The Tempest

by William Shakespeare

Prospero                           The rarer action is
     In virtue than in vengeance.

The Tempest, William Shakespeare, Act 5, Scene 1: 27-28


Communism was a gigantic façade, and the reality concealed behind it was the sheer drive for power, for total power as an end in itself.

Leszek Koakowski (1927-2009), "Communism as a Cultural Force," Is God Happy? Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, p.36]

Shakespeare's The Tempest is a play about power. This should make it the darling of the post-modern elite, who see everything in terms of power (in an incongruous mash of Marx and Nietzsche); but there is a catch. The story is about the use, but only the limited use, and then the surrender, of power. This is not at all agreeable. You get power so that you can reward your friends and punish your enemies, forever. You get power so that you can indulge your vindictive nature and crush the little people (like "Joe the Plumber") who dare inconvenience you. But Prospero, although setting out to punish, in the end does so only in the mildest way. He forgives. This is incomprehensible to progressive political sensibilities. The Tempest is thus a lesson, and likely an unwelcome one, for the ages. Yet it illustrates a wisdom that was already described by Plato and that is evident in the greatest statesman, such as George Washington.

The focus of the play is on Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda ("admirable," "wonderful"), whose name was apparently coined by Shakespeare. "Prospero" (Latin Prosperus) itself was not the name of any actual Duke of Milan but had been the name of some early saints (e.g. Prosper of Aquitaine, died c.455 AD) and was popular, as "Prosper," with English Puritans. The name has very Christian overtones, Pro spe, "for, as good as, as a reward for, according to," Hope, spes, one of the three Pauline theological virtues. This is of interest, since there is little overt Christianity in Shakespeare, or even in this story, which nevertheless has the occasional references, as to "Providence divine" (Act 1 Scene 2: 159). Indeed, Prospero's use of supernatural powers places him in a decidedly un-Christian context; and the meaning of the name "Prospero" has been compared to the name "Faustus," which in Latin means "favorable, lucky, auspicious," with the grim association of the story of Dr. Faustus, who made a pact with the Devil to acquire his own supernatural powers. Yet this is so far from the tone of Prospero's practice that he condemns, or explains, Caliban's character as the result of him having been "got by the Devil himself" (Act 1 Scene 2: 320). We are clearly given to understand that Prospero's powers are simply the fruit of his own study, from books.

Prospero was betrayed by his brother, Antonio, who, enlisting the help of the King of Naples, Alonso (at the cost of making Milan a vassal of Naples), overthrew Prospero and set him and the infant Miranda adrift in a small boat. Thanks to Alonso's noble counselor, Gonzalo, Prospero and Miranda had been provided with such supplies that allowed them to survive until they fetched up on an isolated island, where they have lived ever since. The presence of Gonzalo is already a clue about Alonso; for as Machiavelli said, "A prince who is not wise himself cannot be wisely counseled" (The Prince, Daniel Donno translation, Bantam, 1981, p.82), which means that a vicious prince would not endure the presence of a noble counselor like Gonzalo. The foolish and corrupt monarch always scorns, exiles, or executes those prepared to give him honest and upright advice and remonstration -- the Confucian , or "Conscientious Minister" (Chûshin in Japanese, whose meaning has drifted into "loyal retainer," with a different ideology). We thus may already suspect that Alonso will genuinely reform and repent of his actions.

On the island, Prospero discovered Caliban, the only inhabitant, described as "a savage and deformed slave" (Dramatis Personae). Caliban is the orphan of Sycorax, a witch who was exiled to the island from Algiers. Caliban's unknown paternity, of course, allows Prospero to entertain the darkest suspicions about it. Sycorax apparently did not live long enough even to teach Caliban to speak. This instruction has been accomplished by Prospero and Miranda. But when Caliban tries to rape Miranda, the relationship turns hostile, and Prospero subsequently treats Caliban as a slave. He has no difficulty controlling him because of his own magical powers, which also have enabled him to rescue the spirit Ariel, whom Sycorax had imprisoned in a tree on the island. Since we come to like Ariel, this adds to our sense that Sycorax was not a nice person, and that her magic was probably of the "black" variety, unlike the "white" magic of Prospero. Her exile was "For mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible" (Act 1 Scene 2: 265). We will also be given to understand, however, that it is not the magic itself, which even Prospero can use in a terrible way, but the character and virtue of the magician, that makes the difference.

As the play begins, Prospero is aware, from his paranormal resources, that Antonio, Alonso, Gonzalo, and their party, "By accident most strange" (Act 1 Scene 2: 195), are in a ship passing near the island, after attending the wedding of Alonso's daughter Claribel to the "King of Tunis." There was, of course, no King of Tunis, and certainly not a Christian one to whom Alonso might be giving a daughter. Tunisia was ruled by the H.afs.id dynasty until 1574, and then under the Ottomans until the H.usaynid dynasty assumed power in 1705, well after Shakespeare's time. Be that as it may, Prospero raises the eponymous "tempest" of the play, which blows overboard the individuals with whom he has some business, including Alonso's son and heir Ferdinand, and some others. They all think that the ship is sunk, but actually Ariel has put the crew under a spell and has safely anchored the ship at the island. The action of the play deals with all the characters as the castaways make their way across the island and ultimately encounter Prospero and Miranda.

It already clear that, despite references to the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, The Tempest, unlike Shakespeare's "historical" plays, is concerned with no genuine historical realities. There were in fact two Kings of Naples named "Alfonso," i.e. "Alonso," who both had sons named "Ferdinand." The names Alonso, Ferdinand, and Gonzalo in the play are all Spanish in origin, reflecting the involvement of the Kingdom of Aragón in Italian affairs since the revolt of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. Alfonso I, who was also King Alfonso V of Aragón, was a person of sufficient ambition and capacity that he might be our "Alonso" of the play. He was the king who actually obtained Naples by ejecting the French Anjevian claimants. However, his natural son, Ferdinand I (Ferrante), was a ruthless and appalling tyrant, whom we would not want to see as the adult version of young Ferdinand in the play. King Alfonso II ruled Naples only briefly before abdicating. His son, Ferdinand II (Ferrantino), came to the throne at age 26 and successfully dealt with the overwhelming invasion of Charles VIII of France in 1495. This Ferdinand is sufficiently appealing and sympathetic that we might like to see him, and I can just see him, as a suitable match for Miranda. The historical Ferdinand II, however, married his (younger) aunt and died young, in 1496.

