The Tempest

The Arden  Shakespeare

by F.Kermode

  a summary edited by Massimo Mirizio


The Tempest  was first printed in The First Folio of Heminge and Condell in 1623. It is the first play in the volume and occupies nineteen of its pages. It has been suggested that Shakespeare composed the play in retirement at Strattford and was therefore obliged to write in various instructions which would have been unnecessary had he been at the playhouse. There is some other evidence that The Tempest was, more than most of the other plays, the object of editorial care; its division into Acts and Scenes is accurate and thorough, a more important consequence of this policy is the excellent punctuation of this text and the unusually elaborate stage directions.

The view that there must have been an earlier version of The Tempest different from that published in 1623 is widely held. More frequently stated at present is the view that the extant The Tempest is a late reworking of an earlier play by Shakespeare: the plot-resemblances between The Tempest and the German Die Schöne Sidea are strong enough to suggest that the two plays are materially connected and not merely analogous. The theory that the play was altered in various ways after Shakespeare completed it is more formidable.

The Tempest is a pastoral drama; it belongs to that literary kind which includes certain earlier English plays, but also Comus; it is concerned with the opposition of Nature and Art, as serious pastoral poetry always is and with the Sixth Book of the Faerie Queene, to which it is possibly directly indebted. The main opposition is between the worlds of Prospero’s Art and Caliban’s Nature. Caliban is the core of the play like the shepherd in formal pastoral, he is the natural man against whom the cultivated man is measured. But we are not offered a comparison between a primitive innocence in nature and a sophisticated decadence. Caliban represents nature without benefit of nurture; Nature, opposed to an Art which is man’s power over the created world and over himself; nature divorced from grace, or the senses without the mind. He differs from Iago and Edmund in that he is a “naturalist” by nature, without access to the art that makes love out of lust; the restraints of temperance he cannot, in his bestiality, know; to the beauty of the nurtured he opposes a monstrous ugliness; ignorant of gentleness and humanity, he is a savage and capable of all ill; he is born to slavery, not to freedom, of a vile and not of a noble union; and his parents represent an evil natural magic which is the antithesis of Prospero’s benevolent Art. Caliban is the ground of the play: his function is  to illuminate by contrast the world of art, nurture, civility; the world which none the less nourishes the Malice of Antonio and the guilt of Alonso, and stains a divine beauty with the crimes of ambition and lust. There is the possibility of purgation; and the tragicomic theme of the play, the happy shipwreck – “that which we accompt a punishment against evill is but a medicine against evill” – is the means to this end.

The relations of the play to the literature of voyaging remain of the greatest interest and usefulness. In May 1609 a fleet of nine ships with five hundreds colonists set out to strengthen John Smith’s Virginia colony; but on 25 July the Sea-Adventure was separated from the rest of the fleet by a storm. Being driven towards the coast of the Bermudas, the crew were forced to run their ship ashore; and when “neere land” she “fell in between two rockes, where she was fast lodged and locked for further budging”. That Shakespeare knew these narratives is now generally agreed. He was certainly acquainted with members of the Virginia Company. The natural life, the Golden Age, and related themes, giving rise as they do to considerations of justice and mercy, man fallen and redeemed, the reclamation of nature by the ministers of grace – these themes are constantly heard in The Tempest; but although the complex in which they occur is peculiar to the play, they were not novel to the contemporary reader of travel literature. Many books and many sermons effected a characteristic Renaissance union between moral and political implications and concerned themselves with the task of persuading the public that exploration was an honourable and indeed a sanctified activity. Drake was compared with Moses. Shakespeare’s knowledge of the field certainly goes beyond the Bermudas narratives. The Tempest also bears the marks of the application of an old learning to a new world. Its strong echoes of the Aeneid: Shakespeare has Virgil in mind. Gonzalo insists (wrongly) that Tunis and Carthage are the same place; the voyage of Alonso’s party was, like that of Aeneas, from Tunis to Naples, with a purgatorial interruption.

