford (a difficult voyage, that) and retirement. But like the late-twentieth-century invention of a homosexual Shakespeare, the lover of the Earl of Southampton, it is in fact pure invention. Just as there is not one scrap of evidence that Shakespeare ever even met Southampton (and to try to bring supporting evidence from the Sonnets is to show ignorance of the conventions of Elizabethan sonnet sequences), so there is no evidence whatever for Prospero as Shakespeare. Both seem to be necessary inventions, needed by a public that is mystified by, and therefore a little frightened of, high art, and so reassured by a devaluing equation between the work and the man. And both inventions are a crude form of allegorical reading of the works.

The great allegories of European literature—The Divine Comedy, Piers Plowman, The Romance of the Rose, The Faerie Queene, The Pilgrim's Progress—deliberately invite the activity of suggesting parallel meaning. The plays of Shakespeare's time, including The Tempest, do not. Nor were they taken as allegories when they were first written (which is when the supposed allegorical meaning would be, supposedly, strongest) as the evidence produced by Richard Levin makes so clear (Levin 1979)—though allegory was alive and active as a form at the time. Spenser's Una and Duessa in Book One of The Faerie Queene are named to call up sets of equivalences. Further, if Christian's burden, or roll, or river-crossing, in The Pilgrim's Progress, do not stand for great spiritual experiences, then the book is in fact pretty small beer.

The start of the allegorical approaches to The Tempest can be dated exactly—August Wilhelm von Schlegel's lecture on the comedies of Shakespeare in Vienna in 1808. Schlegel was already a celebrated translator of Shakespeare, and the German version known as ‘Schlegel-Tieck’ established Shakespeare as almost the German national poet. Like Coleridge, Schlegel interpreted the genius of Shakespeare afresh. He challenged the eighteenth-century Shakespeare of ‘a wild irregular genius, in whom great faults are compensated by great beauties’ and presented instead a great poet, a great dramatist and a great creator of characters, with comprehensive, and indeed universal, sympathies. Shakespeare was more: ‘in strength a demi-god, in profundity of view a prophet, in all-seeing wisdom a protecting spirit of a higher order’. It was Schlegel who first related Ariel to the airy elements and Caliban to the earthy, suggesting an allegory which coincides with Elizabethan and Jacobean humour-psychology.

Keats expressed the spirit of those (Romantic) times in his letter begun 14 February 1819:

A Man's life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life—a life like the scriptures, figurative—which such people can no more make out than they can the hebrew Bible. Lord Byron cuts a figure—but he is not figurative—Shakespeare led a life of Allegory: his works are the comments on it.

(Forman 1947, p. 305)

After Schlegel, early interest was in Miranda, ‘Eve of an enchanted Paradise’; for Heine in 1838, her prototype was ‘hidden behind the stars too far off to reach my sight’. De Quincey and Thomas Campbell in England, and Montégut in France, developed the idea of relation to some parallel world outside the play. Thomas Campbell, as A. D. Nuttall writes, ‘was, as far as I know, the first to make an allegorical connexion between Prospero and Shakespeare himself. Prospero drowns his book and Shakespeare takes his leave of the London theatre’ (Nuttall 1967, p. 5). Montégut took this startlingly further:

Et l'histoire de l'île enchantée telle que Prospero l'expose dans ses conversations du premier acte avec Miranda, Ariel et Caliban, est-ce qu'elle ne raconte pas trait pour trait l'histoire de théâtre anglais et de la transformation que Shakespeare lui fit subir?

(quoted Nuttall, p. 5)

(And the story of the enchanted isle as Prospero reveals it in his dialogues with Miranda, Ariel and Caliban in the first Act, is it not an account, feature by feature, of the English theatre and the transformation to which Shakespeare subjected it?)

He goes on to identify the foul witch Sycorax with the foul English theatre of earlier times. It is illuminating to quote here Nuttall's further examples of such historical allegorising:

A similar impulse for elaboration carries Dowden as far as suggesting that Ferdinand is ‘the young Fletcher in conjunction with whom Shakespeare worked upon The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII’. The twentieth century has, of course, seen hypotheses equally bizarre, if not more so. In 1925 the curious genius Robert Graves was willing to identify the drunken sailors of the play with ‘Chapman and Jonson with a suggestion of Marston’. A Miss Winstanley who corresponded with Graves found in Sycorax the reputed witch Catherine de Medici and in Caliban Jesuitism and Ravaillac, who was entrusted with the task of murdering Henry IV, and is described in pamphlets as a spotted monster and a degenerate. He was, it seems, first racked and then pinched to death with red-hot pincers for the murder.

(Nuttall p. 6)

The greatest excesses have always come from the transcendentalisers, to coin a horrible word. Nuttall notes Victor Hugo, Alfred Mézières, Ruskin—even, in Daniel Wilson's Caliban: The Missing Link (1873) a Darwinian, evolutionary Tempest. Edward R. Russell in 1876 went the whole hog: Prospero is God. As Nuttall observes, ‘even the reader who was prepared to find a sort of sanctity in the play as a whole has some difficulty in bowing down and worshipping the irascible old Duke of Milan as the God of his fathers’ (p. 9). The most influential, however, of the nineteenth-century transcendental-allegorisers has been the American, James Russell Lowell, in Among My Books (1870), where ‘Caliban = brute understanding, Ariel = fancy, Prospero = imagination, etc’ (Kermode 1964, p. lxxxi): and Edward Dowden's far-reaching Shakespere—A Critical Study of his Mind and Art (London, 1875). Dowden, indeed, in a passage not mentioned by Nuttall, writes, in his chapter ‘Shakespere's Last Plays’:

It is not chiefly because Prospero is a great enchanter, now about to break his magic staff, to drown his book deeper than ever plummet sounded, to dismiss his airy spirits, and to return to the practical service of his Dukedom, that we identify Prospero in some measure with Shakespeare himself. It is rather because the temper of Prospero, the grave harmony of his character, his self-mastery, his calm validity of will, his sensitiveness to wrong, his unfaltering justice, and with these, a certain abandonment, a remoteness from the common joys and sorrows of the world, are characteristic of Shakespeare as discovered to us in all his latest plays. Prospero is a harmonious and fully-developed will. In the earlier play of fairy enchantments, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the ‘human mortals’ wander to and fro in a maze of error, misled by the mischievous frolic of Puck, the jester and clown of Fairyland. But here the spirits of the elements, and Caliban the gross genius of brute-matter,—needful for the service of life—are brought under subjection to the human will of Prospero.

(Dowden 1875, pp. 417-18)

Nuttall sums up well:

With varying degrees of seriousness and vividness, the romantic men of letters felt that when they were talking about The Tempest they were talking about the structure of the universe also. They felt, by and large, that The Tempest itself impelled them to this course, but they did not feel that they were expounding the curious feelings of a man long dead. The metaphysics they proposed was, they felt, quite as much their own as it was Shakespeare's. Ontological assertions are woven into the very fabric of their criticism.

(p. 13)

Though E. B. Wagner in 1935 proposed that The Tempest was an allegory of the history of the Church, the major twentieth-century allegorisers are on the whole greater transcendentalists still. E. M. W. Tillyard (1938) and G. Wilson Knight (1948) held that there was a pattern in the tragedies, which they saw as breakdown and death, symbolised by storm, with the suggestion of final reconciliation beyond the grave. This, they said, followed through to the pattern of the Romances, which all consummate in a restoration, regeneration, even resurrection. Such ideas later crystallised into altogether firmer Christianising, as we shall see.

But I pause here to mention by far the most elaborate, and in some ways the most impenetrable, of twentieth-century allegorisings, the two books by Colin Still. His first, Shakespeare's Mystery Play, a Study of ‘The Tempest’ (1921) made a second appearance, in ‘an enlarged and clarified restatement’ as the second part of a longer work altogether, The Timeless Theme of 1936. He wrote there

by the help of direct textual evidence I shall show that THE TEMPEST is an imaginative mystery which is true to the spiritual experience of all mankind; that it is, in effect, a particular version of the universal theme; and that it shares not only the inner significance, but inevitably also to some extent the outward form, of every other version of the same theme.

(1936, p. 134)

The centre of his method is a developed parallel between the action of The Tempest and, surprisingly, the initiation ceremonies of the Eleusinian adepts: he is in fact quite hard to pin down about why this should be. (The ‘mystery’ in his first title has to do with Gnostic mysteries, and not a play presented by a late-medieval guild, as ‘Mystery Play’ would normally be understood.) The Gnostic mystery cults, and Christian doctrine, spontaneous reflections of the unchanging facts of mankind's spiritual pilgrimage, gave him his analogies, and all were, he found, fused in the play, which becomes ‘a dramatic representation of the Mystery of Redemption, conceived as a psychological experience and expressed in mythological form’. The whole is worked through with relentless detail, with Lesser and Greater Initiations, the Ceremony of Water, temptations offered and removed like Christ's in Milton's Paradise Regained; Stephano and Trinculo represent the Fall, Ferdinand ascends to the Celestial Paradise, and Prospero is both Priest and God.

Though Still asserts that only a critic who is truly a mystic can understand the mystic truths in great works of art, he has received some solemn attention: Frank Kermode called his interpretation ‘improbable’ (p. lxxxiii), and that is possibly over-kind.

When I was an undergraduate, I attended a dinner party at which Nevill Coghill was also a guest. He was a good Shakespeare scholar, and director, and an inspiring teacher; he spoke then about The Tempest, and the challenge of putting it on the stage. A mast and spar, he said, would suggest a ship instantly, and would dominate the first scene—and there, he said, you had it, making the shape with his arms: the Christian cross, a controlling image for the whole play. The waters round the island were the waters of baptism—did not the clothes come out of the water better? Thus the island was the kingdom of God. This was heady stuff in the Oxford of the time, and far more graspable than Colin Still's Eleusinian mysteries. It did seem to make Prospero into a sort of Christ, which raised problems, however. I don't believe that Coghill's dinner-table disquisition ever reached print. More recent Christianisers are more eager to proselytise. A strain of pious American criticism of Shakespeare has for two decades seen that curiosity ‘a Christ-figure’ everywhere. It appears, often, regardless of either Tudor and Stuart ways of thinking, or indeed, sometimes, of respect for textual fact. Such a chimera has, for example, been attached to ‘the old fantastical duke of dark corners’, Vincentio in Measure for Measure. A peppering of religious phrases in this play has set these critics busily fixing stained-glass images into the windows of a quite illusory chapel. It is not even as if the play's title is Christian: it echoes a phrase from Matthew 7 which itself echoes an Old Testament idea, which can mean just retribution, or moderation as a virtue, or both. ‘Christ-figures’ have been seen in the most wildly inappropriate characters, as Richard Levin (1979) demonstrates, including Falstaff himself. Such allegorising is not confined to Protestants. The Jesuit Peter Milward has recently given us King Lear as a Virgin Mary figure, which shows the bog-land into which allegorising can sink. In his earlier, and wayward Shakespeare's Religious Background, Milward tries to demonstrate that Miranda, too, is a representation of the Virgin Mary. This claim depends on acceptance of the likelihood of Shakespeare's reverence for the Virgin Mary extending so far as to include a knowledge of rather obscure French plays on the miracles of the Virgin—a Shakespeare who, we may remember, lived in a self-consciously Protestant country, was baptised, brought up, married and buried a Protestant, and saw his children baptised, brought up, and—in the only case—married, as Protestants. Moreover, Milward's Miranda-as-Virgin-Mary claim is based on Prospero's ‘You have not sought her help, of whose soft grace / For the like loss I have her sovereign aid’ [V.i.142-3]. These lines, Milward says, refer to the Virgin: they do not. They do not even refer to Miranda, but to Patience. The bog is deeper than such commentators imagine.

Colin Still seems much less wild by comparison. Though he has never been taken wholly seriously, allegorising is a pertinacious form, and very recently a critic has suggested that there is more life in Still's work than many have suggested. Michael Srigley has been able to suggest his own reading of the play as an allegory of regeneration. He convincingly demonstrates that there are veins of alchemic, Paracelsian and baptismal imagery in the play, and attempts to support Still, that The Tempest is indeed influenced by the rituals of the Eleusinian mysteries. Perhaps the verdict has to be, again, not proven, particularly in view of the absence of contemporary support for reading drama in this way: but Srigley does open a new seam, in suggesting the possibility of the influence of the Renaissance interpretation of the Aeneid as an allegory of the Platonic search for truth. If Srigley is, as he seems to be, reading his allegory through Renaissance spectacles, then he and his subject warrant serious attention (Srigley 1985).

What has to be called the ‘Shakespeare—the Final Phase’ school of criticism, exemplified most in Dowden … grew out of that identifying of Shakespeare with one of his characters, Prospero. So, like a character in one of his plays—though not, interestingly enough, very much like Prospero—Shakespeare had to be seen to develop from early stumblings to final maturity and serene acceptance. Thus Morton Luce in 1902, in the first Arden edition of the play, found that the structure of the Romances showed, if not carelessness, then a lack of ‘concentrated artistic determination and purpose’: the playwright finds the writing of plays now ‘more of a recreation’, though the tone is high. ‘He is now approaching his fiftieth year; and his experience, if it left him sadder when he wrote his great tragedies, has now left him wiser also’. Walter Raleigh, in his Shakespeare (1907), in the chapter on ‘The Last Phase’, found a similar benevolence.

This was all too much for Lytton Strachey in 1904, who in a famous and much-reprinted essay wrote that the happy endings of the plays showed, not Shakespeare's tranquillity, but that he knew how to end a fairy-tale—and ‘in this land of faery, is it right to neglect the goblins?’ Shakespeare's powers had deteriorated. The reader is often bored. So was Shakespeare.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that he was getting bored himself. Bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama, bored, in fact, with everything except poetry and poetical dreams … on the one side inspired by soaring fancy to the singing of ethereal songs, and on the other, urged by a general disgust to burst occasionally through his torpor into bitter and violent speech.

(Strachey 1922, p. 60)

Strachey does give weight to one quality: ‘The Enchanted Island … has been cut adrift for ever from common sense, and floats, buoyed up by a sea, not of waters, but of poetry’ (p. 61).

The essay was deemed offensive; but it worked. As Philip Edwards wrote, ‘The vision of the mellowed and matured Shakespeare, sitting by the banks of the Avon, the wind playing gently with his white hair, submerged to reappear only furtively’ (Edwards 1958, p. 3). The older allegorisers were put more firmly in their place in an influential essay in 1927 by E. E. Stoll, a powerful senior American critic who was among the most trenchant of that useful school of critics who aimed at a less tuppence-coloured view of Shakespeare: Stoll's penny-plain-ness lay in seeing Shakespeare in relation to his contemporaries and his theatre. Thus he argued that Ariel and Caliban did not in fact need to symbolise anything at all. What they were, as theatrical parts, would be recognisable to Shakespeare's audience, and wholly explicable. To make them symbols is in fact to diminish them: a play's effect is reduced when characters become labels attached to ‘meanings’ (Stoll 1927).

The allegorisers proceeded by enclosing the play in a sort of woolly jacket. Like some more recent iconographers, allegorising critics used their lofty erudition with an apparently determined vagueness about mere detail in the plays. The same could be said of some myth-and-ritualisers.


Asked, we are told, to fill some blank pages at the end of The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot somewhat capriciously added Notes. The same stimulus that drove many readers of those Notes, just after the First World War, to Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance and Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough to look for exciting clues to a seductively ‘significant’ poem sent the new readers of anthropology and comparative religion into schematising Shakespeare. The last plays shone with promise. That is not so very extraordinary: romance is always close to myth. The very invitation which The Tempest extends seemed to be addressed to those critics who could write about the great and apparently universal symbols of Royal Death and Rebirth, of Vegetation Rites, of Fertility, and the rest. The key word was ‘universal’. The argument went like this: great art is a process, a movement of events which relate to the greatest experiences of human nature. If you look at great works of art in the right way, you can see that they all contain the same elements. If you look at the great myths of mankind, from anywhere in the world, the right way, you find exactly the same elements. In both, art and myth, they appear not as dramatis personae, or particular shaped sequences, but as symbols of something altogether larger and more universal. The critical approach is close to that of imposing allegorical meaning on to a play or poem or novel, with the difference that now the imposed meaning is something altogether more awesome, and even grander than the fantasies of the Christianisers. For whereas they find mere ‘Christ-figures’ everywhere, here in this exalted air even Christ's crucifixion is itself only a symbol of something infinitely deep in universal human experience—the sacrifice of the young prince for the salvation of the tribe. That this need for assertion of a universal humanity, with emphasis on the infinitely significant value of sacrifice, came after the First World War, is not surprising. Frazer in particular seemed to be drawing aside a veil to show, deeply reassuringly, something of what C. G. Jung later called the ‘collective unconscious’.

Drama, moreover, contains another element which seems to make it perfect for such equations. It enacts for a community a performance with a beginning, a middle and an end—indeed, it can easily be said to be doing this on behalf of the community. That very progression, that longer and more complex development from beginning to end, is an ingredient not always found in myths, which are usually fairly uncomplicated in plot. Drama is performed by special people, and there is some stress on them being the right people, properly capable of it. So drama clearly has a powerful ritual function: and as such is part of a stream of human experience that goes back to the dawn of time, as the phrases have it. The priests of that ancient time, the correct performers, have merely changed their appearance slightly to become holders of Equity cards.

So here was apparently another way into studying the universals of humanity, by studying rituals. (That this understanding of ‘rituals’ was so severely limited as to be virtually useless was not apparent at the time. Frazer worked entirely from written accounts: and did not consider his own position, either ideologically or methodologically—he did not consider his own daily routine as ‘ritual’, for example.) At the time, humanity's great religions, and the supposedly even older folk-customs and rituals, seemed to provide stunning material with which to open up not just a new window into some plays of Shakespeare, but comprehensive understanding of the whole work.

Though early in the twentieth century it had been noticed how Shakespeare at the end seemed preoccupied with the theme of reconciliation, and the importance of the royal children and their survival, creating a new world out of what their parents had nearly destroyed, the classic statement of the appeal to myth came a third of the way through the century, in G. Wilson Knight's enormously influential short essay ‘Myth and Miracle’, published in 1929. Here the words ‘myth’ and ‘universal’ are constantly applied to the four last plays, and particularly The Tempest. In the same volume, The Crown of Life, which opens with ‘Myth and Miracle’, is a long chapter, ‘The Shakespearian Superman: an Essay on The Tempest’. This is less startling, though it does contain one influential suggestion—that ‘The poetry is pre-eminently in the events themselves, which are intrinsically poetic’ (Knight 1948, p. 224). In that chapter, there is a sentence about The Tempest which sums up much of the first chapter's thesis: ‘A myth of creation woven from his total work by the most universal of poets is likely to show correspondences with other well-authenticated results of the racial imagination’ (p. 224).

To get to his much-referred-to ‘universals’, Knight has a good deal to do with the words ‘mystic’ and ‘mysticism’. He argues that there is a twelve-year period which takes Shakespeare from the problem plays through the great tragedies towards a spiritual fulfilment. Note ‘spiritual’: on the first page of ‘Myth and Miracle’ he writes, ‘That spiritual quality which alone causes great work to endure through the centuries should be the primary object of our attention’ (p. 9). He finds that ‘tragedy is merging into mysticism, and what is left to say must be said not in terms of tragedy, but of miracle and myth’—which leads him to Pericles and The Winter's Tale. He writes of the apparition of the goddess Diana in Pericles, ‘A reader sensitive to poetic atmosphere must necessarily feel the awakening light of some religious or metaphysical truth symbolized in the plot and attendant machinery’ (p. 14). The Vision of Jupiter in Cymbeline has ‘clear religious and universal significance’ (p. 16): in view of ‘the mystic significance’ of it, ‘we shall find it quite reasonable that he [Shakespeare] should attempt a universal statement in direct language concerning the implication of his plot’ by means of it (p. 19). Knight sums up, on the three plays before The Tempest, ‘these miraculous and joyful conquests of life's tragedy are the expression, through the medium of drama, of a state of mind or soul in the writer directly in knowledge … of a mystic and transcendent fact as to the true nature and purpose of the sufferings of humanity’ (p. 23).

Thus ‘a prophetic criticism could, if The Tempest had been lost, have nevertheless indicated what must be its essential nature, and might have hazarded its name’ (p. 23). He opposes ‘tempest-symbolism’ to music, and ‘the hate-theme’ to love, ideas he finds consummated in The Tempest. The ‘predominating symbols’ of the four plays ‘are loss in tempest and revival to the sounds of music. It is about twelve years from the inception of this lonely progress of the soul to the composition of The Tempest’. On the island, Prospero is ‘master of his lonely magic. He has been there for twelve years’ (p. 24). So ‘The Tempest is at the same time a record of Shakespeare's spiritual progress and a statement of the vision to which that progress has brought him’ (p. 27). We are here, according to Knight, in a world of timeless absolutes. ‘The progress from spiritual pain and despairing thought through stoic acceptance to a serene and mystic joy is a universal rhythm in the spirit of man’ (p. 29). Concluding, he writes:

As for my contention that the Final Plays of Shakespeare must be read as myths of immortality, that is only to bring his work into line with other great works of literature. Tragedy is never the last word: theophanies and reunions characterise the drama of the Greeks: they, too, tell us that ‘with God all things are possible’.

(p. 30)

Sixty years on, the reader must be struck by both the assurance and the vagueness of this immensely influential piece. The uplifting tone and the woolliness about detail can, in fact, be alarming. In the passage above, he is surely wrong to assert that ‘tragedy is never the last word’ and to use the quotation from St Paul for a sentimental, and again wrong, thought about the Greek drama. He is set on avoiding pain altogether.

It is, indeed, noticeable that these plays do not aim at revealing a temporal survival of death: rather at the thought that death is a delusion. What was thought dead is in reality alive. In them we watch the fine flowers of a mystic state of soul bodied into the forms of drama.

(p. 22)

There is something very wrong indeed here. Death was not a delusion for Mamillius or Antigonus in The Winter's Tale nor for the mothers of Caliban or, presumably, Miranda, in The Tempest. Nor was death a delusion for William Shakespeare; nor is it for you or me, dear reader. ‘The fine flowers of a mystic state of soul’ are meretricious comfort.

Yet the essay was seminal. The last plays were central to all that Knight wrote (and performed) of Shakespeare. A considerable body of his own work, and that of others like Derek Traversi, grew directly from that first essay. He wrote persuasively about themes common to two or more of the last plays, and his work had the attraction of fresh scientific observation. The binary oppositions, not only love and hate but also tempest and music, and so on, gave the sense of looking at an important, and previously hidden, structure. Moreover, he made these themes not only immediate to the whole play, giving it again a Coleridgean organic unity: but at the same time the last plays were seen again to consummate the whole Shakespearean corpus, which satisfied the popular hunger for Shakespeare the Developing Artist now that Dowden's ‘On the Heights’, ‘In the Depths’ were discredited. Just as the boiling-together of world-wide myths and rituals by Frazer had seemed to reveal new chemical elements in human experience, so Knight seemed to be able to relate Shakespeare to common life—not just in Western post-Renaissance societies, but to all humanity. And Knight's opposites, as he developed them, overlapped with the flooding of literary studies by the binary systems of anthropological and linguistic ‘structuralism’.

Not everyone could do it as Wilson Knight had done it. In 1958, John Crow, listing ‘Deadly Sins of Criticism, or, Seven Ways to Get Shakespeare Wrong’, included Arrogance: ‘Let's all hunt for Fisher Kings and Dying Gods and ignore the fact that Mr Eliot wrote The Waste Land after, and not before, partaking of Miss Weston's good wine’ (Crow, 1958)—a telling point. (The punning allusion is to the 1927 novel by T. F. Powys, Mr Weston's Good Wine.) An influential offshoot from Knight was C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy of 1959, which set out to show how close comedy could be to the spirit of ancient English festivals. Barber took Shakespeare's comedies only up to Twelfth Night, though he wrote a separate essay on The Winter's Tale (1964). He had the advantage of appearing to deal in much more specific detail than Knight, and he won a generation of converts. Yet his work also now produces unease. For example, there has been much pronouncement about Saturnalia, in relation to Twelfth Night, without any agreement about what that, or Misrule, or whatever, means. Over-confident assertions about life in England have to be treated with some caution when they are made out of a life-experience many thousands of miles away from England; not to mention four centuries in time—and Olivia's household is in Illyria, anyway.

A good deal of caution has gathered round the work of Northrop Frye. The most powerful disciple of Knight, Frye too, focuses his work in Shakespearean comedy by keeping the Romances firmly in view. He, too, brings in the whole corpus. He, too, likes to see systems: by means of such constructions he is able to show that comedy, not tragedy, is the proper form; ‘tragedy is really implicit or uncompleted comedy’, he wrote in his important ‘The Argument of Comedy’ … ‘comedy contains a potential tragedy within itself’ (Frye 1949, p. 65). He takes the relationship between the genres further than Knight, finding a cycle that imitates what he asserts is the natural cycle of birth, death, rebirth—the rhythm of the seasons, and the basis, he says, of humanity's enduring myths. Comedy is paramount because it points beyond death: and the New Testament becomes a primary text. ‘From the point of view of Christianity, tragedy is an episode in that larger scheme of redemption and resurrection to which Dante gave the name of commedia’ (1949, p. 66) Paradoxically, Frye is harder to pin down than Knight—paradoxically, because Frye touches harder edges than ‘mysticism’. Even so, his observations have been revered. His notion of the escape to, and return from, the ‘green world’, has permeated widely. His manner of ipse dixit has been particularly admired, especially in North America.

But Frye, even more than Knight, is open to attack. The distillation of so much mythological and other material gets perilously close to being meaningless. Something is wrong with the very perspective to which Frye appeals in the title of his work to which The Tempest is most relevant, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (1965). It gives us the play as viewed from a very long way away. This makes, as always, for attractive writing—Frye is always readable: more so than Knight—but many plays are briefly touched, and the process is of amalgamation into a surprisingly small compass. The telescope is again held the wrong way round. The effect is momentarily interesting, but it doesn't assist navigation. His declaration that The Tempest rediscovers the logic of the earlier romantic comedies, moving from confusion to identity, from sterility to renewed life, is ultimately sentimental. We are, he says, lifted out of the world of ordinary experiences into a world perfected by the human imagination. To which the acute reader replies, ‘Yes, but …’ The Tempest is a more complex work, and its end is by a long way more problematical, than Frye suggests.

The attention given to the Romances by Knight and Frye (and Barber) was for an important reason. In these plays conventional realism seemed less demanding, and the plays could feel freer, apparently allowing the underlying myths more immediate presence. The archetypes, it could be claimed, were in their least displaced form. Knight, and others, make enormous claims. He wrote that in Shakespeare's theatre,

a common store of racial wisdom for centuries untapped is now released, as Prospero releases Ariel; and the highly responsible artist has himself to explore and exploit the wide areas of imaginative truth apparently excluded (though perhaps in some sense surveyed and transcended) by Christian dogma.

