About Sunline Press

The Tempest

According to Elizabethan beliefs an individual's social position was more or less fixed. The King was King as he had been given a mandate by God, and all positions below this were based on a rigid social hierarchy, which were also dictated by birth.

This ideology was decidedly conservative and used politically as a means of social control: forcing people with less status to internalise their inferiority and subservience, assuming it part of the natural order of the universe. Any rebellion, personal or collective, was therefore seen as an act of defiance not only against the State but God. This can be seen as a highly effective means of keeping order and perpetuating the power structures already existing in society.

We can read literature as expressions of universal themes and investigations into human nature and the human conditions, but we can also give alternative readings that question natural assumptions and investigate the 'silences' in a text. In essence, reading the 'politics' of the play. A traditional reading of The Tempest would position Prospero as the victim of unjust betrayal, who stranded on an island with his beautiful, virtuous daughter, uses his magical powers to right the wrong done to him. It is the old story of the 'rightful' ruler who is disposed by the bad guys, but manages to get back his power and live happily ever after.

A post-colonial reading, which foregrounds issues of race and power inequalities, would give quite a different interpretation.

The play contains rebellions, political treachery, mutinies and conspiracies. There are many challenges to authority, however, the text resolves these problems in the end by having peace, harmony and order restored, with the rightful ruler placed back in his position of power. In this way any disruption to order is seen as evil and those who dare question it need to be punished, thus perpetuating the social values of the time.

It is true that Antonio seized power from his older brother, Prospero, and that this usurpation is viewed as wrong by the dominant values of the time and by the text. This viewpoint is constructed by presenting Antonio as a treacherous, evil character who is willing to murder Alonso and Gonzalo. This is the view foregrounded by the play, but little is mentioned about why this state of affairs arose. The silences of the story, involving Antonio being delegated the task of managing the state while Prospero delves into 'his books' as well as his inferior status for simply being the younger brother, are not given a voice in the play. In the end what is valued in the text is that order is restored, the rightful ruler regains his social position and through this the play supports the politically conservative ideology of the time.

The Tempest can be seen as a literary vehicle that maintains the status quo and used as a means of social control. The audience of the time (and later) leaves the playhouse seeing all challenges to this ideology as manifestly wrong and all rebellious attitudes are associated with treachery and evil.

The issue of usurpation is also present in Antonio and Sebastian's plot to kill Alonso and Gonzalo; Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo's plot to kill Prospero; and Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda.

Interestingly, Alonso, who is just as culpable as Antonio in the disposal of Prospero is still seen as a friend of Prospero: 'Ariel: My master through his art foresees the danger/That you, his friend, are in ..' This anomaly seems to conveniently fit the values of the play and the interests of Prospero. Alonso is the rightful King of Naples and in this position the text sidesteps this issue of his treachery, though it does show that he is remorseful and acknowledges his wrong-doing, but again this only hapens when he is placed in a different, threatening situation. Likewise, it is Prospero's purpose from the beginning to marry off his daughter Miranda to Alonso's son, Ferdinand, so that she will be Queen of Naples.

(This section is also race)The play also fails to question Caliban's position as a savage and slave, and seems to validate and legitimise it by his behaviour and his attempted rape of the sweet Miranda. In many ways the play acts out the treatment of indigenous people by Europeans. The values system of Caliban is silenced and simply seen as barbaric. He is costructed as the 'Other', different from Europeans and therefore naturally inferior ('But thy vile race-/Though thou didst learn - had that in't which good/natures/Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou/Deservedly confined into this rock'). If we see Caliban as representative of the indigenous peoples dispossessed by European colonisers the previous quotations certainly shows how it is his 'race' and 'nature' that makes him inferior, even though the benevolent Whites tried so valiantly to make him human. The issue of the attempted race can also be seen from another viewpoint as his race's practices and attitudes towards sexuality (like the Pacific Islanders) were far more fluid and liberal, and not equating sex outside marriage as sin. Ferdinand and Prospero both associate a woman's virtue with virginity and these values show the coloniser's morality as unquestionably correct, while the sexual behaviour of other races merely reinforced their view that they were immoral and lacking humanity.


