The Tempest was probably written in the later part of 1610 or 1611; it was acted before King James on Nov. 1, 1611.
The plot of the play appears to be wholly Shakespeare's invention; he used no direct historical sources, as he usually did. He was influenced by several resources, however, most notably Montaigne's essay "Of Cannibals" (1580; translated into English in 1603) and William Strachey's account of a voyage from England to Jamestown, Virginia. (There is a summary of the contents of Strachey's writings and a good article by Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix analyzing the interpretation of The Tempest as a colonial narrative at The Illinois Shakespeare Festival's site.)
In May 1609, nine ships carrying 500 colonists set sail from England to reinforce the settlers at the colony of Jamestown in the New World, in what is now Virginia. In a storm, the ships were driven to the Bermudas, where a number of the travellers were stranded for nearly a year. William Strachey wrote an account of the voyage, the storm, and the sojourn in Bermuda. Shakespeare almost certainly read that account and used information in it when he wrote The Tempest. Shakespeare also read widely in the travel and exploration literature of the time, and knew a number of the people involved in financial ventures in Virginia.
Park Honan asserts that Shakespeare almost certainly knew of the controversy surrounding the ownership of Virginia. Some argued that the natives settled in Virgina owned the land, and that European settlers had no right to take it from them. Official government policy disagreed, and in April 1609, two sermons were printed to show that the "colonists had truly brought civilization and faith to America's savages. (One sermon, with agile logic, proves degenerate stage actors are the real enemies of Virginia.)" The Tempest gives both sides of the controversy. Shakespeare makes Caliban's claim to the island plausible, but also shows him as depraved; and the "colonists" have among them good men along with drunkards and murderers.
But while there is certainly a "colonial" element to the play, this is not its only theme. Frank Kermode shows that The Tempest addresses all of the usual themes found in Shakesperian comedies: guilt and repentance; the finding of the lost; forgiveness; the renewal of the world; and the benevolence of unseen powers.
In addition, several other themes play a large part in the play. Stanley Wells argues that the actions of the characters in the play have symbolic value, and that many of their actions are related to the idea of control. To name a few examples,
- The voyaging noblemen are powerless against the storm, i.e., the force of nature (or so it seems to them), although they are unwilling to accept this lack of control.
- Prospero has control over nature, over Ariel, over Caliban, Stephano, Trinculo--indeed, he controls the movements of the people and creatures on the island like a puppeteer.
- Prospero demands sexual self-control from Ferdinand and Miranda.
- Prospero renounces his magic--his control--at the end of the play.
The end of the play, in which all are liberated, may seem ironic, says Wells, given the theme of control. But the liberty is earned: Ariel is set free after performing the service required of him, Alonso repents and is "rehabilitated," and even Prospero is freed from the responsibility of controlling everyone. Harold Bloom doesn't, in any case, believe Prospero's renunciation of his magic: "We are listening...to an uncanny magician whose art has become so internalized that it cannot be abandoned, even though he insists it will be."
Wells goes on to connect the theme of control with the use of imagination: "More than any other of Shakespeare's plays, except perhaps A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest concerns itself with those human achievements that result from control of the imagination, producing works of art which have at their strongest a power of transfiguration, a fresh revelation of the wonder of creation--'O brave new world!'--but which depend for their power entirely upon the sympathetic imagination."
The power of imagination is emphasized by its relationship to memory. Most of the events which have led to this moment--Antonio's and Alonso's betrayal of Prospero, the sea voyages, the raising of Caliban and Miranda on the island, Ariel's story--happened in the past, and have to be recounted for us. We see only the resolution of those events, concluded in the span of a day. In this play, says Wells, "...instead of being moved from a present which in the later acts of the play becomes the past, we are throughout made conscious of the past in the present."
Frank Kermode makes a related point about the function of time in the play: "...Time is the unfolder of error and the servant of eternity, as chance is the servant of providence."
Placing most of the events in memory highlights a theme to which Shakespeare returns again and again: illusion vs. reality. In this play, especially, Shakespeare is performing a balancing act of opposites, and he uses the spectacle and the illusions to heighten the tensions between them.
Stanley Wells notes that the play begins on a very realistic note, for example: the ship is beset by the storm, and eventually founders. We see the frantic actions of the men to save the ship, the fear of the passengers, we hear the shouts and screams and roaring of the tempest. But in the next scene, we discover that it was all rigged by Prospero.
The remainder of the play balances the real and the illusory. The romance of Ferdinand and Miranda is balanced by the "anti-romance" of Prospero. The unrealistic idealism of Gonzalo is countered by the cynicism of Antonio and Sebastian.
The romance element of the play, as a whole, is countered by the moral seriousness of the play. Wells asserts, "It is a romance that contains an inbuilt criticism of romance: not a rejection of it, but an appreciation both of its glories and of its limitations." There is a balancing of desire against virtue, lust against love, and discipline against passion--in all things, not just for the lovers. Prospero has his enemies in the palm of his hand, but chooses to forgive rather than exact revenge, choosing to see patience and forgiveness as a greater virtue than vengeance.
