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The Tempest | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does Shakespeare's The Tempest explore the tensions between language and reality?

In Act 2, Scene 1, of The Tempest, after Ariel puts all but Antonio and Sebastian to sleep, Sebastian is convinced by Antonio to kill Alonso, the king of Naples. Antonio convinces Sebastian to do so through a series of verbal gymnastics that reveal the fallibility of language. First Antonio gets Sebastian to admit that he has no hope that Ferdinand, the rightful heir to the throne of Naples, is dead, lost at sea, never to be resurrected. Of course this is not true; Ferdinand is alive and well on another part of the island. Next Antonio convinces Sebastian that a dead king and a sleeping king are one and the same, an argument so effective—however untrue—that Sebastian draws his sword. Here the power of language to obscure reality and then determine a different idea about reality from which people act is obvious. Antonio refers to this building of false realities through language as a kind of "flow," which he teaches to Sebastian. Once again Shakespeare illustrates why Gonzalo calls for a utopian-like commonwealth where man has not the ability or language to lie. Sebastian demonstrates that he is an apt pupil of Antonio's when, upon the other men's waking, he spins a lie about why his sword is drawn.

How does Shakespeare reveal Antonio's and Sebastian's characters in Act 2, Scene 1, of The Tempest, and how does it relate to Prospero?

King Alonso is overcome by grief over the presumed loss of his son Ferdinand. Yet his brother Sebastian and his friend Antonio mock his grief rather than comfort him. When Alonso fails to be encouraged by Gonzalo, Sebastian says, "He receives comfort like cold porridge." The pair's cruelty goes much further, however, when they suggest that "The fault's your own" that Ferdinand is lost. In their view it was Alonso's agreement to let his daughter marry the king of Algiers that led to this outcome. If they had not traveled across the sea to the wedding, they would never have had the shipwreck. The despicable men heap guilt on an already grieving man. In addition to blaming Alonso for his own misfortune, the true guile and motivations of Antonio are demonstrated for the audience. This demonstration helps the audience to better understand how Prospero could be pushed out of power by his brother. The level of evil Antonio reveals during his exchange with Sebastian is enabled by Prospero, who sends Ariel to put the other survivors to sleep so that this very conversation may happen. This engenders more sympathy for Prospero and elevates the nobility of his decision to forgive Antonio in the end. Finally Sebastian's ability to be swayed so easily by Antonio not only underscores Antonio's skill to guile but also suggests something about human nature: that man can be easily manipulated with the promise of power.

What does Antonio mean in Act 2, Scene 1, in Shakespeare's The Tempest when he says to Sebastian that "what's past is prologue"?

Antonio is setting the stage to suggest that Sebastian take over the kingdom from his brother Alonso by killing him. He has planted the idea that ruling has long been a secret hope of Sebastian's, and now he suggests that all that has happened in the past is just the beginning of the real "story" of their lives: "what to come/In yours and my discharge." He is casting a vision for what their true destiny will be. It is also important to consider that Antonio's own past reflects a similar pattern to their plot: one brother usurps the power of another. This is just what Antonio did to his own brother Prospero. In that way the "past" has become the template and the prologue for the same events to happen again.

How are ideas of patience and temperance explored in Shakespeare's The Tempest, and what is their significance?

Gonzalo's first words in the play, during the storm, are, "Nay, good, be patient." Just moments later Gonzalo suggests praying with King Alonso and Prince Ferdinand, but Sebastian says, "I am out of patience." This begins the exploration of virtues in The Tempest, which Shakespeare takes up again by alluding to temperance during a conversation between Adrian, Gonzalo, Antonio, and Sebastian in Act 2 when the shipwrecked nobles are marveling at the island. "It [The Island] must needs be of subtle, tender, and delicate temperance," Adrian says, and Antonio replies, "Temperance was a delicate wench." Temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues in Christianity and in ancient Greek literature. Shakespeare uses Antonio's and Sebastian's comments to foreshadow and then demonstrate they are villainous characters who mock or lack virtue. Notably in Act 1 Prospero mentions that Miranda has the "fortitude of heaven"; fortitude is also a cardinal virtue. At the end of the play Prospero's patience helps him restore his dukedom; and he chooses virtue over vengeance, telling Ariel, "Yet with nobler reason 'gainst my fury/Do I take part. The rare action is virtue than in vengeance." And when Alonso grieves over Ferdinand in Act 5 he says, "Irreparable is the loss, and patience/Says it is past her cure," Prospero chides him, "I'd rather think/You have not sought her help, of whose soft grace,/For the like loss, I have her sovereign aid./And rest myself content." Throughout the play Ariel demonstrates an eager, yet patient, spirit, while Caliban chooses the opposite of temperance by seeking revenge and murder. Also in his backstory he attempted to rape Miranda, showing sexual intemperance. Ariel is set free in the end, and Caliban is not. Miranda and Ferdinand demonstrate temperance and patience, and their reward is love and marriage. Ferdinand delivers insight into Shakespeare's exploration of virtue when he says, "There be some sports are painful, and their labor/Delight in them [sets] off; some kind of baseness/are nobly undergone; and most poor matters/Point to rich ends." This suggests that patience leads ultimately to restoration and abundance.

What can be inferred by Trinculo and Stephano's treatment of Caliban in Act 2, Scene 2, in Shakespeare's The Tempest?