Similarly, there was a Duke of Milan who was deposed in that era. In 1479, Gian Galeazzo Sforza was pushed aside by his uncle, Ludovico. Gian, however, was not sent into exile, had no magical powers, and lingered until he died, or was poisoned, in 1494. Shakespeare has thus used the history of Italy simply as grist for the kind of story that he wants to tell, with only passing similarities to actual people. The extra-historical nature of the names "Prospero" and "Miranda" is a clue that we are dealing with something apart from the normal course of historical events.

After some action on the ship during the tempest, and then the appeal of Miranda for Prospero to quiet the storm, we are introduced to the background of the relationships on the island. Prospero fills Miranda in on her origins, about which he had not previously enlightened her. After this, Prospero calls up Ariel, who has helped effect the fruits of the tempest. But then we have a rather sharp exchange. Ariel is expecting his freedom, and Prospero reacts with some anger, recalling the embarrassment from which the spirit was rescued. Prospero browbeats and threatens Ariel, which gives us the impression of a great fury within him and a merciless intention for vengeance on his enemies. But he suddenly softens and tells Ariel, "And after two days I will discharge thee" (Line 299). Thus, despite his expression of anger, Prosper has actually responded to Ariel's original complaint with a just and satisfying answer. This is not the manner of a tyrant, and so we have a clue that Prospero may not be a person dominated by his furious anger and grievances after all.

Ariel is sent on his mission, and Prospero and Miranda visit Caliban, who is merely instructed to fetch some firewood. In the exchange, however, we learn about Caliban's background and history, and his current feelings towards Prospero, which are bitter. All of this is a matter upon which much of the recent academic interest in the play has become founded. Caliban is a victim of European colonialism. He is the Third World exploited by white oppression. However, this approach is a double-edged sword. If Caliban represents the natives ruled by European empires, he is very far from being a noble victim of injustice. Having been raised from his dumb and feral condition, he is now unrepentant that he tried to rape Miranda:

Caliban  Oh ho, oh ho, would't had been done!
      Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else
      This isle with Calibans.

Act 1, Scene 2: 350-352

With no other obvious prospect for reproduction, perhaps we can sympathize a bit with Caliban; but his attitude is violent, ungrateful, and irrationally hostile. This is not a good start if we want Caliban to be an oppressed victim. The continuing story of Caliban, furthermore, may contain elements, as we shall see, all too familiar from post-colonial history, to the discomfit of the anti-imperialist reading of the play. And Caliban himself, like Alonso, learns to think better of his doings -- indeed, as he says, "And I'll be wise hereafter,/And seek for grace." (Act 5 Scene 1: 297-298).

Having, by threats and reproaches, sent Caliban off on his humble task, Prospero turns to the first encounter that he now arranges with the castaways. Young Ferdinand has been deliberately stranded alone, for the express purpose of being brought to meet Miranda. It is mutual love at first sight, perhaps not surprisingly for Miranda, who has seen no one like this handsome youth, but for Ferdinand also, who has had a more worldly experience of women, including those desperate to catch the attention of a Royal heir, at his father's Court. So we are given to understand that Miranda is no common beauty, and her innocence and sweetness are apparent from the dialogue. In her first impression of the boy, we find Miranda expressing the naive and hopeful confidence that will continue to characterize her:

Miranda  There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple.
      If the ill spirit have so fair a house,
      Good things will strive to dwell with't.

Act 1, Scene 2: 459-462

The principle here is that the beautiful must be good. The beautiful body of the young man, a "temple" that is "so fair a house," cannot possibly harbor anything "ill," as it will be protected by the "good things" that will crowd out or reform the bad. The Greeks at first would have thought so. We know, however, that the fair, whether in form, word, or manner, can conceal wickedness and corruption, upon which Oscar Wilde grimly meditated in The Picture of Dorian Gray, without the cynicism we might otherwise expect from his wit. This truth is the basis for the theory of value discussed elsewhere at this site.

The role of this romance in the story, so different in tone from the rest of the play, bespeaks the solid and realistic political calculation of Prospero. Miranda is the heiress of Milan, and a suitable match is needed for her. Its importance is shown in that it is the first thing that Prospero accomplishes in his designs. It also tells us already that Prospero is unlikely to kill or even harm Alonso. That would constitute an ugly wedding present to Prospero's new son-in-law, whose progeny will also be the heirs of Milan. Prospero is not so confused as to poison this future. Nor does he. It also sweetens the pot for Alonso. How can he object to the restoration of Milan to Prospero when Milan will then simply pass to Alonso's own line? This will be an outcome no different, in fact better, than if Prospero and his claims had not now turned up. Since Antonio, as we shall learn, will be no more faithful to Alonso than to Prospero, this improves the situation of the house of Naples considerably. Such, indeed, is the perfect political compromise:  to give your enemies, by force and threat, what their heartfelt wishes would be anyway. It is a clever statesman indeed who can effect such policies, and it seems to be Prospero's manner in general, whether with Alonso or with Ariel.

To test his mettle, Prospero puts Ferdinand to work -- gathering wood like Caliban. Miranda just can't let him do this alone and uncomforted, so we see them later in another encounter, where they confess their love and promise marriage (under the watchful but hidden benevolence of Prospero). We have a nice moment of the "tears of joy" that I have discussed elsewhere.

Miranda                                 I am a fool
     To weep at what I am glad of.

Act 3, Scene 1: 73-74

Meanwhile we have had less edifying developments. Act 2 begins with the party of Antonio, Alonso, Gonzalo, Alonso's brother Sebastian, and some other courtiers (including Adrian and Francisco, who, however, play little part in the action or dialogue and can as well be forgotten). Antonio and Sebasian amuse themselves by making fun of the discourse of Gonzalo, by which he attempts to asuage the fears of Alonso. Alonso himself, however, wishes they would all just be quiet. He is sure that Ferdinand has died and they are all indefinitely stranded on the island.

