You Can Go Home Again, Can’t You? An Introduction to The Tempest
[A lecture prepared for Liberal Studies 320 and revised and extended for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University). This text is in the public domain, released July 1999. It was last revised on September 4, 1999. The Afterword was added in December 2001.]
Today I wish to provide something of a short introduction to Shakespeare’s Tempest, first, by acknowledging some of the interpretative richness of this play and, second, by outlining two very different approaches. The contrast between them will serve as a final reminder of something we have (I hope) discovered many times in this course, the interpretative fecundity of Shakespeare’s work.
Let me begin by acknowledging an interesting point about this play: interpretations of the Tempest tend to be shaped quite strongly by the particular background which the interpreter brings to it. This point sounds like a truism (and it is), but I simply want to point to the fact that this play, more so than many others, tends to bring out in interpreters what their particular interests are in a way that other plays often do not (at least not to the same degree). At least that has been my experience.
In part, this happens because this play puts a good deal of pressure on us to treat it allegorically, that is, to find a conceptual framework which will coordinate our understanding of what goes on in the play. I think we feel this mainly because there is little complex characterization in the Tempest (except perhaps for the figure of Prospero himself) and there are many elements which we cannot simply account for by taking the action naturalistically. So we want to know what they stand for: What exactly is Prospero’s magic? What does Caliban represent? Is the island a depiction of the new world or a world of the imagination or something else? And so on. The answers to these questions, in my experience, tend often to depend upon the major interests of the person seeking to understand the play.
So, for example, those, like me, with a strong interest in reading Shakespeare, a lively interest in theatrical productions of Shakespeare, and what many might take to be an old-fashioned humanist perspective, tend to emphasize the extent to which the main focus in the Tempest is on the nature of art and illusion, especially theatrical art. This tendency is powerfully reinforced by the fact that this play is almost certainly Shakespeare’s last full work, so that the Tempest is, in effect, his farewell to the stage. No doubt there is a certain sentimentality in this view (certainly in my case there is).
People with a strong interest in politics, however, often take a different slant, and see the play as having less to do with an exploration of theatre than with a probing artistic analysis of important political issues, especially those relevant to the oppression of the inhabitants of the new world (that is, the issue of colonialism) or to the relationship between the intellectual and the political world. So, for example, the play has been presented as a statement about colonial attitudes in North or South America or as an exploration of the role of the intellectual in post-glasnost Eastern Europe. Other interpreters dismiss those suggestions and see in the play a vital exploration of education (the nature versus nurture dispute) or theories of politics or knowledge or whatever. I hope to touch on some of these possibilities (in addition to my own preferences) in the remarks below).
THE TEMPEST AS AN EXPLORATION OF THE NATURE OF ART
By way of introducing the first popular interpretative approach to the Tempest, I want to begin with a very obvious point. The Tempest is a very theatrical play, that is, it is obviously a wonderful vehicle for displaying the full resources of the theatre: dramatic action, special effects, music, magic, monsters, dancing, storms, drunken humour, and so on. Anyone who wants a Shakespearean play to produce mainly as an extravagant theatrical tour de force (say, a rock and roll extravaganza or an opera) would turn naturally to this play, which, among Shakespeare’s works, is rivaled only by Midsummer Night’s Dream in this respect. And a number of productions, past and modern, have stressed mainly that element, without bothering about anything else. Musical adaptations of The Tempest have a long tradition.
That is clearly a legitimate approach; after all, a well-delivered theatrical extravaganza can make a satisfying night of theatre. And it is clear that The Tempest does depend for much of its effectiveness on a wide range of special effects--sound, lighting, fantastic visions, a whole realm of “magic” (it may well have been written in response to the changing theatrical tastes of an audience that was requiring more theatrical effects in the presentation of dramatic productions). But I think there’s more to the theatricality of the play than just its style. In my view, a central issue of the Tempest is an exploration into the nature of theatre itself.
