“On the desert island the history of the world has been performed. The performance is over; history begins once more.”

The Tempest

Act Five, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


I want to conclude our examination of The Tempest with this, from the great Jan Kott:

the tempest photos act 5 6“Who is Prospero and what does his staff signify? Why does he combine knowledge with magic, and what is the ultimate sense of his confrontation with Caliban? For there is no doubt that Prospero and Caliban are the protagonists of The Tempest. [MY NOTE:  Compare this with, say Bloom, who ranks Ariel and Prospero as the true centers of the play.]  Why does Prospero reject the magic wand and throw his books into the sea? Why does he return defenseless among men?

In one of the other Shakespearean masterpieces – except Hamlet – has the divergence between the greatness of the human mind on the one hand, and the ruthlessness of history and frailty of the moral order on the other, been shown with as much passion as in The Tempest. It was an antimony deeply and tragically experienced by the people of the Renaissance. Nine immutable heavenly spheres, which according to medieval cosmogony floated concentrically above the earth, guaranteed moral order. The heavenly hierarchy was paralleled by social hierarchy. And now the nine heavens ceased to exist. The earth became just a little heap of dust in the starry space, but at the same time the universe came nearer. The heavenly bodies were moving according to laws discovered by the human mind. The earth became both very small and very great. The natural order has been desecrated. History had become just the history of man. One could dream that it would change. But it did not change. Never before had people felt so painfully the divergence between dreams and reality; between human potentialities and the misery of one’s lot. Everything could change, and nothing did change. These are the contradictions that Hamlet could not solve and which so tormented him:

What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – no, nor woman either…

(Hamlet, II.2)

Hamlet had read Montaigne. [MY NOTE:  I’m SURE of that.] In Montaigne the same contradictions are described with an even greater vehemence:

‘Let us know but consider man alone without other help, armed but with his owne weapons[..] Let him with the utmost power of his discourse make me understand, upon what foundation, he hath built those great advantages and odds, he supposeth to have over other creatures. Who hath perswaded him, that this admirable moving of heavens vaults; that the horror-moving and continuall motion of this infinite waste Ocean, were established, and continue so many ages for his commoditie and service? Is it possible to imagine any thing so ridiculous, as this miserable and wretched creature, which is not so much as master of himselfe, exposed and subject to offences of all things, and yet dareth call himself Master and Emperour of this universe? In whose power it is not to know the last part of it, much lesse to command the same.’

And further on:

‘Of all creatures man is the most miserable and fraile, and therewithal the proudest and disdainfullest. Who perceiveth and seeth himselfe placed here, admist their filth and mire of the world, fast tied and nailed to the worst most senselesse, and drooping part of the world, in the vilest corner of the house, and farthest from heavens coape, with those creature, w hich are the worst of the three conditions; and yet dareth imaginarily place himselfe above the circle of the Moone, and reduce heaven under his feet.’

(Essayes, II.2, transl by John Florio)

A similar consciousness of the misery and greatness of man characterizes Prospero; only he is more tinged with bitterness. He is usually represented on stage in a great black coat, studded with stars. In his hand he holds the magic wand. This costume immobilizes the actor, turns him into a Father Christmas or a conjurer; it makes him pathetic and asks him to formalize his part. Prospero becomes solemn instead of being tragic and human. Prospero is the producer of the morality play; but the morality play has extended the reasons of his failure; it repeats history, without being able to alter it. It is essential that Prospero’s magic mantle be thrown off his shoulders, together with bad theatrical tradition.

Whenever I think of Prospero, I always see Leonardo da Vinci’s head, drawn in his last self-portrait. His forehead is high and large. Thin white hair comes down like remnants of a lion’s mane and joins a long, God-the-Father-like beard. The beard comes up to this mouth. His mouth is tight, wry, with drooping corners. There is wisdom and bitterness in this face; there is no peace, and no surrender. This is the man, who on the margin of a large sheet filled with observations on movement of bodies, wrote in the same clear, but even smaller, characters: ‘Oh Leonard, wherefore toilest thou thus?’

