Commentary

With The Tempest Shakespeare reached new heights in a recently developed genre, the Romances; indeed, some commentators find it the greatest accomplishment of his career. After progressively more successful attempts—in Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale—at mingling elements of Tragedy and Comedy within a framework of magic and exoticism taken from literary romances, the playwright created in The Tempest a stunning theatrical entertainment that is also a moral allegory of great beauty and emotional power. Unlike the traditional medieval Morality Play, Shakespeare's work does not merely present symbols of already understood Christian doctrines; rather, it offers a vision as complex and ambiguous as human nature itself. Such is the inclusiveness of Shakespeare's sensibility and the power of the play's characters as emblems of humanity that The Tempest cannot be pinned down by any particular interpretation, but must instead be taken as the embodiment of a variety of propositions. The themes of The Tempest are multifarious and mingled, but nevertheless the various element mending of reconciliation and regeneration. 

The Tempest has very little actual plot: the love of Ferdinand and Miranda meets only token and feigned—opposition, and the proposed assassinations of Alonso and Prospero are never plausible, due to Prospero's overwhelming mastery of the situation. However, Shakespeare makes up for the lack of suspense with bold theatre. Bizarre characters and extravagant effects abound in a spectacular presentation that plainly reflects the influence of the courtly masque, an increasingly popular form in the early 17th century. Striking tableaus figure in almost every act: the shipwreck in 1.1, the supernatural banquet in 3.3, the formal betrothal masque and the spectral hounds in 4.1, and the sudden appearance of Ferdinand and Miranda in 5.1. These elements are almost independent of the dialogue, but their visual imagery adds meaning to the story. 

Magic is a vital ingredient of The Tempest. The supernatural qualities of Caliban and Ariel are particularly impressive on stage—Caliban is usually costumed to resemble a sea monster and Ariel sometimes flies on cables. The text describes a number of remarkable feats of magic that add to our sense of wonder, as do Ariel's appearances with goddesses and as a harpy. Music is another strong component of the play, which incorporates many songs and several dance numbers. Indeed, music is part of Prospero's magical repertoire, as all of the visitors to the island are manipulated at some point by Ariel's tabor and pipe. The island itself seems haunted by 'sounds and sweet airs [of] a thousand (wangling instruments' (3.2.134-135).  

Another unifying feature of The Tempest is the way the conspiracies that compose the action reflect each other. Before the time of the play, Antonio stole Prospero's dukedom; on the island, that original crime is re-enacted as Antonio offers Sebastian the prospect of a kingdom if he murders Alonso and as Caliban recruits Stephano against Prospero. Each of these conspiracies is finally defused by Prospero, as order is systematically restored. Just as important, they all lead to the reconciliation with which the plays closes. 

Yet another important theme is the contrast between Art and nature. Prospero rules through his magical 'Art' (1.2.1), consistently spelled with a capital A in the conventional 17th-century usage associated with the Renaissance image of the magician as philosopher. Such a mage, as they were called, attempted to elevate his soul through arcane knowledge of the divine, whether through alchemy, the lore of supernatural signs, or communication with spirits. Although Prospero's goal was originally to transcend nature, he gains control of nature as a byproduct of his magic. This, then, provides for his control of the island.  The contrast of 'Art' and nature is furthered by the comparison of Prospero, whose learned sorcery is Art, and the 'natural' Caliban, with his lust and his beastlike resistance to education. Caliban's naturalness leads him to attempt rape—he would have 'peopled . . . this isle with Calibans' (1.2.352-353)—whereas Prospero and Ferdinand, with civilized sensibilities believe in celibacy before marriage. They understand marital happiness to depend on discipline; the satisfactions of sex are to be preceded by a formal declaration of intention, in the 'full and holy rite' (4.1.17) sanctified by tradition. Put another way, we must intelligently assert what we are doing and not simply plunge. Ferdinand, Miranda, and Prospero all exercise the self-discipline that Caliban lacks, and their success and happiness are compared with his misery. Nature is insufficient and must be built upon by civilization. 

When Prospero arrived on the island, he found it in a state of barbarity; Ariel was imprisoned and the amoral beast Caliban ran free. At the close Ariel is liberated as Caliban returns to the bondage he briefly evaded. The contrast between these two characters spans the play. Both are supernatural, and they are similar in their dislike for being under an obligation to mortals, but otherwise they are antithetical creatures—one airy and beautiful, pleasant, and allied with good; the other dank and ugly, sullen, and inclined to evil. Ariel is a spiritual being, composed of air, uninhibited by normal physical restraints, while Caliban is utterly material, confined to the earth, without the power to resist even the 'urchin-shows' (2.2.5) of Ariel's minor underlings. Explicitly non-human, Ariel and Caliban are essentially allegorical representing human possibilities. Ariel embodies our potential spirituality, Caliban our propensity to waste that potential in materialism or sensual pleasure. 