In this situation, Ariel intervenes by putting everyone to sleep, except Antonio and Sebastian. Now we learn the truth of Antonio's character. He persuades the pliable Sebastian that they should kill Alonso and Gonzalo, so that Sebasian will become King and -- incidentally -- Antonio can be free of his fealty to Naples. They have their swords drawn and are on the point of carrying out this treachery when Ariel awakens Gonzalo and then Alonso. Surprised in the act, Antonio and Sebastian claim that they have heard threatening noises and are thus simply prepared to defend the King. Their explanation is accepted, but we know better, as does Ariel and so Prospero.

Meanwhile, Caliban is off collecting wood and nursing his grievance. In the course of this he sees Trinculo, another castaway, described as "a jester." Caliban thinks that Trinculo is a spirit sent by Prospero to torment him. He hides under his "gabardine." Approaching, Trinculo doesn't quite know what he has found, something that looks a bit like a man but smells like a fish. He is then terrified by the thunder of what may be another approaching tempest and hides under the "gabardine" with Caliban, speaking the memorable words, "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows" (Act 2 Scene 2: 37-38). This whole business, with its sequel, is played for humor and does not use the blank verse (the unrhymed iambic pentameter) that characterizes the serious lines of the play.

Now Stephano, another castaway, "a drunken butler," wanders up, singing and drinking, and comes upon the strange pile of covered bodies. After some comic byplay, the figures are all disentangled, introduced, and Caliban discovers the pleasure of strong drink. In this state, he decides that Stephano, who claims to be the "Man in the Moon" (Lines 128-129), is his savior and offers to guide him to the assassination of Prospero and the assumption of the rule of the island, with whose resources he will acquaint him. Trinculo already sees the problem here, "A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a poor drunkard" (Line 155-156). And, indeed, this is where the anti-colonial reading of The Tempest may come too close to the truth for comfort.

As post-colonial intellectuals and rulers swallowed whole the anti-imperialist ideology of Lenin, whose economics already was not that different from English socialists, newly independent states, particularly in Africa, set out on a course of economic destruction and political despotism whose rotten fruit was already conspicuous by the 1970's, and undeniable by the 1980's. The great leaders of liberation soon became known as "Swiss bank account socialists," and the economies of their states soon provided less wealth for the masses than they had under the "exploitation" of European colonial masters. As those leaders were overthrown, military dictatorship, civil war, and massacre quickly became the cycle of life of much of Africa. Since the popularity of socialist "development" economics nevertheless continued among intellectuals in the West, and what it added up to was handing money to the new rulers, those rulers usually had little motive to deny its effectiveness. They learned to play on Western guilt in order to increase "aid," regardless of its actual effects on the ground. Whether this was done cynically by gangsters and thieves -- hence "keptocracy" for such regimes -- or with complete and noble sincerity, as with Julius Nyerere (19221999) in Tanzania, the outcome was the same.

Our Caliban thus has fallen into a trap all too familiar from the history of the late 20th century. Unfortunately, it is not the spectacle of drunken butlers that appears in the public eye, but somber economists and confident academics, or Bono, who can ignore the damage they have done and continue pushing the same threadbare ideology, counting on liberal guilt, ignorance, and deliberate blindness to continue the hoax. Like the kleptocrats, they profit from it in their own way. The English department Marxists, whose economic illiteracy is actually of a cargo cult variety far less sophisticated than any real Marxism, derive their own benefit, as rent seekers and irresponsible bureaucrats, from the debasement of education into indoctrination. By this they elevate their timid, protected, and parasitic lives, at the public trough, into the high drama of imagined Revolution. As it happens, Caliban will think better of this before they do.

Act three opens with the encounter of Ferdinand and Miranda previously referenced, when they confess their love and promise marriage. This is followed by another scene with Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, which adds little to the situation, except that Ariel has some fun and stirs up conflict between Trinculo and the others. At some strange music, played by Ariel, Stephano and Trinculo are alarmed, but Caliban reassures them:

Caliban  Be not afeared, this isle is full of noises,
     Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
     Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
     Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,
     That if I then had waked after long sleep,
     Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming
     The clouds methought would open, and show riches
     Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
     I cried to dream again.
Stephano  This will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall
     have my music for nothing.
Caliban  When Prospero is destroyed.

Act 3, Scene 2: 131-142

We thus see the poetry that is latent in the sensitive heart of Caliban, and his love of the island, which he accuses Prospero of having stolen from him. However, if this music he recounts is like the present music, produced by Ariel, then this charm of the island, beloved of Caliban, is actually an artifact of Prospero's presence and will disappear with him. Thus, when the imperialists depart, their works, so much to the benefit of their colonies, have often been left to decay, leaving the locals to dictatorship and poverty, if not the murder, anarchy, and starvation that have eventuated in "failed states" like Somalia -- much like the condition of Britain after being abandoned by Rome in 410. Fortunately for Caliban, his design will fail.

We then return to Alonso's party. A strange, miraculous banquet is presented to them, from the magic of Prospero and Ariel. Just as Alonso and the courtiers decide that they may eat, however, Ariel appears in the form of "a harpy," which of course is a spirit of retribution. The banquet disappears, and Ariel upbraids Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian with their crimes:

Ariel  You are three men of sin...
     Being the most unfit to live. I have made you mad...

                                                          you three
     From Milan did supplant good Prospero,
     Exposed unto the sea (which had requit it)
     Him, and his innocent child.

Act 3, Scene 3: 53, 58, 69-72

Ariel thus leaves them in no doubt for what cause they are now to be punished with "Lingering perdition" (Line 77). Telling Alonso that he is "bereft" of his son, he gives the impression that Fernando is dead. They are left wandering, fighting invisible foes, "knit up/In their distractions" (Line 90), as Prospero says. Gonzalo reflects that their madness has come on "Like poison to work a great time after" (Line 105) the acts for which they are guilty. He begs the other courtiers, from one of whom, Adrian, we hear briefly, to follow the three and "hinder" them from causing some harm to themselves or others.