For those who have read a certain amount of Shakespeare, the theatrical theme gets considerable impetus from the fact that The Tempest seems, in some ways, to revisit many earlier Shakespearean themes and characters, so that at times it comes across almost as a final summary look at some very familiar material, something Stephen Greenblatt calls “a kind of echo chamber of Shakespearean motifs”:
Its story of loss and recovery and its air of wonder link it closely to the group of late plays that modern editors generally call "romances" (Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline), but it resonates as well with issues that haunted Shakespeare’s imagination throughout his career: the painful necessity for a father to let his daughter go (Othello, King Lear); the treacherous betrayal of a legitimate ruler (Richard II, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth); the murderous hatred of one brother for another (Richard III, As You Like It, Hamlet, King Lear); the passage from court society to the wilderness and the promise of a return (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It); the wooing of a young heiress in ignorance of her place in the social hierarchy (Twelfth Night, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale); the dream of manipulating others by means of art, especially by staging miniature plays-within-plays (1 Henry IV, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet); the threat of a radical loss of identity (The Comedy of Errors, Richard II, King Lear); the relation between nature and nurture (Pericles, The Winter’s Tale); the harnessing of magical powers (. . . [2 Henry VI], A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth).
So, given this rich allusiveness to other plays, at the end of a course like this there is a natural tendency to want to link the concerns of the play with a celebration of the wonderful achievement we have been studying so far.
But there is more to this approach to the play than simply nostalgia. To give you a sense of what I mean, let me mention two questions that puzzled me about this play when I first read it. The first is this: If Prospero’s power is so effective against his opponents as it appears to be, then why didn’t he use it back in Milan to avoid having to be exiled in the first place? And the second one, which arises naturally from that first one, is this: Given that Prospero is so keen on his magic and takes such delight in it and that it gives him so much power, why does he abandon it before returning to Milan?
I puzzled over these questions until I came to what seems to me the most satisfying answer. It is a very obvious one: the magic does not work in Milan; it is effective only on the island, away from the Machiavellian world of the court, where plotting against each other, even against one’s own family, for the sake of political power is the order of the day and where, if you take your mind off the political realities for very long, you may find yourself in a boat with a load of books heading to an unknown exile. Prospero’s magic can only become effective in a special place, a world of spirits, of illusion, song, and enchantment, on a magic island--in other words, in the theatre.
After all, look what happens in this play. A bunch of political types and all their attendants (sailors, butlers, and so on) from the busy court of Naples and Milan are lured away from their power political business into a world of illusion, where they are led around by strange powers (above all, music and apparitions) they do not fully comprehend but whom they cannot resist until they all come together inside Prospero’s magic circle. Prospero controls the entire experiment through his ability to create and sustain illusions. He is throughout the master of the action, and there is never any suspense (well, almost none), since he has such absolute power over human beings through his control of what they see and hear and experience.
[There’s a similar sense in the recent film Shakespeare in Love, where daily life in London is often a hard business, with arranged marriages to brutal men, hateful money lenders, and so on; all that changes in the theatre, where miraculously things always come right, at least for a time, even money lenders become enthusiastically cooperative and supportive and a love impossible in the world outside can thrive]
If we accept this possibility as an interpretative metaphor, then we need to explore how that might make sense of other elements in the play. Remember that in such questions the Principle of Inclusiveness is an important guiding rule: the interpretation should make sense of as much of the play as possible, and in any conflict between rival interpretative possibilities one important criterion for judgment is the adequacy of each interpretation at providing a coherent and consistent sense of as much of the play as possible.
In order to pursue this idea of the Tempest as an celebratory exploration of the nature of theatrical art, I want to turn for a while to what happens in the play.
The Tempest, it is clear, features an experiment by Prospero. He has not brought the Europeans to the vicinity of the island, but when they do come close to it, he has, through the power of illusion, lured them into his very special realm. The experiment first of all breaks up their social solidarity, for they land in different groups: Ferdinand by himself, the court group, Stephano and Trinculo by themselves, and the sailors remain asleep. The magic leads them by separate paths until they all meet in the circle drawn by Prospero in front of his cave. There he removes the spell of the illusions; the human family recognizes each other, and together they resolve to return to Italy, leaving behind the powers of the magic associated with the island.
Before considering the purpose of Prospero’s experiment, we should note how central to all his magic Ariel is. And Ariel is not human but a magical spirit who has been released from natural bondage (being riven up in a tree) by Prospero’s book learning. The earlier inhabitants of the island, Sycorax and Caliban, had no sense of how to use Ariel, and so they simply imprisoned him in the world which governs them, raw nature. Prospero’s power depends, in large part, on Ariel’s release and willing service. In that sense, Ariel can be seen as some imaginative power which makes the effects of the theatre (like lightning in the masts of the boat) possible. One of the great attractions of this view of the play as a celebration of the powers of theatre is that it makes the best sense of Ariel’s character, something which, as we shall see, is not quite so straightforward in other approaches.
