Calm Seas and a Prosperous
Forgiveness and The Tempest
by Nadya Aisenberg
Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live.
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.
The Tempest, William Shakespeare
The creaking and crashing of shipwreck;
the drunken refrains of Trinculo and Stephano in the filthy bog; the courtly
music of the wedding masque; the unearthly music of the sprite Ariel; the
growled imprecations of Caliban; the elegaic measures of Alonzo grieving
his son Ferdinand—all are brought into final harmony in the richly polyphonic
music of The Tempest. Well, not quite.
This is our expectation though,
given that together with Pericles,
Cymbeline, and A Winter’s
Tale, The Tempest is labelled “romantic comedy,” “pastoral comedy,”
or “pastoral romance.” These four late plays do share a general movement
toward reconciliation, reparation, and the restoration of order, attributed
by some critics to Shakespeare’s own mature serenity, his removal from
the hurly-burly competition of London theatrical life to the green water-meadows
of Stratford. The drama’s impression of beneficence is enhanced by the
author’s device of neatly bracketing it with two voyages—the first, transpiring
before the opening curtain, eventuates in shipwreck, while the second,
projected beyond the final curtain, will return all the company to their
homeland. As Prospero assures those embarking:
I’ll deliver [tell] all
Nonetheless, as Steven Orgel argues, The
Tempest is more precisely understood as a “tragicomedy,” for in that
way we are made and kept aware of the potential lurking dangers which,
ultimately, the drama may or may not refuse. This reading supports my own
contention that, despite its fantastic trappings, the play keeps reality
as a touchstone—a judgment none of the usual designations, “romantic comedy,”
“romantic pastoral,” or “pastoral comedy” allows.
And promise you calm seas and fortuitous gales.
The first half of the term tragi-comedy
applies here to those tragic possibilities, particularly the extremity
of death, revenge offers The Tempest; the term’s second half alludes
to the drama’s actual comedic ending in marriage, homecoming, and amity.
the very embodiment, not just the agency of the good in this play, effects
these happy results. As the portmanteau word “tragicomedy” implies,
the drama proceeds by a tension between these two states, and in so doing,
resembles the admixture we experience offstage in “real” life. This is
why, for starters, I describe The Tempest, a drama of wonders and
supernatural effects, as realistic.
In so far as it ever meaningful and
not merely reductive to say a work of art is “about” something, The
Tempest has been interpreted as a play about colonialism (an interpretation
emphasized in our own time), about spectacle, about nature versus nurture,
about art or imagination or science (i.e., creativity). With the caveat
that all interpretation is culture-bound, I want to look at The Tempest
as a drama about revenge forsworn and forgiveness granted, a moral vision
transcending its own time and place, instructive for us.
Why, in fact, doesn’t Prospero take
revenge upon his enemies? Enact a tragedy? Generating the “tempest” of
the title, the magician causes his antagonists to fetch up on the very
island he rules. So he provides himself with opportunity, none better.
He has motive—his betrayers had set him to sea, together with his three-year-old
daughter, Miranda, to perish in a rotten boat. He has agency, the sprite
Ariel, bound on the threat of imprisonment to fulfill all his commands.
Moreover, the action of The Tempest is compressed into one afternoon,
and the classical unities of drama are observed; as Shakespeare’s shortest
play, it practically hurtles us along at a tempo we associate with the
spotlit intensity of tragedy.
Prospero’s refusal to exact retribution
is all the more surprising when we set it in its historical moment. Elizabethan
drama, its roots stretching back to classical Greek theater, witnessed
a flowering of “revenge tragedy”; on the boards were bloody creations such
as those by Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe (from both of whom Shakespeare
borrowed). Titles such as “The Avenger’s Tragedy” abounded. And of course,
we have Shakespeare’s own tragedies which employ the revenge plot—Othello,
for one. (The Ghost in the ur-Hamlet is said to have exclaimed “Revenge!”)
Then, too, Machiavelli’s The Prince, an analysis of power which
divorced “political virtù” from traditional and conservative notions
of nobility and honor, appeared at this time. Machiavelli’s definition
of “virtù” is pragmatic, expedient. Yet, though Prospero is the
absolute ruler of the island, with none to oppose his will, revenge is
not his course. The dénouement of the play is as much the consequence
of his refraining to take one course of action, the extremity of revenge,
as of following another, the temperateness of forgiveness.
