“The isle is full of noises,/Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

The Tempest

Act Three, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


the tempest photos act 3 1Act Three:  Prospero has enslaved Ferdinand and made him carry logs, but the young man does so willingly in order to serve his beloved, Miranda.  Secretly watched by Prospero, the two vow to be married. Caliban tells Trinculo and Stephano that he is Prospero’s slave; he suggests that they murder the magician, and that Stephano marry Miranda and rule the island in Prospero’s place. When Ariel’s voice interrupts, Caliban and Stephano think that it is Trinculo speaking and the two men argue. Meanwhile, Alonso and his party have given up hope of finding Ferdinand when, to the sound of strange music, spirits materialize in front of them and produce a banquet. But before they can eat, Ariel appears, and makes the banquet vanish before condemning Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian for their part in deposing Prospero.


Shakespeare, as we have seen, was well-acquainted with writing that expressed discomfort about the colonial enterprises of ambitious Europeans (and the assumptions they carried with them throughout the globe), and in fact he “stole” Gonzalo’s dreamy speech about “plantation” directly from Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals” in which he makes the case that the native inhabitants of what is now Brazil are not “savage” or “barbarous” and that in thinking so we are blind to our own faults. In Shakespeare’s play, the Milanese are not the first to try and exploit Caliban: he has already been enslaved by Prospero, who took control of the island after he himself had been deposed from office in Milan. Having made the mistake of uncovering the island’s riches to the exile Duke – just as he does to Stefano and Trinculo – Caliban naively helped to bring about his own displacement. Forced into menial service for Prospero and his daughter, Caliban (“this semi-devil…this thing of darkness,’ as Prospero disgustedly calls him (5.1.275-9)) finds that the islan’d wonder now only entraps him. ‘Be not afeard,’ he advises Stefano and Trinculo,

     The isle is full of noises,

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

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.


The magical occurrences on the island confirm that it is Caliban’s prison, as this heartbreaking, and unexpectedly beautifully speech, in which ‘dreaming’ becomes a kind of solace, attests. Caliban is a collection of contradictions, far more complex than the innocent ‘noble savage’ imagined by neoclassical philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau – he is cheerfully unrepentant about his attempt to rape Miranda, for instance (as Kott points out – does he even know that it’s rape?) – but coming into contact with “civilization” has only made things worse for him, even as it attempts to mold him to its needs. “You taught me language,” he snarls at Prospero, “and my profit on’t/Is to know how to curse:” (1.2.365-6). Perhaps it is no surprise that Caliban, the character in The Tempest who most often steals the show, has sometimes been taken as its tragic hero.


From Tanner:

the tempest photo act 3 2“Thus far, I have stood somewhat outside the play, identifying rather aridly possible thematic concerns, but, as we feel our way gently into the mysteries of the play, all this material, like Ferdinand’s father (and much else), ‘doth suffer a sea change/Into something rich and strange’ (I.ii.401-2). The opening scene of the storm and wreck shows confusion and disorder: the angry sea makes social hierarchy irrelevant (‘What cares these roarers for the name of king?’ – (I.i.16-17), and it is no longer clear who is ‘the master.’ The overworked Boatswain, annoyed at the useless courtiers in his way, sounds a note of insubordination, saying to Gonzalo ‘if you can command these elements…use your authority’ (I.i.22-4). Straight away questions of mastery and authority and command – and mutiny and insurrection – are raised which will recur in a different form on the island, where Prospero ‘commands the elements’ in his own special way, and where the roaring sea will merge into Prospero’s anger. There is desperate talk of ‘sinking,’ a literal downward movement which, again transmuted, will affect figures in scenes to come. Furious, unpleasant Antonio shots at the Boatswain ‘would thou mightst lie drowning/the washing of ten tides!’ (I.i.57-8). Pirates were hanged on the beach and left there until they had been covered by three ties. The sea has much more work than that to do in this play, and the tidal washing continues, in various forms, throughout. For as well as being capable of stormy ‘roarers,’ this is a cleansing and a ‘clarifying’ sea. And in a curious way, it is as if the characters from the wreck do ‘lie drowning’ (not drowned, note) during the play. This entirely realistic little scene ushers in what is to bed the ‘strangest’ play Shakespeare ever wrote.

