“A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a poor drunkard”

The Tempest

Act Two, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


the tempest photo act two 1Act Two:  Alonso and his companions are searching for Ferdinand. Ariel, who remains invisible, send everyone to sleep except Antonio and Sebastian, Alonso’s brother. These two then plot to murder Alonso and the courtier Gonzago, but before they can do it, Ariel wakes the others. Meanwhile, on another part of the island, Trinculo comes across Caliban, to their mutual shock; when the drunken Stefano arrives, Caliban thinks he must be a god and offers to serve him in the hope of escaping Prospero’s control.


As it turns out, Gonzalo and his aristocratic companions don’t have the island to themselves. Elsewhere, two other survivors from the wreck, the jester Trinculo and the drunken butler Stefano are doing their own tentative, alcohol-hazed explorations of their new home. Trinculo is the first on the scene, and sees what he initially takes to be a “fish,” then “an islander that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt.” (2.2.35-6). After a fair amount of comic shtick (during which Trinculo clambers in under the islander’s coat, making Stefano believe that he is looking at a creature with “four legs”), the two Italians recognize each other and confront the “scurvy monster,” who kisses Stefano’s foot and promises to serve them both. “I prithee,” the monster cries, “let me bring thee where crabs grow,”

And I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts,

Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how

To snare the nimble marmoset. I’ll bring thee

To clust’ring filberts, and sometimes I’ll get thee

Young seamews from the rock.


This is Caliban, a “savage and deformed slave” (as the First Folio’s list of roles describes it) whose very name – a  near anagram of cannibal perhaps – identifies him as something far outside most European’s experience. The riches he offers, too, are wild and exotic, the dramatic equivalent of those that William Strachey described on Bermuda. But, while Strachey and his companions were forced to unlock the island’s assets for themselves, Caliban promises to do all the work.

The scene is, obviously I think, meant to resemble those enacted in real life by colonists who found that they world that they thought of as “new” in fact belonged to other people, with all the horrendous consequences that invited (including of course the smallpox virus, introduced by European colonists, whose devastating effect on indigenous communities up and down the East Coast were recorded by English settlers). But Shakespeare’s replay is seemingly satirical: here, the wannabe colonists are from the dregs of society, their offerings alcoholic, their ambitions simply to get whatever they can out of Caliban (perhaps by shipping him to England and showing him off for money, as Trinculo speculates). The tragic farce of the encounter is captured by Trinculo: “A most ridiculous monster,” he sniggers, “to make a wonder of a poor drunkard.” (2.2.164-5)


To continue with Garber:

the tempest photo act two 2“But if sleep is a sign of innocence, wakefulness is – as often in Shakespearean tragedy – a sign of guilt. In act 2, scene 1, when one by one the courtiers fall asleep to the music of Ariel’s pipe, the King, Alonso, remains awake, and wonders why: ‘What, all so soon asleep?’ Although Alonso is guilty of complicity in the exile of Prospero, he is now also a figure of sympathy and pathos, since he is mourning the supposed death of his own son, Ferdinand, and he, too, soon falls asleep, leaving awake upon the stage only two men: Antonio, Prospero’s brother, and Sebastian, the brother of Alonso – that is, the already usurping Duke of Milan and the potentially usurping King of Naples. Sleeplessness afflicts them as it afflicts other Shakespearean characters of uneasy conscience, and they speak to each other in the language of sleep and dream. When Antonio suggests that Sebastian might become king, Sebastian rejoins,

     What, art thou waking?



It is a sleepy language, and thou speak’st

Out of thy sleep.


‘[W]hat a sleep were this/For your advancement!’ Antonio replies. Here ‘sleeping language,’ like the ‘sleepy drinks’ mentioned at the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, suggests a wish, a fantasy, a condition contrary to fact. The sleep of Alonso provides an opportunity for Sebastian to realize his dream of usurpation.

