Many commentators agree in the belief that The Tempest is the last creation of Shakespeare. I will readily believe it. There is in The Tempest the solemn tone of a testament. It might be said that, before his death, the poet, in this epopee of the ideal, had designed a codicil for the Future. . . . The Tempest is the supreme denouement, dreamed by Shakespeare, for the bloody drama of Genesis. It is the expiation of the primordial crime. The region whither it transports us is the enchanted land where the sentence of damnation is absolved by clemency, and where reconciliation is ensured by amnesty to the fratricide. And, at the close of the piece, when the poet, touched by emotion, throws Antonio into the arms of Prospero, he has made Cain pardoned by Abel.
—Victor Hugo, Oeuvres complètes de Shakespeare
It is inevitable, given the position of The Tempest as William Shakespeare’s final solo dramatic work, to hear in Prospero’s epilogue to the play, Shakespeare’s farewell to his audience:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. . .
. . . Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Prospero bows out on a note of forgiveness, the tone that finally rules the play along with an affirmation in the essential goodness of humanity. It has been tempting, therefore, to view Prospero’s sentiment and his play as Shakespeare’s last word, his summation of a career and a philosophy, what critic Gary Taylor has called “the valedictory culmination of Shakespeare’s life work.” First performed at court on November 1, 1611, before the playwright’s exit to Stratford, The Tempest, however, is technically neither Shakespeare’s finale nor requiem. Two years later Shakespeare was back in London, collaborating with John Fletcher on The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII, and the lost play Cardenio. As intriguing as the biographical reading is, it is only one of The Tempest’s multiple layers of meaning and significance. Called by critic T. M. Parrot, “perhaps the best loved of all Shakespeare’s plays,” and by William Hazlitt as among the “most original and perfect of Shakespeare’s productions,” The Tempest continues to be one of the most performed and interpreted plays in the canon, generating (and withstanding) autobiographical, allegorical, religious, metaphysical, and more recently postcolonial readings. The play’s central figure has likewise shifted from Prospero, who fascinated the romantics, to Miranda, who has claimed the attention of feminists, to Caliban, who is exhibit A in the reading of the play as “a veritable document of early Anglo-American history,” according to writer Sydney Lee, containing “the whole history of imperialist America,” as stated by critic Leslie Fiedler. The Tempest has served as a poetic treasure trove and springboard for other writers, with allusions detectable in John Milton’s Comus, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, W. H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, and countless other works. Based on its popularity, persistence, and universality, The Tempest remains one of the richest and most fascinating of Shakespeare’s plays.
The Tempest is a composite work with elements derived from multiple sources. Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals,” whose romantic primitivism is satirized in Gonzalo’s plan for organizing society on Prospero’s island in the second act, is a possible source. So, too, are a German play, Comedy of the Beautiful Sidea, by Jacob Ayrer, about a magician prince whose only daughter falls in love with the son of his enemy, and several Italian commedia dell’arte pastoral tragicomedies set on remote islands and featuring benevolent magicians. Accounts of the Sea-Venture, the ship sent to Virginia to bolster John Smith’s colony that was wrecked on the coast of Bermuda in 1609, may have furnished Shakespeare with some of the details for the play’s opening storm. However, the most substantial borrowing for the plot of The Tempest comes from Shakespeare’s own previous plays, so much so, that scholar Stephen Greenblatt has described The Tempest as “a kind of echo chamber of Shakespearean motifs.” The complications following a shipwreck revisits Twelfth Night; the relocation of court society to the wilderness is featured in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also employs spirits and the supernatural to teach lessons and settle scores. The backstory of The Tempest—Prospero, the former duke of Milan, usurped by his brother—recalls Hamlet and King Lear. Miranda’s being raised in ignorance of her past and status as well as the debate between nature and nurture echo Pericles and The Winter’s Tale. Like both, The Tempest mixes light and dark, tragic and comic elements, yet compared to their baroque complexity, the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays after Macbeth obeys the Aristotelian unities of place and time (the only other Shakespearean play to do so is The Comedy of Errors), with its action confined to Prospero’s island, taking place over a period roughly corresponding to its performance time.
The Tempest begins with one of the most spectacular scenes in all of Shakespeare: the storm at sea that threatens the vessel whose passengers include King Alonso of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and Prospero’s hated brother Antonio, the usurping duke of Milan. Their life-and-death struggle enacted on stage is subjected to a double focus as Prospero reassures his daughter, Miranda, distraught over the fate of the passengers and crew, that he controls the tempest and that their danger is an illusion. The disaster, which he calls a “spectacle,” is artifice, and the play establishes an analogy between Prospero’s magic and the theatrical sleight of hand that initially seemed so realistic and thrilling. Prospero stands in for the artist here: Both magician and playwrights are conjurors, able to manipulate nature and make others believe in a reality without substance. The contrast between illusion and reality will be sounded throughout the play, suggesting that The Tempest is a metadrama: a play about playwriting and the power and limitations of the imagination. Prospero finally tells his daughter how they arrived on the island; how his brother, Antonio, joined in a conspiracy with Alonso to usurp his place as duke of Milan; how 12 years before Prospero and Miranda were set adrift at sea, provisioned only by a compassionate Neapolitan, Gonzalo. Friend and foes, aboard the vessel Prospero has seemed to wreck, are now under his control on the island where Prospero intends to exact his vengeance. Prospero, therefore, will use his long-studied magical arts to stage a reckoning for past offenses. The play proceeds under Prospero’s direction with a cast that either cooperates or complicates his intentions. Serving him are the ethereal Ariel, whom Prospero promises to free after completing his bidding, and the contrasting earthly and brutish Caliban, a witch’s son, whom Prospero says he has “us’d thee / (Filth as thou art) with human care, and lodg’d thee / In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate / The honor of my child.” Prospero, therefore, controls symbols of both sides of human nature: aspects of the imagination and fancy and baser instincts that come in conflict on the island as the play progresses.
