William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The TempestThe Tempest by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As late or last works go, The Tempest is halfway between the ancient and the modern, an Oedipus at Colonus in its reconciliation to the world through miracle, a “Circle Animals’ Desertion” in its bittersweet awareness that the all the miracles start in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Shakespeare’s power is in the famous exchange, only the first part of which tends to be quoted:

MIRANDA. O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That hath such people in it!

PROPSERO. ‘Tis new to thee.

As befits a final work, The Tempest echoes with the works that came before. What was a dialogue between Hamlet’s divided selves on the merits of humanity (“What a piece of work is a man! […] And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”) becomes, with greater simplicity and naturalism, the divided opinions of a sheltered young woman, unable to contain her ebullience at new sensations, and an experienced old man, gently intimating that the magic will wear off in time.

We have heard that this is a political play. It begins with a crisis of authority. With the titular tempest, nature pulls rank on kings and counsellors: “What cares these roarers for the name of king?” cries an impertinent boatswain as the ship threatens to run aground in the storm. Yet what seems raw nature—thunder and lightning, wind and wave—is really artifice. Prospero, the usurped and exiled ex-Duke of Milan, has in fact summoned the storm to drive his enemies into his hands: his brother Antonio (the reigning Duke) and Antonio’s co-conspirator Alonso (King of Naples), who are sailing back to Italy from the dynastic wedding in Tunisia of Alonso’s daughter.

For 12 years, Prospero has lived in exile on a humanly uninhabited island with his daughter Miranda, with whom he’d fled Antonio’s coup. Now, over a few hours—Shakespeare for once observes those classical dramatic unities of action, place, and time—Prospero will usurp the usurper and restore himself to his rightful place. Why was the gifted Prospero so vulnerable to such theft of his authority in the first place? As he himself explains to Miranda, he was

for the liberal arts
Without a parallel; those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.


I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retired,
O’er-prized all popular rate, in my false brother
Awaked an evil nature…

He reflects, “my library / Was dukedom large enough.” The play will prove a comedy in the end, but here we have a tragic hero, his faults entangled inextricably in his virtues. Art and life stand opposed, as do spiritual and temporal power. The artist is outcast, the philosopher unable to be king. Lost in his studies, sequestered in his study, the magus forfeits his ability actually to exercise the power over life that is the object of his scholarship. The Tempest, then, is a fable about how these divergent ends may be reconciled: how art and nature, the work and the life, and the magician’s wand and the kingly scepter may be wedded and never again put asunder—except that they can’t; and Shakespeare doesn’t write fables; and art is not magic.

When Prospero arrived on the island he found it peopled, but not with anyone that registered as “people” to him. First was the witch Sycorax, herself exiled to the island, and deceased by the time Prospero arrived. Then there is the air spirit Ariel whom Sycorax, commandeering the island’s spirits, vindictively imprisoned in a tree. (The colonizer has no right to colonize, but the native is not necessarily without injustice either; and, putting “native” into question, she may even have colonized the land herself before the latest interloper came on the scene.) Prospero freed Ariel and indentured the spirit as a kind of vessel and familiar, an ethereal executor of his wishes until such time as he completes his vengeance on his usurpers.

Finally, most unforgettably, there is Caliban, Sycorax’s son, a monstrous creature, apparently half-human and half-fish, his name suggestive of the cannibal. Prospero reared the creature in his own culture but treats him brutally as a slave, justified by the monster’s attempt to rape Miranda to propagate his own kind. Unlike the ethereal Ariel, the earthy Caliban does the island’s dirty work, its manual labor, tortured all the while by Prospero’s magical reign of surveillance and punishment.

The playwright who gave us Falstaff, Shylock, and Macbeth—the poet who can invest our intensest sympathies into villains both low and high—makes Caliban a masterpiece of ambiguity. He confirms Prospero’s charge of attempted rape, but also speaks a language almost of incipient republicanism: “For I am all the subjects that you have, / Which first was mine own king.” Meanwhile, his grim quip about education across cultural difference in conditions of political inequality echoes down through the centuries: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” Later, Caliban joins forces with two clownish, drunken, lowborn members of Alonso’s shipwrecked retinue. Believing themselves to be the ship’s lone survivors, they plot to kill Prospero and rule over the island themselves. One of these clods, upon first seeing Caliban, sottishly muses,

Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lazy out ten to see a dead Indian.