What is the purpose of Prospero’s experiment? He never gives us a clear statement, but it seems clear that one important element in that purpose is Miranda. He wants to arrange things on her behalf, and of all the people in the play, her situation is the most transformed: she is going back to Europe a royal bride, filled with a sense of enthusiasm and joy at the prospect of living among so many fine people in a society that, quite literally, thrills her imagination. It seems that Prospero’s major intention includes a recommitment to civilized life in Milan, so that his daughter can take up her rightful place in society. As with As You Like It, there is no sense here that any appropriate life could be based on remaining on the island when they no longer have to.
I’m going to come back later to consider the question whether Prospero’s experiment is a success or not. But however we judge it, it seems clear that one great success is the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. The experiment brings them together, awakens their sense of wonder at the world and at each other, and is sending them back to Milan full of the finest hopes for the world. These two young people carry with them the major weight of the optimistic comic hopes of the play’s resolution. Their love for each other, which is presented to us as a true love firmly under the control of their moral feelings, will, in a sense, regenerate Milan.
Another success in Prospero’s experiment is the change of heart which takes place in his earlier enemy Alonso. Prospero’s actions bring Alonso face to face with his past evil conduct and prompt him to repent and reconcile himself with Prospero, even to the point of surrendering the political power he took away so long ago. Moreover, we might want to argue that there’s is the beginning of a similar change in the animalistic Caliban, who at least comes to realize something of his own foolishness in resisting Prospero in favour of two drunken European low lifes.
The most complex change in the play, however, takes place within Prospero himself. In considering his motives for undertaking the experiment, we cannot escape the sense that Prospero harbors a great deal of resentment about his treatment back in Milan and is never very far from wanting to exact a harsh revenge. After all, he has it in his power significantly to injure the parties that treated him so badly. What’s very interesting about this is that Prospero learns that that is not the appropriate response. And he learns this central insight from Ariel, the very spirit of imaginative illusion, who is not even human. Speaking of the fact that all of Prospero’s enemies are now in his power and are painfully confused, Ariel says: “if you beheld them now, your affections/ Would become tender.” Prospero replies: “Does thou think so spirit?” to which Ariel responds: “Mine would, sir, were I human.” At this point Prospero delivers one of the most important speeches of the play:
And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier mov’d than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. (5.1. 18-28)
Here, the imaginative sympathy for the sufferings of others leads to an active intervention based upon “virtue” rather than “vengeance.” This is a key recognition in the play: virtue expressed in forgiveness is a higher human attribute than vengeance. And in the conclusion of the play, Prospero does not even mention the list of crimes against him. He simply offers to forgive and accept what has happened to him, in a spirit of reconciliation. Unlike earlier plays which featured family quarrels, the ending here requires neither the death nor the punishment of any of the parties. Here that change is initiated by Ariel’s remarks.
PROSPERO’S MAGIC AS THE WORLD OF THE THEATRE
It makes sense to me to see in this Shakespeare’s sense of his own art--both what it can achieve and what it cannot. The theatre--that magical world of poetry, song, illusion, pleasing and threatening apparitions--can, like Prospero’s magic, educate us into a better sense of ourselves, into a final acceptance of the world, a state in which we forgive and forget in the interests of the greater human community. The theatre, that is, can reconcile us to the joys of the human community so that we do not destroy our families in a search for righting past evils in a spirit of personal revenge or as crude assertions of our own egos. It can, in a very real sense, help us fully to understand the central Christian commitment to charity, to loving our neighbour as ourselves. The magic here brings about a total reconciliation of all levels of society from sophisticated rulers to semi-human brutes, momentarily holding off Machiavellian deceit, drunken foolishness, and animalistic rebellion--each person, no matter how he has lived, has a place in the magic circle at the end. And no one is asking any awkward questions.
In the same way, Prospero’s world can awaken the young imagination to the wonder and joy of the human community, can transform our perceptions of human beings into a “brave new world,” full of beauty, promise, and love, and excite our imaginations with the prospects of living life in the midst of our fellow human beings.
