The Tempest

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 397-448).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Strachey’s 1610 “True Reportory” | “True Reportory” in MDZ | Jourdain’s 1610 “Bermudas” | Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals”

Shakespeare’s Romance Mode

The Shakespeare plays to which since the nineteenth century we have given the name “romance” (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen) were not so called by Shakespeare or his contemporaries. In the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623, as put together by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, The Tempest is listed first among the comedies, and The Winter’s Tale is listed last in the same category. Cymbeline is included among the tragedies, and neither Pericles nor The Two Noble Kinsmen is included at all. (Pericles was included in the Shakespeare Third Folio of 1663-64, and Kinsmen appeared in the Beaumont & Fletcher Second Folio of 1679.) The seeming solidity of the romance play genre, then, is a product of modern critical study, and in truth, Shakespeare is difficult to confine within such terms. He was a master of what one of his characters, Polonius in Hamlet, calls the “poem unlimited” (2.2), or rather the play unlimited.

Still, there are some things we can reasonably say about this modern, constructed genre within the Shakespearean canon. Northrop Frye writes with precision about the defining characteristics of the tragic vision. What underlies this vision, he posits, “is being in time, the sense of the one-directional quality of life, where everything happens once and for all, where every act brings unavoidable and fateful consequences, and where all experience vanishes, not simply into the past, but into nothingness, annihilation. In the tragic vision death is … the essential event that gives shape and form to life” (3).[1] By contrast, in Frye’s schema, the romance pattern is cyclical, not linear. In romance plays, death does not define life; instead, romance characters get a chance to recover what they have lost and to redeem themselves and the order within which they function. In Shakespeare’s romance plays (and comedies), the social order borrows from the stability and perpetuity of the great seasonal cycles that literary cultures have invoked for thousands of years.

The romance mode, as we have come to understand it, differs from the tragic mode of action and perception, but it isn’t identical with comedy, either. While both comedy and romance depend partly on the renovation of a corrupt social order, sometimes by temporary removal into a green world of nature where magic can happen and where restorations and reunions are possible, romance is to be distinguished from tragedy and comedy in its strongly Janus-like quality, its ambivalence about the positive endings it supplies. In a romance play, the characters don’t get “do-overs” in the purest sense; they get second chances in altered circumstances, following temporal gaps or delays. Events and persons may come full circle, but there will be loss and sorrow along the way, and the situation can’t be repaired in a way that altogether removes the loss or sorrow, or annuls the time a person has spent on selfish or otherwise misguided obsessions and pursuits.

It’s worth suggesting, too, that Shakespeare’s romance plays offer the most realistic or naturalistic orientation towards life—not an offer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in the lighter Shakespearean comedies; but a kind of experiential wisdom through recurrence that—if we live long enough—allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and loss that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous second chances we may receive. Towards the end of Homer’s Iliad, Apollo offers an insight that we might apply to romance as well as tragedy: “a steadfast spirit have the Fates given unto men” (24.49).[2]

Act 1, Scene 1 (397-99, A tempest replete with St. Elmo’s Fire drives King Alonso and the other passengers to abandon ship.)

The first thing we see is that authority is the matter in question. That is often the case in Shakespeare’s dramas, especially in the history plays and tragedies but also even in some comedies, such as Measure for Measure. As the sea rages and his ship sinks, the Boatswain is not interested in paying homage to King Alonso of Naples at the bidding of decorum-minded counselor Gonzalo; he has more important things to do. To the imperious order, “remember whom thou hast aboard” (398, 1.1.17), the Boatswain replies only, “if you can command these elements to silence and / work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more. / Use your authority!” (398, 1.1.19-21) The storm, therefore, functions as a great leveling influence.

Shakespeare is not about to ratify anarchy, but the basis of the social order is about to come under scrutiny. This order has for the time being been thrown into productive disarray by Prospero’s tempest. Gonzalo takes comfort in the traditional belief that the cheeky Boatswain “hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect / gallows” (398, 1.1.26-27). In a terrible storm, even such tenuous intimations of fate offer something to hold on to. Gonzalo’s closing words in this scene testify not only to his humility and patience in the face of death but also to the terror that must have filled sea-travelers before the age of modern transportation: “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an / acre of barren ground: long heath, brown furze, anything. / The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death” (399, 1.1.59-61).

Act 1, Scene 2 (399-412, Miranda learns who she is, and who Prospero was: his story of secret studies, exile and miraculous survival; Prospero explains that his enemies are now on the island due to fortune and his own active pursuit of the opportunity fortune has given him; Prospero’s threats against and use for Ariel, Caliban, and Ferdinand; Ferdinand meets the “wonder” Miranda and both show patience with imperious Prospero.)

In this scene, we see that there is need for a movement from ignorance to knowledge on the part of Miranda, Prospero’s fifteen-year-old daughter. On this island since she was three years old, she does not know that her father was once Duke of Milan. Miranda possesses a power of her own, one grounded in empathy. She feels the suffering of those who have been shipwrecked, and begs Prospero to keep them safe: “If by your art … you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (399, 1.2.1-2). Prospero reassures her that no harm has been done and that the shipwreck was arranged for her sake (399, 1.2.15-16).

No more avoiding the issue: the adolescent Miranda, Prospero knows, is entitled to discover her true identity. She must learn about her former place in the social order and prepare for her future role. Prospero begins to inform her by way of posing questions, the first of which elicits some remembrance of childhood attendants in Milan and the second of which, the beautifully phrased, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?” (400, 1.2.49-50), draws no further recollections. Prospero must supply Miranda with some key information: namely, that a dozen years previously he was Duke of Milan, only to be exiled by his brother Antonio and Alonso, King of Naples. In Prospero’s proud declaration, “Thy father was the Duke of Milan and / A prince of power” (400, 1.2.54-55), we can already hear the stirrings of a fine revenge tragedy: the exiled duke (and current island wizard) will surely demand his political authority back from the men who stole it from him.

As Prospero goes on to explain to Miranda, he is not without blame for his own exile. This duke devoted himself to the liberal arts, which for a busy prince might be a problem even if by that phrase we refer only to the traditional trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, music, geometry). But there is some hint that Prospero went beyond those licit subjects: “rapt in secret studies,” he confesses, he neglected the needs of his dukedom, becoming like a “stranger” to those needs (401, 1.2.77; see 75-78). Perhaps by “secret” Prospero only means private and personal rather than public-directed[3], but given what we will later find out about his magical powers (and simply from the fact that at the point of exile back in Milan, Gonzalo furnished him with the books he would later use to instantiate those magical powers), “secret” might plausibly be said to bear another, less traditional, meaning.

It makes sense to refer along with Harold Bloom[4] and other critics to the admonitory career of Simon Magus as told in Acts 8:9-24. Simon, a renowned magician in Samaria, is rebuked sternly by the Apostle Peter when he seeks to buy the apostolic power of instilling the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. Coveting magical powers is a risky business for mere mortals—transgression and condemnation are always just around the corner. Prospero was stripped of civil power and exiled largely for pursuing learning that, at some point, may have gone beyond the standard Renaissance liberal arts.[5]

In any event, Prospero explains to Miranda that his beloved “secret” studies and consequent alienation from public responsibility led him to transfer control of daily operations to his brother Antonio. Clearly, governance was not Prospero’s highest priority. It may not have been a priority at all. The upshot of this transferal was, says Prospero, that Antonio learned the ropes of governing and began to consider himself the rightful duke (402, 1.2.102-05). Antonio is a Machiavellian of the bad sort. Possessed of a newly awakened “evil nature” (401, 1.2.93) and misled by Prospero’s trust and by all the power he now exercised, he came to believe in his own authority-steeped words, his “story,” so to speak. What happened to Antonio in Milan sounds almost like a species of intoxication, a drunkenness that led him to take his own and others’ grandiose words and images for truth.

Even so, Antonio’s career of usurpation bespeaks a certain political realism. Shakespeare consistently emphasizes that a good ruler must be shrewd, active, decisive, and, when possible, magnanimous. In consequence, wherever we find a self-absorbed, irresponsible poet-king like Richard II, we are sure to find him pushed out of the way by a Henry Bolingbroke, just as surely as the brilliant but wild Mark Antony meets his match in Octavius, the future Augustus Caesar. At base, Prospero wanted to lead the life contemplative or vita contemplativa to the neglect of the active life, or vita activa.[6] He sought knowledge for personal and private reasons, and grew indifferent to the charitable exercise of power. The results not only for Prospero but for Milan were dire, if predictable: Antonio’s corrupt usurpation made Milan a tributary of the scheming King Alonso of Naples.

Prospero rounds off his lecture to Miranda by reassuring her that far from being a burden to him, she was a great comfort during the perilous exile, and has become all his care. There is a civil imperative in his encapsulation of the education he has given his daughter: “here / Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit / Than other princes can, that have more time / For vainer hours, and tutors not so careful” (403, 1.2.171-74).

We also find that for all his charms and incantations, Prospero is not all-powerful beyond the island. He tells Miranda, whose mind quickly turns towards the reason for the tempest she has seen, that an accident or fortune has brought his enemies within his power. Once this seemingly providential event occurs, he begins to operate on his own under an “auspicious star” (403-04, 1.2.181-84). As always, “There is a tide in the affairs of men” (Norton Tragedies 333, 4.3.219), as Brutus tells Cassius in Julius Caesar, and failing to run with it brings only frustration and ruin. Prospero must act now or lose his chance forever. When he has imparted what he considers sufficient information to Miranda, he casts a spell to end her questioning: “Thou art inclined to sleep. ‘Tis a good dullness, / And give it way. I know thou can’st not choose” (404, 1.2.185-86).

His lecture for Miranda’s benefit concluded, Prospero summons Ariel for a progress report on the tempest’s human effects. Ariel dutifully provides his report, taking considerable pride in his loving attention to detail. He speaks not so much of a plain sea-storm, but instead of creating fantastical atmospheric effects that drove the passengers and sailors half-mad with fright. “St. Elmo’s fire,” as our Norton editors point out on pg. 404, pretty much covers Ariel’s performance. We find out, too, that King Alonso’s son Ferdinand was the first man to jump ship, crying out “Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here!” (404, 1.2.214-15) Ferdinand, says Ariel, has been placed in a corner of the island, while the mariners are all asleep aboard the main ship, which waits undamaged in the harbor. The rest of the fleet’s ships have sailed with heavy hearts towards Naples. (Later, we will learn that Alonso’s party and Stefano and Trinculo have been isolated into logical groups as well.) In sum, Ariel has arranged matters well, with no harm done. (See 404-05, 1.2.217-37).

With all storm details precisely reported, Ariel chafes to gain his freedom, saying, “Let me remember thee what thou hast promised, / Which is not yet performed me” (405, 1.2.243-44). Prospero testily reminds Ariel that he had been imprisoned for his reluctance to serve the powerful witch Sycorax from Algiers, who died and left him trapped and moaning in a pine tree (405-06, 1.2.258-93). Prospero has made an oral contract with Ariel to free him from human control at the end of a certain time, and the old duke reminds him that the time of liberation is near. There’s just a bit more work to do, he says, and his promise to Ariel is, “after two days / I will discharge thee” (406, 1.2.298-99). It’s easy to see why Ariel wants his freedom: he seems to represent imagination or the finer and more sensitive of nature’s powers, so he longs to run free. But if we care to impose a Renaissance-humanist-style reading, the play is in part about how humanity can and must maintain control over the forces within itself (the fantasy or imagination, strong emotions, etc.) and beyond itself (material nature).[7]

In any case, before offering Ariel a solid promise of discharge, Prospero threatens him in a way that suggests potential tyranny. If the spirit does not obey, Prospero thunders, he will punish him severely: “I will rend an oak / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howled away twelve winters” (406, 1.2.294-96). In other words, Prospero will treat him exactly as the witch Sycorax did. Obviously, this is not a democratic island. Ariel is much better (and much better off) than Caliban (Sycorax’s son and therefore the natural heir of this island kingdom), but both feel the power and strong displeasure of Prospero. It is mainly due to this treatment of Ariel and Caliban that, at least since early in the twentieth century, critics and artists have so often given The Tempest a “colonialist” inflection that questions Prospero’s authority to treat the island’s inhabitants as he does, and takes that treatment of them as an instance of the misconduct of oppressive historical interlopers.[8]

Indeed, and by way of introduction to Caliban since we will soon encounter him in Act 1, Scene 2, Shakespeare’s was a great age of exploration, and European countries were busily colonizing and exploiting the New World. The quest motif is very strong in romance generally, and a sense of adventure, magic, wonder, and strangeness pervades the entire genre. Exploration is itself matter for exploration, which in part explains why many critics writing about The Tempest have seen Ariel and Caliban’s circumstances in terms of colonial discourse and practice. This isn’t to say that the play itself comes down in favor of Caliban’s perspective, but there’s little doubt that this romance play catches some of the enthusiasm in the air of Elizabethan-Jacobean England for exploration, and just as little doubt that Shakespeare’s representation of Caliban can plausibly be taken partly as a thoughtful consideration of how “natives” might process the approach of European cultures, with their imperious claims of superiority and their demands for permanent submission. With the firm establishment of cultural studies and colonial/postcolonial studies, these readings will continue to be a force in the criticism on The Tempest.

When Prospero is nearly done giving orders and promises to Ariel, we are treated to our first encounter with Caliban, and he does not disappoint. At his hostile best, he speaks spitefully in response to Prospero’s demand to fetch wood: “There’s wood enough within!” (407, 1.2.314) he rasps, which earns him threats of lesser torture from Prospero, including pinching by spirits in the form of hedgehogs (called “urchins” in line 326). Defiantly, Caliban insists that the island belongs to him: “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me” (407, 1.2.331-32), and he testifies to his gratitude for the affection, food, and language given to him by Prospero and Miranda: “And then I loved thee / And showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle…” (407, 1.2.336-37). But now, he says, he is a prisoner, an exile in his own land, and he curses himself for believing in their goodness. This, then, is Caliban’s narrative about the coming of these two Europeans to his native island.