Harold Bloom says that the realism of the opening storm, followed by Prospero's assurance to Miranda that no one has been harmed, deliberately bewilders the audience, so that we, like the characters, are no longer sure of reality. It encourages us "both to marvel and to be skeptical." We, too, are balancing opposites now.
The greatest balancing act in the play, though, is performed by Prospero. Wells argues that Prospero is partly dependent on fortune, and partly master of it. He is human, but has superhuman powers. "He is both god and man, a worker of miracles who finally accepts the full burden of humanity."
Prospero is the "controlling agent" of the play. Frequently and deliberately he tries to create a sense of mystery, awe, and wonder in the other characters (and in the audience), using magic and music, Ariel's tricks and spells.
Miranda, Wells continues, is his ideal audience: open-minded, willing to be impressed, with a capacity for wonder. She is eager to believe the best of all she meets. In the last scene, she looks up from the chess game and sees the assembled group:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in it! (V.1.215-18)
Miranda's innocence has pathos in it--we know these people are not as beautiful as they appear to her, and Prospero's line--"Tis new to thee"--reinforces our awareness of the irony. In this scene, Shakespeare shows the coexistence of Miranda's attitude and Prospero's: "Miranda's naive innocence and Prosper's mature wisdom are both part of the truth; to counterpoint one against the other is to create a harmony that more than doubles the effect of each alone."
Both Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode address the role of Caliban in the play, seeing him as a tool Shakespeare used to establish even more contrasts. Caliban, says Bloom, is a blend of the childish and the childlike. He has childish, gruesome fantasies of battering Prospero's skull, cutting his windpipe with a knife; yet moments later, he gives an immensely moving speech which reveals his yearning to belong and his sense of loss at his failed adoption and outcast condition.
Frank Kermode argues that Caliban is "...basically the homo salvaticus, the savage man, of tradition...Such a being, man without grace or civilization, makes an interesting measure for art and cultivation, and he is the measure Miranda uses." Shakespeare conscientiously elaborates the parallels betwen Miranda and Caliban to heighten the contrast between them. Both were raised from infancy by Prospero, both were treated as his children, both were given an education. But Miranda is good, and benefits from all of this, while he is "the born devil on whose nature / Nurture can never stick." Shakespeare also deliberately creates a contrast between Caliban, who tries to rape Miranda, and Ferdinand, who swears he will not let his lust overcome his honor.
Reuben Brower also analyzes the balancing of opposites in the play: he notes that in The Tempest we see the Shakespeare's familiar balancing of comic and serious, but in this play, he says, Shakespeare goes further than usual, creating a complex counterpoint of analogies which is unified by a single metaphor. (I can't reproduce Brower's entire analysis here, but it's brilliant; if you get a chance, you should get his book, Fields of Light, and take a look at it.) "Delicate," for example, is used to refer to Ariel and the weather and the air, while its antithesis, "earthy" refers to Caliban. Sleep and waking, for example, are antitheses, and dreaming accompanies both: "Confusion between waking and sleep is the rule; being awake is never far from sleep or dream"--at least, until the end, when all of the characters are awakened. The play moves from storm to calm, through punishments and trial to reconciliation and restoration.
The overriding metaphor which unifies all the rest, Brower says, is change: everything changes or is transformed. Ariel sings of bones becoming coral, eyes becoming pearls; Ariel, who changes constantly, is contrasted with Caliban, who cannot change. Words like "dissolve," "fade," and "insubtantial" are common.
A.C. Bradley also notes this aspect of The Tempest: "In later days, in the drama that was probably Shakespeare's last complete work, this notion of the transitoriness of things appears, side by side with the simpler feeling that man's life is an illusion or dream..."
Bradley feels that The Tempest, more than his other plays, reflects Shakespeare's voice. Like Prospero, Shakespeare doesn't believe the evil in Caliban or the others is curable, but he has learned patience and regards anger as a weakness.
Northrop Frye goes further, identifying Prospero with Shakespeare, "a harassed overworked actor-manager, scolding the lazy actors, praising the good ones in connoisseur's language, thinking up jobs for the idle, constantly aware of his limited time before his show goes on, his nerves tense and alert for breakdowns while it is going on, looking forward longingly to peaceful retirement, yet in the meantime having to go out and beg the audience for applause."
Kermode, too, believes Shakespeare is speaking through The Tempest, but to make a different point: "[The Tempest] deals in illusions--not in theatrical illusions of reality, but in the reality of theatrical illusions."
If you'd like more information on any of the topics in this lecture, click the button:
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, by Stanley Wells
2. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
3. Shakespeare: A Life, by Park Honan
4. Shakespearean Tragedy, by A.C. Bradley
5. Shakespeare: The Final Plays, by Frank Kermode
6. Fields of Light, by Reuben Brower
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