Many critics writing on Prospero have recalled the figure of Leonardo; some, writing on Leonardo, have recalled The Tempest. Had Shakespeare heard of Leonardo? We do not know. He may have – from Ben Jonson, who was a highly erudite man, or from the Earl of Southampton, from Essex and his noble friends. He may have come across the legend of Leonardo, who in the eyes of his contemporaries, and for a long time afterwards, was regarded as a man more advanced than anybody in the knowledge of magic. White magic, of course, the natural magic, called empirical even then, as opposed to black of demoniac magic. Such magic was practiced by Paracelsus, who regarded air as a kind of spirit that escapes from fluids at the point of boiling. Air, ‘an airy spirit,’ as Shakespeare called Ariel in his list of characters. White, natural magic was written about by Pico della Mirandola, who took the view that a scientist ‘unites heaven and earth and makes the lower world join the powers of the higher world.’

Not by chance, perhaps, Shakespeare gave Prospero the dukedom of Milan, where Leonardo had spent many years in the service of Lodovico il Moro and left in 1499 after the fall of the most mighty duke, going into exile which ended only with his death. All these are fantasies a historian of literature may amuse himself with in his leisure. Only one thing is important: that Shakespeare created in The Tempest a character that can be compared to Leonardo; and that through Leonardo’s tragedy we shall understand better the tragedy of Prospero.

Leonardo was a master of mechanics and hydraulics. He devised plans of new spacious cities and a modern network of canals; he drew and project new machines to be used in a siege, mortars with unprecedented explosive power, cannons with eleven barrels which could fire simultaneously, tank-like armored vehicles, mechanically driven by means of a system of cog-wheels and levers. In his Codice Atlantico there are exact technical drawings of new rolling mills, movable canal excavators and quick-turning looms. There are observations on bird flights, on the way fish steer themselves, and numerous calculations of the size and weight of wings which could put man up in the air. There are plans and drawings of flying machines, as well as of a diver’s apparel, complete with air cistern and breathing pipe, even of submarines.

None of Leonardo’s machines has ever been put into practice. His tragedy was that the technical means available did not keep pace with his thought. The materials he had at his disposal were too heavy, and metal work too primitive, for any of his machines to be able to move without an engine. Leonardo was painfully aware of matter’s resistance and of instruments’ imperfection. But he could already perceive the emergence of a world in which man could wrench from nature her secrets and overcome her by his art and science.

‘Do you not see then that the eye encompasses the beauty of the whole world? It is the master of ceremonies; it creates cosmography; it counsels and corrects all the arts of mankind; it takes man to various parts of the world; it is the prince of mathematics; the sciences based on it are the most accurate; it has measured the distances and sizes of stars; it has discovered the elements and their location, it has made possible forecasting future events from the courses of stars; it has given birth to architecture and to perspective, and to the divine art of painting…

But why all these lofty and lengthy deliberations? What is there that has not been done thanks to the eye? It guides man from East to West; it has invented navigation. It surpasses nature in so far as simple creations of nature are finite, and the works commanded by the eye to the hands are infinite as can be witnessed by the painter when inventing innumerable shapes of animals and plants, trees and landscapes.’

the tempest photos act five 6Prospero’s great soliloquy in Act V of The Tempest, interpreted by the romantics as Shakespeare’s farewell to theatre and a confession of faith in the demiurgic power of poetry, is in fact closest to Leonardo’s enthusiasm for the power of human mind, which has wrenched from nature her elemental forces. This soliloquy is a remote travesty of the famous passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The world is seen in movement and transformation; four elements are released: earth, water, fire and air. They do not obey gods any more, but have been dominated by man who for the first time overthrows the natural order. Every age interprets this soliloquy through its own experiences. To us it is an atomic soliloquy, and there is in it awe rather than enthusiasm. We interpret it much less symbolically and poetically, but much more in a concrete and literal sense. To six generations of Shakespeare students – from Hazlitt to J. Dover Wilson – the durability of the world did not raise the smallest doubt. Perhaps that it why they saw in The Tempest an Arcadian play. We hear in this soliloquy an apocalyptic tone. It is not, however, the poetic Apocalypse of the romantics, but the Apocalypse of nuclear explosions and the atomic mushroom. Such a reading of Prospero’s soliloquy, and the play, is certainly closer to the experiences of men of the Renaissance and the violent contradictions they tried to reconcile. ‘Leonardo’s unsatiable desire for knowledge.’ Thus Leonardo entitled the following package in his Note Books:

‘Nor does the tempestuous sea make so loud a roaring when the northern blast beats it back in foaming waves between Scylia and Charbdis, nor Stromboli nor Mount Etna when the pent-up, sulphurous fires, bursting open and rending asunder the mighty mountain by their force, are hurling through the air rocks and earth mingled together in the issuing belching flames.