(1948, p. 227)

So much myth-and-ritual criticism is either plain wrong (death as a delusion) or makes the plays more trivial than ordinary experience of them suggests. Shakespeare's characters talking (and doing things in brackets) are so much more complex: who can decide definitively how Miranda ‘should’ play the second scene? The subtle richness of that problem is far and away more informative about the Human Condition than all the Universal Symbols ever asserted.

I do prefer my Shakespeare neither Knighted, Barbered nor Fryed. In this I am not alone. Having expressed disillusion with D. G. James's 1967 attempt to follow Knight, Philip Edwards, for example, is more seriously disturbed by D. Traversi's Shakespeare: The Last Phase (1954), where it is maintained that the symbolic movements point to the acquirement of ‘maturity’, identified as ‘a balanced view of life’.

The reduction of the complexity of Shakespeare to a striving towards a balanced view of life seems to me typical of the pallidness of all interpretations of the last plays which insist that they are symbolic utterances. There is an appearance (there is certainly a claim) that the depths are being opened, riches are being revealed. But it is an appearance only. It is a disservice to Shakespeare to pretend that one is adding to his profundity by discovering that his plots are symbolic vehicles for ideas and perceptions which are, for the most part, banal, trite and colourless. The ‘symbols’ are so much more fiercely active, potent, rich, complex as themselves than as what they are made to convey. When they are translated, they do not have a tithe of their own magnitude. … Sentimental religiosity, in the sense of a vague belief in a vague kind of salvation, and vague tremors at the word ‘grace’—so long as it is decently disengaged from Christianity; platitudinous affirmations of belief in fertility and re-creation; and insistence on the importance of maturity and balance: these are the deposits of Shakespeare's last plays once the solvent of parabolic interpretation has been applied, but these are not what the reader or audience observes in Pericles' reunion with Marina, the Whitsun Pastorals, Leontes' denial of the oracle or the wooing of Ferdinand and Miranda. The power of suggestion, which is one of the striking features of the last plays, is positively decreased by the type of criticism we are considering.

(Edwards 1958, p. 11)

Works Cited

Brockbank, J. Philip, ‘The Tempest: Conventions of Art and Empire’ in Brown and Harris (1966); reprinted in Palmer (1971).

Crow, John, ‘Deadly Sins of Criticism, or, Seven Ways to Get Shakespeare Wrong’ in Shakespeare Quarterly, 9 (1958) 301-5.

Dowden, Edward, Shakspere—his Mind and Art (London, 1875).

Edwards, Philip, ‘Shakespeare's Romances: 1900-1957’, Shakespeare Survey, 11 (1958) 1-18.

Forman, Maurice Buxton (ed.), The Letters of John Keats (Oxford, 1947).

Frey, Charles, ‘The Tempest and the New World’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 30 (1979), pp. 29-41.

Frye, Northrop, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (London, 1965).

Frye, Northrop, ‘The Argument of Comedy’, English Institute Essays 1948 (1949 pp. 58-73; reprinted in Laurence Lerner (ed.), Shakespeare's Comedies: An Anthology of Modern Criticism (Harmondsworth, 1967).

James, D. G., The Dream of Prospero (Oxford, 1967).

Kermode, Frank, The Tempest, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1964).

Knight, G. Wilson, The Crown of Life (London, 1948).

Levin, Richard, New Readings vs. Old Plays (Chicago, 1979).

Milward, Peter, Shakespeare's Religious Background (Bloomington, 1973).

Nuttall, A. D., Two Concepts of Allegory (London, 1967).

Orgel, Stephen, ‘Prospero's Wife’, Representations, 8 (1984) 1-13.

Srigley, Michael, Images of Regeneration. A Study of Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest’ and its Cultural Background (Uppsala, 1985).

Still, Colin, The Timeless Theme (London, 1936).

Stoll, E. E., ‘Certain Fallacies and Irrelevancies in the Literary Scholarship of the Day’, Studies in Philology, 24 (1927).

Strachey, Lytton, ‘Shakespeare's Final Period’ in Books and Characters, French and English (London, 1922).

Tillyard, E. M. W., Shakespeare's Last Plays (London, 1938).

Traversi, Derek, Shakespeare: The Last Phase (London, 1954).

Grace R. W. Hall (essay date 1999)

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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. … [B]ut there is still some haziness about the principles governing Shakespeare's presentation of character.”1 Brook noted that “Shakespeare's verse gives density to the portrait.”2 The density may be explained in part by what Bethell described as “The mixed mode of character presentation favored by Shakespeare and the popular dramatic tradition [which] depends for its validity upon the principle of multiconsciousness.”3

Shakespeare's use of the multiconsciousness mode of representation has led to a wide variety of identifications for Prospero. Almost two hundred years after the First Folio appeared with The Tempest as the lead play, Clark asked, “Who is Prospero?” and pointed out that his question “has agitated the minds of countless thousands who have been charmed by The Tempest. Some have wondered whether he is intended to be the personification of Destiny. Others have conjectured that he is Shakespeare himself.”4

Being somewhat confused by Prospero's many traits, James found Prospero is “Jupiter … of Cymbeline … in a heavy disguise of mortality. Here is no crude descent of a god. God Prospero may be; but he is also a very human, impatient old gentleman. His humanity is as perfectly set out as his divinity. … But [Shakespeare made] … an all too human character of his divinity in The Tempest.5

Prospero has been described by Tillyard as a ruler who has made a tragic mistake and then repented of it, and interpreted as a “Superman” by Knight, “an harmonious and fully developed will” by Dowden, “an artist of a kind” by Zimbardo, as “the representative of Art” by Kermode, as “the instrument of judgement” by Traversi, as “a philosopher” by Clark, as “the prototypical Supreme Being, whom indeed the pagan hierophant was deemed to represent” by Still, and as the symbol of “reason” or the “thinking, understanding mind with its crowning faculty, reason” by Wagner.6 Although it may appear as Traversi suggests that Prospero is judging, his role is not as judge, but as “schoolmaster,” who brings awareness of the law to the untaught and the recalcitrant.

Wagner's identification of Prospero with reason not only reduces him from man to symbol, but divests the play of its divinity in exalting man's reason. Wagner does extend her description of Prospero—“He is reasoning mind plus knowledge”—but she sees Prospero's books as “a symbol of scientific knowledge” rather than books of magic. This interpretation is not compatible with either Prospero's drowning of his book (5.1.57) or Shakespeare's comments about the separation of the branches of knowledge and Leontes's rationalism gone irrational in The Winter's Tale.

Wagner emphasizes reason in her thesis that Shakespeare is concerned in The Tempest with the expulsion of pagan ideas that have crept into Christianity. Reason and the new scientific thinking appear to her to be the method by which Shakespeare expunges error and spurious ideas from Christianity.7 She fails to recognize that it was science in the first place that provided a false framework on which both Paganism and the church could build their cosmologies. Copernicus did not create an entirely new pattern for the heavens. Much earlier Heraclides of Pontus (born c. 400-380 b.c.) assumed “that only the interior planets, Mercury and Venus revolved around the sun, while the sun and the other planets revolved around the earth.” Aristarchus (c. 217-c. 145 b.c.) “placed the sun in the center of the planets.”8 For centuries mainline scientists rejected the possibility of a heliocentric model and subscribed to the erroneous Ptolemaic model of the heavens. Shakespeare, unlike Wagner, subordinates the new science, magic, and reason to human need and plays the music of the spheres in a different key with new authority figures. Those figures—masters, not gods—will be described in this [essay]. …

Prospero does not figure primarily or fit solely into any of the aforementioned designations. They err who make Prospero only a symbol or equate him with divinity. In The Tempest as in some of Shakespeare's other plays, characters exhibit aspects both of divinity and humanity, yet they should not be seen as gods.

Hassel's view of Prospero as a man is broader than that of Wagner or James: “He has tasted his finitude and his infinitude to the lees, and he has learned that he must be something of both to be a man.” Hassel points to the revels passage and the Epilogue as evidence of both Prospero's awareness of his mortality and his “human weakness with the paradoxical blessings of humility and forgiveness.” Hassel sees the last plays as a “return to the comic-Christian sense of human life as an insubstantial pageant with a benevolent, forgiving auditor,” urging “upon their Renaissance audience a comforting old response to the new scientific rationalism that may be threatening their composure.”9 Hassel's view of the last plays thus concords with this study in rejecting Wagner's rationalism and scientific purgation and in ascribing to the Christian sense of human life in The Tempest.

Bethell, too, finds Shakespeare inclusive in his outlook. He compares Shakespeare's mode of character presentation with a more limited mode:

The change from conventionalism to naturalism, from multiconsciousness to what we might call theatrical monism, reflects not only a change in technical resources but also a profound change in metaphysical outlook. Theatrical naturalism … is a product of philosophical materialism, which monistically denies reality to the supernatural. Scientific interest in individual case history, as displayed by Ibsen and the naturalists, is the only sort of interest in humanity possible when humanity has been ousted from its central position in the universe. But the Shakespearean presentation of character depends on a multiconsciousness related to that balance of opposites which constitutes the universe of Christianity: God and man; spirit and matter; time and eternity.10

Although Bethell, Hassel, Still, and Wagner acknowledge that the play is concerned with Christianity, Wagner's and Still's ideas of Shakespeare's purpose differ markedly from Bethell's and Hassel's. Neither Bethell nor Wagner nor Hassel associated the play with the Mystery Plays. Although in the title of his book Shakespeare's Mystery Play: A Study ofThe Tempest” Still identified it correctly, he did not make a comparison of the play with one or more of the Mystery Plays; rather, he compared it with pagan rites of passage. If The Tempest is a Christian play, however, then Prospero, the principal character, must be associated in some way with Christianity.

Presenting Christianity posed a problem since Shakespeare could not use freely the name of God or of Christ in the theater.11 If the name of the deity could not be mentioned, how could Shakespeare bring the idea of divinity into the play? In the Mystery Plays … Old Testament characters typified some aspect of Christ. The plays also used Christ's name anachronistically in the Old Testament. If Shakespeare's characters, in what has been identified herein as his Mystery Play, are intended to typify some aspect of divinity, they would have had to have traits and functions similar to scriptural characters since Shakespeare did not use biblical names. Similar behavioral characteristics, along with imagery and a vocabulary familiar to the audience, would convey the sense he intended. For an audience whose members were required to attend church and listen to homilies and to the reading of most of the Bible every year, and where, all about them they saw biblical scenes engraved in masonry, carved in wood, painted in frescoes and arranged in collages of stained glass, a word or phrase could bring to remembrance many biblical stories, interlocking themes and character figurings. Part of the compactness and inclusiveness of the vision that is The Tempest can be attributed to Shakespeare's use of words, which not only had dual or triple senses but also brought to mind particular dramas, art, or texts with which audiences were familiar.

Prospero is severally associated and should be severally identified. He functions in the play as a magician, and describes himself as the deposed duke of Milan, Miranda's father, and her “schoolmaster” (1.2.172). He confesses both his neglect of duty as duke and “being transported / And rapt in secret studies” (1.2.76-77). Awareness of the multiconsciousness operative in The Tempest should enable us to recognize Prospero's several identities and shuttle from one of his personalities to another. Shakespeare assists us by using changes of apparel for Prospero. (The dual or multiple identities of other characters must be comprehended without that kind of help.) Prospero alternately wears a mantle called a “magic garment” (1.2.23) or a “robe” (1.2.169), wears his magic robes (5.1, beginning of scene), carries a staff and a book (5.1.54, 57), wears a hat and carries a rapier (5.1.84), or appears disrobed as Miranda's father before he puts on his schoolmaster's robe.

After the “ship of souls” is “dash'd all to pieces” (1.2.8), Prospero assures Miranda

No harm:
I have done nothing, but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one; thee, my daughter, who
Art 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.


Prospero's “what thou art,” “of whence I am,” and “more better than” forecast there will be a revelation of his and Miranda's identity. It will go beyond Milan. Prospero asks Miranda to help him remove his magician's attire: “Lend thy hand, / And pluck my magic garment from me. So. / [Lays down his mantle.] / Lie there my Art” (1.2.23-25). Disrobed, as her father, he relates his experiences as “once” duke of Milan and his care of Miranda under the adverse circumstances occasioned by his “neglect of duty” and his brother's treachery. Disrobed, he is simply—or not so simply, if we consider one of Miranda's identities—her father, once duke of Milan. After giving her a Milan family history lesson, he changes his attire: “[Puts on his robe]”12 (1.2.169), which may differ from the mantle he laid aside earlier or be the same garment serving differently. Robed, he rises and announces another identity, that of “schoolmaster” (1.2.172). In that capacity he apprises Miranda that his “prescience” (1.2.180) is more far-reaching than Milan, for he is aware of “a most auspicious star” in his “zenith” (1.2.182, 181). In his heaven-oriented role, he is Miranda's “careful” tutor (1.2.173) as well as that of others in the play.

As a schoolmaster Prospero has a wide range of protégés. After Miranda falls asleep, he continues in the role of schoolmaster, checking on Ariel's performance, repeating his monthly lessons, and rebuking him for forgetting: “Hast thou, spirit, / Perform'd to point The Tempest that I bade thee?” (1.2.194) and “I must / Once in a month recount what thou hast been, / Which thou forget'st” (1.2.261-263). He teaches Caliban to distinguish the lesser and bigger lights by naming. He teaches Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban the consequences of foolish and gluttonous behavior by leading them through a bog. He teaches Ferdinand restraint, communal responsibility, and respect. With thunderous sounds and a banquet he teaches Sebastian and Antonio that everything they plan and see is not within their grasp. His prime pupil, whom he takes great care to instruct, is Miranda. Under his tutelage she has become a sensitive and caring person, who pleads with her father to show mercy on the “fraughting souls.” Not least among those instructed by Prospero are members of the audience, who along with Miranda are encouraged to remember what “lives in” their minds from the “dark backward and abysm of time” (1.2.49-50) and who are reminded throughout his lengthy recounting to “heed,” “hear,” and “listen.” Prospero's constant reminders to Miranda to pay attention and his suggestions that she is not listening are also directed at the audience. Schucking stated that Prospero “unintentionally appears in the light of a schoolmaster,” but at considerable length he gives examples of Prospero's pedagogy.13 The evidence he offers abrogates his claim that Shakespeare's portrayal was unintentional.

If Prospero's appearance as magician, dressed in a mantle and equipped with a staff, did not arouse suspicions, his designation as “schoolmaster” should have for a biblically literate society, as well as for those familiar with the Mystery Plays; for Prospero has still another identity, that of an historical character, which is subtly presented by Shakespeare. Recognition of that identity is important to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the play. That unnamed identity establishes The Tempest as a mystery play. It has escaped the attention of critics but may well have been obvious to seventeenth century audiences. The “haziness” Bethell found in Shakespeare's presentation of character is dissolved and the divine attributes critics have ascribed to Prospero are properly assigned when the mode Shakespeare uses for representation of historical characters is identified as figuration or typology. Throughout The Tempest, Shakespeare uses that biblical mode of representation, referred to earlier as a unifying factor in the Mystery Plays. With it he provides correspondences between his characters and historical personages without loss of contemporaneous individuality. In the Old Testament many characters figure some aspect of divinity, foreshadowing Christ. No doubt it is Shakespeare's use of this mode of representation that is partially responsible for critics' sense of the divine in Prospero, who is, in fact, in all of his representations a man.

In the use of figuration, correspondences and differences exist between characters, and although the person figures another, he is a person in his own right in an historical or dramatic context. Figuration is a far more distinctive and sophisticated approach than abstracting the quality of a person as in Everyman or attempting to impersonate another. Moreover, its use adds dimensions to the play, since it brings awareness of two or more personalities even though they are not visible on stage as separate actors. Along with the use of dual, triple, and obsolete word meanings, figuration provided a way for Shakespeare to tap into what lived in the minds of his audience, and it accounts for part of his success in conveying a great variety of ideas in a relatively brief script. It also imparts meaning. The compactness and inclusiveness of the vision that is The Tempest can in part be attributed to Shakespeare's ability to draw on the audience's familiarity with the modes of character representation used in the Mystery Plays and on the cultural concepts of time.

Shakespeare's mystery play covers the same human time period as the medieval plays. However, his typology differs from that of the medieval plays in that his cast of characters do not have biblical names or belong to biblical times. Some of them figure biblical persons who in turn are types or antitypes of Christ. Shakespeare's failure to use biblical names for his characters does not make them nontypical. In the Mystery Plays, contemporary characters portrayed biblical characters, who figured as types or antitypes of Christ. Ira Clark noted that some sixteenth and seventeenth poets, e.g. Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan, were using what he called “neotypology,” “devout personal lyrics based in types” which amounted to the insertion of personal experience into biblical settings.14 Clark pointed out that one of the ways allegory differs from typology is that in typology “both type and antitype have independent historical existence.”15 Shakespeare also used contemporized typological events in relating beliefs established by the church and promulgated in the medieval plays.

Shakespeare's use of nonbiblical names did not imply loss of the sacred meaning of the play. The comic aspects of both the Corpus Christi play and Shakespeare's play served a dual purpose. Kolve wrote, “The Corpus Christi drama is an institution of central importance to the English Middle Ages precisely because it triumphantly united man's need for festival and mirth with instruction in the story that most seriously concerned his immortal soul.”16 Miranda and Prospero identify those brought to the isle by Prospero as “poor souls” (1.2.9) and “fraughting souls” (1.2.13), not as men or fools as in Brant's Ship of Fools.

Shakespeare did not depend only upon costume and function for clues to Prospero's historical identity. He provided a nominal and a numerical clue. Biblical names were indicative of character or associated with events and their place in history. Name changes were indicative of changes in persons' lives, e.g. Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah and Saul of Tarsus became Paul. Methuselah, who was the oldest man to have lived, died in the year of the flood. His long life suggests the mercy of God in delaying the destruction of humankind.

The name Prospero is suggestive. Prosper is a word associated in Scripture with one of the major themes of the play, that of hearing. Prospero's name and his emphasis on hearing and heeding can be associated with a biblical character. His name is as significant as Angelo in Measure for Measure. Angelo is not an angel unless he is a fallen one, and certainly in terms of banishment Prospero is not very prosperous. However, Prospero's words, like those of God's law, do not return void, but they “prosper in the thing whereto … [they were] sent” (Isaiah 55:11). Before Moses took leave of the Israelites and after he had repeated the Ten Commandments, he said, “Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily” (Deut. 6:3). King David of Israel instructed his son, Solomon, “Then shalt thou prosper, if thou takest heed to fulfill the statutes and judgments, which the Lord charged Moses with concerning Israel” (I Chron. 22:13). The Psalmist associated God's law and prosperity: “his delight is in the law of the Lord; … and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (1:2, 3). Job's struggle with his losses was in part due to the concept promulgated in the Old Testament that the righteous would prosper. Hence, “Prospero” suggests an Old Testament rather than a New Testament character. If The Tempest, like the Mystery Plays, is a Bible play, then in the expanded plot of The Tempest the most appropriate figuring for Prospero, who stands for the law in Milan and identifies himself as “schoolmaster,” would be Moses, who in biblical writ and the Mystery Plays was both lawgiver and teacher. In Chapter V of this study the comparison of Shakespeare's selectivity of biblical reference with specific plays in the Ludus Coventriae cycle helps to establish the correspondence between Prospero and Moses as lawgivers and teachers.

Moses is called a “figure” in the Bible: “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come” (Romans 5:14). Although this passage may present an ambiguity and raise the question of who is the figure of whom, both Adam and Moses figured, in one respect, the One who was to come. The antitype could be positive or negative; that is, the antitype of the failed son of God, Adam, could be the unfailing Son of God, Christ. But Adam's repentance made him a lately obedient son and he would then be a positive antitype, the first created human son of God. Moses, the lawgiver, was a teacher and a type of Christ, who taught his disciples a new law, the law of forgiveness—even of enemies. Therefore, when Clark wrote of Prospero, “In this spirit realm Prospero's word is law,” he came close to suggesting Prospero's historical identity.17 In pictorial and dramatic representations Moses carried a staff and book, the book of the law and a shepherd's staff that was used magically before Pharaoh and his court magicians.

One of the finer details of similarity involving numbers, which a seventeenth century audience might be more aware of than a twentieth century audience and which called forth “speculation” for Anne Barton Righter, intimates Shakespeare's figuring of Prospero as Moses. Righter claimed, “Within the play itself, [Shakespeare] has a perplexing habit of posing conundrums: ‘I / Have given you here a third of mine own life’ (4.1.2-3), or the declaration that once returned to Milan ‘Every third thought shall be my grave’ (5.1.311). Mathematical precision of this kind positively asks for speculation as to the nature of the other two-thirds. In neither case can an answer be supplied. The dramatist knows, but is not telling.”18 Righter's claim provides a challenge. This study proposes that with a knowledge of the facts to which Shakespeare alludes, one does find answers, and those answers make for a more nearly complete interpretation of the play and a widened vision of it. If the exact numerical proportion, “third,” does have significance, Shakespeare's use of it here may have been to identify with the number of years assigned to the divisions of years in Moses' life and to the proportion of his life devoted to the leadership of the children of Israel. The several corresponding biblical facts are recorded in Acts and Deuteronomy: “And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel. … Then fled Moses at this saying, and was a stranger in the land of Madian, where he begat two sons. And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush” (Acts 7:23, 29-30). “And Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated” (Deut. 34:7). Moses visited the children of Israel at age forty. Subsequently, he killed an Egyptian and fled to the wilderness where he remained for the next forty years. Taken together the two forty-year periods make up two-thirds of his life. He devoted the rest—one hundred and twenty minus eighty, i.e., one-third of his life (the proportion mentioned by Prospero)—to the deliverance and teaching of Israel.19

Although at first we may not relate Prospero's magic to the Bible, we may with a closer reading and biblical knowledge become aware of other similarities between Moses and Prospero. Prospero, who at times wears a magician's mantle and carries a staff, performs a function similar to that performed by Moses. Although we still have available to us the Book of the Law of Moses, we do not have his wonder-working rod, so we tend to forget that aspect of Moses' authority. In the miracle of the burning bush, recorded in Exodus 3 and 4, when Moses casts his shepherd's rod on the ground at divine command, it becomes a serpent, frightening Moses. When Moses picks the serpent up by the tail, again at divine command, it becomes a rod once more (Exodus 4:2-4). In Pharaoh's court with his rod Moses proved himself a greater magician than Egypt's magicians, and later with his staff he visited ten plagues upon the Egyptians. Prospero simulates Moses in using a magician's staff that controls factors in nature. Caliban acknowledges that Prospero's power is superior to that of Sycorax's god, Setebos: “His Art is of such pow'r / It would control my dam's god, Setebos, / And make a vassal of him” (1.2.374-376). Miranda refers to Caliban's “vile race” that “had that in't which good natures / Could not abide to be with” (1.2.360-362). These remarks may have been meant to help promote the association of Prospero with Moses and distinguish between the Egyptians, represented by Sycorax and Caliban, and the Israelites. In The Tempest Caliban recounts the plagues Prospero visits on him:

his spirits hear me,
And yet I needs must curse. But they'll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i' th' mire,
Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid 'em: but
For every trifle are they set upon me,
Sometime like apes, that mow and chatter at me,
And after bite me; then like hedgehogs, which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way, and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.


Although Frye glosses Caliban's curse, “The red plague rid you” (1.2.366), as the bubonic plague,20 the red plague may well be a reference meant to remind Shakespeare's audience of the last plague inflicted by Moses, the death of the Egyptian firstborn and the attempt by Pharaoh to drive the Israelites into the Red Sea. The bubonic plague is usually referred to as the black plague. Prospero also plagues some of the recalcitrant in The Tempest by having Ariel lead them through a bog, their wilderness wandering. The humor and ridiculous behavior that occur when Stephano and Trinculo discover Caliban parallels scenes in the Mystery Plays where the follies of human nature are paraded. One example is found in the Noe play where Noah's wife rebels against going into the ark and sits among “gossips” who discuss the foolishness of Noah's endeavors, a scene which has no counterpart in the Bible.

The seventeenth century was exposed to and maintained an ambivalent attitude to white magic, and dramatists used it in various ways to impress their audiences. Woodman noted “the almost simultaneous appearance of The Alchemist and The Tempest. In one, the white magician, as charlatan, was used as an admirable tool for social satire; in the other, he was made genuine, and seen as a symbolic, mythic figure.”21

Woodman suggested that because the English body politic was vulnerable,

the possibilities of achieving order through the aids of white magic were strongly appealing to audiences. Just as healing through white magic was shown to bring health to the diseased individual, so it might also promote order in the diseased body politic. The traditional white magician might conduct his benevolent works … to reconcile rebels or usurpers and thus bring order to a foundering state. … Prospero's power over his spirit Ariel enables him to accomplish a series of triumphant maneuvers that culminate in a harmonious reunion as well as in his restoration to a usurped throne. Not only does he cure some of the diseased minds of the rebels but he also cures the diseased body politic of his kingdom.22

In The Tempest both the body politic and the minds of men are diseased. Prospero uses his white magic to cure both.

Citing Moses as a prototype of the white magician, Woodman wrote, “Moses … demonstrated his skills to prove that the all-powerful God was on his side, and also to destroy the enemies of the Israelites. By miraculously producing water and food in the desert, he also revealed himself as the tribal medicine man.”23

Prospero, a mythic figure, uses his magic as Moses did to achieve a release from bondage. In the play that release is from the bondage of the characters' hearts and minds, which are held captive to murderous intents or foolish, self-aggrandizing thoughts. Prospero not only prevents the evil forces from taking over the isle, but he prepares a banquet. Thus Woodman places Prospero in the same tradition as Moses, although he does not suggest that the former figures the latter.

Both Moses and Prospero could be described as “neglecting worldly ends” (1.2.89). Under somewhat different circumstances than Prospero, Moses turned from the responsibilities of Egyptian rule—which would have been his, since he was brought up in Pharaoh's house—to the shepherding of Jethro's sheep. Prospero, neglecting earthly governance, was “transported / And rapt in secret studies” (1.2.76-77). There appear to be more correspondences between Moses and Prospero than between any other Old Testament character and Christ in the Mystery Plays. Perhaps the number of correspondences was necessary to establish the relationship in the minds of the audience.

The association of Moses and Prospero does not curtail the uniqueness or humanity of either character, and Shakespeare makes this clear in The Tempest by having Prospero change garments each time he assumes a different role in the play. Thus Shakespeare uses the biblical mode of representation available to him, in which a human being can be both a figure of another and a living person in his own right. Shakespeare juggled human characteristics so that no one can be identified exactly with another person. Differences between Prospero and Moses allow the audience to perceive both characters at the same time, and to perceive meaning that is only available through typology.

Typology is suggestive, but there is never a one-to-one comparison between the figure and the one figured, type and antitype. In Prospero's reason for using magic and his reason for losing his rulership, Shakespeare used figuring as a means of representation rather than substitution. Moses used magic to persuade a king to release a people from physical bondage that denied them time for worship. Prospero used magic to bring the release of individuals from the perversion of their own wills and minds. Moses abandoned his opportunity as Pharaoh's adopted son to be ruler of Egypt, choosing instead to identify with his blood brothers; Prospero was banished from his dukedom by his brother after his absorption with art and books caused him to neglect his duty. As duke of Milan, Prospero was too careless about his duty and put too much trust in his brother, thereby putting temptation in his brother's way. Not so Moses, who chose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” (Hebrews 11:25). However, the similarities between Moses and Prospero are striking and much greater than the differences. Prospero brings each man, not just to enchantment, but to knowledge of the truth about the human condition and human relationships. With his magical staff, his book, his own knowledge and his airy servant he accomplishes this task with means similar to those of Moses, who used his rod to change natural phenomena and taught God's laws to the Israelites.