In the world of the Tempest, we have moved beyond tragedy. In this world Hamlet and Ophelia are happily united, the Ghost comes to life again and is reconciled with his brother, the old antagonisms are healed. Lear learns to lessen his demands on the world and to accept it with all its threats to his own ego. This is not a sentimental vision, an easily achieved resolution. It takes time--in this case sixteen years--and a measure of faith in the human community that one is prepared to hold onto in the face of urgent personal demands. This play seems to be saying that theatrical art, the magic of Prospero, can achieve what is not possible in the world of Milan, where everyone must always be on guard, because it’s a Machiavellian world ruled by the realities of power and injury and there is no Ariel to serve us with the power of illusions.
On this reading of the play, what would we make of Caliban, who stands in opposition to Prospero’s power and who is its most immediate victim? This reading would probably stress (as many productions have always done) Caliban’s dangerous, anarchic violence. He is an earth-animal (some intermediate form perhaps) who represents a clear and present danger, because he is not capable of being educated out of the state he was born into. Prospero’s “civilizing” arts keep him in control, though with difficulty. Caliban is at times quite sensitive to the emotional qualities of Prospero’s magic, especially the wonderful music he hears, but is too much in the grip of his raw instincts for rape and rebellion to respond with anything other than anger to his condition.
Caliban might well be considered in some sense a natural slave (as D. H. Lawrence pointed out) because his idea of freedom from Prospero seems to involve becoming the slave of someone else, someone who will kill Prospero. So Caliban throws in his lot with two drunken Europeans, not having the wit to see them for what they are. Caliban is thus not so much interested in freedom as he is in rebellion; his violence is natural to him and is not an outgrowth of the way he is treated. Hence, Prospero’s control of him through his magic is not only justified but necessary.
Does Caliban undergo any sort of significant change at the ending of the play? There’s a suggestion that he has learned something from the mistakes he has made, and his final comment (“I’ll be wise hereafter,/ And seek for grace”) may be a cryptic acknowledgment of some restraint. But he doesn’t go with the Europeans and remains on his island. Caliban’s future life has always sparked interest among certain writers, for there is a tradition of sequels to the Tempest in which Caliban is the central character (notably Browning’s long dramatic monologue “Caliban on Setebos”).
For all the potentially warm reconciliations at the end of the play, however, it is not without its potentially sobering ironies. And there is a good deal of discussion of just how unequivocal the celebration is at the end. For Prospero is no sentimentalist. He recognizes the silence of Sebastian and Antonio at the end for what it is, an indication that they have not changed, that they are going to return to Naples and Milan the same people as left it, political double dealers, ambitious and potentially murderous power seekers, just as Stephano and Trinculo are going back as stupid as when they left. Prospero’s theatrical magic has brought them together, has forced them to see themselves, but it has had no effect on some characters (unless the staging of the end of the play conveys in non-verbal ways that the two noble would-be killers are as contrite as Alonso appears to be).
If we see the irony here as present but not totally corrosive, then by bringing us such a reconciliation, theatre (Prospero’s experiment in the play and The Tempest itself) can help to maintain our best hopes for a meaningful life, faith that in time we will work things out, that, in spite of evil, the end of our story will manifest a pattern of moral significance. Locked into the contingencies of history in our political and business lives, where competition and deceitful self-interest hold sway, we may easily lose this faith. The theatre is, in a sense, a place which can restore us.
But that restoration is provisional and fragile, more of a hope than a robust certainty. That’s why in acknowledging the most famous single line quotation from the play, one needs also to examines the four words which immediately follow: Miranda, overwhelmed with the wonder and delight of seeing so many finely dressed civilized Europeans cries out, “O brave new world/ That has such people in’t!” to which the more sober minded and mature Prospero comments only, “‘Tis new to thee.” Those four words of Prospero are wonderfully pregnant. In them he acknowledges his earned awareness into the nature of human beings, into the complexity of human life, which does not always (or usually) answer to Miranda’s joyous affirmation.
But he is not about to deliver Miranda another sermon, for he knows that the sense of joyful and optimistic wonder which she, as a young woman, is carrying back to Italy is the world’s best hope. It may be, as he well knows, naive, for Miranda has, as yet, no sense of the evils that lurk back in the political world of the city. She sees only the attractive exterior of her human surroundings with no sense yet of the potential deceptions within. But she is as well equipped as he can make her, and it is not up to him to sour her youthful enthusiasm with a more complex and less affirming mature reflection. That is something she will have to discover in her turn.