Nor when Etna’s burning caverns vomit forth and give out again the uncontrollable element, and thrust it back to its own region in fury, driving before it whatever obstacle withstands its impetuous rage…

And drawn on my eager desire, anxious to behold the mighty…of the varied and strange forms created by the artificer nature, having wandered for some distance among the overhanging rocks, I came to the mouth of a huge cavern before which for a time I remained stupefied, not having been aware of its existence, — my back bent to an arch, my left hand clutching my knee, while with the right I made a shade for my lowered and contracted eyebrows; bending continually first one way and then another in order to see whether I could discern anything inside, though this was rendered impossible by the intense darkness within; and after remaining there for a time, suddenly there were awakened within me two emotions, — fear and desire, — fear of the dark, threatening cavern, desire to see whether there might be any marvelous thing therein.’

The desire for knowledge, the fear of knowledge, the inevitability of knowledge, the inevitability of fear of knowledge. This, surely, is the Leonardian key to Prospero’s soliloquy. A modern key too. The world became great and small at the same time; for the first time the earth began to quake under their feet:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,

And ye that on the sands with printless foot

Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him

When he comes back; you demi-puppets that

By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,

Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime

Is to make midnight mushrumps, that rejoice

To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid

(Weak masters though ye be) I have bedimm’d

The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,

And ‘twist the green sea and the azur’d vault

Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder

Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak

With his own bolt; the strong-bas’d promontory

Have I made shake; and by the spurs pluck’d up

The pine and cedar; graves at my command

Have wak’d their sleepers,’ o’d, and let ‘em forth

By my so potent art.


In the works of almost all thinkers, poets, philosophers of the Renaissance we find these sudden transitions from outbreaks of enthusiasm for the conquering human thought to catastrophic visions of extermination. We find them in Michelangelo, and even more often in Leonardo, who is almost obsessed with the theme of universal destruction. His writings abound in detailed and violent descriptions of fires which consume whole cities, a new flood which will exterminate mankind, or a plague which will decimate it. Nature ‘sends poisoned and pestilential air on to large centres of living beings, particularly men, who breed the most since other animals cannot devour them.” Even stylistically, it is a most Shakespearean phrase. Sometimes the analogies are really astonishing. In one of his unfinished letters Leonardo writes: ‘The mouth kills more people than a dagger.’ (‘La bocca a ne morti piu piu che ‘I coltello.’) Says Hamlet after the great scene with players:

I will speak daggers to her, but use none.

(Hamlet, III.2)

In Leonardo, as in Shakespeare, we often find the same kind of cruel and most modern reflection on human history, which, compared to earth’s history, is just a fleeting moment. Man is an animal like all other animals, only perhaps more cruel; but unlike all the other animals he is aware of his fate and wants to alter it. He is born and dies in an extra-human time, and he can never reconcile himself to that. Prospero’s staff makes the history of the world repeat itself on a desert island. Actors can play that history in four hours. But Prospero’s staff cannot change history. When the morality play is over, Prospero’s magic power must also end. Only bitter wisdom remains.

Another passage in Leonardo’s writings seems to me to have close bearing on The Tempest. Leonardo is writing about a stone which has rolled down from the mountain top. People tread over it, animals’ hooves trample on it, cart-wheels ride over it. He ends: ‘This is the fate of those who abandon life in solitude, life devoted to reflection and contemplation, in order to live in cities among people full of sin.’

There is in this fragment a sad bitterness of Prospero’s parting with the island:

…And thence retire me to my Milan, where

Every third thought shall be my grave.


This Leonardian divorce between thought and practice, between the realm of freedom, justice, and reason on the one hand, and natural order and history on the other, was even more keenly experienced by the last Renaissance generation; the generation to which Shakespeare belonged. People at that time were conscious of a great era reaching its end. The present was repulsive, the future was assuming an even gloomier shape.

The great dreams of the humanists about a happy era had not been fulfilled; they turned out to be just dreams. Only the bitter consciousness of lost illusions remained. The new power of money made the old feudal power seem more cruel still. War;, hunger, pestilence, terror of the princes and terror of the Church – this was the reality. Elizabeth ruled ruthlessly in England. Italy was turned over to the Spaniards. Giordano Bruno was given over to the Inquisition and burnt at Campo di Flore.