Inspired by the proto-colonial travelogues explorers published for avid audiences in London, Shakespeare here compares Caliban to the soon-to-be-expropriated natives of the New World. If the monster also represents the obverse of the magician’s mental power, the muddy and slimy and lust-ridden irrational body, antitype to the ideally agential Ariel, so much the better, for this Platonic model of the psyche—reason over will over appetite—perfectly matches the world map the British Empire will later draw: planners over soldiers over natives— as much as to say, as far as they were concerned, mind over matter. The magician’s axiom: as above, so below.

When Miranda talks back to her imperious father, Prospero exclaims, “What? I say, / My foot my tutor?” He’s overacting at this point, playing the role he himself scripted as tyrannical father (remember that Shakespeare played King Hamlet’s ghost) as he engineers Miranda’s falling in love with Alonso’s son Ferdinand. By even if it’s scenery chewing, the mage, author of the play in which he stars, has a vision of organic unity and hierarchy, a sense of himself as the head of a body to which all other characters are subordinate members. (Though the curious catachresis invites speculation. Why “foot”? Does she somehow aid him in locomotion? And what about the play’s or body’s other parts? Ariel is his arm, I assume, in the “arm of the law” sense. Caliban the laborer might be his hands, but Caliban the would-be rapist?)

Meanwhile, in another part of the island, Alonso, Antonio, Alonso’s brother Sebastian, and Alonso’s aged counsellor Gonzalo, wander disconsolately, lost, imagining Ferdinand dead. Having already defrauded Prospero of a dukedom, Antonio now conspires with Sebastian to murderously relieve Alonso of his crown. Usurpations upon usurpations. In ironic counterpoint to this treachery, the Polonius-like prattler Gonzalo has evidently read Montaigne and conjures up a vision of the golden age inspired by the island’s apparent tabula rasa:

I’ the 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…


All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

How seriously should we take this? It chimes with the boatswain’s opening cry that the storm had leveled political and social hierarchies, and with Caliban’s claim of an indigenous sovereignty that was also a democratic power over himself. There are counter-claims to “My foot my tutor!” heard throughout the play; the isle is full of demotic noises. But the speaker of this utopia is not altogether serious, and Shakespeare’s ruthless realism, even amid the magic, hints that the world is not this way.

Ruthless realism is all that assures art’s distinction from magic. To use a metaphor distant from early modern London or early modern Bermuda, magic hacks the universe’s program and rewrites its code. Visualize, manifest, charge up your sigil: if you imagine it, you will have it; if you can dream it, you can be it. Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. It’s immensely seductive. I’ve dabbled myself. But ruthless realism—I’m talking about an attitude toward life, not mimesis as a literary mode—says by contrast that there are boundaries, metaphysical or material, to anyone’s will.

The highest art, tragic or comic, seduces not by flattering the will but by making necessity beautiful, even by making us fall in love with it, just as we may pass the time with surgically or digitally perfected faces in media, but in life we only ever fall in love with some charmingly blemished countenance or misshapen figure. Shakespeare always leaves loose ends. Prospero forgives—he congratulates himself for following the dictate of his “nobler reason” in doing so—but does Antonio repent? Caliban, too, is beyond the reach of anything more than compulsion; his concluding penitence is likely the expedient dissimulation of the powerless, and who can blame him? Magic has its limit.

The play persistently analogizes magic to art, with Prospero often speaking at the side of the stage like a director or writer, commenting on the performance and the performers. Through the agency of Ariel, he uses magic to ensorcel and control, blessing Ferdinand and Miranda’s betrothal with a masque of Ceres and Juno, enticing Alonso and company with false fairy food, and, in the most famous and beautiful song in Shakespeare, beguiling Ferdinand to imagine his father transfigured in death, which I take to symbolize the transformative rite that is the drama itself:

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.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.

In the play’s most renowned speech, Prospero openly compares his magical pageantry to stagecraft. Generations have heard Shakespeare’s own resigned farewell to his artistry here:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye 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.

But insofar as the speech acknowledges the artifice of the performance, the limit of this artifice, and the evanescence of life itself, it becomes art rather than the magic on which it comments. Maybe all achieved art, as distinct from entertainment or propaganda, just is commentary on magic. Hence Prospero’s various renunciations. His valediction to magic:

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

The political critic will note not only the abandonment of knowledge as power but also the abdication of phallic authority. He later promises, “Every third thought shall be my grave,” though this is not his only pledge to earth. Of Caliban he likewise says, “this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine,” no longer projecting the nightmare of body and unreason outward onto others, elsewhere on the map, but understanding it at last to be in his own heart of darkness. In the epilogue, he pleads to the audience, “But release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands,” as if art were a solipsistic prison without a reciprocation from the audience.