The Tempest has been traditionally interpreted as a play about forgiveness and reconciliation, change and transformation, illusion and magic and the usurpation of Prospero. These interpretations have foregrounded the noble Europeans and in particular Prospero's benevolent attitudes. However, such a reading silences Caliban's rights for freedom and possession of the island. If read through an alternative discourse, such as a postcolonial reading, a very different picture emerges. The play can then be seen as an allegory of the colonial exploitation of indigenous people, where Caliban represents the natives of the New World who were dispossessed and exploited by the European powers. They were deemed inferior and even sub-human because of the colour of their skin ('this thing of darkness') and their cultural traits that were different to the Europeans and subsequently constructed as uncivilised. Because of this so-called innate inferiority they were economically exploited and used as slaves.

The representation of race in the play is Eurocentric. Caliban's physical appearance marks him as different and therefore sub-human, and this is seen in his name which is almost an anagram of 'cannibal'. The Europeans (Stephano and Trinculo) on first seeing him view him immediately as a chattel that might be sold in Europe for his freakishness, or for his 'Otherness' which they have constructed him as. Trinculo says 'Were I in England now - as once I was - and had but this fish painted, not a holiday-fool there would give a piece of silver' and Antonio and Sebastian see him as a marketable good that can be bought and sold: 'Very like. One of them/Is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable. Race is therefore a marker for one human-ness and anything other than European is constructed as naturally inferior, without rights and available to be exploited for economic purposes. In this it shows the capitalism of the time where

Prospero's enslavement of Caliban is justified in his reasoning by Caliban's attempted rape of his daughter, Miranda. This might be understandable according to western values, however the text only gives Prospero's version of events and also imposes Western notions of morality and sexuality. Other cultures have different values concerning sexuality, yet Prospero assumes his values are a reflection of a higher state of civilisation and that Caliban's actions is evidence of his fundamentally evil nature. Western values demand restraint, controland self-discipline (as seen later in Prospero's warnings to Ferdinand and Miranda) and the text equates indigenous values as barbaric and violent. In essence the European colonialist has invaded a new country, taken possession and set up their systems of values as the only legitimate code of behaviour. Through this Caliban has been dispossessed and forced to give up his ways of living and language.

Caliban is constructed as innately inferior and savage because of his race. This is articulated by the supposedly sweet and tender Miranda: 'But thy vile race -/Though thou didst learn - had that in't which good natures/Could not abide to be with ..'(31) In these lines Caliban's race is seen as the reason for his barbaric behaviour - it is his very nature that makes him savage and dangerous. In this the text constructs other non-European races as savage, less human, incapable of so-called 'civilisation' all because of their race: this is a damning indictment of non-Europeans as it positions them as naturally inferior and unable to change their ways so that they will never be able to develop the fine sensitivity and refinement of Western civilisation.


The Tempest colludes with the patriarchal and racial values of seventeenth century Europe, though some critics believe that through Caliban's speeches Shakespeare does show some awareness the dispossession of indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, the play's stereotypical mapping of gender reinforces and stabilises cultural assumptions of women as passive and aesthetic objects of desire.

Miranda is valued for her beauty ('Most sure the goddess/On whom these airs attend' 35) and virginity ('O, if a virgin ... I'll make you the Queen of Naples' 37) and the way the text constructs the one female in the play suggests that love and happiness (though issues of class arise) can only be found if a woman is beautiful and pure. The insistence on purity and virginity before marriage can be read as another manifestation of patriarchal values that subjugates women sexually, not allowing them to experience sexuality as a male does, and in this the text clearly supports a system of social control that disempowers women as well as promising sanctions (not ever finding a 'good man') if this ideal type of behaviour is not obeyed.

There are further cultural assumptions underlying these values. Marriage is assumed as the natural and desirable state for all women. In such a social system there are more sanctions against women and they are forced to obey their role which is subservient and passive as they must win the desire of a male - who, in turn, desires a beautiful woman who accepts his natural superiority and command. This role marginalises women as they are objects of desire, yet exist only on the periphery of other political, social and cultural practices. In the play, Prospero from the start plans his daughter's marriage; Ferdinand's first words and Miranda's response equate love (love at first sight on this occasion) with marriage and Alonso's conversation with Prospero also deals with the desire of having their offspring married. More importantly Miranda is being used by her father for political purposes as many marriages of the privileged classes were.

In the end Miranda is married off successfully and it is because of her attributes as an ideal woman (pure, chaste, subservient) that she has succeeded in marrying a Prince. The narrative destiny of the play rewards the compliant woman who has obeyed her father, and had kept to the social codes ascribed to the ideal woman.