At the turn of the sixteenth century it might seem that the Copernican system had finally prevailed. It was for the first time empirically confirmed thanks to the invention of telescope and to the discovery of the satellites of Jupiter by Galileo. His treatise, The Starry Harbinger, published in 1610 – almost the year of The Tempest – meant a new triumph of science. The triumph was apparent more than real. Sidereus nuncius tolled the knell of the great era. True, it fired the imagination of Campanella, but it was proclaimed heresy. The gloomy, dogmatic Aristotelians were again winning. In 1618 the Holy Office officially condemned the Copernican theory and so-called ‘Pythagorean’ views as contrary to the Bible. In 1633 Galileo’s trial took place and he publicly recanted his heretical views:

‘…I maintained and believed that the Sun is the centre of the world, and immovable, and that the Earth is not the centre, and moves. Therefore…I swear that I will never any more hereafter say or assert by speech or writing any thing through which the like suspicion may be had of me; but if I shall know any one heretical, or suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor, and Ordinary of the place in which I shall be.’

Five years later the harassed old man wrote from his home internment to one of his old comrades:

‘Galileo, your dear friend and servant, has for a month now been altogether blind. This is irrevocable. Just think then, Your Grace, how sad I must be when I realize that the heavens, the skys and the universe, which by most strange observations and clear arguments I magnified a hundred, yea, a thousand times in comparison with what all scholars of former ages had seen, now are to me so small and narrow that they do not reach beyond the space occupied by my own person.’

Prospero’s staff did not change the course of history. It changed nothing at all. The world remained as cruel as it had been, ‘and our little life is rounded with a sleep.’ In Prospero’s final soliloquy I find the greatness, despair and bitterness of Galileo’s letter:

…Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair.


Prospero is not Leonardo; still less is he Galileo. I am not concerned with analogies, suggestive though they might be. My intention is to interpret The Tempest as a great Renaissance tragedy of lost illusions.

Jean Paris, one of the most interesting among present-day interpreters of Hamlet, has called it a drama on the ‘end of the era of terror.’ Old Hamlet had killed Old Fortinbras; Claudius had killed old Hamlet; young Hamlet ought to kill Claudius; young Fortinbras ought to kill Hamlet. The path to the thrown leads through murder, and this chain is not to be broken. But young Fortinbras does not kill hamlet. When he appears at Elsinore in his silvery armor, steadfast and heroic, the scene is empty. He will ascend the throne of Denmark legally and without bloodshed. The ‘end of the era of terror’ has been accomplished. The silvery Fortinbras has triumphed. But will Denmark cease to be a prison? Hamlet’s body has been carried out by soldiers. No one will question the sense of feudal history and the purpose of human life any more. Fortinbras does not ask himself such questions. He does not even suspect that such questions can be asked. History has been saved, but at what price?

Elizabethan writers on tragedy contemporary with Shakespeare, saw it as an image of human life. According to them tragedy could freely combine historical truth with fiction for a didactic purpose. It was to warn the audience against giving way to passions, and show the consequences of transgressions. Pottenham formulated its aims thus:

‘…when the posteritie stood no more in dread of them, their infamous life and tyrannies were layd open to all the world, their wickedness reproached their follies and extreme insolencies derided, and their miserable ends pointed out in playes and pageants, to shew the mutability of fortune, and the just punishment of God in revenge of a vicious and euill life.’

Shakespeare is far removed from vulgar didacticism of Puttenham or Sidney. A prince is to him always ‘The Prince’ of Machiavelli who lives in the world where big fish devour small fry. He devours, or is devoured. Shakespeare does not distinguish between a good king and a tyrant, just as he does not distinguish between a king and a clown. They are both mortals. Terror and the struggle for power is not a privilege of princes; it is a law of this world.

Shakespeare’s view of history, pessimistic and cruel, is always very near to the materialistic philosophy of Hobbes, as expressed in his Leviathan. Hobbes wrote during the Restoration. To him kings had ceased to be God’s anointed. They became instead, History’s anointed. Their absolute power and their right to be ruthless was a result of the ‘war of all against all.’ They were guarantors of social order against the ever-threatening anarchy.