As playwright Prospero must juggle three subplots: Miranda’s relationship with Ferdinand, the son of Alonso, who mourns his loss at sea; the plotting of Prospero’s brother, Antonio, and the king’s brother, Sebastian, to murder Alonso and seize his throne; and Caliban’s alliance with the jester Trinculo and butler Stefano to kill Prospero and reign in his stead. The first goes so well—Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love at first sight—that Prospero tests Ferdinand’s fidelity by appearing to punish him by making him his servant. Ferdinand, however, proves his devotion by gladly accepting his humiliation to be near Miranda. Prospero ends Ferdinand’s penance and testing in the first scene of act 4, declaring: “All thy vexations / Were but my trials of thy love, and thou / Hast strangely stood the test.” To seal the nuptial vows a ritual masque is performed by various mythological goddesses and pastoral figures. In the midst of the dance Prospero stops the performance to deliver one of the most celebrated speeches in all of Shakespeare’s plays:
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 rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Jaques in As You Like It asserted “All the world’s a stage,” and Macbeth described life as “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” Prospero’s speech suggests the transience of both human life and art, with its reference to “the great globe,” the name of Shakespeare’s theater, that, along with towers, palaces, and temples, “shall dissolve . . . like this insubstantial pageant.”
Made aware by Ariel of Caliban’s conspiracy with Trinculo and Stefano, Prospero distracts them from their purpose of murder by rich attire, which Trinculo and Stefano put on before being set upon by spirits. Their comic rebellion is matched by the more serious plot of Antonio and Sebastian to kill Alonso. An assassination attempt is halted by the appearance of spirits providing a banquet for the hungry men. Just as they try to satisfy their hunger the food disappears, replaced by Ariel, “like a harpy,” who accuses Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio of their crimes against Prospero and delivers their sentences:
. . . But remember,
For that’s my business to you, that you three
From Milan did supplant good Prospero;
Exposed unto the sea, which hath requit it
,Him, and his innocent child; for which foul deed
The powers, delaying not forgetting, have
Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures,
Against your peace. Thee of thy son, Alonso,
They have bereft; and do pronounce by me
Ling’ring perdition, worse than any death
Can be at once, shall step by step attend
You and your ways; whose wraths to guard you from—
Which here, in this most desolate isle, else fall
sUpon your heads—is nothing but heart’s sorrow,
And a clear life ensuing.
Prospero, approving of Ariel’s performance, declares, “They now are in my pow’r,” and the play turns on how he will decide to use that power.
At the start of the fifth act Prospero announces the climax of his plan: “Now does my project gather to a head,” with his victims now imprisoned to confront their guilt and fate. It is Ariel who shifts Prospero from vengeance to forgiveness by saying, “Your charm so strongly works ’em / That if you now beheld them your affections / Would become tender.” Ariel’s suggestion of what should be the reaction to human suffering shames Prospero into compassion:
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 moved 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. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel;
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.
Prospero turns away from revenge and the pursuit of power that had formerly ruled the destinies of so many Shakespearean heroes, including Hamlet, Macbeth, and many more. Prospero changes the plot of his play at its climax and then turns away from his art to reenter the human community:
. . . 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 end of Prospero’s plot, his art, and the play conjoin. Ariel returns with the prisoners, and Prospero pardons all, including his brother, before reclaiming his dukedom and reuniting father and son. Miranda, overcome by so many nobles on their formerly deserted island, declares:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world!
That has such people in’t!
Prospero, more soberly and less optimistically, responds to her words: “’Tis new to thee.” Finally, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo are brought in. The lowly status and ridiculousness of the latter two are exposed, prompting Caliban to assert:
I’ll be wise hereafter,
And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
Was I to take this drunkard for a god,
And worship this dull fool!
Having reestablished order and a harmonious future in the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero delivers on his promise to free Ariel before turning to the audience to ask for the same compassion and forgiveness he has shown. As Prospero has released the spirit Ariel, we are asked to do the same for Prospero. We now hold the power and the art to use it as we will:
. . . Now ’tis true
I must be here confined by you
Or sent to Naples. Let me not
,Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
If the play is not Shakespeare’s last will and testament, there scarcely can be a better: a play that affirms essential human goodness while acknowledging the presence of human evil, written in the full powers of the imagination, while conscious of its limitations and responsibilities.