The sleep of the courtiers, like the raging of the storm, is one of Ariel’s devices. Dressed by Prospero in a cloak of invisibility, and therefore unseen by anyone but his master and the audience, Ariel marks the borderline between visible and invisible, conscious and unconscious. He is fire, the element associated above all with transformation, but he is also the spirit of air – by which is meant both wind and breath, or ‘inspiration’: ‘Now on the beak,/Now in the waste, the deck, in every cabin,/I flamed amazement’ (1.2.197-199); ‘I come/To answer they best pleasure. Be’t to fly,/To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride/On the curled clouds’ (190-193). As a wind god, he causes the tempest itself. Addressing the royal conspirators in act 3, scene 3, as ‘three men of sin,’ he will appear to them in a clap of thunder and a streak of lightning – air and fire – to accuse them of their past misdeeds against Prospero. ‘Methought,’ exclaims a horrified Alonso, ‘the billows spoke and told me of it,/The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,/That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounced,/The name of Prosper’ (3.3.96-99). In this scene, the stage direction indicates that Ariel appears ‘like a harpy’; the harpies were figures associated by ancient poets such as Homer and Hessiod with wind spirits, and with the souls of the dead.

It is significant, though, that for all of Ariel’s capacity to describe and bring about metamorphosis, he himself remains under Prospero’s control for almost the entire duration of the play. His persistent requests to be liberated from bondage are easy to miss if we focus on his apparent freedom: to fly, to sing, to remain invisible, to invent stratagems, to speak in many voices, to entrap the unwary conspirators. Yet Ariel’s situation under Prospero’s rule has many similarities with his situation under the sway of Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, who imprisoned Ariel in a pine tree for twelve years – the same amount of time that Ariel has been serving his new master, Prospero. As with the cyclic and emblematic tempests, which take place a dozen years apart, the question of Ariel’s freedom returns with new urgency as the play opens. Even Sycorax, who is described as a type of Circe, or female magician, is imaged as powerful and aversive, as a bent old hag who is also a walking sign of cyclical repetition, endlessly returning upon herself: ‘The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy/Was grown into a hoop’ (1.2.259-260) Indeed, as we will see, the very pattern of The Tempest – a play that, unlike most by Shakespeare, obeys the three supposed classical ‘unities’ of time, space, and action – is to repeat, with a difference, all the main events of the past (tempest, usurpation, bondage, rule of the island). As they are repeated,  each is interrogated, reversed, and undone.

Compared to that of Caliban, though, Ariel’s bondage looks a great deal like freedom. For Prospero’s two servants are constantly, and directly, contrasted. In terms of the four elements, Caliban is clearly earth and water, spending his time in ‘bogs, fens, [and] flats,’ mistaken for a fish (and smelling like one), fond of fishing, and eagerly volunteering to dig sustenance in the form of pignuts out of the earth with his long fingernails.

Ariel was once imprisoned in the cloven pine, and Caliban now complains to Prospero that ‘I am all the subjects that you have,/Which first was mine own king, and here you stay me/In this hard rock’ (1.2.344-346). Prospero keeps Caliban penned up in a cave, a naturalistic prison, but also the traditional allegorical place in which to restrain lustful desire. Yet he, too, once had a kind of innocence. There is pathos in his memory of Prospero and Miranda’s arrival on the island, whey they treated him with kindness, and he taught them what he knew:

     When thou cam’st first,

Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me

Water with berries in’t, and teach me how

To name the bigger light, and how the less,

That burn by day and night; and then I loved thee

And showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle,

The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile –


In one way, this seems like a classic version of the New World encounter, the guileless native inhabitant cunningly persuaded to lead the invaders to local treasure. But at the same time, rhetorically and tonally, the lines seem to be spoken in the remembered voice of a child, lacking language, or at least European language (‘the bigger light…the less’). With elegant economy, Shakespeare’s play enacts at once ontogeny and phylogeny, the history of the individual and the history of the species.