Shakespeare viewed feudal history in the same way as Hobbes, but he rebelled against its immutability. He was searching for a solution to this tragic alternative of terror and anarchy. He never crowned his Richards, Henrys or Macbeths with the crown of ‘historic inevitability.’ He equated kings with commoners and showed that a horse can be worth more than a kingdom.

On the desert island the history of the world has been performed. The performance is over; history begins once more. Alonso will return to Naples, Prospero to Milan, Caliban will become the island’s ruler again. Prospero rejects his staff and will again be defenseless. If he had retained his staff, The Tempest would be no more than a fairy tale. History is madness, but music heals human souls from madness. Only bitter wisdom can be opposed to history. One cannot escape history. Everyone has been through the tempest, and everyone is wiser. Even Caliban. He above all. One has to start again from the beginning; from the very beginning. Prospero agrees to return to Milan. In this alone consists the difficult and precarious optimism of The Tempest.

the tempest photos act 5 5Ariel is an angel and an executioner who acts on Prospero’s orders. He has only two personal scenes: when he revolts in Act I, and when he asks Prospero to have pity on his enemies in Act IV. His dramatic conflict consists solely of his desire for freedom. Ariel has been regarded by various commentators as a symbol of soul, thought, intelligence, poetry, air, electricity, and even – in Catholic interpretations – of Grace opposed to nature. But on the stage Ariel is just an actor, or an actress, wearing costume or tights, sometimes a mask. Ariel dressed in period costume becomes part of a dated show, at best Prospero’s page. Ariel in abstract costume can easily resemble a laboratory assistant working at an atomic reactor. Ariel in tights turns into a ballet dancer. Ariel in a mask, worn from the first act onwards, will not be part of Shakespearean theatre. Then what sort of mask could Ariel have? Actors playing spirits must be human. Whenever I think of Ariel, I visualize him as a slim boy with a very sad face. His costume out to be quite ordinary and inconspicuous. He can be dressed in dark trousers and white shirt, sweat shirt or a pullover. Ariel moves faster than thought. Let him appear and disappear from the stage imperceptibly. But he must not dance or run. He should move very slowly. He should stand still as often as possible. Only then he can become faster than thought.

Commentators on The Tempest concern themselves largely with opposing Ariel to Caliban. To my mind this approach is philosophically flat and theatrically vacuous. In terms of dramatic action Ariel is not Caliban’s opposite number. He is visible only to Prospero and the audience. To all other characters he is just music or a voice.

Caliban is the main character next to Prospero. He is one of the greatest and most disturbing Shakespearean creations. He is unlike anybody or anything. He has a full individuality. He lives in the play, but also outside it, like Hamlet, Falstaff and Iago. Unlike Ariel, he cannot be defined by one metaphor, or contained in one allegory. In the list of the dramatis personae he is described as ‘a salvage and deformed slave,’ Prospero calls him ‘devil,’ ‘earth, ‘tortoise,’ ‘a freckled whelp,’ ‘poisonous slave,’ and, most of all, monster. Trinculo calls him ‘fish.’ Caliban has legs like a man, but his arms are like fins. He chews something in his mouth all the time, snarls, walks on all fours.

Durer has painted a pig with two heads, a bearded child, a rhinoceros looking like a monstrous elephant. Leonardo, in his Treatise on Painting, gives the following recipe for a dragon: ‘take the head of a mastiff, the eyes of a cat, the ears of a porcupine, the mouth of a hare, the brows of a lion, the temples of an old cock, and the neck of a tortoise.’ Scholars have found engravings dating from the beginning of the seventeenth century representing Caliban-like monsters; they have concluded that Shakespeare’s description suggests most a certain mammal of the whale family living mainly in the Malay area. So Caliban would be a kind of huge cachalot.

But on the stage Caliban, like Ariel, is just an actor wearing a costume. He can be represented more like a fish, like an animal, or like a human. There has to be in him a kind of animal bestiality, and a reptile quality, otherwise the grotesque scenes with Stephano and Trinculo could not come off. But I would like to see him as human as possible. A metaphor of monstrosity expressed in words is something different from the concrete quality of gesture, mask and actor’s make-up. Caliban is a man, not a monster. Caliban – as Allardyce Nicoll has rightly pointed out – speaks in verse. In Shakespeare’s world prose is spoken only by grotesque and episodic characters; by those who are not part of the drama proper.