There are two “native encounter” narratives at work here, one in which Caliban graciously welcomes Prospero and Miranda, and one in which he foully betrays them when they try to pass along to him their ways and language. We soon hear Prospero and Miranda’s counternarrative, and it isn’t pretty. The old duke, who seems to associate Caliban with the devil or with unregenerate man, upbraids him with the epithets “lying slave” and “Filth” (408, 1.2.344, 346), and between him and Miranda, the story is that Caliban was at first invited to share their quarters and was treated with “humane care” (408, 1.2.346), right up to the point where Caliban attempted to rape Miranda—an attempt that Caliban admits—and only then was he shut up in an open-air prison to keep him from repeating this outrage. Miranda’s address to Caliban is furious and condemnatory: she calls him an “Abhorrèd slave” (408, 1.2.350), and seems particularly incensed that her gift of language to what she considered a childish intellect did so little good. Her pedagogical efforts, she suggests, came to naught because of the pupil’s inherent temperamental inferiority: “But thy vile race, / Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures / Could not abide to be with…” (408, 1.2.357-59).

Caliban’s retort to this stinging reproach is magnificent: “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!” (408, 1.2.362-64) It’s reasonable to suggest that Prospero and his daughter are unfair to Caliban—to say that he is “capable of all ill,” as Miranda does (408, 1.2.352), is to say something of him that is true of humanity in general: everyone is susceptible to all sorts of impulses, be they good or bad. Caliban is not simply “malice” (408, 1.2.366), as Prospero calls him in morality-play fashion. All in all, this native islander has resources within himself that his European captors do not recognize, and this failure will later put Prospero at some risk.

Even so, for now the bitter argument between masters and servant ends with Caliban’s abject submission. He is terrified of the pain that he knows—and that Prospero harshly reminds him presently—can always be inflicted upon him at the magician’s merest whim: “I must obey,” says Caliban in an aside, “His art is of such power / It would control my damn’s god Setebos / And make a vassal of him” (408, 1.2.371-73). To Caliban, deep down, Prospero seems all but omnipotent. In The Prince, Machiavelli insists that a prince should rule so as to be respected and even feared, but not hated.[9] The exchange we have just covered suggests that here on the island Shakespeare has conjured for us, that is not the relationship that exists between ruler and ruled. Caliban, it’s plain to see, loathes Prospero, and he feels contempt for Miranda, too.

Once Prospero has finished scolding Caliban, it’s time to bring Ferdinand into the picture. The young prince is enchanted by the music of Ariel and drawn on by it. According to Marjorie Garber, Ariel’s first bit of song, “Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands …” (408, 1.2.374-75), can be read as encapsulating the action of the entire play, in part from Ferdinand’s perspective: he comes ashore and joins hands with Miranda, thereby quelling the chaos of the storm; then, the spirits work to facilitate the play’s decorous conclusion.[10] If we read the song that way, we will get the strongest possible sense of how firmly in control Ariel and his fellow sprites are when it comes to executing Prospero’s master plan. The music, we might add, comes to Ferdinand at a supremely vulnerable moment, a moment in which, he says, he was “Sitting on a bank, / Weeping again the King my father’s wreck” (409, 1.2.388-89).

Ariel’s next effort is among the most haunting of Shakespeare’s songs, beginning with “Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made…” (409, 1.2.395-96). This song is certainly not an accurate description of King Alonso of Naples at the time of its singing: although Ferdinand doesn’t know it yet, and won’t until the end of the play, Alonso isn’t drowned, and even if he were lying thirty feet (five fathoms) underwater, he wouldn’t yet be transformed in the fantastical and complete manner implied by the song’s lyrics: “Those are pearls that were his eyes” (409, 1.2.397), and so forth. Ferdinand doesn’t know what to make of it, other than that it is a memorial to his supposedly dead father and is “no mortal business” (409, 1.2.405).

What should we make of it, then? Perhaps the aim of the song is to transform the image of the king in his son’s imagination so strongly that he begins to understand the need to let him go—a point that Ferdinand soon comes round to since he starts describing himself as the new King of Naples. So in part, the song may distance Ferdinand from his father’s death, perhaps because the trials and transformation he is to undergo on the island leave him little time to grieve for a royal father lost. In a sense, Ferdinand, too, is about to undergo a “sea-change / Into something rich and strange” (409, 1.2.400-01): when his elders actually die, he is going to become a king. But in the simplest, plot-driven sense, Ariel’s aim is probably to draw Ferdinand away from the shore and towards his fateful meeting with Miranda.

Ferdinand’s central question to Miranda when he meets her is whether she is human, and, if we read “maid” for its sexual connotation, a virgin: “My prime request, / … is—O you wonder!— / If you be maid or no?” (410, 1.2.424-26). That is a question with institutional significance: Ferdinand wants to make her his queen. As for the term “wonder,” the prince unwittingly lights upon the etymological significance of Miranda’s name, which in its Latin passive periphrastic form miranda est (from the verb miror, wonder at) can be translated “she who must be wondered at or marveled at.”

Prospero, while inwardly delighted, knows that the prize must not be won too easily and that the young man has not yet earned the right to reenter the social order and partly succeed him in his daughter’s affections. So he will test Ferdinand, even appearing to threaten him by accusing him of usurpation, something obviously of concern to Prospero since he has been the victim of that particular offense at the hands of a pair of intriguers. Aside from stealing the King of Naples’s title, blusters Prospero to Ferdinand, “Thou … / … hast put thyself / Upon this island as a spy to win it / From me, the lord on’t” (410, 1.2.452-55). The prince draws his sword against Prospero, though ineffectually, in despite of the old man’s magic (411, 1.2.464), and realizes that violence is not the way to get out of this fix. In fact, his attitude takes a turn as he observes that all his present losses and concerns “are but light to me, / Might I but through my prison once a day / Behold this maid” (411, 1.2.488-90). This quick adjustment shows patience, self-restraint, and nobility of character.

As for Miranda, she is as taken with Ferdinand as he is with her, so much so that it’s hard not to be reminded by this scene of Christopher Marlowe’s famous line from Hero and Leander, “Whoever loved, that loved not at first sight?” At first, she is nearly certain that Ferdinand is no mortal but “a spirit” (409, 1.2.410). Like a good Renaissance Neoplatonist, she is sure that such a handsome prince could not possibly mean anyone harm: “There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple” (411, 1.2.456). In Ferdinand’s case, that seems true enough—he is a fine young man—but if Miranda is to become a proper Neapolitan queen when the time comes, she must learn that the good and the beautiful don’t always coincide. That she shows promise is obvious from her remark to Ferdinand just before he is ordered to follow along after Prospero: “Be of comfort; / My father’s of a better nature, sir, / Than he appears by speech” (412, 1.2.495-97). She has already learned that her father is not facilely reducible to the man he seems to be, and that his mercurial moods are not so easy to scan.

Act 2, Scene 1 (412-20, Gonzalo tries to console King Alonso and then entertains Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian with his naïve utopia; Antonio suborns Sebastian to murder the sleeping King Alonso and usurp his Neapolitan crown, but Ariel foils the attempt and the party goes off in search of Ferdinand.)

Ariel has worked his magic so that King Alonso and his company are together on the island: his brother Sebastian, Prospero’s brother Antonio, the Neapolitan counselor Gonzalo, and two Neapolitan lords named Adrian and Francisco. Gonzalo begins the second act by advising Alonso not to be swallowed up by grief; we must “weigh / Our sorrow with our comfort,” he tells the disconsolate king (412, 2.1.8-9). This may be good advice, but it is also a painfully abstract and dry piece of philosophy when spoken to a freshly grieving man. We may remember Leonato’s wise putdown of Stoicism in Much Ado about Nothing that “there was never yet philosopher / That could endure the toothache patiently” (Norton Comedies 578, 5.1.435-36). But Gonzalo is actually more of an optimist than a Stoic: he notices how green the island is, and claims to know that it has “everything advantageous to life” (413, 2.1.48). Such observations provide Antonio, Sebastian, and Adrian matter for their sardonic jests, but all the same, Gonzalo is quite observant—he has noticed something odd about their garments: how is it, he asks, that they are not soaked through but are instead “as fresh as when / we put them on first in Africa …” (413, 2.1.65-66) for Claribel’s wedding?

King Alonso not only must swipe away Gonzalo’s kindly but ineffectual attempts at consolation, he must deal with Francisco’s claim that Ferdinand may have survived and then, in quick succession, with Sebastian’s snappish criticism that Ferdinand’s supposed demise is Alonso’s own fault for contriving a wedding so far from Naples. Alonso is a guilty man, but one may well feel sorry for him as he despairs over the loss of his son. He wonders to the absent Ferdinand, “what strange fish / Hath made his meal on thee?” (414, 2.1.107-08) Gonzalo’s utopian musings follow the king’s expressions of despair and the other men’s silly word-wrangling. These musings amount to yet a second attempt to improve the king’s mood. What Gonzalo serves up is a slightly comical, pre-tech communist fantasy: a place wherein there would be no commerce, no magistrates, and above all, “No occupation, all men idle, all; / And women too—but innocent and pure; / No sovereignty—” (415, 2.1.149-51; see 142-51, 154-59, and 416, 2.1.162-63). Gonzalo would undo the punishments stemming from original sin: no labor but everything brought forth by generous Mother Nature, and no menacing authority figures to deal with. Sebastian is right to point out the irony that Gonzalo still “would be king” of his imaginary utopian isle (415, 2.1.151).

This vision, which, the Norton editors point out, derives from descriptions of native life by Montaigne in his essay “Of Cannibals,”[11] is pleasant to contemplate, but also fundamentally flawed—by Christian lights, how would fallen humankind thrive and keep the peace by sitting around doing nothing all day?[12] In any case, Gonzalo’s vision scarcely equals Prospero’s magic and foresight as the island’s governor. Gonzalo is too ready to live within the confines of his natural surroundings rather than transforming them into something more civil, so it seems that this little group of stranded Milanese and Neapolitans doesn’t have all the answers to questions about maintaining civil society. Gonzalo is surrounded by people such as Sebastian and Antonio, who do not appreciate his wisdom. Wisdom appears to be separated from rank at the moment, whereas both are required to keep firm order.

When old Gonzalo and King Alonso fall fast asleep, the talk between Antonio and Sebastian turns serious and treasonous. Antonio, who himself usurped Prospero’s dukedom, declares to Sebastian, brother of King Alonso, “My strong imagination sees a crown / Dropping upon thy head” (417, 2.1.201-02). Sebastian doesn’t follow, so Antonio spells it out for him: both of them believe Ferdinand is drowned, and Claribel is queen of far-flung Tunis, so she’s in no position to inherit Naples. These realizations lead to Antonio’s stage-Machiavel conclusion regarding the innocent sleepers they are supposed to be protecting, “Say this were death / That now hath seized them: why, they were no worse / Than now they are” (418, 2.1.253-55). Once others at court realize what’s happened, says Antonio, they’ll quickly accommodate the new order of things. Antonio openly invites Sebastian to follow his example as usurper of Milan, and the gambit works: Sebastian declares, “As thou gott’st Milan, / I’ll come by Naples” (419, 2.1.284-85). So we have passed from Gonzalo’s unworkable but harmless utopia to a potentially lethal political intrigue by the wicked brothers of two respective rulers. Antonio is certainly a moral imbecile, but his characterization of just how fast a legitimate political order can be taken down and replaced with a far less appealing one is chilling, and on the mark.

Antonio, who says to Sebastian of the recent events including their supposed shipwreck, “what’s past is prologue” (418, 2.1.246), sees only the operation of random chance in the coming-on of the storm. He does not know that Prospero has used Ariel to generate the tempest. As always, the category of nature is not to be taken simply in Shakespeare. We are not dealing with an ordinary natural storm; this is a thing of nature brought on by human and superhuman magic. The storm is even associated with providence since Prospero believes he was steered during his own perilous sea-voyage by the divine will. Antonio mistakenly sees Sebastian triumphing over friends and potential subjects as passive men just waiting to take orders,[13] but this evil scheme is foiled by Ariel, who warns Gonzalo to “Shake off slumber and beware” (419, 2.1.297). With Gonzalo and King Alonso now awake, talk of conspiracy is silenced for the moment, and everyone in Alonso’s group sets out to look for Ferdinand.

Act 2, Scene 2 (420-423, Caliban’s fear of Prospero’s spirit-ministers gives way to exuberant worship of Stefano as the prospective new lord of the island: a parodic usurpation to match the more serious plot of Antonio and Sebastian in the previous scene.)

The scene opens with Caliban, alone, describing his reaction to the torments Prospero’s spirit-agents visit upon him because of his misbehavior: “For every trifle are they set upon me …” (420, 2.2.8), and the torments include apes that grimace and bite, snakes that twine themselves around him and hiss, and hedgehogs that block his way forward with their painful spines. When Caliban meets up with Stefano and Trinculo, we will get a chance to see how he imagines the island’s potential new order, but for now we are left with his abject fear of punishment at Prospero’s hands: “I’ll fall flat. / Perchance he will not mind me” (420, 2.2.16-17).

The jester Trinculo and the butler Stefano will develop their own ideas about paradise soon enough, but at first, Trinculo is frightened at the sound of the thunder he hears and amazed at the sight of the “strange fish” (420, 2.2.26) Caliban. Trinculo muses in the manner of Hamlet’s gravedigger about the peculiarities of the English, and in particular their love of exotic displays: “any strange beast there makes a man” (420, 2.2.29-30), meaning both “makes a man rich” and “might be taken for a man.” There might be some money in this so-called monster, thinks Trinculo. But for now, he chooses to hide from the terrors of the storm under the “monster’s” cloak. Not long afterwards, in comes Stefano singing a bawdy sailor’s tune most unlike the wonderful things we have heard from Ariel. He hears Caliban cry out, and seeing the strangely composed doubling of Caliban and Trinculo, turns his mind to a showman’s profit: “If I can recover him and keep him tame and get to / Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor…” (421, 2.2.64-65). What follows is an attempt to ply Caliban with liquor and a strange, drawn-out recognition scene between Stefano and Trinculo, who slowly emerges from combination with Caliban and is perceivable as simply himself.

