A Critical Analysis of The Tempest by Shakespeare

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Rembrandt van Rijn
In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero’s island appears to be an ideal utopia. Survivors are washed safely ashore the island. Estranged siblings, Antonio and Prospero, reconcile. Marriage is promised between Ferdinand and Miranda. The schemes by Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban against Prospero fail and they are justly punished. Freedom awaits Prospero’s servants, Ariel and Caliban, as Prospero prepares to leave the island. Every character seems to receive what they deserve. Prospero’s island appears perfect.

In Robert B. Pierce’s Understanding “The Tempest”, there is an opinion that the island is where “whatever evil remains is impotent, and goodness returns to action […] there is a re-birth, a return to life, a heightened, almost symbolic, awareness of the beauty of normal humanity” (Pierce 1999: 374). This benevolent perspective alludes to the harmonious conclusion of The Tempest and suggests the island to be a utopian idyll. It must be remembered, nonetheless, that this utopia has its beginning in chaos. The play foreshadows the disorder as Alonso’s party encounter a vicious storm while at sea (Act I, Scene I). This malevolent atmosphere of disorder is a parallel to the scheming of numerous characters against one another. On the island, Antonio persuades Sebastian, to collude in a murder of his sleeping brother. He repeatedly suggests that “this obedient steel […] can lay to bed for ever” (Act II, Scene I) and manipulates Sebastian into an agreement to kill Alonso. The island, far from being a utopia, is “where civilization, instead of recreating its lost paradise, creates a colony of ancient exploitation” (Strehler and Simpson 2002: 17). The numerous schemes of usurpation, when viewed collectively, hint at an underlying disharmony. The island, instead of being an idyll for “re-birth”, turns out to be a sinister place where one plots to overthrow another and treachery abounds.

These numerous schemes of usurpation are reflections of the human nature to gain dominance over another, even when this dominance has to be acquired through unscrupulous means. While the ending resolves amicably enough, there is a lingering discomfort that this utopia is temporal. True, some of the characters are punished for their illicit attempts to gain power but punishment does not equate enlightenment; they may not have truly learned any lessons. Instead of expressing relief at Prospero’s forgiveness, Antonio does not respond and remain mostly silent for the remainder of the play except to note that Caliban is “no doubt marketable” (Act V, Scene I). Antonio’s stubborn quietness and observation that Caliban can be exploited is a baleful reminder of his nature to take advantage of others. This recalls his usurpation of dukedom from Prospero and his encouragement to Sebastian to stab his sleeping brother. It also recalls Antonio’s whispers to Sebastian to take advantage of and kill the tired king of Naples who is desperately searching for his missing son; Antonio reminds Sebastion to “do not, for one repulse, forgo the purpose/ That you resolv’d to effect” (Act III, Scene III). This recalcitrant nature of Antonio demonstrates the reluctance of human beings to change. The eventual utopian ending on the island is tainted by doubts that some characters have yet to turn over a new leaf and may lapse into self-serving manipulative habits again.

Also, the theme of illusion in The Tempest creates an ambiguity such that island cannot be easily classified as a utopia or dystopia. Everything is not what it appears to be. From the setting of the first scene, the storm is not natural; it is created by Ariel at the command of Prospero (Act I, Scene I). The magical banquet, brought by dancing spirits, disappears just after Gonzalo convinces the party to eat (Act III, Scene III). Prospero insists on him being a victim of usurpation when he is not entirely blameless; it is his negligence of his kingdom which had led to his downfall. Not only are there deceptions and schemes to usurp, there are also mystical illusions and self-delusions. The island is “where the real reveals itself false and where the false may and probably will reveal itself to be true” (Strehler and Simpson 2002: 17). This recurrent theme that nothing can be taken at face value evokes a nagging feeling that the island may not be as utopian as it appears.

The ambiguity in the nature of the island is inextricably linked to the perspectives of the viewer too. To Gonzalo, Adrian and Caliban, the island is breathtakingly beautiful and serene. Gonzalo says that the grass is “lush and lusty” and “green” while Adrian finds the air to breathe upon him “most sweetly” (Act II, Scene I). Caliban waxes lyricism on the island and intimately reveals his love for the island; “sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” is his wistful expression of the comfort he finds in the island (Act III, Scene II). Conversely, to Antonio and Sebastian, the island is inhabitable and inhospitable – the island smells bad, as though “perfumed by a fern” and the ground “indeed is tawny” (Act II, Scene I). Their cynicism and sarcasm plainly discloses their disdain for the island. Depending on the perspectives of the character, the island can paradoxically be a utopia or a dystopia.

The very idea that this ‘utopian’ island belongs to Prospero – hence, the term ‘Prospero’s island’ – is disquieting. Does this island truly belong to him? Or is it Caliban’s? The swarthy Native is born and bred on this island and stakes an indignant claim to it. Or does this island belong more to Ariel? After all, Ariel was freely roaming the island before being subjugated by Sycorax. Perhaps, the island could be called Caliban’s island or even, Ariel’s island instead. The preceding rhetoric brings a focus to an encompassing ambiguity in island ownership; the dispute between land rights and entitlement highlights a dichotomy in power dynamics between the colonised and the colonisers. Meredith Anne Skura suggests that the competing “claims (to) possession of the island […] are symptoms of ideological conflict in the discourse” (Skura 1989: 50). There is an ambiguity, even manipulative aggression, about who is the rightful owner of the island and this uneasy conflict makes the island a greater dystopia.

The Tempest concludes in an atmosphere of idealism and justness. Nonetheless, the journey to this eventual utopia is fraught with chaos. Due to the nature of some characters, it is questionable if the concluding peace will last. On a more fundamental note, whether the island is utopian or dystopian cannot be easily accounted for – all due to the theme of illusion and the multiple characters’ divergent perspectives. This island, while appearing utopian and perfect, may actually be a dystopia in disguise.





This article is originally written for EN1101E Introduction to Literary Studies.

9 comments:

  1. that was absolutely one of the best essays on the Tempest I have read in a long time! Fantastic insight and a very thought provoking perspective. The theme of love is one I feel the Tempest explores and I would love to hear your view on that. Also the linking between the fate and time, how once the natural order was disturbed it became the ultimate destiny for this to be resurrected by the fates? Anyway thank you very much, brilliant essay.

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  2. Hi, thank you for uploading this wonderful resource! Do you happen to know where I can find this article's original source, or any other details such as the author or publisher?

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    1. I wrote this in 2011 and it has never been published save on this blog.

      Thanks for reading :]

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  3. HI. I need an artical on The Tempest from psychological analysis.

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    1. Hi, Riz, have you tried searching online journal databases for related articles? Jstor is a site indexing multiple journals and may have what you need!

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  4. Hey can I get some more information about You so I can use this as a source for my project? Like your name and stuff.

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  5. I am so impressed with this article!! It perfectly disbutes and succesfully rebutts many critiquers opinion that the island is a magical place of renewal. However, how would you explain mirandas marriage to ferdinand? Is that not a note of youthful hope and dreams, or the successful synthesis of the purity of nature and the morals of civilization? I suppose you could say tjat it is all a ploy of prospero's to gain the throne, but that does not have basis in the story and prpspero's character. Or is his seeming forgiveness and benevolence just a farce, hiding his true intentions? I'd love to hear your opinion on this, please respond promptly.



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