Having condemned the principals to their punishment, Prospero returns to the more agreeable consideration of Miranda and Ferdinand. In a most realistic concern, he counsels Ferdinand against prematurely consumating their love:

Prospero   Then, as my gift and thine own acquisition
      Worthily purchasd, take my daughter. But
      If thou dost break her virgin knot before
      All sanctimonious ceremonies may
      With full and holy rite be ministered,
      No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
      To make this contract grow, but barren hate,
      Sour-eyed disdain, and discord, shall bestrew
      The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
      That you shall hate it both. Therefore take heed,
      As Hymen's lamps shall light you.

Act 4, Scene 1: 13-23

This seems a curious place for a discourse on the numinous and prudential benefits of marriage sanctioned (and sanctified) by religion. It is a very quaint concern today, when increasing numbers of children are born out of wedlock, and marriage is a political football far beyond, indeed in open defiance of, the strictures of traditional religions. Yet the prevalence of divorce, violence, and neglect, in the "underclass" of all races, in the United States and abroad, would seem to confirm the value of Prospero's caution.

Prospero then sends Ariel to fetch a troop of spirits to perform a masque for the amusement of Miranda and Ferdinand. We meet Iris, Ceres, Juno, and Naiads, whose pagan origin reminds us of the extra-Christian context of Prospero's powers, although it is presented with no sense of its possible incongruence next to the "sanctimonious ceremonies" and the "full and holy rite" that Prospero has just required of the lovers.

The masque having proceeded for some time, Prospero suddenly recollects that Caliban and his confederates are approaching. He is disconcerted at this distraction and his forgetfullness, which Miranda and Ferdinand perceive. Prospero reassures the lovers that the masque was an illusion, which has now "melted into air, into thin air" (Line 150). From this reassurance, however, Prospero passes into a most grim reflection. We come to one of the supreme moments of The Tempest:

Prospero  The cloud-capped 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.

Act 4, Scene 1: 152-158

One of the most famous versions of the most famous line here may be at the end of the movie of The Maltese Falcon [1941], where Sam Spade explains that the black bird is "the stuff that dreams are made of." This was one of the few lines in the movie that was not in the original book by Dashiell Hammett [1929].

Shakespeare scholars see this passage, following as it does on the characterization of the masque, as a reflection on the theater, such as the actors we see in the play themselves occupy in its performance. Indeed, this can be part of it. Great art can be read and interpreted at many levels. But there is a quite literal meaning in the passage, that Prospero is reflecting on life itself, not just on the masque or on the theater. Our own real "little" lives "are such stuff/As dreams are made on," and we shall all in time find that "sleep." Prospero's awareness of this is confirmed in one of his last statements in the play, after all the practical issues have been resolved:

Prospero   And thence retire me to my Milan, where
     Every third thought shall be my grave.

Act 5, Scene 1: 313-314

For a play where no one has died, and a conventional happy ending has been accomplished, this is an unexpectedly harsh anticipation. But it is one of the keys to the whole. Prospero's attitude and use of power depends on this:  the emptiness, transience, and vanity of worldly affairs. With no overtly Christian message, we nevertheless find the reasons for a Christian motivation. Prospero does not have the heart for the depths of vengeance that we find in some of Shakespeare's other plays, or for the extent of the exercise of the power that we soon learn he is capable, because he sees the ultimate limit and futility to it all. Prospero's true substantive goal is simply to provide for Miranda. All the rest is, after a fashion, incidental. This does not mean he is always focused; and both he and we may be uncertain at times how far his vengeance will go. But, as we have seen already, his flashes of excess, initially with Ariel, are easily corrected.

One reason that Shakespeare scholars may think of all this as a reflection on the theater rather than on life is their understanding that The Tempest was the last play that Shakespeare wrote on his own, in 1610 or 1611, and thus was in the manner of a farewell to the theater. This may be true; but, even as the reading discounts the profundity of the literal meaning, it is also largely a matter of speculation. There is no direct evidence for when Shakespeare's plays were written, and The Tempest did not appear in print until the First Folio of 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death in 1616. There it was the first play of the collection, which affords it some importance, but exactly why, we do not know. Otherwise, there is precious little direct evidence for Shakespeare's life, and even his will makes no mention of the disposition of his papers, his books, or his manuscripts, no evidence of any of which has ever emerged. This has fueled speculations for many years that Shakespeare's name was being used as a pen name by another author, probably one of the patrons of his acting troop. Yet little in the way of such papers survive from that era, and I believe that the circumstances of writing and publishing familiar in modern life only barely began taking on that form after the Restoration in 1660. Be that as it may, the best analysis of The Tempest as art is in its own terms. There we see Prospero sharpely sensible of his mortality and of its implications.

Caliban and his friends are brought in; but Stephano and Trinculo are distracted by some attractive clothes. Caliban tries in vain to recall them to their purpose, but it is hopeless. He now realizes what fools they are and how ill judged was his estimation and confidence in them. He expects the worst from Prospero, who indeed has voiced a terrible judgment and anger against him:

Prospero   A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
      Nurture can never stick. On whom my pains,
      Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost,
      And, as with age, his body uglier grows,
      So his mind cankers. I will plague them all,
      Even to roaring.

Act 4, Scene 1: 188-193

Prospero calls up "spirits in the shape of hounds" who chase the lot of them off onto the island. But, as it happens, Prospero's bark is truly worse than his bite. None of them are really harmed, and Caliban will suffer no further punishment. Indeed, Prospero is out of his reckoning. Caliban learns from this experience. Not having previously appreciated Prospero's "nurture," he better understands its value from the perspective he gains in dealing with people like Stephano and Trinculo.