Speaking of reciprocation, everybody knows Shakespeare criticism is an industry, but The Tempest must exceed all the other plays in having incited responses not only from critics but from other major creative writers. 20th-century novels, for example, like Aldous Huxley’s dystopic satire Brave New World or Toni Morrison’s neglected racial fable Tar Baby, both of them Tempest-inspired.

Among playwrights, Dryden wrote a Restoration-era version that held the stage until the Romantic era, but few people read or watch it today, and I haven’t either. In the 1960s, Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire likewise adapted the play for his time with A Tempest for the age of postcolonialism. It has understandably become a classroom classic, though I fear it takes what was subtext in the original and renders it almost into agitprop, with the collaborationist Ariel explicitly labeled a “mulatto” and likened to “Uncle Tom,” while Caliban is a black revolutionary hoping to lead a guerrilla struggle. I respect Césaire’s legitimate anti-colonial point, but Caliban’s plaint to the tyrannical Prospero sounds more like literary theory than literature:

And you lied to me so much,
about the world, about myself,
that you ended up by imposing on me
an image of myself:
underdeveloped, in your word, undercompetent
that’s how you made me see myself!

If Césaire’s revolutionary play is very much of the 1960s, Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “Caliban upon Setebos; or, Natural Theology in the Island” is equally of the 1860s. Shakespeare’s monster muses on his mother Sycorax’s amoral nature deity, Setebos red in tooth and claw, while the Victorian poet frets behind him over the post-Darwinian implications:

‘Believeth with the life, the pain shall stop.
His dam held different, that after death
He both plagued enemies and feasted friends:
Idly! He doth His worst in this our life,
Giving just respite lest we die through pain,
Saving last pain for worst,—with which, an end.
Meanwhile, the best way to escape His ire
Is, not to seem too happy.

Browning and Césaire seem captive to their own epochs’ preoccupations, which lead them to boil The Tempest down to only some of its many elements. In his dense, ambiguous long poem The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” W. H. Auden has better luck. It opens with a bittersweet farewell speech from Prospero to Ariel:

Now, Ariel, I am that I am, your late and lonely master,
Who knows now what magic is:—the power to enchant
That comes from disillusion. What the books can teach one
Is that most desires end up in stinking ponds,
But we have only to learn to sit still and give no orders,
To make you offer us your echo and your mirror;
We have only to believe you, then you dare not lie;
To ask for nothing, and at once from your calm eyes,
With their lucid proof of apprehension and disorder,
All we are not stares back at what we are.

In other words, only when we give up the disillusioned desire for mastery over the world, will we be vouchsafed a genuine perception of the numinous. The poem’s second part is a tour de force of riddling but formally virtuosic monologues—sonnets, villanelles, and more—from all the characters circling around the mysterious integrity of Antonio’s isolation. And the third part, a prose address from Caliban to the audience is written in the late manner of Henry James to emphasize the artifice imposed on natural man by his magical master. Here Auden writes what he allowed was his own ars poetica.

Composed during World War II, in the midst of Auden’s reconversion from leftism to Anglicanism, The Sea and the Mirror is a transitional poem between modernism and postmodernism, poised at the halfway mark between Eliot’s austere religious quest for the heart of light and Ashbery’s campy and witty resignation to the prison of simulacra. In Caliban’s voice, Auden denounces magical art that bewitches its audience with mere nostalgia or pseudo-intellectual adolescent melodrama. He offers instead a humble defense of poetry as signpost to salvation:

[W]e are blessed by that Wholly Other Life from which we are separated by an essential emphatic gulf of which our contrived fissures of mirror and proscenium arch—we understand them at last—are feebly figurative signs, so that all our meanings are reversed and it is precisely in its negative image of Judgment that we can positively envisage Mercy; it is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected Work which is not ours.

This, too, is of its time: the rue and mortification of midcentury, especially among those who had been utopians before Hitler and Stalin showed the world what utopia was made of. Like Browning’s and Césaire’s variations, it may force The Tempest to mean too little. But of all the play’s successors, The Sea and the Mirror is most faithful to Shakespeare’s complex need to distinguish the artist from the magician in the very act of ceasing to be either.