The figuring of Prospero as Moses allows us to evaluate him less harshly than did Wilson, who found him to be “a terrible old man, almost as tyrannical and irascible as Lear at the opening of the play.”24 Prospero is dealing with would-be repeat murderers, not only with a would-be murderer of himself and his infant daughter, and with natural man, uninhibited by law, who would violate his daughter. His “neglect of duty,” which afforded his brother the occasion for evil, is hardly so serious a crime as willful plotting of murder or rape. The equality of retribution of the law expressed in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” would not allow for the equating of neglect with murder. Even Tillyard's amelioration of Wilson's description, which limits the evaluation to “Prospero as he once was, not the character who meets us in the play, in whom these traits are mere survivals,” does not seem to be an appropriate evaluation of one who preferred art and magic to governance.25 They better apply to Moses, who killed an Egyptian before fleeing to the desert. Only the figuring of one as the other allows us to infer a murderous intent in Prospero—unless, of course, we accept anger or “vexation” as equivalent to the deed, a New Testament concept. However, Moses' reluctance to deal with Pharaoh and lead Israel out of bondage might be compared to Prospero's distaste for governing. As Prospero had Ariel, Moses had a mouthpiece: Aaron, his brother, who unlike Prospero's brother did not usurp authority.

Prospero, as Lord of Misrule in the biblical tradition, masquerades as one of the highest authorities in the Judeo-Christian religion. He puts on vestments to represent Moses and carries a book and a staff as Moses did, so that in appearance he can be seen as a magician or as a leader and teacher of Israel. A distinction is necessary between the representations of a magic book and the book of the law when Prospero dismisses the elements of nature, breaks his staff and drowns his book. Prospero appears in the former performance to be acting as a magician only. The book of the law is not dispensed with, for it appears in another guise as Prospero heads back to Milan. On the typological level, as the figure of Moses, Prospero turns over his rule to another before the play ends. His abandonment of magic is recorded and his recognition of the true lord is implied in the “ye elves” speech in his reference to the “printless” characters.

The sixty scenes carved on the spandrels in the chapter house of Salisbury Cathedral end with five depicting Moses: Moses on Sinai, the miracle of the Red Sea, the destruction of the Egyptians, Moses striking the rock, and the law declared.26 The emphasis on Moses as a figure in the Mystery Plays, the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer (1559), and in medieval art account for Shakespeare's figuring of Prospero. The two episodes staged in the Mystery Plays—the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the laws—have associations in The Tempest. Vestiges of Egypt's bondage remain in Shakespeare's portrayal of Caliban and the mention of Sycorax. In accordance with scripture: “All in Moses were baptized, in the cloud, and in the sea” (I Cor. 10:2). The service for baptism in the Book of Common Prayer also refers to the Red Sea.27 “The Red Sea becomes a figure for the waters of baptism, and Christ the leader of the new Exodus which frees men from the bondage of the devil.”28 Prospero, like Moses, initiates the “ship of souls” in a comparable rite of baptism and proclaims the law through his spirit, Ariel. Thus Shakespeare's choice of Prospero as the principal character in his Mystery Play is appropriate. The identification made by comparing Moses and Prospero will be further substantiated in the following chapter where comparisons are made between the Ludus Coventriae cycle and The Tempest.

Gonzalo, who is called councillor and is a visionary as well as the instrument of Providence for the preservation of Prospero, his books, and Miranda, figures a prophet. Gonzalo confirms his penchant for prophesy in the play with “I prophesied, … / This fellow could not drown” (5.1.217-218) when Ariel returns with the boat's master and the boatswain. As a prophet Gonzalo is not always accurate about history, as when, equating Tunis and Carthage, he is ridiculed by Antonio and Sebastian. Rather than recounting past happenings, a prophet looks at the present, interpreting current happenings, and to the future, foretelling coming events. In the latter respects Gonzalo functions well. His outlook for the future is good, for he is a prophet of good news. He describes the condition of man on the isle where he would have his “commonwealth” as free from human control and human bondage.

Shakespeare probably expected his audience to recognize a specific Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, for Isaiah does not come into The Tempest by slight inference only. Isaiah could be called the prophet of the isles, for he addresses and references them often: “Listen, O isles, unto me” (49:1). “Keep silence before me, O islands” (41:1). “I will send those that escape of them … to the isles afar off … and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles” (66:19). “The isles shall wait for his law” (42:4). It appears from the outcome of The Tempest that the new law of forgiveness does come to the isle, for Prospero forgives his enemies and asks forgiveness. Isaiah also writes of a tempest, and in his tempest there is “great noise” and “the flame of devouring fire” (29:6). In the same chapter, Isaiah also writes of “a dream of a night vision,” “a book that is sealed,” “the spirit of deep sleep,” being “brought down,” “speech … low out of the dust, and a voice … as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground,” “an hungry man” dreaming of eating and awaking, “and his soul is empty,” “a marvellous work among this people” and “their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us?” all of which have correspondences in the play. The concluding verse of the twenty-ninth chapter of Isaiah describes the outcome of the play: “They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding” (Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio), “and they that murmured shall learn doctrine” (Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo). At the end of the play Alonso understands enough of what has happened to say, “Thy Dukedom I resign, and do entreat / Thou [Prospero] pardon me my wrongs” (5.1.118-119). These words beg to be put into the mouth of Antonio rather than Alonso, since he has held Prospero's office of duke. However, if it is Alonso who speaks, Antonio and Sebastian nevertheless hear the truth, and although their conversion is not complete (being only a transition from murderous thoughts to those of profit-making), they are subject to a changed King Alonso, who will have control of dukedoms. Caliban remains under Prospero's tutelage and Stephano and Trinculo are also put under the law, “line and level.”

One of Isaiah's prophecies of the coming of Christ uses the phrase “dyed garments” (Isaiah 63:1), and Gonzalo calls attention to the freshness of the clothes of those who have been immersed in the sea with “our garments, … being rather new dyed” (2.1.59, 61). He encourages Sebastian and Antonio to “weigh / Our sorrow with our comfort” (2.1.8-9) as the prophet Isaiah promulgates comfort to the people of Israel and declares the end of warfare (Isaiah 40:1, 2). The latter decree is in agreement with Shakespeare's “the means to peace.” Many passages in Isaiah describe the coming of a more benign society which compares in essence with Gonzalo's “commonwealth.”29 “Aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” have “no hope” (Ephesians 2:12). Antonio and Sebastian, who ridicule Gonzalo for trying to persuade them “the King his son's alive,” have “no hope” (2.1.231, 233, 234). Through their evil intent and unbelief they alienate themselves from Gonzalo's prophesied commonwealth. As Gonzalo stands with the others within the magic circle which Prospero has drawn, Prospero calls him “holy” and his “true preserver, and a loyal sir / To him thou follow'st” (5.1.62, 69-70), which refers in the immediate situation to whoever may be the duke of Milan, but also may imply “the wills above” (1.1.66). Gonzalo as a councillor cannot use his kind of authority to control the storm, but as a prophet, he can foresee the means to peace, one of which is “the washing of ten tides” (1.1.57). Each being has its proper sphere of activity or influence.

The number of descriptions in Isaiah that are compatible with the behavior and experiences of the characters in The Tempest are indeed numerous, and Gonzalo is the one who sees what is happening in the present and foresees what is possible. Figuring Gonzalo as Isaiah enhances his image, whereas Wagner's symbolism, which makes him “a symbol of conscience,” is reductive of both his manhood and his vision.30

Through his schooling Prospero has brought Miranda out of “her bondage to the elements of the world,” which Shakespeare uses in the sense of elements of nature, of human nature, and of earthly sovereignty or authority. Among those would be the elements of paganism that had crept into Christianity (a parallel with the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian sovereignty). Miranda's “schoolmaster made [her] more profit, / Than other princess' can, that have more time / For vainer hours, and tutors not so careful” (1.2.172-174). It may be noted here that Moses' nurse and “careful” tutor was his own mother, even though his adoptive parent was Pharaoh's daughter, a member of a pagan culture. When Miranda first appears, she is free to recognize the worth of and to love all humankind. Later hers is the universal acceptance of “Oh brave new world, / That has such people in't!” (5.1.183-184). This sounds naive, but invokes a possibility if not a probability. Her remark is consistent with Isaiah's prophesies that the Lord “will do a new thing” and “Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare” (43:19; 42:9). She is characterized as a virgin, and a lady with “piteous heart,” who “suffered / With those that I saw suffer” (1.2.5-6). Such phrases, her innocence, and her pleas for mercy for the shipwrecked, along with Prospero's continued concern for her virginity, suggest the Virgin Mary. As a descendant of one who figures highly in Israel, she further qualifies to figure as Mary, although Mary's lineage is traced through the kings of Israel rather than through Moses in both the Bible and the Corpus Christi play. However, in the stained glass of the Fairford Church Mary is associated with Moses.31

Ferdinand's appraisal of Miranda as “admir'd, … so perfect and so peerless” and his request for her name “chiefly that I might set it in my prayers” (3.1.38, 47, 35) provide more associations with Mary. Medieval Christians and recusants prayed to the Virgin Mary. The word “screen,” which Prospero uses in describing his brother's playing the part of duke probably would have made his audience think of the Virgin Mary, for the screens that separated the statues of Mary from view had been removed and much discussion had centered about their use and removal.

The intricacy of Shakespeare's art and his use of it to bring awareness perhaps is nowhere more subtle than in the delicate scene where Ferdinand asks Miranda why she weeps. She answers:

At mine unworthiness, that dare not offer
What I desire to give; and much less take
What I shall die to want. But this is trifling;
And all the more it seeks to hide itself,
The bigger bulk it shows. Hence, bashful cunning!
And prompt me plain and holy innocence!
I am your wife, if you will marry me;
If not, I'll die your maid: To be your fellow
You may deny me; but I'll be your servant,
Whether you will or no.


The language Miranda uses to express her desire to marry Ferdinand—“bigger bulk it shows” and “holy innocence”—are reminders of the Virgin Mary's “being great with child” and yet being a virgin. Although we have every reason to believe Miranda is not with child, Mary was. Only Shakespeare could incorporate so much suggestive imagery in what might otherwise merely be an expression of love between two characters in a play.

Ferdinand, who thinks his father, King Alonso, drowned in the storm, says to Miranda, “O, if a virgin, / And your affection not gone forth, I'll make you / The Queen of Naples” (1.2.450-451). The condition that Miranda be a virgin and the fact that in Renaissance times the Star of Naples was the Star of Bethlehem32 provide other links between Miranda and Mary. When Prospero tells Alonso, who believes his son is dead, that he lost a daughter in the last tempest, Alonso responds, “O heavens, that they were living both in Naples, / The King and Queen there!” (5.1.149-150). However, Miranda cannot be equated directly with Mary. In the figurative sense of the play, Miranda typifies Mary and Ferdinand shadows Christ. The relationship between the two in the figurative sense compares with the parallels Nosworthy drew between The Tempest and the Aeneid.33 In the vision of provision which Prospero provides for Ferdinand and Miranda, Ceres requests, “Tell me, heavenly bow, / If Venus or her son, as thou dost know, / Do now attend the queen?” (4.1.87-89). Although in the description of the son and in the setting of Roman goddesses, one would infer Cupid, in the context of the play Shakespeare may have been thinking of the Aeneid as well. Although in the play Ferdinand and Miranda wed, typologically they figure mother and son, Ferdinand as a type of Christ and Miranda, Mary, Queen of Naples and star in the Bethlehem scene. The density of the play is enormous.

On the literal level in the Milan-Isle-Naples milieu Miranda and Ferdinand are human lovers. In any case Miranda should not be taken as Wagner suggested “as the symbol of the Christian ideal” and “as an ideal rather than a woman.”34 As symbols Shakespeare's players would lose all the warm humanity with which he richly endows them and which endear them to his audiences.

Shakespeare's treatment of Ferdinand is also superb. Francisco's report that “he trod the water” (2.1.111) brings up the imagery of Christ walking on water (John 6:19). Alonso's anguish, which causes him to cry out, “O thou mine heir, / … what strange fish / Hath made his meal on thee?” (2.1.107-109), instills a vision of Jonah's engorgement by the whale, which in turn, for a biblically aware audience, could be a reminder of Matthew 12:39-40, where Jonah's experience is designated as a type of Christ's entombment in the earth. The question also calls attention to the symbol used by early Christians, the fish.

In his capacity as a wood-carrying and willing servant Ferdinand further figures Christ, who was willing to become a servant “that he might present it [the church] to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27). Prospero's demands upon Ferdinand and his concern for the preservation of Miranda's virginity are consistent with such an interpretation, as well as with the importance given in Scripture and the Mystery Plays to the virginity of Mary, Mother of Jesus, as confirmation of Christ's divinity. Ferdinand also figures as the New Testament husband, who is the “saviour” of the body, and is thus a figure of Christ. Although work, represented in The Tempest by wood carrying, was part of the curse, it was also a means to life. Ferdinand must carry wood for Miranda. Both Ferdinand's wood carrying and his being “stain'd / With grief” (1.2.417-418) suggest Christ, who carried a wooden cross and was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) in order to bring new life to humankind. In the Mystery Plays Christ's carrying a wooden cross was prefigured by the story of Isaac carrying the wood to the mount where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son. No doubt at least some in a seventeenth century audience would make a triple link: Isaac to Christ and Ferdinand to Isaac to Christ.

Wagner's thesis that Ferdinand, who was the first to leave the ship of souls in The Tempest, was in the forefront of the movement of the Reformation should be given credence insofar as that movement represented a return to the simplicity of the early Christian believers.35 Ariel's description of Ferdinand as “the first man that leapt; [and] cried, “Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here’” (1.2.213-214) exemplifies both the extremes and concerns of some Puritans in Shakespeare's England. As a Puritan, Ferdinand's concerns appear more weighty than those of Malvolio, whose attention is focused on apparel and “cakes and ale.” Whereas Malvolio is the subject of ridicule, Ferdinand is comforted and reassured. Wagner's description of Ferdinand is limited by the singularity of her thesis. Therefore, it precludes the several tones and overtones evoking the more important figurings of Ferdinand. Traversi saw in Miranda's “is't a spirit?” and “a thing divine” (1.2.412, 421) recognition of Ferdinand “as something supernatural, the representative of a humanity exalted above the normal condition of man.”36 It is in the context of Miranda's remarks that Prospero uses a phrase associated with Christ's suffering, “stained / With grief” and that his “soul” (1.2.415-416, 423) is prompting the turn of events which will culminate in Ariel's freedom “Within two days” (1.2.424). Although as the son of a king, a prince, and a wood-carrying servant Ferdinand is a type of Christ, he is not the only representation of Christ in the play. Shakespeare depicts the Redeemer using imagery drawn from the Mystery Plays. That imagery will be discussed in the next chapter.

A minimal number of passages in The Tempest have been cited for their biblical counterparts. Throughout the play, however, key words and biblical typology or figuration allow us to see the shadow or outline of one person in another. There are similarities in the shadows cast because, while each is known in the flesh as a distinctive person, the real persons are illuminated by the same light. In biblical figuration different characters foreshadow Christ; no one is a full representation, but each shadows in some way the promised one who was described as light (John 1:7-8), the full figure or revelation. The Mystery Plays and The Tempest move through typology from shadow to reality. In Prospero as lawgiver and teacher, in Gonzalo as counselor and prophet, and in Ferdinand as burden-bearer and prince, then, it is possible to identify characteristics of the unnamed master of the play, which no one of these characters fully portrays, for no mere man could. Shakespeare varies the use of figuration somewhat, letting persons from Milan figure biblical characters, who in turn figure the master.

The use of typology permits multifiguring; therefore Ferdinand and Miranda figure Mary and Christ, Mary and Joseph, and Christ and the church as they do in the Mystery Plays. Joseph's obedience to the heavenly vision makes him a type. Together, in their innocence, Ferdinand and Miranda in their obedience to and reverence for their earthly fathers remind us of Joseph and Mary. Ferdinand claims that “by immortal Providence” Miranda is his (5.1.189), which implies a broader meaning than the immediate betrothal of the two in question. The plan for their lives exceeds mortal planning. Bethell's concept of Shakespeare's multiconsciousness is illustrated in these multifigurings.

Ariel has been variously identified as “a symbol of the imagination,” “the spirit of the sensible soul, … attribute of Prospero,” as Shakespeare's “art,” Prospero's “poetry in action,” as “one of those elves or spirits,” “the swiftness of thought personified,” “the agent and minister of an inscrutable Providence, [who] becomes … a symbol of the spirit of poetry found pegged in the cloven pine of the pre-Shakespearean drama, brought into the service of the creative imagination, and employed for his term in the fashioning of illusions to delight the eyes and move the hearts of men,” and “one who acts as the messenger for Prospero.” Ariel must be reconsidered, for he has more than one aspect.37 He qualifies as a spirit since he flies from place to place in the play, is at times invisible, and has a name that suggests he is airborne. The description of Ariel's history as given in the play does seem, at first glance, to suggest a nonbiblical figure. Yet his name is found in Isaiah and described in that book as “the city where David dwelt” (29:1). The latter definition invokes another overtone, for Christ was born in Bethlehem, “the city of David” (Luke 2:4).

Ariel has been defined as meaning the “altar hearth.”38 The latter definition, his chirping, and his darting from one place to another suggest a cricket, an association which would satisfy the imagination of an audience that was prepared to hear Prospero's “ye elves” speech (5.1.33-57). He can be taken, too, for the messenger of God, for his description is compatible with that of Psalm 104:4, which is quoted in Hebrews 1:7: “Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.” His representation both as a “flaming one” and as a singer fit angelic descriptions. Indeed, his first song, like the song of the angels in Bethlehem, is a song of invitation.

If Prospero figures Moses, who in turn represents the law, then Ariel, as Prospero's messenger, figures the spirit of the law. Now “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). The law reveals truth and brings conviction to the sinner. Ariel serves Prospero in this capacity, for after he has caused the banquet which appeared before Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian to disappear, he identifies them as “three men of sin” (3.3.53). Alonso, who is of the “lower world” whose “instrument” is “destiny” (3.3.53-54) and hence of the elements, hears the winds singing and “that deep and dreadful organ-pipe,” of “thunder” “bass” his “trespass” (3.3.97-99) But the law is also the messenger of hope to the obedient son, Ferdinand.

Jan Kott comes close to defining the dual nature of the law as exhibited in Ariel's behavior when he says, “Ariel is [the island's] angel and its executioner.”39 However, although Ariel identifies sin, alarms, raises a tempest, and leads through a fen, he doesn't execute anyone, for we are told “not so much perdition as an hair / Betid to any creature in the vessel” (1.2.30-31) and again, lest we missed the first reference, “Not a hair perish'd” (1.2.217). He is, in fact, a “minister,” who although he says “of Fate” and appears as a harpy, is a minister of Prospero and the messenger of the law. The law served two purposes, direction and prevention, and provided for blessing and curse. In discovering the minds of the “three men of sin,” Ariel exemplifies the Word which reveals the “thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Missing Shakespeare's many biblical references and his typology, Curry dismissed Christian myth in The Tempest, making Ariel nothing more than a “minister of Fate,” a Neo-Platonic spirit. Curry's interpretation of the play is limited by his failure to recognize its biblical elements:

in The Tempest, with its Neo-Platonic concepts serving as artistic pattern and with its unities of time and place, the artist is revealed as having passed definitely under the influence of Renaissance thought. He no longer employs Christian myth as the integrating principle of tragedy; here he creates an altogether different world, which is dominated by a purely pagan philosophy.40

Kermode found Ariel had

the qualities allowed to Intelligences in medieval theology, which include simultaneous knowledge of all that happens; understanding of the cause of things; the power to alter his position in space in no time, and to manipulate the operations of nature, so as, for example, to create tempests; the power to work upon a human being's will and imagination for good or evil ends; and total invulnerability to assault by material instruments.41

Davidson cited Chambers' speaking of Ariel “as from one point of view, ‘the agent and minister of an inscrutable Providence’ … which providence operates to maintain order and justice in the world.”42 In his description of Ariel, Davidson thus affirms indirectly, but certainly, this author's assertion of both law and Providence in The Tempest. The law is providential since it distinguishes that which is beneficial from that which is harmful to the individual as well as to the whole human family. Coleridge wrote, “a state of bondage is almost unnatural to him [Ariel] yet we see that it is delightful for him to be so employed. … In air he lives, from air he derives his being, in air he acts; and all his colours and properties seem to have been obtained from the rainbow and the skies. … Hence all that belongs to Ariel belongs to the delight the mind is capable of receiving from the most lovely external appearances.”43 There are several references in the Bible to “delight” in the law, (e.g. Psalms 1:2 and 119:77, 174; Jeremiah 6:10; Romans 7:22). Ariel's wish to be free from the duties required of him by the master of the law does not change the fact that he represents the spirit of the law, for the spirit of the law was emphasized by the new master who represented freedom from bondage. It is freedom from bondage to the Old Testament law-giver, the Prospero-Moses figure, that Ariel craves. When Prospero releases him, he chooses to live under a new master (who is described in the next chapter).

Caliban is variously described in The Tempest. Prospero calls him “thou earth,” “tortoise,” “poisonous slave,” “hag-seed,” “born devil,” and “a thing of darkness.” To Miranda he is an “abhorred slave.” Trinculo calls him “a most ridiculous monster” and a “deboshed fish.” Tillyard, stating that Caliban “in the end shows himself incapable of the human power of education,” found that Prospero's claim to him represents the bestial in man.44

Chambers rejected the idea of Caliban's signifying “the spirit of prose” in contrast to his acceptance of Ariel's symbolizing “the spirit of poetry.” He found Shakespeare “adumbrat[ing] in Caliban such a general conception of primitive humanity as the expanding knowledge of his day had opened out to him. Caliban is an earthy creature. He has the maliciousness of a troglodyte, and must be taught the first elements of human knowledge … and even the first principles of articulate speech.”45 But as Hirst points out “the situation is not so simple. Caliban stands firmly at the center of the play, the pointer to the different criteria of two worlds. He represents … the noble savage as well as the brute; and it is his unspoilt nature which throws into relief the viciousness of the civilization which both trains the political unscrupulousness of Antonio and corrupts the morals of Trinculo and Stephano.”46 Shakespeare may have had in mind John 3:31: “he that is of the earth is earthly and speaketh of the earth” when he referred to Caliban as “earth,” when he describes the places on the isle where Caliban finds his food. Caliban, like “the first man, Adam,” of the first age of man, “is of the earth, earthy” (I Cor. 15:45, 47). But he can hear the music of the spheres, for “the heavens declare the glory of God; … Day unto day uttereth speech. … There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard” (Psalms 19:1-3).

Chambers identified Sycorax, Caliban's dam, as “controversial theology.”47 Sycorax hardly seems to represent theology, but probably, as suggested in the discussion of the Prospero-Moses connection, she represents Egypt's black magic, and Egypt, the oppressor of the Israelites.

Traversi wrote, “The ‘state of nature’ is less an idyllic simplicity, of the kind already evoked by Gonzalo, than a void waiting to be filled in accordance with a purpose stronger, more potent for either good or evil, than itself. The rule of Prospero is an alternative, not to natural spontaneity, but to the power of Sycorax.”48 Caliban's descriptions of nature come closer to “idyllic simplicity” than Gonzalo's commonwealth where people live together in peace as equals. Prospero's rule differs from Sycorax's in its submission to a heavenly authority. Sycorax-Egypt enslaves, Prospero-Moses frees from bondage both the spirit of the law (Ariel) and the minds of wayward men.

As in the Mystery Plays and the Bible, characters with both holy and diabolical intent can be found in The Tempest. Traversi identifies Antonio and Sebastian as “courtly cynics” whose “intelligence [is] applied exclusively to purposes of destruction,” and as “the natural successors to Iago.”49 The means of grace are available to the pair in the prophet's description of a more desirable, if unattainable, visionary commonwealth, in the saints' (Adrian's and Francisco's) benign sense of the isle, in Prospero's forgiveness and in the resurrection of Ferdinand, recognized by Sebastian as “a most high miracle!” (5.1.178).

Throughout, however, Sebastian is inclined to the physical aspects of life. When the banquet appears, both Antonio and Sebastian, being exposed to the unusual phenomenon, express belief: “Now I will believe / That there are unicorns; that in Arabia / There is one tree, the phoenix' throne; one phoenix / At this hour reigning there.” Antonio adds, “I'll believe both” (3.3.21-24). Alonso receives a message from their “excellent dumb discourse” which expresses “sound.” However, whereas Francisco notes that the providers of the banquet “vanish'd strangely,” Sebastian's basic interest is “They have left their viands behind; for we have stomachs” (3.3.37-39, 41).

The murderous activities of the apparently unrepentant Antonio will be curtailed under the jurisdiction of the confessed, defumed Alonso. Resigned by Alonso as usurping duke, his interests, along with Sebastian's, when Caliban appears, are now those of merchant, trading in men:

Ha, ha!
What things are these, my Lord Antonio?
Will money buy 'em?
Very like; one of them
Is a plain fish, and, no doubt, marketable


The pair's designs on Caliban in their new occupation are frustrated by Prospero, who claims, “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5.1.275-276).

In the end Caliban owns the Prospero-Moses figure as his rightful master, showing he has learned something about masters. Under the schoolmaster, he will learn to distinguish right from wrong and thus be made ready for the “grace” which he promises to seek, for “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (Galatians 3:24). As a newly apt pupil, Caliban represents the three ages of man: natural man, man under the law (where he now belongs), and man in the age of grace, where he should seek to be.

Adrian and Francisco are not bent upon “usurpation” of power. They both have hope of the good. Adrian knows that appearances can be deceiving, and his senses are attuned to delicacy, tenderness and the temperate (the mean rather than the extreme). He has a knowledge of historical facts and appreciates perfection. Adrian recognizes that the island is not a place to be lived in: It is “unhabitable” (2.1.38). Men experience truth on the enchanted isle, but they must go back, as they do in the end, to take their place in a world of responsibility. Adrian recognizes that it only seems to be a desert, for nothing is absolutely impossible for him. He senses the meaning. He does not depend upon one sense alone. Although it looks like a desert, he feels the air breathing sweetly. He leaves open the possibility that one may have a false impression, and he is open to truth. Moreover, for him, the wonders that the isle “fortends” are “almost inaccessible” (2.1.38). It has taken more than the plans of men, “immortal Providence,” to make the isle available.

Schucking, who claimed “we can take interpretations in which the action of The Tempest is explained as a symbol of the moral order of the world in the Christian sense” “still less seriously,” thinks Adrian and Franciso “speak only just enough to prevent a clever expositor from supposing that they have lost their speech in consequence of the excitements of the shipwreck; for the rest, they are nothing more than ‘supers.’”50 Yet they do represent a distinction in attitude and present another response to the isle. It is never safe to assume anything in Shakespeare is superfluous. That is especially true in this very compact, complex play.

