ideals and Elizabethan politics presented in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”
The play opens with a description of a terrifying and relentless storm that wrecks the ship belonging to the King of Naples, Alonso. The wreck drifts onto the shore of Propero’s island but the force of the sea is insuperable, and the boatswain appeals to the noblemen, crying out that they are hindering the others. He calls to Gonzalo,
If you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more.
Antonio and Sebastian are also rebuked by the boatswain, and reminded of the inefficacy of their social status is nothing in such a critical situation, invoking their wrath, while simultaneously hinting at the bias of the play. We suspect the boatswain will be proven right, and that Shakespeare gently asks us to heed the rude wisdom of the common pragmatists, even – or especially- the context of ostensibly decadent theatricality. Hence from the start we are presented with an intriguing balance of high romantic drama, opinionated political commentary, and fragile idealism. The shipwreck symbolises considerably more than what it appears to at first. It is no mere vehicle for the themes of the play to hitch a lift on, it is representative of an entire society’s collapse into irretrievable disarray. Indeed, it may be representative of the doom faced by all faulty societies. As such it is a moral vehicle, carrying an apparently disparate group of frightened and confused figures to their identical destiny. As Soji Iwasaki writes,
A voyage is often a symbol of the progress of a man’s life, and the sea is symbolic of Fortune; a shipwreck is a typical instance of bad fortune, while a ship sailing before a fair wind is an image of good fortune. Sometimes a ship at sea serves as a symbol of the Church, in which the whole congregation sails over the sea of ProvidenceIn The Tempest it is Goddess Fortune (1.2.178) that drives Alonso’s ship towards the island of Prospero, where a tempest is caused by Prospero’s magic.
Prospero judges the ship to be full of sinfull soules, a reference to the political crimes of the characters on board. The King of Naples was guilty of usurping the Milanese dukedom, Antonio betrayed Prospero- his own brother, while Sebastian, Stephano and Trinculo are all intrinsically evil. In fact the only figure to escape judgement is Gonzalo, a harmless courtier. These figures will not find their arbitration in the next life, by some god-figure, though, as Shakespeare takes pains to emphasise. Prospero is the only figure with deific power, literary or figurative, in the play: his magical powers, clearly, serve a metaphorical purpose, symbolising the power of rhetoric and the force that lies behind absolute righteousness. Since Prospero has been wronged, Shakespeare seems to (fatalistically) say, he will vindicate himself using the power that comes from knowledge and wisdom- just synonyms for what is called magic in the play. Prospero knows how to rebuke and is wise enough to find forgiveness in his heart.
As the ship will eventually return to Naples, the plays theme arguably evolves into dealing with the ruin and rebirth of a commonwealth. Between the first, highly symbolic tempest scene, and the final heraldic manoeuvre, the play’s action all occurs on the island. Prospero reveals to Miranda the truth he has kept from her for twelve years, since her infancy. He tells her of his brother, her uncle, Antonio’s usurpation of his dukedom of Milan and the hardship they were forced to endure as a result. While Antonio behaved callously by acting on his jealous desire to take over his brother’s dukedom, Prospero was partially to blame too, since he had been preoccupied with his private, obsessive studies of cultivation of the mind, neglecting all the state business (1.2.89-97) to which he admits he should have been more committed. By handing the state affairs over to Antonio and investing so much trust in him, Prospero unwittingly sewed seeds of ambition in his brother, instigating his own downfall. As Iwasaki describes it, Prospero committed a double offence: he forgot the balance between action and meditation that, as sovereign ruler, he should remember, and he also made a mistake in trusting the wrong person, a mistake which a ruler should never make. Ficino reports on the same problem.
No reasonable being doubts that there are three kinds of life: the contemplative, the active, and the pleasurable (contemplativa, activa, voluptuosa). And three roads to felicity have been chosen by men: wisdom, power, and pleasure (sapientia, potentia, voluptas).
