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The Tempest | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Shakespeare's The Tempest how does Gonzalo's utopian speech draw from and extend concepts introduced in Montaigne's essay "Des Cannibales"?

Montaigne's essay espouses conditions under which he envisions a New World should be established. Among these conditions are that the world must be absent of "treason, treachery, disloyalty, tyrannie, [and] crueltie." Gonzalo's speech in Act 2, Scene 1, echoes these premises when he says that in his commonwealth, nature would not produce "treason, felony,/Sword, pike, knife, [or] gun." Here Shakespeare's character Gonzalo offers Montaigne's vision of the New World and extends the restrictions beyond treasonous acts to include the banishment of all weapons by which wars are waged. Another aspect of utopian society that Montaigne introduces is the notion that man need not seek to conquer other lands because Nature will "in such [plenteous abundance] furnish them with all necessary things." Gonzalo yearns for the same utopian conditions when he says that "Nature should bring forth/Of it owne kinde, all foyzon, all abundance/To feed my innocent people." Both Gonzalo and Montaigne entertain the notion that a less-civilized society where man lived closer to his "natural" condition would offer a more harmonious existence.

In Act 1, Scene 1, in The Tempest how does Shakespeare convey the terror of the storm?

Shakespeare begins to convey the terror of the storm through the stage directions, which explain that there is "a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard." If performed for an audience, the terror would be created by loud sounds. He then moves the action directly into the dialogue of people who are in the middle of the storm. The third and fourth lines of the play reveal there is a problem and the ship is at risk of running "ourselves aground. Bestir, bestir!" The sense of panic increases as the boatswain continues to shout directions with more urgency. Sounds come from below deck where the passengers are praying and crying out in fear, finally shouting, "We split, we split, we split!" Without giving any actual narrative account of the storm, the playwright is able to use dialogue to present how terrifying the storm is to everyone on deck.

What character traits does Miranda possess in Shakespeare's The Tempest?

In Act 1, Scene 2, Miranda's response to the shipwreck she witnesses is one of immediate compassion. She pleads with her father: "If by your art, my dearest father, you have/Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them." Her tender nature has "suffered/With those that I saw suffer!" She claims that their cries "did know/Against my very heart!" Her father has to comfort her by telling her that "There's no harm done" and to "Wipe thou thine eyes." Miranda's tenderness toward others is seen again later in this scene when she sees Ferdinand and loves him from the beginning. The audience also learns from Miranda's response that she knows about her father's powers but she does not always support his use of them. Miranda also displays a strong sense of social propriety and educated learning. It is significant that her earliest and only memory of life before being banished to the island is that four or five women servants once tended to her needs. She speaks formally throughout the play, and, even though she has grown up on a deserted island, she adheres to the upper-class social norms of the time of the play in her interactions with Prospero, Ferdinand, and Caliban. Caliban's betrayal—he attempted to rape her—is met directly, bravely, and with inner strength. "Therefore wast thou/Reservedly confined into this rock,/Who hadst deserved more than a prison," Miranda tells Caliban, implying he deserves a harsher punishment for his actions. Miranda shows resourcefulness in her interactions with Ferdinand, too. She questions Prospero's unfair treatment of Ferdinand, and she offers to carry logs when Ferdinand is tired.

In Act 1, Scene 2, of Shakespeare's The Tempest, why does Prospero take off the "magic garment," and what does it represent?

Before he tells his daughter the details about their history before coming to the island, Prospero says, "Tis time/I should inform thee farther. Lend thy hand/And pluck my magic garment from me." In removing his magic cloak Prospero goes back to being his "regular" self. The magical cloak represents his magical powers, all that he has learned over time through his books and his ability to exercise control in the world. The magical robe suggests the power is something outside of himself that he "puts on." It is not integral to his own nature. Perhaps Prospero is more fully human when he is not using his magic.

Does Prospero evolve as a character in Shakespeare's The Tempest?

By the end of the play Prospero gives up his need for revenge and his magic. He forgives the nobles, claims Caliban as his own, and sets Ariel free. These acts, taken together, indicate his character has evolved. However, he fails to elicit repentance from his usurping brother, Antonio, and there is not a syllable of dialogue uttered between them, implying that Prospero's character has room to grow when the curtain falls. After he "forgives" the spell-charmed Antonio, to the woken Antonio he says, "For you, most wicked sir, who to call brother/Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive." Prospero might not reveal Antonio's plot against King Alonso, but he explicitly refuses to call Antonio his brother. This suggests he has not truly forgiven Antonio; he just says he does. This is reminiscent of when Miranda tells Ferdinand in Act 1, Scene 1, that Prospero's "of a better nature, sir/Than he appears by speech." Shakespeare is well known for arguing both sides of a point within a play. It is significant then that at the end of the play he shows a reversal in an important quality of Prospero's character: with Antonio, Prospero is better in his speech than in his nature.

In Shakespeare's The Tempest what is the significance of Caliban's name?

Caliban is an anagram for the English spelling of the word canibal (now cannibal). The name draws a parallel between Caliban, the brute, and Montaigne's natural man in "Des Cannibales." This parallel surfaces a complex exploration of the character, who, in Act 1, Scene 2, says, "You taught me language; and my profit on 't/Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/For learning me your language!" Through the acquisition of language as part of the process of "becoming civilized," or moving from barbaric man to moral man, Caliban has acquired a new way to behave barbarically by cursing. On the other hand Caliban, through language, has the ability to advocate for himself and develop schemes aimed toward freeing him from bondage of the civilizer and colonizer Prospero. In this way Shakespeare negotiates the tension between the positive and negative consequences of language.

