Shakespeare creates in The Tempest a world of the imagination, a place of conflict and ultimately of magical rejuvenation, like the forests of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It. The journey to Shakespeare’s island is to a realm of art where everything is controlled by the artist figure. Yet the journey is no escape from reality, for the island shows people what they are, as well as what they ought to be. Even its location juxtaposes the “real” world with an idealized landscape: like Plato’s New Atlantis or Thomas More’s Utopia, Shakespeare’s island is to be found both somewhere and nowhere. On the narrative level, it is located in the Mediterranean Sea. Yet there are overtones of the New World, the Western Hemisphere, where Thomas More had situated his island of Utopia. Ariel fetches dew at Prospero’s command from the “Bermudas” (1.2.230). Caliban when prostrate reminds Trinculo of a “dead Indian” (2.2.33) who might be displayed before gullible crowds eager to see such a prodigious creature from across the seas, and Caliban’s god, Setebos, was, according to Richard Eden’s account of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe (in History of Travel, 1577), worshiped by South American natives. An inspiration for Shakespeare’s story (for which no direct literary source is known) may well have been various accounts of the shipwreck in the Bermudas in 1609 of the Sea Venture, which was carrying settlers to the new Virginian colony. Shakespeare borrowed details from Sylvester Jourdain’s A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle of Devils, published in 1610, and from William Strachey’s A True Reportory of the Wreck and Redemption . . . from the Islands of the Bermudas, which Shakespeare must have seen in manuscript since it was not published until after his death. He wrote the play shortly after reading these works, for The Tempest was acted at court in 1611. He may also have known or heard of various accounts of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world in 1519–1522 (including Richard Eden’s shortened English version, as part of his History of Travel, of an Italian narrative by Antonio Pigafetta), Francis Fletcher’s journal of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation in 1577–1580, Richard Rich’s News from Virginia (1610), and still other potential sources of information. Shakespeare’s fascination with the Western Hemisphere gave him, not the actual location of his story, which remains Mediterranean, but a state of mind associated with newness and the unfamiliar. From this strange and unknown place, we gain a radical perspective on the old world of European culture. Miranda sees on the island a “new world” in which humankind appears “brave” (5.1.185), and, although her wonder must be tempered by Prospero’s rejoinder that “ ’Tis new to thee” (line 186) and by Aldous Huxley’s still more ironic use of her phrase in the title of his satirical novel Brave New World, the island endures as a restorative vision. Even though we experience it fleetingly, as in a dream, this nonexistent realm assumes a permanence enjoyed by all great works of art.
Prospero rules autocratically as artist-king and patriarch over this imaginary world, conjuring up trials and visions to test people’s intentions and awaken their consciences. To the island come an assortment of persons who, because they require varied ordeals, are separated by Prospero and Ariel into three groups: King Alonso and those accompanying him; Alonso’s son, Ferdinand; and Stephano and Trinculo. Prospero’s authority over them, though strong, has limits. As Duke of Milan, he was bookishly inattentive to political matters and thus vulnerable to the Machiavellian conniving of his younger brother, Antonio. Only in this world apart, the artist’s world, do his powers derived from learning find their proper sphere. Because he cannot control the world beyond his isle, he must wait for “strange, bountiful Fortune, / Now my dear lady” (1.2.179–80) to bring his enemies near his shore. He eschews, moreover, the black arts of diabolism. His is a white magic, devoted ultimately to what he considers moral ends: rescuing Ariel from the spell of the witch Sycorax, curbing the appetite of Caliban, spying on Antonio and Sebastian in the role of Conscience. He thus comes to see Fortune’s gift of delivering his enemies into his hands as an opportunity for him to forgive and restore them, not be revenged.