The second scene, it seems to me, marks an absolute alteration in mood and atmosphere, rather like the sudden change you experience if you are swimming in a noisy pool and suddenly duck your head down into submarine silence. Miranda refers to ‘the wild waters in this roar’ (I.ii.2), but I don’t think we can hear them. The world has gone quiet – the magisterial figure of Prospero is in complete command. It is indeed almost as if the play is taking place under the sea (as someone once remarked to Philip Brockbank); certainly there is something ‘unearthly’ about this island, and we soon learn that we have left the world of unknown and recognizable actualities behind. Miranda immediately reveals her ‘piteous heart’ by her instinctive sympathy with the shipwrecked men – ‘I have suffered/With those that I saw suffer’ (I.ii.5-6). This pity must be innate since there is no one to teach it her, no ‘piteous’ precedent to learn from on this island. Miranda’s compassion is absolutely vital; it bespeaks her inherent ‘nobility,’ and is part of her ‘better nature’ which is essential to offset and compensate for the bad nature which will soon be abroad on the island (and is perhaps incorporate in Caliban). From what we see of him, the austere and imperious Prospero is given more to anger than to pity, though pity is a lesson he will learn.

Prospero embarks on his long account of what befell him in Milan, the treacherous conspiracy against him, and how they were bundled into a boat and abandoned:

To cry to th’ sea that roared to us; to sigh

To th’ winds, whose pity, sighing back again,

Did us but loving wrong.


This sea always seems to be ‘roaring,’ but within the tumult there is a wind sighing with pity – so the elements can set ‘piteous’ precedents. The apparent oxymoron of ‘loving wrong’ (which will be distortedly echoed by Caliban when he yearns for ‘good mischief,’ by which he means the murder of Prospero: IV.i.217) is important to the atmosphere and resolution of the play. When Miranda asks her father whether their coming to the island was ‘foul play’ or ‘blessed’ he replies:

    Both, both my girl!

By foul play, as thou say’st, were we heaved thence,

But blessedly holp hither.


When, near the end, Ferdinand is reunited with the father he thought drowned, he exclaims:

Though the seas threaten, they are merciful.

I have cursed them without cause.


This is a restatement of Viola’s ‘Tempests are kind, and salt waves fresh with love!’ (Twelfth Night, III.iv.396), though in a somehow more somber key. In the play, Nature can ‘bless,’ as is clearly figured in the masque when Ceres says to Miranda and Ferdinand ‘Ceres’ blessing so is on you’ (IV>i.117), and more generally by the seemingly miraculous rescues and restorations on the island. But the word ‘foul’ occurs much more often; more often indeed than in any other play apart from King Lear. This is very much a Nature of ‘both, both,’ with ultimately, as it were, no sure and lasting winner. As long (but only as long) as Prospero has his magic, the ‘blessing’ will seem to triumph. It is as if he works with the elements to bring about the mental renewal or spiritual cleaning of the errant courtiers. As he releases them from their charmed state, he comments:

     Their understanding

Begins to swell, and the approaching tide

Will shortly fill the reasonable shore,

That now lies foul and muddy.


The cleansing sea has entered their very being. But not all the foulness can be washed away, as the mutely, contemptuously unrepentant Antonio sufficiently reminds us. And who can say what might yet happen to Prospero back in Milan – without his magic and, as it were, as vulnerable as the next man to the abiding foulness of the world.

As Prospero begins to recount their history, he announces ‘The hour’s now come’; most unusually, we are told exactly what time the play takes place (between 2.00 and 6.00 pm), and for only the second time in Shakespeare (the other is The Comedy of Errors). Something is coming to a head; and the words spoken later by Antonio to Sebastian, with reference to his plan to murder Alonso, might more fittingly have been said by Prospero to Miranda:

We all were sea-swallowed, though some cast again,

And, by that destiny, to perform an act

Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come

In yours and my discharge.


The past which is prologue to Prospero’s final ‘performance’ reveals that he was foully treated by his usurping brother, but also that he was not without some responsibility for what happened. We have encountered the figure of the negligent or absconding ruler before (most notably in Measure for Measure), and, by his own account, Prospero was guilty of an irresponsible dereliction of duty while he pursued his ‘liberal arts.’