The only undisputed source for any part of The Tempest is Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals”; there are unmistakeable traces of Florio’s translation in the text. It has been argued that Shakespeare intends a satirical comment upon Montaigne’s apparent acceptance of the primitivistic view that a natural society, without the civilized accretions of law, customs and other artificial restraints, would be a happy one. The essay, like the play, is concerned with the general contrast between natural and artificial societies and men, though Montaigne assumes, in his “naturalist” way, that the New World offers an example of naturally virtuous life uncorrupted by civilization, whereas Shakespeare does not. The apparently antithetical views on the natural life to some extent controlled the reports of the voyagers upon whom Montaigne and Shakespeare both depend. They tended to describe the natives as purely virtuous or purely vicious. Prospero’s assumption of his right to rule the island, “to be the lord on’t”, is the  natural assumption of a European prince. Stephano’s claim to be descended from the moon was commonly made by unscrupulous voyagers who seized the chance of turning to account the polytheism of the Indians. Gonzalo’s half serious talk about his commonwealth serves to introduce into the play the theme of the natural life in a guise more appropriate to pastoral poetry which takes a “soft” view of Nature. At the end of the play we learn Gonzalo’s stature; he is not only the good natured calm old man of the  wreck, the cheerful courtier of the second act, and the pure soul of the third; he pronounces the benediction, and we see that he was all the time as right as it was human to be, even when to the common sense of the corrupt he was transparently wrong. And we see that Nature is not, in The Tempest defined with the single-minded clarity of a philosophic proposition. Shakespeare’s treatment of the theme has what all his mature poetry has, a richly analytical approach to ideas, which never reaches a naked opinion of true or false.

Caliban’s name is usually regarded as a development of some form of the word “Carib” meaning a savage inhabitant of the New World; “cannibal” derives from this, and Caliban is possibly a simple anagram of that word. But he is also associated with the wild or savage man of Europe, formerly the most familiar image of mankind without the ordination of civility. The wild man was a familiar figure in painting, heraldry, pageant, and drama. Unchastity was a conventional attribute of salvage men, which Shakespeare skilfully exploits. These creatures were believed to occupy an “intermediate position in the moral scale, below man, just as the angels were above him…they are the link between…the settled and the wild, the moral and the unmoral”. The “Names of the Actors” says about Caliban is that he is deformed. He is what Thersites called Ajax, “a very land-fish, languageless, a monster”. Caliban’s birth, as Prospero insists, was inhuman; he was “a born devil”, “got by the devil himself upon thy wicked dam”. He was the product of sexual union between a witch and an incubus, and this would account for his deformity, where the devil-lover was Setebos (all pagan gods were classified as devils) or some aquatic demon. Caliban’s mother belongs to the Old. She is a powerful witch, deliberately endowed with many of the qualities of classical witches, but also possessing a clearly defined place in the contemporary demonological scheme. She is a practitioner of “natural” magic,  a goetist who exploited the universal sympathies but whose power is limited by the fact that could command, as a rule, only devils and the lowest orders of spirits. Prospero, on the other hand, is a theurgist, whose Art is to achieve supremacy over the natural world by holy magic. The Neo-Platonic mage studies the harmonic relationships of the elementary, celestial, and intellectual worlds. His Art is “the absolute perfection of Natural Philosophy and includes the arts of astrology, alchemy, and ceremonial magic. The last thing that the “Names of the Actors” says about Caliban is that he is a slave. If Aristotle was right in arguing that “men…who are as much inferior to others as the body is to the soul…are slaves by nature, and it is advantageous for them to be under government”, and that “to find our governor we should…examine into a man who is perfectly formed in soul and body…for in the depraved and vicious the body seems to rule rather than the soul, an account of their bring corrupt and contrary to nature”, then the black and mutilated cannibal must be the natural slave of the European gentleman and the salvage and deformed Caliban of the learned Prospero.

Caliban’s origins and character are natural in the sense that they do not partake of grace, civility, and art; he is ugly in body, associated with an evil natural magic, and unqualified for rule or nurture. He exists at the simplest level of sensual pain and pleasure, fit for lechery because love is beyond his nature, and a natural slave of demons. He hears music with pleasure, as music can appeal to the beast who lacks reason; and indeed he resembles Aristotle’s man. He is a measure of the incredible superiority of the world of Art, but also a measure of its corruption. For the courtiers and their servants include the incontinent Stephano and the malicious Antonio. Caliban scorns the infirmity of purpose exhibited by the first, and knows better than Antonio that  it is imprudent to resist grace, for which he says, he will henceforth seek. Unlike the incontinent man, whose appetites subdue his will, and the malicious man, whose will is perverted to evil ends, “the bestial man has no sense of right and wrong and therefore sees no differences between good and evil. His state is less guilty but more hopeless than those of incontinence and malice, since he cannot be improved.” Men can abase their degree below the bestial; and there is possibly a hint, for which there is no support in Aristotle, that the bestial Caliban gains a new spiritual dimension from his glimpse of the “brave spirits”. Whether or no this is true

He is an extraordinarily powerful and comprehensive type of Nature; an inverted pastoral hero, against whom civility and the Art which improves Nature may be measured.