Such an assumption of godlike power is close to arrogance, even blasphemy, for Prospero is no god. His chief power, learned from books and exercised through Ariel, is to control the elements so as to create illusion—of separation, of death, of the gods’ blessing. Yet, since he is human, even this power is an immense burden and temptation. Prospero has much to learn, like those whom he controls. He must subdue his anger, his self-pity, his readiness to blame others, his domineering over Miranda. He must overcome the vengeful impulse he experiences toward those who have wronged him, and he must conquer the longing many a father feels to hold on to his daughter when she is desired by another man. He struggles with these problems through his art, devising games and shows in which his angry self-pity and jealousy are transmuted into playacting scenes of divine warning and forgiveness toward his enemies and watchful parental austerity toward Miranda and Ferdinand. Prospero’s responsibilities cause him to behave magisterially and to be resented by the spirits of the isle. His authority is problematic to us because he seems so patriarchal, colonialist, even sexist and racist in his arrogating to himself the right and responsibility to control others in the name of values they may not share. Ariel longs to be free of this authority. Perhaps our sympathy for Prospero is greatest when we perceive that he, too, with mixed feelings of genuine relief and melancholy, is ready to lay aside his demanding and self-important role as creative moral intelligence.
Alonso and his court party variously illustrate the unre- generate world left behind in Naples and Milan. We first see them on shipboard, panicky and desperate, their titles and fi- nery mocked by roaring waves. Futile ambition seems destined for a watery demise. Yet death by water in this play is a trans- figuration rather than an end, a mystical rebirth, as in the re- generative cycle of the seasons from winter to summer. Ariel suggests as much in his song about a drowned father: “Those are pearls that were his eyes. / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange” (1.2.402–5). Still, this miracle is not apparent at first to those who are caught in the illusion of death. As in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which repeatedly alludes to The Tempest, self-blinded human beings fear a disaster that is ironically the prelude to reawakening.
The illusions created on the island serve to test these imperfect men and to make them reveal their true selves. Only Gonzalo, who long ago aided Prospero and Miranda when they were banished from Milan, responds affirmatively to illusion. In his eyes, their having been saved from drowning is a miracle: they breathe fresh air, the grass is green on the island, and their very garments appear not to have been stained by the salt water. His ideal commonwealth (2.1.150–71), which Shakespeare drew in part from an essay by Montaigne, postulates a natural goodness in humanity and makes no allowance for the darker propensities of human behavior, but at least Gonzalo’s cheerfulness is in refreshing contrast to the jaded sneers of some of his companions. Sebastian and Antonio react to the magic isle, as to Gonzalo’s commonwealth, by cynically refusing to believe in miracles. They scoff at Gonzalo for insistently looking on the bright side; if he were to examine his supposedly unstained clothes more carefully, they jest, he would discover that his pockets are filled with mud. Confident that they are unobserved, they seize the opportunity afforded by Alonso’s being asleep to plot a murder and political coup. This attempt is not only despicable but also madly ludicrous, for they are all shipwrecked and no longer have kingdoms over which to quarrel. Even more ironically, Sebastian and Antonio, despite their insolent belief in their self-sufficiency, are being observed. The villains must be taught that an unseen power keeps track of their misdeeds. However presumptuous Prospero may be to assume through Ariel’s means the role of godlike observer, he does awaken conscience and prevent murder. The villains may revert to type when returned to their usual habitat, but even they are at least briefly moved to an awareness of the unseen (3.3.21–7). Alonso, more worthy than they, though burdened, too, with sin, responds to his situation with guilt and despair, for he assumes that his son Ferdinand’s death is the just punishment of the gods for Alonso’s part in the earlier overthrow of Prospero. Alonso must be led, by means of curative illusions, through the purgative experience of contrition to the reward he thinks impossible and undeserved: reunion with his lost son.