Caliban had been lord of the isle; after Prospero’s departure he will again remain alone on it. Of all the characters of The Tempest, he is the most truly tragic. Perhaps he is the only one to change. All the other characters are drawn from the outside, as it were, shown in a few basic attitudes. This applies even to Prospero. Prospero’s drama is purely intellectual. Ariel’s drama, too, remains in the sphere of abstract concepts. Only to Caliban Shakespeare has given passion and a full life history.

Caliban has learned to speak. For let us remember that the island represents the history of the world. Caliban had been taught to speak by Miranda. She now reproaches him reminding him of it. Language distinguishes men from animals. Caliban is a symbol of Montaigne’s good cannibals, but he is not a noble savage. This is not the island of Utopia, and the history of the world will be stripped on it of all illusions. The use of language can become a curse and only aggravate slavery. Language is then limited to curses. This is one of the bitterest scenes in the play:


…I pitied thee,

Took pains to make thee speak…

   …When thou didst not, savage,

Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like

A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes

With words that made them known…


You taught me language, and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For teaching me your language!


(In the Cambridge edition, as well as in the 1623 Folio, these lines are spoken by Miranda and not by Prospero, as in other editions.)

To Miranda, Caliban is a man. When she sees Ferdinand for the first time, she will say: ‘This/Is the third man e’er I saw.’ In the Shakespearean system of analogies and sudden confrontations Caliban is made Prospero’s and Ferdinand’s equal: Shakespeare stresses this point very clearly. A little later the same theme is taken up again by Prospero. He speaks to Miranda, referring to Ferdinand:

…Foolish wench!

To th’ most of men this is a Caliban,

And they to him are angels.


Caliban is an unshapely monster. Ferdinand the handsomest of princes. But to Shakespeare beauty and ugliness are just a matter of what people look like to other people, in a place and part they have been asked to play.

The action develops on the island exactly as Prospero has planned it. The shipwrecked men have been scattered and brought to the point of madness. Fratricide, intercepted by Ariel at the last moment, has been meant as a warning and a trial. But the scenario devised by Prospero is spoilt by Caliban. Prospero has not foreseen his treason and the conspiracy plotted by Caliban together with Trinculo and Stephano. Caliban’s treachery is a surprise to Prospero, and the only defeat he has suffered on the island. But it is the second defeat in Propsero’s life. He had lost his dukedom as a result of his devotion to science and the arts; of the trust he had in his brother; in other words – because he had believed in the world’s goodness. Caliban’s treachery is a new failure as far as Prospero’s educational methods are concerned. Again his staff has not proved all-powerful. Prospero wanted to perform on the island the history of the world to serve as warning to the shipwrecked, and to the audience. But the world’s history turned out to be even more cruel than he had intended. It brought another bitter surprise, just at the moment when Prospero was solemnizing the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda, and evoking before their eyes a vision of the lost paradise.

A devil…

        …on whom my pains,

Humanely taken all, all lost, quite lost!

And as with age his body uglier grows,

So his mind cankers. I will plague them all,

Even to roaring.


This is one of the most crucial sentences in The Tempest, and perhaps the most difficult to interpret. It is the climax of Prospero’s tragedy. Only after this scene will he break and reject his magic wand. The very words used by Prospero are also most interesting in themselves:

….on whom my pains,

Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost…

When Moliere’s Don Juan meets a beggar, he begins to sneer at heavenly justice. Then he offers him alms in return for a curse. But the beggar refuses. Don Juan eventually throws him a piece of gold saying: ‘I give it to you for the love of humanity.’ (Je te le donne pour l’amour de ‘l’humanitie.’)  No other phrase written by Moliere has been the subject of so many interpretations. Some commentators see in this sentence – unfamiliar in seventeenth-century French – only an equivalent to the standard ‘out of the goodness of my heart.’ Others see in it a rationalist inversion, or even parody, of the traditional form ‘pour l’amour de Dieu.’ To others still, the word ‘humanitie’ in Don Juan’s mouth is used already in the full sense of the eighteenth century’s ‘Humanity,’ and Don Juan is a precursor of enlightened humanitarianism.