The larger answer is that if the
great Shakespearean tragedies are explorations of evil,
is an exploration of the good—but good as it can exist in the real world.
Music provides the metaphor for the gulf between the absolute good, that
heavenly accord and consonance which Ariel, the insubstantial spirit expresses,
and our poor earthly music, product of mortal limitations. Time and time
again, this disparity is remarked as various characters hear Ariel’s ethereal
strains. For example, the following interchange heralds Ariel’s arrival
on the scene (Act III, sc. iii):
Alonzo: What harmony is this? . . .
“Marvellous” music is reserved for the one who can effect marvels, the
non-human being. And Caliban, Ariel’s nether pole, the designated “monster”
of the drama, demonstrates the Orphic truth that music sways even savage
natures, showing himself susceptible to its mysterious charms. He assures
his new acquaintances from the ship, Stephano and Trinculo:
Gonzalo: Marvellous sweet music!
Be not feared, the isle is full of noises,
Finally, hearing music from an unseen source Ferdinand, son of Alonzo and
heir to the throne of Naples, exclaims (in Act I, sc. ii):
Sound, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
This is no mortal business, nor no sound
This “unearthly” harmony which Ferdinand hears “above” him alludes to the
early theory, upheld by Newton and Kepler, that there is a “music of the
spheres,” a perfect harmony which expresses the divine order of the cosmos.
That the earth owes. I hear it now above me.
Shakespeare maintains these two worlds, perfect and imperfect, as separate.
Thus when at the play’s end Prospero describes the music of his magic wand
as “heavenly,” we know he must abandon it before he stands again as Duke
of Milan. And he does. He breaks his staff in two as he casts his magic
books into the sea. Art, religion, science, may attain a transient vision
of harmony, but The Tempest does not assay, via its magician, an
imposition of the ideal onto the real world. To the contrary. Precisely
because of its failure to permeate reality, the enchanted island on which
the plot unfolds remains an escape, a kind of exile, necessarily a sojourn
and not a home. To instate order and harmony to even a limited degree in
the real world to which the drama journeys, ethics must entertain
less idealistic goals. This is where forgiveness enters. As crimes, injustices,
oppression are ours, forgiveness must be our transformative instrument.
We do not possess a magic staff, and neither does Prospero by the conclusion
of The Tempest; human forgiveness is what the play requires to fill
the space between the spheres “on earth” and “the air above me,” to quote
So, Prospero must be convincingly human
in order for the play to explore the nature and parameters of human goodness
as we see it working through forgiveness. Accordingly, Shakespeare does
not make Prospero into a god though he possesses magical powers. Wizard,
artist, scientist—he is also cranky, distrait, forgetful, egotistical,
in other words, a man. . . . Or if god in some sense, perhaps one of the
more capricious pagan deities from Olympus!
No, Prospero isn’t a god, nor
a conventional hero, either. Though a ruler, and though Renaissance humanism
in no way precluded the glorification of the warrior-hero, Prospero possesses
no martial prowess as do Macbeth and Othello and Caesar. He never did,
and does not now prove himself upon his sword, but upon book and wand;
bravery is not wedded to revenge. In fact, bravery is cast within the terms
of moral growth. He is an artist, he has imagination, he can grow—and he
does. His victory is over himself. He who caused his enemies’ boat to founder
at sea, can, by the end of the play, without straining credulity, forgive
the other characters so they prosper—the play concludes with a prosperous
voyage. Most tellingly, it is only at the very last, when Prospero breaks
his magic staff and relinquishes his conjurative powers, when he becomes
most human, that is, that he forgives. The second follows causally upon
the first. Neither Prospero nor we require a superhuman aid to forgiveness.
In a veritable flood of forgiveness,
Prospero forgives Antonio, his treacherous brother who arrives on the island
still scheming against him; he forgives Alonzo, King of Naples, complicit
in this scheme; likewise, Alonzo’s brother Sebastian; he forgives the drunken
clowns Stephano and Trinculo who no sooner land than plot with Caliban
to become the island’s masters. In a final gesture, Prospero releases Ariel
from his service; leaves Caliban to reassume sovereignty over the island
originally his. A clean slate. As Gonzalo is to say at the play’s end,
“There’s nothing [left] to forgive.”