Alonso is thus, like Posthumus in Cymbeline or Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, a tragicomic figure—sinful, contrite, forgiven. Alonso’s son Ferdinand must also undergo ordeals and visions devised by Prospero to test his worth, but more on the level of romantic comedy. Ferdinand is young, innocent, and hopeful, well matched to Miranda. From the start, Prospero obviously approves of his prospective son-in-law. Yet even Prospero, needing to prepare himself for a life in which Miranda will no longer be solely his, is not ready to lay aside at least the comic fiction of parental opposition. He invents difficulties, imposes tasks of logbearing (like those assigned Caliban), and issues stern warnings against premarital lust. In the comic mode, parents are expected to cross their children in matters of the heart. Prospero is so convincing in his role of overbearing parent, insisting on absolute unthinking obedience from his daughter, that we remain unsure whether he is truly like that or whether we are meant to sense in his performance a grappling with his own deepest feelings of possessiveness and autocratic authority, tempered finally by his awareness of the arbitrariness of such a role and his readiness to let Miranda decide for herself. As a teacher of youth, moreover, Prospero is convinced by long experience that prizes too easily won are too lightly esteemed. Manifold are the temptations urging Ferdinand to surrender to the natural rhythms of the isle as Caliban would. In place of ceremonies conducted in civilized societies by the church, Prospero must create the illusion of cere- mony by his art. The betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda accordingly unites the best of both worlds: the natural innocence of the island, which teaches them to avoid the corruptions of civilization at its worst, and the higher law of nature achieved through moral wisdom at its best. To this marriage, the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno bring promises of bounteous harvest, “refreshing showers,” celestial harmony, and a springtime brought back to the earth by Proserpina’s return from Hades (4.1.76–117). In Ferdinand and Miranda, “nurture” is wedded to “nature.” This bond unites spirit and flesh, legitimizing erotic pleasure by incorporating it within Prospero’s vision of a cosmic moral order.
At the lowest level of this traditional cosmic and moral framework, in Prospero’s view, are Stephano and Trinculo. Their comic scenes juxtapose them with Caliban, for he represents untutored Nature, whereas they represent the unnatural depths to which human beings brought up in civilized society can fall. In this they resemble Sebastian and Antonio, who have learned in supposedly civilized Italy arts of intrigue and political murder. The antics of Stephano and Trinculo burlesque the conduct of their presumed betters, thereby exposing to ridicule the self-deceptions of ambitious men. The clowns desire to exploit the natural wonders of the isle by taking Caliban back to civilization to be shown in carnivals or by plying him with strong drink and whetting his resentment against authority. These plottings are in vain, however, for, like Sebastian and Antonio, the clowns are being watched. The clowns teach Caliban to cry out for “freedom” (2.2.184), by which they mean license to do as one pleases, but are foiled by Ariel as comic nemesis. Because they are degenerate buffoons, Prospero as satirist devises for them an exposure that is appropriately humiliating and satirical.
In contrast with them, Caliban is in many ways a sympathetic character. His sensitivity to natural beauty, as in his descriptions of the “nimble marmoset” or the dreaming music he so often hears (2.2.168; 3.2.137–45), is entirely appropriate to this child of nature. He is, to be sure, the child of a witch and is called many harsh names by Miranda and Prospero, such as “Abhorrèd slave” and “a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick” (1.2.354; 4.1.188–9). Yet he protests with some justification that the island was his in the first place and that Prospero and Miranda are interlopers. His very existence calls radically into question the value of civilization, which has shown itself capable of limitless depravity. What profit has Caliban derived from learning Prospero’s language other than, as he puts it, to “know how to curse” (1.2.367)? With instinctive cunning, he senses that books are his chief enemy and plots to destroy them first in his attempt at rebellion. The unspoiled natural world does indeed offer civilization a unique perspective on itself. In this it resembles Gonzalo’s ideal commonwealth, which, no matter how laughably implausible from the cynic’s point of view, does at least question some assumptions—economic, political, and social—common in Western societies.
