Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Most consider this Shakespeare’s last full completed play in his lifetime and a sort of farewell to the theater, but Isaac Asimov questions this “too sentimental” reading: “A compulsive writer like Shakespeare couldn’t deliberately plan to give up writing while he was capable of holding a pen — on this point I claim to be an authority” (Asimov 670).
Due to an arbitrary performance record of November 1, 1611 and a Stratfordian strain to make travel accounts work as specific sources within the framework of Shakspere’s life, this play’s composition has been dated at 1611. They wave forth William Strachey’s account of the wreck of the Sea-Venture in 1609 off the coast of Bermuda and connect it to Ariel’s reference to the “still-vex’d Bermoothes” (I.ii.229). One might question how compelling the parallels really are (Anderson 402), but in any case Strachey’s letter, supposedly from July 15, 1610, was not published until 1625 (Sobran 153; Farina 20); the wreck in The Tempest doesn’t resemble the one in Strachey’s account — in fact, there isn’t a wreck at all; and ample accounts of shipwrecks off Bermuda existed in the decades earlier (cf. Whalen 120). Recent work by Stritmatter and Kositsky has neutralized what Stratfordians would like to tout as the silver bullet against the Oxfordian thesis, showing Strachey to have plagiarized much earlier accounts [Roger Stritmatter and Lynn Kositsky, “Shakespeare and the Voyagers Revisited.” Review of English Studies n.s. 58 (2007): 447-472; cf. “The Spanish Maze and the Date of The Tempest.” The Oxfordian 10 (2007): 9-19]. Besides, the island in this play is in the Mediterranean. Ben Jonson’s Volpone of 1605 seems to paraphrase and satirize this play, but Stratfordians claim a common source instead accounts for the echoes. 1611 is a problem anyway, since James I was no fan of the occult: “The new king was fanatically opposed to anything to do with magic, spiritualism or the supernatural”; so at least “Whoever wrote The Tempest was uniquely privileged” (Michell 206), or it was written in 1603 or earlier. Michell reviews the case for William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby, as the author (205-211). His older brother, the fifth Earl, was named Ferdinando and the Earls ruled the Isle of Man, to the south of which is an island called the Calf of Man which resembles Prospero’s island (207). Compound “calf” words appear in the play, in reference to Caliban, perhaps a representative of the Celtic-speaking Manx inhabitants. Derby was a son-in-law of Oxford and may have collaborated with him in the last years (Anderson 293).
Critics have tried to articulate the special sense one receives from The Tempest. Since its characters are “representative rather than individual” (Wells 364) and, oddly, “personality seems no longer to be a prime Shakespearean concern” (Bloom 673), instead one senses a “multiplicity of suggestiveness” (Wells 364) about the play, whose plot is not derived from any source.
The Tempest has an unrivaled power to inspire in almost all sensitive readers a belief that it contains a secret meaning. Even those who make no attempt to search it out retain the feeling that it is there and that if it could only be found it would lead close not merely to the heart of Shakespeare’s convictions about life but close to the heart of life itself. (Goddard, II 280)
In the only scene that justifies the title of the play literally, and one that shows “virtuosic command of nautical vocabulary” (Anderson 224), we immediately are thrust into a sea-storm aboard ship. The first sound in this play is the “noise” of the storm, aural chaos (and the play is full of noises). The boatswain (“bosun” in clipped Brit sea-speak, like “mainsail” being “m’ns’l; or Worchestershire sauce) is fed up with privileged civilians milling about in a tizzy while the sailors are attempting to save the ship and all aboard, and he keeps telling them to stay “below” in their cabins: “You mar our labor. / Keep your cabins; you do assist the storm” (I.i.13-14). Hence a physicalized inversion of the social hierarchy. Sarcastically, the boatswain instructs the nobles, “Use your authority” (I.i.23) to “command these elements to silence” (I.i.21-22), and if they cannot, then clear out. Thus begins the theme of control in this play.
Gonzalo, an old councillor who ultimately seems generally okay, optimistically reasons that since the boatswain certainly looks as if he is the type of guy to die by hanging, they probably won’t all drown in this current dire event. Alonso, the King of Naples, and his son Ferdinand are below, praying. Antonio (Prospero’s slimy brother, the usurper Duke of Milan) and Sebastian (brother of the King of Naples) opt instead for nasty cursing amid the noise and shouts of “We split, we split!” (I.i.61-62).
