Tempest Themes #

Concerns, Issues, Values, Themes #

Betrayal: #

Perhaps the most recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays is that of a betrayal of trust. It is present in all his tragedies and most of his comedies. Here Prospero is marooned on an island after having his throne usurped in Milan and Alonso is threatened by an abortive coup by Stephano, Trincolo and Caliban.

In contrast to other plays, here we have Prospero offer forgiveness and instead of a tragedy we end up with a comedy where everyone lives happily ever after. We could see this play as an antidote to Hamlet or Macbeth.

John Bell writes:

One of Shakespeare’s most vengeful men is Prospero in what was probably Shakespeare’s swansong, The Tempest.

Through his magic powers Prospero is able to act out his fantasy of wrecking all his enemies on a desert island and taking revenge on them. He is about to do so when his hand is stayed by his better spirit, Ariel, who says to him:

‘Your charm so strongly works them
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.’

(Shocked, Prospero responds:)

“Dost thou think so, spirit?’

Ariel says:

‘Mine would, sir, were I human.’

And Prospero replies:

‘And mine shall.
Hast thou which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind…be kindlier moved than thou art?

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part: The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance…Go release them, Ariel.’

If great art is to some extent autobiographical, it is easy to read into Prospero elements of the self-portrait of an ageing artist, letting go of ambition, rage and resentment and finding peace in himself through forgiveness.

Prospero is an odd role to perform: you spend most of the first Act in exposition, telling the other characters their back-stories which they mostly already know. Then you stand back and watch the action for three Acts until you come on in the final scene and wrap it all up.

I’ve played Prospero three times, and I’ve always felt playing that last scene immensely satisfying: the act of forgiveness is a very cleansing one, even by proxy; and I always came off stage feeling elated and somehow serene and good about myself. John Bell, ABC Boyer Lectures

As in The Merchant of Venice Justice becomes tempered, through understanding, by rehabilitative mercy.

Good Governance: #

Later Gonzalo gives us his views on what a good leader should be like:


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; all men idle, all,
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty—

Has Shakespeare become an anarchic socialist?

Colonising the New World #

The Tempest is likely inspired by an English fleet wrecked off the coast of Bermuda in 1609 where the survivors were stranded for 10 months before building a new ship and sailing for Virginia. Ariel’s reference to “still vexed Bermooths” supports this supposition.

The New World as a possible new model of society was prevalent in Europe as evidenced by the writings of Montaigne and Rousseau both inspired by the ideals of the “noble savage” and the promise of an “Utopian Golden Age”.

Prospero’s microcosmic world is a chance to create a new utopia but it soon becomes evident that the transposition of the old hierarchical structures have generated resistance from both Ariel and Caliban (cannibal?). The boatswain’s imperious orders to the king demonstrate that Europe’s artificial hierarchy has now sway here:

  • “When the sea is. Hence! What care these roarers for the name of the king?” *

Gonzalo’s socialist ideology comes across in:

Had I plantation of this isle, riches, poverty/And use of servants, none.”

The idea of freedom is conveyed by both Ariel and Caliban who occupy the status of indentured servant and slave respectively. Both resent their positions but Ariel serves faithfully on the promise of gaining her freedom

The chance of a new utopia is dashed by Miranda’s innocent claim:

O brave new world that has such people in’t”.

That these people are would be murders and thieves and have usurped her father from his rightful position as the Duke of Milan totally escapes her and indicates that “old world corruption” infects the “new” destroying any possibility of renewal.

John Bell again:

Prospero’s island is also hard to pin down and it’s silly to try and give it a geographical location, it’s so many things to different people, depending on their dispositions. Caliban is its king, and is ravished by its beauty, it’s an island paradise. To Stefano and Trinculo it’s a den of devils and monsters. Old Gonzalo means to make the best of it and counts its blessings, but to the sour Sebastian and Antonio ’the air has breath like rotten lungs, or as if perfumed by a fen’. The island is very much what you bring to it: another landscape of the mind.

