ENGL 204 / ENGL 339
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Tempest: Study Guide

PRELIMINARIES: A Bit of Historical Grounding. . .

Shakespeare began writing his Romances around the time of the acquisition of the Blackfriars Theater (1608), a risky business venture (no adult company had ever tried to run a private theater before, and the King's Men were going to continue to run their old public theater at the same time).  Shakespeare would subsequently write with the Blackfriars Theater in mind.  Why?
  • He was the best playwright of the company; he knew the actors; her was therefore the logical choice to write the new plays needed to sustain a second theatre, since the Globe would continue to produce the old repertory.
  • The troupe realized that the future of theater lay with the court.  (Compare receipts for the period 1594-1602, when the King's Men took in ca. 35 from Court performances per year, withe the period 1603-1607, when court performances brought in ca. 131 per year.)  In 1612, Edward Kirkham would say that they took 1000 a winter more at the Blackfriars than they had formerly at the Globe.
The audience had come to expect music at the Blackfriars, which had previously housed a troupe of boy actors affiliated with a choir school (and thus with trained voices).  To meet audience expectations, Shakespeare incorporated more musical numbers and "masques" (e.g. Ariel's songs and the prenuptial entertainment in celebration of Miranda and Ferdinand's betrothal).

PHYSICAL STRUCTURE of the Blackfriars Theater:  entirely closed and securely roofed, allowing productions at winter and at night; it lacked the open, sunlit atmosphere of the Globe.  Lighting was provided by wall torches, lanterns, candelabra and crude footlights at the edge of the stage.  The auditorium was 66' x 46' including the stage, which was presumably smaller than that of the Globe (additional seating on both sides of the stage narrowed the acting space).  The Blackfriars theater was more intimate than the Globe, seating about 600 on the main floor and in the galleries (about 1/4 the capacity of the Globe), but higher ticket prices (geared to a court audience) led to average daily receipts two and a half times those of the Globe.

The Blackfriars stage shared enough features with the Globe stage to permit plays to be shifted from
one stage to the other without major alterations in text or stage practice.  Both stages were flat and largely unadorned, with entrances from both sides, a "discovery area" at the rear, and a gallery above.  Neither stage could be concealed by the drop of a curtain or revealed by the raising of one, so neither allowed a drama to begin with some sudden and surprising revelation of action or to end on a great climax.  On both stages, actors had to walk on stage, reveal who and where they were, and lead gradually into the action; then, action had to taper off towards the end and actors had to be maneuvered off stage.  In spite of the differences between them, the Blackfriars and Globe stages resembled each other more closely than either would resemble a typical twentieth-century stage.

The Tempest: Study Questions

1) Unnatural behavior.  Like As You Like It and Macbeth, The Tempest is concerned with a conflict brought about by the "unnatural" behavior of a villainous protagonist (in this case Prospero's younger brother Antonio) who plots against and overthrows the rightful ruler of the land, usurping the throne.  Like Duke Frederick in As You Like It, Antonio is doubly "unnatural":  in usurping the throne of Milan, he has sinned against God (since a monarch was thought to rule through divine will) and violated the bonds of brotherly love (and of human decency, exposing his banished brother's innocent daughter to a life of hardship or death).  Antonio's "unnatural" behavior also recalls that of the traitors in Henry V:  in order to usurp his brother's Dukedom, he conspired with Alonso, King of Naples, the traditional enemy of Milan, whom he now serves.  But (as in Macbeth), what goes around comes around:  shipwrecked on Prospero's island, Antonio is at the mercy of the brother he deposed, while Alonso's younger brother Sebastian plots to kill him and usurp his throne.  (The presence of two sets of "unnatural" brothers is another parallel with As You Like It, where Duke Frederick's treatment of Duke Senior was doubled by Oliver's unnatural cruelty to Orlando.)  Look for passages that illustrate these parallels as you read.  Note references to "natural" and "unnatural" behavior, to divine justice or Providence, and to "nature" in the text.  Be sure that you have the various characters straight!

2) Comic Relief?  The "unnatural" behavior of the treacherous brothers Antonio and Sebastian is mirrored by the comic subplot of the drunken butler Stephano, the jester Trinculo (whose name also implies drinking), and Caliban (more on him below), who enlists their aid to help him kill Prospero.  Here the themes of treachery, plotting, and fitness to rule are treated on a burlesque mode.  But as was true in A Midsummer Night's Dream (the "Rude Mechanicals"), As You Like It (Silvius and Phebe, Audrey) or Henry V (Henry's former "low life" friends), these characters also serve as foils to the protagonists.  Note ways in which the comical subplot mirrors darker, more serious events in the play as a whole.  Do they get what they deserve? What finally happens to Caliban? Is Caliban's punishment at the end of the play fitting?
3) Marriage as Metaphor.  As might be expected (since The Tempest was considered a comedy by Condell and Heminges), the various conflicts in the play will be resolved when Prospero regains his dukedom and unites it to Naples through the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand (a conclusion reminiscent of the endings of As You Like It and Henry V).  Note passages that focus on Miranda and Ferdinand's respective characters, their growing love for each other, and the symbolic rightness of their union.  Note the way in which marriage is used (as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It and Henry V) as a symbol of social and political harmony.  Note however that whereas erotic love was a relatively uncomplicated positive force in the previous plays, here it is tinged with darker undertones -- see e.g. Prospero's warning that Ferdinand is not to break Miranda's "virgin knot" before the wedding, and the cautionary tale of Caliban's unrestrained sexuality (his attempt to rape Miranda).

