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The Tempest | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


Does Shakespeare ultimately come out for or against colonialism in The Tempest?

The Tempest is known as Shakespeare's response to colonialism and the prevalent ethos of his time—that Europeans had a moral responsibility to conquer indigenous peoples and force European cultures on them. Shakespeare likely read Montaigne's essay "Des Cannibales," which questions the moral implications of colonization and the presumptuous ideas Europeans had about what makes one culture better than another. Montaigne generally argued that men ought to live as Nature intends, which is a well-explored idea in The Tempest. Also the fact that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest at all shows that he had some issue with colonialism. Gonzalo's well-known speech, detailing an ideal society nothing like English society but more like the cultures the Europeans were conquering, is at the heart of The Tempest. Another pointing finger is how Shakespeare presents Stephano and Trinculo to be foolish exploiters of Caliban, who represents the "savages" the Europeans were trying to "save." However, the way Shakespeare portrays Caliban complicates his argument against colonialism. The nobles, portrayed as murderous plotters, are the villains of the play, and Caliban's plot line mimics theirs exactly. At the end of the play Prospero does not apologize or restore Caliban to his natural state, which would make the argument clear. Instead Caliban realizes he must submit to Prospero. This suggests that if a noble is educated and wise, like Prospero, then colonialism is acceptable. And then there is the thread in the play that suggests trying to educate Caliban is useless. Alone on stage—giving the idea emphasis—Prospero says of Caliban, "A devil, a born devil, on whose nature/Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,/Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost." Caliban's best qualities come from his connection to and harmony with nature. He is the only other character besides Prospero who can communicate with the spirits on the island, and that speaks volumes. Ultimately Shakespeare implies that the best outcome for the vanquished indigenous peoples is to be enslaved, which is not a good outcome at all; and it is better to leave natives in harmony with nature than corrupt them with "civilized" English society.

How does Shakespeare's The Tempest reflect Renaissance thinking about the elements of the world and man's relation to them?

Renaissance philosophers believed that the macrocosm of the universe was made up of four base elements—earth, water, air, fire—and that man, as a microcosm, was also constituted of these four things (along with the four humors—choler, melancholy, blood, and phlegm—unique to mankind). The state of chaos in the external world was thought to be the consequence of an imbalance among the four elements. Given these considerations it is reasonable to see The Tempest as an allegory for the chaos of the times. By using Ariel to execute his magic Prospero first creates chaos with the storm: there are "wild waters in roar" and the "wind [is] bursting," while fire acts through the lightning of the storm. The earth, of course, is the stage for all this elemental drama and the force into which the storm crashes the boat. Through the tempest Prospero creates an imbalance among the elements, yielding a state of chaos, and then, by the power of magic, harnesses the four elements and restores order in his favor. In addition Ariel, the "airy" spirit who aids Prospero in his magic, represents the possibilities of the human spirit and intellect. The monstrous Caliban, on the contrary, is represented as being gross and earthly, and his responsibilities involve taking care of bodily needs such as shelter and warmth.

In Shakespeare's The Tempest how does Prospero use his position of power to serve his personal ends?

Prospero, having gained the power of magic through devoted reading of his books, is able to harness the spirits found in nature. This ability, vital to his and Miranda's survival, positions him as a master of the island, where he is free to manipulate the elements—wind, water, lightning, and fire. By enlisting Ariel in his service Prospero creates the storm that wrecks Antonio's ship on his island so that he can set to seeking revenge for his exile. Prospero's position of power also allows him to manipulate both the indigenous inhabitants of the island and those he shipwrecked to acquire even more power by restoring himself as the duke of Milan, with a vested interest in Naples through Miranda's marriage to Ferdinand. In fact Prospero uses all of his power and ability for personal gain and survival. It is important to note this marks a change from the Prospero who was deposed from his dukedom 12 years before. As the duke of Milan Prospero studied magic while ignoring his kingdom and seems to have been powerless to save himself from exile. In the interim period he has learned how to use his study of magic for practical ends.

What is the purpose of Ariel's music in Act 3, Scene 2, in Shakespeare's The Tempest?

Ariel has already entered this scene invisibly and is creating conflict among the three men through the use of Trinculo's voice. When Stephano begins to sing a song, he sings the wrong tune. Suddenly the right tune comes out of nowhere (from the invisible Ariel). Stephano and Trinculo are terrified and believe it is an evil spirit that will harm them. Trinculo cries out, "O, forgive me my sins!" and Stephano "Mercy upon us!" Caliban tells them not to be afraid because the island is full of many noises that are not harmful. Convinced, the men decide that they want to follow the invisible musician wherever it leads. Ariel's music, therefore, asserts control over the men by first frightening them and then intriguing them. Again Prospero is controlling what happens without being in the scene.

In Shakespeare's The Tempest how does the characterization of Caliban in relation to that of Ariel support the themes of magic and of power and exploitation?