This sensory impression of Caliban as a child is made even stronger by his unexpectedly lovely praise of music, in a passage that rivals even Ariel’s songs for its beauty:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises.

Sounds, and sweet airs, the give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices

That if I then had waked after long sleep

Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.


Waking, sleeping, dreaming, crying to dream again – this, too seems like the voice of a child. Like another aversive figure in the romances, Cymbeline’s Cloten, Caliban is associated with lovely music even as he also spits forth curses and the raw language of sexually explicit desire. But to be a child, eve a child of nature, is not enough, as the play’s persistent wordplay on the two sense of ‘natural’ suggests. A ‘natural’ in early modern English is a fool – ‘Lord,’ quoth he. ‘That such a monster should be such a natural!’ exclaims Trinculo – and Caliban is presented here, in Prospero’s resonant, dismissive phrase, as one upon whose nature nurture can never stick. The play requires civility and civilization.

The turning point comes with the awakening of sexual desire, when Caliban, in Prospero’s words, tried ‘to violate/The honour of my child’ (1.2.350-351). ‘O ho, O ho!’ Caliban retorts, ‘Would’st had been done!/Thou didst prevent me; I had people else/This isle with Calibans’ (352-354). Caliban’s desire estranges him from his foster father, Prospero, and causes him to be imprisoned in the rock. When a more appropriate suitor appears in the person of Ferdinand, Price of Naples, Prospero will be sure to stress the importance of chastity before marriage.

As if to provide contrast with the supposedly unregenerate nature of Caliban, the play presents a number of other indigenous islanders who are spirits of a different sort. In the banquet scene (3.3), the good-hearted counselor Gonzalo praises the ‘several strange shapes’ who enter bringing food, observing that

     Though they are of monstrous shape, yet note

Their manners are more gentle-kind than of

Our human generation you shall find

Many, nay, almost any.


So these spirit ‘monsters’ compare favorably in manners to human beings. In a similar moment, later in the play, the spirit Ariel will convince Prospero to show mercy rather than to exact revenge, and Prospero will praise him as a paradoxical model of exemplary humanity.”


From W.H. Auden:

the tempest photo act two 3“Like other mythopoeic works, The Tempest inspired people to go on for themselves. You can’t read Don Quixote without wanting to make up episodes that Cervantes, as it were, forgot to tell us. The same is true of Sherlock Holmes. Great writers such as Cervantes or Kafka can do this sort of thing. On the other hand, so can Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. Browning wrote an extension of The Tempest in Caliban on Setebos, Renan did one in Caliban, and I’ve done something with it myself.

Let’s begin with the comic and rather dull passage that is partly based on Montaigne, Gonzalo’s imagination of the Utopia he would create if he had ‘plantation of this isle’ and ‘were king on’t’:

I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries

Execute al things, for no kind of traffic

Would I admit; no name of magistrate;

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,

And use of service, none; contract, succession,

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;

No sovereignty.

Seb:  Yet he would be king on’t.

Ant:  The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

Gon:  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 its own kind, all foison, all abundance,

To feed my innocent people.

Seb:  No marrying ‘mong his subjects?

Ant:  None, man! All idle – whores and knaves.

Gon:  I would with such perfection govern, sir,

T’ excel the golden age.


One of the chief themes of The Winter’s Tale is the idea of the Garden of Eden. Here we have an allied theme: the nature of the commonwealth, of the good society, which is presented by a good but stupid character whose fault is the refusal to admit evil in others that he knows to be there. In the commonwealth Gonzalo describes, there would be no money, no books, no work, no authority. This would be possible if all men were angels, which Antonio and Sebastian’s reactions alone show they are not, and if nonhuman nature were perfect and obedient. Each character in the play has his daydream. The absence of evil is the daydream of all: of the good like Gonzalo, who shut their eyes to evil in others, and of the bad like Antonio and Caliban, who shut their eyes to evil in themselves.