Now, beginning Act 5, Prospero can turn to resolving things with his proper enemies. He asks Ariel how they are doing, and is told that they are "all three distracted," with the other courtiers "mourning over them," especially "the good old lord, Gonzalo," whose "tears run down his heard like winter's drops" (Act 5 Scene 1: 12-13, 15-16). Then we get from Ariel something that must sound like a reproach and a remonstration. This is another supreme moment of the play. Prospero is called back from the extreme application of vengeance:

Ariel                      Your charm so strongly works 'em
     That if you now beheld them, your affections
     would become tender.
Prospero                          Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel  Mine would, sir, were I human.
Prospero                                          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 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.

Act 5, Scene 1: 17-32

If we wondered how far Prospero was prepared to go with his vengeance, we were not alone. Ariel seems to have had the same worry. Ariel, "which art but air," voices the full concern of human compassion. We might wonder if Prospero is stung to be thus reminded by a voice that must confess, "were I human." We might even expect an angry response, as in Prospero's first exchange with Ariel. Nothing of the sort. His affections immediately "become tender" also, and he only pauses to reflect how they should be. Ariel has met little resistance; but Prospero then moves to reach beyond humane affections to the eternal righteousness of "nobler reason" and the "rarer action" of virtue. Forgiveness, of course, is only truly merited by repentance, and we see the qualification. His enemies, "being penitent," will recieve not even "a frown further" than what they have endured already. But Prospero's vengeance doesn't really extend even that far. Alonso will properly repent of his actions, as I have already noted we might expect from the attendance of Gonzalo, but there will actually be no hint of anything of the sort from Antonio and Sebastian. Prospero will forgive them anyway, although we do not see this quite yet. Prospero is certainly aware of their characters and will be on guard against them.

Prospero sends Ariel away to bring the court party to meet him. And now he prepares with an extraordinary speech that continues the high tone of the previous one.

Prospero                                    I have bedimmed
      The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
      And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
      Set soaring war. To the dread rattling thunder
      Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
      With his own bolt. The strong-based promontory
      Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
      The pine, and cedar. Graves at my command
      Have waked their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em forth
      By my so potent art. 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.

Act 5, Scene 1: 42-57

Much of this speech is lifted straight out of Ovid, and indeed we might wonder where Prospero has been raising the dead, on an uninhabited island, while back in Milan his art cannot have so been advanced that he would have allowed himself to be deposed and exiled. In any case, all these features simply serve to express the degree to which his power has now grown. As he has been demonstrating all along in the play, he has at hand forces that are beyond the common abilities we find among mortals. As this builds to a frightening culmination, it is suddenly all renounced. It is not just that Prospero limits his revenge. Righteousness restored, Miranda well married, and the temptations of power, like the dreams of the masque, now dissolve. Prospero clearly has no stomach for power for power's sake. Nietzsche would be disgusted. Prospero, without any overt reference, may be a Christian after all.

In this his virtue reflects the wisdom of Plato's philosopher, whose true interest, no more than a Christian's, is beyond the things of this world. Prospero walks a straight line of correctness, seeing to justice, providing for Miranda, and containing, rather than destroying, the wicked. His ambition is then exhausted. If restored to Milan, he will anticipate his grave, will attend to conscientious rule, and will have drowned his "book," we might wonder what he otherwise will do with himself. This is left open. We would expect, from the past, a continued interest in some kind of learning. But, for all we know, from his somber reflections, piety may now be the concern.

The court party arrives; Prospero magically freezes them in their tracks and voices his feelings to each in turn, with priority of attention and affection to Gonzalo, "O good Gonzalo" (Line 68). The plot of Sebastian against his brother, and of Antonio against his suzerain, is mentioned simply to contrast the forgiveness that they will receive anyway.

As the party begins to stir, Prospero has a singing Ariel clothe him in his own Court dress, expressing his affection for the spirit and affirming his promise of freedom. Ariel is now to awaken the ship's crew and bring the principals of the crew.

Prosper announces himself to the party, who have difficulty believing what is happening. Alonso, however, immediately knows what is called for, despite his wonder.

Alonso     Thy dukedom I resign, and do entreat
      Thou pardon me my wrongs. But how should Prospero
      Be living, and be here?

Act 5, Scene 1: 18-20

Alonso's penitance is sufficient to complete the practical goals of the play. Sebastian and Antonio rate some harsh words, especially when they voice no remorse, but Prospero treats them as now of no threat. Since he plans to surrender his magic, we hope this conviction is well founded on his own practical statesmanship (which did not prevent his previous deposition) and on a justified confidence in the fidelity of Alonso. We have no doubt about Gonzalo or Ferdinand, and all the clues are that he is right about Alonso.

Prospero does not admit to Alonso that Ferdinand is actually alive, but instead intensifies the sense of grief by claming that he has lost his own daughter also in the recent tempest. Of course, we understand this to mean that he has lost her to Ferdinand, not to death. Alonso does not know that and so all the more a joyous surprise when Prospero opens the door of his cell to reveal Miranda and Ferdinand playing chess. Both Alonso and Ferdinand have a simultaneous moment of happy recognition. But Miranda herself has a surprise, since she has never seen anything in her life like the troop of courtiers before her. And so she utters one of the most famous lines of the play:

Miranda                                O Wonder!
      How many goodly creatures are there here!
      How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
      That has such people in't!

Act 5, Scene 1: 181-184

Of course, Prospero must say, "'Tis new to thee"; and we hope that Miranda will not be so disabused or disillusioned of her enthuasism as she may well be in the Court life of Naples. But we know from this that Miranda is the purest heart in the play, if not on earth, which is just right if she bears a name that had never been used before. Ferdinand and Miranda are like a new Adam and Eve, born in the garden of the wise Prospero, perhaps ready to restore Eden in "a brave new world." Were the fate of Ferdinand II of Naples and his incestuous bride not actually so blighted and prosaic. And were the phrase "brave new world" not now inevitably associated with the chilling 1932 dystopian science fiction novel, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, with genetic castes and a totalitarian world government.

Prospero, having limited his revenge, now moves even to limit the degree of Alonso's rependance:

Alonso     But O, how oddly will it sound that I
      Must ask my child forgiveness?
Prospero                                       There sir stop,
      Let us not burden our remembrances
      With a heaviness that's gone.