One might argue that if Prospero’s experiment is designed to make everyone better, then it’s a failure in large part. And it may be, as I mentioned above, that Prospero recognizes that fact. It is not unusual to stage this play in such a way that the conventional comic structure of the ending is seriously undercut by the sense of sadness in Prospero, who is returning to Milan to die. I’m not pressing this interpretation. All I want to call attention to at this point is that the ending of this play may not be the unalloyed triumph of the comic spirit that we are tempted to see there. Prospero’s sober awareness of what the silence of Sebastian and Antonio means qualifies our sense of joy by indicating that the eternal problem of human evil has not been solved or dismissed. One major interpretative decision any director of the play has to make concerns this ending. Just how evident and serious should those ironies be: non-existent, a light shadow under the communal joy, or a heavy reminder of what is in store back in Italy?
The strength of this sobering irony at the end will determine the particular tone which governs the return. In some productions, the irony is hardly noticeable and the celebration is thus dominant. In others, the irony is sufficiently strong to introduce an ominous note into the whole proceedings, even to the point of suggesting that Prospero’s experiment has, in a sense, failed. Yes, Miranda and Ferdinand will be happily married, but the political world they are returning to (where Prospero will soon die) is unchanged and will remain much the same.
PROSPERO’S FAREWELL TO THE STAGE
The theatre metaphor also helps to explain why, in the last analysis, Prospero has to surrender his magical powers. Life cannot be lived out in the world of illusions, delightful and educative as they can often be. Life must be lived in the real world, in Milan or in Naples, and Miranda cannot thus entirely fulfill herself on the island. The realities of life must be encountered and dealt with as best we can. The world of the theatre can remind us of things we may too easily forget; it can liberate and encourage youthful wonder and excitement at all the diverse richness of life; it can, at times, even wake people up to more important issues than their own Machiavellian urge to self-aggrandizement, and, most important of all, it can educate us into forgiveness. But it can never finally solve the problem of evil, and it can never provide an acceptable environment for a fully realized adult life.
Prospero, as I see it, doesn’t start the play fully realizing all this. He launches his experiment from a mixture of motives, perhaps not entirely sure what he going to do (after all, one gets the sense that there’s a good deal of improvising going on). But he learns in the play to avoid the twin dangers to his experiment, the two main threats to the value of his theatrical magic.
The first I have already alluded to, namely, the danger of using of his powers purely for vengeance. Prospero, like Shakespeare, is a master illusionist, and he is tempted to channel his personal frustrations into his art, to exact vengeance against wrongs done in Milan through the power of his art (perhaps, as some have argued, as Shakespeare is doing for unknown personal reasons against women in Hamlet and Lear). But he learns from Ariel that to do this is to deny the moral value of the art, whose major purpose is to reconcile us to ourselves and our community, not to even a personal score.
The second great threat which we see in this play is that Prospero may get too involved in his own wonderful capabilities, he may become too much the showman, too proud of showing off his skill to attend to the final purpose of what he is doing. We see this in the scene in which Prospero puts on a special display of his theatrical powers for Ferdinand and Miranda--his desire to show off makes him forget that he has more important issues to attend to, once again putting his art in the service of the social experiment. And it’s interesting to note that it was his self-absorption in his own magic that got Prospero in trouble in the first place in Milan (as he admits), when he neglected his responsibilities for the self-absorbing pleasures of his books. There’s a strong sense in this play that, whatever the powers and wonders of the illusion, one has to maintain a firm sense of what it is for, what it can and cannot do, and where it is most appropriate. It can never substitute for or conjure away the complexities of life in the community.
This approach helps me to understand, too, the logic behind Prospero’s surrender of his magic. He has done all he can do. Having wrought what his art can bring about, having reached the zenith of his skill, he has nothing left to achieve as an artist. He is going home, back to the human community, perhaps to die, perhaps to enjoy a different life, now able to appreciate more fully what he did not understand so long ago, the proper relationship between the world governed by magic and illusion and the world in which most of us have to live most of the time--the compromised world of politics, alcohol, buying and selling, family strife. So he releases Ariel; he has no more work for him to do, and Ariel does not belong in Milan.
Of course, it is critically illegitimate and no doubt very sentimental to link Prospero’s giving up of his art with Shakespeare’s decision to give up writing plays and to return to Stratford to enjoy life with his grandchildren (in fact, he did not give up the theatrical life immediately after writing this play). But it’s a very tempting connection, especially in the light of the wonderful speech in 4.1, one of the most frequently quoted passages in the play, a speech which has come to be called “Shakespeare’s Farewell to the Stage.”