History records three popes named Adrian (I, IV, and VI). Adrian I supported Empress Irene in her struggle against iconoclasm and sent legates to the Second Council of Nicaea. The association of Adrian I with the Adrian of the play would give credence, but not centrality, to Wagner's thesis. Adrian IV was an Englishman named Breakspear. Adrian VI was an ascetic and pious man who tried to curb the abuses he found. Shakespeare and some in his audiences may have been aware of some of the foregoing facts. Certainly Adrian shows his awareness of history in the dialogue.

Francisco does “not doubt” that the King son is alive (2.1.117-118). Francisco is a man of faith. His one speech might be taken as a statement of belief. It may have been that Shakespeare expected his audience to associate him with Saint Francis of Assisi. Francisco's single speech could be taken as a mini-sermon.

Shakespeare's inclusion of two historical types in a biblical setting is consistent with the neotypology practiced by some of his contemporaries.51 Failure to recognize Shakespeare's use of typology detracts from the complexity and meaning of the play and has led to mortal conclusions about the denouement. Responding to the resonances enhances appreciation of Shakespeare's artistry and the play's sense and its immortal as well as its mortal emphases.

In his “ye elves” speech Prospero dismisses all forms of the creaturely supernatural and dispenses forever with his magic paraphernalia. By inference at this juncture and later with his reference to prayer in the Epilogue, he does acknowledge divinity, the only form of the supernatural that is left.

The shadowing and multi-character representation ascribed to here is compatible with some of Bethell's findings in King Lear. Bethell quotes two passages from that play:

… Thou hast one daughter
Who redeems Nature from the general curse



Fairest Cordelia, that are most loved despised,
Most choice forsaken, and most loved despised


“where … Cordelia seems to be compared with Our Lord” and another “which directly echoes a saying of Our Lord from St. Luke's Gospel” (Luke 2:49):

… O dear father,
It is thy business that I go about


Bethell finds a similar shadowing that does not involve a biblical character. He writes, “it seems more than likely that, in this constant association of Cordelia with Christian doctrine, Shakespeare wished to suggest the foreshadowing of Christ in pure natures before His coming; as medieval thought looked back to Virgil, and as the Church has always regarded Moses and the prophets.”52 He averred, “Characters may also be symbolic of some aspects of Deity.” However, he found “only two examples of this” in Shakespeare: the duke in Measure for Measure, and Prospero. He found both represented “divine providence.” He did not recognize the shadowing of other biblical characters in The Tempest cited in this interpretation. Although he did not recognize the four specific identities here assigned to Prospero, he did see the necessity for more than one apprehension of a character: “The audience needs to attend simultaneously to two diverse aspects of the same character: the representational and the symbolic.” He acknowledges that “the Duke in Measure for Measure, and Prospero, are endowed with characteristics which make it impossible for us to regard them as direct representations of the Deity, such as we find in the Miracle Plays. They are human beings, however they may signify the Divine; and Prospero, at least, has human imperfections.”53


  1. S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1944), 69.

  2. Peter Brook, The Shifting Point … 1946-1987 (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 85.

  3. Bethell, Popular Dramatic Tradition, 95.

  4. Cumberland Clark, Shakespeare and the Supernatural (London: Williams and Norgate, 1931; reprint, Folcroft Library Editions, 1972), 109.

  5. D. G. James, Scepticism and Poetry: An Essay on the Poetic Imagination (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1937) 239.

  6. E. M. W. Tillyard, “The Tragic Pattern” (1938), in Shakespeare: The Tempest: A Casebook, ed. by D. J. Palmer (London: Macmillan, 1968), 122-129, esp. 122-123; G. Wilson Knight, “The Shakespearean Superman” (1947), in Palmer, 130; Edward Dowden, “The Serenity of The Tempest” (1875), in Palmer, 73; Rose Abdelnour Zimbardo, “Form and Disorder in The Tempest” (1963), in Palmer, 234; Frank Kermode, “Introduction to The Tempest” (1954), in Palmer, 187; Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: The Last Phase (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1956), 194; Clark, Shakespeare and the Supernatural, 233; Colin Still, Shakespeare's Mystery Play: A Study ofThe Tempest” (London: Cecil Palmer, 1921), 202; Emma Brockway Wagner, Shakespeare'sThe Tempest”: An Allegorical Interpretation, ed. from mss and notes by Hugh Robert Orr (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch, 1933), 23, 27.

  7. Wagner, 28-33.

  8. Richard C. Dales, The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), 34. Gottschalk, considering available astronomical fragments from Simplicius and Aetius, found “complete agreement” about Heraclides' view of the earth, and “the only thing he [Simplicius] positively attributes to Heraclides is belief in the axial rotation of the earth.” H. B. Gottschalk, Heraclides of Pontus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), 61.

  9. R. Chris Hassel, Jr., Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 220-222.

  10. Bethell, Popular Dramatic Tradition, 95.

  11. Roland Mushat Frye, Shakespeare's Life and Times, A Pictorial Record (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967), 90.

  12. Frank Kermode, ed., note to The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Arden Shakespeare Series (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), 20. Kermode describes different interpretations of what is meant when Prospero says “Now I arise.” “Some take him to mean simply that he is getting up, in order to resume his robe, which he needs to put Miranda to sleep, and they usually add the Stage Direction Resumes his mantle.

  13. Levin L. Schucking, Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1959), 243.

  14. Ira Clark, Christ Revealed, The History of the Neotypological Lyric in the English Renaissance (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1982), ix, x.

  15. Ira Clark, 7.

  16. Kolve, 134.

  17. Cumberland Clark, 109.

  18. Anne Barton Righter, “Introduction,” to William Shakespeare: “The Tempest” (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1968), 15.

  19. Numerology in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was considered one means of understanding the nature of man, the universe and God. In writing about creation in The City of God, xi xxx, Augustine quoted Wisdom 11: 20: “Thou hast ordered all things in measure and number and weight.” Anyone familiar with Scripture can observe the recurrence of certain numbers and their association with times, characters, and events. In this chapter numerics were used to confirm the Prospero-Moses figuring.

    Forty represents periods of threat and endurance (the Flood, Israel's wanderings in the wilderness and Christ's temptation). Twelve tribes were called to “bless” the world, and twelve disciples were chosen to “go into all the world to preach the Gospel.” The number three was associated with divinity. God is described as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a Trinity. Christ rose from the dead on the third day. In the Bible the number seven was associated with time periods. Seven days, seven weeks, seven months, seven years and seven times seven, 49, with the following year Jubilee, a time of restoration of land which had been lost and of celebration. It is not surprising, then, that biblically based dramatists should discern and assign seven ages in the duration of human existence.

    Woolf noted that “the measurements and structure of the ark [a type of salvation and as a wooden vessel of the Cross] were replete with symbolical meaning. … A chapter from the De arca Noe morali of Hugh of St. Victor may be taken as typical of the method: the length of three hundred cubits denotes the three periods of history, those of the natural law, the written law and of grace.” Rosemary Woolf, The English Mystery Plays (Berkeley: University Press of California, 1972), 136, with reference to Hugh of Saint-Victor, Selected Spiritual Writings (London, 1962), 64-65.

  20. Northrop Frye, ed., The Tempest by William Shakespeare (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1983), 46.

  21. David Woodman, White Magic and English Renaissance Drama (Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973), 124.

  22. Woodman, 64-65.

  23. Woodman, 35, 39.

  24. J. Dover Wilson, The Meaning ofThe Tempest.” (The Literary & Philosophical Society of Newcastle Upon the Tyne, 1936; reprint, Folcroft Library Editions, 1972), 14.

  25. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Last Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1964), 54.

  26. Jeffrey Truby, The Glories of Salisbury Cathedral (London: Winchester, 1948), 31.

  27. John E. Booty, ed., The Book of Common Prayer, 1559, The Elizabeth Prayer Book (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, for the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976), 270.

  28. V. A. Kolve, “Principles of Selection,” The Play Called Corpus Christi. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1966), 76.

  29. Isaiah 27:3, 6; 29:19-24; 35:5-9; 40:4, 11; 41:5, 18-20; 42:3, 16; 60:5; 66:11.

  30. Wagner, 38.

  31. “In the stained glass of Fairford Church, made in the fifteenth century in the heyday of these plays [Mystery Plays], there are many of the same dramatic episodes that portray the redemption of Man. … But there is a great deal else in addition which never occurs in the plays, and, moreover, the four Old Testament scenes differ from those with which the plays begin. They are chosen because they are ‘antitypes’ of various aspects of the Incarnation: Eve (who is represented alone with the serpent) is the antitype of Mary, who is the second Eve; the burning bush of Moses and the fleece of Gideon represent Mary who bore Jesus but remained a virgin.” R. T. Davies, ed., The Corpus Christi Play of the English Middle Ages (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972), 30.

  32. Oxford English Dictionary Vol X: 213 Col. 3:1d.

  33. J. M. Nosworthy, “The Narrative Sources of The Tempest,Review of English Studies XXIV (1948): 281-294, esp. 287.

  34. Wagner, 34, 36.

  35. Wagner, 46.

  36. Traversi, 207.

  37. Wagner, 55; Frank Davidson, “The Tempest”: An Interpretation” (1963), in Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook, ed. by D. J. Palmer (London: MacMillan, 1968), 219; G. Wilson Knight, “The Shakespearean Superman” (1947), in Palmer, 151; Joseph Warton, “Amazing Wildness of Fancy” (1753), in Palmer, 38; William Hazlitt, “Unity and Variety in Shakespeare's Design” (1817), in Palmer, 70; Jan Kott, “Prospero's Staff” (1964), in Palmer, 248, 253-254; E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1925, reprinted 1963), 310.

  38. George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (New York: Abingdon, 1962), Vol V: 218, Col. 1.

  39. Kott, 252.

  40. Walter Clyde Curry, Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1968), 198-199.

  41. Frank Kermode, ed., note to The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Arden Shakespeare Series (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), 143.

  42. Frank Davidson, 217.

  43. S. T. Coleridge, “An Analysis of Act I” (1811), Palmer, 56.

  44. E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, n.d.), 34-35.

  45. Chambers, 313, 314.

  46. David L. Hirst, The Tempest: Text and Performance (London: Macmillan, 1984), 17.

  47. Chambers, 313.

  48. Traversi, 231.

  49. Traversi, 212-213.

  50. Schucking, 264, 242.

  51. See Ira Clark.

  52. Bethell, Popular Dramatic Tradition, 67-68.

  53. Bethell, Popular Dramatic Tradition, 131, 130.

Works Cited

Bethell, S. L. Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1944.

Booty, John E., ed. The Book of Common Prayer, 1559, The Elizabethan Prayer Book. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976.

Brook, Peter. The Shifting Point: Theatre, Film, Opera, 1946-1987. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: Abingdon, 1962.

Chambers, E. K. Shakespeare: A Survey. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1963.

Clark, Cumberland. Shakespeare and the Supernatural. London: Williams and Norgate, 1931; reprint, Folcroft Library Editions, 1972.

Clark, Ira. Christ Revealed: The History of the Neotypological Lyric in the English Renaissance. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1982.

Coleridge, S. T. “An Analysis of Act I” (1811). In Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer. London: Macmillan, 1968. Pp. 49-61.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1968.

Dales, Richard C., The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1973.

Davidson, Frank. “The Tempest: An Interpretation” (1963). In Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer. London: Macmillan, 1968. 212-231.

Davies, R. T., ed. The Corpus Christi Play of the English Middle Ages, (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972).

Dowden, Edward. “The Serenity of The Tempest” (1875). In Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer. London: Macmillan, 1968. Pp. 72-78.

Frye, Northrop. ed. William Shakespeare,The Tempest.” Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1959, 1970; reprint, 1983.

———. Shakespeare's Life and Times: A Pictorial Record. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Gottschalk, H. B. Heraclides of Pontus. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Hazlitt, William. “The Unity and Variety of Shakespeare's Design” (1817). In Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer. London: Macmillan, 1968. Pp. 67-71.

James, D. G. Scepticism and Poetry: An Essay on the Poetic Imagination. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1937.

Kermode, Frank. “Introduction to The Tempest” (1954). In Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer. London: Macmillan, 1968. 176-195.

Knight, G. Wilson. “The Shakespearean Superman” (1947). In Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer. London: Macmillan, 1968. 130-152.

Kolve, V. A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. California: Stanford University Press, 1966.

Kott, Jan. “Prospero's Staff” (1964). In Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook. Edited by D. J. Palmer. London: Macmillan, 1968. Pp. 244-258.

Nosworthy, J. M. “The Narrative Sources of The Tempest.Review of English Studies. 24 (1948), 281-294.

Palmer, D. F., ed. Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Righter, Anne Barton, ed. Introduction to The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1968, 1984.

Schucking, Levin L. Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1959.

Still, Colin. Shakespeare's Mystery Play: A Study of The Tempest. London: Cecil Palmer, 1921.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's Last Plays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1964.

Traversi, Derek A. Shakespeare: The Last Phase. New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1956.

Truby, Jeffrey. The Glories of Salisbury Cathedral. London: Winchester, 1948.

Wagner, Emma Brockway. Shakespeare's The Tempest: An Allegorical Interpretation. Edited from manuscript and notes by Hugh Robert Orr. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch, 1933.

Warton, Joseph. “‘Amazing Wildness of Fancy’” (1753). In Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer. London: Macmillan, 1968. Pp. 37-41.

Wilson, J. Dover. The Meaning of The Tempest. The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle Upon the Tyne, 1936; reprinted, Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft Library Editions, 1972.

Woodman, David. White Magic and English Renaissance Drama. Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973.

Woolf, Rosemary. The English Mystery Plays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Zimbardo, Rose Abdelnour. “Form and Disorder in The Tempest” (1963). In Shakespeare: The Tempest, A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10766

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 first play in the collection. It has also acquired a kind of mythic status as the last play in Shakespeare's career, his summing-up, though in fact it could have been written before The Winter's Tale, and Shakespeare went on afterwards to collaborate with Fletcher, possibly on Henry VIII, certainly on Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio. In recent years the habit of seeing it as Shakespeare's meditation on his art has been replaced by what is virtually a critical industry treating the play as a document in the history of colonialism.1 The play has generally seemed to be making an important statement about something; yet in practice it has had some difficulty living up to its reputation as a masterpiece. In performance it is generally disappointing. Peter Brook, who has tackled The Tempest several times both in conventional productions and in experiments, has noted that ‘if you were to describe it to someone who did not know it then it would appear to be the greatest play in the world’, yet ‘the text itself never seemed able to deliver what it promised’.2

In order to free the play from its reputation, and simply see what it is doing, it may be useful to take it back to its first performances, in 1610 or 1611. Then it would have appeared not as one of Shakespeare's last romances, or as an attempt, successful or otherwise, at a world-class masterpiece, but as the King's Men's latest comedy, part of its repertory at the Globe and the newly acquired Blackfriars. …

It opens with the stage representing a storm-tossed ship on which a group of well-dressed aristocrats, angry and in a panic, are interfering with the work of the sailors who are trying to save the ship, and their lives. The social order has been inverted (or, if we prefer, has been revealed in its true light): everything depends on the workmen, and the best thing the aristocrats can do, and are singularly failing to do, is keep out of the way.3 As the Boatswain tells them, ‘You mar our labour. Keep to your cabins’ (1.1.13-14).4 Reminded that one of his passengers is the King of Naples, he is no more impressed than the sea is: ‘What cares these roarers for the name of king?’ (1.1.16-17).

This inversion opens the way for a period of experiment. The stage becomes an island, a natural identification at the Globe in particular, where it would be surrounded by the audience as an island is surrounded by the sea. On this island stage political events, displaced from reality, are acted out by performers. In an obvious sense this is the normal condition of theatre: kings, lords and rebels are impersonated by paid professionals, well down the social scale. The scripts they follow may (like The Malcontent) include sardonic suggestions that the great folk they impersonate are acting too. The Tempest's sense of displacement depends not just on conscious theatricality but on the stage's own impersonation of an island: cut off from society, where power struggles might seem to be about something, the characters, high and low, go on struggling for power, acting out rebellions that are reduced by the emptiness of the surroundings to pure performance, political comedies rendered ironic by the setting as the power struggles of The Malcontent are rendered ironic by the style.

From More's Utopia to Golding's Lord of the Flies, islands have been places to try out models of society. The honest old lord Gonzalo sees this island as a chance for a fresh start. If it were his to rule,

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.


He has created his ideal society by taking normal society and adding the word ‘no’; his speech is a catalogue of nouns evoking the social world. Besides the obvious irony (which Antonio and Sebastian are quick to point out) that this free society depends on Gonzalo's ownership and sovereignty, the play has already shown through the relations of Prospero and his servants that on this island, even with its meagre population, contract, service, territorial bounds, occupation and the exploitation of nature are matters of hot dispute. Even the idealized vision of nature Prospero presents for the lovers includes images of agricultural labour.5 Gonzalo's ideal commonwealth is like Oberon's vision of the imperial votaress untouched by love: no action could be founded on it, and The Tempest is full of action.

At once grave and playful, Gonzalo's speech toys with an attractive impossibility. At the opposite end of the scale is the carnivalesque absurdity of the rebellion conducted by Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban. They have a mini-tempest of their own at the beginning of 2.2, as though at this point a counter-play is beginning with a parody of the storm that opens the main play, transformed into low-life comedy by Trinculo's observation, ‘Yon same black cloud, you huge one, looks like a foul bombard that would shed his liquor’ (2.2.20-1). New birth, a serious idea when Prospero's victims come alive out of the sea, is acted out before our eyes when Stephano seems to pull Trinculo out of Caliban's body, equating birth with passing a bowel movement: ‘How cam'st thou to be the siege of this mooncalf?’ (2.2.101-2). Led into the horse-pond by Ariel, the conspirators suffer their own version of death by water: as Trinculo complains, ‘Monster, I do smell all horse-piss, at which my nose is in great indignation’ (4.1.198-9). Prospero speaks of drowning his book in the sea; Stephano's source of power is his bottle, also called his ‘book’ (2.2.124), and when he loses it in the horse-pond he determines to dive in after it (4.1.212-13).

Thinking he and his fellows are three-fifths of the island population, Trinculo remarks, ‘if th'other two be brained like us, the state totters’ (3.2.6). Gonzalo wants to dispense with the state and the offices that go with it, to create a peaceful life; Stephano wants to create a state that is all offices, and founded on violence: ‘Monster, I will kill this man. His daughter and I will be king and queen—save our graces!—and Trinculo and thyself shall be viceroys’ (3.2.104-6). Caliban already knows the state will be not just founded on violence but kept in order by it: watching Stephano beat Trinculo, he demands, ‘Beat him enough. After a little time / I'll beat him too’ (3.2.82-3). He knows how subjects are kept in line; Prospero has taught him.

Gonzalo imagines a world without commerce. For Stephano and Trinculo, as for the characters of Michaelmas Term, everything has market value. That includes Caliban: Stephano declares, ‘If I can recover him and keep him tame, I will not take too much for him;6 he shall pay for him that hath him, and that soundly’ (2.2.73-5). Trinculo plans to display Caliban as a sideshow freak and thinks of England as a particularly lucrative market: ‘When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian’ (2.2.31-2)—a disquieting joke for an audience that has just paid money to see The Tempest. Stephano's response to Caliban's stunning description of the island's music is ‘this will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing’ (3.2.142-3). This commercialism is one of their links with Antonio and Sebastian. Prospero's ‘Two of these fellows you / Must know and own’ (5.1.274-5) follows hard upon the lords' mockery of the mutineers: ‘Will money buy 'em? … Very like. One of them / Is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable’ (5.1.265-6). Humiliated themselves, Antonio and Sebastian are trying to find someone more degraded. Their mockery, they think, opens a gap between themselves and the lower orders; Prospero's remark, triggering our awareness of the actual resemblance, seals it up.

Antonio and Sebastian resemble Stephano and Trinculo not just in their commercial mind-set but in their history of rebellion. Antonio has already usurped Prospero's dukedom, and in the process parodied his art. Recalling how Antonio wormed his way into power, Prospero thinks of his brother as a black magician who ‘new created / The creatures that were mine, I say: or changed 'em’ (1.2.81-2). As Prospero deals in deceptive illusions, Antonio fooled himself, making himself believe ‘He was indeed the Duke’ (1.2.103). And as Caliban rebels only to get a new master, Antonio won the dukedom at the cost of submission to the King of Naples. By tempting Sebastian to kill Alonso and become King in his stead, Antonio plans to solve that problem. Sebastian promises to release him from paying tribute (2.1.290-2), and, given that Antonio is clearly the more decisive of the two, the prospect is that from now on Milan will dominate Naples.

But he is also tempting Sebastian into a re-enactment of his own crime, and in that re-enactment there is not just something second-hand but something absurd. Given that they have no prospect of returning to Naples, this is a palace revolution without a palace. If the murder will make Sebastian king of anything, it will make him king of an island he and Antonio have already insisted is barren—as bare, in fact, as the stage of the Globe. One recalls Fortinbras conquering a tiny patch of Poland, not worth farming, or Voltaire's gibe about Britain and France fighting over a few arpents of snow (Canada). As there is something dream-like about the world of The Malcontent, there is something dream-like about this conspiracy: Sebastian speaks more truly than he knows when he jokingly accuses Antonio of talking in his sleep (2.1.209-10). Believing in the power of the sword, Antonio insists that all it will take for Sebastian to become king is ‘three inches’ of ‘obedient steel’ (2.1.281). But steel in this play is disobedient. When in the show of the disappearing banquet the courtiers try to draw their swords, they are unable to lift them and, recalling the Boastwain's ‘What cares these roarers for the name of king?’, Ariel tells them they might as well fight the sea (3.3.61-8). Prospero's power, like Bacon's, renders the weapon of the aristocrat useless.

The disappearing banquet introduces another strand in the play's sardonic deflation of power and its symbols. Much has been made of The Tempest's relation to the court masque, mostly because the show Prospero puts on for Ferdinand and Miranda, with its allegorical dialogue and its celebratory dance, recalls the masques of the Jacobean court.7 Ben Jonson's The Masque of Queens (1606) is a classic example of the form; it begins with an antimasque of hags, who stage a grotesque dance in the midst of which, to a single loud note of music, the setting, a smoky hell-mouth, is miraculously transformed into the gorgeous House of Fame. The hags vanish; the masque continues with a celebration of famous queens of legend and a tribute to James's consort Anne. It concludes with a series of dances, which would have been followed by a banquet. But the relation of The Tempest to shows like The Masque of Queens is far from straightforward. While the actual Jacobean masques, with texts by Jonson and designs by Inigo Jones, depended on the presence of the real court with King James in the place of honour in the audience, Prospero's wedding show, if it is a masque at all, is a masque within a play. As Lyly's Cynthia is (at times) an onstage imitation of Elizabeth, but hardly Elizabeth herself, this is an onstage imitation of a masque, imperfect and truncated, displaced from its natural setting as the political struggles are displaced from theirs, on to the island which is also a stage. Jones's spectacular scenery, a key element in the court masque, is missing. There is no monarch in the audience to be celebrated as the source of light, order and power, as James is in the typical masque; if any power is celebrated here it is that of the maker, Prospero. The only transformation scene is the sudden, confused and confusing breakup of the vision.

It is worth noting that in The Tempest as a whole the usual sequence of a court celebration—antimasque, masque, banquet—is reversed. The banquet comes first. The courtiers think they are being welcomed to a feast by courteous islanders. Instead, to the noise of thunder and lightning, the table vanishes;8 then Ariel appears as a harpy and lectures them on their sins, reversing the flattery courtiers could expect when they were addressed by mythical figures in a masque. Jonson's Oberon, performed around the same time as The Tempest, paid tribute to Prince Henry as James's heir; Ariel says of the powers he serves, ‘Thee of thy son, Alonso, / They have bereft’ (3.3.75-6). The spirits, parodying their initial courtesy, then reappear and remove the banquet, with rude gestures (‘mocks and mows’ ( The betrothal masque also breaks up in disorder when in the middle of the dance Prospero recalls Caliban. Caliban and his fellow conspirators then appear as antimasque figures, embodiments of comic disorder. The difference is that antimasque figures normally appear first, to be transformed or banished as the true masque begins; but Caliban and his cohorts have in effect banished the masque.

The language of the masque included rich costumes, and fine clothing was an important part of the courtly ethos.9 As the courtiers are fooled with a banquet, Stephano and Trinculo (like Lethe and the Country Wench) are led astray by ‘glistering apparel’ ( that the uncourtly Caliban recognizes as ‘trash’ (4.1.223). Again there is an ironic link with Antonio, who sees his successful usurpation as a chance to dress better: ‘look how well my garments sit upon me, / Much feater than before’ (2.1.270-1). Ariel describes how he has supplied suitable music and dance for the antimasque:

                                                  Then I beat my tabor,
At which like unbacked colts they pricked their ears,
Advanced their eyelids, lifted up their noses
As they smelt music …
                                                                                                    At last I left them,
I'th' filthy-mantled pool beyond your cell,
There dancing up to th'chins, that the foul lake
O'erstunk their feet.


The symbolic language of the masque, culminating in dancing, celebrated the power of the court. The Tempest comically subverts that language.

The business of the masque was to mystify power by turning it into music, dance and spectacle. As master of illusion Prospero can do that too; but the play is also clear about how much his power depends on the use of force, even of torture. The masquing Dukes of The Malcontent, we remember, had weapons under their costumes. Prospero threatens Caliban, ‘For this be sure tonight thou shalt have cramps, / Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up’ (1.2.325-6). He has Caliban and his cohorts hunted as though they were animals, and commands Ariel,

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


To an audience used to seeing public torture—whipping, branding and mutilation, not to mention hanging, drawing and quartering—this might seem mild; but it would not seem fanciful. This was how they were used to seeing criminals dealt with.10 Punishment seems to have a salutary effect on Stephano, who by the last scene has lost his identity in pain—‘I am not Stephano, but a cramp’—and who replies to Prospero's challenge, ‘You'd be king o'the isle, sirrah?’ with a rueful pun, ‘I should have been a sore one then’ (5.1.286-8). To put it one way, he is reformed; to put it another way, he has been brought to self-contempt by torture.

Incarceration is another stock punishment. Prospero, reminding Ariel that Sycorax imprisoned him in a pine, threatens to imprison him in an oak (1.2.274-96). Caliban complains,

                                                                                here you sty me
In this hard rock, while you do keep from me
The rest o'th' island.


The play is full of images of bowed bodies: Prospero threatens Ferdinand, ‘I'll manacle thy neck and feet together’ (1.2.462), recalling Sycorax, ‘who with age and envy / Was grown into a hoop’ (1.2.257-8). Caliban repeatedly stoops as he tries to kiss Stephano's foot, making literal the action of Antonio when he submitted to Alonso and bent ‘The dukedom yet unbowed—alas, poor Milan!—/ To most ignoble stooping’ (1.2.115-16).