Another aspect of gender which cannot be separated from race is the representation of Caliban's mother, Sycorax. Though she is already dead and doea not appear on stage her presence lurks ominously in the background. Despite her physical absence from the play Sycorax has great importance in a theoretical sense. In the politics of the play she serves an ideological function as she is constructed as the evil witch, the 'other', through which Prospero's ownership of the island is legitimised. She is constructed as being the antithesis to Prospero - female, non-European and evil - and Prospero uses her to justify his acts of dispossession.

Sycorax's evil qualities are mentioned when Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom, and seems to be related to her race ('She's from Algier') and sexuality. She spawns her illegitimate son, Caliban, and imprisons Ariel as he would not succumb to her 'earthy and abhorred demands'. In all qualities she is constructed as the evil witch and this has great importance in the play, though she is physically absent, as it gives Prospero's acts of dispossessing the island from its original owners a moral authority, and justifies his ongoing rule.

Men are on the other hand are represented in a variety of ways. They are good and bad, moral and immoral, victorious and unsuccessful, however they all share the common representation that they aspire to power and initiate action in the quest to better their social position. Men are represented as being potential agents of change, asserting their will simply because they are male. Prospero is all powerful with control over his daughter, the other men and spirits on the island, and the environment. It is interesting to note that it is not simply their gender that determines their success but their hereditary social position and right to rule, thus it is more social class than gender that decides their fate. Nevertheless it is gender that shapes their actions and behaviours. It is also worth noted that Miranda is successful in improving her social position but it is both her social position as the daughter of the rightful Duke of Milan and her meek acceptance of her gender role that brings success.

Most of the men are powerful and assertive, and all attempt to impose themselves on others so as to take power. Trinculo and Stephano may be constructed as fools (standard stock figures in Elizabthan drama) but they are still constantly endeavouring to change their fate, wishing to take over the island and initiating actions that will bring this about. The one exception is Gonzalo who is constructed as the idealist; the thoughtful male who dreams of a utopia where all are equal and happy. Though this may seem to counter the more aggressive male stereotype it still shows a male wanting to change the world and instead of just individual power he envisages a world that will change - an ideal still within the male domain of thinker and philosopher, unheard of for women at the time.

Other points on Gender (From Shakespeare and Gender, Ann Thompson).

Women are notably absent from The Tempest. Miranda stresses her isolation and lack of female companionship by saying 'I do not know/One of my sex, no woman's face remember/Save from my glass, mine own')

Miranda apparently has no mother and she does not inquire about her even when she asks Prospero 'Sir, are not you my father?' In his only reference to his wife Prospero says 'Thy mother was a piece of virtu, and/She said thou wast my daughter.' (I,ii, 56-7). This is apparently all that needs to be said about her. Soon after Miranda demonstrates that she has fully internalised the patriarchal assumption that a woman's main function is to provide a legitimate succession when asked to comment on the wickedness of Prospero's brother: 'I should sin/To think but nobly of my grandmother:/Good wombs have borne bad sons.' (I,ii,117-119)

Caliban's mother, Sycorax, is long dead by the time the play's events take place. She had been banished by Algerians, who spared her life because she was pregnant. Her power is at least recognised by Prospero and Ariel, though she is vilified by them as a 'hag' and a 'foul witch'.

Miranda has always been seen as the epitome of modesty, grace and tenderness.

Despite Miranda's small and passive role, the text claims that she is nevertheless crucial to the play. Explaining the storm, Prospero tells her: 'I have done nothing but in care of thee.'(I.ii,16) Reading the play with an explicit focus on issues of gender, one is struck by its obsession with themes of chastity and fertility, which occur in its imagery and metaphor as well as in its literal events. These themes are often specifically associated with female sexuality. In the first, rather startling metaphor of the kind, Gonzalo imagines the very ship which seems to founder in the opening scene as being 'leaky as an unstanched wench', an image that alludes to a sexually aroused (insatiable) woman. In his long narrative speech to Miranda in the second scene, Prospero uses the meatphor of birth to describe Antonio's treachery - 'my trust,/Like a good parent, did beget of him/A falsehood'(I.ii.93-5), and seems almost to claim that he gave a kind of second birth to Miranda in his sufferings on the voyage to the island:

When I have decked the sea with drops full salt Under my burden, which raised in me

An undergoing stomach to bear up

Against what should ensue. (I.ii.155-8)

This scene also introduces the literal contrast between the chaste Miranda and the 'earthy and abhorred' Sycorax who arrived on the island pregnant (by the devil himself, according to Prospero I.ii. 319) and there littered or 'whelped' her subhuman son.