There are various types of society represented in the play. It opens with the commonwealth of a ship, which is reminiscent of a similar scene in Pericles (III.i) – the parallel between ship and state is conventional. In the storm authority belongs to those with professional skill: the Master and Boatswain take precedence over the King. The characters of the people are already revealed by their response to the situation: Alonso accepts it, Gonzalo is a little shocked, Antonio and Sebastian are angry. Gonzalo tries to cheer himself up – he tries always to look on the bright side of things. At the end of the opening scene of the play, Antonio says, ‘Let’s all sink with th’ King’ (I.i.66). Gonzalo should say it – the line is misplaced.

What is society? For St. Augustine, society consists of a group of people associated in respect of things they love. Who has authority in the society of a sinking ship? How is the magic of authority maintained? All the people are threatened by death on the ship. When Gonazlo tells the Boatswin, ‘yet remember whom thou hast abroad,’ he answers, ‘None that I more love than myself’ (I.i.20-22). Everyone is equal in the face of death, as well as of suffering. The magic of authority belongs to the person who has professional skill and courage in a crisis.

After the prologue of the ship in the storm, we listen to Prospero’s narrative of the past and look back to two political states, Milan and Naples, which were at enmity with each other. We are not told why. Within Milan itself there was conflict. Prospero, ‘rapt in secret studies,’ entrusted the ‘manage’ of his state to his brother Antonio (I.ii.77, 70). Prospero wished to improve himself, and that takes time, but government has to go on now, which poses a political problem. It is desirable for the best people to govern, but we can’t wait – government must go on now.

Does Prospero tempt Antonio? Yes. Since Antonio is actually doing the work of governing, he is tempted to want the position of rightful governor. He abuses his trust and conspires with a foreign state, thereby not only breaking faith with his brother, but also committing treason to his city. Politically, the two states, Milan and Naples, soon become friends. Before, Milan had been independent, but now it must pay tribute. Antonio, with the aid of Alonso, turns his brother and Miranda out. Prospero is helped by Gonzalo, who is not strong enough to break with Alonso, since he can’t bear unpleasantness, but who won’t countenance violence. Prospero loves self-improvement,. Antonio loves personal power. Alonso loves political glory somewhat, but mostly he loves his family. He is devoted to his son Ferdinand. There is the curious story that he has been to Tunis for the marriage of his daughter, Claribel. It is suggests – and not denied – that this was an advantageous marriage of convenience, a marriage for family glory. Alonso is a fundamentally decent person who is led by his wishes for his family into deeds of which he has to be ashamed. He regards Prospero as an enemy.

The story of the island’s past starts with Sycorax, who was banished from Algiers for sorcery – they would not take her life. It echoes the story of a witch who raised a storm when Charles V besieged the city in 1421. Sycorax gave birth to Caliban, the father being either the Devil or the god Setebos. Scyorax obtains Ariel either in Algiers or on the island, and confines him to a pine tree. When Prospero comes to the island, he releases him and finds Caliban. Sycorax introduces into the play a world of black magic like that of the witches in Macbeth, and her counterfeit city of malice and discord is presented as a parody of the city of concord and love. She saved the city of Algiers by raising a storm, but it was by accident. She can do a malicious deed, but not a good one – she can’t release Ariel, for example.

Prospero is like Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is like the Duke in Measure for Measure in his severity, and as a puppet master, he is Hamlet transformed. Prospero tried to make Caliban a conscious person, and only made him worse. He has lost his savage freedom:

For I am all the subjects that you have,

Which first was mine own king;


and he has lost his savage innocence:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse.


Caliban could move from simple feeling to consciousness and from appetite to passion, but no further. He nonetheless remains essential to Prospero and Miranda.