Stefano’s gift of alcohol turns Caliban into an ardent worshiper: “That’s a brave god, and bears celestial liquor. / I will kneel to him” (422, 2.2.108-09). Already a willing subject, Caliban promises to uncover for his new masters “every fertile inch o’th’ island” along with the best of many things the place has to offer (423, 2.2.139ff). Stefano is not slow to see the potential in this encounter with such a knowledgeable native guide: “the King and all our company else being drowned, we will inherit here,” thinks His Royal Highness the onetime butler. (423, 2.2.165-66) Caliban, for his part, sees the arrival of Stefano and Trinculo as his best chance to attain the ultimate freedom, which, paradoxically, will involve trading one harsh master for two drunken fools. He chants gleefully, “’Ban, ‘Ban, Ca-Caliban / Has a new master: get a new man. / Freedom, high-day…” (423, 2.2.174-75). Prospero can go find himself a new servant to bully: Caliban has found lords more to his liking, and the bar is always open.

On the whole, the second act is parodic in its aims and structure: it chronicles the beginning of a pair of attempts to set up a new kingdom over what appears to be the wreck of the old, with Sebastian, under Antonio’s tutelage, plotting to make his own providence by bashing in a skull or two, and Stefano and Trinculo (along with Caliban) vowing to set up their own madcap anti-government.

Act 3, Scene 1 (424-26, The Courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda advances; Prospero goes to his book to prepare for his triumph over Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian.)

The third act transitions to more legitimate attempts at self-discovery on the part of Ferdinand and Miranda. In turn, this focus will gesture towards a future that includes a regenerated dukedom of Milan and Naples. The developing affection between Ferdinand and Miranda is central in this scene. Ferdinand performs his difficult labors mindful of Miranda and in hopes of better times. For him, love makes labor redemptive—it is not something to be avoided so that one can set up a fool’s paradise. In soliloquy he says, “The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead / And makes my labors pleasures” (424, 3.1.6-7). By his patience, Ferdinand reveals his genuine nobility. We are being encouraged to note the contrast with Caliban here since that character grumbled darkly when Prospero laid upon him the same task of fetching wood. To be fair, though, Ferdinand actually has something great to look forward to, while Caliban does not.

Miranda, as we know, has plenty of fine qualities, above all empathy and a strong intellect. At no point does she seem merely passive, even when her imperious wizard of a father is holding forth for her benefit, or when she sees an opportunity to lessen Ferdinand’s heavy burden of labor. She has a bit of the rebel in her, as indicated by the following advice she gives Ferdinand: “My father / Is hard at study. Pray now, rest yourself. / He’s safe for these three hours” (424, 2.1.19-21). Caliban might appreciate that kind of teen spirit. All in all, Miranda’s words and actions show that she is ready to hear the information her father has imparted to her.

When Miranda reveals her name to Ferdinand, he again plays upon the etymology of it, exclaiming: “Admired Miranda!” (425, 3.1.37) It seems that Ferdinand has spent a fair amount of time at his father’s court in Naples and is nowhere near as inexperienced in love matters as Miranda. He tells her that he has “liked several women,” but “never any / With so full soul but some defect in her / Did quarrel with the noblest grace she owed / And put it to the foil” (425, 3.1.43-46). But in Miranda, he says in Petrarchan mode, he has discovered a woman “created / Of every creature’s best” (425, 3.1.47-48).

From here it’s on to Miranda’s admission that while she has seen only one other man (her father; she leaves Caliban out), at first espial of Ferdinand she has seen enough to know that he’s the only man for her. (425, 3.1.50-55) From thence it’s only a hop-skip to pledges of loyalty that in Elizabethan-Jacobean times basically amount to marriage vows. Ferdinand declares himself perpetually devoted to Miranda, and she boldly asks him, “My husband, then?” (426, 3.1.88) and receives the desired answer “Here’s my hand” (426, 3.1.89). The entire scene should demonstrate that the two lovers are quickly mastering the fitting and at times decorous language essential to a proper match between them. Marriage is an institution—and a political one at that, in their case—but Ferdinand and Miranda’s passionate and yet nuanced conversation shows that they have made an excellent start. These two are, after all, the future of governance in Naples and Milan.

Prospero, ever solicitous about what Miranda is up to, is of course secretly listening in on her and Ferdinand throughout their charming courtship encounter and their marriage pledge. As before, he blesses this union to himself since he is convinced that Ferdinand and Miranda will prove compatible. There is a hint of the father’s jealousy à la Freud in Prospero’s observation, “So glad of this as they I cannot be” (426, 3.1.92), but even so, he says, “my rejoicing / At nothing can be more” (426, 3.1.93-94). He takes his leave with the reminder to himself that it’s time now to go back to his magic book and work up appropriate spells to complete his triumph over his enemies. This will require delaying Ferdinand and Miranda’s courtship for a while even as he blesses and furthers it: “I’ll to my book,” says Prospero, “For yet ere suppertime must I perform / Much business appertaining” (403, 3.1.94-96). Based on what follows, he probably refers here to the device he is preparing to spring against King Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian.

Act 3, Scene 2 (426-29, Caliban encourages Stefano to murder Prospero as he sleeps; Stefano flatters himself with plans for governing his kingdom; Ariel frustrates the conspiracy.)

Caliban, meanwhile, is courting Stefano as his master and chafing at Trinculo’s bad manners and disrespectful treatment of a faithful servant: “How does thy honor? Let me lick thy shoe. / I’ll not serve him; he is not valiant” (426, 3.2.21-22). Caliban is too easily won over to servitude. To him, government is a protection racket. We notice that he describes himself rather like Prospero, as someone exiled by a tyrant and cheated of his inheritance by evil powers: “I say by sorcery he got this isle …” (427, 3.2.49). Caliban’s plan is to surprise Prospero and make away with him: “‘tis a custom with him / I’th’ afternoon to sleep. / There thou mayst brain him…” (428, 3.2.81-82). Stefano, as usual, is spinning a storyline from his own base desires—once having seized Prospero’s books and murdered the man, he thinks, he will be free to marry Miranda: “Monster, I will kill this man. His daughter and I will / be king and queen …” (428, 3.2.100-01).

They all serve their own base material desires, these parodic conspirators. Ariel, however, is looking over them even as they devise their plot (429, 3.2.108), and the would-be ruler ends up following the “monster” Caliban (429, 3.2.143). Well, Caliban does know his island, which is “full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” (429, 3.2.128-29). The entire passage near the end of the second scene is among the most haunting and lyrical in all of Shakespeare: “and then, in dreaming, / The clouds methought would open and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked / I cried to dream again” (429, 3.2.134-36). In any event, the die is cast: Caliban, Stefano, and Trinculo have planned their attack on the old magus who stands in the way of their dominion.

Act 3, Scene 3 (429-32, King Alonso’s despair over Ferdinand begins and ends the scene; Prospero is nearing the pinnacle of his power: spirits lay out a banquet for Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian; Ariel, in the form of a harpy, promptly snatches it away and admonishes these bewitched “men of sin.”)

King Alonso is ready to give up the search for his lost son Ferdinand, saying “Even here I will put off my hope …” (429, 3.2.7). The conspirators Antonio and Sebastian, however, are as determined as before to see their plot through to success. As Prospero looks on from a height, Ariel’s “strange shapes” enter to music and dance around a banquet that they then invite Alonso’s party to enjoy. As the banquet is brought in, Sebastian sees only “drollery” in this miraculous sight (430, 3.3.22), but Gonzalo sees the excellence and civility of this strange island: though the inhabitants are monstrous-seeming, he says, “yet note / Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of / Our human generation …” (430, 3.3.33-34). The wonder of exploration is part of romance, and Antonio testifies (even if sardonically) to his own sense of wonder: “Travelers ne’er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn ‘em” (430, 3.3.27-28). Just as the men pluck up the courage to step forward and eat, Ariel swoops down in the form of a harpy, and with a clap of his wings, makes the banquet vanish.

This “Harpy” episode has a classical precedent in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 3, where the Harpies snatch away the Trojan remnant’s feast and Celaeno, the Harpies’ chief, warns the beleaguered Trojans that they will suffer famine before they reach their destined home in Italy.[14] The reason for this is that, like Odysseus and his crew on their way home to Ithaca, they killed animals from herds belonging to a divine being without asking permission. In Odysseus’s case the offended deity was Helios the sun god, while with regard to Aeneas, it was the Harpies, and they demanded strict retribution for his breach of hospitality.

When Shakespeare works these ancient emblems of revenge into a key scene in The Tempest, he is most likely reminding us how serious a fix Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian might be in if they weren’t dealing with a reasonable governor like Prospero. “Justice” was no delicate matter in the time of Elizabeth I or James I: in cases of treason, it tended to involve prolonged torture and horrible forms of execution. Merely being beheaded with an axe instead of hanging or worse was considered a favor to guilty noblemen—people convicted of serious crimes against the state usually didn’t get such a quick death. Prospero’s enemies are lucky, then, that his invocation of revenge is aethereal and ceremonial rather than material. The Tempest as a whole is, among other things, a fable of power and authority: the play is much concerned with how power is won, maintained, and lost, and how authority ought to be wielded by fallible human beings. So the reminder of how violent and sudden retribution can be is salutary for Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian.

Once Ariel has snatched away his carefully prepared fool’s banquet, in the name of “destiny” and “fate” he aims a stern address at the “three men of sin” (431, 3.3.54). Ere now, he says, men have been driven to suicide by the type of madness with which he has afflicted them. (431, 3.3.59-61) They have been driven here to a lonely island to be punished for their sins in exiling Prospero (431, 3.3.69-76), and for this offense, they are threatened with “Ling’ring perdition” (432, 3.3.78), unless they feel “heart’s sorrow” and demonstrate “a clear life ensuing” (432, 3.3.82-83). Failure to accept this penitential program would leave them only an anti-romance pattern, a futile life of repetitious action stripped of meaning and redemptive quality.

This is the first of two high points in Prospero’s wielding of power: delighted with the performance of Ariel and his other ministers, he says, “My high charms work, / And these mine enemies are all knit up / In their distractions. They now are in my power; / And in these fits I leave them…” (432, 3.3.89-92). Soon thereafter, Prospero goes off to see Ferdinand and Miranda. At present, the “men of sin” still think Ferdinand is dead, and Alonso, hearing the very waves, winds and thunder speak “The name of Prosper” (432, 3.3.100), feels bitter remorse at the loss of his son and wishes only for a watery death. Sebastian and Antonio wander off, thinking somehow to wage war against the spirit host “one fiend at a time” (432, 3.3.103). Gonzalo alone sees what’s happening to these desperate souls: “their great guilt, / Like poison given to work a great time after, / Now gins to bite the spirits” (432, 3.3.105-07). The old counselor therefore orders others in the party to follow after them and keep them from further harm.

Act 4, Scene 1 (432-39, Prospero urges restraint on Ferdinand, summons spirits to prepare a show for Ferdinand and Miranda: Juno and Ceres bless their coming union; Prospero sums up the vision — “we are such stuff …” and is overcome with thoughts of Caliban’s conspiracy: he is tempted to act tyrannically against the conspirators.)

Prospero, who now apologizes to Ferdinand for the severity of the trials imposed upon him, informs the young man that he has admirably “stood the test” (433, 4.1.7) and won himself a matchless wife. Still, Prospero insists that Ferdinand must not behave like Caliban and spoil the honor of his daughter, lest, he says, “discord, shall bestrew / The union of your bed with weeds …” (433, 4.1.20-21). Ceremony must be attended to, and custom obeyed. These are the time-honored means of blessing a socially and politically significant union, and marriage, we are to understand, is part of the magic of civilization. As usual, Ferdinand speaks skillfully, replying to Prospero, “the strong’st suggestion / Our worser genius can, shall never melt / Mine honor into lust, to take away / The edge of that day’s celebration” (433, 4.1.26-29).

Momentarily, Prospero summons Ariel and orders him to bring the lesser-spirit “rabble” (an important word here in terms of governance: the lower orders amongst the spirits, so to speak, are enlisted to help bring order from chaos) so that he may give the young couple a demonstration of his powers, saying, “I must / Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple / Some vanity of mine art. It is my promise, / And they expect it from me” (433, 4.1.39-42). Perhaps Prospero has made just such a promise to the young couple out of our hearing, but in any case, as the Norton editors point out, the term “vanity” is rich with connotations.

Which of the four possibilities laid out by the editors—“Trifle; conceit; illusion; display”—does the magician intend? He may well mean all of them in some combination: we have already seen evidence of Prospero’s great power, and he will tell us still more about that power’s various workings in Act 5. By comparison to the tempest he has stirred up, or the way he has wielded his force against Caliban and even Ferdinand, the courtly, aethereal masque that is about to be enacted might indeed be taken as a mere “trifle,” a pretty fireworks display or feast for the eyes, so to speak, of an awesome power that the wizard himself struggles to refrain from using in more heavy-handed, darker ways. Ariel and Prospero exchange their mutual affection for each other, with the spirit asking Prospero, “Do you love me, master? No?” and receiving the touching reply, “Dearly, my delicate Ariel” (434, 4.1.49-50). Given the at times tense dialogue between these two up to now, this brief exchange is pleasing to hear.

Soon, the masque unfolds. Iris, the rainbow-goddess and messenger of Juno, goddess of marriage and childbirth and all-powerful Jupiter’s wife, opens the display. In Juno’s name she bids Ceres, a fertility and agricultural goddess, to leave her rich dominions and come entertain Juno by sporting with her for the mortal lovers’ pleasure. Ceres is also being summoned for another purpose: there is “A contract of true love to celebrate / And some donation freely to estate / On the blessed lovers” (435, 4.1.84-86). Ceres will offer up her own special gift of abundance in perpetuity and, therefore, a secure future, for Ferdinand and Miranda.