The setting is an island “somewhere between Italy and the African coast” (Asimov 652), but which may just stand for England according to Anderson’s idea of the play being a grotesque satire on the Essex Rebellion (351). Miranda begs her father Prospero to stop the storm if he used his “art” to create it; she’s seen people suffering. The name Prospero may come from Prospero Fattinanti, the new duke in Genoa in 1575 during its struggles with Milan (Anderson 92). Prospero assures Miranda there’s been “no harm done” (I.ii.15). She doesn’t understand enough, so it’s time she knew their history on this island, about which Prospero has often begun telling her but has always stopped short. He lays down his mantle, saying, “Lie there, my art” (I.ii.25), presumably referring to his garment but perhaps he’s telling Miranda where to sit, since he’s speaking to her in the next half line: “Wipe thou thine eyes, have comfort” (I.ii.25). [Burghley supposedly, at the end of the day when taking off his long cloak and laying it on a chair, would say, “Lie there, Lord Treasurer” (Ogburn and Ogburn 542).]
Miranda has only sketchy memories of the time before they came to the island: she was just three years old. Twelve years ago Prospero had been Duke of Milan. When Miranda innocently asks, “are you not my father?” Prospero answers, “Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and / She said thou wast my daughter” (I.ii.55-57), so the great and powerful Prospero “must rely on hearsay when divining Miranda’s paternity” (Anderson 114). We’ve heard this kind of line as a joke in Much Ado and Taming, and one is tempted to think of Anne Cecil and Oxford’s (?) daughter Elizabeth.
Before their exile to what he now calls a “cell” (I.i.20, 39), Prospero as Duke of Milan had grown more and more absorbed in his studies, “the liberal arts” (I.ii.73). “The government I cast upon my brother” (I.ii.75), Antonio, who took advantage of the opportunity to usurp the dukedom. Prospero wistfully says, “my library / Was dukedom large enough” (I.ii.109-110). And God bless the liberal arts, but one may wonder how responsible an attitude that is for a political leader.
A few times Prospero insists that Miranda is not listening to him: an interruptive pattern always interpreted as Shakespeare’s acknowledgement that this is a long preamble for a premise. It may remind one, though, of Polonius appearing to be befuddled to check on the alertness of his spy (Hamlet II.i.49f).
The King of Naples is also an enemy on the brother’s side, but “So dear the love my people bore me” (I.ii.141), says Prospero, assassination of him was out of the question. Instead, Prospero and Miranda were cast adrift, but a noble Gonzalo charitably furnished Prospero with supplies and his favorite books: “From mine own library with volumes that / I prize above my dukedom” (I.ii.167-168); “my library was dukedom large enough” (I.ii.109-110). [We should not be surprised that Shakespeare loves books, nor that the Stratford grain-merchant Shakspere makes no mention of any in his will. The depiction of the kind councillor some take to be a charitable and posthumous representation of Burghley (e.g., Anderson 304).]
“Prospero, Shakespeare’s magus, carries a name that is the Italian translation of Faustus, which is the Latin cognomen (‘the favored one’) that Simon Magus the Gnostic took when he went to Rome…. Prospero is Shakespeare’s anti-Faust” (Bloom 663). “I’ll burn my books,” cries Faustus when the devils carry him off (Bloom 670), and we will get Prospero’s final good-bye to his book. Because of this pure devotion to learning, “we expect esoteric wisdom from Prospero, though we never receive any. His awesome art is absurdly out of proportion to his purposes” (Bloom 673).
