The Tempest: Shakespeare’s Rebellion

In many ways, Prospero represents a playwright. He orchestrates the events of the play to the point where he is able to control the weather and the emotions of the characters. It seems that Prospero has complete power over the play and its happenings, yet he is consistently drawn back into the conventions of a comedic play. The Tempest brings to light that a playwright that has no power over the work he presents. As current media as well as Shakespeare’s dramas will show, a play is required to appeal the culture that the audience participates in in order to be successful. It shows us that no art that comes from an artist in a genuine way is presented to an audience. Artists are ruled not by kings or witches, but by the audience they present to and the conventions they demand. Their work is controlled by the people who will consume it. The Tempest is an artist’s rebellion against a heavily structured society.

Frank Kermode discusses the ways The Tempest deals with the conflict between art and nature. He claims that Prospero’s constant manipulation and creation is in conflict with Caliban’s representation of nature. According to Kermode, art (represented by Prospero) comes from civilisation while nature resides in lack of civilisation. Not only does Kermode’s argument commit his to a strictly western view of “civilization,but Prospero and his art face a bigger obstacle than Caliban and his embodiment of nature. Prospero’s conflict with Caliban is more contextual than anything else. The primary conflict is with his brother who comes from “civilization.” At the end of the play, the even deeper conflict is revealed. He faces the audience which it is reveals he is seeking to please in the epilogue. While Kermode’s analysis of nature vs. art is important, the primary conflict at hand is civilization versus itself.

Anti-theatricalists of the Elizabethan era founded their arguments against the theater in the belief of a easily influenced audience; however, the artist’s experience reveal that it is the audience and the culture they participate in that has control over the play. Only a brief portion of Henry Crosse’s Virtues Commonwealth (1601) discusses the sinfulness of the theater. Like many similar texts of the time he discusses the ways the theater encourages lust, pride, etc. He also discusses the ways that the theater encourages the audience to question political authority, thus inciting public chaos. Underlying this premise is the general assumption of a weak audience. Crosse states, “We ought to always suspect the rude multitude, for that their weak judgements can hardly discern between vice and virtue, and their affections so dull, that they commonly embrace the evil instead of the good (192).” To Crosse the audience is vulnerable and at the complete mercy of whatever evils playwrights choose to include in their work. Yet, the pressures that the artists faced to please their audience shows that the audience in fact had power over the playwright. Anthony Mundy was a playwright until one of his plays received a poor reception and was hissed off the stage. After this incident he became a fierce antitheatricalism. Even though Munday outwardly supported the argument for an impressionable audience, his journey into the sphere of antitheatricalism illustrates the reality of a demanding audience as portrayed by Shakespeare.  Munday was unable to meet the demands of the audience and therefore ruined his career and threw himself into a school of thought that deprived him of the artistic pleasures of the theater all together. Rather than the audience falling prey to an evil playwright, the playwright has fallen to a viscous, creativity sucking audience.

In the Epilogue of the play, the great power that controls Prospero is revealed. It is not a God-figure or a king, but the audience facing him. This takes the comedic ending of marriage and breaks free with a revelation: the problem at hand has not been solved. The new perspective we are given reveals that Prospero’s actions were not in search of his own benefit or his own expression, but rather to achieve freedom from the audience which has held power over him. In the same way that Puritans claim that the evils of the Theatre mar the name of God, The Tempest shows the ways in which the Theatre mars the creativity of the artist behind each play. In the epilogue of The Tempest, Prospero treats the the audience according to philosophies contrary to Crosse’s. He begs for freedom, thus acknowledging the power that the audience’s preferences and culture put pressure of the playwright:

Since I have my Dukedom got

And pardoned the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell,

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hand. (Epilogue. 6-9)

Once it has been revealed that Prospero is seeking freedom and expects his return to dukedom to be reason enough. The motivation to return to his rightful position of power was less in order to have power within his fictional society, and more in order to gain freedom from the audience. Being a successful playwright requires an audience to be entertained by their work. Just as Prospero needs to seek freedom from the audience in order to return to Milan, the playwright he represents needs to seek freedom from the demands of that same audience. Prospero has found that communing with others, especially in the spirit of artistic appreciation, has ruined the genuine quality of his actions. He did not seek freedom to fulfill a legacy, protect his daughter, but rather to serve as entertainment for a powerful entity surrounding him.

In watching the masque, Prospero’s interruption includes a sense of discomfort with the theatre as a whole. A moment of metatheatrical transparency occurs when Prospero brings the masque put on by Ariel to a halt. The speech clarifies that the masque is not reality, but then shifts into a discussion of the reality of the self:

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vexed.

Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled” (IV.i.173-176).

In this moment, Prospero becomes aware of what little impact he has on his own schemes and in a larger sense, as a person in general. The masque he commanded was littered with not only the exact material that antitheatricalism pointed to as idolatry, but influence from the spirits he had power over. The playwright is not so much responsible for the “evil” that supposedly turn a weak audience towards evil, than a victim of a vocal culturally motivated audience that begs for such evils to enchant them. Each person’s actions and artstry is so watered down by the people they surround themselves with the cut. “We are but dream dust” because, in reality, we could not exist without both the people we have power over and those who have power over us.

The Tempest takes a fundamental belief of anti-theatricalists, that the audience is weak in the face of a sinful piece of art, and proves otherwise; however, in doing so it also points of the limited creativity of a public stage. We like to think that art takes whatever form the Artist wants their work to take, but through the ages, society’s value of expression is overstated.  An artist is forced to choose between creative freedom or pleasing the artist that supports them. The reality is that there is no reality beyond the ways that those around us influence us. No art is genuine because there will always be another voice in artist’s ears: the voice of those who surround them.


Works Cited

Crosse, Henry. “ Virtue’s Commonwealth.” Shakespeare’s Theatre. Edited by Tanya Pollard. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp. 188-197.

Kermode, Frank. “From Shakespeare: The Final Plays.The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan, 2nd ed., Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2009.

Munday, Anthony. A Second and Third Blast of Retreat.” Shakespeare’s Theatre. Edited by Tanya Pollard. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp. 84-114.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 2nd ed. Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan. Bedford/St. Martins. 2008.