The presence of this goddess may also remind us, though in a way not immediately available to the young couple, of Prospero’s distress at the reality of losing his daughter to the Prince of Naples. Ceres was the mother of Proserpina, the beautiful girl who was abducted by the god of the Underworld, Pluto (or Hades in the story’s Greek version), to be his queen.[15] But the only present menace, at least in the masque itself, is the mention of Cupid, son of the love goddess Venus, both of whom (as the Norton editors point out) were responsible for Pluto’s falling in love with Proserpina. But Iris reports that no such mischief will come from that quarter respecting Ferdinand and Miranda, so the couple are safe.

Next, at Juno’s own request, Juno and Ceres celebrate the coming marriage contract of Miranda and Ferdinand, and Ceres details the beneficence of nature that she brings: ”Earth’s increase, and foison plenty …” are available for the enjoying (435, 4.1.110; see 435-36, 4.1.106-17). Ferdinand, for his part, is amazed at all this spectacle and music, exclaiming “Let me live here ever! / So rare a wondered father and a wise / Makes this place paradise” (436, 4.1.122-24).[16] Possibly because Ferdinand’s word “paradise” is ringing in his ears even as the show goes on, Prospero suddenly remembers the “foul conspiracy / Of the beast Caliban and his confederates” (436, 4.1.139-40). As soon as he speaks these and a few more lines, the spirit-masquers decamp: they must be disappointed at being rushed so unceremoniously out of view.

It may seem odd that Prospero would forget a vile plot against his life even for a moment; but then, he spent a good deal of time “rapt in secret studies” back in Milan even when he was tasked with governing, so perhaps his latest use of such erudition—a lovely masque enacted by the airy spirits he controls—has had a similar effect on him, much to his discomfiture. Ferdinand and Miranda are almost as amazed at Prospero’s sudden crestfallenness as they were by the masque itself, and by way of reassuring them, the old wizard follows up with one of the most lyrical and profound passages in the whole of Shakespeare’s works, beginning with “Our revels now are ended…” (437, 4.1.148; see especially lines 148-58).

The upshot of Prospero’s description of the “revels” and their conclusion is that not only the masque and the players, but everything and everyone, is transitory: there is no substance to anything, and all of it—including the audience—will pass, leaving “not a rack behind” (437, 4.1.156; “rack,” the editors explain, means “wisp of cloud”). One is reminded of Edmund Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos in The Faerie Queene, with their long analysis of “the ever-whirling wheele / Of Change, the which all mortall things doth sway”or the later poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s observation that “Nought may endure but Mutability.” Prospero sums up human life, and perhaps everything his wizardry and art have accomplished, by saying that we are “such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (437, 4.1.156-58).  These are beautiful lines, even if, in context, it is a little hard to imagine them bringing much cheer to Ferdinand and Miranda.

Prospero’s observations at this point in the play have sometimes been taken as Shakespeare’s farewell speech as a dramatist, even though The Tempest isn’t his last project—after its November 1, 1611 performance by the King’s Men at Whitehall Palace’s Banqueting House for King James I, over the next few years he collaborated with John Fletcher on Henry VIII, a lost play called Cardenio (the plot of which was apparently drawn from Don Quixote), and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Whatever the status of the “revels” speech, there is a parallel between art and life to be drawn from it, and from The Tempest in its entire action. Art has much to tell us about life, and—notwithstanding claims like that of W. H. Auden’s speaker in the elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” that poetry “makes nothing happen”—one of its functions is to serve as a kind of magic that participates in and lends decorous approval to the necessary activities of civic life and the fulfillment of individual desire. A key purpose of Prospero’s elegant spirit-masque, in fact, is to bless the future union of Miranda and Ferdinand.

No sooner does Prospero speak his most philosophical lines than he confesses to Ferdinand that he feels confused and enfeebled: “Sir, I am vexed. / Bear with my weakness: my old brain is troubled” (437, 4.1.158-60). He must get the young couple safely out of the way for a while, so he can take care of the unfinished business that he had temporarily forgotten. In effect, the courtly spirit-masque put on for Miranda and Ferdinand amounts to something like the “false catastrophe” often seen in classical comic structure. Prospero’s magical island is not paradise after all: the consequences of human error, of human fallenness if we want the theological overtones of that word, impend even in this strange, lovely place somewhere in the Mediterranean that has traces of tropical ultra-green.[17] Ariel is summoned, and he delivers an update on what he has done to frustrate and annoy Caliban, his arrogant new master Stefano, and second-in-command Trinculo, any one of whom would try the patience of a saint. Prospero, we know, isn’t quite that. That the old man is once again tempted to turn tyrant is at least hinted at in his pronouncement, “I will plague them all, / Even to roaring” (438, 4.1.192-93). 

The scene ends with Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban being hunted down like wild animals by Prospero’s spirits, now morphed into vicious canines. We are getting near thehigh point of Prospero’s demonstration of power, the apex of the ultimately benevolent plot he has stirred up by magic and with help from Fortune: “At this hour,” observes Prospero, “Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” (439, 4.1.259-60). This is the moment he has waited for and worked for. What will he do with it?

Act 5, Scene 1 and Epilogue (439-48, Prospero forgoes vengeance: both sets of conspirators are trapped, there are faults called out and forgiven; King Alonso is reunited with Ferdinand; the Boatswain reports that the ship is ready; Prospero will sail to Naples for Miranda’s wedding, then go home to rule Milan and study the art of dying well; Ariel is finally set free.)

It doesn’t take long for us to realize that Prospero will make the right and merciful call in dealing with his enemies. Even Ariel is moved at the plight of Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian, who, sitting in a lime garden near Prospero’s cell, “abide all three distracted, / And the remainder mourning over them…” (440, 5.1.12-13). Upon hearing this, Prospero sums up his reaction as follows: “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick, / Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury / Do I take part. The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (440, 5.1.25-28). Virtue, as the Renaissance humanist commonplace goes, will always prove productive of still greater good, while vengeance is destructive and de-creative, tending to chaos instead of order. Prospero will unsay the spells he has laid upon the three sinful men, and “they shall be themselves” (440, 5.1.32) so that they may receive their just reckoning.

Immediately after letting us in on his decision to exercise genuine authority rather than play the tyrant with his now hapless enemies, Prospero details the stunning reach of the powers he has long exercised and now proposes to let go once and for all. As the Norton editors point out, the description he gives us is adapted from Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses 7.265-77).[18] Aside from consorting with fairies and elves, controlling nature in impressive ways, and the like, the most startling claim Prospero advances is that by his “so potent art,” graves have “waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth…” (441, 5.1.48-50).[19]

Most readers and audience members probably won’t have seen this claim coming: raising the dead is a frightening power steeped in divinity; it is not something that anyone would consider “white magic,” as opposed to darker occult practices. All the same, as Sean Benson points out,[20] references to something like such activity are hardly lacking in Shakespeare’s later plays. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Winter’s Tale, and Cymbeline also gesture towards the resurrection of the dead, whether real or apparent. Whatever may be the case about this startling claim, Prospero makes a tough decision: he will forswear any such “rough magic” (441, 5.1.50) and return to his old life as a mere mortal, even though a rather important one as Duke of Milan. He pledges, “I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book” (441, 5.1.54-57).

Upon the entrance of the guilty Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian into the magic circle that Prospero has drawn, he waits for the spell he had cast on them earlier to wear off. To himself (since they cannot hear or see him yet), he proceeds to sketch the fault of each man: “Most cruelly / Didst thou, Alonso, use me and my daughter. / Thy brother [Sebastian] was a furtherer in the act” (441, 5.1.71-73). As for Antonio, he stands accused most recently of egging Sebastian on to murder Alonso and thereby repeating by Neapolitan proxy his initial usurpation of Milan (441, 5.1.74-79). But even Antonio is forgiven, though neither he nor Sebastian will bother to apologize.

Prospero realizes that he should dress himself so as to be recognizable to his onetime abusers. Ariel, sensing freedom to be near, can hardly contain his glee as he helps dress Prospero in his proper attire as Duke of Milan: “Merrily, merrily shall I live now, / Under the blossom that hangs on the bough” (442, 5.1.93-94), sings this innocent, natural creature even as he invests a mortal man in robes of state. To move things along, Prospero tells Ariel to summon the Boatswain and the ship’s Master to the scene. When Prospero finally addresses King Alonso audibly and allows himself to appear to him, Alonso promptly agrees to forget his insistence on Milanese tribute for Naples and asks forgiveness for his complicity in the exiling of Prospero, saying, “Thy dukedom I resign and do entreat / Thou pardon me my wrongs” (442, 5.1.118-19). Next, the magician embraces his loyal friend Gonzalo and, in an aside to Sebastian and Antonio, promises not to reveal to Alonso their conspiracy against him, at least for the time being. He then demands his state back from his brother Antonio: “I do forgive / Thy rankest fault—all of them—and require / My dukedom of thee…” (443, 5.1.131-33).

King Alonso is amazed to see Prospero still alive, but his chief care is still, of course, for his lost son: “I wish / Myself were mudded in that oozy bed / Where my son lies” (443, 5.1.150-52). To this despairing monarch, Prospero at first commiserates as one who has, in a sense, also lost his child; he has had to give her to Ferdinand. But it would be wrong to toy with a grief-stricken father, so Prospero has one last wonder to reveal to Alonso and the whole party: he shows them Ferdinand and Miranda playing that ancient game of royal strategy, chess (444, 5.1.171ff). Even Sebastian must admit that this is “A most high miracle” (444, 5.1.177).

The game itself seems to entail some contention between the two lovers, with Miranda accusing Ferdinand of making tricky moves on the chess board: “Sweet lord, you play me false” (444, 5.1.172). This possible act of cheating would seem to transition Ferdinand out of the play’s dream world (in which he has played the romance quester in a short space) and initiate him into the guileful realm of politics and statecraft, but his reaction to the sight of King Alonso suggests he has lost none of his innocence or loyalty—he is wonderstruck, exclaiming, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful” (444, 5.1.178). He knows he is not yet the king of Naples, but he is overjoyed to see his father still living. So Ferdinand and Alonso are reunited, and Miranda’s turn comes to marvel at the sight before her: “Oh, brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (444, 5.1.183-84) Alonso is very pleased with the match, and, by way of a question, Gonzalo pronounces Prospero’s long-ago exile from Milan a dynastic fortunate fall: “Was Milan thrust from Milan that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?” (445, 5.1.205-06)

Ariel has brought the Boatswain and Ship’s Master into Prospero’s presence, and they relate how they beheld with wonder the vessel they thought they had lost forever: “Our royal, good, and gallant ship …” (423, 5.1.240) now stands ready for service as before. King Alonso’s desire for the particulars of this miraculous affair is brushed aside for the moment by Prospero, for there’s still the matter of Caliban and his wicked overlords to settle. Ariel has set them at liberty to face judgment, and the first result is general merriment since all three look like perfect fools in the gaudy apparel that Ariel had earlier set out to distract them from their intent to murder Prospero in his cell. Prospero’s inclination is to admit responsibility for Caliban: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (446, 5.1.278-79). What exactly is Prospero implying? By “acknowledge,” does he mean that he will take Caliban with him to Milan and there help him complete his education? That seems unlikely, but of course one can only conjecture vainly about such post-textual matters. In any case, Caliban, afraid almost for his life, admits his error and promises to mend his ways: “I’ll be wise hereafter / And seek for grace” (447, 5.1.296-97). He now knows what Alonso knows: Stefano is no god, but only a “drunken butler” (446, 5.1.280).

Order at last fully restored, Prospero promises to tell his life’s story to King Alonso and his entourage on the eve of departure from the island. The company will travel first to Naples, where Prospero will witness the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, and finally, Prospero will go home to Milan, where, he tells all assembled, “Every third thought shall be my grave” (447, 5.1.313). Given the mostly kind temporality and fortune of the romance universe, this magician-ruler Prospero has been able to cast away his wondrous book and bury his miracle-making staff, respectively (assuming that he has by now done those things as promised), without losing his chance to recover the dukedom he lost. He has learned a costly, lengthy lesson about putting an intensely private desire for knowledge in its place and showing due regard for maintaining the symbolic and material authority that underwrite civic order.

In truth, we can’t know what kind of ruler the renewed Duke of Milan will be, and neither do we know if he truly believes the magic he has given up is worth sacrificing to regain a dukedom he didn’t enjoy governing to begin with. But perhaps that is to be too pessimistic about the play’s conclusion. Prospero’s concluding wishes are of interest in that aside from his final island-based act of freeing Ariel to the elements as promised, what the aged man really desires is not so much to exercise great power again but instead to practice the art of dying well, or ars moriendi, as it’s called in Latin. Ariel’s final burden is to provide “calm seas, auspicious gales” (447, 5.1.316) for the return voyage, and his master’s last command to him is liberation itself: “Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well” (447, 5.1.319-20). The impending marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda is full of hope for good things to come. They will, we may presume, carry on in a regenerated social and political environment, as comedy prescribes.

These youngsters’ projected future is important, but the play’s emphasis, most viewers will probably agree, is more firmly on the elder statesman Prospero’s partial recovery of his former glory supplemented by a more mature kind of knowledge, one that more closely honors wisdom than mere intellection or erudition. Prospero, now a frailer but wiser man than he was when Antonio hustled him out of his dukedom, will decorously divide his time between governing Milan and preparing for his own “rounding off” with a sleep. All in all, The Tempest is a perfect romance play, replete with a bittersweet but magnificent ending. A serious potential for tyranny and harsh judgment have given way to seasoned justice, political order, and the greatest measure of personal satisfaction that old age can afford—watching one’s children thrive. In the epilogue, Prospero, leaving his magic behind with the island, dutifully consigns his hopes of reaching Naples and Milan to the justice and imagination of the audience.