Prospero’s forgiveness demands
our scrutiny. This is not to suspect it, only to say it is not motivated
by altruism alone—another note of realism. Prospero makes his forgiveness
of Antonio, for instance, hinge directly upon the restoration of the dukedom
Antonio had stolen from him:
For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
In the space of a semicolon Prospero begins what will be the concluding
movement of the drama; he will return to public life, assume his proper
station and duties. Antonio, displacing Prospero and enthroning himself
in his brother’s stead, breached not only the fraternal bond but the political
order. Significantly, Prospero, though the injured one, does not wait upon
apology from his false brother. He has a realistic appraisal of his brother’s
mettle. Prospero excoriates Antonio in the very moment of pardon:
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault—all of them; and require
My dukedom of thee, which perforce, I know
Thou must restore.
Flesh and blood,
Interestingly, Prospero’s magnanimity toward Antonio—both admitting his
own fault and forgiving Antonio’s much more grievous injury—elicits no
response from his murderous brother. We hear no words, see no gesture of
repentance or remorse from him. Apology did not precede forgiveness, and
neither acknowledgment nor gratitude follow upon it. Perhaps, indeed, Antonio
lies beyond the transformative orbit of Prospero’s forgiveness, his silence
suggestive of Iago’s similar silence when accused.
You, brother mine, that [entertained] ambition,
Expelled remorse and nature. . .
. . . .
. . . . . .
. . . . . .
. . . I do forgive thee
Unnatural though thou art.—
To Alonzo, King of Naples, who
had colluded in Antonio’s conspiracy to kill Prospero, the magus likewise
extends forgiveness, in the full knowledge that
Prospero releases Alonzo from the temporary madness with which he had cursed
him, and reunites the King with his son Ferdinand, supposedly drowned in
the tempest. The unnatural brother and the unnatural king corroborate the
truth of Miranda’s observation that “good wombs have borne bad sons.”
Didst thou, Alonzo, use me and my daughter.
The Tempest interrogates
the very idea that “the good” is natural. Natural to whom, Shakespeare
asks. Who today, living in a most violent century, has not asked these
questions? Is the good cultivated or instinctual? Possibly lacking totally
in some? In his betrayal of his own best self, “noble” background and education,
Antonio may strike us as more bestial than Caliban, the symbol and veritable
image of “the natural,” of nature intemperate, whose appetite led to the
attempted rape of Miranda. Neither nurture nor nature, it seems, are guarantors
of the good, guardians of the temperate. Shakespeare leaves this question
of the vexing relation between “nature” and “the good” unanswered. The
ending of The Tempest, happy in the here and now, remains therefore
an uncertain weather forecast of the future.
Forgiving Antonio and Alonzo advances
many desirable ends. Prospero, as resumptive Duke of Milan, will not face
a hostile neighbor on the throne of Naples; further, reconciliation of
King and Duke enables Ferdinand, the King’s son, to marry Miranda, the
Duke’s daughter, a union unthinkable when Alonzo was Prospero’s foe. In
turn, marriage between their respective offspring will ensure proper succession
to the throne. In the limited sphere of succession, what has been “unnatural”
will be restored to the “natural order,” harmony will be ensured through
forgiveness. Recovery of Prospero’s dukedom, and Ferdinand’s eventual kingship—the
fruits of forgiveness—constitute at once moral reparation for past wrongs
and necessary statecraft. In the largest sense, the personal here is political,
because the protagonists belong to and operate within the world of power
which has broad public consequences. Practical ethics. If all this sounds
perilously close to Machiavelli, it isn’t. The union of Ferdinand and Miranda
which makes so much else possible, is the consummation of love at first
sight and a virtuous romance. Neither moral reparation nor virtuous romance
figure in political virtù.
Prospero’s declarations of forgiveness,
quoted above, are abrupt, authoritative, and inveigh heavily against his
betrayers. Forgiveness follows in the wake of a detailed itemization of
the plotters’ treachery. In fact, nowhere does The Tempest suggest
that forgetting is necessary to forgiving. Does Prospero’s forgiveness
arise, then, from religious tenets? No, Shakespeare does not invoke this
frame of reference. Indeed, the spiritual or transcendent dimension of
forgiveness seems curiously absent in these lines. We have only to contrast
his words with the haunted cry of Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyesvky’s The
Brothers Karamzov: “I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want
any more suffering.” But then Dostoyevsky’s novels are crucially and essentially
Christian in a way that Shakespeare’s dramas are not. Prospero doesn’t
worry about the entirety of the human race and its condition; nor does
he practice contrition himself.