Shakespeare’s words ‘humanely taken’ are equally ambiguous. They can be understood in a very narrow sense and mean not much more than ‘undertaken in the goodness of heart.’ But we can also read in then the full sense of Renaissance ‘humanitas.’  To me, these two phrases: Moliere’s ‘pour l’amour de l’humanite’ and Shakespeare’s ‘humanely taken’ show the same mark of genius.

If on Prospero’s island the history of the world has been performed, then Caliban’s history is a chapter from the history of mankind. With such a reading of The Tempest, three scenes acquire a special significance. The first of these occurs at the end of Act II. Stephano has already made Caliban drunk. The plot has been laid down. The ‘brave monster’ will lead his new masters. It is then that Caliban sings for the first time. This drinking song ends with an unexpected refrain: ‘Freedom, high-day! high-day, freedom! freedom, high-day, freedom!’

In the first scene of the play it was Ariel who asked for freedom, Shakespeare now repeats the same situation with a cruel irony. And not just once; twice. In Act III, a drunkard, a clown, and a poor monster are ready for the coup. They are on their way to assassinate Prospero. Caliban asks for a song. This time Stephano will sing it:

Flout ‘em and scout ‘em

And scout ‘em and flout ‘em!

Thought is free.


‘Thought is free’ sings the drunkard. ‘Thought is free’ repeats the fool. Only Caliban notices that the tune has suddenly changed. At this point Ariel appeared with ‘a tabor and pipe,’ and mixed up the tune. ‘That’s not the tune,’ cries Caliban. Caliban has heard Ariel.

This in essence is the Shakespearean tragi-grotesque, which by its barbarity terrified the classicists, and which the romantics hailed as the principle of a new drama. But they were unable to repeat Shakespearean tune. Instead of tragic-grotesque they wrote melodrama, like that of Victor Hugo. Grotesque and tragedy are mixed and intermingled in Shakespeare, like Stephano’s and Trinculo’s drunken song suddenly changing into Ariel’s music.

Stephano and Trinculo are only grotesque characters, but Caliban is both grotesque and tragic. He is a ruler, a monster, and a man. He is grotesque in his blind, dark and naive revolt, in his desire for freedom, which to him still means just a quiet sleep and food. He is tragic, as he cannot be satisfied with his state, he does not want and cannot accept his fate – of a fool and a slave. Renan saw Demos in Caliban; in his continuation of The Tempest he took him to Milan and made him attempt another, victorious coup against Prospero. Guehenno wrote an interpretation of Caliban as representing the People Both these interpretations are flat and do not do justice to Shakespeare’s Caliban.

In The Tempest there is Ariel’s music and Caliban’s music. There can be no performance of this play without a careful differentiation between them. But in The Tempest there is a moment when Caliban’s music becomes close to Ariel’s. That moment marks also a magnificent eruption of Shakespeare’s poetry. Trinculo and Stephano are afraid of Ariel’s music. Caliban hears it:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices

That, if I then had wak’d 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 wak’d,

I cried to dream again.


the tempest photos act 5 7To me this passage is a Shakespearean book of Genesis. The history of mankind begins. The same that has been performed on the island. Caliban has been deceived again. He has been defeated, just as Prospero has been defeated. Caliban has no magic wand, and no wizard’s staff will help him. He has mistaken a drunkard for God. But he has entered the path trodden by Prospero. He has undergone a trial and has lost his illusions. He has to make a fresh start once more. Just as Prospero has to make a fresh start when he returns to Milan to become duke once more. ‘I’ll be wise hereafter,’ says Caliban at the end. And, when Prospero is gone, he will slowly, on all fours, climb to reach the empty highest space at the top of Bosch’s island, as Shakespeare presented it.

Only two characters are exempt from the law of repetition implicit in the play’s construction. They are Miranda and Ferdinand. They do not take part in the history of the world played on the island; or rather they participate in it in a different sense. Only for them everything really begins for the first time. In the course of four hours they will have discovered love, and each other. They represent the world’s youth. But they do not see the world. From first to last they see only each other. They have not noticed the struggle for power, the fratricidal attempt, the rebellion and plotting that have been going on around them. They are enchanted with each other.