Both Trinculo and Stephano assume that Caliban is some kind of monster and voice how they might make money off of him in other countries by exploiting him as some kind of freak. The men both mock him for his physical features, calling him many variations of a monster, such as a "delicate monster," "a shallow monster," "a most poor, credulous monster," "a most perfidious and drunken monster," "most scurvy monster," "an abominable monster," "a most ridiculous monster," "a howling monster." Yet despite their voiced disdain for Caliban, they treat him well, respect his knowledge of the island, and ultimately agree to plot against Prospero with him. In some ways this scenario parallels the plot devised by Antonio and Sebastian; though Trinculo and Stephano will not strike the audience as sinister characters, they are still willing to collude in a sinister plan when promised a bit of power, even if only to wield it over Caliban the poor monster. Their behavior suggests the possibility of power is a near-universal desire; only the colonized Caliban voluntarily seeks out a new servitude under Trinculo.

Why does Trinculo say "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows" in Act 2, Scene 2, in Shakespeare's The Tempest?

Trinculo has come upon the sleeping form of Caliban covered in a cloak. He cannot tell if the creature is "a man or a fish? Dead or alive?" After considering what he might be able to do with such a creature in England, Trinculo hears thunder and realizes his desperate predicament. He has just escaped from a shipwreck and a storm, and he wants to protect himself from further harm. It is in this context that he states that it is his miserable and desperate condition that makes him able to share the "bed" beneath Caliban's cloak with such a strange creature. From the beginning of The Tempest and throughout the play, the miserable circumstance of being shipwrecked propels many characters to make alliances or concoct schemes they would not ordinarily consider, and Trinculo's comment sums up perfectly the idea that everything on the island is completely different from normal reality.

Why is Prospero's studiousness in Shakespeare's The Tempest an important character trait?

In some ways Prospero's studiousness represents the "ivory tower" academic, who prefers to ponder life rather than experience it directly. Prospero ceded some power to his brother when he was the duke of Milan so that he could have more time to spend with his books, "being transported and rapt in secret studies." This was the first step he took away from the practical demands of human experience and into the domain of the intellectualization of human experience. Once banished to the island Prospero continues to pursue the life of the mind, reading books, so that he may harness the magic they hold. The mental distance from other people associated with this retreat, coupled with his physical exile on the island, leads Prospero to approach life as a thought experiment—not dissimilar from those of Montaigne and Hobbs—to be executed through magic on the island. Having completed his experiment, Prospero prepares to descend from his tower and live among men once again as the restored duke of Milan. The entire plot of The Tempest hinges on Prospero's journey away from reality to live in his mind and his return to society.

What is the significance of Miranda's name in Shakespeare's The Tempest?

Miranda, a name said to have been invented by Shakespeare for this character, comes from the root word mira, which means both to wonder or look at and to be wondered and looked at. This name suits Miranda given that she is the product of Prospero's thought experiment; a woman untouched by traditional, corrupting societal influences. She is also beautiful to the extent that Ferdinand falls in love with her upon first sight. Within the context of the play Miranda is valued as a model human worthy of wonder, as demonstrated by her obedience to her father, her purity of love for Ferdinand, and her insistence that Prospero treat the shipwrecked passengers with kindness. And Miranda frequently embodies the quality of wonder: she is the perfect, absorbed audience for her father's story; she is amazed by the beauty of Ferdinand; and when she sees the nobles at the end of the play she is overcome with wonder at their handsome appearance.

How does Shakespeare's The Tempest take up themes explored in Virgil's Aeneid?

The English Renaissance was enamored with works of antiquity, and the Aeneid was the gold standard. The incitement of a storm kicking the action off en medias res is a technique borrowed from Virgil's work, but the overlap is more complex than that. Virgil's work was preoccupied with major questions that surfaced again in the Renaissance, such as: What are the consequences of the "civilized" life? How does one deal with betrayal and loss? How does one come to terms with the tensions between choice or free will and fate? While Virgil's epic poem resolved these conflicts by asserting a strict moral code that underpins law and order, judgment and justice, The Tempest explores these concepts anew, and ultimately offers a different resolution in Prospero's closing monologue that centers on kindness and forgiveness. Perhaps in the face of the widespread violence and abuse of power showcased during Europe's colonial expansion (a mission defended at times as the work of "civilizing" the savage world), Shakespeare thought a revision to the failed solutions offered by antiquity was necessary.

How is Shakespeare's The Tempest shaped by elements of the Pastoral Romance genre?

Critic Edwin Greenlaw distilled the Pastoral Romance genre down to seven elemental parts. Five of them are noted here: a young girl whose parents are unknown and who is brought up by shepherds; the introduction of a lover for this girl; the introduction of complications preventing the love story from reaching fulfillment; a series of dramatic incidents; and the revelation that the young girl is of some social standing. It is clear Shakespeare intended The Tempest to adopt the model of the Pastoral Romance. But as usual he revises the model in ways that serve his themes. Miranda's lineage is known to the audience and to Prospero, but it is only slowly revealed to her; the complications and dramatic incidents that ensue have more to do with Prospero's gripes than with Ferdinand and Miranda's love; in fact Prospero teases the audience when he says in an aside, "I must [through my magic] uneasy make, lest too light winning/Make the prize light." This signifies Shakespeare's intentional efforts to adopt, and, perhaps to some extent, trivialize the genre.

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