     Those being all my study,

The government I cast upon my brother

And to my state grew stranger, being transported

And rapt in secret studies.


Not ‘good government,’ whatever else it was. In a roundabout way, Prospero actually admits his responsibility:

I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated

To closeness and the bettering of my mind –

…in my false brother

Awaked an evil nature, and my trust,

Like a good parent, did beget of him

A falsehood in its contrary as great

As my trust was, which had indeed no limit,

A confidence sans bound.

(I.ii.89-97 – my bold)

So he did the ‘awaking’ of an evil latent in nature; just as his trust did the ‘begetting’ of falsehood. (I note in passing that for trust to be constructively operative it should not be limitless, any more than confidence should be simply boundless – to the extent that they are, they become indistinguishable from indifference.)  A lot of things go by their ‘contraries’ in this play; there’s a good father and a bad mother (Sycorax. Miranda’s mother has one indirect reference which leaves her entirely without presence); a good brother and a bad brother; a noble child and a ‘monstrous’ child; a holy courtier and a foul one; a good servant and a bad servant; white magic and black magic. These contraries do not all remain stable and clear-cut – they wouldn’t in Shakespeare; but there’s a curious sense in which things somehow ‘beget’ their seeming opposites, a not-to-be-explained feeling that, say, Caliban is there because Ariel is there, that we have Sycorax because we have Prospero – or vice versa. As though people engender and awaken shadow selves. It is a very strange island.

One of Prospero’s many complaints about the conduct of his brother is the way in which he used the power Prospero had allowed him to win Prospero’s own followers over to him; but the way Prospero describes this treacherous feat points to a larger mystery:


The creatures that were mine, I say – or changed ‘em,

Or else new-formed ‘em.


New-created, new-formed, changed creatures – this is what we have been watching throughout Shakespeare’s comedies, and here the mysteries of metamorphosis and change are an essential part of the island’s atmosphere. Antonio changed creatures for the worse; Prospero seeks to new-create and new-form them for the better – in a Nature of ‘both,’ people can always go either way. Prospero emerges as the better maker (as T.S. Eliot called Ezra Pound – il miglior fabbro), though his instructive failures with Caliban and Antonio mark a limit to his magic.

Nearing the end of his account, Prospero says:

    Now I arise.

Sit still, and hear the last of our sea sorrow.

Perhaps he stands up; but more importantly, he senses the approach of his ‘zenith,’ and this starts the ascending movement, with a slight resurrectionary air, which counters the prevalent sinking tendency in the play. The ‘sea sorrow’ is over, and the ‘roarers’ will soon convert to music. Prospero is now in every sense the Governor. It is notable that he ascribes his sea-salvation to ‘providence divine,’ and that the propitious conditions for his coming triumph to ‘bountiful Fortune.’

By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune

(Now my dear lady) hath mine enemies

Brought to this shore; and by my prescience

I find my zenith doth depend upon

A most auspicious star, whose influence

If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes

Will ever after droop.


Destiny, Providence, Fortune, accidents, stars, his own ‘prescience’ (not to mention his science) – it is impossible to fix just who or what runs things, where the shaping and determining powers come from. But everything is somehow at work, and things are coming together.

Prospero starts his long narration by asking what images Miranda ‘hath kept with thy remembrance’ (I.ii.44). The words ‘remember,’ ‘remembrance’ occur more often in this play than elsewhere, and there is a great deal of retrospective peering into ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’ (I.ii.50). The most of life, one feels, was back there. Here, Prospero has to educate Miranda’s memory (as later he will Ariel’s and Caliban’s) since for her it is as if it all happened in another world.

     ‘Tis far off,

And rather like a dream than an assurance

That my remembrance warrants.


This dream-like quality pervades the play; even as Prospero recounts the real, waking world of Italian history to Miranda, it seems to have a narcotic, even hypnotic effect on her (thus his repeated jogging of her attention as she, presumably, keeps dropping of – ‘The strangeness of your story put/Heaviness in me’ I.ii.306-7). Finishing his account he concludes:

Thou art inclined to sleep. ‘Tis a good dullness,

And give it way. I know thou canst not choose (Miranda sleeps)


This particular dormition cannot have required a very strong spell. This is not a facetious point. The island is full of sleep, could itself be asleep and dreaming. A ‘strange drowsiness,’ ‘wondrous heavy’ (II.i.202-3) is everywhere. Many scenes end in sleep or trance (‘They fell together all…they dropped as if by a thunderstroke.’ II.i.207-8), and by the end you feel the difference between waking and dreaming is terminally blurred. Can you any longer be sure which is which? Thus Sebastian to Antonio:

What? Art thou waking?

