On Tuesday, we offered a short plot summary of The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and his final solo work for the theatre. As we remarked then, The Tempest is essentially a fantasy story (or ‘romance’ to use the term that tends to be used to categorise The Tempest) featuring a magician, the ‘monstrous’ offspring of a wicked witch, treachery and conspiracy, drunkenness, fairies, a lavish masque, young lovers, and much else. How should we go about interpreting Shakespeare’s last solo work for the theatre? Below, we offer some notes towards an analysis.
Inspiration for The Tempest
Shakespeare is thought to have based his play The Tempest on a real-life shipwreck. William Strachey’s A True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight, an account of his experience during the wreck of the ship Sea Venture on the island of Bermuda, was written in 1609, and many scholars believe that the Bard read this account and used it as inspiration for The Tempest. This isn’t as clear-cut as all that, because the account of the Sea Venture was only published later, but it’s possible Shakespeare heard something of the account before it was printed.
Analysis of The Tempest: key themes
Magic and ‘art’
Contrary to popular belief, The Tempest wasn’t quite Shakespeare’s final play. The popular myth that after The Tempest the Bard packed up shop, and moved back to Stratford-upon-Avon to live out his last few years in retirement, overlooks the fact that he collaborated with the younger playwright John Fletcher on several plays after The Tempest in 1611, including Henry VIII, Cardenio (now sadly lost), and The Two Noble Kinsmen, based on Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’. However, it does appear that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s final solo work for the stage.
It’s hard not to see Prospero’s magic as, on one level, a metaphor for Shakespeare’s own art as a playwright. Both summon spirits, creatures of illusion – and, to tighten up this parallel, both create performances involving actors. Just as Prospero uses his ‘art’ to conjure Ceres, Juno, and the other figures who act in his masque, so Shakespeare uses his art to conjure Prospero himself. And ‘art’ is even used in The Tempest to describe magic: Caliban describes Prospero’s magic powers as an ‘art’ stronger than the powers of Setebos, the god his mother Sycorax worshipped, just as we talk about the ‘dark arts’ of magic. ‘Art’ – meaning not only the arts, including playwriting and poetry, but also, more broadly, ‘artifice’ – is a loaded word in The Tempest. So it’s little surprise that critics have seen a touch of self-reflexivity in Prospero’s abjuration or renunciation of his ‘rough magic’ at the end of the play, just as Shakespeare is preparing to hang up his quill and stop writing for the theatre (barring a few collaborations with Fletcher).
The Tempest ends with Prospero addressing us, the audience, directly, and requesting that we release him from the island and allow him to retire to Milan, and older and wiser man:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
It’s as if Shakespeare is addressing his audience of playgoers and asking them to set him free from the theatre, that ‘island’ of enchantment cut off from the rest of the world: he bids the audience’s permission to be ‘sent to Naples’ (or Stratford, in any case). The lines ‘dwell / In this bare island by your spell; / But release me from my bands’ seem to support such an analysis, with Shakespeare effectively saying, ‘by all means continue to enjoy the theatre, but just let me leave it behind, won’t you?’
What does it mean to serve someone? This is a key question for The Tempest, but ‘service’ and ‘servitude’ can be analysed in very different ways depending on the characters being analysed (or the critics doing the analysis, for that matter). Ariel has been a servant to both the witch Sycorax and the magician Prospero, but they were clearly two very different masters. Ariel serves Prospero because Prospero rescued him from the prison in which Sycorax had left him; but he is nevertheless bound by Prospero, and made to serve his new master. He looks to Prospero to ‘free’ him from his service, relying on Prospero adhering to his word of promise. Ariel is duty-bound to serve Prospero, but Prospero is also honour-bound to deliver on his promise to make Ariel a free man (or free spirit – in the truest sense of that phrase). However, Prospero is not above threatening to imprison Ariel inside an oak tree (thus echoing Sycorax’s treatment of the sprite) if Ariel refuses to stop talking about his proposed freedom. This threat occurs early on in the play, in I.2, and shows that Prospero might easily turn into the power-hungry tyrant Sycorax was.
