William Shakespeares’s known play, “The Tempest,” was written towards the end of his career. The Tempest is a work of fantasy and an old-fashioned romance. The story contains a wise old magician, his godlike daughter, a brave young prince, and a cruel brother. It contains all the elements of a fairy tale in which ancient wrongs are righted and true lovers live happily ever after. The Tempest is also one of poetic atmosphere and metaphoric nature. Beginning with a storm and tragedy at sea, it ends on a note of serenity and joy. None of Shakespeare’s other dramas holds so much of the author’s mature reflection on life itself.
Early critics of The Tempest, concerned with meaning, attempted to establish symbolic correlations between the characters Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, and Miranda and such qualities as imagination, fancy, brutality, and innocence. Most critics read into Prospero’s control and direction of all the characters – which climaxes with the famous speech in which he gives up his magic wand – Shakespeare’s own dramatic progress and final farewell to the stage.
In the mid-twentieth century, criticism began to explore new levels of action and meaning, focusing on such themes as illusion versus reality, freedom versus slavery, revenge versus forgiveness, time, and self-knowledge. Some suggested that the enchanted island where the shipwreck occurs is a symbol of life itself: an enclosed arena wherein are enacted a range of human passions, dreams, conflicts, and self-discoveries. Such a wide-angled perspective satisfies both the casual reader who reads for fun and the reader who reads for a purpose.
This old English way of looking at things simply meant that the human world resembled the universe. In the major tragedies, this interaction is shown in the pattern between order and disorder, usually with violent acts. (the murder of Caesar, the capture of the throne by Richard III, Claudius’s murder of Hamlet’s father, Macbeth’s killing of Duncan) They also correlated with a sympathetic disruption of order of nature. Dependent upon such human events therefore are such unnatural or rare occurrences as tornados, rare animals and unimaginable storms. The idea that the world is but one’s imagination, and that Karma is given to those humans being who deserve ill will. These two ideas give validity to diverse interpretations of The Tempest and, as a matter of fact, encompasses many of them.
The initial “tempest,” called on by Prospero, wrecks the ship and finds analogy in Antonio’s long-past capture of Prospero’s area he controls and his setting Prospero and Miranda drifting at sea in a storm in the hope they will perish. When, years later, the court party – Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and Ferdinand, along with the drunken Stephano and Trinculo – is cast upon the island, its “evil deeds,” pitfalls, and enchantments make it a place where everyone will go through a learning process and most come to greater self-knowledge.
Illusions on this island, which include Ariel’s disguises, the disappearing banquet, and the line of glittering costumes that delude Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban, find counterparts in the characters’ illusions about themselves. Antonio comes to believe he is the rightful duke; Sebastian and Antonio, misled by determination, plan to kill Alonso and Gonzalo and make Sebastian dictator of Naples. The drunken trio of court Jester, Butler, and Caliban falsely see themselves as future conquerors and rulers of the island. Ferdinand is tricked into believing that his father drowned, and that Miranda is a goddess. Miranda, in turn, nurtured upon illusions by her father, knows little of human beings and their evil. Even Prospero must come to see he is not master of the universe and that revenge is not the answer after all. He must move to a higher reality, in which justice and mercy have greater power.
It has been noted that the island holds different meanings for different characters. The characters with integrity see it as a beautiful place; honest Gonzalo, for example, thinks it might be a utopia. Sebastian and Antonio, however, whose outlook is soured by their villainy, characterize the island’s air as perfumed by a rotten swamp. Whether a character feels a sense of freedom or of slavery is conditioned not just by Prospero’s magic but by the individual’s view of the island and his or her own makeup. The loveliest descriptions of the island’s beauty and enchantment come from Caliban, the half-human, who knew its offerings far better than anyone else before his enslavement by Prospero.
Perhaps in few of his other plays did Shakespeare create a closer relationship between the human and the natural universes. In The Tempest, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and cruelty and gentleness are matched with the external environment, and everything works toward a positive reunion of the best in both humans and nature. This harmony is expressed by the delightful pastoral masque Prospero stages for the young lovers, in which reapers and nymphs join in dancing, indicating the union of the natural with the supernatural. The coming marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda also foreshadows such harmony, as do the regret and forgiveness demonstrated by the major characters.
It may be true, as Prospero states in act 5, that upon the island “no man was his own,” but he also confirms that understanding comes like a “swelling tide,” and he promises calm seas for the homeward journey, after which all will presumably take up the tasks and the responsibilities of their respective station with improved perspective. As Prospero renounces his magic, Ariel is freed to return to the elements, and Caliban, true child of nature, is left to regain harmony with his world. Perhaps the satisfaction experienced by Shakespeare’s audiences results from the harmony between humans and nature that illuminates the close of the play.