Ariel is Prospero's analogue and like him is rather isolated; except as a seeming hallucination, he has no contact with anyone but his master. Caliban, however, is pointedly compared to many other characters. He is the baseline from which all else is measured. As we have seen, his conspiracy parallels Antonio's. His inability to learn more than curses contrasts with Miranda's high moral sensibility, even though they were educated together. His response to Miranda's beauty contrasts with Ferdinand's. Caliban resists carrying wood in 1.2, while Ferdinand rejoices in his simlar labour in 3.1. When Miranda judges her admirers, she finds Caliban 'a thing most brutish' (1.2.358) and Ferdinand 'a thing divine' (4.1.421). 

As already suggested, the ultimate comparison is between Caliban and Prospero. The black magic of Caliban's mother Sycorax contrasts with Prospero's employment of sorcery for a good end, after which it is abjured. Caliban wishes only for 'a new master' (2.2. 185) and even encourages murder to get one; Prospero pits his 'nobler reason 'gainst [his] fury', seeking 'the rarer action [that] is / In virtue' (5.1.26, 27-28). The ineducable monster can only approach the least of humanity's capacities, while the learned magician aspires to high moral accomplishment. 

Caliban represents the 'natural man' that enthralled Europeans as the New World was opened up and its natives became known. He is pointedly associated with the New World through allusions to the Patagonian god Setebos, the island of Bermuda, and such familiar anecdotes of exploration as the reception of explorers as gods and their offering liquor to the natives. With these associations, Shakespeare raised an issue that concerned thinking people throughout Europe: the relative merits of nature and civilization. Many of Shakespeare's contemporaries viewed 'natural man' as a healthy counter to the ills of civilization—an attitude that has survived to the present day—but the playwright disagreed. One of the chief spokesmen for the admiring view of natural man was Michel de Montaigne, and Shakespeare gave his position a place in The Tempest—a passage from Montaigne's essay 'Of Cannibals' is echoed in Gonzalo's remarks on an ideal commonwealth in 2.1.143-164, but only as a foil to the play's point of view. The ineffectual Gonzalo envisions 'all men idle [and] women ... innocent and pure' (2.1.150-151), but Caliban, whose name is a pointed anagram of' cannibal', has in his idleness attempted to rape Miranda and thus represents a standing refutation of Montaigne's thesis. Caliban cannot, like Ferdinand, make the commitment of a 'patient log-man' (3.1.67), and his undisciplined lust is naturally rejected by Miranda. Similarly, Prospero's learning, the key to his power, is rejected by Caliban, and the monster is accordingly powerless. His slavery is a function of his defects as well as of Prospero's magic. 

That Caliban and Ariel are non-human is part of the play's masque like spectacle, but their supernatural quality also serves another function. The role of providence in human affairs, an important idea throughout Shakespeare's romances, is particularly emphasized by the prevalence of magic in The Tempest. Moreover, the references to the New World, along with the unspecific location of Prospero's island, add a sense of exotic climes in which the supernatural is to be expected. The eeriness of the play's world—'as strange a maze as e'er men trod' (5.1.242)—virtually requires divine intervention. Action by a specific divinity (provided in the other romances) is lacking here, but it is alluded to in the betrothal masque with its goddesses.  They are merely portrayed—although by supernatural creatures—but their capacity to bless is evoked in striking fashion. When all has been resolved, it is natural for 'Holy Gonzalo' (5.1.62) to attribute the outcome to the gods in 5.1.201-204, and for Alonso to cry, 'I say. Amen' (5.1.204). 

Prospero's magic leaves both characters and audience unclear about what is real and what is not, and the boundaries of reality constitute another important theme of the play. Mistaken beliefs abound: Ferdinand and Miranda each mistake the other for a supernatural being, and Caliban takes Trinculo and Stephano for gods. Alonso and Ferdinand each believe the other dead. Stephano thinks Caliban and Trinculo a two headed, four-legged creature. (These three buffoons befuddle their senses with liquor and are then led astray by Ariel, so their capacity to recognize reality is doubly damaged. In a remarkable passage that encompasses both sorts of unreality, Ariel relates his supernatural effects on the trio in a delightfully naturalistic description of drunkenness.) Most strikingly, the audience shares the difficulties of Prospero's subjects. We see Ariel when the characters do not, but other illusions are designed to take us in, too. At the outset we are fooled by the supernatural storm and shipwreck. The sudden appearance of the banquet in 3.3 is obviously supernatural, but like Alonso and his party, we believe it is for eating until Ariel's Harpy makes it disappear. The king and his party, surprised to have survived the shipwreck, remain baffled throughout, until Prospero finally permits them to shed the 'subtilties o' the isle, that will not let you / Believe things certain' (5.1.124-125). 