Similarly, Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, feels honour-bound to serve and obey her father. And then there is Caliban, Sycorax’ son, whom Prospero made his slave. Caliban is even less free than either Ariel or Miranda, and he, too, must serve Prospero. Act I Scene 2 is a key one in the play, for it introduces us to Prospero and then sets out his relationship with these three key characters: Miranda (who, as his daughter, serves him); Ariel (who, in thanks for being freed by Prospero, serves him); and Caliban (who, as Sycorax’s son and the only surviving native of the island, is enslaved by Prospero and confined to one portion of the island).
Even Prospero himself is similarly in service, according to that final speech or epilogue, where he suggests that the audience’s power keeps him imprisoned on the island, he can only leave with their blessing. And in the context of the events of the play, he is imprisoned on the island in a sense, having been banished from Milan.
Love, too, can make us servants (and slaves), as Ferdinand’s heartfelt speech to Miranda in III.1 shows:
The very instant that I saw you did
My heart fly to your service, there resides
To make me slave to it, and for your sake
Am I this patient log-man.
And Miranda, in return, pledges to Ferdinand: ‘I’ll be your servant / Whether you will [marry me] or no.’
The subplot of The Tempest, involving Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo and their plot to overthrow or usurp Prospero as ruler of the island, mirrors the main plot and backstory to the play: namely, Antonio’s usurpation of his brother Prospero as Duke of Milan, twelve years before the action of the play is set. Stephano, a drunkard, is clearly deluded when he thinks he will be a better ‘king’ of the island than Prospero, or that he could even be successful in overthrowing such a powerful magician. Caliban is deluded for following Stephano, although it is clearly understandable when Stephano gives him wine: one can’t imagine Prospero giving Caliban such treats (although note that he used to, according to Caliban in I.2: ‘Though strok’st me, made much of me, wouldst give me / Water with berries in’t’). But was Antonio right in usurping his own brother and having himself proclaimed Duke of Milan? Much as with Claudius and Old Hamlet (where, alongside Claudius’ baser motives for wanting to murder his brother, there may have been the more honourable reason that he knew he could do a better job of ruling than his brother did), it may be that Antonio, in noticing that his brother was more interested in his magic spells than in ruling over his own city, did a good and just thing in rising up against Prospero and having him banished. So is it a good thing that Prospero used his ‘rough magic’ to conjure the tempest and shipwreck Antonio and Alonso, just so he could hold them captive until they agreed to restore him to his dukedom? And is Prospero’s promise to renounce his magic enough to convince us he will be a good duke this time around? As he says at the end of the play, he plans to spend a third of his time thinking about his imminent death, which hardly seems like a healthy outlook for a man governing a city.
Legacy of The Tempest
Shakespeare’s The Tempest has inspired countless artistic responses in theatre, music, poetry, and fiction. There have been nearly 50 operas based on The Tempest, while composers including Henry Purcell, Arthur Bliss, Hector Berlioz, Malcolm Arnold, and Engelbert Humperdinck (not that one) have all written incidental music to accompany performances of Shakespeare’s play. W. H. Auden wrote a long poem, The Sea and the Mirror, in response to the play. In 1968, the Franco-Caribbean writer and theorist Aimé Césaire wrote a play titled Une Tempête, which portrays Caliban sympathetically as a native of the island who has been forced into subjugation by the island’s white European coloniser, Prospero. It’s certainly a different experience reading and studying Shakespeare’s play in the wake of the British Empire (and European imperialism more widely) and the granting of independence to many former British and French colonies in the mid-twentieth century. There have also been some extremely radical and memorable stage and screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, including Peter Greenaway’s 1991 film Prospero’s Books, which fuses animation with live-action performances.
The Tempest has even had an impact on astronomy: one third of the moons of the planet Uranus are named after characters from the play. Miranda, Caliban, Sycorax, Prospero, Setebos, Stephano, Trinculo, Francisco, and Ferdinand are all Uranian moons as well as characters from the play. Curiously, there’s also a moon named Ariel, but that’s thought to have been named for a different Ariel, the sprite from Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.
A fine bit of trivia to bring this short analysis of the play to a close: a number of phrases which have since passed into common use are thought to have originated in The Tempest. It’s easy to exaggerate the number of words and phrases Shakespeare coined, but he popularised – and perhaps even originated – the phrases ‘into thin air’ (to describe someone or something vanishing from view), ‘brave new world’ (which Aldous Huxley gratefully took up as the ironic title of his 1932 dystopian novel), ‘in a pickle’, and perhaps even ‘sea change’. All of these appear in The Tempest.