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The Tempest /

A Modern Perspective: The Tempest

By Barbara A. Mowat

Somewhat past the midpoint of The Tempest, King Alonso and his courtiers reach a temporary still point in their journey on Prospero’s island. Shipwrecked, they have searched for the lost Prince Ferdinand; now, exhausted, they give up the search. Into this moment of fatigue—and, for Alonso, despair—at the center of what Gonzalo calls their “maze,” enters the maze’s monster: a Harpy who threatens them with lingering torment worse than any death. For Alonso, the Harpy’s recounting of his long-ago crimes against Prospero is “monstrous”; maddened, he rushes off to leap (he thinks) into the sea, to join (he thinks) his drowned son Ferdinand.

King Alonso’s confrontation with the Harpy (3.3.23–133) brings together powerfully The Tempest’s intricate set of travel stories and its technique of presenting key dramatic moments as theatrical fantasy. The presentation of dancing islanders, a disappearing banquet, and a descending monster is the first big spectacle since the play’s opening tempest. The unexpected appearance of these island “spirits,” combined with the power of the Harpy’s speech, gives the Harpy confrontation a solidity within the story world that seems designed to rivet audience attention. At the same time, audience response to the scene is inevitably colored by curiosity about the “quaint device” that makes the banquet vanish and by awareness of Prospero looking down on his trapped enemies from “the top,” commenting on them in asides, and obtrusively turning the Harpy/king encounter into make-believe, first by telling us that the Harpy was only Ariel reciting a speech and, second, by reminding us, just before Alonso’s desperate exit to join Ferdinand in the ocean’s ooze, that Ferdinand is, at this moment, courting Miranda.

The double signals here—to the powerful moment within the story and to the deliberate theatricality with which the moment is staged—reflect larger doublenesses in this drama. They reflect, first of all, major differences in the temporal and spatial dimensions of the drama’s “story” and its “play.” The Tempest’s “story” stretches over more than twenty-four years and several sea journeys; it embeds elements of the mythological voyages of Aeneas and of Jason and the Argonauts, of the biblical voyages of St. Paul, and of actual contemporary voyages to the new world of Virginia. The “play” that The Tempest actually presents is, in contrast, constricted within a plot-time of a single afternoon and confined to the space imagined for an island.1 Through this particular doubling, Shakespeare creates in The Tempest a form that allows him to bring familiar voyage material to the stage in a (literally) spectacular new way.

The “story” that The Tempest tells is a story of voyages—Sycorax’s journey from Algiers, Prospero and Miranda’s journey from Milan to the island in the rotten carcass of a butt, Alonso’s voyage from Naples to Tunis across the Mediterranean Sea and thence to the island—and, on the island, a set of journeys (Ferdinand’s journey across yellow sands; Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo’s through briers and filthy-mantled pools, and Alonso and his men’s through strange mazes) that lead, finally, back to the sea and the ship and to yet another sea journey. This complex narrative, with its immense span of chronological time, its routes stretching over most of the Mediterranean, its violent separations and losses and its culmination in royal betrothals and restorations, is the kind of story told in the massive novels, popular in Shakespeare’s time, called Greek Romances. The Tempest’s story could have filled one or more such romance volumes or could have been presented in a narrative-like drama such as Shakespeare himself had created in Pericles and The Winter’s Tale. Instead, within the brief period of The Tempest’s supposed action, the narrative of the twenty-four or more years preceding the shipwreck of King Alonso and his courtiers on the island—worked out by Shakespeare in elaborate detail—is told to us elaborately. The second and third scenes of The Tempest—that is, 1.2. and 2.1—contain close to half the lines in the play, and close to half of those lines are past-tense narration. Through Prospero, through Ariel, through Caliban, through Gonzalo, through Sebastian, through Antonio, characters in our presence (and our present) tell us their pasts.

If we take the sets of narratives embedded in 1.2 and 2.1 and roll them back to where they belong chronologically, the first story (and the most fantastic) is that of the witch Sycorax, her exile on the island, her “littering” of Caliban there, and her imprisoning of Ariel (1.2.308–47)—twelve years before Prospero is thrust forth from Milan. That thrusting-forth is the subject of the next story (next chronologically, that is): the narrative of Antonio’s betrayal of Prospero and of Prospero and Miranda’s sea journey and arrival on the island (1.2.66–200). Then comes the story of what happened on the island during the next twelve years, a story in which narratives that tell of Caliban (1.2.396–451), of Ariel (1.2.287–306, 340–47), and of Miranda and Prospero (1.2.205–8) overlap and intersect. Finally comes the story from the most recent past—the story of the Princess Claribel and her “loathness” to the marriage arranged by her father (2.1.131–40), of Claribel’s wedding in Tunis (2.1.71–111), of the return journey of Alonso and his courtiers (2.1.112–17), and of the shipwreck as described by Ariel (1.2.232–80).