The free movement and shape-shifting of Ariel may seem to contrast with these images of stooping and imprisonment; but Ariel too is in bondage, against which he chafes. His initial dispute with Prospero, in which each accuses the other of forgetting the terms of their contract and Prospero is reduced to Sycorax-like threats, is a burst of surprising anger on both sides.11 There is arguably something of the whipped dog in Ariel's later question, ‘Do you love me, master? No?’, though the tone of Prospero's reply, ‘Dearly, my delicate Ariel’ (4.1.48-9), suggests real affection and warns us not to reduce the relations of these two characters to a mere power struggle. Like Robin Goodfellow when he recounts his practical jokes, Ariel describes a shape-shifting power that would be hard to show on stage: ‘Sometimes I'd divide / And burn in many places’ (1.2.198-9). The shape-shifting we see, like that of Quomodo's spirits, is a mastery of stage disguise: Ariel becomes a sea-nymph, a harpy and (assuming the same actor is used) Ceres. When in his mockery of Stephano and company he plays the tabor and pipe, he would recall the famous Elizabethan clown Richard Tarlton. If we can imagine Ariel doing a Chaplin impersonation we may get something like the original effect. What we never see is Ariel's true form. When he celebrates his coming freedom—

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 do I fly …


—we realize that this is the true Ariel, and all we have seen is the form he adopts when appearing to Prospero, the form of a life-sized actor. As Ariel was imprisoned in the pine, he is now imprisoned, temporarily, in the body of the actor who plays him. We never see him released.12 Singing of his freedom, he uses the present tense, while, in his adopted body, he is helping dress Prospero. It is as though he is simultaneously free and bound, as he is when darting around in different shapes on Prospero's orders.13

The paradox of bondage in freedom, and freedom in bondage, is explored more overtly through Caliban and Ferdinand. Caliban's cry as he rebels against Prospero—‘Freedom, high-day! High-day, freedom! Freedom, high-day, freedom!’ (2.2.181-2)—is a drunken frenzy made sharply ironic by the way he grovels to his new master Stephano. As Ariel sings of his freedom while dressing Prospero, Caliban sings of his, while proclaiming, ‘'Ban, 'Ban, Ca-Caliban / Has a new master’ (2.2.179-80).14 The next thing the audience sees is Ferdinand carrying a log, doing the job Caliban has rejected. He makes it an image of his service to Miranda:

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


When the lovers exchange vows they promise service to each other, and Ferdinand, kneeling, offers himself as husband to Miranda ‘with a heart as willing / As bondage e'er of freedom’ (3.1.88-9). The idea of love as service, which can be a dead metaphor, is given life by the literal servitude Ferdinand is performing. For him the service of love is freedom. The final revelation of the lovers playing chess may give us a last image of the bent body, as they bow toward each other over the chessboard.

Accepting bondage gives the lovers, and Ariel, the freedom they want. Physical pain seems to do Stephano good, and emotional pain seems good for Alonso. Prospero succeeds with Alonso because, through the apparent death of his son, he can make him suffer; unlike Antonio and Sebastian Alonso cares for someone other than himself, and this means he can be hurt. Punishment has wrought in Caliban only resentful submission, but, when he sees Prospero dressed as Duke of Milan, he is impressed as he never was by Prospero the magician: ‘How fine my master is!’ (5.1.262). The glistering apparel did not impress him, but, when clothing becomes part of the language of power, it works on him as the sight of the Count's boots works on Jean in Strindberg's Miss Julie. He determines to ‘be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace’ (5.1.294-5). So far the play seems to be endorsing the wisdom of punishment and extolling the virtue of submission.

But there is one set of characters unaccounted for: Prospero's spirits. Like Ariel they appear only in the forms in which Prospero conjures them up—nymphs, reapers, hounds. Giving Ariel power over them, Prospero calls them ‘the rabble’ (4.1.37); he speaks of releasing them ‘from their confines’ (4.1.121) to perform for him, as though backstage in his magic theatre is a row not of dressing rooms but of prison cells. Caliban, thinking Trinculo is one of the spirits, cries, ‘Thou dost me yet but little hurt; thou wilt anon, I know it by thy trembling. Now Prosper works upon thee’ (2.2.76-7). This suggests the agony of the spirits as Prospero's power moves through them, a kind of demonic possession in reverse. When Caliban says of the spirits, ‘They all do hate him / As rootedly as I’ (3.2.92-3), there is no reason to disbelieve him. (Caliban, so far as we can tell, never lies.) Prospero's surrender of his magic presumably releases them, but the play makes no particular point of this, as it does about Ariel's freedom. This reflects Prospero's own relative indifference to them: in plantation terms, Ariel is his personal servant, who works with him in the house, and with whom he develops a close relationship; the spirits are the field hands. In his final song, Ariel gives a brief glimpse of his independent life in his own words; the only glimpse we have of the spirits' independent life comes in the speech in which Prospero surrenders his magic (5.1.33-40). He describes them as free nature spirits, like Ariel; but it is his description, not theirs. Readings of The Tempest as a play about colonialism naturally concentrate on Caliban as oppressed native. But Caliban is an islander in the same sense that (for example) I am a Canadian—born there of a mother who was born elsewhere. It may be that the spirits are the true natives, and that the play's refusal or inability to see them in anything other than the shapes they take for the imaginations of the invaders replicates the European understanding, and misunderstanding, of the natives of what for them was the new world.

The Tempest, like the court masque, celebrates order in music and dance. But this vision is in tension with images of disorder, and the play is full not just of music but of confused noise. As The Malcontent begins with jarring, out-of-tune music, The Tempest begins with ‘A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning’ (; and as the ship sinks we hear ‘A confused noise within’ ( The mariners' cry, ‘We split, we split!’, conveys both the breaking of the ship and the breaking of human ties in death: ‘“Farewell, my wife and children!” “Farewell, brother!”’ (1.1.60-1). Things fall apart. We hear also of the groaning of the imprisoned Ariel, the roaring of the hunted mutineers, the ‘strange and several noises / Of roaring, shrieking, howling, jingling chains’ that wake the mariners (5.1.232-3). The ‘hollow burst of bellowing, / Like bulls, or rather lions’ (2.1.309-10) that Sebastian and Antonio claim to have heard is their own invention, but it confirms the general impression that the isle is full not just of noises but of noise. The climax of the play's vision of order is the wedding masque; and as it breaks up we hear what may well be the natural sound of the spirits when their forms and voices are not being shaped by Prospero: ‘to a strange, hollow and confused noise, they heavily vanish’ ( This is a play full of order, a play full of meaningful symbols, a play that responds almost too readily to allegorical readings. But at this moment we hear the sound of chaos, of unmaking, of non-meaning. Like the sound of the echo in the Marabar caves in A Passage to India it flattens meaning into absurdity. Prospero forces the spirits to mean something, on his terms. The confused noise we hear is the sound of his control relaxing. It may be their own natural language, perfectly meaningful to them; but we will never know.

Friar Bacon controls, initially with confidence, demonic forces from a familiar, popular Hell. His spirits are devils, and appear as such. Prospero controls, with palpable effort, powers whose true nature we never quite see. He determines the way they appear to us, and in that way his hold over the audience is greater than Bacon's; but his power in the long run is no less problematic. Up to a point, he has unusual control over the audience. He fools us as he fools the other characters, revealing that the shipwreck we thought we saw in 1.1 was an illusion.16 In A Midsummer Night's Dream the lovers express in their own words what it feels like to wake up after their night in the forest, poised between dream and reality. At the equivalent point in The Tempest, as the courtiers come out of his spell, it is Prospero who describes for us what they are feeling (5.1.64-8). His magic may be dissolving, but his quasi-authorial control of the narrative remains. Yet his own nature is curiously fissured. Like Malevole-Altofront he is a displaced ruler, and this gives him a split identity. As Duke, magician and father he has different roles, each with its own kind of authority. While Malevole-Altofront seems unable to keep his roles apart, Prospero seems unable to hold his roles together. Before he tells Miranda the story of the loss of his dukedom, he takes off his magician's robe, with the words, ‘Lie there, my art’ (1.2.25). Here as in Michaelmas Term, garments create identity, and before putting on the father and exiled ruler Prospero has to put off the magician. At the end of the play he puts off the magician again and dons a hat and rapier to become ‘As I was sometime Milan’ (5.1.86). He makes Miranda sleep before he calls up Ariel, as though she is not allowed to watch the magician at work. It is striking that Miranda and Ariel, the two characters with whom Prospero has the closest relationships, have no relationship with each other. Ariel never refers to Miranda, and Miranda shows no knowledge that Ariel exists. Prospero's most acute problems come from his inability to be ruler and magician at once: concentrating on magic lost him his dukedom, and he surrenders that magic before he resumes office. Prospero's claim as he interrupts the masque that he simply forgot Caliban's conspiracy is startling; but it takes its place with other lapses of attention that reveal disconnections in his own nature. Miranda exclaims she has never seen him so angry (4.1.144-5); perhaps his inattention to Caliban recalls his inattention to Antonio.17

As he describes that first lapse, his own language suggests that he did more than create a vacuum that made Antonio's evil possible: he actually created that evil:

                                                                                my trust,
Like a good parent, did beget of him
A falsehood in its contrary as great
As my trust was.


In that respect his magic was positively dangerous, and he was responsible. This may explain the lingering anger that makes him couch his forgiveness of Antonio in such vindictive language:

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.


There is an unresolved tension here, as though the person Prospero really cannot forgive is himself.

As he reviews the power of his magic just before he surrenders it, he conveys again a sense of its danger. His speech draws on a speech of Medea in Ovid's Metamorphoses, linking what we may have seen as Prospero's white magic with the black magic of the witch, collapsing Cynthia into Dipsas. He speaks not of the harmony he has created but of the destruction he has caused with storms and earthquakes, and he rises to a startling climax:

                                                            Graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art.

It is at this point that he reins himself in, and declares, ‘But this rough magic / I here abjure’ (5.1.48-51). Though some Renaissance texts saw raising the dead, when performed by a true magus doing the will of God, as a legitimate miracle,18 Sir Walter Raleigh gave the conventional Protestant view when he warned that those who think they are raising the dead are really raising the Devil.19 By one interpretation that is what Marlowe's Faustus is doing when he conjures up Helen of Troy; and Greene's Bacon deals quite frankly with devils. We never see Prospero go so far; but as he surrenders his magic he lets us glimpse its link with the demonic.

Dangerously powerful in some directions, Prospero's magic is limited in others. He depends on Caliban for the most ordinary tasks: ‘We cannot miss him. He does make our fire, / Fetch in our wood’ (1.2.311-12). Prospero's magic, we gather, could produce the illusion of fire, but not a fire that would actually cook anything. He can produce illusions and torments for his victims; but he cannot get right into their minds and transform them. If they respond to external experience, as Alonso and possibly Stephano do, they can change themselves. But the silence of Antonio and Sebastian suggests they have resisted. In the last scene, as the courtiers wake, Ariel leaves the stage, and from that point Prospero deals with the others not as magician to victim but as man—and occasionally father or ruler—to man, drawing on that common humanity Ariel's compassion made him acknowledge (5.1.17-30). But while he embraces Alonso and Gonzalo (it is the touch of a human pulse that makes Alonso feel his sanity restored (5.1.113-15)) he means to keep Antonio and Sebastian under control by the ordinary art of blackmail:

But you, my brace of lords, were I so minded,
I here could pluck his highness' frown upon you,
And justify you traitors. At this time
I will tell no tales.


In effect, he has a file on them; his magic gone, he is learning the tougher arts of politics. If he cannot reform them, he can at least intimidate them. Marston rendered the ordered ending of The Malcontent ironic by speeding it up. Shakespeare slows down the ending of The Tempest, exploring the failures and limitations of the final order as well as its real successes, making it not too swift to be true but too real to be simple.

Matters of political power—who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out—are not, however, the only issues the play explores. The story of how Prospero came to the island, a story we have to piece together from the words of different speakers each of whom has an interest in telling it his way,20 involves a whole network of relationships. Prospero, telling the story to his fellow Europeans, claims he ‘was landed’ on the island ‘To be the lord on't’ (5.1.161-2), as though his authority rests on a kind of Manifest Destiny. Caliban tells another story:

This island's mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. When thou cam'st first,
Thou strok'st me and made much of me; wouldst give me
Water with berries in't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night; and then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o'th'isle.


Though he begins by asserting his own territorial claim through inheritance (a claim perhaps as arbitrary as Prospero's), Caliban goes on to describe a lost community of mutual support and co-operation. He taught the newcomers about the island, and they taught him the names and uses of things (though he has either forgotten the words ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ or is stubbornly refusing to use them). Each had something to give the other, and their mutual need seems to have been touched with mutual affection.

But somehow this Edenic existence, this time of naming, discovery and mutual help, went wrong, and the community was replaced by a rigid power structure:

                    I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king, and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o' th' island.


As Prospero does not say how he came to master the island, and has to be reminded, Caliban does not say what went wrong, what produced the fall in this Eden. Prospero does:

                                                            I have used thee—
Filth as thou art—with humane care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.

Caliban is unrepentant:

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


He and Prospero read the event quite differently. Their languages are different: Prospero uses words—violate, honour, child—that seem to mean nothing to Caliban. Caliban was following a breeding instinct so impersonal he uses the passive voice for it (‘would't had been done’). Prospero centres his accusation on the threat to Miranda; Caliban ignores her. Even their offspring would be simple reproductions of him, and him alone. Miranda's own version is cryptic and general:

                                                                                But thy vile race—
Though thou didst learn—had that in't which good natures
Could not abide to be with.


It was Miranda who taught Caliban language;21 but her own language lapses into generalization when she recalls, or refuses to recall, what he tried to do to her in return.

The biblical sense of the word ‘know’ implies that one's first sexual experience is an initiation into a new kind of understanding. It is, in effect, learning a new language. This is the terrible irony of the relationship of Caliban and Miranda, as her initiation of his mind is met with his attempted initiation of her body. Miranda conveys what she did for Caliban:

                    When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known.


Without language, he knew nothing; he in turn tried to ‘know’ her. Miranda's claim recalls the assumption of European explorers that the natives were speaking meaningless gabble.22 But Caliban never claims he had a language before Miranda taught him hers; it was a strange, hollow and confused noise he himself did not understand. His stinging retort—

You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!


—shows that teaching him language was, from his point of view, an injury. It lets him shape, feel and understand his torment.

Power, knowledge, sex and language—all these things are bound up in the tangle of mutual resentment and misunderstanding that binds these three characters. Caliban is now so trapped in the mind-set thus created that when he encounters Stephano and Trinculo he can only replicate his relationship with Prospero and Miranda, even as he thinks of himself as rebelling. Giving him drink—and perhaps forcing the bottle into his mouth, hinting at the violation with which Caliban threatened Miranda—Stephano orders, ‘Open your mouth—here is that will give language to you, cat’ (2.2.78-9). Caliban in return offers service and teaching:

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.


He is trying to restore something like the original community. But the subjection Prospero has forced on him he now offers voluntarily and abjectly to Stephano; and while he still thinks of Miranda as good breeding stock he offers her to his new master: ‘she will become thy bed, I warrant, / And bring thee forth brave brood’ (3.2.102-3). Paying tribute to her beauty, he has advanced (or declined) in his view of Miranda far enough to see her as a trophy. Like the women of The Malcontent, she is a political trophy, the legitimate prize of whoever wins the island.

Caliban's return to his old master is distasteful to modern readers who would rather see him as a successful rebel. (For that, we must turn to Aimé Césare's Une Tempête (1969), where Prospero remains on the island, doomed to lose the power struggle with Caliban.) But there is some question about what that return means. Caliban grovelling and seeking for grace is not all that happens. Caliban not only has problems with language, he creates problems of language for others. What is he? Stephano and Trinculo see him variously as fish, monster and devil. Is he human? Miranda counts him as human, calling Ferdinand ‘the third man that e'er I saw’ (1.2.446). His mother was Sycorax, and witches are human. Prospero's accusation that his father was the Devil (1.2.319-20) is open to question on two counts: it may be Prospero's own anger talking, and in any case paternity is unprovable. In the end Prospero accepts and acknowledges Caliban in a manner that raises more questions still: ‘this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine’ (5.1.275-6). ‘Thing of darkness’ keeps Caliban's identity unsettled; ‘mine’ opens many possibilities. Has Caliban found his true, or at least adopted father? Is Prospero acknowledging Caliban as the darkness, the cursing anger and unbridled desire in himself, including his own incestuous feelings for Miranda?23 (As he and Caliban cursed each other on Caliban's first entrance, they sounded disconcertingly alike.) Or does ‘mine’ simply mean ‘my slave, my responsibility’? Prospero's final order to Caliban suggests the old master-servant relationship restored, but with a difference:

                                                                      Go, sirrah, to my cell;
Take with you your companions. As you look
To have my pardon, trim it handsomely.


He puts Caliban in charge of the work party, as he put Ariel in charge of the spirits; he gives him responsibility. And this is not just the brute labour of carrying logs: he expects Caliban to show a bit of taste. In some way a new relationship is beginning, as each character reaches out to the other. It remains incomplete: Caliban's response when Prospero acknowledges him is ‘I shall be pinched to death’ (5.1.276); he is still fixed in the old fear. When he comes out of it with his promise to ‘be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace’ Prospero replies, ‘Go to, away’ (5.1.294-7). But on one point there is a connection: ordered to trim the cell, Caliban replies, ‘Ay, that I will’ (5.1.294). Whatever remains to be negotiated, the master-servant relationship is restored, and for the first time Caliban obeys an order without complaining.

But we have had hints that this relationship is not all there is between the characters, and the affinities between Prospero and Caliban are not confined to Prospero's dark side. In his tribute to the music of the island, ‘The isle is full of noises’ (3.2.133-41), Caliban has not only shown he can do more with Miranda's language than curse; he reveals a link between his imagination and Prospero's:

                                                            then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.


Two scenes later Prospero declares,

                    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.


What for Caliban is a dream is for Prospero life itself; Caliban wants to possess the dream, Prospero is willing to surrender it.24 What links them is a sense of vanishing glory. They do not hear each other's speeches; but if Prospero seems to be moving, however tentatively and incompletely, back towards Caliban at the end of the play, it may be because they both know what it is to be dispossessed.

The relationship Prospero and Miranda have with Caliban is a dark version of the relationship they have with Ferdinand. As Caliban is the central figure in the story of how they came to the island, Ferdinand is equally crucial to their leaving it. Though he appears in the first scene he does not speak, and this means that on his entry in 1.2 he is virtually a new character, embodying a fresh start.25 Miranda has no point of reference for him: ‘What is't?—a spirit?’ (1.1.410). She herself, after spending most of her life with only her father and Caliban, is ready for a fresh start. In her first scene, she seems to be rebelling against her father, demanding that he stop the tempest and rebuking him for his cruelty:

Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed, and
The fraughting souls within her.


This anticipates the way Ariel rebukes Prospero for his treatment of his victims: ‘if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender … Mine would, sir, were I human’ (5.1.18-20). A gap between Miranda and her father opens when, as he tells the story of his life, he keeps checking her level of attention: ‘Dost thou attend me? … Thou attend'st not!’ (1.2.78, 87). She is presumably listening as hard as she can, but it can never be hard enough for Prospero; the story can never matter to her as it does to him. When she actually meets the characters of Prospero's story her exclamation, ‘How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is!’ (5.1.182-3) confirms his suspicion that she was not really paying attention.26 But it is, appropriately, in her relationship with Ferdinand that Prospero's control over her weakens most obviously. She lets her name slip out: ‘Miranda.—O my father, / I have broke your hest to say so’ (3.1.36-7). She is too excited to follow the model of conventional female behaviour he has taught her:

                                                                                But I prattle
Something too wildly, and my father's precepts
I therein do forget.


In a play full of forgetting Miranda's acts of forgetfulness are creative, freeing her from her father's control.

She has an instinctive rapport with Ferdinand. Even as she watches the ship sink she laments it ‘had, no doubt, some noble creature in her’ (1.2.7). She knows there was more than one passenger, but her imagination already senses that one in particular matters. When they first meet he addresses her as ‘O you wonder!’ (1.2.427), sensing her name before he literally knows it. It is only in 3.1, long after he has fallen in love and proposed marriage, that he goes through the formality of asking her name. (Hello, I love you, won't you tell me your name?) The rapport is more remarkable in view of the wide gap of experience between them. The cultural gap between Prospero and Caliban over his attempt on Miranda (social code versus natural behaviour) is duplicated when Ferdinand refuses to let Miranda carry logs for him, claiming it would be dishonour. She replies that she's just as capable of carrying logs as he is, and, if she feels like it, why shouldn't she? (3.1.25-31). There is also a wide disparity of sexual experience. Miranda has known no member of the opposite sex apart from her father and Caliban; Ferdinand admits to having loved ‘Full many a lady’ (3.1.39).

When they first meet, the interwoven ideas of language, teaching and sex, so crucial to her experience with Caliban, are recalled and transformed:

                                        Vouchsafe my prayer
May know if you remain upon this island,
And that you will some good instruction give
How I may bear me here. 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.
                                                                                My language! Heavens!


As he knows her name, they know each other's language. We can imagine a wide gap closing slowly and painfully as Miranda taught Caliban words. Here the gap closes instantly. His marriage proposal, which comes only a few lines later, makes her virginity the only condition (1.2.448-50). His frankness makes him seem as direct as Caliban, but unlike Caliban he cares about the codes of society. Like the wood of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the island (popular fantasies about islands notwithstanding) is no place for free love. Even in Gonzalo's back-to-basics commonwealth the women will be ‘innocent and pure’ (2.1.153); and Miranda, ignorant about so much, knows that her ‘modesty’ is ‘The jewel in my dower’ (3.1.53-4). Ferdinand evidently agrees. He and and Caliban both get straight to business; but the business is radically different.

Prospero has a curious relationship to the lovers. While they seem to be falling in love on their own initiative, his aside, ‘It goes on, I see, / As my soul prompts it’ (1.2.420-1), suggests that his desire for the match is so great he is somehow making it happen; or at least he would like to think so. In 3.1, imagining they are alone, they have a long, frank conversation, on which Prospero eavesdrops. It is hard to separate benevolent interest from distasteful prurience. At the same time he admits a gap between himself and the lovers: ‘So glad of this as they I cannot be, / Who are surprised withal’ (3.1.92-3). Here again there is a double effect: Prospero's control and prescience make this affair something he has expected, even created. But as there is no surprise in it for him, he also recognizes that he can never experience the delight of first love as they do. In that way they have the edge over him. The author, and the audience, may be closer to Prospero at this point. We always seem to be looking at Ferdinand and Miranda from a distance, as though the author of The Tempest could not write so directly of young love as could the author of, say, As You Like It.

Prospero also imposes a narrative design on a love that seems too straightforward to need it, as though following, arbitrarily, the dramatist's principle that a love story needs a complication:

They are both in either's powers; but this swift business
I must uneasy make lest too light winning
Make the prize light.


It is not enough for them to be in each other's powers; they must also be in his. Yet Prospero's interference is not purely arbitrary. The fact that he gives Ferdinand Caliban's job of carrying wood shows he is testing the Caliban in him. There is a sharp juxtaposition of the two characters, as Ferdinand's first appearance on the island follows immediately on Caliban's exit, and the song that brings the prince on to the stage runs backwards from the final harmony of the joining of lovers—‘Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands’—to a warning of approaching danger—‘Hark, hark! … The watch-dogs bark!’ and a suggestion of phallic impudence, ‘The strain of strutting Chanticleer’ (1.2.374-85).27 Making Ferdinand unable to use his sword, Prospero seems to be inducing impotence, as witches were sometimes accused of doing: ‘I can here disarm thee with this stick / And make thy weapon drop’ (1.2.473-4).28 Even when Prospero relents and accepts Ferdinand, he gives him not just one lecture on premarital chastity but two. Ferdinand seems a decent young man who hardly needs this treatment. But Caliban's attempt on Miranda has created an anxiety in Prospero that he finds hard to shake—another reason why the sudden memory of Caliban makes Prospero so angry, and destroys the wedding masque.

The vision of harmony and fertility that the masque creates is oddly sexless: it is all about the land and the crops, ‘Earth's increase, foison plenty, / Barns and garners never empty’ (4.1.110-11). Venus and Cupid are explicitly banished, and Cupid, like Ferdinand, is reduced to infancy, his weapons broken (4.1.99-101). As it imagines a year without a winter—‘Spring come to you at the farthest, / In the very end of harvest!’ (4.1.114-15)—the masque seems to imagine fertility without sex, as though Ferdinand and Miranda could have children without doing what Caliban wanted to do. Sex in Michaelmas Term was a crude commercial transaction, hole-sale. To Prospero it seems more a dangerous, magic power, which can easily become black magic if the timing is wrong. As Prospero is aware of the importance of timing in his own magic (1.2.180-4), he warns Ferdinand that if he anticipates the wedding night

                                                                      barren hate,
Sour-eyed disdain, and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both.


(In George Lamming's novel Water with Berries (1971), the character who corresponds to Miranda is gang-raped, leaving her both sexually frigid and compulsively promiscuous.) Ferdinand's assurance of premarital chastity embodies not coldness but an eagerness like that of Theseus. He too knows the importance of timing; by waiting he will make the magic more powerful. No temptation, he promises, will

                                                                      take away
The edge of that night's celebration
When I shall think or Phoebus's steeds are foundered,
Or night kept chained below.


Prospero replies, ‘Fairly spoke’, but it may be this frank expression of desire that a few lines later leads him to give Ferdinand a second lecture (4.1.51-6).

The court party have come from a political marriage, that of Claribel and the King of Tunis, that seems to have been unpopular with everyone including the bride (2.1.121-9). There is of course a political dimension in the linking of Ferdinand and Miranda, but it goes far beyond that. Chess is a game of sex and power;29 it is a game of seduction (Middleton uses it this way in Women Beware Women (c.1621); and it gives the players an ability to toy with kings and other potentates that recalls the power of Prospero. The lovers, bent over the chessboard, are showing control over the political world (unlike Claribel, who was a political puppet) and over their own sexuality. Even their quarrel is significant: Miranda accuses Ferdinand of cheating—‘Sweet lord, you play me false’—and, when he denies it, instead of accepting his denial she claims it doesn't matter: ‘Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, / And I would call it fair play’ (5.1.172-5). She began the play listening to her father brood at length on past injuries; she offers to treat any betrayal by Ferdinand as fair play, to wipe out any offence as though it had never happened. This may be naive or just playful; but it dramatizes a power of forgiveness far greater than Prospero's, and the contrast between the lightness and speed of her response and the sheer length of Prospero's opening narrative is an important part of the effect. It is more than their youth that suggests the lovers can give the world a fresh start.

Even Sebastian seems for a moment impressed: ‘A most high miracle!’ (5.1.177). Alonso sees in Miranda a power greater than Prospero: ‘Is she the goddess that hath severed us, / And brought us thus together?’ (5.1.187-8). When, learning her true identity, Alonso asks Miranda's forgiveness, Prospero tells him to leave the past behind: ‘Let us not burden our remembrances with / A heaviness that's gone’ (5.1.199-200). He cannot, we have seen, do this with Antonio. But, given the fresh start the lovers represent, he can do it with Alonso, and Alonso himself, thinking his son and Prospero's daughter were both drowned, has already pointed the way:

O heavens, that they were living both in Naples,
The king and queen there! That they were, I wish
Myself were mudded in that oozy bed
Where my son lies.