Through Caliban's and Ariel's servitude to Prospero, Shakespeare explores ideas relating to the themes of magic and power and exploitation. While both Caliban and Ariel are in Prospero's bondage, they are treated differently by their master and characterized differently by the playwright. Caliban is identified with the elements of earth and fire in Act 1, Scene 2, when Prospero spits the words "He does make our fire,/Fetch in our wood ... What ho, slave! Caliban!/Thou earth, thou." Ariel, on the other hand, is described as a "water-nymph" and an "airy spirit." Caliban has a real physical presence while Ariel lacks substance; he is likened to Prospero's thoughts. In this way the two characters are drawn as foils to each other, and, possibly, are two aspects of Prospero's personality. In Act 5 Prospero claims the "demi-devil," Caliban, is "This thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine." Notice that Shakespeare breaks the line after the word I, implying that it belongs there as part of a single verse: "This thing of darkness I." Further while both are in Prospero's bondage, Caliban is treated with brutality and seems to have no chance of gaining freedom, whereas Ariel's freedom is near. Prospero can only exploit Ariel's magic and derive power from the spirit for so long, but Caliban, like the natives Europeans exploited on the islands they colonized, can be owned—at least in the European perception. Additionally Ariel serves Prospero loyally whereas Caliban plots to usurp Prospero. One interpretation of these differences is that Shakespeare is suggesting there is merit and reward in faithful service to a ruler, and a person with a baser nature needs a wise master.

In Shakespeare's The Tempest how does Prospero's character reflect certain ideals of the humanist movement?

Prospero in many ways exhibits certain ideals of humanism. Critic Brian McClinton claims that "Prospero is himself a kind of incarnation of the best of what the renaissance had extended to mankind" including "compassion, generosity, friendship [and] wisdom." Prospero demonstrates these qualities through speech, when he says, "I do forgive thee" to Sebastian and Antonio for their plot to murder him. He demonstrates his wisdom by not seeking revenge against his brother Antonio and the king of Naples but rather pardoning them. Finally he demonstrates a high regard for friendship through his loving relationship with Gonzalo, and to some degree through his freeing of Ariel, a servant who he treats in friendly regard. Prospero is also what Renaissance humanists would have called a "natural philosopher"—a scientist who has learned to manipulate the world around him through rigorous study.

How does Shakespeare use asides in The Tempest?

Most often in The Tempest the asides serve to move the plot forward by giving necessary exposition to the audience. Prospero's asides are frequent and consistent throughout the play, and they usually reveal how powerful he is because of his magical ability. His asides are most concentrated during the scenes with Miranda and Ferdinand. For example, just after they meet in Act 1 Prospero says, "It goes on, I see,/As my soul prompts it." Until the lovers agree to marry Prospero repeatedly reminds the audience that he is orchestrating their romance. Because Prospero uses magic to make characters sleepy (Miranda in Act 1) or himself to be invisible (Act 3, Scene 3), Prospero often speaks his thoughts directly to the audience. He's not exactly a narrator, but he functions as a traditional narrator in several places in The Tempest. The side conversations between Antonio and Sebastian serve several purposes. In Act 2, Scene 1, when they make fun of Gonzalo's long-winded speech and bet on whether he or Adrian will speak first, Shakespeare uses asides solely for comedic effect. However, other asides between the two reveal their characters. Later in the scene when they plot Alonso's murder, and in Act 3, Scene 3, when they discuss the murder plot, the secretive and softly spoken asides show how deceptive and cruel these characters are. For example, after the king's group has hunted tirelessly for Ferdinand, the king is overcome with exhaustion and grief. Yet at that very moment Antonio speaks secretly to Sebastian to say, "I am right glad that he's out of hope./Do no, for one repulse, forgo the purpose/That you resolved t' effect." These greedy and ambitious men are ready to take advantage of a grief-stricken man when he is at his lowest point.

What role does the banquet play in Act 3, Scene 3, in Shakespeare's The Tempest?

The banquet of food and drink magically appears just when the men are at their lowest point. They are hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and grief stricken after searching for Ferdinand, who they believe has drowned. The banquet would solve many of their immediate needs, yet they aren't allowed to eat it. Instead it brings them to a point of complete vulnerability, so that Ariel can more effectively reveal it has been Prospero controlling their destiny and how he plans to hold them accountable for their guilt in his exile. The fact that the banquet is "magic" also reveals that the justice system under which they are being judged is different from the "justice" back in "civilized" Italy. Here on the island different powers are at work that can disarm any mere mortal.

Why does Ariel call himself and the other spirits "ministers of Fate" in Act 3, Scene 3, in Shakespeare's The Tempest?

At this point Ariel, in the form of a Harpy, has brought music and food before the men and then made it disappear before their hungry eyes. He then explains that they are "three men of sin, whom Destiny ... hath caused to belch up you, and on this island." Along with the other spirits Ariel is a minister of Fate to help bring about an inevitable justice for the sins against Prospero 12 years before. In classical mythology the ideas of destiny and fate suggest that some outcomes are predetermined and cannot be avoided. In this case Ariel is an agent of this destiny. It is through his powers that the men will be held accountable for their sins.

In Shakespeare's The Tempest how does Prospero's plot to make Alonso believe Ferdinand is dead facilitate Alonso's redemption?

Prospero uses his magic to lead Alonso, king of Naples, to believe that his son Ferdinand is dead. It is Alonso's grief that ultimately leads him to show contrition for his evil deeds against Prospero. Prospero, as the orchestrator of the plot, wants to give Alonso the chance to repent so he can be forgiven. This Catholic path to forgiveness would have pleased King James, for whom The Tempest was first performed. Additionally Alonso's display of grief elicits compassion not only from Prospero but also from the audience, who is then more likely to pardon Alonso for his trespasses against the drama's hero. Alonso conspired in the plot to overthrow Prospero, but his repentance differentiates him from Antonio and Sebastian, who continue to behave with treachery throughout and fail to admit any wrongdoing even at the end of the play.

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