There is a significant parallel between The Tempest and The Magic Flute. The problem posed in both works is the nature of education. Sarastro is like Prospero, the Queen of the Night like Scyorax, Monostatos like Caliban, and Tamino and Pamina like Ferdinand and Miranda. How do people react to education? You must go all the way if you start. You can be lowbrow or highbrow, you can’t be middlebrow. Caliban might have been his ‘own king’ (I.ii.342) once, but when he becomes a conscious being, he has to govern himself and he can’t. Tamino, like Ferdinand, goes through tests in order to win Pamina. Papageno, who is living off the Queen of the Night, also wants things – he wants to be married. The Priest warns Tamino of his trials, and Tamino professes himself willing to undergo them. Papageno says he’ll stay single if he has to submit to tests and risk death. An old woman appears and makes love to Papageno, and he eventually gives his hand to her rather than live a tough life. Though he refuses the ordeal, Papageno does get the prize when the old woman turns into Papagena. Why? He’s rewarded because he’s willing to pay his own kind of price – to stay single or marry an old woman. Like Monostatos, Caliban wants to have his cake and eat it. Why, through education, should he have to be obliged to exercise self-control? He wants a princess too. Monostatos says, ‘Lieber gutter Mond, vergbe,/Eine Weisse nahm mich ein’: Dear good moon, forgive me, a white woman has taken my fancy. He wants to force himself on the princess and must be prevented by Sarastro. White magic, the city of love, works beneficently with Miranda, but it has to rule some by fear.

Ariel and Caliban both want freedom. Caliban wants freedom to follow his appetites, Ariel wants pure freedom from any experience. In Renan’s version of The Tempest, Caliban goes back to Milan. He revolts and conquers, and says he’s angry with Prospero for his deception, for instilling superstition in his subjects. Prospero is arrested by the Inquisition, and Caliban defends and later frees him. Prospero says that now that the people are positivists, no magic will work, because people believe only what they can touch and feel.”


And from one of my favorite critics. Jan Kott:

Not a soul

But felt a fever of the mad and play’d

Some tricks of desperation.

(The Tempest, 1,2)

Caliban, Ariel, Stephano and Trinculo in The Tempest“The performance is drawing to a close. For the last time Prospero has called Ariel and drawn a magic circle. The elements have been tamed, the tempest is over. Prospero returns among men and renounces his magic powers.

…But this rough magic

I here abjure; and when I have requir’d

Some heavenly music…


…..I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,…


On the surface the ending of The Tempest seems happier than that of any other great Shakespearean drama. Prospero wins back the throne of Milan. Alonso, the King of Naples, has regained his son and regrets his former treachery. Liberated Ariel has vanished into thin air. Caliban has realized that he had mistaken a drunkard for a god. The young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand, play chess ‘for a score of kingdoms.’ The ship had been saved and awaits them in a quiet bay. Trespasses and crimes have been forgiven. Even the two treacherous brothers were invited to supper at Prospero’s cell. It is evening, a brief peaceful moment after tempest. The world which had lefts its orbit – as in Hamlet’s ‘The time is out of joint’ – has now been restored to moral order.

….In one voyage…


…..Prospero his dukedom

In a poor isle; and all of us ourselves

When no man was his own.


‘When no man was his own…’ The morality play has been performed, the spell is over, and so is madness. In all Shakespeare’s dramas there are brief moments of peace and quiet. But almost always they occur before the storm. In this instance, the storm has already happened. In the morning both princes and all the dramatis personae are to embark for Naples. The action of The Tempest returns to its prologue and all the characters resume their former places. History has turned full circle. Will it repeat itself once more?

The Shakespeare Histories are histories of reigns. Agony of the old monarch and coronation of the new form their prologues and epilogues at the same time. Dramatis personae change all the time. In The Tempest the same ruler regains his dukedom. As if nothing has changed, as if everything – the desert island included – were just a theatre performance staged by Prospero, a performance in which he has played the leading part. A similar performance to that devised and staged by Hamlet at Elsinore.