If we have had to infer why Prospero
rejected revenge [tragedy], he states outright his reasons for choosing
forgiveness [comedy]. He summons two. The first explanation of his change
of heart (and I use the word “heart” advisedly) comes in his dialogue with
Ariel [Act V, sc. i.]. When Ariel reports that, witnessing the torments
Prospero inflicts upon his enemies, the sight would make his own affections
“tender” “were I human,” Prospero replies:
And mine shall [be].
So Ariel recalls Prospero to awareness of what his humanity, rather than
wizardry, consists. Compassion, which prompts Prospero’s first impulse
toward forgiveness, is rooted in feeling; Ariel has swayed him to be “moved.”
Compassion, like moral reparation and romance, is no guide to policy in
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their own kind . . . ?
Prospero’s second reason is reason
itself, which Ariel lacks as much as he does feeling. In a continuation
of the same speech (Act V. sc. i) to Ariel begun above, he adds:
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to
Reason is that particular human capacity Prospero, like Hamlet,
identifies as ennobling. Feeling and reason work together to forge a new
moral contract. He shows us in this final act of the play a glimpse of
himself as ruler-to-be, perhaps less arbitrary, less in love with his own
power, than the despot of the island. More human, perhaps more noble. Here’s
one example: if Prospero’s fault as Duke of Milan lay, as Antonio charges,
in neglecting the administration of his dukedom for his private pursuit
of necromancy—“Me, poor man, my library was dukedom enough”—then Antonio,
vengeful and ambitious though he be, has some reason to point a finger
of blame. This responsibility Prospero accepts.
Yet with my nobler reason, ’gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.
Though Prospero has created a
new clearing in which goodness may take root, what we don’t know is how
the fraternal relation will be played out when both brothers return to
Naples. The play will end between the present and the future, in the projected
interval of the return voyage to the real world. Can we be sanguine that
Antonio’s “ambitious nature” will remain content without his falsely appropriated
power? We embark with the rest of the company to a world of duties and
compromise, an outcome yet to be enacted, terms to be negotiated. Ambiguities
and irresolutions remain because we are incapable of a goodness wholly
restorative, predictable, and certain in its outcome.
Yet, despite these realistic reservations
about the future, and our dalliance in a fantasy which contains a sprite
and a slave, a magician, a fairytale island of Arcadian abundance, of banquets
appearing out of thin air, we, the audience, are not reluctant to set sail.
We mistrust this exile as an exile from the human condition, even before
Prospero deconstructs the fantasy in his famous, bittersweet speech (Act
IV, sc. i):
Our revels are now ended. These, our actors,
The young and naive Ferdinand, in the rapture of first love, may wish to
stay on the island forever, content with Miranda alone; Gonzalo, fantasizing
a reign as future sovereign of the island, may describe a new Golden Age:
(As I foretold you) were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, of which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
All things in common nature should produce
But we see each as a foolish dreamer in a pre-lapsarian dream. The island
may be bewitched, but is it ideal, perfect, harmonious?
Without sweat or endeavor . . .
. . . .
. . . . . .
. . . . . .
. . . .
. . . nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Haven’t we been shown the island’s
rightful ruler, Caliban, as a “monster,” hairy and with scales, not a “noble
savage,” but a creature hatched upon the hag and wicked witch Sycorax by
the devil, Setebos, to inherit this “eden”? This “eden” that in his final
speech, Prospero calls “bare”! More than a geographical description at
work here. If the island is verdant and temperate what can it signify to
have Prospero sum it up as “bare”? What’s missing in the state of nature?
If, on the other hand, Prospero thought to bring civilization to nature,
to cultivate its “barreness,” the island is but a graft, itself “unnatural.”
For hasn’t civilization, in the person of Prospero, corrupted nature with
stinking bogs and shrieking sounds, shipwreck and the infliction of bodily
pain? What does this augur for our civilized future upon the island? Can
nature survive civilization?
The nature of all such dreams and places
as those in The Tempest is not only illusory, “the baseless fabric
of this vision,” an “insubstantial pageant,” but also essentially anti-social
(as escape usually is). The island of wonders is itself like those curios
placed in special “wonder cabinets” beloved of the Renaissance. They were
spectacle, kept for viewing, strange and rare, set apart, as the unnamed
island is. Anti-social, too, is Prospero’ role there as sovereign. Before
the shipwreck strands its passengers upon his island, Prospero has no companions
but his daughter, a spirit, and a slave. The ruler has power, but no subjects;
his books are for his own pleasure and edification only; and in truth,
their wisdom has made him but a middling wise ruler. Rule was not his study.