Act 5, Scene 1: 197-200; by "my child," Alonso actually means Miranda, his new daughter-in-law

Gonzalo pronounces a benediction, and reflects on the happy fate of all, or at least all save Sebastian and Antonio, who are not noticed nor their frustrated designs acknowledged.

Then we have a passage with the Boatswain, brought from the ship by Ariel, marveling at what has happened. This is not of much interest for us. But next Ariel brings back Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Our interest is in Caliban. But we are not to know what will actually happen to him. He is himself disillusioned and more rependant than the likes of Antonio or Sebastian, and we expect the pardon of Prospero. But we do not see that, and we have no clue about his ultimate fate. Will he simply be left on the island and obtain his ambition to rule it again, in his solitude? How will he truly profit from this? Will the revolution in his understanding prove so considerable that he will now want to journey to civilization with Prospero's party? This would require a profound level of consultation with Prospero, the like of which we would certainly enjoy seeing, but do not. For the anti-colonial interpretation of The Tempest, this lack of resolution is most intriguing. To learn the appropriate lessons of the imperialists, as Caliban may have done, might prepare him for such success as we see in everyone's favorite prospering former African colony, Botswana, which has endured neither dictatorship, nor civil strife, nor economic collapse. Quite the opposite. The old Caliban was straight on a course to emulate Somalia, Equatorial Guinea, or Rwanda. The ultimately fate of these places in reality is as open and unresolved as that of Caliban in the play. Rather than an exposé of the evils of colonialism, revealing grounds for its condemnation, the story of Caliban in The Tempest instead provides grounds for sober and realistic reflections on the historic situation of colonial peoples.

And this is of a piece with the moral of the whole, which concerns the power of Prospero. For all his sorcery and enlightenment, Prospero has clearly had a tough time with Caliban and has not been able to direct matters as he would wish. What this and the unresolved fate of Caliban may mean is that what comes next for Caliban must be from his own resources. Prospero has had the self-control to limit the application of his own power; but with Caliban the lesson is that there are limits, not just to what power should accomplish, to what power can accomplish. Despite Prospero's conclusion that he is hopeless, Caliban learns more from the absurdies of Trinculo and Stephano than he did from the learning of Prospero. And this may be the ultimate lesson of The Tempest. More than any other time in history, the 20th century saw the consequences of the confidence that absolute power can control and accomplish anything. Yet again and again, those pursuing this principle, finding that developments were not to their liking, decided that the solution was simply mass murder. Absolute power could not conjure up prosperity and material plenty out of its own tyranny, but it had no difficulty conjuring up genocide, whether effected by Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. Yet in our day, most people, and certainly most intellectuals, still seem to think that the failures of economic programs or political reforms are simply the result of not enough power. More power, and especially more irresponsible power to someone like me and my friends, will quickly usher in utopia. When it doesn't; well, we'll just need more power.

I do not think Prospero would be deceived, even if, as it happens, we do not see him draw the suitable lesson from what has happened with Caliban. The last action of the play, before the Epilogue, which addresses the audience, is Prospero freeing Ariel.

Beethoven's Sonata No.17 in D Minor (Op.31 No.2) is known as "The Tempest." Phillip Ramey says in his commentary, "This work is traditionally known as the Tempest Sonata because of Beethoven's reported answer to a question about the meaning of its Sturm und Drang:  'Read Shakespeare's Tempest'" [Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Piano Sonatas Nos. 17, 18 & 26, Murray Perahia, Piano, CBS Records Masterworks, 1987, notes, p.2]. The beginning of the third movement, Allegretto, is used in the 2012 (unnecessary) remake of the movie Total Recall. This is, indeed, one of the most sublime pieces of music in all of Beethoven. The correspondence of the sonata to The Tempest, however, is not yet clear to me, although the third movement certainly would signify a satisfactory resolution of the previous conflicts.

I often have difficulty understanding Shakespeare's language, which is now four hundred years old. I have sat through entire plays (over many hours) and, otherwise unfamiliar with the material, have had only the vaguest idea what was going on. Linguistics scholar John H. McWhorter (discussed here under Classical Languages) reports the same experience:  When he watches a performance of a Shakespeare play, he says, which he has not previously read (and presumably studied), he does not understand enough of the language to make the experience worthwhile. Indeed, he says that he has sat through performances of The Tempest in particular, not once, not twice, but actually three times, and, not having read it, still does not know what it is all about. McWhorter also says, which I also think is true, that the difficulty of understanding Shakespeare's language is not something that is generally acknowledged among literate people. They are ashamed to admit that they are bewildered. Thus, I appreciate annotated editions such as The Annotated Shakespeare of The Tempest by Yale University Press [2006, with an Introduction by Burton Raffel and and Essay by Harold Bloom]. The density of notes on each page is testimony to the challenges involved with Shakespeare's English.

Making the play more accessible is also a 2010 movie version, The Tempest, written, directed, and produced by Julie Taymor. This stars the marvelous Helen Mirren, for whom the male role of Prospero has been switched to a female "Prospera," along with David Strathairn as Alonso, Djimon Hounsou as Caliban, Chris Cooper as Antonio, Tom Conti as Gonzalo, Alfred Molina as Stephano, Felicity Jones as Miranda, the young musician/actor Reeve Carney as Ferdinand, Alan Cumming as Sebastian, and comedian Russell Brand as Trinculo. Only a minimum of rewriting was necessary for Hellen Mirren as "Prospera," and in some ways the switch makes some of the relationships and backstory more interesting, even more believable, although it does leave us with more obvious questions about Miranda's other parent than in the original play. Large passages of the play were left out to fit the time requirements of a movie, and many of the more obscure expressions have been edited out, but nothing of essence seems to have been lost, and almost all the passages quoted above are present.

"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," El sueño de la razón produce monstruos,

Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos, plate 43, 17971799


Over the years, features of the plot of The Tempest have been used in other stories, sometimes in a minimal but noteworthy way. A classic case was the 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet, whose most memorable stars were Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and, oddly enough, "Robby the Robot," who would later turn up in other movies and television shows.