Prospero’s Art has two functions in The Tempest. The first is simple; as a mage he exercises the supernatural powers of the holy adept. His Art is here the disciplined exercise of virtuous knowledge, a “translation of merit into power”, the achievement of “an intellect pure and conjoined with the powers of the gods, without which we shall never happily ascend to the scrutiny of secret things and to the power of wonderful workings”. This Art is contrasted with the natural power of Sycorax to exploit for evil purposes the universal sympathies. It is a technique fro liberating the soul from the passions, from nature; the practical application of a discipline of which the primary requirements are learning and temperance, and which the mode is contemplation. The second function is symbolic. Prospero’s Art controls Nature; it requires of the artist virtue and temperance if his experiment is to succeed; and it stands for the world of the better nature and its qualities. This is the world which closed to Caliban  (and Comus); the world of mind and the possibilities of liberating the soul, not the world of sense, whether that be represented as coarsely natural or charmingly voluptuous. Art is not only a beneficent magic in contrast to an evil one; it is the ordination of civility, the control of appetite, the transformation of nature by breeding and learning; it is even, in a sense, the means of Grace. Prospero is, therefore, the representative of Art, as Caliban is of Nature. In an age  when “natural” conduct was fashionably associated with sexual promiscuity, chastity alone could stand as the chief function of temperance restraint in The Tempest The practice of good magic required it; but in this it is again merely the practical application of civility. The self-discipline of the magician is the self-discipline of the prince. It was the object of the good ruler to make his people good by his own efforts; and that he might do so it was considered necessary for him to acquire learning, and to rid himself “of those troublous affections that untemperate mindes feele” (Castiglione). The personal requirements of mage and prince are the same, and Prospero labours to regain a worldly as well as heavenly power. Like James I in the flattering description, he “standeth invested with that triplicitie which in great veneration was ascribed to the ancient Hermes, the power and fortune of a King, the knowledge and illumination of a Priest, and the Learning and universalitie of a Philosopher”.

Learning is a major theme in the play; we learn that Miranda is capable of it and Caliban not. Prospero, like Adam, fell from his kingdom by an inordinate thirst for knowledge; but learning is a great aid to virtue, the road by which we may love and imitate God, and “repair the ruins of our first parents” (Milton), and by its means he is enabled to return.

We can now see the force and the purpose of the plot-devices by which Shakespeare compares the education of Miranda with that of Caliban, the love of Ferdinand with the lust of Caliban, the magic of Prospero with that of the parents of Caliban, the worlds of Prospero’s Art and Caliban’s Nature; but there are other contrasts also, which are equally clear, and in which Caliban serves as a criterion, not of the beauty and civility, but of the corruption, of the nobly born. The intemperance and folly of Stephano and Trinculo are easy enough to explain, but how are we to account for the guilt already borne and the new evils planned by men of princely stock, endowed with the “seed”, and higher in the scale of life than Caliban? Antonio is a degenerate nobleman. Caliban has no choice but to be vile; but in Antonio there was surely a predisposition to virtuous conduct; we see in Antonio the operation of sin in a world magically purified but still allowing freedom to the will; the inhabitants of this world can abase themselves below those who live unaided at the level of nature. What has become of Antonio’s nobility, his predisposition to virtue? There is a hint to the answer in the treatment in the play of the word “virtue”, which is closely related to the nature of the noble. The noble are virtuous. Prospero, with true princely magnanimity, decides that the act of revenge, when at his mercy lie all his enemies, must remain undone, since “virtue” is nobler than vengeance. This is virtue in a Christian sense; specifically the virtue of forgiveness; and it supplants revenge as the duty of the courtier. But it had been virtuous in a courtier to seek vengeance – it had been of the essence of nobility to do so; the conflict between these two concepts of virtuous action in certain situation had for long been a feature of the Elizabethan drama. For the virtue which the essence of a magical nobility is not necessarily a Christian or a stoic virtue; it can be, and very generally is, virtù. This paradox is most clearly seen in Machiavelli, with whom virtù is a favourite word and means the proper action of a prince on the political level, whether it is “virtuous” in the ethical sense or not. The proposal Antonio makes to Sebastian in the second Act is that Sebastian should secure his accession to the throne of Naples by the murder of all the opposition, that is Alonso and Gonzalo; he would include the rest were he not sure of their support. Antonio’s conduct is perfectly “virtuous” in a Machiavellian sense, and this radical perversion of virtue represents the extent of his degeneracy, and the degree to which he is alienated from the redemption scheme of which Prospero is the agent. In so far as Caliban is his measure, the natural man functions like the virtuous shepherd of normal pastoral, to indicate corruption and degeneracy in the civilized world; if the natural man is a brute, so much the more terrible is the sin of the nobleman who abases himself below the natural. [...]



Milan, January 2005