Antonio: Do you not hear me speak?

Sebastian:  I do; and surely

It is a sleeping language, and thou speak’st

Out of thy sleep. What is it thou didst say?

This is a strange repose, to be asleep

With eyes wide open; standing, speaking, moving

And yet so fast asleep.


As it happens, the murderously plotting, and the slothfully biddable, two courtiers are wickedly awake; yet Sebastian’s words aptly evoke the curious liminal state the characters seem to find themselves in, speaking a ‘sleepy language,’ falling into a ‘strange repose.’ When the Boatswain appears in the finals scene, he tells how they were ‘dead of sleep’; then ‘awaked’ (with more ‘roaring’ sounds); then ‘even in a dream…brought moping (dulled) hither’ (V.i.230-239). By this time, the characters hardly know if they are asleep or awake, or suspended in some waking dream. And nor do we. We (and they) might, by the same token, wonder if they are alive or dead, or in some transitional limbo between the two states. Nobody dies in this play. Unless, that is, they are all dead already, all’sea-swallowed’ from the start. As Brockbank so pertinently commented, ‘there is no death after death.’  [MY NOTE:  Does any of this remind anyone of the TV series “Lost?”]

the tempest photo act 3 3While Miranda is asleep, Prospero summons Ariel (nobody apart from Prospero ever ‘sees’ Ariel, which makes him a very different kind of presence from the grossly corporeal Caliban, unpleasingly visible to all). Throughout this scene Prospero constantly addresses Ariel as ‘spirit,’ another word occurring far more often in this play than elsewhere (twenty-nine times); and clearly enough he (I don’t know if spirits are gendered, but ‘it’ sounds rude) represents some of kind of elemental opposite to Caliban, who is invariably associated with (and even addressed as) ‘earth.’ However, it soon becomes clear that Ariel is quicksilvery volatile, at ease in all the elements. In the air, of the air, obviously; but also doing Prospero’s ‘business in the veins o’th’ earth/When it is baked with frost’ (I.ii.255-6). Of course he can fly, and swim, and ‘ride on the curled clouds’ (I.ii.192); he can also “dive into the fire,’ and on the King’s ship ‘I flamed amazement’ (I.ii.198). I am not sure that we need to know that he has the qualities allowed to Intelligences in medieval theology; or that in some angelogy he is one of the planetry spirits – superhuman but lower than angels; or that he is ‘a rational Platonic demon.’ H e has some of the fairy qualities of Puck, and while he is clearly under the control of Prospero, he seems to enjoy and exercise a certain degree of moral autonomy, acting responsibly as Prospero’s agent.

But when Prospero tells him there is more work to do and he exhibits signs of reluctance – ‘Is there more toil?’ (I.ii.242) – Prospero turns on him in fury, calling him ‘malignant thing’ and, tellingly, ‘my slave’ (I.ii.257, 270). Since Prospero also calls Caliban his ‘slave,’ we have to bear in mind that, whatever there extreme manifest differences, Ariel and Caliban have at least that status in common. Ariel wants ‘my liberty’ from Prospero; while Caliban, severely intoxicated by Stephano, deliriously, though utterly mistakenly, celebrates his new-found ‘Freedom, high day, freedom!’ (I.ii.245; II.ii.195). It wouldn’t do to make too much of the fact that a number of Elizabethans had already made fortunes by introducing slavery into the West Indies, though it may well be relevant; and, given the horror that slavery in the New World was to become, we might wish to allow Shakespeare a disturbing prescience. But more relevant for the play is the fact that Shakespeare is reactivating, and of course richly transforming, a situation and theme from the old world of classical Plautine comedy.  Bernard Knox has written an important article on this subject, and I can do no better than summarize his contribution.