Perhaps this makes him seem a diminished man, this onetime magus who has “bedimmed / The noontide sun” (440, 5.1.441-42) and raised the dead. But that is a matter of interpretation. To leave us with the impression of Prospero as the same powerful wizard he was at the play’s beginning, we might suggest, would be to deny the ultimately humanizing touch of one of Shakespeare’s finest romance or tragicomic plays. It may be asking too much of this moody, brilliant play to expect that Prospero will emerge from it sublimely happy. His Epilogue ends on a penitent yet hopeful note. Any happy ending will depend on the good will of Shakespeare’s, audience. This is to end where we began: with a simple expression of trust in the late-invented romance genre’s capacity to capture what fines itself down to “the real,” to what matters.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake


[1] Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985).

[2] The Greek passage runs, τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν, tlēton gar Moirai thumon thesan anthrōpoisin). Perseus Project, Tufts U. Accessed 1/21/2024.

[3] A Renaissance humanist education was supposed to be convertible into active virtue. As Sir Philip Sidney writes in his 1580-81 treatise, “A Defence of Poesie and Poems,” the aim of learning is “well doing” and not merely “well knowing.” Project Gutenberg. Accessed 1/21/2024.

[4] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. 662-63. The Norton Shakespeare editors also refer to Simon Magus. See Romances and Poems 388-89.

[5] We should also note another passage that seems neutral on the issue of what exactly Prospero was studying back in Milan; see 401, 1.2.89-92, where Prospero describes himself as “neglecting worldly ends”; he says further that he was “all dedicated / To closeness [secrecy] and the bettering of my mind / With that which, but by being retired, / O’er-prized all popular rate….” Here, it’s hard to see that he’s suggesting anything but that his erudition went far above the heads of Milan’s ordinary citizens. On the whole, Shakespeare seems content to allow the exact nature of Prospero’s studies to remain somewhat vague.

[6] The relative merit of the two life-paths was the subject of much debate during the Renaissance, and is well memorialized in Thomas More’s Utopia as well as by Milton’s poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” Renaissance education was intended to make a person fit for public life, for a life of active virtue—it was about developing one’s capacities to the fullest extent.

[7] Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare after All. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. The Tempest, 852-53.

[8] Garber, Marjorie, idem. Garber refers on pp. 854-55 to several modern works, including José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel and El Mirador de Próspero, Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, Roberto F. Retamar’s Calibán, W. H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, and films such as Forbidden Planet and Prospero’s Books.

[9] Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, any edition. See Chs. 17 (XVII), 19 (XIX).

[10] Garber, Marjorie, idem. 858-59.

[11] Montaigne, Michel. The Essays of Montaigne, Done into English by John Florio. The Tudor Translations, ed. W. E. Henley. Edinburgh, 1892. Accessed 1/21/2024.

[12] Garber, Marjorie, idem. 863-65.

[13] It would make sense if Antonio were also scheming to replace Alonso with Sebastian so as to gain better terms tribute-wise for Milan.

[14] Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 2006. 3.253-319.

[15] Ceres created winter by leaving her fields to search for Proserpine, and a deal was eventually struck with Jupiter’s intercession: Proserpina would dwell on earth for half of every year as the goddess of Spring, and live with Pluto in the Underworld for the other half.

[16] As the Norton editors point out (See Norton Romances and Poems, pg. 436), the old-fashioned “fancy s/f” typography of the manuscript means that the word “wise” could also be rendered “wife.”

[17] The tropical flavor of the island, as the Norton editors (see Norton Romances and Poems, pg. 391) and others have pointed out, probably comes from Shakespeare’s familiarity with a circulating manuscript that related the story of one of the ships involved in setting up the Virginia Company’s Jamestown, Virginia colony. In a hurricane in 1609, Governor Thomas Gates’s ship ran aground on an uninhabited island in the Bermudas. Gates had to act decisively to quell a potential rebellion amongst the survivors and make his way to Jamestown, where similar problems required his attention. See the Strachey account among the “Of Interest” links at the top of this document.

[18] Ovid. Metamorphoses. Transl. Arthur Golding. U. Michigan Library, Early English Books Online. Accessed 1/21/2024. See from “I haue compelled streames to run cleane backward….”

[19] One would like to know where exactly Prospero performed such a miracle as to force graves to open and cough up their resurrected dead. But the play isn’t going to answer that question, so it’s probably naïve to ask.

[20] Benson, Sean. “The Resurrection of the Dead in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature (Vol. 61, Issue 1). Marquette University Press, Fall 2008.

Intro to Shakespeare – 2

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Plays

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We might expect an active playwright like Shakespeare to deal directly with the flow of modern life, but unlike Ben Jonson and some others of his time, for the most part he doesn’t do that. London’s mercantile class was increasing, and nationalism was beginning to flex its muscles. So why don’t we find London’s social structure “ripped from the headlines” in Shakespeare? He deals with courtly environments and characters, and often at some historical distance, spanning from ancient Greece and Rome to the late Middle Ages in Europe: he represents monarchs as nearly unconstrained, not as having to deal with parliament as they did by his own day, and his treatment of rank reinforces this preference. Shakespeare concentrates on the parallel order of society and the grand cosmos, as in the Troilus and Cressida passage that runs “Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows” (Norton 1.3.113-14). Kings and high nobles, not commoners, are the center of his tragedies and histories, but the same statement holds to a great extent for his comic and romance plays. This may be due in part to what was called above a degree of conservatism in his approach to life and to his propertied station. There’s also the fact that censorship was part of life in England: a dramatist’s scripts had to be cleared by the Master of Revels before they were performed, and it was safer not to try to deal with current political affairs or great personages.


To what extent do the main characters step out as strong individuals?

— Generally, in comedy we are dealing with characters who fit into some recognizable pattern or type, but does that truism do justice to the play you’re studying?

What do the characters seek?

— Consider the varieties of desire and objects of desire.

— Characters seek not only love but also transcendence, security, understanding, clarity, etc. (Evidently, there’s more to life than news, weather, and Cupid’s Arrow.)

What obstacles stand in the way of characters’ fulfilling their desires?

— There are both internal and external hindrances.

— That is, not everything is a matter of stern patriarchs getting in the way, etc.

How do the main characters react to the obstacles that stand in their way?

— Reactions, as always, can tell us a lot about a character’s depth and understanding.

What is the disposition of time and chance?

— Time is on the comic protagonist’s side, but what more is to be said in this regard  

about the comic or romance or history play you are studying?

— Are time and chance dealt with in a more or less realistic manner, or a fantastical one? Why might the playwright be dealing with these things in such a “non-verisimilar” or non-lifelike way?


Shakespeare’s plays fall loosely into four categories: comedy, history, tragedy, and romance (though this last category was invented by Edward Dowden in 1875). Shakespeare was clearly aware of basic theories about what a comedy or tragedy (the most “established” dramatic types) ought to be like, but he doesn’t seem to have spent much time worrying about whether he was conforming to such theories, and it’s extremely unlikely that he read Aristotle’s Poetics. As Coleridge says in a lecture on Shakespeare, “No work of genius dares want its appropriate form….”[1] That’s downright romantic organicism, but when it comes to Shakespeare, it makes sense to affirm it: Shakespeare, in spite of the occasional loosely constructed plot or odd reference or allusion, composed as something like a romantic poet. Although he rather unromantically started out by borrowing from some source or other (no one cared about absolute originality in his day) he saw all sorts of possibilities in that source material, and his plays took shape in accordance with the necessities of their own characters, events, and structure. We respond to a work of art as we create it, so that in a sense it “creates itself” processively. Form and meaning aren’t merely imposed upon the material in cookie-cutter fashion. Instead, they develop dynamically in accordance with the inner laws of the work itself.

The romantic theorists and poets understood the creative process well: imagine a sculptor facing his or her medium of blank stone. Soon, the first creative act is performed, and then the sculptor stands back and beholds the results in altered stone. This prompts another act, and on it goes in a sustained dialectic between mind and medium, until the demand for a “product” halts the process. Consider Beethoven starting with those famous four initial notes of the Fifth Symphony: GGGF. He followed those notes where they had to go—and where they had to go wasn’t always where listeners might have thought they should go. Beethoven consistently surprises his hearers in this way, and so does Shakespeare. In practical terms, readers and listeners need not seek a facile coherency in the material. Rather, they should be looking to tease out potential of whatever sort they find in one textual location and connect it to other locations in the same or other plays. Shakespeare is capable of logical precision, but that’s schoolboy stuff: what really drives his plays is the sympathetic, imaginative connections he makes between character and character, event and event, predicament and predicament. His brand of realism is psychological, not the realism of historical happening (though one can learn a lot about English history from his history plays, with due allowances for dramatic imperatives and poetical devices).

Above all, it seems best not to superimpose some scheme or pattern on any Shakespeare play prematurely—the plays make sense, but the sense they make isn’t reducible to neat formulae or critical principles. Those who consult online “note factory” materials should be mindful of this complexity. Such note material tends to be of variable quality, and it may let readers down when it comes to interpreting or contextualizing the most difficult passages: sometimes it’s evident that the interpreter has not understood the basic meaning of the passage, or writes in ignorance of the broader context in which the language is embedded. Even the better sort of online notes comes at us saying “Here are three key themes you can use to write a paper on The Merchant of Venice.” The themes identified may be worthwhile, but the more we allow ourselves to be bound by them, the less room will there be for our own perhaps eccentric and more interesting interpretations. Maybe we will notice something in Act 2, Scene 4 that relates to other things that happen in the play but aren’t really dealt with by the note-writers, either because they lack the sophistication to notice it or because they presume very few students consulting their notes have that level of expertise. But perhaps that “something” is what we should really be writing about. At bottom, good critics are good storytellers: they tell interesting, compelling stories about other people’s stories. Any resort to commercially produced notes should be made to open up possibilities, not to reduce complex works of art to facile comprehensibility. Few of us go to art looking for it to hand us simple solutions to painfully complex existential problems, so criticism shouldn’t proceed on the assumption that we do.


Grammar and Rhetorical/Literary Devices.

See the Shakespeare Resource Center’s guide to Shakespeare’s Grammar as well as Grammarly writer Lindsey Kramer’s blog entries All about Alliteration and What Is a Rhetorical Device? See also Grammarly’s What Is Assonance? by Parker Yamasaki and What Is Consonance? by Matt Ellis.

A. Inverted or otherwise altered syntax:

“If’t be so, / For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind, / For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered…” (Norton Tragedies 930, Macbeth 3.1.64-66). The three Weird Sisters told Banquo that he would beget kings even though he himself would never be one. In his sharp desire to secure his ill-gotten throne, Macbeth can hardly afford to let that bit of information go undealt with. If we rearranged the above lines, they would run, “If it be so, / I have defiled my mind for Banquo’s issue (i.e. descendants); / I have killed the gracious Duncan for them.” But Macbeth’s mind has been in turmoil ever since he killed King Duncan, so he does not express his thoughts in tidy subject-verb-object order. The emphasis in the inverted lines is on Banquo and his descendants. Macbeth can’t believe he was so stupid as to destroy his own soul to put Banquo’s line on the throne of Scotland. He did it for them! And the Weird Sisters told him as much. In general, bear in mind that Shakespeare’s word order tends to be more flexible than our English today. Often, there’s a strong substantive reason for the syntactical inversions that occur in Shakespeare’s verse.

B. Literary devices such as the following:

Alliteration: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past….” (Sonnet 30, Norton Romances and Poems 666). The repetition of initial consonant sounds in words close to one another. The consonantal sounds can be represented by different letters—it’s the sound that matters. “The seven cities of Cibola” is alliterative. There’s also consonance, in which the repeated consonantal sounds don’t have to be at the beginning of the words in question: “I acknowledge that Jack is back.” And there’s assonance, which involves repetition of vowel sounds rather than consonants: “Get it through your head that Freddy isn’t ready, Neddie!”

Allusion: “O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst / thou!” exclaims Hamlet in his mocking encounter with the king’s counselor Polonius. (Norton Tragedies Folio/Q2 390, Hamlet 2.2.329-30) The prince alludes to the Bible’s Judges 11-12. Judge and warrior Jephthah of Gilead had promised Jehovah that if He would grant victory to the Israelites over the Ammonites, he, Jephthah, would willingly sacrifice whatever exited his door first. Alas, “whatever” turned out to be his daughter, and he ended up having to sacrifice her just as he had promised. Hamlet knows that Polonius—who is more of a Machiavel than we give him credit for—is slyly sacrificing his daughter Ophelia’s affections in order to gather intelligence for King Claudius about the prince’s alleged madness. Indirectly, he is warning Polonius, “I know what you’re up to. Remember what happened to Jephthah’s daughter—are you really willing to ruin Ophelia’s life?”

Aside from biblical allusions, Shakespeare ranges from references to classical mythology, persons, and history to Gothic lore like that of the faerie lords Titania, Oberon and their helpers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are allusions to various professions and practices: heraldry, hunting, falconry, horticulture, farming, moneylending, etc. Shakespeare’s work is also full of allusions to English history (mainly via Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland) and to the kinds of ceremonies and stories he must have enjoyed in and around Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. In Shakespeare: the Biography,[2] Peter Ackroyd reminds us of Shakespeare’s intimate, lifelong appreciation of his native patch of English town and countryside. He relocated to London for many years, but he never really left Warwickshire behind, and indeed he returned there toward the end of his career and life.

Another allusion worth noting is a classical Latin citation from Horace in Act 4, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s intense revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. The boy Lucius delivers to the two sons of conquered Goth queen turned Roman empress Tamora some weapons along with a scroll that reads, “Integer vitae, scelerisque purus, / Non eget Mauri iaculis, nec arcu” (Norton Tragedies 178, 4.2.20-21). Translated freely, this means, “He that is pure of life and free from faults / Has no need of any bow or Moorish javelin.” Shakespeare probably remembered this Horatian passage from days spent with his trusty Latin textbook, known as Lily’s Grammar. The original text is from the opening part of Horace’s Odes 1.22. One of Tamora’s sons, Chiron, says “Oh, ‘tis a verse in Horace. I know it well: / I read it in the grammar long ago” (Norton 178, 4.2.22-23). Aaron, Tamora’s lover and supposedly a “barbarous Moor,” immediately scans the verses and takes their measure: “The old man [Titus] hath found their guilt / And sends them weapons wrapped about with lines / That wound beyond their feeling to the quick” (Norton 178, 4.2.26-28). This is interesting—that the old Roman general Titus would know Horace’s verses shouldn’t surprise us. But that two Goths and the Moor in this play are also familiar with them may seem somewhat odd. Roman culture is common to them all.

