Notes by Miss L Briscoe
The Tempest is generally regarded as Shakespeare’s last play, first performed in 1611. Its rich themes and ambiguities are often attributed to the seventeenth century age of exploration, the circumstances of its performance at court (first performed for King James I as well as for the marriage festivities of Elizabeth), and the context of the playwright’s tumultuous writing career.
Allegorical reading of The Tempest
1. The play can be read as Shakespeare’s commentary on European exploration of new lands. Prospero lands on an island with a native inhabitant, Caliban, a being he considers savage and uncivilized. He teaches this “native” his language and customs, but this nurturing does not affect the creature’s nature, at least from Prospero’s point of view. But Prospero does not drive Caliban away, rather he enslaves him, forcing him to do work he considers beneath himself and his noble daughter. As modern readers, sensitive to the legacy of colonialism, we need to ask if Shakespeare sees this as the right order and assess his views of imperialism and colonialism. Furthermore, we must explore the depiction of the master/ slave dynamic shown in this play.
2. Because it was performed at court, there is a lot of stage business: music, dance, masque-like shows. The role of the artist is explored through Prospero’s use of his magic, and parallels can be drawn to Shakespeare’s own sense of his artistry. With the knowledge that this is Shakespeare’s last play, some critics have chosen to explore the autobiographical connections, indicating that he sees himself in Prospero. Furthermore, there is also the notion that he feels somehow isolated and in need of reconciliation, as he bids adieu to the theatre. If the play is studied meticulously with a key attention to these details then the parallels are certainly underscored. This interpretation of the play is also evident in the thematic concerns for example power, reconciliation, illusion, change/transformation.
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Photo Credit: Topher McGrillis © RSC
Prospero’s Manipulation of Language
Prospero’s rhetoric (persuasive/eloquent way of speaking) is particularly important to observe in the play, especially in his confrontation with Ariel. Of all the characters, Prospero alone seems to understand that controlling history enables one to control the present—that is, that one can control others by controlling how they understand the past. Prospero therefore tells his story with emphasis on his own good deeds, the bad deeds of others toward him, and the ingratitude of those he has protected from the evils of others. For example, when he speaks to Miranda, he calls his brother “perfidious,” (treacherous) then immediately says that he loves his brother better than anyone in the world except Miranda. He repeatedly asks Miranda, “Dost thou attend me?” Through his questioning, he commands her attention almost hypnotically as he tells her his one-sided version of the events which unfolded in Milan. It is important to note that Prospero himself is not blameless. While his brother did betray him, he also failed in his responsibilities as a leader by giving up control of the government, so that he could study and experiment with magic. As a result, he equally contributed to the circumstances that surround his usurpation from his position as Duke of Milan. He contrasts his popularity as a leader—“the love my people bore me” (I.II.141)—with his brother’s “evil nature” (I.II.).
Additionally, through the playwright’s use of dramatic monologue, the audience is informed that initially, Prospero had taken Caliban under his wing, taught him to speak, and fed him. In exchange, Caliban had shown him all the tricks and treasures of the island. Sadly, the arrangement ended when according to Prospero, Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Consequently, Prospero confined Caliban to servitude. Language in the play serves as a tool for spreading knowledge. It is important to note that Prospero however, has sole autonomy on how the past is presented.