I’d like to conclude this part of the lecture by reading this speech, urging you to remember that Shakespeare’s theatre, called the Globe, was destroyed by fire very soon after the Tempest was first performed (a facsimile has just been reconstructed on the banks of the Thames very close to the original site and is now open for business).
Be cheerful, sir.
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,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a wrack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Dreams may be the stuff of life, they may energize us, delight us, educate us, and reconcile us to each other, but we cannot live life as a dream. We may carry what we learn in the world of illusion with us into life, and perhaps we may be able, through art, to learn about how to deal with the evil in the world, including our own. But art is not a substitute for life, and it cannot alter the fundamental conditions of the human community. The magic island is not Milan, and human beings belong in Milan with all its dangers, if they are to be fully human. Life must be lived historically, not aesthetically.
THE TEMPEST AS A STUDY OF COLONIALISM
For over a century, and particularly in the past twenty years, a number of interpreters have taken a very different approach to this play, seeing in it the exploration of some particularly relevant political issues. The English critic William Hazlitt was the first to point out (in 1818) that Prospero had usurped Caliban from his rule of the island and was thus an agent of imperialism. Since then such an approach to the play (with various modifications) has remained more or less current, although only in recent decades has it become widespread in North America.
Some of these arguments are quite simple and reductive; others are a good deal more sophisticated. I cannot do full justice to these interpretations here, but I would like to consider some of the main points in order to raise a few questions in your minds.
[Those who would like to read a useful historical survey of these treatments of the play should consult Vaughan, Alden T. and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. I have taken historical information from this book.]
This approach to The Tempest also begins with some obvious features of the play. Prospero is a European who has taken charge of a remote island. He has been able to do this because he brings with him special powers. With these he organizes a life for himself, gets the local inhabitants (Ariel and Caliban) to work for him, and maintains his control by a combination of painful force or threats of force, wonderful spells, and promises of freedom some day. In taking charge of a place which is not his and in exerting his European authority over the strange non-European creatures, compelling them to serve him and his values, Prospero, so the argument runs, is obviously a symbol for European colonial power, with which England was growing increasingly familiar during Shakespeare’s lifetime (not just in the New World but also in Ireland).
The key figure in this treatment of the play naturally is Caliban, the island native who regards himself as the rightful owner of the place, who is forced against his will to serve Prospero and Miranda, and who constantly proclaims his unwillingness to do so. Initially, Prospero extends to Caliban his European hospitality, teaches him language, and, in return, is shown all the natural resources of the island by Caliban, in an act of love. But Caliban refuses to live by Prospero’s rules, tries to rape Miranda (he still wants to), and their relationship changes to one of master and slave. The gift of language, Caliban now says, is good only because it enables him to curse. Prospero may control Caliban (with painful torments), but he has not vanquished his resistance.
For Prospero, the main problem with Caliban is that he is incapable of being educated (although Caliban’s command of beautiful poetry might make us wonder about that). He is thus (for Prospero) some lower life form (like a native of Ireland, for example, many of whom were in Shakespeare’s day not considered fully human): deformed, evil smelling, treacherous, rapacious, and violent. Unlike Ferdinand, who is a suitable lover for Miranda because he can discipline himself to work to earn her, Caliban has no restraint. Hence, Prospero feels himself morally entitled to exercise his control over him; indeed, the safety and security of his and Miranda’s life depend upon such enforced obedience (as Prospero says, they need Caliban’s labour to survive).
There is obviously much here one might point to as an allegory on European colonial or capitalist practices. One might well argue that the presentation of Caliban is itself a very European perception of alien New World cultures, and thus Prospero’s moral authority rests on a complete inability to see the natives as fully cultured human beings, in other words, on his European mind set, which automatically labels those different from Europeans as ugly, uncivilized, and threatening “others.” The gift of language is not a gift but an imposition, a common means of enforcing colonial rule on recalcitrant subjects.
[In a well known production of this play in 1974 (in the National Theatre in London), the actor playing Caliban had the two halves of his face made up in different ways: one side was that of a noble-looking Native American; the other side was that of a grotesque ape-like man. Depending upon which way the actor turned, the audience’s perception of the character changed entirely. This theatrical device obviously invited the audience to consider the importance of cultural perceptions in our evaluative judgments in dealing with people from “primitive” non-Europeanized societies].