Pidgeon, as Dr. Morbius, and his daughter Altaira (played by Anne Francis) are stranded on a planet, not because they have been exiled there, but because they are the sole suvivors of a previous expedition. Nielsen is the captain of a flying saucer (from Earth, of course) that has arrived to find out what has happened. Unlike Prospero, Morbius has not planned for this visit and in fact sternly warns it off. Similarly, where Prospero's plan includes arranging a marriage for Miranda, Morbius does not want his daughter involved with the visitors, and in fact he has not invited her to the meeting with them. That she invites herself and does become involved with them, leads to trouble.

These differences in plot signify a very different message for the story. While Shakespeare presents the extraordinary example of a man who is not corrupted by power, but wields it carefully despite his anger, the moral of Forbidden Planet is along the more familiar (and realistic) lines, originally voiced by Lord Acton, that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The movie does this is a very clever way. The planet where we find Morbius and his daughter was the home of an alien civilization. They had created a power plant of almost unlimited capacity, whose effects, including beings of energy, could be governed by no more than thought. That was their downfall; for the plant responded not just to conscious commands but to all the unconscious fears, desires, and resentments of the inhabitants. Thus, unfiltered by any conscious inhibitions or prudence, the aliens had destroyed each other. It was the Jungian "Shadow" come to horrifying life, giving "acting out" a whole new meaning. The same thing had happened to the original human expedition on the planet.

Now it starts to happen again, with the interesting implication, not fully explained in a movie from its era, that Dr. Morbius has an unconscious incestuous attachment to his daughter. This desire is then able to use the alien power plant to conjure up monsters who attack the visitors, who obviously can and do supply suitors that are attractive to Altaira. Indeed, we begin to wonder about the premature death of Morbius's wife, which left Morbius alone with Altaira in her skimpy space-girl clothes all these years.

The equivalent of the "tempest" here is then, not at the beginning of the story, but at this much later juncture. There is no defense against the storm of alien power except to flee, and of course Altaira leaves with the visitors. Morbius, despite his boasts of great intelligence and wisdom, only belatedly is made to realize, by the captain, that his own unconscious (the Freudian id) is conjuring up the monsters that threaten even his own disobedient daughter. Thus, as Goya said, "The sleep of reason produces monsters." He remains behind to allow himself to be killed as the planet destroys itself. The contrast with Prospero could not be greater. Indeed, one thing that modern versions of The Tempest seem to have in common is the reluctance of the character corresponding to Prospero to let go of the child and provide for a suitable marriage.

I have said that the theme of Forbidden Planet is that power corrupts. However, Dr. Morbius is not really corrupted by the power of the alien power plant. Instead, the flaw of the alien design is that it is vulnerable to the inner imperfect nature that apparently is common to aliens and humans -- a very unusual feature in science fiction stories, where the aliens are usually morally much better (The Day the Earth Stood Still, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Avatar) or much worse (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Puppet Masters, Alien, Independence Day) than humans. The lesson of the film thus would be more along the lines of the inherent danger of great power, which, beyond a certain point, cannot be safely used. And this applies even apart from the technology that is able to read unconscious, guilty, vicious, and forbidden desires; for, as we know, humans are perfectly capable of acting out unconscious urges, without realizing it, and of rationalizing their actions, however outrageous, if challenged. Rationalization and confabulation can grow in absurd exuberance even in people who otherwise seem sane and sensible, when they are sufficiently on the defensive over poorly examined motives. The moral of Forbidden Planet, so different from The Tempest, must then be that great power, let alone absolute power, cannot be trusted in the hands of any "rational" beings, whether alien or human. This is a caution far more realistic and prudent than the ideal of Platonic discipline we see in Prospero.

We find another version of The Tempest, and of Goya's maxim, in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 movie The Birds, which was based on a 1952 story, "The Birds," by Daphne du Maurier (author of Rebecca, made into another memorable Hitchcock movie). Even though Forbidden Planet is clearly based on The Tempest, while The Birds is not, there are so many points of comparison between The Birds and Forbidden Planet that I believe a kinship, which carries us back to the Shakespearean original, is unmistakable. Sometimes I think that this identification may seem forced -- and it was certainly not in Hitchcock's mind -- but the events of The Birds otherwise are entirely perplexing and unexplained. Camille Pagila has written a book length analysis of The Birds [British Film Institute Publishing, 1998], without making the connection. She says, "Both the story and the film keep the reason for the bird attack mysterious" [p.9], and she sees the theme of movie as involving "destructive, rapacious nature" [p.7].

The first point of comparison between the movies are the parallel triangles of parent, child, and lover. In The Birds the sex of all these principals has been changed, as are then the prominence of the respective characters. Instead of Miranda we get Rod Taylor as a lawyer, Mitch Brenner; Tippi Hedren as the Ferdinand equivalent, his love interest, the hieress Melanie Daniels (who is the active party in pursuit, unlike the passive Miranda or the strategizing Prospero); and finally Jessica Tandy as Brenner's mother, Lydia Brenner. Paglia significantly refers to "the incestuous bondings of mother and son that Psycho bequeaths to The Birds" [p.25] and also speaks of the older Brenner as "a clinging, manipulative, widowed mother" [p.8], who is clearly cool, if not hostile, to Melanie. These observations would have nothing to do with Prospero, but they are red flags in stark correspondence to Dr. Morbius.

The next point of comparison is that, unlike the eponymous tempest of Shakespeare, which is conjured by magic at the beginning of the action, the storms of both Forbidden Planet and The Birds are the result of different forces and build slowly but steadily towards the culmination of the stories. Alien Science supplies the fury of the first movie, while Nature, indeed, provides that of the second. In each of them, the characters cannot combat the assault and in the end must simply flee. It is on this point that Camille Paglia realizes the correspondence of The Birds to Forbidden Planet, just as the birds launch their first large attack, on the school children:

Is their wrath an externalization of the buried animosities and murderous jealousies of the triangulated women? -- just as the inner chaos of Dr. Morbius becomes an invisible monster in Forbidden Planet (1956). [p.57]

However, this is the only reference to Forbidden Planet in her analysis, and she does not move on to note the parallel between the incestuous attachment of Dr. Morbius and that of Lydia Brenner, even though she often remarks on the conflict between the women and suggests that the disturbance of Nature reflects this.