What, then, is Shakespeare doing by implanting this real-life Roman allusion into his fictive Roman drama in a manner that shows its accessibility even to the play’s non-Romans? Most likely, he is suggesting that the empire, centered around its eternal city, Rome, was a cosmopolitan entity from its inception, and that the city itself was a hybrid, dynamic place, a place that brought together many people’s stories into an uneasy, ever-shifting association. There is no single, coherent history of Rome, no unified concept of Romanness. Moreover, given Shakespeare’s representations of Rome and the empire in several of his plays, we may safely assume that the playwright knew this. It should be noted, too, that the English often compared their own nascent Empire and their great city of London to Rome and its once glorious empire, so questions like “What was Rome?” and “What were the Romans really like?” would have been of great interest to many Londoners and English people more broadly. In sum, this is not a play that sets up Rome as a “civilized” place over against “barbarians” who must be repelled. Instead, Shakespeare seems intent on undermining any such binary notion. That sophistication on his part may be what saves this strange, ultraviolent play from deserving the strong and even dismissive reproaches of the likes of T. S. Eliot, J. Dover Wilson, and Samuel Johnson.[3]

Metaphor: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York,” as Richard Duke of Gloucester says to open Richard III (Norton Histories 385, 1.1.1-2), paying false, poisonous tribute to the brother and sovereign whom he is about to afflict with mortal grief. Metaphor clarifies or deepens the meaning of a first thing by ascribing to it or transferring over to it the qualities of a second, unrelated thing. Here, discontentment, an emotional state or condition, borrows the qualities of a pensive, anxious season, winter. Winter is a season that people soon tire of and want to put behind them: it threatens to deaden the soul. “Winter” (and summer, in the second line) is the figurative term, the vehicle, that Shakespeare uses to convey something important about the tenor, the thing to be understood, which here is discontent, an emotional state. (Tenor comes from the Latin verb teneo, I comprehend, keep, or hold.) The second line’s pun on sun/son adds an additional metaphor: the newly crowned Yorkist king, Edward IV, is said to be a “sun” that rises over the English people’s newly established summer-state of contentment. Metaphor grabs listeners’ attention, feelings, and even intellect in a way that less creative usages seldom do. If we were to write, “Now is our wintry discontent turned into summery satisfaction,” hearers would reach for the nearest basket of rotten tomatoes to toss at us. Mixed metaphors deserve mention as well. We’ve all heard Shakespeare’s most famous howler straight from Hamlet’s lips: “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them” (Norton 396, Hamlet 3.1.58-59). Please don’t shoot the Renaissance lute-player—he’s doing his best.

Simile: “This old car balks like a horse trader’s mule.” Or, “Frank is as fearsome as a lion.” This device compares one thing to another. It isn’t as radically transformative or creative as metaphor in that it involves a mere comparison, not an equation or confounding of the two things. A Shakespearean example: When Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII realizes that his downfall is certain, he utters these haunting lines: “I have ventured, / Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, / This many summers in a sea of glory, / But far beyond my depth” (Norton Histories 930, 3.2.358-61). The once-great cleric compares himself to carefree little children playing in the water. Another good example of a simile being as effective as metaphor in a master poet’s hands is John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” He says of his and his lover’s souls, “If they be two, they are two so / As stiffe twin compasses are two; / Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show / To move, but doth, if the’other doe”[4] Strictly, the first two lines involve a comparison—paraphrased, it would run, “our souls are two like twin compasses are two.” When Donne extends this figure to give us a sense of how the compasses actually work, he turns it into a metaphor: “Thy soul, the fixed foot….” Both parts of the quatrain work equally well.

Metonymy: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (Norton Tragedies 320, 3.2.71), as Mark Antony says at the beginning of his masterful speech to stir up the plebeians against Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators in Julius Caesar. This figure entails replacing a word with another word closely related to it, but not simply a part of it. Here, “ears” replaces “attention.” (Note that in this instance, it does not replace “person.” That would make it a synecdoche.) A famous example runs something like “Let’s run it by the suits in corporate headquarters.” The word “suits” is not a part of a corporate attorney the way an arm or a leg would be, but it is something we associate with attorneys: They usually wear suits.

Synecdoche: “All hands on deck!” The Monty Python players would represent that sentence by showing us a row of hands moving across a ship’s deck. Here, “hands” stands in for “sailors.” Another well-worn synecdoche would be “twenty sail” for “twenty ships.”

Elliptical expressions: “And he to England shall along with you,” says Claudius to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet (Norton Tragedies 408, 3.3.4) The verb “go” is omitted: “shall go along” would be the standard way to say it, but Shakespeare’s expression is more elegant.

C. Grammatical irregularities:

Anthimeria. One part of speech is often substituted for another. This happens especially with nouns and verbs. For example, in the first act of The Tempest, Prospero asks Miranda, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?” (Norton Romances 400, 1.2.49-50.) The word “backward” is an adverb, but it is used as a noun here, producing a verse that is both beautiful and apt since Prospero is asking his daughter to recall her remote childhood—something hazy and mysterious, yet intimate.

Pronoun irregularity: “Yes? You have seen Cassio and she together?” Asks suspicious Othello of Desdemona’s companion Emilia (Norton Tragedies 566, 4.2.3.) Instead of “Cassio and her.” If a student wrote this in a paper, we would mark it down. But Shakespeare? We dare not.

Archaic pronoun and verb forms: The familiar or intimate second-person singular forms are thou/thee, as in, “I tell thee (direct object) that thou (subject) art mistaken.” The possessive form is often “thy/thine” (and “my/mine” for first person): “thy book is before thine eyes.” As for verbs, the second-person familiar suffix is often (e)-st, as in “Thou speakest or speak’st, while the third person singular is often -eth, as in “He/she speaketh.” Key verbs like “to be,” “to have,” “to do,” and “to say” can have odd forms: “thou art, he/she is”; “thou dost, he/she doth; thou sayest, he/she saith; “thou hast, he/she hath.” Here’s a fine example: When Hamlet berates his mother Gertrude for marrying his uncle Claudius, she begs him to stop, crying out, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain!” (Norton Tragedies 414, Hamlet 3.4.157.)

Omission of relative pronoun: “I have a brother is condemned to die,” says Isabella to Angelo in Measure for Measure (Norton Comedies 916, 2.2.35.) Ordinarily, this would read, “I have a brother who is condemned to die.”

Verb number: “Three parts of him / Is ours already” says Cassius of the worthy Brutus in Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies 300, 1.3.154-55).

Antithesis: This quality of Shakespearean verse accounts for no small part of its overall impact. Shakespeare consistently uses it as a literary figure to lend emphasis and shape to his characters’ speech. Hamlet characterizes antithesis as “setting the word against the word.” For example, Brutus says in Julius Caesar that he killed the dictator not from personal spite or envy, but from patriotism: “not that I loved Caesar less,/ but that I loved Rome more” (Norton Tragedies 319, 3.2.20-21). The effect of antithesis (implied or direct) is to render an utterance emphatic. Consider the following part of Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s opening soliloquy in Richard III, which offers multiple antithetical pairings to strengthen its appeal: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York, / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried” (Norton Histories 385, 1.1.1-4). Reading the rest of this passage down to line 13 will reveal several more such antithetical pairings.

This quality is partly what makes Shakespeare’s verse memorable: the words are knit together by antithetical imagery and concepts, with alliteration also accomplishing much the same effect. This is strong blank verse, the sort of stuff one can speak boldly without losing the sensitivity and psychological subtlety necessary for the representation of a complex character. Rhyme is another way of lending shape to verse and making it memorable, though Shakespeare mostly uses rhyme for special effects. The end of a scene is a good place to serve up a rhyme, as in Hamlet’s quip, “The play’s the thing, / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (Norton Tragedies 394, Hamlet F1/Q2 3.1.523-24), or his wicked uncle Claudius’s anguished conclusion to a prayer for absolution, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (Norton Tragedies 410, 3.4.97-98). Such rhymes often have the effect of medieval moral sayings known as sententiae, summations of a moral principle or lesson.

Further Observations on the Distinctive Qualities of Shakespeare’s Language:

Shakespeare’s language is growing increasingly remote from us. It isn’t as remote as Chaucer’s middle English, or the Old English of Beowulf, but it’s sufficiently far from today’s standard “newspaper English” to turn our heads. In some cases, an utterance may puzzle us because we are missing key knowledge of some ancient social custom or bit of folklore or history, or we lack an understanding of the symbolism of flowers, or terms relevant to the craft of heraldry, hunting, medicine, law, etc., so we miss the overall meaning of the passage as well as its relation to the action. But even aside from such specific things, every reader of Shakespeare has probably had the sensation of being perfectly able to scan all the words of a passage for their modern sense and yet not being able really to understand the passage as a coherent sentence or expression.

To a large extent, this difficulty may be due to the quality that critics often say best distinguishes poetry from prose: compression. Good poetry is remarkably efficient language. People who don’t like poetry sometimes accusing it of being “flowery” or overly loquacious, but the truth is closer to the opposite: poetry is often sparing, even stark, in its approach. Compared to prose, verse packs in a great deal of meaning in very few words. This quality may be what lends poetry its special ability to achieve heights of elegance or depths of emotional impact that even the best prose rarely achieves, but it also undeniably makes poetry harder to read at the surface level than most prose. Unless we are dealing with texts by Modernist or postmodernist authors such as Joyce, Beckett, Pynchon, or David Foster Wallace, we generally expect prose to make immediate and full sense. We don’t expect the same transparency from poetry—we expect it to challenge our understanding, startle us out of stale truisms, and so forth. Prose does more of the work for us, while poetry expects more work from us.

Here is an instance of such difficulty from Shakespeare’s romance play Cymbeline: at the beginning of Act 1, Scene 3, the heroine Imogen says to her husband’s servant Pisanio, “I would thou grew’st unto the shores o’th’ haven / And questioned’st every sail. If he should write / And I not have it, ‘twere a paper lost / As offered mercy is” (Norton Romances and Poems 226, 1.3.1-4). Some parts of this speech are easy to understand: “haven” means “harbor,” the word “sail” is a synecdoche (part for the whole) for “every ship,” which in turn seems like a metonymic expression for “everyone on every ship in the harbor.” Or it could playfully mean, “I’d have you plant yourself on the harbor’s shore and scan every ship’s sail, waiting—what if Posthumus, now that he’s sailed to foreign shores, sends me a letter by ship and I never receive it?” So far, so good.

But what about “’twere a paper lost / As offered mercy is”? It’s a beautiful expression and in terms of vocabulary not mystifying, but its exact meaning is not apparent. In context this phrasing seems to mean that if Posthumus should write a love letter and Imogen doesn’t receive it, she will, as the Norton editors suggest, feel like someone who has been offered mercy but somehow has either not accepted it, or has not actually received word because it arrived too late. So Imogen will feel bereft, deprived of consolation and confidence. In such cases, it really helps to have as your reading text a good copy like the Norton, Arden, or Folger editions: they offer the sort of contextual and grammatical notes that can help you sort out expressions that might otherwise frustrate your efforts. It’s good to try to work such passages out on your own first, but if you don’t meet with success, the notes are there to guide you. Free online texts seldom offer this level of assistance, and a dictionary alone won’t help much because the problem isn’t that you don’t know the basic meaning of the words.

Another example occurs later in the same play, Cymbeline. In Act 3, Scene 3, old Belarius tells Arviragus and Guiderius, Cymbeline’s’ two sons whom Belarius, enraged at being falsely accused of treason, had long ago stolen from court to raise in the countryside, that the life they’re living now is much better than any to be had at some corrupt court. Here is part of the relevant passage: “Oh, this life / Is nobler than attending for a check, / … / Such gain the cap of him that makes him fine, / Yet keeps his book uncrossed” (Norton Romances and Poems 255, 3.3.21-22, 25-26). “Check” here means “rebuke,” and “gain the cap” means “get the workman to tip his cap and thereby show respect for his customer.” The expression “keeps his book uncrossed” means that the customer thus treated so deferentially still owes the workman money, and the workman’s entries in his ledger show it. The further point is that courtly, ambitious people often mistake the flattering treatment they’re getting for genuine respect, when in truth it’s all purely transactional—they’re getting taken for fools, and they’re too vain to recognize it. Good notes need not, of course, provide so much detail; they just need to provide enough grammatical, vocabulary-based, and contextual assistance so that we can arrive at a reasonably accurate reading. The note in question allows us to do so.

One other point worth making is that while at times we may long for a patch of simplicity in Shakespeare’s verse, the more flowery or “purple” patches one finds are usually written as they are to suit the mentality of a silly or pompous character, a word-mangler like Dogberry from Much Ado about Nothing, or someone speaking in dialect, like Kent or Edgar disguised as Poor Tom in King Lear. Consider the arch temporal description like the one Benvolio offers Lady Montague in Romeo and Juliet: “Madam, an hour before the worshipped sun / Peered forth the golden window of the East, / A troubled mind drive me to walk abroad…” (Norton Tragedies 213, 1.1113-15). Benvolio is no doubt putting on airs in addressing the wife of the Montague paterfamilias. Later in the same play, the time is described in a much lower register, when Mercutio scandalizes Juliet’s Nurse with the following classic: “the bawdy hand of the / dial is now upon the prick of noon” (2.3.101-02). Back and forth we go, from the high-toned to the profane and back again, in this ultimately tragic tale of two young but determined souls, forced to eternize their holy love by self-violence in a profane, dirty world. Shakespeare wrote both descriptions, and he wasn’t one to pass up a bawdy pun—such things pleased his audiences, and what’s more important, they often served his purposes thematically.