One of the most powerful features of the form Shakespeare crafted in The Tempest is that this detailed, complex narrative, told us in the first part of the play, keeps reappearing within the play’s action. The story of the coup d’état that expelled Prospero “twelve year since,” for example, is made the model for the Antonio/Sebastian assassination plot (“Thy case, dear friend,” says Sebastian to Antonio, “shall be my precedent: as thou got’st Milan, I’ll come by Naples” [2.1.332–34]); the story appears at the center of the Harpy’s message (3.3.86–93); and it is told yet once again by Prospero when, in the play’s final scene, he attempts to forgive Antonio (5.1.80–89). Caliban’s story—“this island is mine”; “I serve a tyrant”—is told by him again and again. The story of Sycorax, who died years before the dramatic “now,” is alluded to so often—her powers described one last time by Prospero even as the play is ending (5.1.323–26)—that she seems to haunt the play, as does the absent, distant, unhappy Claribel.

As the play reaches its conclusion, each of the stories recounted in the early narrative scenes is conjured up a final time, though the pressure now is toward the future—toward the nuptials of the royal couple, toward a royal lineage with Prospero’s heirs as kings of Naples. As that virtual future is created, the structuring process of the opening scenes is reversed: where narrative was there incorporated into the play, now the play opens back out into the next pages of the narrative from which it had emerged. As we watch and listen, the play we have been experiencing moves into the past, becomes a moment in the tale Prospero promises to tell to the voyagers—“such discourse as . . . shall make [the night] / Go quick away: the story of my life / And the particular accidents gone by / Since I came to this isle” (5.1.361–64). As Alonso notes, this is a “story . . . which must / Take the ear strangely” (5.1.371–72).

By folding the story into the play and then unfolding the play into its own virtual narrative future, Shakespeare creates a form in which past and future press on the present dramatic moment with peculiar intensity. We sense this throughout the play, but see it with special clarity in the confrontation between Alonso and the Harpy. The Harpy brings the past to Alonso as a burden Alonso must pick up—an intolerable burden for Alonso, who goes mad under the simultaneous recognition of his guilt and its consequences, given to him as Time Past, Time Present, and Time Future. In Time Past: “you . . . / From Milan did supplant good Prospero, / Exposed unto the sea . . . / Him and his innocent child” (3.3.87–90); in Time Present: “for which foul deed, / The powers . . . have / Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures / Against your peace. Thee of thy son, Alonso, / They have bereft” (90–94); and finally, in Time Future: “Ling’ring perdition . . . shall step by step attend / You and your ways, whose wraths to guard you from— / Which here, in this most desolate isle, else fells / Upon your heads—is nothing but heart’s sorrow / And a clear life ensuing” (95–101). This pressure of past and future on the present moment—a pressure that is created in large part by the way Shakespeare folds chronological time into plot-time, and that we feel throughout the play in Prospero’s tension, in Ariel’s restiveness, in Caliban’s fury—makes believable in The Tempest that which is normally suspect: namely, instant repentance, instant inner transformation. Because the dramatic present is so permeated with the play’s virtual past, so pressured by the future—the six o’clock toward which the play rushes, after which Time as Opportunity will be gone—that Alonso’s anguished repentance, his descent into silence, madness, and unceasing tears, his immediate surrender of Milan to Prospero and the reward of being given back his lost son—can all take place in moments, and can, even so, seem credible and wonderful.

The interplay between The Tempest’s elaborate voyage story and its tightly constricted “play” is not the only doubleness toward which the drama’s Harpy/king encounter points us. It points as well to two kinds of travel tales embedded in the drama: ancient, fictional voyage narratives and contemporary travelers’ tales buzzing around London at the time the play was being written. The Harpy/king encounter is shaped as a sequence of verbal and visual events that in effect reenact and thus recall ancient confrontations between harpies and sea voyagers. In each of these harpy incidents—from the third century B.C. Argonautica through the first century B.C. Aeneid to The Tempest itself—harpies are ministers of the gods sent to punish those who have angered the gods; they punish by devouring or despoiling food; and they are associated with dire prophecies. The Tempest’s enactment of the harpy encounter is thus one in a line of harpy stories stretching into the past from this island and this set of voyagers to Aeneas, and through Aeneas back to Jason and the crucial encounter between the terrible harpies (the “hounds of mighty Zeus”) and the Argonauts.2 In replicating the sequence of events of voyagers meeting harpies, combining details from Jason’s story and from the Aeneid, Shakespeare directs attention to the specific context in which such harpy confrontations appear and within which The Tempest clearly belongs—that of literary fictional voyages.

