The Tempest: Interpretations

Oh brave new world,

That has such people in’t?

— William Shakespeare, The Tempest


It seems that William Shakespeare is all over the news lately as the 400th anniversary of his death approaches (or is it just my news feed?). I’ll be honest — I hold a deep appreciation for his work. I have my favourite plays and my not-so-favourite ones and I’d love to act in a full-length production of one of his works someday.

I had the opportunity to work with Shakespeare’s plays for a few years at the University of Guelph in three different ways: as a drama student, as an actress, and as an English student. In my third year of undergrad I took Shakespearean Receptions, an English course that looked at how “Shakespeare” has become what it is today and how William Shakespeare’s work has been used, understood, transformed, and incorporated into both our language and our lives. It was fascinating. It was also very hard work, particularly for a non-English major, but definitely worth the time and energy.

I’ve always been fascinated by The Tempest. I was lucky enough to see William Hutt in the role of Prospero at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada in 2005. I think it’s a very meaningful play and have always been interested in its reception, which has changed over time. The Tempest is thought to have been the last play that Shakespeare wrote on his own, and this gives it added significance to analysts of the text.

Quick plot summary: The Tempest (another word for large storm) is about a storm that causes several characters, including Alonso (the King of Naples and sworn enemy of Prospero’s) and his son Ferdinand, to be shipwrecked near a small island. Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan, had been banished to the island years ago with his daughter Miranda. The island is inhabited by spirits and creatures, including Ariel, a magical fairy, and Caliban, a “misformed beast,” whom Prospero has enslaved. Prospero has magical powers and created the storm to cause the shipwreck and bring the men on the boat to his island. During the course of the play Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love and get engaged. Ariel is forced to perform tasks for Prospero with the promise of freedom always hanging in front of him. Ariel and Caliban are eventually freed and Prospero, having chastised the shipwrecked men for the past wrongs, is granted his freedom by the audience to return to Naples and reclaim his position as the Duke of Milan.

What draws me to The Tempest is how it has been interpreted in a post-colonial manner. This interpretation rids us of the idea of Prospero as the great man taming the wilderness in his efforts to recreate his rule in a new land, and instead places him firmly in the role of a power-hungry tyrant who, with the help of his powers, has enslaved the land to which he’s been exiled and the people and spirits upon it. Prospero controls his enslaved spirits, his daughter (he runs her life and orchestrates her one romantic relationship), the creatures, and even the weather.

This interpretation invokes visions of Britain’s concerted efforts to extend its Empire across the centuries and bring “civilization” to the people who were there before Britain laid claim to their territories. For example, there’s a great piece of dialogue in Act 1 Scene 2 where Miranda is complaining to Caliban that he doesn’t appreciate her efforts to teach him “language,” to which Caliban replies, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you For learning me your language!” Prospero chastises him for speaking to Miranda in such a way and threatens to fill him with pain so intense he’ll be doubled over screaming.

The question of Prospero: Great man or tyrant? is a very interesting question indeed. However, recent studies also point out that by looking at The Tempest through a post-colonial lens, we might be missing out on a richer understanding of the work and the idea of “the other”, in this case embodied by the role of Caliban.

For more on interpreting The Tempest, check out:

Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-Texts of The Tempest,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), 191–205.

Stephen Orgel, “Shakespeare and the Cannibals,” in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, ed. Marjorie Garber (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 40–66.

Julia Reinhard Lupton, “Creature Caliban,” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 1–23.

Meredith Anne Skura, “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest,” in Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ed. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan (New York: G.K. Hall, 1998).

Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990).

Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

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