In a wider sense the island is Prospero himself and it’s only when he has forgiven his enemies that he can leave the island and re-join the mainstream of humanity. Then the island will dissolve and leave not a rack behind. It sounds as if John Donne saw The Tempest:

‘No man is an island, entire of itself; everyman is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me Because I am involved in mankind.’

Frank Kermode #

Frank Kermode is clearly anxious that the plays be seen as plays and not as historical documents, that they be read and viewed for dramatic and poetic experience and enjoyment and not for a demonstration of social and political change. He does not, indeed, ignore historical considerations, but uses them incidentally to elucidate the literary significance.

In only one instance, I believe, does he mistakenly neglect the historical background. It is true, as Kermode maintains, that the importance of Jacobean colonialist policy for The Tempest has been exaggerated and that is not what the play is about for most of its action; rather it is a Renaissance Italian type of tale of revenge and forgiveness. Nevertheless, at one crucial point, the idea of Jacobean colonialism adds extraordinary significance. Of the indigenous inhabitants of the island taken over by Prospero.

Caliban is a slave and a subhuman brute. Taught to speak by Prospero, he glories only in the ability to curse, and has mainly one interest in life—to rape Prospero’s daughter Miranda. However, this almost wholly unadmirable being is given a speech of startling poetic character, which Kermode quotes:

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.

Kermode comments beautifully:

He has learned language for other reasons than to curse. The pleasing sounds happen often enough, and some are especially remembered; hence the switches of tense:

*[give, will hum, had wak’d, would open, cried*]….

Sleeping, dreaming, waking, sleeping: the rhythm is of a child’s rhyme, and the “riches” are of another world, a richer world than Prospero’s.

However, he misses the ethical dimension that requires us to reflect on the habitual or traditional contempt for the indigenous population of a colony. Shakespeare does not idealize Caliban but for one moment he gives him a fully human aspiration.

This parallels his treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, which is relentlessly anti-Semitic except for the one famous passage where Shylock protests his humanity. Both scenes instruct us on the nature of Shakespeare’s sympathy.

This speech of Caliban’s, moreover, is a magnificent witness to one of Kermode’s most important points.

The later Shakespearean technique has forgone the traditional routine academic rhetoric for a new and supple style that follows the movement of a mind. Caliban is striving little by little to recall the music he has heard and his experiences of the different sounds, hence the switches from future to present to past tense, to which Kermode calls attention, but it all wonderfully hangs together as a single sentence, in which one line subtly spills over into the next—it is not merely the memories that enchant us, but the continuous movement from one to another, the dazzling vision and the sudden drop into the wakened reality. In the main, Kermode is right: it is the art and not the political background with which we must end to get the full measure of what Shakespeare could accomplish.

No book elucidates Shakespeare’s art so convincingly as Shakespeare’s Language.

Imagination: magic and reality #

In The Tempest Shakespeare explores a world of magic, sleep, dreams and imagination whereby perceptions are altered —

“those are pearls that were his eyes”

— and characters are led to believe in a ‘reality’ which does not exist. This, in some ways, mirrors the very nature of theatrical drama. The audience is asked to suspend its belief in the real world and accept a “make believe” world for the duration of the action.

This play draws our attention to this sense of illusion on one level, while asking to believe in it at another. We know, with Prospero, that all is not as the survivors of the shipwreck believe it to be. We, with Prospero, can see Ariel when nobody else can, and we are aware of the tricks that are played on the various characters on the island. Most of the characters are deceived by appearances in the course of the action, but all them ultimately discover the truth, even if this is sometimes a painful process.

Ferdinand is enamoured by Miranda and at first believes her to be a goddess. Freed by his remove from the world of the court he is able to express his feelings of strong love. Human reason is often at the mercy of our emotional or imaginative forces.

Miranda’s innocent perception, “O brave new world that has such people in’t” is illusionary as these people are would be murders and thieves and have usurped her father from his rightful position as the Duke of Milan, a fact that totally escapes her.