Prospero puts his robe back on and says that he has now his “enemies / Brought to this shore” (I.ii.179-180). He notes Miranda’s drowsiness, or else he causes it with a spell to make Miranda sleep (the play is full of references to sleep and waking — altered states of consciousness) and calls upon Ariel, his spirit servant. The name, which of course sounds vaguely biblical, means “lion of God” (Asimov 655). But the mysterious Dr. Dee of Elizabeth’s court “in his magical operations” supposedly invoked spirits named Uriel and Aniel (Michell 209). Ariel has carried out his part in the tempest plan and those formerly aboard ship are safely cast at various places on the island. Although the rest of the fleet thought they saw it wreck, the King’s ship is safe in an inlet “where once / Thou call’dst me up at midnight to fetch dew / From the still-vex’d Bermoothes” (I.ii.227-229). This reference has traditionally been taken to mean that Prospero sent Ariel to Bermuda, much like Oberon sends Puck around the world. But “‘Bermoothes,’ or Bermudas, was also the name of a section of London known as the haunt of loafers, toughs, and heavy drinkers. In sending Ariel ‘to fetch dew from the still-vexed Bermoothes,’ Prospero might have been sending Ariel to a bar and distillery in the Bermoothes section of London to fetch some of its ‘dew.’ A local joke” (Whalen 120-121; cf. Anderson 402, Farina 23).
There’s more to be done and Prospero is anxious about time pressing (I.ii.240-241). “Prospero is nearly as nervous about missed cues and temporal limitations as Macbeth was, and his absolute magic is jumpily aware that its sway cannot be eternal, that its authority is provisional” (Bloom 674). Ariel is eager to obey Prospero but does yearn for his liberty, which Prospero promises in two days after reminding him rather harshly that Ariel is in his debt for releasing him from the cloven pine tree in which the witch Sycorax imprisoned him for twelve years, during which time she died. Ariel’s cries at that time would have moved “ever-angry bears” (I.ii.289); “It was mine art, / When I arriv’d and heard thee, that made gape / The pine, and let thee out” (I.ii.291-293). Ariel is grateful and obeys the command to disappear. “Ariel also is more a figure of vast suggestiveness than a character possessing an inwardness available to us, except by glimpses” (Bloom 666).
Northrup Frye finds in Prospero “a harassed overworked actor-manager, scolding the lazy actors, praising the good ones in connoisseur’s language, thinking up jobs for the idle, constantly aware of his limited time before his show goes on, his nerves tense and alert for breakdowns while it is going on, looking forward longingly to peaceful retirement, yet in the meantime having to go out and beg the audience for applause” (qtd. in Bloom 669).
Ariel goes off invisible, Prospero awakens Miranda, and he calls Caliban, the late witch’s savage monster-son (and near-anagram of “cannibal,” probably inspired by the oft-anthologized Montaigne essay). “There’s wood enough within” (I.ii.314) is Caliban’s belligerent response. This play is a favorite for the application of postcolonial theory, and although there is truth in the reading of the play as showing “the totally irreconcilable situation that arises when civilizations clash” (Wells 365), Caliban is, after all, vile and reprehensible, a failure of the notion of the “noble savage.” “Caliban has a legitimate pathos, but he cannot be interpreted as being somehow admirable” (Bloom 665). Prospero says he was “got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam” (I.ii.319-320). Caliban makes his complaint about losing the island that is rightfully his as an inheritance from his witch mother, the devil’s trollop: “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me” (I.ii.331-332). And he whimpers about the old days when in exchange for showing Prospero the island he was treated with “Water with berries in’t” (I.ii.334) — wine? Prospero reminds him that he tried to rape Miranda, and Caliban nastily pronounces, “O ho, O ho, would’t had been done! / Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans” (I.ii.349-351). Caliban boasts: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse. The red-plague rid you / For learning me your language!” (I.ii.363-365). But threatened by magic pain, cramps, and aches (I.ii.369f), Caliban retreats subdued.
Mysterious songs (sung by the invisible Ariel) lure Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, to an encounter with Miranda. She hasn’t seen many people before and takes him for a divine spirit. “At first sight / They have chang’d eyes” (I.ii.441-442), notes Prospero, and he wants them together but hints that that plan is best served if he plays the archetypal disapproving father, “lest too light winning / Make the prize light” (I.ii.452-453). He accuses Ferdinand of spying until the young man draws his sword. Prospero then demonstrates his powers on Ferdinand, magically keeping him from advancing. Miranda pleads for him, but Prospero says that “To th’ most of men this is a Caliban” (I.ii.481). Ferdinand has no problem obeying Prospero, and Miranda assures Ferdinand that Daddy’s not so bad really. The opposite of Hamlet in this regard, Ferdinand declares, “space enough / Have I in such a prison” (I.ii.493-494).