Three scenes are decisive, as far as Miranda and Ferdinand are concerned. The first of these is the solemn betrothal, when Prospero, aided by Ariel, stages a show for their benefit. It is a typical Elizabethan masque…The masque is allegorical: Greek deities appear in it and speak a pompous and stilted verse. But in spite of its artificiality the show is significant in so far as it evokes the golden age of humanity, when the earth had been free from sin and had borne its fruit without pain.

Her peacocks fly amain.

On the island where the real history of the world has been performed, Prospero shows the young lovers the lost paradise.

So rare a wond’red father and a wise

Makes this place Paradise.


And it is this very scene that is suddenly broken and ends on a jarring note. Real history breaks the idyll. Prospero learns of Caliban’s treachery and for the first time gives way to anger. The allegorical masque disperses in confusion. Now follows the passage containing the best known sentence of The Tempest:

….We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.


The philosophical and poetic concept of ‘life is a dream’ is very common in poetry of the Baroque; but the point of this Shakespearean phrase seems to me remote from Calderon’s mysticism. There is in it rather the great anxiety of Hamlet’s soliloquies, and one more warning to the young lovers on the frailty of all human endeavors. But, as usual with Shakespeare, every metaphor and each image has a double meaning. The island is the world, the world is a stage, and all the people in it are actors. Prospero has only staged a performance, brief and fleeting like life itself.

     …These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air;

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.


the tempest photos act 5 8At the end of the play, Prospero shows the King of Naples his son playing chess with Miranda. In Shakespeare’s theatre this scene was probably performed on the inner stage. Its walls formed a natural frame, and the young couple looked like a familiar Renaissance picture showing a lad and a girl playing chess. What is the stake in this game?


Sweet lord, you play me false.


     No, my dearest love,

I would not for the world.


Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,

And I would call it fair play.

Murder has nearly been committed twice within four hours in order to gain one kingdom, and that on a desert island. Yet Miranda and Ferdinand have not noticed anything. Everything has happened beyond them. They play chess for a score of kingdoms, they could just as well play for a hundred. The kingdom does not exist for either of them. Ferdinand and Miranda are outside history, outside the struggle for power and the crown.

At last Miranda enters the stage proper. For the first time in her life she sees so many people; the King, the King’s brother and the whole retinue. She exclaims in astonishment:

O wonder!

How many goodly creature are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in’t!

This is the last of the great confrontations of The Tempest. Miranda is facing a gang of villains. One of them twelve years ago deprived her father of his throne. Another broke his word on an ally. Another still raised his sword against his brother, only a little while ago. Prospero has only a very brief reply to make. But how much bitter wisdom there is in this reply. Four words is all that Shakespeare needs here:

‘Tis new to thee.


In all his works Conrad mentions Shakespeare only twice.  Once – travestying Macbeth – he calls an unnamed Shakespearean drama a tale like life, full of noise and winds meaning nothing. In Lord Jim the narrator finds among Jim’s possessions in Patusan a cheap one-volume edition of Shakespeare and asks him if he has read it. ‘Yes. Best thing to cheer up a fellow,’ replies Jim. Marlow adds: ‘I was struck by this appreciation, but there was no time for Shakespearean talk.’

But among Conrad’s most personal writings I find a passage, which, to my mind, is very close to the ‘bitter’ interpretation of The Tempest, and to Prospero’s mature wisdom. Writes Conrad:

‘The ethical view of the universe involves us at least in so many cruel and absurd contradictions, where the last vestiges of fault, hope and charity, and even of reason itself, seem ready to perish, that I have come to suspect that the aim of creation cannot be ethical at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely spectacular: a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate, if you like, but in this view – and this view alone – never for despair! Those visions, delicious or poignant, are a moral end in themselves. The rest is our affair. –‘

(J. Conrad, A Personal Record, ch. 5)

In Prospero’s final monologue we find the word ‘despair’ – ‘And my ending is despair.’ But it is a despair which does not mean resignation. The key to the deepest understanding of The Tempest is found in another of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It has the moving personal accents of Prospero’s epilogue:

My desolation does begin to make

A better life.

(Antony and Cleopatra, V. 2)


And with that…we end our reading of The Tempest. Of all the plays we’ve read, I’m tempted to say that this is the most mysterious. Is it a comedy? Is it the history of the world on an island? Is it Shakespeare’s farewell to theater?  Could it be all of those once?

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning, Sonnet 146; on Sunday evening/Monday morning I’ll post my introduction to our next play, Henry VII (All is True).

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