At the same time, he surrounds the encounter with dialogue that would remind his audience of present-day voyages of their own fellow Londoners. Geographical expansion, around-the-world journeys, explorations of the new world of the Americas had heightened the stay-at-homes’ fascination with the strange creatures reported by travelers. Real-world creatures like crocodiles and hippopotami, fantastic creatures like unicorns and griffins, reported monstrosities like the men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders—all were, at the time, equally real (or unreal) and equally fascinating. The dialogue preceding the Harpy’s descent in The Tempest centers on such fabulous creatures. When the supposed “islanders”—creatures of “monstrous shape”—appear, bringing in the banquet, Sebastian says: “Now I will believe / That there are unicorns, that in Arabia / There is one tree, the phoenix’ throne, one phoenix / At this hour reigning there.” “Travelers ne’er did lie,” says Antonio, “Though fools at home condemn ’em.” Gonzalo adds, “If in Naples / I should report this now, would they believe me? / If I should say I saw such islanders . . . ” (3.3.26–36). It is into this dialogue-context that the Harpy descends—that is, into a discussion of fantastic travelers’ tales and fabulous creatures.

When the Harpy—one of these creatures—actually appears, claps its wings upon the table, and somehow makes the food disappear (3.3.69 SD), she is very real to Alonso and his men—as real as the harpies were to Jason and to Aeneas; as real as the hippopotami and anthropophagi were to fifteenth-century explorers; as real as is Caliban, the monster mooncalf, to his discoverers Stephano and Trinculo. The attempts to kill the Harpy are classical responses—that is, they are the responses of Jason and Aeneas when confronted by the terrible bird-women. The response of Stephano and Trinculo to their man-monster is a more typically sixteenth-century response to the fabulous. When, for example, Stephano finds Trinculo and Caliban huddled under a cloak and thinks he has discovered a “most delicate monster” with four legs and two voices, he responds with the greed that we associate with Martin Frobisher and other sixteenth-century New World explorers who brought natives from North America to England to put on display: “If I can recover him,” says Stephano, “and keep him tame and get to Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat’s leather. . . . He shall pay for him that hath him, and that soundly” (2.2.69–81). Trinculo had responded with equal greed to his first sight of the frightened Caliban:

What have we here, a man or a fish? . . . A strange fish. Were I in England . . . and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man. Any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.


While the finding and subjugating of “wild men” was a feature that ancient and new-world voyage stories held in common (for example, Jupiter promises that Aeneas, as the climax of his sea journeys, will “wage a great war in Italy, and . . . crush wild peoples and set up laws for men and build walls”3), Prospero’s subjugation of Caliban has a particularly New World flavor. The play itself, no matter how steeped it is in ancient voyage literature and no matter how much emphasis it places on its Mediterranean setting, is also a representation of New World exploration. While it retells the stories of Aeneas and of Jason, it also stages a particular Virginia voyage that, in 1610–11, was the topic of sermons, published government accounts, and first-person epistles, many of which Shakespeare drew on in crafting The Tempest. The story, in brief, goes as follows: A fleet of ships set out in 1609 from England carrying a new governor—Sir Thomas Gates—to the struggling Virginia colony in Jamestown. The fleet was caught in a tempest off the coast of Bermuda. All of the ships survived the storm and sailed on to Virginia—except the flagship, the Sea-Venture, carrying the governor, the admiral of the fleet, and other important officials. A year later, the exhausted and dispirited colonists in Jamestown were astounded when two boats sailed up the James River carrying the supposedly drowned governor and his companions. The crew and passengers on the flagship had survived the storm, had lived for a year in the Bermudas, had built new ships, and had made it safely to Virginia. News of the happy ending to this “tragicomedy,” as one who reported the story called it, soon reached London, and many details of the story are preserved in The Tempest.

