It makes sense to me to see in this Shakespeare’s sense of his own art–both what it can achieve and what it cannot. The theatre–that magical world of poetry, song, illusion, pleasing and threatening apparitions–can, like Prospero’s magic, educate us into a better sense of ourselves, into a final acceptance of the world, a state in which we forgive and forget in the interests of the greater human community. The theatre, that is, can reconcile us to the joys of the human community so that we do not destroy our families in a search for righting past evils in a spirit of personal revenge or as crude assertions of our own egos.
It can, in a very real sense, help us fully to understand the central Christian commitment to charity, to loving our neighbour as ourselves. The magic here brings about a total reconciliation of all levels of society from sophisticated rulers to semi-human brutes, momentarily holding off Machiavellian deceit, drunken foolishness, and animalistic rebellion–each person, no matter how he has lived, has a place in the magic circle at the end. And no one is asking any awkward questions.
In the same way, Prospero’s world can awaken the young imagination to the wonder and joy of the human community, can transform our perceptions of human beings into a “brave new world,” full of beauty, promise, and love, and excite our imaginations with the prospects of living life in the midst of our fellow human beings. In the world of the Tempest, we have moved beyond tragedy. In this world Hamlet and Ophelia are happily united, the Ghost comes to life again and is reconciled with his brother, the old antagonisms are healed. Lear learns to lessen his demands on the world and to accept it with all its threats to his own ego.
This is not a sentimental vision, an easily achieved resolution. It takes time–in this case sixteen years–and a measure of faith in the human community that one is prepared to hold onto in the face of urgent personal demands. This play seems to be saying that theatrical art, the magic of Prospero, can achieve what is not possible in the world of Milan, where everyone must always be on guard, because it’s a Machiavellian world ruled by the realities of power and injury and there is no Ariel to serve us with the power of illusions.
On this reading of the play, what would we make of Caliban, who stands in opposition to Prospero’s power and who is its most immediate victim? This reading would probably stress (as many productions have always done) Caliban’s dangerous, anarchic violence. He is an earth-animal (some intermediate form perhaps) who represents a clear and present danger, because he is not capable of being educated out of the state he was born into. Prospero’s “civilizing” arts keep him in control, though with difficulty.
Caliban is at times quite sensitive to the emotional qualities of Prospero’s magic, especially the wonderful music he hears, but is too much in the grip of his raw instincts for rape and rebellion to respond with anything other than anger to his condition. Caliban might well be considered in some sense a natural slave (as D. H. Lawrence pointed out) because his idea of freedom from Prospero seems to involve becoming the slave of someone else, someone who will kill Prospero. So Caliban throws in his lot with two drunken Europeans, not having the wit to see them for what they are.
Caliban is thus not so much interested in freedom as he is in rebellion; his violence is natural to him and is not an outgrowth of the way he is treated. Hence, Prospero’s control of him through his magic is not only justified but necessary. Does Caliban undergo any sort of significant change at the ending of the play? There’s a suggestion that he has learned something from the mistakes he has made, and his final comment (“I’ll be wise hereafter,/ And seek for grace”) may be a cryptic acknowledgment of some restraint.
But he doesn’t go with the Europeans and remains on his island. Caliban’s future life has always sparked interest among certain writers, for there is a tradition of sequels to the Tempest in which Caliban is the central character (notably Browning’s long dramatic monologue “Caliban on Setebos”). For all the potentially warm reconciliations at the end of the play, however, it is not without its potentially sobering ironies. And there is a good deal of discussion of just how unequivocal the celebration is at the end. For Prospero is no sentimentalist.
He recognizes the silence of Sebastian and Antonio at the end for what it is, an indication that they have not changed, that they are going to return to Naples and Milan the same people as left it, political double dealers, ambitious and potentially murderous power seekers, just as Stephano and Trinculo are going back as stupid as when they left. Prospero’s theatrical magic has brought them together, has forced them to see themselves, but it has had no effect on some characters (unless the staging of the end of the play conveys in non-verbal ways that the two noble would-be killers are as contrite as Alonso appears to be).
If we see the irony here as present but not totally corrosive, then by bringing us such a reconciliation, theatre (Prospero’s experiment in the play and The Tempest itself) can help to maintain our best hopes for a meaningful life, faith that in time we will work things out, that, in spite of evil, the end of our story will manifest a pattern of moral significance. Locked into the contingencies of history in our political and business lives, where competition and deceitful self-interest hold sway, we may easily lose this faith.
The theatre is, in a sense, a place which can restore us. But that restoration is provisional and fragile, more of a hope than a robust certainty. That’s why in acknowledging the most famous single line quotation from the play, one needs also to examines the four words which immediately follow: Miranda, overwhelmed with the wonder and delight of seeing so many finely dressed civilized Europeans cries out, “O brave new world/ That has such people in’t! ” to which the more sober minded and mature Prospero comments only, “‘Tis new to thee.
Those four words of Prospero are wonderfully pregnant. In them he acknowledges his earned awareness into the nature of human beings, into the complexity of human life, which does not always (or usually) answer to Miranda’s joyous affirmation. But he is not about to deliver Miranda another sermon, for he knows that the sense of joyful and optimistic wonder which she, as a young woman, is carrying back to Italy is the world’s best hope. It may be, as he well knows, naive, for Miranda has, as yet, no sense of the evils that lurk back in the political world of the city.
She sees only the attractive exterior of her human surroundings with no sense yet of the potential deceptions within. But she is as well equipped as he can make her, and it is not up to him to sour her youthful enthusiasm with a more complex and less affirming mature reflection. That is something she will have to discover in her turn. One might argue that if Prospero’s experiment is designed to make everyone better, then it’s a failure in large part.
And it may be, as I mentioned above, that Prospero recognizes that fact. It is not unusual to stage this play in such a way that the conventional comic structure of the ending is seriously undercut by the sense of sadness in Prospero, who is returning to Milan to die. I’m not pressing this interpretation. All I want to call attention to at this point is that the ending of this play may not be the unalloyed triumph of the comic spirit that we are tempted to see there.
Prospero’s sober awareness of what the silence of Sebastian and Antonio means qualifies our sense of joy by indicating that the eternal problem of human evil has not been solved or dismissed. One major interpretative decision any director of the play has to make concerns this ending. Just how evident and serious should those ironies be: non-existent, a light shadow under the communal joy, or a heavy reminder of what is in store back in Italy? The strength of this sobering irony at the end will determine the particular tone which governs the return.
In some productions, the irony is hardly noticeable and the celebration is thus dominant. In others, the irony is sufficiently strong to introduce an ominous note into the whole proceedings, even to the point of suggesting that Prospero’s experiment has, in a sense, failed. Yes, Miranda and Ferdinand will be happily married, but the political world they are returning to (where Prospero will soon die) is unchanged and will remain much the same.