The Tempest in a Nutshell

The Tempest has unfortunately suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous abuse by modern critics, particularly critical race theorists.

One of the many mysteries surrounding the life of William Shakespeare is the reason for his early retirement, when he was still in his forties, at the height of his powers and still apparently in good health. 

Shakespeare announced his retirement in dramatic fashion at the end of his final play, The Tempest, when Prospero walks on stage alone, after the final curtain has fallen, to announce that he has relinquished his powers. The fact that a character addresses the audience directly, breaking the spell that had sustained the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, is seen by most critics as the playwright gatecrashing the conclusion of his own play to take his final bow.

Shakespeare’s premature retirement was probably connected to the vituperative attacks on the theater in general, and on Shakespeare in particular, by the increasingly powerful Puritans who considered both plays and players to be “heathen” and “papist.” The Puritan preacher William Crashaw, in a sermon preached in London in 1608, fulminated against “ungodly plays” which were “a hellish device—the devil’s own recreation to mock at holy things—by him delivered to the heathen and by them to the Papists, and from them to us.” 

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Two years later, in February 1610, Crashaw described “the Devil, Papists, and Players” as the “three great enemies.” Later the same year, a Royal Proclamation “for the due execution of all former laws against recusants” ushered in a new wave of persecution against Catholics. In the following year, the Puritan writer John Speed connected Shakespeare with the Jesuit Robert Parsons, describing them as “this Papist and his poet.” This, then, was the threatening and volatile backdrop to Shakespeare’s writing of The Tempest in late 1610 or 1611. 

As for the play itself, it has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous abuse by modern critics. In many productions and readings of The Tempest, Caliban is lionized as a victim in spite of his boast that he would rape Miranda repeatedly if he had the opportunity to do so. His desire to force himself upon the virgin daughter of Prospero is glossed over so that Caliban can be seen as the victim and Prospero the villain. Perhaps, as the daughter of the villain, Miranda would presumably have got what she deserved had the “persecuted” Caliban had his way with her. 

Such a perverse reading of the play is a consequence of the current manic race-obsession, which has rendered large sections of the population as mad as the Nazis. To critical race theorists, race is much more important than rape, and the racist much worse than the rapist. Indeed, if the rapist is seen as the victim of the racist, it is crucial to empower the rapist at the expense of his victim. This, at any rate, is the fate that has befallen poor Prospero and his hapless and innocent daughter.

Let’s look at how the critical race theorists misinterpret the play; then we’ll look at the play Shakespeare actually wrote and the intention he clearly had with respect to its meaning.

In our race-obsessed age, Prospero is caricatured and stereotyped as a white imperialist and Caliban as a native-born islander whom Prospero subjugates and treats as a slave. This racist stereotyping is then permitted to completely eclipse the whole plot and purpose of the play.

Let’s look at the play itself as distinct from the ideological distortions of it. 

Prospero is not an “imperialist” oppressor but has been shipwrecked on the island with his very young daughter, having been left for dead on the open sea by his political enemies. He is, therefore, an exile and a refugee. Caliban was born on the island. His mother, the witch Sycorax, arrived on the island when pregnant with Caliban, whose father was apparently Setebos, a demon. He is, therefore, not a non-white human being but a monstrous being of some sort or another. Nor is he an aboriginal islander. There are none. It was a truly deserted island until the arrival of the witch with Caliban in utero. Nor did Prospero treat Caliban badly. On the contrary, as he reminds Caliban, he had treated him 

…with humane care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell till thou didst seek to violate
The honor of my child.

Caliban does not deny the charge of attempted rape but boastfully claims that he would have violated the child repeatedly had he not been forcibly stopped from doing so:

O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done!
Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.

It is at this moment that Miranda exclaims that Caliban is an “abhorrèd slave,” which no doubt condemns her in the eyes of the neo-puritan race-obsessives as a racist who should therefore have no complaints when the “slave” rapes her in vengeance. It is a mark of the illiteracy of these postmodern puritans that they fail to see that the word “slave” refers to Caliban’s slavery to his lower nature, his inability to govern himself with virtue, his slavery to sin. It has nothing to do with chattel slavery. 

As for Prospero’s treatment of Caliban following the attempted rape, what else was he meant to do? Might he not even have been justified in killing the would-be rapist of his daughter as the only safe way of protecting her? Caliban, if anything, should be grateful that his life has been spared. Instead, he forms an unholy alliance with a couple of low-life drunks in a plot to kill Prospero, luring them into his murderous scheme with the promise that they would be free to rape Miranda once Prospero is dead. 

It really does beggar belief that Caliban is seen as the victim and not the villain. The slavery to lust of Caliban and the two miscreants with whom he makes the unholy alliance is contrasted with the chastity of the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand, whose purity is symbolized by the game of chess that they choose to play when they find themselves alone together. 

Over and above these aspects of the story, the play’s overarching theme is the restoration of justice and the reconciliation of adversaries, which is brought about by the use of Prospero’s powers, and those of his servant Ariel, which, combined, are meant to be understood allegorically as the power of the playwright to bring order out of chaos and concord from discord. This is the reason that Prospero’s arrival on stage, after the fall of the final curtain, is so powerful. In his heartfelt farewell and his request for prayers, he is transformed, as if by magic, into Shakespeare himself: 

And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free. 

Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-first in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

[Image: “Miranda – The Tempest” by John William Waterhouse]

  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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