The Tempest Opening Scene

The opening scene to The Tempest is a dramatic event where a ship is caught in a wild storm (thus the title of the play) and those on-board, excluding the crew, are forced to abandon ship. The audience is faced with utter confusion and panic with the sounds of the storm, the anxious shouting of the characters making it difficult to decipher what is said. This confusion is important as it foreshadows and echoes the upheavals explored in the play. Prospero is disposed of his rightful position as the Duke of Milan by his brother, Antonio and later Sebastian and Antonio attempt to assassinate Alonso, the King of Naples. In the seventeenth century people were firmly locked into their social position on the hierarchy and it was tantamount to challenging divine providence to usurp a rightful ruler of their position. This challenge to traditional authority structures is also seen in the opening scene where the lowly Boatswain tells his superiors, 'Out of the way, I say' after implying that his life was more important than their's ('Gonzalo: Good, yet remember whom thou hast on board./ Boatswain: None that I more love than myself.')

The audience is confronted with chaos and this can be a very dramatic opening where the audience is almost made a part of the wild panic and can sense the fear of the men. The effectiveness of this is often more the role of the director and his resources than the original script. Some productions have the prow of the boat on stage and there is a clear depiction of the situation at hand. Other more modest productions try to capture the sense of the actors being on a ship in a storm by various methods. A production at the Dolphin theatre had ropes hanging from the sides of theatre with characters hanging on as in a storm. This was dramatically effective as the audience was very close to the action and actors themselves - the sound of thunder and the flashes of lightning all create the atmosphere and some people may even been wet from the water that was being thrown. The chaos of the storm, the upheaval and confusion, and the fear felt by all the men was evocatively conveyed through this management of Shakespeare's script. And this is what is meant to be achieved as the tempest must seem wild and uncontrollable as it is the pivotal start of the play; a play that works from the assumption that disorder must be changed to order and harmony, and those usurped must be restored to their rightful places, at least according to the values of the seventeen century.

Amongst the chaotic events on-board ship the dialogue in the first scene is taken up predominantly with the nobles feeling outrage at the Boatswain's temerity of suggesting he has the right to order them out of the way and his innate equality in a situation where social rank does not exist. Gonzalo, who is portrayed throughout the play as a just and good man, is the first to speculate on the Boatswain's behaviour, stating that such a man who disregard his rank in society is surely born to be hanged: 'Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him, his complexion is perfect gallows.' He even feels more secure as he believes that he will not drown and therefore they may all have a chance at surviving. Sebastian and Antonio are far more annoyed at his presumption and abuse him. There choice of curse is also interesting as he is called 'blasphemous, incharitable dog', suggesting he is a lowly animal and more importantly challenging the god-given decrees that position them as his superior. He is also called a 'whoreson', implying that ancestry and blood defines the person.

The opening scene also give insights on the characters who play a major role later in the play. Despite his attitude towards the Boatswain Gonzalo, which to an audience at the time and perhaps even now would seem humorous, he is seen in a favourable light and when he thinks the boat is splitting sadly laments the loss ofhis wife, children and fellows ('Farewell, my wife and children! Farewell, brother!). On the hand Sebastian and Antonio who had swore wildly at the Boatswain before, only think of themselves and leave.

From David Malouf's 'Relative Freedom'

The play questions the true nature of humanity: are we products of nature or nurture, are we born innocent or 'fallen' and corrupt, can we be redeemed by education or divine grace. It questions the need for authority and order; and the nature of society and the political state. The play also raises issues related to the relationship between an all-powerful Europe and the New World that they had just commenced to colonise and exploit.

The play is a comedy (or at least tragi-comedy). Tragedy shows the brute realities of our lives: death is inevitable, time destroys, all things are ephemeral. It is a genre that shows how trapped we are by our natures. Comedy on the otherhand, springs open this trap and sets us free as it creates a world not ruled by necessity. Instead strange and miraculous things can happen: problems are sorted out, sons and fathers are found alive, old misunderstandings and errors can be rectified. All the possibilities of life are opened up and all get a second chance. 'And all this happens not because it is the way things are but because the comic dramatist makes it so. he carries us with him into a different dimension of human activity, the realm of the imagination, the realm of freedom. Comedy is an act of faith about the way things might be rather than a picture of how they are.'

The Tempest raises questions about our human limitations and spiritual possibilities. the play is a medium by which Shakespeare questions our freedom, self-knowledge, responsibility, order, authority, compassion, forgiveness, grace.

  [- Execute('footer.html'); -]