Classical comedy derives a good deal of its humor from exploiting the absolute difference, crucial in the society of the time, between the free man and the slave (for Aristotle thought they were different natures). However callous we may find it, the crude activities and base proclivities of the slave were phenomena to be laughed at. But there were, for the purposes of the comedies, two kinds of slave: the stupid, sullen, cursing, drunken, lecherous, thievish, cowardly – let us say ‘foul’ – slave, who makes clumsy attempts to rebel, and is humiliated and punished; but there was also the clever, adroit, intelligent – let us say ‘delicate’ – slave, who would actually help his mater and solve his problems, thereby gaining his freedom. The master in these comedies was invariably an irascible and rough-tongued senex, or old man, who turns out in the end to be good-hearted and generous. You can see what Shakespeare has done with these crude stereotypes in the infinitely richer and more complex figures of Caliban, Ariel and Prospero. And in some of the comedies there could be an ironic twist whereby free men show themselves as thinking and acting like slaves, while a slave might prove superior to his master in intelligence, taste, and emotion. We have an echo of this in a crucial moment at the beginning of the last act (Prospero’s last act – as Prospero – in every sense). Prospero’s former foes are now completely in his power – ‘At this hour/Lies at my mercy all mine enemies’ (IV./i.262-3). The long-awaited, long-prepared for moment has come and the hour has struck. Prospero asks Ariel (now again addressed as ‘my spirit’) how the King and his followers are faring: ‘all prisoners, sir…They cannot budge till your release.’ The three guilty men are still ‘distracted,’ while the others are mourning bemusedly over them (V.i.9-13). Then Ariel continues:

   Your charm so strongly workd ‘em,

That if you now beheld them, your affections

Would become tender.

Prospero:  Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel:  Mine would, sir, were I human.

Prospero:  And mine shall.

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling

Of their afflictions, and shall not myself

One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,

Passion as they, be kindlier moves than thou art?

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick

Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury

Do I take part. The rarer action is

In virtue than in vengeance.


This is a key moment in Shakespeare, first to last – vengeance is abjured or transcended; pity and forgiveness prevail. Some critics have spent fruitless time speculating whether angry old Prospero was intending to give his ‘enemies’ a good stiff dose of their own malignant medicine, before Ariel’s irresistibly cadenced intercession. Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t. Be content that Shakespeare has made sure we can never know. What he does show us is the supposedly non-human servant tentatively presuming to give his master a lesson in humanity. It is another ‘rare’ moment on this enchanted island.

Venting his fury on the hapless Ariel, Prospero reminds him that he was previously enslaved by the ‘damned witch Sycorax’ who had been banished to the island from ‘Argier’ (I.ii.263). Because Ariel was ‘a spirit too delicate/To act her earthly and abhorred commands’ (I.ii.272-3, my italics), he refused to obey her orders; as punishment

…she did confine thee,

By help of her more potent ministers

And in her most unmitigable rage,

Into a cloven pine


and left him there until she died. [MY NOTE:  Does anyone remember the kid/teen book A Wrinkle in Time? If so, you might remember the book was filled with references to The Tempest, including Calvin’s comparing Charles Wallace to Ariel in the cloven pine.  End of note.]  It was only Prospero’s ‘art’ which released him. And if Ariel goes on showing a disinclination to follow Prospero’s instruction – ‘I will rend an oak/And peg thee in his knotty entrails till/Thou hast howled away twelve winters’ (I.ii.294-6). Ariel is reduced to the abject pleas for mercy of a cowed slave threatened with a whipping. Prospero, the majestic Italian mage and royal magician, master of high Renaissance Arts, whose daughter is a ‘wonder’ must seem a kind of absolute opposite to Sycorax, the disgraced North African ‘hag,’ ‘damned witch’ and wicked sorceress, whose offspring is a ‘monster.’ Of course we are prompted to say – white magic opposed to black magic. But they are both banished figures; they both depend on slaves and ‘ministers’; and Prospero in his ‘most unmitigable rage’ threatens a rebellious Ariel with a punishment almost identical to the one visited on him by Sycorax (for, as between being confined in a cloven pine and pegged in an oak’s entrails, it must be very much a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other). Prospero’s ‘Art’ (always with a capital A in the First Folio) is constantly stressed – it is another word used more frequently in this play than elsewhere; and it is registered as being akin to an occult mystic science, while Sycorax dabbled diabolically in the merest witchery. Yet in his final invocation of all his ‘elves’ and ‘demipuppets,’ prior to abjuring his special powers, Prospero is made to echo, in detail, the invocation of Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (V.i.33-50).  Now it is true that on this occasion Medea wants some magic to restore the youth of Jason’s aged father, Aeson. But this is perhaps the only occasion on which she uses her strange skills for re-creative purposes. Even though she does finish up in pagan heaven, her life is littered with dismembered or otherwise butchered corpses, including those of her own children. Understandably, Medea came to be the prototypical name for the witch of terrifying, dark destructive power. And if, as it were, Prospero draws on some of her spells and recipes, we must at least wonder whether his ‘rough magic’ contains some elements from the Medea brew. Of course Prospero and Sycorax are very different; but worrying similarities begin to appear, and what looked like a separation and a clarification – white here, black there – turns out to be a proximity and a blurring.”