Renaissance humanists aspired to a harmony of the three. Prospero chides himself for his youthful pursuit of the contemplative, where his preoccupation with esoteric learning came at the price, eventually, of his political power. Prospero may be paying some kind of price, but it is very difficult to read the Tempest as a cautionary text. Shakespeare’s attitude to power and wisdom is not so clear cut, there appears to be more than one kind of power and more than one kind of wisdom, after all, and although this is not recognised explicitly by the characters in the play (who operate on the Ficino model), Shakespeare wryly alludes to the holes in the world-view of his people. Shakespeare knows that there is power beyond and after usurpation, a power beyond the political and more powerful than any government- and it is a sort of wisdom. He represents it in the only way he can- symbolically- as magic. Prospero’s power is also inextricable from his idealism, too. He has transposed his ownership, the projected environment that has come to signify his sense of self, onto the Island. Thus his ideal society as an image has been projected onto a wild and natural, complicated, uncontrollable and antisocial, setting. In fact, wild and frightening imagery very often accompanies a commentary on a social naivety, and naivety about the limits and nature of power. The first scene, with the tempest and the useless noblemen, springs to mind immediately for reasons I have already explored, and the scene where Caliban is introduced makes the same point soon after, as he speaks bitterly and fearfully of Prospero,
Enter CALIBAN with a burden of wood. A noise of thunder heard
All the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him
By inch-meal a disease! His spirits hear me
And yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin–shows, pitch me i’ the mire,
Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid ’em;
In many ways Caliban embodies Shakespeare’s preoccupation with exposing the popular but inaccurate conceptions of what constitutes power,
The play also fails to question Caliban’s position as a savage and slave, and seems to validate and legitimise it by his behaviour and his attempted rape of the sweet Miranda. In many ways the play acts out the treatment of indigenous people by Europeans. The values system of Caliban is silenced and simply seen as barbaric. He is costructed as the ‘Other’, different from Europeans and therefore naturally inferior (‘But thy vile race-/Though thou didst learn – had that in’t which good/natures/Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou/Deservedly confined into this rock’). If we see Caliban as representative of the indigenous peoples dispossessed by European colonisers the previous quotations certainly shows how it is his ‘race’ and ‘nature’ that makes him inferior, even though the benevolent Whites tried so valiantly to make him human.
Caliban is supremely ironical, then, since he is the least civilised but the most symbolically loaded: the most powerful on the level of reading (or viewing) a play- the only character who represents more information than his actions will ever reveal. Prospero, by contrast, finds himself judged and committed entirely by his actions, although his power actually lies in his psychological strength: his knowledge and wisdom. In fact, Caliban and Prospero, as characters, represent two sides of this play about politics and idealism. While Prospero is a meditator who is treated for his activity, Caliban is an activator and catalyst of discourse who is treated only as intellectually weak. Both characters are more active in their capacity as viewed figures than as real people within the universe of the play, however, underlining one of the many ways in which that this play is idealistic: its potential for bypassing narrative viewing and settling at an ideological operative level. Prospero only works when we suspend our assumptions about realism and begin hearing in his voice the tones of Shakespeare himself, when we cease assuming that this character should be literal and real not affecting a performance. Prospero and Caliban, like, perhaps most of the characters in The Tempest, exceed mimesis and function as narrators of their own lives. Their words, then, express their own ideals, and between the lines of the words they say we can be sensitive to the playwright’s attitudes to the naivety that informed the politics and idealism of his own society,
The Tempest is Shakespeare’s dramatization of his political ideas concerning the state and the prince. Prospero’s island is a model of a commonwealth: Prospero is the king, his magic a symbol of his absolute power, Ariel the agent of his government, and Caliban all the subjects (1.2.341) Shakespeare makes much of the criminally large amount of trust Prospero’s invested in his brother. As Iwasaki notes,
Prospero was not an ideal prince in his trusting his brother nor in his neglect of a life of action; his loss of the dukedom was a result of his disqualification as a prince. He did not put realpolitik into practice. Alonso is another failure as a sovereign ruler. Having sent in marriage his daughter Claribel to a far-off country, he has now lost his only son and heir Ferdinand to his great sorrow. The political uneasiness of a kingdom with no prospect of its future succession is analogous to the actual situation of the Virgin Queen’s commonwealth, in which succession problems caused political unrest and governmental debates
Theory aside, there are keen racial implications, entangled in the rhetoric of ostensible politically sensitive play. The Tempest has generally been read as a play about forgiveness and reconciliation, change and transformation, illusion and magic and the Prospero’s usurpation. Such interpretations generally privilege the attitudes of noble, educated Europeans- in particularly those of Prospero. Such readings are in danger of nulling Caliban’s rights and silencing his appeal for freedom. A postcolonial reading leads to another reading entirely: The Tempest can then be appreciated as allegorical, referencing the exploitation of indigenous races, with Caliban as a single figure standing for the natives of the New World who were dispossessed and exploited by the European powers. Caliban voices the indignance of the natives who were widely treated as inferior and even sub-human because of their skin colour and their differing cultural traits- which lead to their social marginalisation as uncivilised. Due to their widely accepted, aggressive branding as inferior creatures, the natives were exploited to benefit the economy, through their capture and subsequent use as slaves.