Among the details may be the disturbing picture of the relationship of the “settlers” and the “Indians” in Jamestown, represented perhaps in Caliban and his relationship with Prospero. In one of the documents used by Shakespeare in writing The Tempest, William Strachey describes an incident in which “certain Indians,” finding a man alone, “seized the poor fellow and led him up in to the woods and sacrificed him.” Strachey writes that the lieutenant governor was very disturbed by this incident, since hitherto he “would not by any means be wrought to a violent proceeding against them [i.e., the Indians] for all the practices of villainy with which they daily endangered our men.” This incident, though, made him “well perceive” that “fair and noble treatment” had little effect “upon a barbarous disposition,” and “therefore . . . purposed to be revenged.” The revenge took the form of an attack upon an Indian village.4

As we read Strachey’s account today, we find much in the behavior of the settlers toward the natives that is appalling, so that the account is not for us simply that of “good white men” against “bad Indians,” as it was for Strachey. In the same way, whether or not this particular lieutenant governor and these treacherous “Indians” are represented in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s decision to include a “wild man” among his island’s cast of characters, and (as Stephen Greenblatt notes) to place him in opposition to a European prince whose power lies in his language and his books,5 raises a host of questions for us about the play. The Tempest was written just as England was beginning what would become massive empire-building through the subjugating of others and the possessing of their lands. European nations—Spain, in particular—had already taken over major land areas, and Shakespeare and his contemporaries had available to them many accounts of native peoples and of European colonizers’ treatment of such peoples. Many such accounts are like Strachey’s: they describe a barbarous people who refuse to be “civilized,” who have no language, who have a “nature” on which “nurture will never stick” (as Prospero says of Caliban). Other accounts describe instead cultural differences in which that which is different is not necessarily inferior or “barbarous.” When Gonzalo says (at 2.1.157–60), “Had I plantation [i.e., colonization] of this isle . . . And were the King on ’t, what would I do?” he answers his own question by describing the Utopia he would set up (lines 162–84), taking his description from Montaigne’s essay “Of the Cannibals.” In this essay, Montaigne (“whose supple mind,” writes Ronald Wright, “exemplifies Western civilization at its best”6) argues in effect that American “savages” are in many ways more moral, more humane people than so-called civilized Europeans.

As with so much of The Tempest, Caliban may be seen as representing two quite different images. Shakespeare gives him negative traits attached to New World natives (traits that seem to many today to smack of racist responses to the strange and to the Other) while giving him at the same time a richly poetic language and a sensitive awareness of nature and the supernatural. He places Caliban in relation to Prospero (as Caliban’s master and the island’s “colonizer”), to Miranda (as the girl who taught Caliban language and whom he tried to rape), and indirectly to Ferdinand (who, like Caliban, is made to carry logs and who will father Miranda’s children as Caliban had wished to do). Shakespeare thus creates in the center of this otherworldly play a confrontation that speaks eloquently to late-twentieth-century readers and audiences living with the aftereffects of the massive colonizing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and observing the continuing life of “empire” in the interactions between the powerful and the formerly colonized states.7 As many readers and audiences today look back at the centuries of colonization of the Americas, Africa, and India from, as it were, Caliban’s perspective, The Tempest, once considered Shakespeare’s most serene, most lyrical play, is now put forward as his representation, for good or ill, of the colonizing and the colonized.8

This relatively new interest in the colonization depicted in The Tempest has had a profound impact on attitudes toward Prospero. For centuries seen as spokesman for Shakespeare himself, as the benign, profound magician-artist who presides like a god over an otherworldly kingdom, Prospero is now perceived as one of Shakespeare’s most complex creations. He brings to the island books, Old World language, and the power to hurt and to control; he thus figures an early form of the colonizer. But he carries with him other, complicating associations. He is, for example, a figure familiar in voyage romances popular in Shakespeare’s day. The hermit magician (or exiled doctor, or some equivalent) in Greek Romance tales comes to the aid of heroes and heroines, protects them, heals them, often teaches them who they really are. In such stories, the focus is always on the lost, shipwrecked, searching man or woman—that is, on the Alonso figure or the Ferdinand or the Miranda figure. In The Tempest, Prospero, the hermit magician, is center stage, and the lost, shipwrecked, and searching are seen by us through him and in relation to him. Prospero thus carries a kind of power and an aura of ultimately benevolent intention that complicates the colonizer image.