Under extreme pressure, too, a character’s speech may break down and become evasive or fragmented, as does Lear’s towards the end of King Lear. Indeed, Shakespeare’s ability to capture the fleeting processes of the mind under pressure in its relation to speech is praised highly by Harold Bloom.[5] There is even a deliberately hollow, brittle eloquence to be noted, particularly that of Macbeth as his life winds down and his only remaining strategy is to deaden his soul to the evil he has done: “My way of life / Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, / And that which should accompany old age, / As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have” (Norton Tragedies 963, Macbeth 5.3.22-26). He speaks beautifully, but the words mean little to him and are cut off from a vital orientation towards action. Shakespeare often seems to revel in the beauty of language in a way that seems almost foreign to modern sensibilities, but he does not exempt himself from chronicling the many ways this crowning glory of the species, language, often fails to keep us fully human, or even “indifferent honest.”

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Set of Four + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-26546-0.


[1] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius.”

[2] Ackroyd, Peter. Ibid. Ch. 8, 42-44.

[3] T. S. Eliot, “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation”, Selected Essays 1917–1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950), 67. Eliot called the play “”one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all….” As for J. Dover Wilson, he wrote in his edition of the play that Titus Andronicus “seems to jolt and bump along like some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells” (xii).

[4] Donne, John. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Gutenberg public domain edition. Accessed 1/31/2024.

[5] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books, 1999. Bloom’s general thesis is that in the wake of Shakespeare’s breakthrough treatment of human interiority, this quality has become central to modern humanity’s self-definition.

Timeline of the English Monarchy

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English Monarchy Timeline: William the Conqueror to the Present

House of Normandy

William the Conqueror, who invaded England based on the claim that his second cousin King Edward the Confessor had left the English throne to him, was the son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy and Arlette, daughter of Fulbert. William defeated the forces of King Harold II at Hastings in October 1066.

  • William I (1066-87; Queen Matilda, d. of Count of Flanders; Timeline)
  • William II Rufus (1087-1100; Unmarried; Timeline)
  • Henry I (1100-35; Matilda, daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland; Adelicia; Timeline)

House of Blois

Stephen, the son of the Count of Blois, France and of William I’s daughter Adela, usurped the English throne from Matilda, daughter of Henry I. She invaded England in 1139 and civil war ensued. Stephen’s forces defeated hers by 1145, but in 1153, by the terms of the Treaty of Westminster after further civil war, he was constrained to acknowledge Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, as his heir.

  • Stephen (1135-54; Matilda, d. of Eustace III, Ct. of Boulogne; Timeline)

House of Plantagenet’s “Angevin” line

The Plantagenet line is so named in modern times due to the following lineage: Geoffrey Plantagenet, Fifth Count of Anjou, France married Matilda, daughter of English King Henry I (one of William the Conqueror’s sons). Empress Matilda’s son by Geoffrey became the English King Henry II.

  • Henry II (1154-89; Eleanor of Aquitaine; Timeline)
  • Richard I (1189-99; Berengaria of Navarre; Timeline)
  • John (1199-1216; Isabel of Gloucester; Isabella of Angoulême; Timeline)

House of Plantagenet’s main line, after the loss of Anjou)

  • Henry III (1216-72; Eleanor of Provence; Timeline)
  • Edward I (1272-1307; Eleanor of Castile; Margaret of France; Timeline)
  • Edward II (1307-27; Isabella of France, deposed him with Roger Mortimer’s aid; Timeline)
  • Edward III (1327-77; Philippa of Hainault; Timeline)
  • Richard II (1377-99; Anne of Bohemia; Isabella of Valois; Timeline)

Plantagenet branch called Lancaster

The line was descended from John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son; Gaunt married Blanche of Lancaster, daughter of Henry of Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster. Their son became Henry IV (born in Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, thus “Bolingbroke”).

  • Henry IV (Bolingbroke, 1399-1413; Mary de Bohun; Joan of Navarre; Timeline)
  • Henry V (victor over French at Agincourt in 1415; ruled 1413-22; Catherine de Valois; Timeline)
  • Henry VI’s two reigns (1422-61, 1470-71, murdered; Margaret of Anjou; Timeline)

Plantagenet branch called York

The line was descended paternally from Edmund of Langley, First Duke of York, who was the fourth son of Edward III. But it was the maternal descent that mattered most: Richard Plantagenet, Third Duke of York, had a very strong claim to the throne via his mother, Anne Mortimer, whose father was Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence (Edward III’s second surviving son). Richard Plantagenet was killed during the Wars of the Roses, in December 1460. His eldest son went on to take power as Edward IV, followed by the youngest son, who became Richard III.

  • Edward IV (1461-70 [Henry VI captive], 1471-83 after Henry VI’s murder; the widow Dame Elizabeth Grey, née Elizabeth Woodville; Timeline)
  • Edward V (briefly in 1483, probably killed as one of the “princes in the Tower”; Timeline)
  • Richard III (1483-85, killed at Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor’s forces; Anne Neville, widow of Edward Prince of Wales and daughter of the Earl of Warwick; Timeline). Bosworth largely ended the struggle between Yorkists and Lancastrians from 1455-87: the Wars of the Roses.[1]

The Tudor dynasty begun by Henry Tudor

Henry Tudor’s grandfather was the Welshman Owen Tudor (who fought for Henry V at Agincourt in 1415 and lived until 1461, when he was executed by Yorkists led by the future King Edward IV). Henry’s father was Edmund Tudor, First Earl of Richmond. (Edmund’s mother was King Henry V’s widow Catherine de Valois, who married Owen Tudor.) Henry Tudor’s mother was Lady Margaret Beaufort, and it is from her that he claimed his right to the throne since she was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt by his third wife Katherine Swynford.

  • Henry VII (i.e. Henry Tudor; 1485-1509; Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter; Timeline)
  • Henry VIII (1509-47), Catherine of Aragon through 1533; Anne Boleyn; Jane Seymour; Anne of Cleves; Catherine Howard; Catherine Parr; Timeline)
  • Edward VI (1547-53, never married; Timeline)
  • Mary I (1553-58, co-ruler Philip of Spain; Timeline)
  • Elizabeth I (1558-1603; never married; Timeline)

The Stuarts

The Stuarts’ claim to the English throne was initiated when in 1503, Scottish King James IV married English King Henry VII’s daughter Margaret Tudor, and they had a son who became Scottish King James V. His daughter Mary became Queen of Scots; Mary’s son by Lord Darnley (Henry Stuart) became English King James I.

  • James I, (1603-25; Anne, daughter of Frederick II of Denmark and Norway; Timeline)
  • Charles I (1625-49; Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henri IV of France; Timeline), beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan forces during the English Civil War (1642-51).

The Puritan Interregnum

  • Council of State for the English Commonwealth (1649-53; ECW Timeline)
  • Oliver Cromwell (1653-58, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth)
  • Richard Cromwell (1658-59, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth)

The Stuart Restoration of 1660

  • Charles II (1660-85, the Restoration; Catherine of Braganza; Timeline)
  • James II (1685-88; deposed by William of Orange; Timeline)
  • William III and Mary II (1688-1702, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688; Timeline)
  • Anne (1702-14; George, son of Frederick III of Denmark; Timeline)

The Hanoverians

In 1714, Queen Anne (daughter of King James II) died childless, and her Protestant second cousin, George of Hanover, became King George I. (George was also the great-grandson of England’s King James I through his mother Sophia of Hanover, wife of the Elector of Hanover, Ernest Augustus. James I’s daughter Elizabeth Stuart had married Frederick V, King of Bohemia and Elector Palatine, and their daughter was George’s mother the Electress Sophia, herself heir to the British throne thanks to the 1701 Act of Settlement barring Catholics from the succession. Sophia pre-deceased Queen Anne, so that is how her son George became King George I.)

  • George I (1714-1727; Sophia Dorothea of Celle (whom he divorced in 1694); Timeline)
  • George II (1727-60; Caroline, daughter of Margrave of Brandenburg; Timeline)
  • George III (1760-1820; Charlotte, daughter of Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; Timeline)
  • George IV (1820-30; Caroline, daughter of Duke of Brunswick; Timeline)
  • William IV (1830-37; Adelaide, daughter of Duke of Saxe-Meinigen; Timeline)
  • Victoria (1837-1901; Albert, son of Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; Timeline)[2]

House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

This brief dynastic name stems from Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, son of the Duke of Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha, a duchy in existence from 1826-1918 in today’s Thuringia and Bavaria, Germany. Early in the twentieth century, sovereigns from the line associated with the place name ruled in Belgium, Portugal, and Bulgaria as well as the United Kingdom and Saxe-Coburg Gotha itself.

  • Edward VII (1901-10; Alexandra, daughter of Christian of Denmark; Timeline)

House of Windsor

The change from Saxe-Coburg Gotha to “Windsor” was made by George V in 1917 because of anti-German sentiment during the First World War. Technically, Elizabeth II’s descendants bear the surname “Mountbatten-Windsor.”

  • George V (1910-36; Mary, daughter of Duke of Teck; Timeline)
  • Edward VIII (1936; Ms. Wallis Simpson; Timeline)
  • George VI (1936-52; Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon; Timeline)
  • Elizabeth II (1952-2022; Philip Mountbatten; Timeline)
  • Charles III (2022-present; Diana Spencer, then Camilla Parker Bowles; Timeline)

[1] The Yorkist emblem was a white rose and Lancastrian a red rose. See “White and Red Roses“ on Accessed 2/23/2024.

[2] Elizabeth II (1952-2022) has the distinction of being the longest-reigning British monarch, followed by Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and King George III (1760-1820).

Intro to Shakespeare – 3

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Plays

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Prose passages: Let’s begin with a form that Shakespeare uses aside from blank verse. He often casts characters’ dialogue in prose form. Sometimes he does this to suit the characters (they may be working-class) or some less than elegantly poetical situation, but in truth, there’s no neat rule for when Shakespeare uses this mode. Still, prose is more conversational, and less formal. It seems like language that is stepping back from the somewhat elevated status we give it when we classify it as poetry.[1] Here’s a passage spoken by Leontes’s counselor Camillo in The Winter’s Tale:[2]

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods,
and there rooted betwixt them then such an
affection which cannot choose but branch now.
Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities
made separation of their society….

So prose is one form to be aware of as we read Shakespeare’s plays. Textual scholars have pointed out that he tends to be comfortable using more of it in his later plays.

Meter. Blank verse is Shakespeare’s go-to pattern or meter for conveying dramatic dialogue, and it makes up the great majority of his plays’ content. It is constituted of a series of unstressed and stressed syllables. Here are some observations on this verse form’s technical properties. Iambic pentameter is the technical classification for the lines of poetry we are interested in here, since that’s what constitutes blank verse. Iambic pentameter lines will contain five units (called “feet”), with each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This pattern or unit, in turn, is called an iamb.[3] A regular iambic foot consists of a pair of syllables, the first one unaccented ( ˘ ) and the second accented ( ʹ or ˉ ). For ease, we can also just bold the syllable to show that it is accented, and leave it unbolded to show that it is unaccented.[4]

Beat. All English verse is rather like music in the sense that it has a beat. The beat of blank verse is in keeping with the strongly accentual quality of ordinary English. The basic beat will run, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM. The “Dums” are the accented syllables, or the beats—as with music, you can tap your foot to such a regular, strong beat. So the beat is the constant, steady pulse or heartbeat of the verse line. Remember these lines from “Rock and Roll Music” by Chuck Berry: “It’s got a back-beat, you can’t lose it….”

Rhythm. The “rhythm” of a line of poetry refers to the movement of sounds flowing across the basic pattern. The rhythm is established by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables as we move from one foot to the next through to the end of the metrical line. It may be easiest to talk about rhythm if we suggest that a long series of perfectly metrical iambic pentameter lines, pronounced as such in a kind of singsong fashion, would soon become tiresome to hear. We would only be bringing to audibility the barebones, taxonomic pattern of the meter itself. No one likes monotony. To think of rhythm is to think of a certain complexity, a certain sophistication, of the “notes” that play across a very basic, unvariegated framework.

Well, then, what if the poet helpfully rearranged some of the stresses in ways that enhance the sense of the words? Then we would be generating a rhythm that varies a bit from the bare metrical pattern, thus adding variety. The beat will stay the same—it’s what we keep coming home to—and the basic metrical pattern (iambic pentameter) will be there in the background to guide us, but the rhythm may shift to suit the poet’s purpose, thereby adding variety and priming our attention. That seems like an adequate way to understand the interplay between beat, meter, and rhythm.[5]

To facilitate variation, poetics offers several rearrangements of stress[6] within a given foot. Here are the main ones, aside from the iamb itself ( ˘ ʹ ), which is the most common unit :[7]

Anapest      ˘ ˘ ʹ  (a very common variation for an iamb)
ʹ ˘     (a fairly common variation for an iamb)
ʹ ˘ ˘   (epic or heroic verse is in dactylic hexameter)

Following is a typical instance of blank verse in a Shakespeare play, spoken by Marullus in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 1, scanned to show the bare accentual pattern. The meter is mostly regular, but you can find one substitution—in the third line, the fourth foot is an anapest, while the seventh line has a feminine ending; i.e. it ends with an extra, unstressed syllable, “-tion.” In addition, in the first foot of the third line, you could scan the two words as “Knew you” instead of “Knew you.” It sounds better if you invert the stresses to make a trochee.

You blocks, | you stones, | you worse | than sense- | less things!
O you | hard hearts, | you cru- | el men | of Rome,
Knew you | not Pom- | pey? Man- | y a time | and oft
Have you | climb’d up | to walls | and bat- | tle- ments,
To towers | and win- | dows, yea, | to chim- | ney tops,
Your in- | fants in | your arms, | and there | have sat
The live- | long day | with pa- | tient ex- | pec- ta -tion,[8]
To see | great Pom- | pey pass | the streets | of Rome.

A number of benefits flow from using iambic pentameter blank verse. The first is that any kind of iambic pattern sounds close to everyday speech—if you listen for an iambic flow in English conversations, you’ll often hear it.

Aside from the everyday quality of blank verse, there’s also a sense of freedom from the demands of rhyming. Milton, who didn’t care to be always hemmed in by rhyme schemes, says it best in his preface to Paradise Lost:

THE Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them.