Though he speaks ruefully of the delights of the ivory tower he is leaving
behind, his concept of service returns only when he prepares to depart
it. Forgiveness engenders relation. It is in anticipation of reentry into
the real world, the central motion of the drama, that issues of revenge
and forgiveness matter; hence, they are only toyed with until the last
two precipitous acts of the play.
Before this “sense of an ending,” what
happens to our perception of time? Thoughts of mortality have been postponed
while we dwelt on the mysterious island. In a curious way, as the island
is unnamed, out of space or context, so is it out of time. If to watch
tragedy is to watch a rehearsal of our own death, to watch tragicomedy
is to watch it postponed. Forgiveness bestows this gift upon us. But only
postponed, not vanquished. The drama we are watching, the realistic tragicomedy
that is The Tempest, can’t, like the fairy tale, promise “happily
ever after” and certainly not “forever.” Prospero, in his wise adulthood,
knows this. When speaking of his return to Milan, he remarks that then
“every third thought shall be my grave.” His poignant lines
We are such stuff
affects us because they pertain not just to Prospero and his fellow players
who will disappear from the stage at the play’s end, but to all of us—the
“we” of his speech, the larger company, who will disappear from this “insubstantial
pageant.” Prospero’s lyric speech is a momento mori, the equivalent
of Hamlet’s musing upon Yorick’s skull. Postponement ends; together with
Prospero we confront our common human condition. And, in the conclusion,
it is our frailty which initiates the compassion for each other from which
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Though forgiveness comes about
as The Tempest ends so that we, the spectators, can’t follow its
consequences over time, the characters, unlike Lear and Cordelia in their
tragedy, presumably still
have time and space to enact the outcome.
We are left with this sense of futurity, the great space which opens out
before us at the conclusion,
beneficent in its intentions, revenge
forsworn. As the curtain is about to descend, just as we are about to leave
the island behind, we understand it. The island was not a paradise on earth,
not an Eden, not forever; nevertheless it was a place of recovery. Not
only Prospero will become his own self, returned to Milan, a nobleman who
may now be noble, but in Gonzalo’s words,
. . . and all of us, ourselves,
Outside the life of the drama, forgiveness
generates its own social energy which draws us in. In the Epilogue, Prospero
beckons us to approach: “please you, come near.” The gap between actors
and viewers closes. Just as he did in the mortality speech,(“Our
little life is rounded with a sleep”), Prospero includes us, we are to
become players, sharing the act of forgiveness:
When no man was his own.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Who, the play proposes, does not need both to extend and receive forgiveness?
Prospero, describing his reduced strength as “most faint,” needs us; his
appeal lies within our human power to grant or withhold. While it is a
commonplace of Shakesperean drama to beseech, at the play’s end, forgiveness
from the audience for a flawed performance, Prospero’s Epilogue reaches
far beyond the ended revels, beyond performance. He reminds us in the two
last lines above, (and for the third time in a short space), of the power
of this collective “you” the we to whom he appeals. We too can be moved
to compassion and exercise our reason against fury. Accountability has
been thrust into the island’s world of wonder. This is where the play knew
it was going all along, even if it bemused us with phantasms into thinking
Let your indulgence set me free.
Neither character (there is no
tragic flaw from which all events proceed) nor plot (revenge) drives The
Tempest. Instead, we are entrusted in the Epilogue with Prospero’s
vision of a society in which tolerance and forgiveness provide the motive
energy; the words he uses are “release,” “help,” “good hands,” “gentle,”
and “mercy”; he calls for a “pardon” which “frees all faults.” As his did.
That pardon, his and ours, does not proceed from king or bishop but from
The vision of a new beginning
upon an old return is perhaps the most secure for the faithful Gonzalo.
But all have been forgiven; from the shipwreck with which the play
commenced we have moved to the promise of “calm seas and fortuitous gales,”
from disorder to order. After fantasy, confusion, misadventure, enmity,
madness, this is what forgiveness promises: reality, clarity, a true compass
course, amity, health, the becoming of one’s own self. This is the promise
of harmony sounded on the well-tempered clavier of The Tempest.
The contest between tragedy and comedy, like the revels, is now ended.
Copyright © 1999 by Nadya Aisenberg.
Back to beginning.