Prospero is also the creator of the maze in which the other characters find themselves—“as strange a maze as e’er men trod,” says Alonso (5.1.293)—and thus carries yet other complicating associations. The scene of the Harpy/king encounter opens with Gonzalo’s “Here’s a maze trod indeed through forthrights and meanders,” a statement that picks up suggestively Ovid’s description of that most infamous of mazes, created by Daedalus to enclose the Minotaur. The Daedalus story has unexpected but rich links with The Tempest. Daedalus, the quintessential artist/engineer/magician, built the maze to sty the monstrous creature that he had helped to bring into being. (It was sired by a bull on King Minos’ queen, but it was Daedalus who had lured the bull to the queen, encasing her, at her urgings, in the wooden shape of a cow.) Having built the maze, Daedalus (in Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis) “scarce himselfe could find the meanes to wind himself well out / So busie and so intricate” was the labyrinth he had created (Book 8, lines 210–20).

The story of the maze and its Minotaur is a familiar one, involving the sacrifice of Greek youths to the bloodthirsty Minotaur, an annual horror that stopped only with Theseus’ slaughter of the Minotaur and his escape from the maze through the aid of King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, whom Theseus marries and then abandons. Less familiar is the connection between the story of the maze and that of Daedalus and his son Icarus’ flight from the island of Crete:

Now in this while [when Theseus was overcoming

the Minotaur] gan Daedalus a weariness to take

Of living like a banisht man and prisoner such a time

In Crete, and longed in his heart to see his native


But Seas enclosed him as if he had in prison be.

Then thought he: though both Sea and land King

Minos stop fro me,

I am assured he cannot stop the Aire and open

Skie . . .

It is at this point that Daedalus turns to “uncoth Arts” (i.e., magic), bending “the force of all his wits / To alter natures course by craft”—and he constructs the famous wings that take him home, at the cost of the life of his son, who falls into the sea and drowns.

When Prospero stands “on the top,” looking down and commenting on the trapped figures below him, he to some extent figures the magician/artist Daedalus. Throughout the play he, like Daedalus, is almost trapped in his own intricate maze, an exile who “gan . . . a weariness to take / Of living like a banisht man and prisoner such a time,” who “longed in his heart to see his native Clime,” and who thus bent “the force of all his wits” and his magic powers to find a way to get himself and his child home. The associations of Prospero with Daedalus, his maze, and his magic flight are less accessible to us today than they would have been to a Renaissance audience. But the sense of Prospero’s weariness, of his hatred of exile, of the danger facing him as he heads back to Milan having abjured his magic—these complicating emotional factors, even without a specific awareness of the Daedalus parallels, are available to us. We notice them especially in Prospero’s epilogue, where he begs our help in wafting him off the island and safely back home.

Like The Tempest itself, then, Prospero is complicated, double. He, like the play, is woven from a variety of story materials, and like the play he represents a particular moment, the moment at which began a period of colonizing and empire-building that would completely alter the world, leaving a legacy with which we still live. But he, like the play, also embodies ancient stories of travel and exile and the emotions that accompany them. And The Tempest’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century retellings and sequels (Browning’s “Caliban on Setebos,” Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror,” and such film versions as Forbidden Planet and Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, to name but a few) suggest that those stories and emotions have continued to intrigue. The magician fascinates, the journey and the maze still tempt, despite the near certainty that magic—like all power—tends to corrupt and that islands and labyrinths hold as many monsters as they do “revels.”

  1. I am using the word “story” here both in its general sense of a narration of events and in the more particular sense that translates the Russian formalists’ term “fabula”—that is, the events sequenced in chronological order. The formalists contrast the “fabula” with the “szujet”—the fiction as structured by the author (a term I translate as “play”). See Keir Elam’s The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London and New York: Methuen, 1980), pp. 119–26.
  2. See Barbara A. Mowat, “‘And that’s true, too’: Structures and Meaning in The Tempest,” Renaissance Papers 1976, pp. 37–50. The pertinent sections of the Argonaut stories are Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 2:178–535, and Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 4:422–636; Virgil’s account of the Harpies as encountered by Aeneas and his men is found in the Aeneid 3:210–69.
  3. Aeneid, Book I, lines 261–64 (Guildford trans.).
  4. “A True Reportory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight,” in A Voyage to Virginia in 1609, ed. Louis B. Wright (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1964), pp. 1–101, esp. pp. 88–89.
  5. “Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century,” in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 23–26.
  6. Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1993).
  7. See Edward W. Said, “Empire, Geography, and Culture” and “Images of the Past, Pure and Impure,” in Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), pp. 3–14, 15–19.
  8. For example, in “Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish: the discursive con-texts of The Tempest,” Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (pp. 192–205), Francis Barker and Peter Hulme state that “the discourse of colonialism” is the “dominant discursive con-text” for the play.