Prospero shows at times a similar willingness to give up his own life and make way for the future, but in him it is characteristically less straightforward. Giving his daughter to Ferdinand, he claims to be giving away ‘a third of mine own life, / Or that for which I live’ (4.1.3-4). Throughout 4.1 he speaks only to Ferdinand, suggesting he has indeed let Miranda go. But this also gives him a new role as Ferdinand's mentor; he is not letting go that easily. His surrender of his magic seems a deeper, more radical surrender. In the Epilogue he turns to prayer, an admission of his dependence on a higher power, like Friar Bacon's turning to God. In this he repeats the action—a socially levelling one—of Alonso, Ferdinand and the mariners, who in the face of imminent death turned to prayer. Behind his declaration, ‘And my ending is despair / Unless I be relieved by prayer’ (5.1.333-4) lies the simple cry of the mariners, ‘All lost! To prayers, to prayers!’ (1.1.51).

It seems an appropriate ending for a play that has so radically examined the danger and the emptiness of power. In the end we are all equally helpless, and can only pray. But this is not really how the play ends; Prospero has not quite let go. In two time signals, he and Ariel equate the action of the play with an afternoon at the playhouse. Near the start of the play they check the time and find it is two o'clock, time for the performance to begin. (Of course it is already under way.) Allowing a little more than the usual two to three hours, Prospero declares, ‘The time 'twixt six and now / Must by us both be spend most preciously’ (1.2.240-1). Later, the metatheatrical reference is seemingly completed when Ariel announces it is ‘the sixth hour, at which time, my lord, / You said our work should cease’ (5.1.4-5). But if we think the play is over we have been fooled; this is the beginning of Act 5, and there is a whole act to go.

Even so Prospero may surrender his magic, but he does not quite surrender the narrative control that went with it. He prays, it would seem, not to God but to the audience, and in turning the story over to us he tells us what to do with it:

                                                            Now 'tis true
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
On this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.


Now the stage itself is a trap, and Prospero's plea is the play's final image of release from bondage. A play full of confinement, restriction and imprisonment ends with the words, ‘set me free’ (5.1.338). Our ‘hands’ will do it, meaning our applause. What audience will not applaud (especially since, if they do not, the play will never end and they will never get out of the theatre)? As the audience applauds, Prospero leaves the stage which is also the island; the last word of the Folio text is ‘Exit’. Prospero's last command has been obeyed.

Critics who have taken up his invitation to complete the story have tended to stress Prospero's ongoing power. The marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda may seem to duplicate Antonio's offence of submitting Milan to Naples; but it can also be seen as expanding Prospero's dynastic influence, as King James did by uniting England and Scotland;30 and it effectively cuts Antonio out of the line of inheritance.31 If these completions of the story are valid, Prospero achieves the control over the future that eluded Quomodo. His vision of the final dissolution of all pomp and power, of the world ending like a play or masque—

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.


—should be seen in its dramatic context. He attributes it to a moment of stress: ‘Bear with my weakness, my old brain is troubled’ (4.1.159). The response of the lovers, speaking together, ‘We wish your peace’ (5.1.163), may be the response of the audience when out of compassion they release the tired old man from the island. But no sooner have the lovers left the stage than Prospero, no longer complaining of weakness, calls up Ariel and mounts his last, violent attack on Caliban and his company. The Tempest ends, seemingly, with a moving image of the surrender of power; but with enough of its pervasive scepticism in place to leave us wondering how far we can believe it.


  1. There is no point in attempting a full listing, but a few examples may be mentioned. John Gillies, in ‘Shakespeare's Virginian Masque’, English Literary History, LIII, 1986, points out that the double image of the island as a rich paradise and a place of danger and deprivation parodies the contemporary double image of Virginia (p. 682). In New Perspectives on the Shakespearean World, tr. Janet Lloyd, Cambridge, 1985, Richard Marienstras argues that Caliban combines the ‘Indian’, who ‘must be dominated and overcome’ with the ‘Black’, who ‘was seen as a domestic animal, one necessary to the exploitation of the continent and the domination of nature by the White man’ (pp. 177-8). Barbara Fuchs, in ‘Conquering Islands: Contextualizing The Tempest’, Shakespeare Quarterly, XLVIII, 1997, proposes that colonialist readings should include the British subjugation of Ireland, and equates Caliban's cloak with the Irish mantle (pp. 45-54). There is a full and balanced discussion of the whole issue in Meredith Skura, ‘Discourse and the Individual: the Case of Colonialism in The Tempest’, Shakespeare Quarterly, XL, 1989, 42-69.

  2. Albert Hunt and Geoffrey Reeves, Peter Brook, Cambridge, 1995, pp. 136-7.

  3. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme see this as the first of a series of ‘actual or attempted usurpations of authority’: ‘Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: the Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest’, Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis, London and New York, 1985, p. 198. On the ship's crew, see M. M. Mahood, Playing Bit Parts in Shakespeare, London and New York, 1998, pp. 205-22.

  4. All references to The Tempest are to the Oxford Shakespeare edition, ed. Stephen Orgel, Oxford and New York, 1987.

  5. Gillies, ‘Virginian’, p. 689.

  6. Orgel glosses, ‘No price will be too high for him’.

  7. See Orgel, Introduction, pp. 43-50.

  8. After The Masque of Blackness (1605) there was such crowding and confusion that the table holding the banquet was overturned; see Ben Jonson, X, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, Oxford, 1950, p. 449.

  9. R. Malcolm Smuts, ‘Art and the Material Culture of Majesty in Early Stuart England’, The Stuart Court and Europe: Essays in Politics and Political Culture, ed. R. Malcolm Smuts, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 91-3.

  10. In a discussion of state-sanctioned torture as part of the play's context, Curt Breight notes that pinching could mean removing pieces of flesh with red-hot pincers, and Caliban's fear of being ‘pinched to death’ (5.1.276) is not hyperbole: ‘“Treason Doth Never Prosper”: The Tempest and the Discourse of Treason’, Shakespeare Quarterly, XLI, 1990, 24-6.

  11. According to K. M. Briggs, Prospero's ‘rude, peremptory and unconciliatory’ manner is the one magicians normally adopted to keep control over the spirits they had raised: The Anatomy of Puck, London, 1959, p. 54.

  12. Productions sometimes manage a spectacular exit for him; at Stratford, Ontario in 1962 he ran off up the centre aisle of the theatre. In Peter Greenaway's film Prospero's Books (1991) he runs towards the camera, through a series of rooms, getting younger as he goes. But in the 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company production, Prospero, giving his last orders to Ariel, looked around and found he was already gone. He hadn't seen him go, and neither had the audience. Since the last order is for calm seas and auspicious gales, and since Prospero in the Epilogue turns to the audience to release him from the island and send him to Naples, one implication of this staging is that Ariel neither hears nor obeys the last command. We have to take over.

  13. This paradox was captured in Giorgio Strehler's production for the Piccolo Teatro di Milano (revised 1977). Ariel (played in this case by a woman) was in a flying harness that let her soar freely; but during her quarrel with Prospero she struggled on the end of the wire like a fish on a line. At the end Prospero released Ariel by freeing her from the harness (Orgel, Introduction, p. 27). This brilliant production was an exception to the rule that the play generally fails in performance.

  14. In the 1976 production at Stratford, Ontario, Caliban sang his song of freedom while marching on all fours, with a collar round his neck and Stephano holding the leash.

  15. It is not clear that the exact wording of the stage directions is Shakespeare's; it may be that of the scribe Ralph Crane, reporting a performance he saw (Orgel, Introduction, p. 58). But at least it can be said that the effects described are part of the play as Shakespeare's company performed it.

  16. Anne Righter [Anne Barton], Introduction to the New Penguin Shakespeare edition of The Tempest, Harmondsworth, 1968, pp. 7-9.

  17. Margareta de Grazia, ‘The Tempest: Gratuitous Movement or Action without Kibes and Pinches’, Shakespeare Studies, XIV, 1981, 259.

  18. John S. Mebane, Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age, Lincoln and London, 1989, pp. 178, 180. Mebane gives a positive reading of Prospero (pp. 174-99), in contrast to the rough handling he gets in much late twentieth-century criticism. The latter is exemplified by de Grazia's listing of the parallels between Prospero and Sycorax (‘Gratuitious’, pp. 255-6).

  19. K. M. Briggs, Pale Hecate's Team, London, 1962, p. 44.

  20. According to Barker and Hulme, Prospero's ‘Here in this island we arriv'd’ suppresses the full story, and it takes the objections of Ariel and Caliban to reopen it (‘Nymphs’, pp. 199-200).

  21. The speech that gives this information (1.2.350-61) used to be transferred from Miranda to Prospero, by editors who found its harsh tone unsuitable to the Miranda of their imaginations. The result was a generation of texts in which Prospero taught Caliban language, and the assumption that he was the teacher persists: in Prospero's Books we see Miranda and Caliban as children, studying side by side under Prospero's direction.

  22. Stephen J. Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, New York and London, 1990, pp. 17-18.

  23. This is the interpretation offered in the 1954 science fiction film Forbidden Planet, where the equivalent of Caliban is the ‘monster from the id’, a projection of the scientist himself.

  24. John Gillies notes another difference: Caliban sees a ‘strangeness and mystery’ in the island that no other character expresses (‘Virginian’, p. 702).

  25. In Derek Jarman's 1980 film version, Ferdinand emerges naked from the sea. The effect is more telling than the nakedness of the actors in Prospero's Books, which is so general that it becomes drained of meaning.

  26. Righter, Introduction, pp. 10-11.

  27. David Sundelson, ‘So Rare a Wonder'd Father: Prospero's Tempest’, Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, Baltimore and London, 1980, p. 46. David Lindley links the barking watchdogs with the hounds who hunt Caliban and his cohorts: ‘Music, Masque and Meaning in The Tempest’, The Court Masque, ed. David Lindley, Manchester, 1984, p. 49.

  28. If Prospero's relations with Miranda include incestuous feeling, he is not just striking Ferdinand with impotence but demonstrating his own superior phallic power.

  29. Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor, ‘Ferdinand and Miranda at Chess’, Shakespeare Survey, XXXV, 1982, 114-15.

  30. David M. Bergeron, Shakespeare's Romances and the Royal Family, Lawrence, Kan., 1985, p. 201.

  31. Orgel, Introduction, pp. 54-5.

Thomas Larque (review date winter 2003)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1198

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 proves a strong argument in favor of such a move. With the stage almost surrounded by seats, this performance—in the round—takes place amidst the audience, giving a sense that the actors are almost always within reach of the spectators. This is especially true when the action spills out into the aisles, and also for the “promenaders” who sit onstage at the actors' feet. This sense of intimacy is one of the best things about this production, and it is hard to see how this will survive the transfer to the notoriously unsympathetic Royal Shakespeare Theatre later in the year.

Like The Merchant of Venice, which cannot now be performed without suggesting the Holocaust, there is a long historical shadow over modern productions of The Tempest. Given repeated references to the slavery of Ariel and Caliban, modern audiences can be expected to see issues of colonialism and race within the play. Boyd's direction emphasizes this interpretation, casting black actors as Ariel and Caliban, subservient to an almost stereotypical white patriarch of a Prospero. Costumes place this production in Shakespeare's time, but the audience is clearly expected to blur the boundaries between Jacobean colonialism and the excesses of the nineteenth-century slave trade.

The focus of this Tempest lies unquestionably with the non-human characters. Malcolm Storry's Prospero is competent but unexceptional. He gives a strong, traditional performance—a firm foundation onto which the more original insights and interpretations of the production can be built—but he is not the center of this production. Little directorial ingenuity has been invested in his stage actions or motivations. The heart of this Tempest lies, instead, with Ariel, Caliban, and the athletic spirits, whose aerial stunts and acrobatics provide the visual highlights.

The stage setting seems deceptively simple at first, with a single lozenge-shaped platform built against the back of the stage, with three wooden ladders providing access to the stage below and with a series of metal ladders reaching from the top of the platform to the roof space. At first, this platform is neatly ordered, portraying the ship, with the metal ladders standing neatly upright and cylindrical banks of fluorescent lights hanging nearby. As the storm takes hold, however, the mariners break off and rearrange the ladders into a chaotic pattern, and the banks of lights break open and fall into crazy spirals, which come to represent the unnatural disorder of Prospero's magical island.

The storm sequence itself is strangely ineffective. Bursts of music and noise represent the storm in motion, but the effects fall conveniently silent every time somebody speaks. This prevents the traditional problem of voices being drowned out by the tempest but makes the characters' cries sound flat and unemotional, leaving the audience distanced and uncaring. Mariners shin down ropes and up ladders, and the top of the platform is hydraulically shifted back and forth, but the mild rocking suggests a rather tame and amateurish tempest that could more effectively have been portrayed by the actors alone.

Kananu Kirimi's delicate and childlike Ariel becomes the central character of this production. Small and lithe, on her first appearance, she almost dances back and forth, eager to please and desperate to impress Prospero. She begs for her liberty as if she deserves it and is then driven back by her belligerent and self-righteous master. She flinches and blinks one eye as Prospero spits his words at her angrily but nods and accepts his lecture like a schoolchild trying to stay on the right side of an unreasonable headmaster. The audience clearly likes and empathizes with this Ariel, siding with her against Prospero (“What a bully!” muttered one woman) and becoming caught up in her well-acted emotion and her desperate need for liberty.

In contrast to Kirimi's well-spoken Airel, Geff Francis' Caliban is initially a bestial figure who enters from beneath the platform in a black servant's outfit, harnessed and leashed like a dog, chewing on a hunk of meat on bone, which he spits repeatedly at Miranda as she confronts him. He gains dignity later, brandishing Stephano's flag and repeating “This island's mine!” as the lights come up for the interval and humanizing himself in his account of the music of the isle, supported by ethereal music that underlines the passion of his words.

The magic of the island is effectively created by use of the mariners, transformed into spirits by green body paint. As Ariel lures Ferdinand with “Full fathom five,” they drop from the roof space with ropes looped around their waists, their arms and legs free and flailing in a dance-like aerial display. The placing of the interval gives emphasis to two more significant displays by the spirits; the second part of the play begins with the vanishing banquet and moves immediately into the masque for the lovers.

The ethereal banquet is used to reveal the bestial appetites lying beneath the courtly civility of the three “men of sin.” The spirits dance gracefully and contort themselves for the entertainment of the courtiers, while offering them melons. As soon as Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio touch the food, however, they are reduced to animal greed—pushing away their companions, roaring and fighting among themselves as they savagely bite into the fruit and meat on offer, symbolically staining their hands and shirts with blood. Finally, one cuts the head from the swan that serves as centerpiece of the banquet and bites greedily into the neck, at which point Ariel leaps upright, the decapitated swan's wings and carcass strapped to her back, transforming her into the vengeful harpy.

The masque is similarly effective. It begins as Prospero presumably intended, decidedly unsexual, with the chaste Juno and Ceres played by strapping male spirits in extravagant drag. Prospero's “no tongues” becomes a warning to the two lovers to moderate their kissing. As the masque progresses, however, the dance of the nymphs and sicklemen becomes increasingly sensual and ends in an aerial display in which two of the spirits mate passionately in mid-air. Having apparently lost control of his own masque, which has perhaps revealed the human appetites that Prospero himself suppresses, Prospero agitatedly breaks off the entertainment, having been reminded of Caliban and the conspirators.

The end of the production returns the focus to Prospero's slaves. After having been dismissed, Ariel waits in breathless anticipation for Prospero to break his staff. Finally, as Prospero finishes his Epilogue appeal to the audience to “Let your indulgence set me free,” the forgotten captive Caliban appears and moves forward to confront him as the lights go down, reminding us that Prospero has not been so merciful towards those within his own power.

Sharon Hamilton (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4930

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 literature of father as single parent. He protects Miranda, both from knowledge that would make her unhappy and from physical and emotional danger. He lavishes affection on her; never hesitating to say how and why he prizes her. At the same time, he respects her individuality. He has acted as Miranda's “schoolmaster,” setting high standards and training her mind. Like a good teacher, he encourages her to express herself and to make her own choices, even to the extent of countermanding his orders about how she should behave. Although Prospero has pressing reasons for wishing her match with Ferdinand, the young prince whom his magic brings to the island—it is Miranda's and Prospero's one chance for future security—he will not force her to acquiesce. In fact, he does everything possible both to gauge her feelings and to test the young man's worth before giving his own consent. In this, he is strikingly different from Capulet who, in spite of Juliet's abundance of potential suitors, is grimly insistent on Paris. Finally, Prospero frees Miranda to leave the sanctuary he created for her and to enter the larger world.

A daughter raised in such hermetic circumstances could be helpless or rebellious—incapable of asserting herself, resentful of her father's authority. Instead, Miranda is self-assured, resourceful, and kind. She reciprocates Prospero's love and respect, but she does not feel constrained to limit her circle of affection to him. Despite her isolated childhood, she is quick and prescient in judging others, and she recognizes in Ferdinand her soulmate. Miranda shows the confidence of a child who can love and trust others because she has been loved and trusted herself.

For Prospero the quest for Miranda's happiness is fraught with difficulties. The young suitor he has provided could prove unworthy—Prospero has never met him, and, as the son of his enemy, he does not have a promising heritage. Even should Ferdinand fulfill Prospero's hopes, the magician must face an arduous confrontation with the men who betrayed him. If his plan succeeds, the price he must pay is the loss of his powers and a lonely old age. He must return to governing Milan, while Miranda will join her new husband in ruling the Kingdom of Naples. Yet for the sake of his daughter's well-being, Prospero is willing to sacrifice the chief consolation of his life, his delight in her company. The emotional motor of The Tempest is the bittersweet satisfaction parents feel when they let their children go.

As the play opens, Prospero senses that the moment has come for Miranda's emergence into womanhood. The rousing action of the storm is followed by a long tête-à-tête in which he recounts her past and hints at her future. Prospero knows that this is the turning point in Miranda's self-awareness: “naught knowing” (I.i.18) of his origins, she is “ignorant” of what she is. The child's status is derivative, dependent on the parent's titles and goods, which she stands to inherit. Always before, he has deflected her questions about her past. Now, he tells her, “'Tis time / I should inform thee further” (ll. 22-23).

Miranda, who was only three when they arrived on the island, has little memory of her early years. He begins with the most shocking fact:

Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since,
Thy father was the Duke of Milan and
A prince of power.

[ll. 53-55]

The echoed words and the falling cadence resonate with The Tempest's peculiar elegiac music. Prospero was subjected to exile by the perfidy of his younger brother Antonio, whom, he tells Miranda bitterly, “next thyself / Of all the world I loved” (I.ii.68-69). Prospero recognizes his own fault in “neglecting worldly ends” and giving Antonio “the manage of [his] state” while he himself was “rapt in secret studies” (l. 77). Antonio eventually joined in league with Alonso, the King of Naples, “an enemy … inveterate” to Prospero. With Alonso's aid, Antonio drove the “right duke of Milan” out to sea in a “rotten” bark, its only passengers, he tells the girl, “me and thy crying self” (ll. 128-48).

Miranda wonders, wisely, if it was “foul play” or a “blessed event” that brought them to the island, and he responds, “Both, both, my girl!” (ll. 60-61). Their rescue came about not only by “providence divine” but human “charity” (ll. 159, 162)—that of the faithful old councilor Gonzalo. He furnished them with clothes and the “volumes” on magical lore which, Prospero asserts, “I prize above my dukedom” (l. 168). During the hard voyage, the child seemed to her father “a cherubim … that did preserve [him].” His care for her and “a fortitude from heaven” gave him the will to endure.

Now it is Prospero who must play the role of divine protector for Miranda. The “god” of his island-kingdom, he presides over spirits evil and benevolent, directs the forces of nature, and influences the acts of mortals. But he is not omnipotent. Prospero can precipitate certain events, but he cannot guarantee their outcome; he must act swiftly, be ever vigilant, and hope for the best. He depends on Ariel, his “tricksy spirit” (I.ii.226), to carry out his plans. He must be on guard against Ariel's weariness with his duties and stanch his eagerness to be set free, in accord with Prospero's promise. The time for fulfilling that vow is almost upon them: as the play opens, it is within “two days” (I.ii.299). “Bountiful Fortune” (I.ii.178) has brought Prospero's enemies near; the tempest that he devised and Ariel wrought have driven them to the island. Now the dreamy scholar, the man who preferred his books to his dukedom, must act quickly and decisively. As he reveals to Miranda, both intuition and astrology, “prescience” and “a most auspicious star,” assert that this is his one chance to right his life's wrongs (ll. 180-84).

What he does not tell the girl is that her fortunes, too, depend on his vigilance and agility. Should he fail, she would be left with an aging, Ariel-bereft father, in danger of some day facing the monster Caliban alone. A mark of Prospero's compassion is that he only hints at this dire future; he spares Miranda the anguish that full knowledge would entail. Like the sleep he casts over her while he and Ariel plot, the aim of his love is to protect and sustain. He strives not to bind his daughter to him but to free her, as he will his airy “son.” But in Miranda's case he intends to make certain first that, vulnerable as she is, she is going to other loving arms and a safe haven.

It is clear that Miranda has inherited more than Prospero's rank. From him and, possibly, her late mother, “a piece of virtue” (I.ii.56), she has learned kindness and trust, and she treats her father with the love that he has shown her. She is a sympathetic listener to his story of betrayal, desperation, and rescue. “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness” (I.ii.106), she tells him, and sighs “Alack, for pity!” She senses the supernatural quality of his power: her first question is whether his “art” (I.ii.1) has created the tempest. She is sure, too, of his benevolence: her term of address is “dearest father.” Miranda's concern is not her own safety but the fate of the “brave vessel” she has seen “dashed all to pieces” (l. 8). She exclaims: “O, I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer!” Prospero hastens to comfort her: “Tell your piteous heart / There's no harm done,” “No harm” (ll. 14-15), he repeats soothingly. He assures her that he has “so safely ordered” things that all on the ship are protected. Thus, the play's main values—compassion, resourcefulness, loyalty—are all introduced by the end of Prospero's account, and father and daughter share them.

This ideal mentorship has not come easily. Prospero's previous efforts at nurture, first of his younger brother Antonio and then of the creature Caliban, have been bitter failures. As a brother, he was not, he admits, merely negligent but also naive. His “trust, / Like a good parent,” “awoke” in Antonio “an evil nature” (ll. 93-94). The choice of metaphor is telling: Prospero feels a paternal sense of betrayal. But he did not, of course, raise Antonio, and he has taken great care with his actual child.

The chief threat to her well-being has come from the other object of Prospero's nurture, the “hag-born” (I.ii.283) monster, Caliban. Offspring of the witch Sycorax, he is a native of the island. Prospero virtually adopted the forlorn creature after the witch's death, treated him “with humane care” and “lodged” him in his “own cell” (ll. 346-47). But, he discovered to his fury, no “kindness” could alter the character of such a brute. The proof? When Miranda was only twelve, Caliban “did seek to violate [her] honor.” The creature admits gleefully to this charge, boasting that if Prospero had not intervened, he “had peopled else / This isle with Calibans” (ll. 350-51).

For Prospero, the rape of a child is an unforgivable crime. He ceases all kindness to Caliban, makes him his “slave,” and controls him with pinches, “cramps,” “side-stitches,” and threats of more such pains. The brute, unrepentant but wary of the magician's power, obeys and waits his chance for revenge. There has been a tendency lately to romanticize Caliban as a noble savage and to see the magician's habitation of the island as a metaphor for imperialism and his subjection of Caliban as tyranny over the native population. But such an interpretation ignores Caliban's malice and lack of remorse. In the play, the would-be child molester is literally a monster, his savagery softened by buffoonery but not, until he repents at the end, by sympathy. Shakespeare is on Prospero's side.

Caliban is easily cowed and Prospero despises him. Why then is the magician so disturbed at the creature's plot to overthrow him? In the midst of blessing Miranda's and Ferdinand's union, Prospero suddenly recalls Caliban's “foul conspiracy.” He is “touched with anger so distempered” (IV.i.145) that he cuts short a magical dance he had commanded in the couple's honor. He is moved to make his great speech about the transience of earthly “revels,” and then tells the lovers that he must walk “to still [his] beating mind.” Ariel appears shortly afterward and assures him that the three plotters—Caliban, the drunken butler Stephano, and the clown Trinculo—have been led in “calf-like” subjection into a “filthy mantled pool” (l. 182): a fittingly comic fall for such incompetent villains. But Prospero remains grimly disillusioned by Caliban's latest betrayal, and denounces him as

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

[ll. 188-90]

Prospero never shows such rage toward his more dangerous enemies. Nor is this, like Capulet's, a tantrum but a fixed rancor. Perhaps it conceals his fear, either that the daughter whose “nurture” he has overseen so lovingly might prove likewise false or, more probably, that, should his plan fail, she could be left at the mercy of this “devil.”

The spirit Ariel, whom Prospero freed from a wicked spell, is his good stepson to Caliban's bad. In some ways, magician and servant are like two aspects—thought and action—of the same being. But Ariel is also a separate creature. Only Prospero can see and speak to him in his numinous form. Although he can delegate tasks of creating illusion and exerting control, he must constantly determine by anxious questioning if Ariel has carried them out: “Hast thou, spirit / Performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?” (I.ii.193-94). “But are they, Ariel, safe?” (l. 217). Prospero lavishes affection on him, calling him “my dainty Ariel” (V.i.95) and “chick” (l. 316). He responds to Ariel's child-like question about whether he loves him with the fond affirmative “dearly” (IV.i.49). But Ariel is not of his master's element and their natures cannot mix forever.

In his “prescience,” Prospero has known all along that the foundering ship contains not only his enemies but his likely future son-in-law. They have never met. But, although Ferdinand is the son of Antonio's co-conspirator, the King of Naples, it is clear from his first appearance that he is worthy of Prospero's hopes. While the rest of the passengers and crew react to the tempest with curses and despair, the King and Prince of Naples are “at prayers” (I.i.50). After the ship splits asunder, Ariel lands Ferdinand alone, as Prospero instructs. Thinking the others drowned, the young man gives way to grief, sitting with “his arms in [a] sad knot” (I.ii.222-24) and “weeping again the King [his] father's wrack” (l. 437). Ferdinand is the good son of a bad father. That point should be qualified: the King, although a corrupt ruler, is a loving parent. As his despair over Ferdinand's supposed drowning shows, the affection between father and son is deep and mutual.