Radical perspectives of this kind invite consideration of many unsettling questions about exploration, colonialist empire building, and sexual imperialism. The fleeting comparison of Caliban to an indigenous native (2.2.33), although ignored in stage productions of the play until the late nineteenth century, suggests a discourse on colonialism in The Tempest that anticipates to a remarkable degree a doleful history of exploitation, of providing rum and guns to the natives, and of taking away land through violent expropriation in the name of bringing civilization and God to the New World. Stephano and Trinculo, pouring wine down Caliban’s throat and thus reducing him to a worshiping slave, show exploitation at its worst, but surely the play allows us to wonder also if Prospero’s enslavement of Caliban, however high-minded in its claims of preventing disorder and rape, is not tainted by the same imperatives of possession and control. The issue is wonderfully complex. Caliban is a projection of both the naturally depraved savage described in many explorers’ accounts and the nobly innocent savage described by Montaigne. By dramatizing the conflict without taking sides, Shakespeare leaves open a debate about the worth of Prospero’s endeavor to contain Caliban’s otherness and produces an ambivalent result in which the apparent victory of colonialism and censorship does not entirely conceal the contradictory struggle through which those values are imposed. The play’s many open-ended questions apply not only to the New World but also, nearer at hand, to Ireland—an island on the margins of Britain that was regarded as both savage and threatening.
The play’s discourse also raises issues of class and political justice. The battle between Prospero and Caliban is one of “master” and “man” (2.2.183); even if Caliban’s cry of “freedom” leads him only into further enslavement by Stephano and Trinculo (who are themselves masterless men), the play does not resolve the conflict by simply reimposing social hierarchy. Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo are all taught a lesson and are satirically punished for their rebellious behavior, but Caliban at least is pardoned and is left behind on the island at the play’s end where presumably he will no longer be a slave. In political terms, Prospero resolves the long-standing hostilities between Milan and Naples by his astute arranging of the betrothal of Miranda to Ferdinand. However much it is idealized as a romantic match presided over harmoniously by the gods, it is also a political union aimed at bringing together the ruling families of those two city-states. Prospero’s masque, his ultimate vision of the triumph of civilization, transforms the myth of the rape of a daughter (Proserpina) in such a way as to preserve the daughter’s chaste honor in a union that will repair the political and social damage done by the ouster of Prospero from his duke- dom of Milan. For these reasons, the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda must have seemed politically relevant to Shakespeare’s audience when The Tempest was performed before King James at Whitehall in November of 1611 and then again at court in 1613 in celebration of the marriage of James’s daughter Elizabeth to Frederick, the Elector Palatine.
The play’s ending is far from perfectly stable. Antonio never repents, and we cannot be sure what the island will be like once Prospero has disappeared from the scene. Since Prospero’s occupation of the island replicates in a sense the process by which he himself was overthrown, we cannot know when the cycle of revo- lution will ever cease. We cannot even be sure of the extent to which Shakespeare is master of his own colonial debate in The Tempest or, conversely, the extent to which today we should feel ourselves free to relativize, ironize, or in other ways criticize this play for apparent or probable prejudices. Not even a great author like Shakespeare can escape the limits of his own time, any more than we can escape the limits of our own. Perhaps we can nonetheless project ourselves, as spectators and readers, into Shakespeare’s attempt to celebrate humanity’s highest achievement in the union of the island with the civilized world. Miranda and Ferdinand have bright hopes for the future, even if those hopes must be qualified by Prospero’s melancholic observation that the “brave new world” with “such people in’t” is only “new to thee,” to those who are young and not yet experienced in the world’s vexations. Even Caliban may be at last reconciled to Prospero’s insistent idea of a harmony between will and reason, no matter how perilously and delicately achieved. Prospero speaks of Caliban as a “thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine,” and Caliban vows to “be wise hereafter / And seek for grace” (5.1.278–9, 298–9). Prospero’s view is that the natural human within is more contented, better understood, and more truly free when harmonized with reason.
Copyright © 1988 by William Shakespeare. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.