How is Prospero's relationship with Ariel different from his relationship with Caliban in The Tempest?

Although Prospero "rules" both Ariel and Caliban, the nature of their relationships is quite different. The only time Prospero shows irritation with Ariel is when the spirit asks for his early release. Otherwise Prospero treats Ariel with affection and gratitude, praising him for his good work. "Thou has done well, fine Ariel," he says after Ariel has brought Ferdinand and Miranda together. On the other hand Prospero never has a kind word for Caliban and treats him with threats and disrespect at all times. For example, when he commands Caliban to do something, he says, "If thou neglect'st or dost unwillingly/What I command, I'll rack thee with old cramps,/Fill all they bones with aches, make thee roar/That beasts shall tremble at they din." The audience might question why Prospero is so differently inclined toward the two creatures. Perhaps it is, in part, based on the response of the creatures to him. Ariel was rescued from enslavement by Prospero and promised future freedom, so he has gratitude and hope ahead of him. Caliban, however, was already free and then enslaved by Prospero. He has nothing to look forward to except continued servitude to a master who may feel threatened by him. In addition as the "airy" servant who seems more spiritual than physical, Ariel is tasked with aiding Prospero with his magic, his intellectual work, while Caliban, who is physically monstrous and portrayed as low and gross, hauls wood and does other manual labor.

In The Tempest how does Shakespeare portray Miranda as she relates to her father and to her future husband, and how might feminists receive this portrayal?

Feminist critiques of the play take issue with Shakespeare's treatment of Miranda's character for a few reasons. First she is under the full control of her father, Prospero. He forbids her to speak her own name, which, in some views, denies her of the ability to create herself independently of her father's image of her. Nonetheless Miranda does speak her name, asserting herself as an autonomous actor in her own story; however, her autonomy and the possibility of a deep, complex personhood is undermined by the fact that her sole purpose in the drama is to marry Ferdinand. Rather than delivering her from patriarchal control, this trespass of speaking her name delivers her from her father's dominion into Ferdinand's. Additionally Miranda's marriage to Ferdinand can be viewed as a convenient plot device that unites two kingdoms in harmony in the final act. However, when it comes to the portrayal of the two lovers Ferdinand and Miranda mirror each other—even though Ferdinand comes to "own" Miranda through their engagement at the end of the play. Ferdinand does not appear during the storm in the first scene, so Shakespeare has set him aside, implying he is not like the other nobles. In fact Ferdinand shows little interest in power or politics throughout the play. He does assert himself as the next king of Naples, and he does say, "I am the best of them that speak this speech," referring to his shared language with Miranda. But Ferdinand is mostly in a state of bewilderment and awe throughout the play. He is confused by Ariel in Act 1, awed by Miranda in Act 3, and amazed again by the masque in Act 4. He finds love for Prospero easily, seeing a "wondered" and "wise" father despite having been Prospero's prisoner. Ferdinand's desire to live permanently on the island, even though he is in line to be a king, shows just how alike and humble he and Miranda are.

In Act 1, Scene 2, of Shakespeare's The Tempest, what does the audience learn about Prospero's original treatment of Caliban, and why is it significant?

The first interaction between Caliban and Prospero in the action of the play is very negative, with Caliban cursing Prospero and his daughter and Prospero calling him "most lying slave." However, within Caliban's complaints against Prospero he reveals something of their original relationship. Prospero did in fact take the island from Caliban, but at first he "made much" of Caliban. He gave him berries and taught him language, "how/To name the bigger light and how the less,/That burn by day and night." In this way Prospero was initially a kind colonizer, seeking only to condition Caliban to reflect his image of a proper man; however, when Caliban fails to evolve as the result of Prospero's tutelage and attempts to rape Miranda, Prospero imprisons him as a slave. This evolution of their relationship can point to a few conclusions. First, no matter what the influence of the colonizer Prospero, Caliban's natural inclinations cannot be altered. Second, Caliban's disclosure of Prospero's initial, more generous treatment is an important clue that helps the audience sympathize with Prospero and understand why he holds Caliban in such a state. This may be Shakespeare's attempt to justify colonialism as a practice, although Caliban's explanation of his unfair treatment is also compelling and suggests that Prospero's behavior is not as virtuous as the European believes it to be.

In The Tempest how does Shakespeare examine or comment on dramatic conventions within the play?

In The Tempest Shakespeare regularly interrupts the action of the plot with the characters Ariel and Prospero. For example, when Sebastian and Antonio are plotting to kill Alonso in Act 2, Ariel interrupts the action to tell the audience that his master can foresee with his art—made possible by his magic—Sebastian and Antonio's murder plot. This interruption not only delays the action of the plot, it also violates conventions of drama mandating that conflicts such as murder plots must be seen through to their resolution. The murder plot is rendered impotent because the artist, Prospero, is not only aware of the scheme but is also in control of how the plot unfolds. The interruption also interferes with the viewer's suspension of disbelief, and in doing so shines a light on the role of audience expectation in the drama.

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