The Tempest
Second lecture
Is there any other play of Shakespeare that concentrates so much on a
single character?
Some other characters, the court party, for example, seemed just sketched.
Miranda and Ferdinand seem simply “the young lovers” – but appealing
when well cast, well acted.
The “play” of the backstory was “The Tragedy of Prospero, Duke of Milan.”
Now what? “Prospero’s Revenge”?
Does Prospero himself know?
He indicates only “bountiful Fortune” has delivered “mine enemies” to this
shore and now his “zenith” depend upon a star he must “court.”
Not an easy-going guy!
Does his experience explain that?
He had been a devoted scholar: “for the liberal arts/ Without a parallel”
“Me (poor man) my library was dukedom large enough.”
In a way, he becomes a kind of fantasy of the Renaissance man, the magus
who could, through mastery of arcane learning, control the elements.
And also of the artist who could body forth his imaginative life?
But his “day job” was being a duke . . .
. . . which he neglected (and in so doing neglected the real business of
Which meant overthrow, nearly death, and 12 years of exile.
More Prospero
Will he allow himself to be inattentive in the future.
Or to control everything?
His treatment of Ariel.
Partly “exposition,” but his insistence on Ariel’s obedience and need
for gratitude indicates his desire to dominate matters.
The control of Caliban seems only partly successful.
And the result of Propero’s “Caliban experiment”?
Miranda a part of this: “I pitied thee/ Took pains to make thee speak .
. .”
“You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to
(We’ll come back to this when we talk about the “post-colonial”
Finally, what does Prospero intend in the round-up of his enemies?
How can they be properly punished?
Does he know?
How can he be sure that Ferdinand is not some spoiled aristocratic
The “Macbeth moment”
• While Ariel presides over the scene, we have a “test
case” of treason and murderous intention.
• Antonio plays Lady Macbeth to Sebastian’s Macbeth.
• And both are brought to the verge of murdering Alonso
and Gonzalo.
• The episode confirms Prospero’s narrative and indicates
the continued treacherous intentions of the two.
• And their intention of accomplishing their treason is
confirmed in III.3. 11-17.
• A sort of controlled experiment that proves the danger of
Prospero’s position?
• And says something about human nature?
• The “banquet” of III.3 also a kind of testing moment.
• Gonzalo sees benevolence in the spirits.
• But the whole vision is designed to bring them to
Doubled by the Caliban plot
• The “Macbeth moment” treason doubled by the
Caliban/Stephano/Triculo plot.
• Which turns comic the whole idea of plotting
against Prospero?
• Like the “anti-masque” in a masque.
• Caliban is starting over with a new master, but
repeating the pattern established with Prospero.
• But Stephano and Triculo prove disappointing
• Ariel distracts them with “trumpery” and the
whole plot collapses in greed.
Prospero’s art
The disappearing “banquet” had been one example of Prospero’s art, a
work designed to elicit guilt.
The wedding masque for Miranda and Ferdinand is another “vanity of mine
At one level it celebrates abundance, prosperity, long life, happiness.
“Spring come to you at the farthest/ At the very end of harvest.”
But it’s also about self-control, the banishing of Venus in favor of Juno.
And echoes Prospero’s concerns about Ferdinand’s not breaking Miranda’s
“virgin knot” until “All sactimonious ceremonies,” all holy rites have been
(A preoccupation of Shakespeare’s, it seems.)
The masque is a visually elaborate and stunning moment in the play, taking
up more stage time than our merely reading it suggests.
The dance of “certain reapers” and the nymphs recapitulates something of
what we saw in WT, a moment of pure, abstract entertainment that has
nothing to do with plot or narrative.
But interrupted by Prospero’s anxieties – he’d forgotten the plot of the
“beast Caliban.”
(Of course, as it turns out, he needn’t have worried since Ariel has the
whole situation under complete control.
And he’s “in some passion” – that is, furiously angry, upset also with
Art and life
“Sir, I am vexed./ Bear with my weakness: my old brain is troubled.”
This is a man who has just looked death in the face.
And thinks he’s lost it once again.
Is life any less fragile than art?
How long does a play last?
Like Prospero’s little play, “the baseless fabric of this vision,”
everything else -- towers, palaces, temples, “the great globe itself” - will disappear without a trace.
And we too are just something that someone is dreaming, no more
substantial than a dream.
But he’s also referring – metatheatricality! – to the very place where
we are, the towers, palaces, churches of London, and the “Great
Globe” where we’re sitting, standing.
(Which did disappear almost without a trace – just that little bit of
foundation found under the Anchor Terrace.)
The whole perception is melancholy in the extreme – an old man’s
“A turn or two I’ll walk/ To still my beating mind.”
Then we learn that Ariel had everything under control. No need for
P’s anxiety.
Prospero’s moment of decision
• Did Prospero know what he would do to his enemies?
• Would it make the best dramatic sense to think he did not?
• That he must come to a decision, one that would make demands on
• At V.1 Ariel reports on the distracted (mad) state of P’s three
enemies – and the rest “brimful of sorrow and dismay.”
• Ariel asserts that Prospero’s own emotions would become “tender” if
he beheld them.
• What to make of P’s reply, “Dost thou think so spirit?”
• Surprised? Unbelieving?
• Ariel sets up the challenge: “Mine would, sir, were I human.”
• Is there a pregnant pause at this point – in which Prospero must
look at Ariel and reflect?
• Reflect on what is implied by A’s response? What does it mean to
be “human”?
• Prospero seems to reflect on the elements of the decision in the
lines that follow.
• “Nobler reason ‘gainst my fury.”
• The renouncing of “art,” “this rough magic.”
• Are there risks in this renouncing?
Breaking the staff, drowning the book
• At once the renouncing of exceptional powers and the
giving up of art.
• P. confronts each of his enemies.
• But can we say what the response is of each?
• Alonso returns P’s dukedom and ask for pardon.
• Do Antonio and Sebastian respond?
• Miranda’s “wonder”: “How beauteous mankind is! O
brave new world/ That has such people in’t!”
• And Prospero’s world-weary reply: “’Tis new to thee.”
• Gonzalo’s happy ending: V.1.205ff.
• How far can we trust this?
• The isle left to Caliban.
• And Ariel “to the elements.”
Epilogue: “spoken by Prospero”
• Unusual for the epilogue to be spoken by the protagonist.
• A liminal moment for the play: “by Prospero” implies the actor in
character, but it’s also the actor who is appealing for applause.
• P’s renounced powers are now assumed to reside with the
• It’s playful – but serious play?
• It’s as if the power to imagine, to create a play, resides first with an
audience willing to accept what’s played.
• And so the playwright must take from and return his powers to an
• The despairing magus/player/playwright must be “relieved by
• The thematic of pardon, forgiveness, of the play’s narrative is now a
demand on the audience – again serious “play.”
• What formulation do the final two lines appear to echo?
• Suggesting a mutuality of acceptance of imaginative power.

The Tempest - University of California, Santa Barbara