4) And what about this Caliban?  He is native to the island and claims to be its rightful ruler.  He welcomed the shipwrecked  Prospero and the infant Miranda to his island, found them food and drinking water, taught them to survive.  He is sensitive to the beauty of Ariel's songs, and his own speeches can be surprisingly poetic.  Note the passages in which this side of Caliban is expressed.  Yet he is also presented as a monster, a "thing of darkness," the offspring of the witch Sycorax and the Devil.  He is said to be "ungrateful" to Prospero and Miranda, who have done "everything" for him -- after all, they brought him civilization and language -- and he responded by trying to rape Miranda!  From Prospero's perspective (as well as Miranda's), this barbaric ingratitude is sufficient justification for enslaving Caliban, causing him to be tormented by invisible spirits which pinch him to keep him in line (note passages which express their point of view).  But from Caliban's perspective, Prospero is the ungrateful one, and a tyrant to boot.  It was Caliban's island before Prospero arrived there; it was Caliban who did "everything" for the newcomers -- after all, without him, they would have perished.  What then could be more "natural" than the union of Caliban, the island's only eligible bachelor, with Miranda, the only human female?  (Who else is she supposed to marry -- her own father??)  Consider the relative merits of these two positions and perspectives and pay attention to the passages in which they are expressed.

Some things to think about:  the issue is larger than it may initially seem.  The Tempest (1611) was written at a time of exploration, discovery and intense interest in the native peoples of the "New World" (a Native American was first exhibited in England as a curiosity early in the 16th century, and by 1611 a community of free Blacks had been living in London for fifteen years).  Europeans approached the "New World" with a curious mixture of benevolence, condescension and greed.  The economic stakes were high:  the raw materials of the "New World" (including native peoples -- Englishman had participated in the slave trade as early as the 1560s) represented untold wealth for the countries that laid claim to them, and thus England began to vie with Spain and France for colonial holdings.  (Shakespeare was linked to the Earls of Southhampton and Pembroke, leaders of the Virginia Company that sponsored a colonial expedition in 1609; published accounts of a shipwreck on that expedition may have influenced The Tempest; see pp. 91-102 of the Signet Classics text).   Europeans tended to feel that there was a moral imperative behind their nascent imperialism:  they were after all bringing the Word to the Godless, Civilization to the savage, and Culture to the ignorant (the analogies with Prospero's attitude toward Caliban are clear).  On the other hand, there was a current in Humanist thought that saw the "unspoiled" natives of the "New World" as a foil for the corruption of Europe (much as pastoral poets use an idealized rural society of shepherds to critique their own society, the city or the court). From this perspective, natives of the "New World" represent a "natural" innocence which is superior to the moral decay of Europe, a viewpoint famously formulated in the essay "Of the Cannibals" by the Frenchman Montaigne.  Shakespeare knew this essay in John Florio's 1603 translation (he paraphrases it in Gonzalo's speech, II.i.148-173; compare pp. 137-139) -- and it is interesting to note that "Caliban" is an anagram of "cannibal."

5) Fitness to Rule.   As the above analogies suggest, Shakespeare seems once again (as in Macbeth) to have shied away from painting a picture in "black and white" -- both Caliban and Prospero are richly ambiguous figures.  Caliban is at least half human -- and Shakespeare takes care to remind us of it, imbuing him at times with a surprising nobility.  Prospero on the other hand cannot be considered an entirely blameless monarch.  He is the rightful duke of Milan, but was he a good and responsible ruler?  What did he care about most?  (What are the only things he took with him to the island of his exile?)  Did Antonio have some justification in usurping the throne?  On the island, Prospero governs with absolute authority -- a strength he did not show as duke of Milan.  Is that why he regains his throne?  (Having learned to govern "correctly," does he now "deserve" to be duke?)  What is the source of his power upon the island?  Is there a relationship between that power and his weakness in Milan?  Why must he abjure his magic and "drown his book" (V.i.57) before returning to Milan?  Could Prospero also be acknowledging his own dark side when he says (of Caliban), "this thing of darkness I/ acknowledge mine" (V.i. 275-276)?  Both the "monster" Caliban and the "good" Ariel serve the "tyrant" Prospero unwillingly and chafe against his rule, and Prospero calls them both his "slave" (see I.ii.270, 344, 351, 374). 

6) And what about Ariel?  A spirit in the service of the magician Prospero, he is similar to the fairy Puck who serves the Fairy King Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Note passages which make clear these parallels.  But there are essential differences. Consider e.g. the bonds that tie them to their respective lords.  Is their service offered willingly?  Is it equally justifiable in each case?  (Service to one's king or rightful lord is considered to be part of the "natural order" in Shakespeare's time.  But is Prospero Ariel's rightful king?)  On the other hand, Prospero seems to feel genuine affection  for Ariel, who for the most part serves him cheerfully enough.  What do we make of that relationship? 

Finally, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, we noted that in addition to being forces of Nature, the Fairies represented something concerning the power of dreams -- or of poetry, or of art -- to change "reality."   Is anything analogous going on in The Tempest?  Look for passages that emphasize the link between learning (books, poetry, art), magic and power.  Recall that The Tempest, Shakespeare's last complete work before retiring to Stratford, has commonly been considered Shakespeare's "farewell to poetry" (Prospero breaking his staff, source of his magic, equals Shakespeare breaking his "pen," source of his magical artistry).  To what extend can we equate Prospero's magic with Shakespeare's literary artistry or, more generally, with the magic of the theater?

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