The Tempest, written toward the close of William Shakespeare’s career, is a work of fantasy and courtly romance, the story of a wise old magician, his beautiful, unworldly daughter, a gallant young prince, and a cruel, scheming brother. It contains all the elements of a fairy tale in which ancient wrongs are righted and true lovers live happily ever after. The play is also one of poetic atmosphere and allegory. Beginning with a storm and peril at sea, it ends on a note of serenity and joy. None of Shakespeare’s other dramas holds so much of the author’s mature reflection on life itself.
Early critics of The Tempest, concerned with meaning, attempted to establish symbolic correlations between the characters Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, and Miranda and such qualities as imagination, fancy, brutality, and innocence. Others considered the play in terms of its spectacle and music, comparing it to the masque or commedia dell’arte. Most critics read into Prospero’s control and direction of all the characters—which climaxes with the famous speech in which he gives up his magic wand—Shakespeare’s own dramatic progress and final farewell to the stage.
In the mid-twentieth century, criticism began to explore different levels of action and meaning, focusing on such themes as illusion versus reality, freedom versus slavery, revenge versus forgiveness, time, and self-knowledge. Some suggested that the enchanted island where the shipwreck occurs is a symbol of life itself: an enclosed arena wherein are enacted a range of human passions, dreams, conflicts, and self-discoveries. Such a wide-angled perspective satisfies both the casual reader wishing to be entertained and the serious scholar examining different aspects of Shakespeare’s art and philosophy.
This latter view is consonant with one of Shakespeare’s principal techniques, which he employs in all of his work: the analogy between microcosm and macrocosm. This Elizabethan way of looking at things simply meant that the human world mirrored the universe. In the major tragedies, this correspondence is shown in the pattern between order and disorder, usually with violent acts (the murder of Caesar, the usurpation of the throne by Richard III, Claudius’s murder of Hamlet’s father, Macbeth’s killing of Duncan) correlated with a sympathetic disruption of order in the world of nature. Attendant upon such human events therefore are such natural phenomena as earthquakes, strange beasts, unaccountable storms, voices from the sky, and witches. The idea that the world is but an extension of the mind, and that the cosmic order in turn is reflected in human beings, gives validity to diverse interpretations of The Tempest and, as a matter of fact, encompasses many of them.
The initial storm or “tempest” invoked by Prospero, which wrecks the ship, finds analogy in Antonio’s long-past usurpation of Prospero’s dukedom and his setting Prospero and Miranda adrift at sea in a storm in the hope they will perish. When, years later, the court party—Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and Ferdinand, along with the drunken Stephano and Trinculo—is cast upon the island, its “meanderings,” pitfalls, and enchantments make it a place where everyone will go through a learning process and most come to greater self-knowledge.
Illusions on this island, which include Ariel’s disguises, the disappearing banquet, and the line of glittering costumes that delude Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban, find counterparts in the characters’ illusions about themselves. Antonio comes to believe he is the rightful duke; Sebastian and Antonio, deluded by ambition, plan to kill Alonso and Gonzalo and make Sebastian tyrant of Naples. The drunken trio of court jester, butler, and Caliban falsely see themselves as future conquerors and rulers of the island. Ferdinand is tricked into believing that his father drowned and that Miranda is a goddess. Miranda, in turn, nurtured upon illusions by her father, knows little of human beings and their evil. Even Prospero must come to see he is not master of the universe and that revenge is not the answer after all. He must move to a higher reality, in which justice and mercy have greater power.
It has been noted that the island holds different meanings for different characters. Here again is an illustration of the analogy between microcosm and macrocosm. The characters with integrity see it as a beautiful place; honest Gonzalo, for example, thinks it might be a utopia. Sebastian and Antonio, however, whose outlook is soured by their villainy, characterize the island’s air as perfumed by a rotten swamp. Whether a character feels a sense of freedom or of slavery is conditioned not just by Prospero’s magic but by the individual’s view of the island and his or her own makeup. The loveliest descriptions of the island’s beauty and enchantment come from Caliban, the half-human, who knew its offerings far better than anyone else before his enslavement by Prospero.
Perhaps in few of his other plays did Shakespeare create a closer relationship between the human and the natural universes. In The Tempest, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and cruelty and gentleness are matched with the external environment, and everything works toward a positive reconciliation of the best in both humans and nature. This harmony is expressed by the delightful pastoral masque Prospero stages for the young lovers, in which reapers and nymphs join in dancing, indicating the union of the natural with the supernatural. The coming marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda also foreshadows such harmony, as do the repentance and forgiveness demonstrated by the major characters.
It may be true, as Prospero states in act 5, that upon the island “no man was his own,” but he also confirms that understanding comes like a “swelling tide,” and he promises calm seas for the homeward journey, after which all will presumably take up the tasks and the responsibilities of their respective station with improved perspective. As Prospero renounces his magic, Ariel is freed to return to the elements, and Caliban, true child of nature, is left to regain harmony with his world. Perhaps the satisfaction experienced by Shakespeare’s audiences results from the harmony between humans and nature that illuminates the close of the play.