The ending of The Tempest is more disturbing than that of any other Shakespearean drama. This may be the reason why none of the commentators have noticed that the action returns to the point of departure. Perhaps this seemed too obvious. Or it may have disturbed the previous romantic and idyllic interpretation of The Tempest as a play of forgiveness and reconciliation with the world. And yet, an analysis of the dramatic structure of The Tempest has to be, if not the key, then at least the beginning of any interpretation. History has returned to the point of departure and begins anew. But what history? And what does that strange morality play mean whose actions takes place within less than four hours, that is to say not much longer than it takes to perform the play on the stage?

Shakespeare, who usually freely plays with time, condensing months into one scene, or – as in The Winter’s Tale – letting sixteen years pass between two acts, counts the time of The Tempest up to a minute. It is after two when Alonso’s ship catches fire from thunderbolts and is wrecked on the rocks. It is six P.M. when the characters go to supper. Prospero has regained his dukedom, Alonso has found his son, Ferdinand has won Miranda. Shakespeare’s clock, the dramatic clock which can count years in a minute, behaves on this occasion in the manner of all clocks. In Shakespeare’s day, performances usually began at three and ended at six. Prospero’s magic started operating between two and three, and was completed by six P.M.  One can hardly fail to notice a conscious design in this.

The characters of the play go through the tempest, and through a trial. The spectators witness the tempest with them, at exactly the same time. The characters go to supper; at the same time the actors and the spectators will go to supper. The tempest is over, the magic is over, and so is the performance. Life begins again, in the same way as before the tempest, before the performance, for characters and audience alike. Has nothing changed? But before they leave, the spectators will have to listen to the epilogue. Prospero, or rather the actor playing Prospero, comes forward and speaks the epilogue. This Prospero’s final soliloquy is one of the most beautiful written by Shakespeare, and also one of the most tragic and puzzling. Prospero speaks directly to the audience:

    …my project…

…was to please. Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair…


In Spanish plays – those of Calderon, and even more those of Lope de Vega – it was customary for an actor to appeal to the audience at the end and ask their indulgence for the shortcomings of the performance. But in Shakespeare a tragic epilogue of this sort, directed straight at the audience, is found only in The Tempest. It is written in quite a different key, it is a great tragic fugue, and one has, indeed, to be blind not to see in it moving personal accents. The Tempest is the last of Shakespeare’s great works. Having completed it, he probably wrote only a few scenes for Fletcher’s tragedy Henry VIII. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s crowning work. No wonder that many generations of students and critics have seen it a poetic testament, a farewell to the theater, a philosophical and artistic autobiography. Under the guise of Prospero Shakespeare is said to have represented himself.

There have been learned Shakespearean scholars who tried to interpret The Tempest as a direct autobiography, or as an allegorical political drama. Chambers, for whom The Tempest contained Shakespeare’s optimistic creed, connected the play with the turning point in his life which occurred after 1607 and was marked by a departure from the black philosophy of Hamlet. J.D. Wilson saw in The Tempest a reflection of the idyllic atmosphere of Stratford and a peaceful old age the poet spent with his daughter and granddaughter. Robert Graves saw in The Tempest – as well as in the sonnets – a veiled autobiography. The witch Scyorax was synonymous with the ‘Dark Lady’; Ariel’s captivity meant surrender to love’s passion, while Trinculo was supposed to represent Ben Jonson himself. Ariel was meant to be the martyred king Henry IV of France. All these interpretations are ridiculous and childish. No less childish are the theories which see in Ariel and Caliban rigid, complete and clear philosophical allegories, or the exposition of an esoteric mystic system.

A great magician whom elements obey, at whose command graves open and the dead rise, who knows how to eclipse the sun at noon and to hush the winds, rejects the magic wand and renounces power over human fate. He is now an ordinary mortal, defenseless as everybody else:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own,

Which is most faint.