Ferdinand also proves a Romeo-like ideal lover, bold, ardent, and strikingly handsome—“a goodly person,” in Prospero's measured description to Miranda, though “something stained with grief (that's beauty's canker)” (ll. 415-16). Miranda, who has seen no other man but her father, expresses no qualms about the young man's looks: “I might call him a thing divine, for nothing natural / I ever saw so noble.” Though Ferdinand has known a number of other noblewomen, he is no less hyperbolic about Miranda's beauty. He thinks her “a goddess,” and, before he discovers that she can speak his language, marvels: “O you wonder!” Prospero, watching this meeting, sees this mutual attraction as confirmation of his plan's rightness. He confides to Ariel in asides: “It goes on, I see, as my soul prompts it” (ll. 420-21). From the first, then, Prospero sees Ferdinand not as his rival but as his successor in Miranda's affections. He does not want to monopolize his daughter but to share her. As he later muses in soliloquy, he thinks of her as “his and mine loved darling” (III.iii.93).

Although his behavior may seem voyeuristic, Prospero is not observing the lovers for prurient ends. Miranda is utterly innocent and Ferdinand a still unproven entity. Prospero wants to be sure of the young man's mettle before he leaves his “loved darling” in his charge. All his magic would be mockery if the object of it were corrupt or weak. He puts Ferdinand to a number of tests, both to slow the hot pace of the courtship, “lest too light winning make the prize too light” (I.ii.452-53), and to gauge Ferdinand's worth. He accuses the prince of being a “spy” and a “traitor” (ll. 456, 461) who has come to usurp the island kingdom. When Ferdinand protests, Prospero devises cruel punishments: manacles, and a diet of sea water, mussels, and acorn husks—Prodigal Son fare. Ferdinand bravely draws his sword to defend himself but is “charmed from moving.”

Such mistreatment spurs Miranda to action. Dismayed by Ferdinand's arrest, she “hang[s] on [her father's] garments” and cries, “Sir, have pity. / I'll be his surety.” She is convinced of his goodness by his beauty: “so fair a house,” she argues, could not contain an “ill spirit” (l. 459). In this idyllic world, Ferdinand proves worthy of Miranda's intuitive trust. Although he chafes at Prospero's harshness in sentencing him to menial labor, he gallantly refuses both her urging to disobey her father's orders and her offer of working in his stead. He lavishes praise on her, calling her “perfect” and “peerless,” and begs to know her name, that he might include it in his prayers. When she reveals it, he relishes playing on its derivation: “Admired Miranda … the top of admiration” (ll. 37-38).

Ferdinand's trials are also a test of Miranda's bond with her father. To her plea for her lover's release, Prospero barks: “What, I say, my foot my tutor?” (I.ii.469-70). When she continues to protest, he warns, “One word more / Shall make me chide thee, if not hate thee” (ll. 476-77). This is the only time in the play that Prospero expresses an unkind feeling toward his daughter. Although his anger is mild compared to Capulet's toward Juliet or his own toward Caliban, it could be disturbing. But Miranda seems to sense that it is feigned, or at least transient. Secure in a lifetime of devotion, she is unperturbed by his harsh words. As Ferdinand is led off to begin his sentence, she lingers to assure him:

My father's of a better nature, sir,
Than he appears by speech. This is unwonted
Which now came from him.

[ll. 496-99]

Miranda is also undeterred by Prospero's “hests” about her behavior. He has told her not to reveal her name and not to “prattle” to Ferdinand of her love. He evidently wants her actions to be governed by “modesty” and her charms to retain an air of mystery. But Miranda ignores these directives. Juliet-like, she asks Ferdinand candidly: “Do you love me?” He responds ardently: “I / Beyond all limit of what else i' th'world / Do love, prize, honor you” (III.i.71-73). The declaration moves her to “weep” with happiness. Like Juliet, in spite or perhaps because of being a novice, she banishes “bashful cunning” and herself proposes marriage. She goes a step further and offers to “die [Ferdinand's] maid” if he refuses her and, in the meantime, to be his “servant.” Miranda is taking a great chance on rejection, humiliation, even danger. But her instincts are sound. Though more idealistic than the father who has sheltered her from the world's wiles, she has his perspicacity.

Miranda has been right to feel no fear of Prospero's wrath. Unlike Juliet, she has no soliloquies—no secrets from her father. One reason is that she is a simpler character, a sketch to Juliet's fully rounded young woman. But on the level of psychological realism, Miranda is so open because she is so secure. There is no need for guile with a father who senses her needs and puts her happiness before his own. In the idyllic world of The Tempest, the daughter's desired match is not only sanctioned but orchestrated by her father.

Prospero, who has entered “unseen,” has been watching the proposal. But he is careful not to disturb the tête-à-tête: he arranges its circumstances, but he leaves the outcome to the lovers. Not only is he unperturbed by Miranda's disobedience, he expresses the utmost pleasure in this “Fair encounter / Of two most rare affections.” He prays that the “grace” of the “heavens” will bless “that which breeds between 'em,” (ll. 74-76), an allusion not only to their love but to the offspring that he hopes it will bring, the traditional fruits of a happy union.

Prospero later conveys his paternal blessing directly. He explains to Ferdinand that the “vexations” he has been made to suffer have been “but trials of thy love.” Then he praises the suitor for having “strangely stood the test.” His “compensation” is marriage to one who, her father boasts, “will outstrip all praise / And make it halt behind” (IV.i.10-11). Unlike Capulet, he does not hesitate to praise Miranda to her face and before her suitor. A last condition remains: the young man must not “break her virgin knot” before the wedding, on penalty of incurring a marriage marred by “barren hate, / Sour-eyed disdain, and discord” (ll. 19-20). Prospero is teaching him that care of Miranda is a sacred trust. Ferdinand is a willing disciple. He promises to eschew “lust” as he “hope[s] / For quiet days, fair issue, and long life” (ll. 23-24).

It takes more than words, however, to reinforce the lesson of chastity. When the magician goes off, the lovers quickly give way to “dalliance.” Prospero returns and reproaches Ferdinand, warning him in Polonius-like terms against temptation: “the strongest oaths are straw / To the fire in the blood. Be more abstemious, / Or else good night your vow!” (ll. 51-54). He then creates a show of pagan goddesses. The avowed purpose is to entertain the betrothed couple. But the spectacle also serves as a reminder not only of Prospero's values but his powers: this is not a father-in-law whom Ferdinand would want to risk offending.

The theme of the show is stated by Iris, goddess of the rainbow: “A contract of true love to celebrate” (IV.i.84). Chastity is an important element of this concept: Venus and Cupid have been excluded, so that no “wanton claim” can entice the lovers into performing a “bed-right” before the wedding. Prospero will take no chance that Miranda be seduced and abandoned. As reward for abstinence, all the worldly blessings are promised the couple—in the words of Juno, queen of the gods: “Honor, riches, marriage blessing / Long continuance, and increasing” (ll. 106-07). As Prospero admits, he has summoned the spirits “to enact / [his] present fancies” (ll. 121-22): a fond father's fondest wishes. Ferdinand responds with awe and gratitude:

So rare a wond'red father and a wise
Makes this place a Paradise.

[ll. 123-24]

Gone is his previous resentment, his conviction that Prospero is “all harshness.” Father and fiancé have become allies.

But Prospero knows too well that the couple cannot stay in this Eden. These are earthly blessings he is conferring, and for the lovers to receive them, he must engineer their return to the larger world. The conditions of that return are the defeat of his old enemies and the rescue of Ferdinand's father, King Alonso. The news of Caliban's “foul conspiracy” (IV.i.139) recalls Prospero to his duty and his pain. “My old brain is troubled,” he confesses to the young people.

Prospero is right to be anxious. The two younger brothers, Antonio and Sebastian, are particularly corrupt: envious, cynical, murderous. When their fellow conspirator Alonso weakens, they turn against him. Deeply depressed by the supposed drowning of Ferdinand, he would be an easy prey to their assassination plot without Prospero's protection. His prayer before sinking into a heavy sleep—“Give us kind keepers, heavens!”—is heard by Ariel and granted by the man whose dukedom Alonso helped usurp.

Prospero knows the evildoers' hearts and is tempted to destroy them. In a subtle twist, he must be urged to empathy by Ariel, who imagines that his own “affections would become tender” if he were “human” (V.i.17-20). But it is Prospero's care for Miranda that chiefly restrains his fury. He chooses not the revenge that he would be justified in seeking but forgiveness and generosity. In return, he vows to ask only the villains' “penitence” (ll. 26-28). But when he confronts Antonio and Sebastian face to face, he admits that even that condition will go unfulfilled. His own brother is the worst of the lot. Grimly, Prospero says, “I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art” (ll. 78-79). Antonio remains unmoved by this mercy. Except for a wisecrack about Caliban's marketability as a “plain fish,” he says nothing during this trial. Ruthless and vindictive, he and his moral twin Sebastian represent the continuing presence of evil in the world. If The Tempest were a tragedy, their malice would predominate. In the romance, they are reduced to Iago-like spectators at the idyllic celebration.

In contrast, Alonso, Prospero's future in-law and Ferdinand's father, does undergo a change of heart. He admits his old “trespass” against Prospero, and blames that sin for Ferdinand's supposed death. When Prospero suddenly reappears in his ducal robes, Alonso repents spontaneously: “Thy dukedom I resign and do entreat / Thou pardon me my wrongs” (V.i.118-19). Prospero is not soft in his compassion. He “require[s]” that Antonio formally “restore” the title that Alonso has offered, and he torments the king a while longer with Ferdinand's loss. He will not, however, let his fellow ruler give way to remorse: “be cheerful,” he counsels, “And think of each thing well” (ll. 250-51).

The main cheering element is the restoration of Ferdinand, and not Ferdinand alone but as half of a loving couple. Like his son, Alonso first mistakes Miranda for “a goddess,” and he readily assents to the match. The prince asserts that she is his “by immortal providence”—whose agent we have seen is Prospero—and describes the magician affectionately as a “second father” (V.i.195). Even Caliban shares in the general reformation. A grotesque shadow of his master, he had been devising a twisted plan for Miranda's future: to match her with the sottish Stephano, the man he would have overthrow Prospero and rule the island. When Caliban sees the butler's greed and incompetence, he repents: “I'll be wise hereafter, and seek for grace” (V.i.295-96). It is a sentiment worthy at last of Prospero's nurture.

Miranda is enchanted by the “beauty” of the noble visitors from the “brave new world.” Her father's response is wry: “'Tis new to thee” (V.i.184). Yet he is careful not to spoil the mood of celebration. He keeps silent about his inside knowledge of the evildoers, and he alludes only in a brief aside to the toll that parting from Miranda will take. For all his advice to Alonso about remaining cheerful, Prospero's own mood at the end of the “revels” he has devised is bleak. His one remaining wish is “to see the nuptial / Of these our dear-beloved solemnized” in Naples. Afterwards, he will “retire me to my Milan, where / Every third thought shall be my grave” (ll. 310-11). This line recalls his earlier description of Miranda to Ferdinand as “a third of mine own life / or that for which I live” (IV.i.3-4). Once he has carried out his vow to “abjure” his “rough magic,” to “break [his] staff” and “drown [his] book,” the old scholar will have only memories and his native “most faint” (Epilogue) strength to sustain him. But he shakes off his melancholy to perform a last benevolent act: he will use his magic to assure the travelers “calm seas” on their voyages home.

Prospero is in some ways the ultimate patriarch, protecting and guiding his child, engineering her future by means human and supernatural. But he embodies that figure in its most benevolent form. He accepts that the time has come for Miranda to pass from childhood into womanhood; in Shakespeare's day the main rite of passage was marriage. The match that he arranges for Miranda is the one that she would—and does—choose for herself, and the union brings concord between nations and reunion between brothers. Miranda, with the confidence and resilience of the loved child, expresses no qualms about setting forth for the “brave new world.” Her father approves, her husband-to-be is all she could wish, she is looking forward only to happiness. Prospero has not burdened her with his cares. His parting wishes to Ariel could as fittingly be addressed to her: “to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well!” (V.i.317-18). It is Prospero's willing sacrifice of his own well-being for the sake of his daughter's that gives the play its wistful, nostalgic tone. The “music of the island” is hauntingly sweet and sad. The Tempest is a fable of fatherly wish-fulfillment and ideal nurture.

By the time that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, his own daughters were well past the vulnerable age of his heroine. According to Blakemore Evans' dating of the play in The Riverside Shakespeare, 1611, Susanna would have been twenty-eight and Judith twenty-six at the time of its composition. The older sister had married in 1607, at the reasonable age of twenty-four; Judith was to marry the year of her father's death, 1616, at the rather advanced age for those times of thirty-one. In 1596, the year most scholars estimate that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, his elder daughter was about Juliet's age—thirteen—and he had just lost his only son. While no one would claim that Capulet is a stand-in for the playwright, it is possible that the intensity of the old man's grief has an autobiographical source.

Whether or not Shakespeare's relationship with his own daughters inspired The Tempest, the tone is one of nostalgic celebration, the main character a father devoted to a beloved child. This is not to suggest that Prospero is soft or self-effacing. He has an iron will, marked courage, and a temper every bit as fierce as Capulet's. He also has a comparable belief in his own authority. But he exercises those qualities not against but in sensitive concord with his daughter's feelings. His grief at his impending separation from Miranda is tempered by satisfaction that he has secured her happiness and by the prospect of future reunions. Capulet has no such consolations for his old age. By the final act, his oppression of Juliet has turned the wedding dance he anticipated into a dirge. In contrast, in The Tempest, under Prospero's guiding hand, the “music of the island” has come to soothe and bless all who have ears to hear it.

Kevin Pask (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6647

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 illustrated at Paris during the French Revolution,” Hazlitt responded with some heat:

Caliban is so far from being a prototype of modern Jacobinism, that he is strictly the legitimate sovereign of the isle, and Prospero and the rest are usurpers, who have ousted him from his hereditary jurisdiction by superiority of talent and knowledge. “This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,” and he complains bitterly of the artifices used by his new friends to cajole him out of it.

Rather than Coleridge's envious Jacobin, Caliban is in fact much more like “the bloated and ricketty [sic] minds and bodies of the Bourbons.”1 Hazlitt is obviously attacking Coleridge from the left, even if his position is one hardly recognizable to more recent attempts to read The Tempest in a historical and political register. Coleridge's association of Caliban with the Jacobins was not a complimentary one, but his relatively conservative reading of Caliban turned out to be considerably more influential than others for the New Historical and Postcolonial readings of the play.

Hazlitt understands the “radical” content of the play to be aligned with Prospero rather than Caliban, and this reading reflects the influence of Milton's engagement with The Tempest. In Milton's early revision of the masque form, A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle generally known as Comus, the enchanter and tempter Comus first appears to the Lady as a shepherd, but, as the representative figure of the aristocratic pastoral, his counsel to the Lady is to spend rather than to hoard her erotic energy. The Attendant Spirit (also dressed like a shepherd) later informs her brothers that Comus is of divine birth, son of Bacchus and Circe, and he also leads a “monstrous rout” who “are heard to howl / Like stabbed wolves, or tigers at their prey.”2 Comus is both libertine aristocrat and leader of a plebeian mob, and the association of Comus with bestial release puts him in the lineage of Caliban.3 Still, Milton's Masque does not fail to reveal the genuine temptation Comus offers the Lady, a temptation at least partly Shakespearean in character.4

Milton provides us with the terms to re-inflect the critical disagreement between Hazlitt and Coleridge: Caliban as both Hazlitt's “rickety Bourbon” and Coleridge's revolutionary Jacobin. Such a reading of pastoral necessarily relies on William Empson's expansive version of pastoral as the literary mode whose characteristic “trick of mind” is to imply “a beautiful relation between rich and poor.”5The Tempest hardly seems to bring off this trick; rather, it is something more akin to the photographic negative of the Renaissance pastoral, even Shakespeare's own ironic playfulness with the genre. Prospero himself appears to associate Caliban with a narrower understanding of pastoral when his own wedding masque for Ferdinand and Miranda produces the pastoral dance of nymphs and reapers. In watching this conventionalized pastoral, however, what Prospero actually seems to see is Caliban, producing the play's most dramatically unsettling moment in Prospero's sudden dissolution of his own masque: “I had forgot that foul conspiracy / Of the beast Caliban and his confederates / Against my life.”6 I shall return to this moment in the play, but only after elaborating a double plot, Miranda's courtship and Caliban's rebellious claim to the island, that makes it so resonant in the play. “What is displayed on the tragic-comic stage is a sort of marriage of the myths of heroic and pastoral,” writes Empson with Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay in mind, “a thing felt as fundamental to both and necessary to the health of society.”7The Tempest, on the other hand, puts the tragicomic double plot through its usual paces, but in order to reveal the dynastic Realpolitik that produces it. The play's double plot thus insists on the divorce of the aristocratic myths of heroic and pastoral in what is effectively Prospero's counter-pastoral.8 His island, that is, becomes a pastoral retreat associated with the repression of pastoral in its traditional guise: otium and erotic release.9


Caliban's claim to the island—his first extended speech in the play—is not, as Hazlitt recognized, a utopian one:

This island's mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. When thou cam'st first,
Thou strok'st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night; and then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o'th'isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile—
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king, and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o'th' island.


“Thou most lying slave,” Prospero responds immediately, but the force of his rebuttal is directed to the latter part of Caliban's speech and the accusation of mistreatment:

          Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness, I have used thee—
Filth as thou art—with humane care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.


Caliban's original—and dynastic—claim to the island remains undisputed; he is, like Prospero himself, a usurped ruler. Regal language (“mine own king”) belongs to Caliban as much as to Prospero.10 David Norbrook has noted the use of the familiar “thou” in the first part of Caliban's speech, arguing that it “takes on the overtones of a recollected solidarity and mutuality.”11 In the context of Caliban's dynastic claim to the island, it is also Caliban's aristocratic punctilio, his insistence on the equality of his status with Prospero's.

Caliban's dynastic claim comes from his mother Sycorax—a claim founded on Sycorax's magic. Prospero's new claim is based no less on magic. It is simply the case that his magic is stronger, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when Caliban invokes “all the charms of Sycorax”—nothing more than toads, beetles, and bats. All that remains of Sycorax's power is Caliban's knowledge of the island: “the fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.” This sort of knowlege is the basis of Caliban's “earthiness,” a favorite appellation of Romantic criticism of the play. Prospero, on the other hand, characteristically controls the climate and spirits of the air, including Ariel. Still, there are obvious connections between Prospero and Sycorax. Sycorax imprisoned Ariel in a tree trunk; Prospero threatens Ariel with the same punishment. A potential aristocratic alliance between the families of Sycorax and Prospero haunts the play, even if one that subordinates the maternal lineage represented by Sycorax: aerial magus, terrestrial sorceress, step-brother and step-sister (Caliban and Miranda). It seems that Prospero had previously recognized something of that relationship by taking Caliban into his dwelling. Everything about Prospero's present control of the island is designed to prohibit such a symbolic alliance, but, as Stephen Orgel notes, Sycorax remains “insistently present in [Prospero's] memory—far more present than his own wife—and she embodies to an extreme degree all the negative assumptions about women that he and Miranda have exchanged.”12

Prospero's rebuttal of Caliban's claim to sovereignty, as we have already seen, is largely the explosive counter-charge of Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda: its force such that Caliban's dynastic claim is almost obliterated. The charge remains, even in readings sympathetic to Caliban, powerful and resonant. The later history of English colonialism—a particularly intensified mobilization of anxieties concerning rape and miscegenation—makes Caliban's status as a proto-colonized subject of Prospero especially difficult to modify. The narrative design of The Tempest, however, suggests other possibilities, including the unsettling one that Caliban's illicit lust is much closer to the play's normative world of aristocratic alliance than the reading of Caliban as plebeian or colonized subject allows us to appreciate fully.

The “abhorrèd” Caliban is exchanged for Ferdinand—Caliban's exit staged at the same moment as Ferdinand's entrance (l. 2.373)—and a quasi-divinized language of love replaces Caliban's caricature of lust. “Most sure, the goddess” (l. 2.422) exclaims Ferdinand on first seeing Miranda. The words are doubly surprising. The allusion to The Aeneid (Aeneas's words upon seeing Venus after the Trojan shipwreck) wrenches us out of a world that seems to look forward to Atlantic exploration and incipient colonization and places us in the oldest of Old Worlds: the central epic of Mediterranean imperium. The deification of Miranda, meanwhile, hardly accords with the general treatment of love in Shakespearean comedy, where such deification usually is produced in order to be mocked and tempered (and this is especially true of plays with strong female lovers: Beatrice, Rosalind). Nothing in this play, however, ever seems to question the idealized terms of Ferdinand's love for Miranda—unless it is his increasing devotion to his future father-in-law. At the conclusion of the play, Alonso refers to her as “the goddess that hath severed us, / And brought us thus together” (5.1.187-88). If Ferdinand can now allow Miranda's mortality, it is only in comparison to Prospero's redemptive powers:

                    Sir, she is mortal;
But by immortal providence, she's mine.
I chose her when I could not ask my father
For his advice—nor thought I had one. She
Is daughter to this famous Duke of Milan,
Of whom so often I have heard renown,
But never saw before; of whom I have
Received a second life; and second father
This lady makes him to me.


Over the course of the play, Ferdinand increasingly inserts himself into an extraordinarily idealized homosocial relationship to Prospero. The result, interestingly, is one of the most purely dynastic alliances in the Shakespeare canon, where some form of rebellion against or freedom from the wishes of the father is the norm. Miranda herself had first misrecognized Ferdinand as a “spirit” (l.2.410-12)—something, that is, controlled by her father's magic—and it appears that she was largely correct. Prospero introduces Ferdinand to his daughter and to us as a “gallant” whose grief for his apparently lost father is “beauty's canker” (l.2.414, 416). In the BBC television version of the play directed by John Gorrie, Ferdinand is quite rightly a soulful teen angel right off the covers of the old Tiger Beat magazine.

In exchanging Caliban for Ferdinand, the play exchanges a form of raw dynastic lust—and Caliban's ultimate desire, after all, is to people “This isle with Calibans” (l.2.350)—for something apparently very different, an idealized form of dynastic alliance. If Ferdinand's first words recall Aeneas, his own imperial destiny—to be the ruler of both Naples and Milan—avoids the tragic dilemma represented by Aeneas: the choice between love (Dido) and empire. The central action of the play celebrates the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda as the instrument of dynastic restitution that accords with their desires.

Still, the “specter” of Dido haunts late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century heroic narrative, and its presence is remarkably strong for such an apparently celebratory version of dynastic marriage.13 The period was in many respects more sympathetic to Dido than twentieth-century literary criticism has been. Montaigne, whose “Of the Caniballes” was an important source for The Tempest, writes in the essay “Of Diverting and Diversions”:

So do the plaints of fables trouble and vex our mindes: and the wailing laments of Dydo, and Ariadne passionate even those, that beleeve them not in Virgill, nor in Catullus: It is an argument of an obstinate nature, and indurate hart, not to be moved therewith.14

Claribel, sister of Ferdinand forced to wed the “King” of Tunis (and thus the indirect reason for the court party's arrival in Prospero's sphere of influence), seems to be introduced largely in order to elaborate the legend of Dido as the backdrop to the courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda. Gonzalo, in his gauche humanist enthusiasm, makes the connection between Claribel and Dido legible by recalling the “widow Dido” as the previous “paragon” (2.1.73-75) of Tunis (a few miles from the site of Carthage). Antonio and Sebastian miss Gonzalo's learned reference to the older Greek legend of the Dido who founded Carthage as a widow and later killed herself rather than be married to the local chieftain, larbas:

Widow? A pox o'that. How came that widow in? Widow Dido!
What if he had said “widower Aeneas” too? Good lord, how you take it!


If Antonio and Sebastian display their “indurate” hearts, Gonzalo's fulsome praise of Claribel inadvertently identifies the tragic context of her marrige.

Never present on the stage, Claribel haunts the play as the imperial tragedy apparently evaded by the imperial comedy of Ferdinand and Miranda. Alonso's shipwreck, Orgel reminds us, “interrupts a voyage retracing Aeneas', from Carthage to Naples.”15 The world she inhabits is thus an updated version of Virgil's Mediterranean, but also one with a strong resemblance to the notorious world in which Europeans were enslaved and ransomed along the Barbary Coast, Algiers and Tunis.16 Claribel's marriage simply instances this form of “trade” at the highest possible level. Children of nobility, of course, functioned as the aristocratic means of exchange, shoring up or creating domestic or international alliances, and King James certainly treated his own children as instruments of international diplomacy.17

In this context, it is possible that Shakespeare's use of the name Claribel recalls a “Claribell” of The Faerie Queene who plays a brief but significant role in the conclusion of Spenser's romance epic. Unlike Shakespeare's Claribel, she rebels against her father's attempt to use her as a political and economic pawn:

Her name was Claribell, whose father hight
The Lord of Many Ilands, farre renound
For his great riches and his greater might.
He through his wealth, wherein he did abound,
This daughter thought in wedlock to haue bound
Vnto the Prince of Picteland bordering nere,
But she whose sides before with secret wound
Of loue to Bellamoure empierced were,
By all means shund to match with any forrein fere.(18)

The arranged marriage Spenser's Claribell escapes reminds us of the wedding plans of Scots princes, and such a connection might have triggered Shakespeare's memory as well. Subsequently, Pastorella is revealed to be the offspring of her secret marriage with Beallamoure, a revelation that suddenly ennobles the socially hazardous bond between the shepherdess Pastorella and the courtly Calidore. Spenser's Claribell is thus closer to The Winter's Tale's Perdita than to The Tempest's Claribel, who is able to perform no such social harmonization.

The shadow story of Claribel seems to establish Miranda's alliance as a positive one, but the larger specter of Dido restlessly complicates Prospero's contradictory promotion of his daughter's marriage. Since Ferdinand's first words on seeing Miranda are also a Virgilian allusion, we are reminded of the imperial quality of Miranda's own marriage and its almost desperate centrality to Prospero's plans and his control of the island. “Miranda's virginity,” Peter Hulme writes, “is an important political card for Prospero, in some ways his only one.”19 We are never allowed to witness the relationship of Miranda and Ferdinand without Prospero's paternal monitoring of their interactions, and Orgel notes the Virgilian undercurrent in this anxiety: “[I]n so far as the play's Virgilian overtones encourage us to see Ferdinand as another Aeneas, Prospero's anxiety will strike us as justified.”20 Nevertheless, her choice is first his choice, and he introduces Ferdinand to Miranda in highly theatrical terms: “The fringed curtains of thine eye advance, / And say what thou seest yond” (l.2.409). Prospero forces Ferdinand to do Caliban's work, gathering logs, which forces the compliant Miranda into her first act of disobedience. Ferdinand's “enslavement” adds a jarring note to the effort to distinguish the alliance of Ferdinand and Miranda from Caliban's desires, but it also seems to be important in Prospero's staging of the relationship: partly to protect her virginity, which she, as a “natural” woman, might be inclined to give up too easily, but also in order to advance the intensity of their relationship by obligingly playing the role of blocking father.