And finally, from Bloom:

the tempest photo act 3 4“A play virtually plotless must center its interest elsewhere, yet Shakespeare in The Tempest seems more concerned with what Prospero might intimate than with the coldness of this anti-Faust’s personality. Ariel also is more a figure of vast suggestiveness than a character possessing an inwardness available to us, except by glimpses. Part of The Tempest’s permanent fascination for so many playgoers and readers, in a myriad of national cultures, is its juxtaposition of a vengeful magus who turns to forgiveness, with a spirit of fire and air, and a half-human of earth and water. Prospero seems to incarnate a fifth element, similar to that of the Sufis, like himself descended from the ancient Hermetists. The art of Prospero controls nature, at least in the outward sense. Though his art ought also to teach Prospero an absolute self-control, he clearly has not attained this even as the play concludes. Prospero’s Platonism is at best enigmatic; self-knowledge in Neo-Platonic tradition hardly should lead on to despair, and yet Prospero ends in a dark mode, particularly evident in the Epilogue that he speaks.

What was Shakespeare trying to do for himself as a playwright, if not necessarily as a person, by composing The Tempest? We can conclude reasonably that he did not attend this drama to be a final work. In 1611, Shakespeare was only forty-seven, and he did write substantial parts, at least, of three more plays: Henry VII, the lost Cardenio, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, probably all with the collaboration of John Fletcher. Prospero is not more a representation of Shakespeare himself than Dr. Faustus was a self-portrait of Christopher Marlowe. Yet Romantic readers and playgoers felt otherwise, and I am still enough of a Late Romantic to wish to surmise what moved them to their extravagance.

There is an elliptical quality to The Tempest that suggests a more symbolic drama than Shakespeare actually wrote. Prospero, unlike Hamlet, does not end saying that he has something more to tell us, but that he must ‘let it be.’ We rightly feel that Hamlet could have told us something crucial about what he himself represented, could have plucked the heart out of his mystery, had he had the time and the inclination to do so. Prospero’s seems a very different story of the self. Hamlet dies into the truth, while Prospero lives on in what may be a bewilderment or at least a puzzlement. Since Prospero’s story is not tragic, but somehow comic, in the old sense of ending happily (or at least successfully), he appears to lose spiritual authority even as he regains political power. I am not suggesting that Prospero loses the prestige we generally ascribe to tragedy, and to Hamlet in particular. Rather, the authority of a counter-Faust, who could purchase knowledge at no spiritual cost, abandons Prospero. Leaving the enchanted isle is not itself a loss for Prospero, but breaking his staff and drowning his book certainly constitute diminishments to the self. These emblems of purified magic were also the marks of exile: going home to rule Milan purchases restoration at a high price. Prospero, bidding farewell to his art, tells us that he even has raised the dead, a role that Christianity reserves for God and for Jesus. To be Duke of Milan is to be only other potentate; the abandoned art was so potent that politics is absurd in contrast.

