The plot is as follows. Prospero, Duke of Milan, devoted himself to the study of magical arts (not to be confused with Satanism) and so neglected the affairs of Milan. His wicked brother Antonio took advantage of his preoccupation and, conspiring with the King of Naples, seized the dukedom, and had Prospero and his infant daughter Miranda set adrift in a small boat. They eventually landed on an island, where they found two beings, Ariel and Caliban, whom Prospero first benefited, and thereafter commanded, by the aid of his magical powers. Time passed and Miranda became of marriageable age. As the play opens, a ship is wrecked on the island, carrying Prospero's wicked brother Antonio, and the King of Naples and his son Ferdinand, with others. Prospero separates Ferdinand from the others, and arranges for him and Miranda to meet. They fall in love. Meanwhile, Prospero directs Ariel to cast spells on the others, making them see illusions and run after phantoms until they are worn out. He finally reveals himself to them, forgives the wrongs they have done or intended against him (one is reminded of the story (Genesis 37-45) of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt), betroths Miranda to Ferdinand, and prepares to sail with them for Naples (where Miranda will be married and eventually become Queen of Naples), and for Milan (where Prospero will again rule as Duke). Ariel and Caliban are free, all the villains are punished, repentant, and forgiven, and all ends well.
Now, this play is puzzling, in that one would not expect it to be successful. Prospero, the chief character, does not have anything like the vivid, fleshed-out personality of a typical Shakespearian character, and the same may be said for the others. The plot contains no ingenious surprises. One would expect the play to be dull, or to be regarded by most viewers as not one of Shakespeare's better efforts. But, on the contrary, most viewers find it deeply moving. Clearly they are responding to something deeper than the literal story. It is pretty much agreed that the play has a significance above and beyond its literal meaning. Following Coghill's lead, I offer an interpretation.
The theme of this play is Man seen in two aspects. On the one hand, he is made in the image of God, given dominion over this world. On the other hand, he is fallen, and an exile from his true home. The action of the play takes place on an island with two human inhabitants, a man and a woman, thrust forth from their native country because the man has given himself to the pursuit of forbidden knowledge. On the literal level, they are Prospero, Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda, thrust out to sea in a boat and landed on this island. On another level, they are the Human Intellect and the Human Heart respectively. Prospero by his knowledge makes himself master of the island, just as Man, even fallen Man, subdues nature. Prospero has two principal servants on the island, Ariel and Caliban. He addresses Ariel as "thou air" (V,i,21), and Caliban as "thou earth" (I,ii,314). One may take these as the elements of which Man is composed (see Genesis 2:7). Alternatively, Ariel can be taken to be a creature of air and fire (I,ii,189ff), and Caliban to be a creature of water as well as earth, so that Prospero's two servants, taken together, represent the four elements (fire, air, earth, and water) believed to constitute the material world. It is the proper office of Man, as a rational being, to organize and govern nature. It is also the proper function of the human soul (that is, of the life principle in a man) to organize matter into a human body. When a man eats a sandwich, his body, because it is a living body, takes the atoms of the sandwich and reorganizes them into human tissue--nerves, muscles, and the like--and fuel to supply that tissue. At Man's death, the soul, or organizing agent, departs from the body, whose constituents are thus freed from its control, free to relapse into their natural state, as the body decomposes. Thus, when Prospero leaves the island, his servants Ariel and Caliban are set free to go their separate ways.
[Remark: Some Shakespeare scholars, following a different line of interpretation, think it likely that Prospero does not free Caliban and leave him on the island, but takes him back to Milan, leaving Ariel in sole possession of the island. I acknowledge that I find nothing in the text to contradict this, and that I am here presenting what I feel is the natural thing for Prospero to do, rather than what I can prove he did. I cannot comment informedly on the alternate interpretation.]
As Prospero's departure draws near, there are repeated suggestions that we are really being shown his death. He shows the lovers a pageant, and then tells them that it was only an illusion. He goes on to say (IV,i,151):
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.He later says (V,i,310):
And thence retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave.Preparing to go home, he bids farewell to his magical arts, saying (V,i,54ff),
I'll break my staff, Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, And deeper than did ever plummet sound, I'll drown my book.Finally, when he has completed his purposes, and the ship is about to carry him and the others back to Naples and Milan, Prospero makes the speech that ends the play. Remember that the play opened with a scene on board ship. The stage was then arranged to look like a ship's deck, with masts and rigging and bits of sail and the like. (It is sometimes said that plays in Shakespeare's time were performed without and scenery on a bare stage, but this is now known to be a mistake--we have Henslowe's diary, with a list of stage properties bought and paid for.) We may reasonably suppose that the masts and rigging and other scenery suggesting the deck of a ship are brought out again for the final scene, and that Prospero stands on the poop deck, addressing the audience over the rear rail, as the ship prepares to sail away from them, carrying him home.
Now my charms are all o'erthrown, and what strength I have's mine own, which is most faint: now, 'tis true, I must be here confined by you, or sent to Naples. Let me not, since I have my dukedom got and pardoned the deceiver, dwell in this bare island by your spell: but release me from my bands with the help of your good hands. Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails, which was to please. Now I want spirits to enforce, art to enchant, and my ending is despair, unless I be relieved by prayer, which pierces so that it assaults mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.This speech has a double meaning throughout.
On one level, it is the speech of an actor saying to the audience: "This is the end of the play. Please clap ("with the help of your good hands") and cheer ("gentle breath of yours"). We have done our best to entertain you, and we should appreciate a good send-off."
On another level, it is the speech of a man about to depart from this world, asking for the prayers of his fellow Christians to uphold and support him--desiring to approach the throne of grace surrounded by the intercessions of those who are one with him in Christ.
So, then, Shakespeare's Tempest is a play largely devoted to the theme of Man's life on earth and his departure from it. On the one hand, it reminds us that Man was put on the earth to exercise dominion over this corner of the material universe. On the other hand it reminds us that we are pilgrims on earth and that our true home is elsewhere. We see Prospero ready to go home precisely when he has forgiven those who have wronged him. The play, by showing Prospero releasing his servants and renouncing his magical arts, shows Man relinquishing his control over nature as his life draws to its close and his body is about to return to the dust from which it came, while the man, drawn by the love of Christ, expressed in part through the love of his fellow Christians, enters into the joy of endless life.
And that concludes my set of examples intended to display Shakespeare not only as a great writer, but as a great Christian writer.
Back to Measure For Measure
Ahead to Shakespeare