This interpretation is, indeed, tempting. But one easily realizes that it consists of one metaphor only; that of a poet-magician, poet-creator, and a silence which is the price of return to the world of the humans. One notices just as easily how romantic that metaphor is, in its style as well as in its philosophy and aesthetics; in the conception of the poet as a demiurge; in the conflict between the poet and the world, between Ariel and Caliban, between pure spirituality and pure bestiality. All this symbolism is closer to Victor Hugo and Lamartine, and even more to the German Romantische Schule, than to Shakespearean theatre which invariably depicts cruel nature, cruel history, and man who struggles in vain trying to get the better of his fate.

The theatre tradition of the Shakespearean Tempest was lost very soon. From the time of the Restoration until the middle of the nineteenth century The Tempest  was performed in England in Dryden’s adaptation. It was a meaningless court fairy tale. The romantic era brought with it a symbolic interpretation, and an illusionist Tempest, performed by means of all the available mechanics and optics. These two bad traditions – the fairy tale one and the allegorical – were then united and hung over the interpretations of The Tempest until almost the present day. Poetizing was substituted for great poetry; an allegorical spectacle came in place of serious morality. The dramatic qualities of The Tempest were lost in dubious aesthetics. The play’s philosophic bitterness was almost lost. The Tempest became more and more of a romantic and operatic fairy story, with the main part given to a ballet dancer, dressed in bright tights, waving her silver gauze wings and floating in the air by means of a mechanical device. Even Leon Schiller did not fully free himself from this tradition when in 1947 he tried to counter the romantic notion of The Tempest by an optimistic tale of the philosopher-king and of the unlimited power of reason; a tale taken out of the Age of Enlightenment, as it were.

The true Tempest is serious and severe, lyrical and grotesque. Like all great Shakespearian dramas, it is a passionate reckoning with the real world. For this reading of The Tempest one has to go back to Shakespeare’s text, and to Shakespeare’s theatre. One has to see in it a drama of the man of the Renaissance, and of the last generation of humanists. In this sense, but in this sense only, can one find in The Tempest the philosophical autobiography of Shakespeare and the summa of his theatre. The Tempest will then become a drama of lost illusions, of bitter wisdom, and of fragile – though stubborn – hope. Great themes of the Renaissance will then be restored to The Tempest; those concerned with the philosophical utopia; with the limits of experience; with man’s efforts to conquer the physical world; with dangers threatening the moral order; with nature, which is and is not the measure of man. We shall then find in The Tempest the world Shakespeare lived in. The times abounding in great voyages, newly discovered continents and mysterious isles, dreams of man floating in the air like a bird, and of machines that would enable him to capture the strongest fortresses. An era which saw a revolution in astronomy, in the melting of metals and in anatomy; an era of the commonwealth of scholars, philosophers; an era of science, which for the first time became universal; of philosophy, which discovered the relativity of all human judgments; an era of the most magnificent architectural exploits, and of astrological horoscopes, commissioned by the Pope and all princes; an ear of religions wars and of stakes set up by the Inquisition; of an unparalleled splendor of civilization, and of plagues which decimated cities. A wonderful, cruel and dramatic world, which suddenly exposed both the power, and the misery, of man; a world in which nature and history, royal power, and morality, have for the first time been deprived of theological meaning.

The Elizabethan theatre represented the world. Over the Shakespearean stage at the Globe, there hung a huge canopy with golden signs of the Zodiac symbolizing the Heavens. it was, after the fashion of the Middle Ages, a Theatrum Mundi. But already a Theatrum Mundi after an earthquake.”

I’ll continue with Kott (and more) in my next post.


And on a personal note.  As we draw close to the end of this project, it occurred to me that I should commemorate it with a Shakespearian tattoo of some kind.  Any suggestions?


My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning:  more on Act Two


And enjoy your weekend.

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2 Responses to “A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a poor drunkard”

  1. Mahood says:

    Not sure if you’re familiar with ‘the look’ in tattoo terminology…but ‘The Look’s The Thing’ might be a starter for an opening suggestion…

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