Arguably, the manner of representing race in The Tempest suffers from being heavily and naively Eurocentric. Caliban’s physicality evidences his difference, which is arrogantly equated with inferiority, something even found in his name which is almost an anagram of ‘cannibal’. Yet I have argued that Shakespeare is conscious of his characterisation as separate from himself, and that, although they may sometimes speak with his voice they certainly have distinct voices of their own. Shakespeare takes pains to establish a partially artificial, in many ways almost pantomimical, universe where characters who react to each other naively or selfishly, are in fact being puppeteered by the playwright who has filled the gaps between every line of the play with invisible communications aimed directly at his audience. Hence Shakespeare does not see his savage as a cannibal, he has named him so to signal the way in which the other characters/puppets in his play perceive Caliban.
At first sight, the Europeans, Stephano and Antonio, see Caliban as an anomaly that they might be able to sell in Europe as a spectacular freak, saleable for his ‘Otherness’: an alien that their perception has constructed. Their attitude is shocking in its narrow capitalist scope: Trinculo says Were I in England now – as once I was – and had but this fish painted, not a holiday-fool there would give a piece of silver and Antonio and Sebastian also see him as a marketable product that can be bought and sold,
Very like. One of them
Is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable
Race is therefore a marker for one human-ness and anything other than European is constructed as naturally inferior, without rights and available to be exploited for economic purposes. In one writer’s opinion,
Caliban is constructed as innately inferior and savage because of his race. This is articulated by the supposedly sweet and tender Miranda: ‘But thy vile race -/Though thou didst learn – had that in’t which good natures/Could not abide to be with ..'(31) In these lines Caliban’s race is seen as the reason for his barbaric behaviour – it is his very nature that makes him savage and dangerous. In this the text constructs other non-European races as savage, less human, incapable of so-called ‘civilisation’ all because of their race: this is a damning indictment of non-Europeans as it positions them as naturally inferior and unable to change their ways so that they will never be able to develop the fine sensitivity and refinement of Western civilisation.
All the characters in the play speak and think politically and everyone is aware of the significance of the state as both a real, specific, place, and a general idea. Where some characters are idealists, others are have a grave ambitions to achieving power. Speaking for the idealists, Gonzalo details his dream in such detail it evokes a certain melancholy- only those so far from paradise can imagine its details with absolute precision,
I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known;
And use of service, none;
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all,
And women too, but innocent and pure;
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour.
Treason, felony, Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have, but nature should bring forth
Of it own kind all foison, all abundance To feed my innocent people. (2.1.145-62)
In the words of Alvin Kernan,
For the old courtier Gonzalo, as for those who would later settle the many utopian communities of America, the new world offers the opportunity to recover the lost Eden where, freed of the weight of European society, human nature will be purified and the sins of the old world left behind.
Gonzalo’s island country may excel[s] the golden age (166) in the sense that there is no property, unfair wealth, employment nor exploitation but Gonzalo describes a commonwealth controlled by contraries, that is- a nonsensical place of inverted logic. In fact, Gonzalo’s ideal principality is markedly similar to that other island government, Thomas More’s Utopia- an ideal place free from property, currency, or enclosure where gold and silver are hated.
Stephen Greenblatt points out that More’s utopia is dense with contradiction: in Hythlodaeus’s account freedoms are heralded, only to shrink in the course of the descriptionFor example, travelling is free and a citizen may go anywhere he likes in the country, but only with the Mayor’s permission, and a record of the date of return, and wherever the traveller goes he must work. Should he be caught breaking any of these rules, the traveller faces punishment as an illegal runaway and would be instantly sent home. Furthermore, if he continues to flount the rules, he risks being sent into slavery. The freedom and, subsequently, the Utopia, suddenly seems rather less ideal with these ominous qualifications. Gonzalo’s commonwealth contains similar contradictions, particularly,
Had I plantation of this isle . . .
And were the king on’t . . . ,
I would by contraries /
Execute all things . . . / No sovereignty.
Gonzalo is thinking on his feet, dreaming, and like a dream his thoughts need follow no consistent logic. A kingdom with no sovereignty is obviously a contradiction, as Sebastian and Antonio are quick to point out. Gonzalo’s commonwealth is an abstraction, an impossible, in many ways a perfect example of the Utopia, the impossible, seductive, unrealisable dream- like the communist one of our times, a real place that nevertheless exists nowhere. Set in stark contrast to Gonzalo’s gentle innocence optimism stands the brash cynicism of Antonio and Sebastian. As Iwasaki writes,
These are such people as are wickedly ambitious for higher status. One is a usurper, and the other once attempted usurpation. Their idea of a kingdom is not such a Utopia as Gonzalo imagines, where the people are all contented with their freedom and natural abundance, nor is it a holy kingdom ruled by an anointed king, the earthly heaven; the kingdom they conceive is a country owned by themselves, tyrants whose interest is solely in their own material felicity and wilful domination over the people. Stephano, a drunken servingman, also desires to be master of the island, and attempts to kill Prospero. It is because of the bottled spirit he owns that Caliban asks him to be his king. Stephano’s wine is a physical correlative to his spiritual power; it is what Ariel is to Prospero. If Stephano’s kingdom were to come into being, he and Trinculo, together with Caliban, might have a utopia of fools very much like Bruegel’s ‘The Land of Cockaigne,’ where people can eat and drink as much as they like, yet they never have to work.