The weakest point of this reading of The Birds may be that Lydia Brenner is not overtly associated in any way with the bird attacks, and indeed she is attacked herself and is truly horrified at the deaths. We see nothing that would indicate directly that she is the cause of the distruption in Nature that assaults the little town of Bodega Bay, California. Thus, if she is the cause, the unconscious nature of the connection is even stronger than in Forbidden Planet. Indeed, Dr. Morbius has been suppressing his own awareness of what his mind is doing with the alien machines. His remorse and grief are considrable when he is confronted with it, even though it is never made explicit for him or us that a lust for his own daughter is involved. But the character of Lydia Brenner never has a clue, nor does anyone else, that the fury of Nature is responding to her, if it is.

Yet significant features of the story don't make sense any other way. The principal clue in that respect is what happens to Tippi Hedren's character, Melanie Daniels. By the end of the movie, Melanie is all but catatonic in shock from the attacks she has endured. The independent, vivacious personality at the beginning of the movie is entirely gone. She has been beaten down to virtual insensibility. Why would that happen to her, of all the surviving characters? Why would Nature focus on Melanie to destroy her spirit while leaving her alive? There is only one being in the movie with the motive to do such a thing:  the prospective mother-in-law. And, as the personality of Melanie is beaten down, the birds at last become quiescent. Paglia remarks, as the group drives away at the end of the movie, that the "catatonic" Melanie "sinks into the tender arms of apparently all-forgiving Lydia in the jumpseat" [p.85]. Lydia can now be "all-forgiving" because Melanie has been made into a proper obedient and dependent daughter. Another attack by the birds was scripted, but Hitchcock left it out [cf. p.87].

Nowhere near as traumatized, in contrast to Melanie, was the other member of the Brenner family, younger sister Cathy, played by a very young Veronica Cartwright. Cartwright will survive here, only later to fall to the eponymous monster in Alien, and to the curse of Jack Nicholson's devil in The Witches of Eastwick.

A "clinging, manipulative, widowed mother" may accept that her son will inevitably marry. She may even wish him to do so, in order to have grandchildren. But such a mother will not want a willful and independent daughter-in-law. Melanie Daniels is, socially and financially, a significant match for her son; but Lydia Brenner, who disapproves of Melanie's free and wild behavior, which has made the news, will be happier if the daughter can be, after a fashion, denatured, and made pliable. Melanie Daniels at the end of the movie is about as pliable as anyone could get. The assault of the birds has effectively done Lydia's job for her and broken the potentially troublesome spirit of a daughter-in-law. Also, signficantly, another dramatic death we see in the movie is that of Suzanne Pleshette (as Annie Hayworth), who was a previous love interest of Mitch Brenner -- but as a simple school teacher nowhere near as suitable a match as the socialite Melanie Daniels. Indeed, she does not seem to represent much of a threat at the moment; but she is a lose end and, as we know, when you unleash the dogs of war, you may as well, like Lincinus, do some tidying up.

Consequently, in this reading of The Birds, Nature is responding to the inner psychology of a sort of Jungian "terrible mother," who, like Prospero, makes a match for her child, but on terms that might be agreeable to many a mother-in-law. This may not be a lesson about power in the same way as in either The Tempest or Forbidden Planet. But it can be, just as Paglia says, a story of "destructive, rapacious nature," except that, in common with the other stories, it is specifically human nature, the family drama, that is involved, even if we are distracted by its manifestation in a strange natural phenomenon. But "strange natural phenomenon" is precisely what human nature itself is, however prosaic and dismal may be the conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. This was no different in Forbidden Planet, in the unconscious hostility between father and suitors, even though the situation in that story seems to have larger implications.

If any, the larger implication of The Birds may be Euripidean, that the powers of the gods, i.e. Nature, flowing through humans, are great and dangerous, and they are neglected, disdained, or contravened at our peril. Indeed, if I may read even more into it, Melanie Daniels has displayed the hybris of a Greek tragic protagonist, bringing down the vengeance of the gods on herself. She does that by reversing the course of Nature in assuming the male role of pursuit against the actual male, Mitch Brenner. Even worse, she carries this pursuit to the very doorstep of his mother's house, threatening to un-man Lydia Brenner's son right in front of her on her own property. The gods respond. In fact, the gods respond before Lydia even meets Melanie or knows about her. The first bird attack against Melanie takes place when she is in the boat crossing Bodega Bay from the Brenner house, which Melanie had approached like an amphibious assault of Marines -- Paglia herself says that "the imagery is of warfare" [p.34]. The bird attack immediately undercuts Melanie's aggressive role and restores that of Mitch, who rushes to help her. Paglia again says, "He is definitively more masculine now than she" [p.39]. But the balance has been upset, and further bird attacks begin. And, as we know from Greek tragedy, there can be a lot of collateral damage once the wrath of the gods is let loose, just as we see in the movie. But Melanie has already been decisively brought down a notch and compromised, and that is only the beginning.

Thus, both Forbidden Planet and The Birds rework the themes of The Tempest in significant and intriguing ways, without, however, producing the general happy resolution or presenting the same moral ideal as does Shakespeare. Also, neither one has the real equivalent of a Caliban, with his problems and subplot, or of the comic relief provided by the pair of Trinculo and Stephano. In Forbidden Planet, we might see Robby the Robot as a kind of Caliban, and we do get some comic relief when he produces some alcohol for the ship's cook (Earl Holliman, familiar from 70's television Police Woman); but none of this has the serious side of the Caliban story or the essential connection to the main narrative. But then it is easier to get more into a Shakespearean play, which is three hours of talking, than into a two hour movie that has visual stretches without dialogue.

The Ring of Gyges, Hollow Man, and The Tempest

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