The Tempest is more Ariel’s play than Caliban’s and much more Prospero’s. Indeed Prospero would be a far apter title than The Tempest, which turned me to what seems the play’s true mystery. Why does it so slyly invoke the Faust story, only to transform legend beyond recognition? Simon Magus, according to Christian sources (no Gnostic ones being available) suffered the irony of being not ‘the favored on’ at all when he went to Rome. In a contest with Christians, this first Faustus attempted levitation, and crashed down to his death. Most subsequent Fausts sell out to the Devil, and pay with spirit, the grandest exception being Goethe, for his Faust’s soul is borne off to heaven by little boy angels whose chubby buttocks so intoxicate Mephistopheles with homoerotic lust that he notices too late the theft of his legitimate prize.

Prospero, the anti-Faust, with the angel Ariel for his familiar, has made a pact only with deep learning of the hermetic kind. Since Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus was a failed scholar compared with Prospero, Shakespeare enjoys foregrounding an ironic contrast between his long-defunct rival’s protagonist and the magus of The Tempest. Simon Magus was, like Jesus the Magician, a disciple of John the Baptist, and evidently resented that he was not preferred to Jesus, but again we have only Christian accounts of this. Prospero the magician is certainly not in competition with Jesus, Shakespeare takes considerable care to exclude Christian references from The Tempest. When a chastened Caliban submits to Prospero at the close, his use of the word grace initially startles us:

Ay, that I will, and I’ll be wise hereafter

And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass

Was I, to take this drunkard for a god,

And worship this dull fool!


Yet what can this mean except that Caliban, having substituted Stephano for Setebos as his god, now turns to the god Prospero? It is only after the play ends that the actor who had impersonated Prospero steps before the curtain to speak in terms that are recognizably Christian, yet are still remote enough from that revelation:

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,

Which pierces so, that it assaults

Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

(Epilogue 15-20)

This is addressed to the audience, whose applause is being solicited:

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands.

(Epilogue, 9-10)

‘Indulgence’ therefore is audacious wit: the Church pardons, the audience applauds, and the actor is set free only by approbation of his skill. The role of Prospero, within The Tempest’s visionary confines, is godlike; even the magus’s angry and impatient outburst parody, at a very safe distance, the irascible Yahweh of the Book of Numbers. The Tempest is an elegantly subtle drama and, like several other Shakespearean masterworks, is hard to hold steady in our view. No audience has ever liked Prospero; Ariel (pace the director Wolfe) has a wary affection for the magus, and Miranda loves him, but then he has been both benign mother and stern father to his daughter. Why does Shakespeare make Prospero so cold? The play’s ethos does not seem to demand it, and the audience can be baffled by a protagonist so clearly in the right and yet essentially antipathetic. Once the neglected ruler of Milan, Prospero, successful only as a magician and as single parent, goes back to Milan, where evidently he again is not likely to shine as an administrator. Northrop Frye once identified Prospero with Shakespeare, but only in a highly ironic sense, finding in Prospero also:

‘a harassed overworked actor-manager, scolding the lazy actors, praising the good ones in connoisseur’s language, thinking up jobs for the idle, constantly aware of his limited time before his show goes on, his nerves tense and alert for breakdowns while it is going on, looking forward longingly to peaceful retirement, yet in the meantime having to go out and bet the audience for applause.’

That is charming enough to be accurate, and perhaps the harried dramatist-director (he had given up acting, evidently just before writing Othello) realized that he himself was becoming colder, no longer the ‘open and free nature’ Ben Jonson praised. There is not much geniality in The Tempest, or in other later plays by Shakespeare, except for the role of Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. Prospero, as Frye remarks, has no transcendental inclinations, for all his trafficking with spirits.  What, besides the revenge he throws aside, could Prospero have been seeking in his Hermetic studies, which in any case began in Milan, long before he had anything to avenge? The Renaissance Hermetist, a Giordano Bruno or a Dr. John Dee, was seeking knowledge of God, the quest of all gnosis. Not Prospero, for he gives not a single hint that the eternal mysteries spur him on. Unlike Bruno, Prospero the anti-Faust is not a heretic; he is indifferent to the Christian revelation, even as he studies an arcane wisdom that other magi either preferred to Christianity (if, with Bruno, they dared), or more frequently hoped to turn to Christian purposes. Again, we abide in a puzzle. Is Prospero’s art, like Shakespeare’s aesthetic rather than mystical? That would make Prospero only the enlargement of a failed metaphor, and belie our experience of the play. Though he stages revels, to his own discomfiture, Prospero is not Ben Jonson, nor Shakespeare.