The theoretical quality of Prospero’s magic for which I have been arguing is backed up by his realism, the authorial voice, perhaps, finding a mouthpiece in this character. It is not Prospero’s intention to transform his Island into a utopia. He lacks the naÃ¯ve optimism of Gonzalo, with his imagined new world and ideal plantation, where people are impossibly, illogically liberated from the social conventions of the Old World. Indeed Prospero is actively opposed to the illogical and knows intuitively that the wisest decisions can only be made through accommodation of all the facts of life, however unpalatable.
Prospero values education to the point of snobbery, and when Ferdinand lands on the island, Prospero intends to marry Miranda to him, someone who, as the Prince of Naples, ought to have a proper education for a future king. Stunned with grief for his father’s death, Ferdinand is drawn by Ariel’s magical song to Prospero and his daughter. When the two youngsters meet they fall in love instantly, both mesmerised by the wonder of the other’s beauty, as she calls him spirit and he refers to her as goddess. Despite their passion, however, Prospero intervenes; he is adamant that Ferdinand should recieve a princely education, since he will eventually rule over both Naples and Milan. Prospero is emphatic that the new prince should have an awareness and appreciation of real politics that Prospero himself never had, and suffered for his ignorance of, thirteen years ago.
So Prospero imparts trials upon Ferdinand, calling him a usurper for assuming his father’s kingdom while he is still alive, and accusing him of being a spy who intends to steal the island from Prospero:
Thou dost here usurp
The name thou ow’st not,
and has put thyself
Upon this island as a spy, to win it
From me, the lord on’t. (1.2.454-57)
When Ferdinand draws his sword against Prospero, the old man entraps the youth by means of his magic, again, an obvious analogy for the power of superior wisdom. Ferdinand is humiliated, made to surrender and forced to carry logs. He is unaware of the effort, however, cherishing Miranda’s love so much that he endures the slavish work with astonishing patience. Iwasaki compares Ferdinand’s education to the learning principle implied in Raphael’s picture of ‘The Dream of Scipio’,
In the left background of the picture is depicted a knight on horseback climbing the difficult passage to the tower of virtues on the top of a craggy mountain, the journey, of course, representing the trial a knight must undertake to achieve the knightly virtues, represented here by the book and the sword held by the lady in the foreground. Ferdinand, capable of a life of pleasure as a lover, is now encouraged, like Scipio, to go through a trial for his self-fashioning. Raphael’s picture of Scipio was given by Thomaso Borgese of Siena to his son Sipione as a moral lesson, and like Thomaso, Prospero is a man whose educational ideal is Renaissance-humanistic.
Through his slavery, as he subsists on plain food and water, Ferdinand tells Prospero that all his hardships are
but light to me, Might I but through my prison once a day Behold this maid.
All corners else o’ th’ earth
Let liberty make use ofspace enough
Have I in such a prison. (1.2.490-94)
When Miranda sees Ferdinand labouring she yearns to take his place. Since the lovers’ devotion is characterised by their wish to serve each other’s physical labours, this slave labour itself comes to define the nature of their love. That is, they share a need to express their love through bearing the burden of the other, sparing the other’s body any pain. Their labour, then, in a kind of paradox, comes to signify the bliss of their mutual adoration- Shakespeare pits ethereal magic against physical work repeatedly in this play, and the message here seems to be that true love is best expressed through the essential of shared labour.
The name Miranda, of course, has the meaning wonder and miraveglia (the principle of heroic wonder), comprising part of what Iwasaki calls the neoplatonic rhetoric of love:
Admired Miranda! Indeed the top of admiration! Worth
What’s dearest to the world! (3.1.37-39)
Ferdinand’s love of Miranda seems appears to represent the affections female adoration – according to the prescribed ritual of noble courting, but his feminine obsessiveness is levelled out and enhanced by the masculine force of his sweetheart’s devotion. Their love is emphatically built upon a systematic balance, a mechanism of reflection and reaction, eros and anteros, modern, complimentary, and more neoplatonic than conventionally courtly. Yet there remains in Shakespeare’s words a forceful, if unbiased, commentary on masculine dominance- particularly in the person of Prospero- that represents an ideology apt to Jacobean sexual politics.
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