Prospero's plans have nothing to do with future sovereignty over the island, and it is partly for this reason that he neglects to dispute Caliban's claim to the island. No attempt at social harmonization marks his control of the island, indicating something of the great distance between the play and Shakespeare's own earlier comedies (and reprised in The Winter's Tale). The force of comic harmonization is almost entirely directed toward that continuation of the Virgilian voyage: Carthage (Tunis) to Naples. The Mediterranean, Virgilian world of the play is one in which commerce is translated into a marriage market, much as it was previously in Antonio's bankrolling of Bassanio in order to win Portia in The Merchant of Venice. The first words of the court party on the island reinforce their connection with the commercial world:

                    Our hint of woe
Is common: every day some sailor's wife,
The masters of some merchant, and the merchant
Have just our theme of woe; but for the miracle—
I mean our preservation—few in millions
Can speak like us.


Shakespeare, moreover, grafts the activities of the expansion of English commerce in the Mediterranean onto dynastic alliance for a potential critique of dynastic and commercial operations much more pointed than those to be found in Merchant. As Richard Wilson has persuasively argued, “to sail in the Ottoman Regencies of Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis, was to traffic in an entire economy driven by the corso (or lottery) of the slave market.” The Tempest, likewise, amplifies Portia's marriage lottery to the extent that the marriage market looks remarkably similar to a slave market. In this system, Caliban and the Italian court party become indistinguishable. “This was the cycle,” remarks Wilson, “into which Shakespeare's Neapolitans traded ‘the King's fair daughter Claribel,’ to be one of the wives of the Dey of Tunis; and out of which came Caliban, bastard of Sycorax, a ‘blue-ey'd’ Algerine slaveholder.21 In this cycle, the juxtaposition of Claribel's forced marriage to both Miranda's idealized dynastic alliance and Caliban's attempted rape—and his apparently continuing desire to rape Miranda—reveals Caliban in the colors of the degenerate aristocrat as much as African slave. He shares as much with Cymbeline's Cloten as with any of Shakespeare's low-born characters. Claribel's forced marriage can thus appear as an officially sanctioned version of what Caliban wants to do.

Warding off such continuities, Prospero strenuously separates himself and his island from the Mediterranean system that surrounds it: (colonial) counter-pastoral.22 As a site of reforming opposition to the European dynastic states, Prospero's island has more in common with English activity in the Atlantic than with its simultaneously growing presence in the Mediterranean. The play's minimal explicit references to the Atlantic world are associated with the magical control of the island: Ariel's memory of fetching dew from the “still-vexed Bermudas” (l.2.229) and Setebos, Sycorax's god and the name of a Patagonian deity in the accounts of Magellan's travels. While the Mediterranean world around it allows Sycorax initially to claim the island and Claribel to be packed off to Tunis, Prospero's control of the island establishes the political economy instantly recognizable to us if still novel in Shakespeare's time: the enslavement of the African Caliban and the servitude of the “native” Ariel. Prospero's magic appears to make it possible for a colony from the Atlantic world to stray into the Mediterranean.23

It is, however, Prospero's almost exclusive interest in metropolitan politics that provides his strongest link to the colonizing aristocrats of Shakespeare's London. At the time of The Tempest, colonization claimed the attention of a conservative but increasingly oppositional “country” interest developing among the aristocracy, including Shakespeare's one-time patron, the earl of Southampton. If New Historical critics of the play have been sensitive to the play's colonialist aspect, they also have too easily assimilated it to the power of the Stuart state. Norbrook, on the other hand, has persuasively established this oppositional subtext in the play's use of Italian dynastic politics, including an illuminating statement in the 1614 Parliament that the Virginia colony would become a bridle for the Neapolitan courser if the youth of England were able to sit him.24

John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The Double Marriage (1621) celebrates an exiled duke's assassination of the tyrannical king of Naples, but Shakespeare's Prospero represents no such explicitly radical program. His use of his island is not designed to topple Naples and Milan but to reform them through political marriage. Prospero is an inherently unstable combination of Puritan reformer and absolutist ruler of the island.25 As counter-pastoral, meanwhile, the island everywhere shows signs of negotium—the enforced labors of Caliban, Ariel, and Ferdinand, as well as what appears from his exhaustion at the end of the play to be Prospero's own investment of significant energies on the management side—where we might expect otium.


The contradictions of Prospero's counter-pastoral converge on the courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda. Miranda's virginal purity distinguishes the island from the Mediterranean cycle surrounding it even while it serves as Prospero's most important “political card” in returning to the negotium of dynastic alliance. Prospero's mode of reform remains typically aristocratic: a masque-like education of the court party leading to marriage.26 The two modes of reform are most expansively conflated in the wedding masque of Ferdinand and Miranda, and it is there that we behold Prospero's own celebration of his success in isolating a purified and virginal political marriage. Prospero introduces the masque by twice insisting on Miranda's status as his “gift” to Ferdinand (4.1.8, 13), along with a fulsome warning about the dire effects of breaking her “virgin-knot before / All sanctimonious ceremonies” (4.1.15-16). This almost parodic “traffic in women” reveals an anxious reassertion of patriarchal authority, perhaps in response to the extraordinary moment in the previous scene between Miranda and Ferdinand in which her innocence allows her to seize control of the courtship:

                    But this is trifling,
And all the more it seeks to hide itself,
The bigger bulk it shows. Hence, bashful cunning,
And prompt me, plain and holy innocence!
I am your wife if you will marry me;
If not, I'll die your maid.


Analogizing any attempt to hide her desire to the vain attempt to hide a pregnant belly, Miranda aligns herself with disingenuous sexuality. Prospero's masque, on the other hand, excludes Venus and Cupid from its celebration of the match. John Pitcher argues that it is in fact designed to “recode” Dido's tragedy as a properly constituted and lawful marriage.27 This reformation of the story of Dido and Aeneas in terms of a perfectly chaste marriage resonates with Prospero's larger political project of a kind of counter-absolutism, counterpoised to the passion of Dido and Aeneas on the one hand and the political marriage of Claribel and the Dey of Tunis on the other: empire, but a now reformed empire.

The wedding masque, however, also appears to be the weak link in Prospero's plans. His recollection of Caliban's conspiracy prompts his sudden dissolution of the masque, an elegiac farewell to theater, and a transformed sense of himself as old and weak: “Sir, I am vexed. / Bear with my weakness, my old brain is troubled” (4.1.158-59). Ernest R. Gilman has suggested that Caliban's conspiracy plays the role of the antimasque to Prospero's wedding masque. Arriving at the end of the masque, Caliban and his fellows effectively invert the form of the Jonsonian masque and with it Prospero's ability to control the terms of the marriage.28 Caliban seems to represent the return of the libidinous sexuality that Prospero sees himself as controlling through the wedding masque. Caliban's threat, however, is not simply a threat from below: the return of the repressed as both sexual and political uprising.29 He is, as we have already seen, aristocratic libertine as well as plebeian rapist.

This overdetermined sexuality is at least partially cued by the masque itself, despite the fact that its narrative celebrates the absence of Venus and Cupid. After the spectacular special effects of the masque's opening introduction of Juno, it proceeds towards an increasingly pastoral vision. Iris calls forth nymphs and then, to dance with them, georgic reapers (as is appropriate to the general character of Prospero's counter-pastoral): “sun-burned sickle-men, of August weary” (4.1.134). Iris invites these laborers to “holiday” release:

Come hither from the furrow and be merry;
Make holiday; your rye-straw hats put on,
And these fresh nymphs encounter every one
In country footing.


Richard Wheeler has elaborated the sexual undercurrent of the lines. The “encounter” on “country footing” evokes the French foutre (“to copulate with”) as well as the very English “cunt” (as in Hamlet's “country matters”).30 Chaste marriage turns into its opposite through the apparently innocent means of pastoral. Sexuality here also hints at death: the sickles of the reapers. Prospero's first words after his dissolution of the masque indicate the presence of death in his thinking:

I had forgot that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates
Against my life.


Prospero had to some extent controlled time (the Latin tempus) through his control of nature (the tempest itself, the winterless year of the wedding masque). This control suddenly reveals itself to be merely theatrical effects, “this insubstantial pageant” (4.1.155). The suffusion of death through the final scenes of the play seems to be directly related to his recognition of the inevitable failure to administer his daughter's sexuality in perpetuity. This, he anticipates in Lear-like fashion, will coincide with the moment of his redundancy in the dynastic system:

                    … 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.


Caliban is for Prospero the embodiment of this combination of sexuality and death. Caliban, as I have argued, is the photographic negative of the pastoral, his sexuality both aristocratic and plebeian. It is appropriate that Prospero seems to be reminded of Caliban at the moment of viewing the nymphs and reapers in pastoral holiday. Pastoral was the genre of erotic exploration in the Renaissance. More broadly, C. L. Barber famously associated the seasonal cycle of festivity with a pattern of “release” and “clarification” in Shakespearean comedy, one as important for aristocrats as for plebeians.31 This is the pleasurable space in Shakespearean theater in which a figure such as Oberon can engage, however temporarily, the sexuality of the comically monstrous Bottom or in which the aristocratic Rosalind seems to require the presence of the bawdy Touchstone to experience fully the possibilities of Arden.32 Aristocratic marriage remains the order of the day, but not without a significant alteration of feeling produced by the pastoral engagements of aristocrats and clowns.

Caliban's form of release, on the other hand, represents both an abject version of Prospero's own dynastic impulse and insurrection from well beneath Prospero: “Freedom, high-day [holiday]! High-day, freedom! Freedom, highday, freedom!” (2.2.181-82). Meredith Skura convincingly locates Prospero in a line of Shakespearean rulers who lash out at figures who embody qualities they have rejected in themselves: Antonio to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Duke Senior to Jacques in As You Like It; Duke Vincentio to Lucio in Measure for Measure, Henry V to Falstaff in 2 Henry IV.33 Prospero's most rhetorically inflated denunciation of Caliban occurs shortly after his dramatic recollection of the conspiracy and dissolution of the masque:

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.


“The charge,” remarks Orgel in his note on the passage, “may be less straightforward than it appears: Prospero has just become conscious of his own advancing age, and has expressed fears for his own mind.” Caliban then enters, significantly accompanied by the fool Trinculo, himself little more than a seedy reminder of Shakespeare's great fools and forms of festivity. The return of Caliban is the return of repressed sexuality to the wedding masque, but in generic terms it is also the return of a repressed form of pastoral to Prospero's island. The demonized Caliban (“a devil, a born devil”) is the uncanny reminder of pastoral forms that Prospero's Puritanical control of the island has repressed.

Tremendously shaken by his sudden recollection of Caliban, Prospero nevertheless proceeds to complete the insertion of Miranda into the dynastic system of alliance, his overriding political and personal goal all along. This event, to which we shall now turn, allows us to take the full measure of Prospero's counter-pastoral. Prospero has effectively reshuffled the key ingredients of Shakespearean comedy, the symbolic union of high and low and the relative freedom of daughters and lovers, such that both now appear particularly jaundiced. Rather than a “romance,” we perhaps have here a particularly aggravated version of one of Shakespeare's “problem comedies.”

Miranda herself is significantly altered at the end of the play, having effectively lost her symbolic insularity—her distinction from the Italian metropole. In the final act, Prospero can “discover” Miranda and Ferdinand in masque-like fashion to the astonished members of the court party. They are playing chess, the game of aristocratic power:

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


Chess is here linked to Ferdinand and Miranda's knowingness—at least Miranda's, who can now seem considerably worldlier than Ferdinand. The alliance in which the happy lovers are engaged is simply diplomacy: war by other means. At a more intimate level, chess represents the strategic struggle for Miranda's virginity as the everyday “battle of the sexes”—and in a form no longer associated with the youthful freedom of Shakespeare's earlier heroines.34 Miranda's affectionate cynicism is an extraordinary change from her previous erotic frankness. It produces what is, despite its apparent attractiveness, perhaps the most dispiriting moment in the entire play, as Miranda projects her own name, “wonder,” onto the assembled nobility:

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


“'Tis new to thee,” Prospero responds, ironically marking her accession to “old world” protocols. Miranda appears to have thoroughly absorbed the nature of Prospero's political project and her role in it.

The moment is of course an ambivalent one for Prospero. The maintenance of Miranda's purity was the symbolic key to his difference from the Mediterranean dynasties, and it is this symbolic difference that is lost at the moment of his triumph. It requires the ever incautious and idealizing Gonzalo to drive home the point:

Was Milan thrust from Milan that his issue
Should become kings of Naples? O rejoice
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars! In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost. …


In case the audience might have forgotten the relatively spare mention of Claribel earlier in the play, Gonzalo here equates her marriage with the union of Ferdinand and Miranda. If Miranda, unlike Claribel, gives her enthusiastic assent to the marriage, the form of her assent changes as she moves closer to the court party: innocent sexual desire to the gamesmanship of erotic courtliness. If Miranda has escaped the immediate clutches of Caliban, she has entered Claribel's world with enthusiasm.


  1. The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bate (London and New York: Penguin, 1992), 536-37.

  2. John Milton (The Oxford Authors), ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), lines 533-34.

  3. David Norbrook, on the other hand, interprets Milton's masque as a revision of The Tempest that identifies and highlights the play's utopian aspect: “The libertarian impulse in the play is doubtless why it appealed so strongly to Milton, who rewrote it in Comus, transferring Caliban's less attractive qualities to the aristocratic Comus, giving a more rigorous utopian discourse to the lady, and assigning the agency of the resolution not to the aristocrats but to the Ariel-figure and a nature goddess” (“‘What Cares These Roarers for the Name of King’: Language and Utopia in The Tempest,” in The Politics of Tragicomedy: Shakespeare and After, ed. Gordon McMullan and Jonathan Hope [London and New York: Routledge, 1992], 21-54, citation 21).

  4. See John Guillory, Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 68-93; Mary Loeffelholz, “Two Masques of Ceres and Proserpine: Comus and The Tempest,” in Re-membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, ed. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), 25-42; Christopher Kendrick, “Milton and Sexuality: A Symptomatic Reading of Comus,” in Re-membering Milton, 43-73.

  5. William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935, reprinted New York: New Directions, 1974), 11.

  6. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Stephen Orgel (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), act 4, scene 1, lines 139-41. Further references to the play are from this edition and are included in the text.

  7. Empson, 30-31.

  8. Raymond Williams uses the term “counter-personal” to describe the realist impulse behind George Crabbe's The Village (1783). See The Country and the City (St. Albans, England: Paladin, 1975), 23. I had forgotten Williams's use of the term when I first applied it to The Tempest, but it seems to me that my forgetful use of the term usefully complicates Williams's own tendency to portray Renaissance pastoral as an “enamelled” world in which “living tensions are excised” (29).

  9. Most readings of pastoral in The Tempest have seen Prospero's appropriation of its myths as relatively unproblematic. See Thomas McFarland, Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972), 146-75; David Young, The Heart's Forest: A Study of Shakespeare's Pastoral Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972, 146-91.

  10. See David Scott Kastan on this exchange, Shakespeare after Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 186. Kastan's reading of the play, like my own, insists on the centrality of European dynastic politics.

  11. Norbrook, 42.

  12. Stephen Orgel, “Introduction,” The Tempest, 19-20. Orgel's list of the parallels between Sycorax and Prospero is instructive: “She, too, was a victim of banishment, and the island provided a new life for her, as did literally for her son, with whom she was pregnant when she arrived. Like Prospero, she made Ariel her servant, and controlled the natural spirits of the island” (19).

  13. See John Watkins, The Specter of Dido: Spenser and Virgilian Epic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

  14. Montaigne's Essays, John Florio's Translation, ed. J. I. M. Stewart (London: Nonesuch, 1931), vol. 2, 230; cited by Gail Kern Paster, “Montaigne, Dido and The Tempest: ‘How Came that Widow In?’” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 91-94, citation 93-94. Orgel is, on the other hand, uncharacteristically harsh on the Virgilian Dido: “[T]here are many sympathetic readings of the Virgilian episode in the period, but there was not getting around the fact that Virgil's Dido ends as a fallen woman, conscious of her sin, betrayed and abandoned” (42).

  15. Orgel, 40.

  16. See Richard Wilson, “Voyage to Tunis: New History and the Old World of The Tempest,ELH 64 (1997): 333-57, esp. 335-36.

  17. Wilson intriguingly argues that Claribel's match would have possessed topical significance for an English audience watching The Tempest while simultaneously following the negotiations for the marriage between the Medici heiress and the Prince of Wales. The match, however, was “generally loathed” in England, and some (Wilson shows that the Venetian ambassador was one) might have suspected the extent to which the proposed match was in effect an attempt to gain commercial concessions and to regain plunder from Robert Dudley's (the natural son of the Earl of Leicester) commercial operations in Leghorn (346-47). This would have implicated Stuart politics in what in the play is clearly a corrupt system.

  18. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, VI.xii.4. D. C. Kay, “A Spenserian Source for Shakespeare's Claribel?” Notes and Queries 229:2 (1984): 217.

  19. Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), 126.

  20. Orgel, 42.

  21. Wilson, 336.

  22. See Leo Marx, “Shakespeare's American Fable” (1960, reprinted in The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America [New York: Oxford University Press, 1964], 34-72).

  23. Scholarship of the past few years has returned to an interest in the Mediterranean context of the play, challenging the previous assimilation of the play to colonialist discourse. I have already indicated my own use of Wilson and Kastan. See also Barbara Fuchs, “Conquering Islands: Contextualizing The Tempest,Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 45-62; Jerry Brotton, “‘This Tunis, sir, was Carthage’: Contesting Colonialism in The Tempest,” in Post-colonial Shakespeares, ed. Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 23-42. Peter Hulme's Colonial Encounters, however, remains the best reading of the relationship between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic in The Tempest, arguing that the play is a palimpsest in which an Atlantic text not yet fully legible on its own terms re-inscribes the original Mediterranean text (108-09).

  24. Norbrook, 34-35, 50-51 (fn. 40). For the importance of this political formation on Shakespeare's immediate followers, see Philip J. Finkelpearl, Court and Country Politics in the Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990). Robert Brenner's Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London's Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), argues that the colonizing aristocrats of Shakespeare's time were eventually displaced by interloping “new-merchants,” but Brenner also notes intriguing counterexamples, including the Earl of Warwick's use of the “still vexed Bermudas” as a base for parliamentary opposition from 1628 onwards (149).

  25. The “Puritan” Prospero is not a staple of recent criticism, but it was once generally assumed to be crucial to his identification with British imperialism. See, for example, G. Wilson Knight, The Crown of Life: Essays in Interpretation of Shakespeare's Final Plays (London: Methuen, 1948), 255.

  26. Recent scholarship has revised earlier assumptions that identified the politics of the masque solely with the interests of the monarch. See the essays in The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque, ed. David Bevington and Peter Holbrook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

  27. John Pitcher, “A Theatre for the Future: The Aeneid and The Tempest,Essays in Criticism 34 (1984): 193-215, esp. 204-05.

  28. Ernest R. Gilman, “‘All Eyes’: Prospero's Inverted Masque,” Renaissance Quarterly 33 (1980): 214-30.

  29. Richard P. Wheeler has associated Caliban at this moment with the return of the repressed (“Fantasy and History in The Tempest,” [1995, reprinted in The Tempest: Critical Essays, ed. Patrick M. Murphy (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), 293-324, citation 316]). Wheeler's reading is more fully psychoanalytic than my own, and he argues that Caliban represents Prospero's own repressed desire for Miranda.

  30. Wheeler, 315-16; David Sundelson, “So Rare a Wonder'd Father: Prospero's Tempest,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 33-53, esp. 49.

  31. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (1959, reprinted Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).

  32. Douglas Bruster intriguingly connects Caliban with Will Kemp, clown of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (“Local Tempest: Shakespeare and the Work of the Early Modern Playhouse,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 25 [1995]: 33-53).

  33. Meredith Skura, “Discourse and the Case of Colonialism in The Tempest,Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 42-69, esp. 60-65. Harry Berger, Jr. similarly reads Prospero's “pastoral kingdom” as requiring a scapegoat—Caliban—in order to sustain its magical sense of its own power and virtue (“Miraculous Harp: A Reading of Shakespeare's Tempest,Shakespeare Studies 5 [1969]: 253-83, citation 261).

  34. See the discussion of Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor, “Ferdinand and Miranda at Chess,” Shakespeare Survey 35 (1982): 113-19. Shakespeare's interest in the symbolic conflation of love and war is, they point out, a consistent one (115).

Amy Rosenthal (review date 3 February 2003)

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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 up, a crash of thunder silences the audience. The ladder begins to sway wildly, the backcloth becomes a heaving, swirling sea, shouting mariners arrive and a shipwreck is conjured before our eyes. Then Prospero appears and, with a dash of his staff, the rope ladder whisks away and the backcloth gathers into a twisting cyclone, which is sucked dramatically down into his magic book. He slams the book shut, silence falls and the storm is over.

This impressive opening is one of many striking visual moments in the production, elegantly designed by Christopher Oram. These effects are imaginative and often beautiful, arresting our attention at times when it might be wandering. Although the production has delightful touches and to some extent captures the beguiling strangeness of the play, much of it is disappointingly conventional and ponderous.

The lighting designer Hartley T A Kemp has Oram's island set appear in a haze of blues and golds. Simple and attractive, it includes a proscenium arch, making a stage within the stage, which is used effectively in Act II when Ariel and his spirit-aides perform a masque for Ferdinand and Miranda, and again when Prospero reveals the lovers in a tableau, playing chess. The elegance of the design does not extend to some of the costumes, however, and none of the shipwrecked noblemen looks remotely damp, let alone storm-tossed, when washed up on shore.

Derek Jacobi is accomplished but overdeclamatory as the magician Prospero. His paternal relationship to Claire Price's Miranda seems perfunctory, but his bond with the spirit Ariel is much more credible. Price has a fresh energy and good comic timing, though her oddly modern costume makes her appear too adult and strangely out of place.

Robert East's lugubrious Alonso is convincing, wracked with grief for his son Ferdinand, whom he believes drowned, and Michael Jenn is suitably calculating as Prospero's usurping brother Antonio. John Nettleton's old counsellor Gonzales brings a necessary humour and warmth to the rather dry scenes between the shipwrecked noblemen, and Iain Robertson and Nigel Lindsay are entertaining as the drunken jester and butler, Trinculo and Stephano.

But the star of the show is Daniel Evans as Ariel. From his first appearance, with a pair of giant, softly luminous butterfly wings unfolding behind his back, Evans's light, fleet charm is compelling. A graceful, sweet-voiced songster, he is equally capable of menace; in another splendid design coup, a banquet of fruit appears before the starving noblemen, and just as they reach for it Ariel shoots from the middle of the platter with dark, bat wings, like an ominous, upright vampire.

His desire to please Prospero wrestles palpably with his straining for freedom, and there is a real sense of a tension consisting of obligation, resentment and love between them. When Prospero finally sets Ariel free, turning his back so as not to see him go, Ariel slowly walks off stage, breaking into a run as though this is the only way for him to leave at all. At this point, I felt emotionally engaged for the first time, and the play was almost over.

The very end is wonderful. Prospero's work done, his magic cast away, his revenge on his enemies transmuted into a difficult forgiveness, he comes to the front of the stage and, addressing the audience directly, asks us to liberate him with our applause. This is a conventional Shakespearean ending, but Jacobi does it with such simplicity and sincerity that we actually believe it, and it gives our applause a joyful truthfulness.

It is a pity such sincerity is concealed for so long behind a declamatory tone that makes the beautiful language seem foreign and the characters remote. This theatricality is necessary to signal Prospero's farewell to magic, and indeed the play debates that very contrast between artifice and reality, illusion and truth. The success of the epilogue also plays a clever trick in satisfying the audience and allowing us to forget some of the flaws of the production.

Further Reading

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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 Tempest, 1700-1800.” Shakespeare Survey 43 (1990): 99-107.

Compares The Tempest with Dryden's 1667 The Tempest, or the Enchanted Island and subsequent adaptations of Shakespeare's drama in order to highlight significant political themes associated with imperialism, gender, and race in these works.

Felperin, Howard. “Political Criticism at the Crossroads: The Utopian Historicism of The Tempest.” In The Tempest, edited by Nigel Wood, pp. 29-66. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995.

Eschews a formalist approach to The Tempest in favor of a Marxist-materialist analysis that reveals the play as to be an allegory of power concealed beneath a romantic framework.

Hamilton, Donna B. Virgil and The Tempest: The Politics of Imitation. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990, 185 p.

Book-length study of The Tempest that interprets the work as an imaginative rewriting of Virgil's Aeneid.

Kearney, James. “The Book and the Fetish: The Materiality of Prospero's Text.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32, no. 3 (2002): 433-68.

Approaches The Tempest as a drama concerned with the early modern understanding of distinctions between savage and civilized. According to the critic, this distinction is embodied in Prospero's book—a fetish symbol that differentiates between learned Europe and the barbarous Other.

Mack, Michael. “The Consolation of Art in the Aeneid and the Tempest.” In Reading the Renaissance: Ideas and Idioms from Shakespeare to Milton, edited by Marc Berley, pp. 57-77. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2003.

Views The Tempest as a reworking of thematic material from Virgil's Aeneid and focuses on Prospero's renunciation of hermeneutic art and subsequent re-engagement with political life.

McAlindon, Tom. “The Discourse of Prayer in The Tempest.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41, no. 2 (spring 2001): 335-55.

Documents curses and pious exclamations in The Tempest.

McGrail, Mary Ann. “The Tempest: A Plague upon the Tyrant That I Serve.” In Tyranny in Shakespeare, pp. 117-55. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2001.

Views Prospero's strict rule over his servants in The Tempest not as a justification of tyranny, but rather as an awareness of authoritarian domination as an inescapable, possibly fundamental, part of political life.

Motohashi, Ted. “Canibal and Caliban: The Tempest and the Discourse of Cannibalism.” In Japanese Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Yoshiko Kawachi, pp. 114-40. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1998.

Considers The Tempest in the context of European colonialism and early modern perceptions of native cultures.

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.

Samuels, Robert. “The Tempest: Colonial Desire, Homophobic Racism, and the Ideological Structures of Prejudice.” In Writing Prejudices: The Psychoanalysis and Pedagogy of Discrimination from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison, pp. 53-70. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Applies a psychoanalytic model of homoerotic desire and homophobic racism to the triangular relationship of Prospero, Caliban, and Miranda in The Tempest.

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 the possible embodiment of early seventeenth-century English perceptions of American natives.

Weekes, A. R., and A. S. Collins. Introduction to Shakespeare: The Tempest, edited by A. R. Weekes and A. S. Collins, pp. vii-xxiii. London: W. B. Clive, 1927.

Survey of theme, structure, character, language, and versification in The Tempest that also mentions biographical elements in the drama, including Shakespeare's possible resemblance to Prospero.

Wilson, Harold S. “Action and Symbol in Measure for Measure and The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly 4, no. 4 (October 1953): 375-84.

Compares the dramatic methods of The Tempest and Measure for Measure, noting that the action of both dramas is carried forward under the direction of a single authority figure—Prospero and Vincentio.

Wolf, Matt. Review of The Tempest.Variety 381, no. 6 (1 January 2001): 35, 41.

Reviews Jonathan Kent's 2001 staging of The Tempest at the Almeida Theater; Wolf commends Ian McDiarmid's excellent performance as Prospero and admires Kent's evocative externalization of Prospero's psyche through clever use of stage setting.


The Tempest (Vol. 72)


The Tempest and Cultural Exchange