If we pursue such a political basis for the allegory, can we come to any conclusions about Shakespeare’s vision of colonial practices? What, if anything, is the play offering as a vision of European imperialism? For me, the emotional logic of the action suggests that Shakespeare is offering a defense of colonial practices which he then undermines. Caliban may, indeed, offend every European moral principle, but in some ways he is more intelligent and more open than some of the Europeans (like the drunken idiots Stephano and Trinculo and the deceitful murderous conspirators). He may resist Prospero’s authority, but that authority is something we can call into question, especially by looking closely at the way it is enforced. In his renunciation of magic and return to Europe, Prospero would appear to be finally conceding that continuing on the island is wrong. Significantly, among his last words is the potentially pregnant comment (about Caliban) “This thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine.” If this means, as it might, some recognition of a bond between Prospero and Caliban, then Prospero’s leaving the island to Caliban and renouncing his magic (the source of his power) would seem to be a tacit apology for the master-slave basis for their earlier relationship which Prospero enforced.
That said, however, there are one or two interesting problems which such a political interpretation of the play (which I have not had time to present fairly) generally has some trouble with. In the first place, it requires us to see Caliban as representative of an oppressed culture or class (either a Native American Indian or an Irish peasant or a member of the proletariat). Yet he is the only one of his kind (that is made very clear to us), and is a relatively recent arrival there. He has no culture matrix, no family, and no cultural history. So I’m not sure that the image of cultural oppression is particularly clear.
Consider, for example, the key issue of language. In this play, it’s not the case that the Europeans forced Caliban to forget his language and learn theirs. Before they came Caliban had no language at all. This is surely a key point. One can imagine how very different the impact of this play would be if Caliban had some other island natives with him and if they shared their own language and customs, which Prospero then forcibly suppressed. Then the issues of cultural oppression would be irresistibly there. As it stands, making Caliban the representative of a native culture would seem to require putting in the play something that not only is not there but which is expressly excluded.
So if I have to choose between a vision of Caliban which sees him as a semi-human brute (pure nature with no nurture) and a vision which sees him as a misunderstood and oppressed native person, then on the evidence of the play, I would tend to favour the first (although I’m ready to be persuaded by a superb production that the colonialist allegory can make effective dramatic sense of the play as written).
Significantly some of the earliest attempts to see The Tempest as a colonialist allegory identified Caliban, not with the original inhabitants of the New World, but with the European bosses left behind by the original explorers. This view was especially pronounced in South American countries which had a long and brutal history of oppression by American capitalist companies, and Caliban, in some critics’ eyes, looked far more like a Yankee managing director than a noble savage. This is an interesting possibility, but it does leave one wondering then about the native inhabitants on the island, since they would not be present at all.
[In viewing Caliban as an oppressed person, one might mention a recent view that he is a “reluctant student” in a play about education. I don’t take this view particularly seriously, but it does remind us that ideological approaches to the Prospero-Caliban interaction can often quite easily fit into the play a number of different views of various kinds of authority, just or otherwise.]
The second problem the political interpretation faces is Ariel. What are we to make of him? One production based on a colonialist theme (directed by Jonathan Miller) made Ariel the “good” native, the intelligent servant of the European masters (in contrast to Caliban the “bad” native). The contrast was heightened by making Ariel an East Indian and Caliban an African (thus duplicating some of the racial realities in post-colonial African states). At the end of this production Ariel picked up Prospero’s abandoned instruments of magic and the curtain closed with a sense of him now as the oppressing power over Caliban.
But such political approaches to the play all have trouble with the most obvious element in Ariel’s character, his non-human nature and his magical powers, which contribute so massively to the play’s action and its theatrical effects. After all, if we are going to apply some allegory of colonialism to the play, then we need to be able to account for such an important part of it (and for Prospero’s “release” of Ariel from imprisonment in nature). We cannot simply ignore such points because they don’t fit. For that reason, it may be significant that political treatments of the Tempest tend to give Caliban far more space than Ariel (who often hardly gets mentioned).