Evidently, Prospero is a true scholar, pursuing wisdom for its own sake, and yet that rarely could be a dramatic activity, and Prospero is a very successful dramatic representation. But of what? His quest is intellectual, we might even say scientific, though his science is as personal and idiosyncratic as Dr. Freud’s. Freud, speaking to his disciples, liked to call himself a conquistador, which seems to me a suggestive epithet for Prospero. Like Freud, Prospero really is the favored one: he is bound to win. Freud’s triumph has proved equivocal; much of it expires with the twentieth century. Prospero exults as he approaches his totally victory, and then he becomes very sad. No one else in Shakespeare is nearly as successful, except King Henry V. Ironical reversal for Falstaff’s bad son takes place only in history, just outside the confines of his play, and in Henry VI, where the young Shakespeare opens with Henry V’s funeral, French uprisings against the English, and forebodings of civil war in England.

Prospero does not wait for his re-entry into history; ironic loss is all but immediate, even as his forgiven enemies – Caliban included – acknowledge his supremacy, both temporal and mystical. The dynastic marriage of Miranda to the Prince of Naples will unite the two realms and thus prevent further political troubles from outside. But what occult powers, if any, does Prospero still possess after he breaks the staff and drowns his book? I think the singular ‘book’ is meant to contrast with Marlowe’s Faustus crying out, ‘I’ll burn my books’ when Mephistopheles and the other devils carry him off forever. Faustus has only his library, of Cornelius Agrippa and all the others, but Prospero has ‘my book,’ which he has written, the crown of his long labors in reading, brooding, and practicing the control of spirits. That clears away part of the puzzle, and vastly increases the poignance when this conquistador drowns his life’s work. It is as though an unpublished Freud threw what would have been the Standard Edition into the sea of space and time.

If there is an analogue between Shakespeare and Prospero, it would have to be their mutual eminence, first among poet-playwrights and supreme among white magicians, or Hermetists. Ben Jonson collected his own works, plays included, and published them in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death. It was not until 1623 that Shakespeare’s friends and coworkers brought out his book, the First Folio, which printed eighteen plays for the first time, with The Tempest in pride of place, and with a less jealous Ben Jonson proudly assisting in the enterprise, which after all confirmed his refusal to drown his own book. Prospero does perform that suicidal act, one that needs to be clarified if we are to see The Tempest more for what it is and less for the legendary auras it has accumulated.”


Hope you all are enjoying the play as much as I am.


My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning, more on Act Three



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6 Responses to “The isle is full of noises,/Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

  1. Lesley says:

    Are there not moments in life where ‘the whole thing” comes back to us for our reflection/reworking? We get “cast again.” It doesn’t come in youth–Miranda while looking out at her father’s “created” tempest doesn’t yet have the insight or the memory for such reflection. She’s gazing off toward the horizon and is swept up in what she sees. Prospero is reassuring. He is the one filling in the back story and supplying his insight: “We”–Miranda and Prospero–or anyone who lands on the island– were cast again (could that island be the stage or art? imagined truth outside the realm of ‘civilization’). I like the observation that it is “an island of metamorphosis.”

    “We all were sea-swallowed, though some cast again,
    And, by that destiny, to perform an act
    Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
    In yours and my discharge.”

    This is a central. It is rather heroic. We all get swallowed up in life–and cast again–how we “discharge” is the heroic quest. Yet it seems, that Prospero turns the whole quest around–circular not unlike the wheel of fortune. As sure as the gods and goddesses are re cast in their offspring in Greek and Roman Mythology and in their re-telling through the ages–surely Shakespeare’s Prospero who as studied long and hard is working it out.

    I am inspired to go back to Book VII in Ovid’s Metamorphoses–The story of Jason and Medea–Jason the heroic island hopper and further back to the Argonautica. Prospero’s sorcery and his magical island are reworkings. There is a back story.

  2. Kira says:

    Harold Bloom tries naively underestimate the play, even denying all political readings of the play, so far so good, and denying the humanity of Caliban, as he denies Shylock, it is interesting to see how an ardent fan of the universality of Shakespeare still have this opinion before last, this play is a supreme masterpiece, up there with Hamlet and King Lear.

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