Prospero's 'subtilties' are manifested in several miniature plays, each itself a pretence of reality, reflecting Shakespeare's interest in this aspect of theatre. Prospero stages the banquet of 3.3, the masque of goddesses in 4.1,®and the tableau of Ferdinand and Miranda in 5.1. After the masque he points out to his audiences—both on stage and in the theatre—that a masque is an illusion. He then adds, in one of Shakespeare's most famous passages, that reality is too; we ourselves, we are told, 'are such stuff/As dreams are made on' (4.1.156-157). The number of levels of reality exposed here is startling to contemplate: the goddesses we have just been delighting in are supernatural, but they are merely portrayed by actors presenting a masque. However, those actors are themselves supernatural, Ariel's cohorts. Yet in reminding Ferdinand of this, Prospero reminds us that these sprites are themselves actors, in The Tempest. Then Prospero goes on to dissolve that reality as well, along with 'the great globe itself (4.1.153). Although we are not permitted to dwell on this proposition—Prospero immediately dismisses it as merely a 'vex'd . . . weakness' (4.1.158-159)—the point has been made, and the many veils of illusion that have been evoked remain to tantalize us. 

The shifting realities of The Tempest are appropriate, perhaps even necessary, to its presentation of a multiplicity of themes. Comparisons of art and nature, imagination and reality, discipline and laxity, civilization and savagery combine to yield a powerful image of the moral nature of humankind. At the same time the play's extraordinary complexity permits quite differing interpretations of what that nature is. For example, Prospero's total control over the events of the play, combined with Ariel's and Caliban's desire for freedom from his rule, has suggested political readings to many commentators, especially in the 20th century, with its concern for oppression and imperialism. Another modern interpretation, influenced by the advent of psychology, sees the characters as representing various aspects of Prospero's unconscious enacting an internal conflict. A related, less scientific idea is that the play is an allegory of Shakespeare's own life, or at least of his artistic career. A large body of interpretation has been devoted to religious readings: the play has been seen as a work of Christian mysticism or as an explication of ancient pagan mystery cults or of the cabala. Specific interpretations have ranged widely; among other things, The Tempest has been said to be about Neoplatonism, 16th-century French politics, Renaissance science, the creative impulse, and the discovery of America. 

Obviously, not all of these interpretations can be correct—possibly none of them are—but whether psychological or political, religious or secular, all reflect an underlying quality of the play. The Tempest is about the inner nature of human beings revealed in circumstances of crisis and change. The characters are subject to startling personal transformations: Miranda, Alonso, and Gonzalo are magically put to sleep and awakened; for much of the play, Alonso is stricken by a grief that is based on an illusion; Ferdinand, faced with Miranda, finds that his 'spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up' (1.2.489), and he forgets his own false mourning. All of the island's visitors are subjected to a purging experience of some sort: Ferdinand is put to log-carrying, Stephano and Trinculo find themselves in a 'pickle' (5.1.282), the king and his followers are rendered 'distracted' (5.1.12). Prospero's 'insubstantial pageant' (4.1.155) is a fitting metaphor for the play's fluid, transitory world. Not for nothing does Gonzalo rejoice at the end that 'all of us [found] ourselves / When no man was his own' (5.1.212-213). 

Even Prospero, the agent of transformation in others, is not immune to change, although his occurs largely before the time of the play. His decision that 'the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance' (5.1. 27-28) implies a temptation to avenge himself from which he has refrained. We recognize that he has undergone a series of changes: from a student of magic, he became a seeker of revenge through it, and finally he has found his way to a transcendence of it. At the end he abandons his godlike status on the island and, embracing his own humanity, returns to Milan and his proper position as duke. Like the others, he is subject to alteration in the depths of his being. These processes of transfiguration enact human possibilities; while The Tempest points out the clay of which we're made, it also insists on our divine' potential. 

Strikingly, however, one character, Antonio, is not transfigured. Shakespeare never accepted a single, simple point of view on life's complexities, and The Tempest does not provide a clear and unambiguous conclusion. Prospero does not entirely succeed in effecting his reconciliation, for Antonio remains silent (except for one snide witticism). The defeat of evil is not complete; perhaps Prospero's dry response to Miranda's '0 brave new world' (5.1.183)—' 'Tis new to thee' (5.1.184)—reflects his awareness of this. And while Prospero brings happiness to others, he himself remains melancholy. As in the other late plays, Shakespeare in The Tempest acknowledges that an evil once committed can never be entirely compensated for; there are Antonio’s who will refuse virtue, and Prospero’s who cannot forget injustice. 

Nevertheless, The Tempest has the traditional happy ending of comedy. Prospero is reconciled with his old enemies—he forgives Antonio despite his intransigence—and reassurance is thus offered that redemption is possible in a sinful world. The marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda is especially significant in light of this reconciliation: the daughter of the victim of an injustice marries the son of its perpetrator. The auspiciousness of the marriage is strengthened by the declaration that the couple will inherit the crown of Naples. The focus on the future suggests the rebirth of the world.

 

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