One possible interpretation (which I have not come across, although I’m sure someone must have offered it somewhere) is to combine both the theatrical and the political approaches and explore the play as some vision of the theatrical basis for political power, an issue that is currently very much alive in interpretations of Renaissance drama and politics. This approach would link The Tempest to other plays we have read in which an essential element in maintaining power is the development of politics as public theatre (obviously an important element in the education of Prince Hal in Henry IV). Seizing power and ruling (oppressing?) others (whether New World natives or Irish peasants or naturally rebellious animalistic human beings of the ur-proletariat) requires, more than anything else, control over images which divert, punish, seduce, and, in general, confirm in people’s minds the absolute mastery of the power of the ruler. Governing the island is thus a natural extension of governing Milan (or Henry V’s England or Octavius’s empire), and the most obvious tool is public theatre. Thus, Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage might be seen as an ironic deflation of or farewell to the role of theatre and its power of seizing people’s imaginations, not simply for entertainment and moral enlightenment, but equally (or more importantly) for their oppression through pleasing images of patriarchal colonialist or capitalist ideology.
I’m not sure if one could sustain such an interpretation of the play, and I have not thought it through sufficiently (particularly the ending where the illusion-making power is discarded). So I tend to return to the first understanding of the play as a celebration of theatre (with a strong biographical link). But with the Tempest, as with so many of Shakespeare’s plays, other complex possibilities will not leave my imagination alone.
POSTSCRIPT ON THE TEMPEST
In the context of the other plays we have studied this semester (and the lectures on them), we might want to see the ending of this play as a movement beyond the tragic vision. I mentioned (following Stanley Cavell) in discussing Antony and Cleopatra how Cleopatra’s suicide is inherently theatrical, opposing the drama of her personal commitment to Antony to Octavius’s planned political theatre featuring her in his triumphal march through Rome. I mentioned at that time that if this view has any merit, there is still a tragic sense in the end of that play because such personal theatre is possible only in death.
We might want to see in The Tempest a gentler sense that the theatre of personal fulfilment in human relationships is opened up to us a living possibility, not simply a script for a final scene. If so, then the play might be offering a hope that, even if there is no certain answer about life’s most important questions in the world of politics, there are important possibilities which can be realized (if only temporarily) in personal commitments to love and forgiveness (whether fostered by theatrical art or not). The ambiguous ironies at the end of the play suggest to me that, if such a vision is at work here, it is not given to us as a robust affirmation, perhaps more as a fervent hope.
AFTERWORD [added in December 2001]
In my remarks above I suggested that interpreting the Tempest as an allegory about art seems to make more sense of the play than approaching it as an allegory about colonial powers, but that there might be an interesting possibility of combining the two around the notion that artistic celebration and political practice are not mutually exclusive (especially in Shakespeare, where dramatic depictions of royal power are an important political tool). I also (implicitly) suggested that the most difficult interpretative problem facing someone who wishes to emphasize the political dimensions of the play is Ariel, a non-human agent who plays a major role in arranging and conducting the theatrical events we witness and whose remarks to Prospero mark a decisive point in his life on the island. Any decision to make Ariel merely human (in order to give him secular political weight)--as in Jonathan Miller’s production--obviously removes something central to the text (and might well create something of a puzzle about Ariel’s powers).
Recently (about two years ago) a student of mine, Ms Alison Miller, wrote an extremely interesting paper addressing this issue. She explored the notion that the Tempest is, indeed, dealing with colonial issues, but that the guiding spirit of the experiment is not Prospero but Ariel, who is, in effect, a version of the Trickster figure in First Nations mythology.
I don’t want to rehearse her argument here (in any case, I no longer have the paper in front of me), but I call attention to this suggestion because it does bridge very nicely the apparent gap between politics and art (and reminds us that one should never rule out interpretative possibilities). In her interpretation Ms. Miller argued that Ariel’s function in the play is to emerge from captivity (a common Trickster theme) and educate Prospero and Caliban (and others), through his magical powers, into a new and better awareness of how to deal with each other. Thanks to Ariel, Prospero decides to leave the island, and Caliban is left (now in charge of Prospero’s apparatus) to govern himself and the island with his newly discovered sense of himself.
I’m not sure if such an approach to the play has ever been the basis for a dramatic production, but, I must admit, the theatrical possibilities are very tempting, since this entry into the play seems to offer a complex and challenging synthesis of both the political and the theatrical possibilities of the play, and it certainly turns Ariel into an extraordinarily interesting figure, the guiding spirit of the encounter between European visitors and native owners.