A third benefit associated with blank verse is that it can free up the poet to adopt a searching or questioning tone. Neoclassical-Era “heroic couplets” are very fine in their way, but there’s a certain declamatory attitude, a self-certitude, to them. A few of Alexander Pope’s excellent heroic couplets from his “Essay on Criticism” will make the point:

True wit is nature to advantage dressed;
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed;
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find
That gives us back the image of our mind.

Constraining oneself to this verse pattern, one would be hard pressed to convey any tone other than “Listen up, a timeless truth is being propounded!” But that kind of certitude isn’t usually what Shakespeare means to convey, so in his dramas, at least, plain, supple blank verse suits him best. To be fair, there are various rhyme schemes—the Petrarchan sonnet, the English sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, and others—that do allow a poet to strike up various moods. It’s just that for conveying dramatic action, blank verse functions as a blank slate: dramatists can do whatever they like with it.

Following is one more example to show that we need not overthink the business of “scanning” for metrical regularity. We need not become pedantic pests over it, and it’s nowhere near as rigid a science as some theorists claim. If we read poetry for its sense (including its dramatic properties if we are dealing with a play), we will get the accents right nearly all the time. The iambic pentameter or some other pattern will no doubt guide us in how to read the line well; but above all, we must use our commonsense understanding of the verse line and our experience in pronouncing English words. Shakespearean actors don’t simply mark up their reading texts for its regularity of pattern—though they may start with that task. In the end, diligent actors will re-mark their reading copies to suit the particular emphasis they consider best to focus and hold the audience members’ attention on what is said and done, to connect with or respond to their fellow actors, and so forth. Remember, too, the importance in Shakespeare of antithesis, which we can define as “setting the word against the word” in a way that ensures the memorable quality of the speech.

To conclude with a non-Shakespearean example, here is the opening verse passage in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”: These lines are very regular blank verse (as is the entire poem), so let’s scan it with that in mind, and then discuss a few things that should help us read the passage expertly:

Five years | have past; | five sum- | mers, with | the length
Of five | long win- | ters! and | a- gain | I hear
These wa- | ters, rol- | ling from | their moun- | tain springs
With a | soft in- | land mur- | mur. -- Once | a- gain
Do I | be- hold | these steep | and lof- |ty cliffs,
That on | a wild | se- clu- | ded scene | im- press
Thoughts of | more deep | se- clu- |sion; and | con- nect
The land- | scape with | the qui- | et of | the sky.

If we were to read the passage out loud that way, it would sound ridiculous and mar an otherwise beautiful stretch of words and imagery. Scanning, at base, is purely mechanical and doesn’t tell us exactly how to accent or pronounce the words. Just as an example, let’s take the stretch “Five years have past; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!” It would most likely be accented for actual performance as follows: “Five years have past; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!” More of the syllables are somewhat accented than the bare pattern suggests. But better yet would be to convey the accentual qualities by using nuanced font weights instead of the crude categories of “bold/not bold”: “years” would be a little less bold or accented than the initial word “Five”; in the phrase “five summers,” the “five” would be somewhat accented, though perhaps not quite as much as the first syllable of “summers,” and so forth. This is no doubt how experienced actors and readers actually treat the words as they accent them. In the end, we should read lines of verse in a way that makes the best sense of them, and let the basic pattern keep reasserting itself and serving as a place from which to start.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Set of Four + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-26546-0.


[1] That is, when it has a set pattern of accented and unaccented syllables, rhymed couplets or intricate rhyme schemes, etc.

[2] The line breaks in such passages, by the way, generally correspond in printed texts to the amount of space that was available in the authoritative copy from which the editors and printers are working

[3] According to Oxford, the term iambic comes from ἰάπτω, iaptō, I attack verbally. (Greek satirists used iambic trimeter.)

[4] Though strictly, we should use ˉ for classical Latin and Greek meters since this marking indicates syllabic quantities, not accents.

[5] From the Greek rhythmós, ῥυθμός, “any measured flow or symmetry”; verb rheō, ῥέω, “flow, run, etc.”

[6] These rearrangements of stresses are  sometimes called “substitutions,” though some people find that term rather confusing.

[7] Classical Greek and Latin metrics also allows for Pyrrhic feet ( ˘ ˘ ) and Spondees or spondaic feet ( ʹ ʹ ). 

[8] This unstressed final syllable need not add another foot to the verse; it’s called a “feminine ending.”

Intro to Shakespeare – 1

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Plays

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William Shakespeare was born on or around April 23, 1564 into a prosperous home in Warwickshire’s Stratford-upon-Avon. He was the third child of multifaceted businessman and local politician John Shakespeare (1531-1601) and Mary Elizabeth Arden (1536-1608), the daughter of a gentleman farmer who whose Arden ancestors went back at least to the time of William the Conqueror. Aside from William, four siblings survived to adulthood, but only one, his sister Joan (d. 1646), outlived him, and in fact the descendants of Joan and her husband William Hart are the great poet’s closest living descendants since none of William and Anne Shakespeare’s grandkids had children. Three other siblings of William were his brothers Gilbert (d. 1612), Richard (d. 1613), and Edmund, who became an actor in London but died in 1607 at the age of 27).

William almost certainly attended King Edward IV Grammar School in his hometown from approximately 1571-78, where he studied copious amounts of Latin grammar and possibly a bit of Greek as well.[1] His tutors would have been the Catholics Simon Hunt, Thomas Jenkins, and John Cottam. The last-mentioned of these men had a brother named Thomas who was executed for his connection to the famous Catholic scholar Edmund Campion. There is some speculation that after his schoolboy days but before he went to London in the mid-to-later 1590s, Shakespeare was a tutor in a prominent Catholic household in Lancashire, but nothing along these lines is certain, and the period after grammar school and before he was well established in London as a playwright (1592) are sometimes referred to as the “lost years.” Where did Shakespeare get his earliest preparation for his brilliant career in London theater? As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his excellent biography on Shakespeare[2], young William would have been introduced in grammar school to a good deal of Latin literature, including comic plays by Terence and Plautus and the elegant poetry of Ovid and Vergil. From such material, an imaginative lad like him could have learned a great deal about effective storytelling.

We can probably add to school studies Shakespeare’s viewings of late-medieval mystery and miracle plays put on by traveling players, along with Catholic-tending folk rites. This sort of entertainment was going out of style under the continued pressure of the Reformation in England, but to some extent, at least, it still seems to have been around during Shakespeare’s boyhood. Greenblatt points out that in 1575, Queen Elizabeth made a “progress” through an area not far from young William’s home, so the boy could easily have caught glimpses of the dazzling spectacles provided by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester for the queen’s entertainment.[3] Proximity to John Shakespeare’s business interests as a glover, agricultural- and wool-trader, money-lender, government official, and so forth would have given William considerable knowledge of these professions, too. It would also, as Greenblatt points out, have introduced young William to the manners of the aristocratic class. Mark Twain would one day advise students everywhere, “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” Will Shakespeare needed no prompting from a nineteenth-century American to avoid that mistake.

One thing we can’t source from any of these experiences is Shakespeare’s astonishing facility with language: this isn’t something one can just pick up along the way through education or even robust life experience. Biographer Peter Ackroyd and others have suggested that Shakespeare’s plays contain some of Warwickshire’s dialect, so perhaps we can add that to the mix of positive influences.[4] Still, to read or listen to the best of Shakespeare’s verse is to realize that we can’t reduce its author to a set of experiences and influences—we can’t dismiss the concept of genius out of hand.[5]

William married Anne Hathaway in 1582. Anne was several years older than her husband, which was rather unusual at the time. The couple had three children: Susanna (1583-1649) and in 1585 the twins Judith (d. 1662) and Hamnet (d. 1596). When William subsequently moved to London, Anne stayed in Stratford. We don’t know exactly how Shakespeare got his vital opportunity to travel from Stratford-upon-Avon to the great metropolis, but some biographers speculate that he may have become attached to one of the aristocrat-supported acting troupes that sometimes visited the area near where he lived.[6] In any case, Shakespeare must have been in London already by the late 1580s, and by 1592 (a tough year for the theater in London since the playhouses were shut down due to plague and other problems), he was becoming known as a promising playwright.

Being part of the theater scene in London must have been exciting for the young man—the first theater was built there in 1567 (the Red Lion in Whitechapel) and in 1576 (James Burbage’s London “Theatre”), and though there were predecessors to the stage such as the late medieval mystery cycles and morality plays like Everyman, the theater had an air of newness and played a significant part in the vibrant life of cosmopolitan London. Shakespeare attracted considerable notice from the outset. Even though he never attended either Oxford or Cambridge, he seems to have made some connections with the University Wits, brash young men such as Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, Thomas Watson, George Peele, and Thomas Lodge. The dying Robert Greene refers to Shakespeare with considerable resentment in his September 20, 1592 posthumously printed essay “Groats-worth of Wit”: “there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you…..” [7] Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 (c. 1591) contains language very similar to Greene’s “Tygers hart” passage, as the Duke of York reproaches his enemy Queen Margaret with the words “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!” (Norton 243, 1.4.137),[8] so it seems certain that this caustic putdown was aimed directly at William. (As for at least some of his excellent poetry—the Sonnets, The Phoenix and the Turtle, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece—Shakespeare had patrons such as Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton to provide some Elizabethan aristocratic backing.)

For most of his career, Shakespeare was associated with the playing company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which was later renamed the King’s Men when James I became monarch in 1603. Shakespeare seems to have chosen John Fletcher (1579-1625) to succeed him as the head of the King’s Men, and the two collaborated on three of Shakespeare’s late plays, namely Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost play Cardenio. Some other plays for which he seems to have had collaborators were Titus Andronicus (George Peele), Timon of Athens (Thomas Middleton), and Pericles, Prince of Tyre (George Wilkins). Collaboration of this sort was evidently common in the great age of Elizabethan-Jacobean drama—no doubt it was driven by the thriving market for new works to put before the public.

With or without other playwrights, Shakespeare produced an astonishing number of brilliant plays during his time as a dramatist, divided into comedies, tragedies, and histories. (The ones we call “romance” plays were not so called until the mid-Victorian Era.) He even acted in some of them, perhaps taking the role of Old Adam in As You Like It and the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet. But his main players were the magnificent Richard Burbage for the tragic roles, and Will Kempe for comedy until 1599, after him coming the subtler Robert Armin. There were others as listed in the 1623 Folio. Well before his death in 1616 from an illness of some kind, Shakespeare had become a successful businessman (he owned part of the Globe Theatre that had been built in 1599 and the indoors Blackfriars Playhouse used from 1608 onward during the winter, which yielded considerable revenue), and had other financial interests back home in Stratford. There were some difficult times in Shakespeare’s life: his son Hamnet died in 1596 at the age of 11, and later, to this personal tragedy was added a moment of political peril when the Earl of Essex almost sucked the playwright into a 1599 rebellion by commissioning a performance of Richard II. The performance enraged Queen Elizabeth, who got Essex’s point that she, like the king in the play, was a bad ruler who deserved to be deposed. But Shakespeare had written the play around 1595-96, not for Essex’s doomed rebellion, so he wasn’t blamed. It could be dangerous to write and stage plays during his time. But all in all, Shakespeare’s was a remarkable and successful career.

It may seem odd to us that Shakespeare never published a collected edition of his plays during his lifetime. He may have agreed with Duke Theseus in 5.1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that with regard to plays, “The best in this kind are but shadows.” Perhaps, in his view, the thunderous applause of his fellow Londoners was fame enough. Or—and this seems doubtful—perhaps he meant to turn out a fair copy of his collected dramas someday, but his relatively swift-progressing final illness prevented that project. Who can say? In any case, memory of nearly all of Shakespeare’s dramas (aside from the lost Cardenio and possibly Love’s Labour’s Won) was kept alive by the publication of the First Folio in 1623. Although no original hand-written manuscripts now survive, the 1623 Folio collected edition preserved 18 of its 36 plays from oblivion since no popular quarto editions of them had yet been printed.[9]

In politics, Shakespeare seems to have been a royalist in so far as he was of any view (the relevant sovereigns are the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) and the Stuart King James I (1603-25; James’s mother was Elizabeth’s rival Mary Queen of Scots), and somewhat conservative in the broad sense that his plays consistently respect the interests of the nobility, and not so much the commonfolk, at least when they are involved in disorders. The last years of his life were spent mainly in looking after his real estate holdings and other business interests in or near Stratford. It is logical to suppose that Shakespeare’s outlook stemmed from his bourgeois roots and lifestyle: he grew up in the Warwickshire countryside, and his father had some local influence and wealth when William was young. John Shakespeare was a local official and a glover, moneylender, and dealer in the illegal wool trade, though he seems to have fallen on hard times later on.

As already mentioned, William did quite well for himself as a businessman, what with his crowd-pleasing playwright and acting skills, wise decisions about theatrical matters at the Globe from 1599 and later at the more intimate Blackfriars, and possibly in other side ventures. People who have property and wealth tend to support stability in the social and political realms, and Shakespeare was almost certainly no different from most in that regard: a bourgeois gentleman is not likely to take the side of chaos-sowing rebels like Jack Cade or Wat Tyler over the Crown, or of house-torching plebeian Roman rioters over the interests of safety and security. One senses some humor concerning, but no genuine fondness for, mobs of any sort in Shakespeare’s plays. Stephen Greenblatt seems right to suggest in Will in the World that what Shakespeare likes about mobs of any composition was their dynamism, their energy—but not their ideas or intentions.

In religion Shakespeare may, as many biographers have suggested, have had Catholic leanings even though he conformed to the Anglican Church, which took its inception from Henry VIII’s inability to get the Pope to grant him a divorce from his first queen, Catherine of Aragon. For that reason, England joined the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther had begun in October 1517. Still, it’s expecting a lot to suppose that everybody in the “reformed” countries would automatically go along with the program. Many English people tried to keep up the old faith, though they had to put a lid on their activities since Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth in particular didn’t want their subjects reverting to Catholic forms and allegiances. Shakespeare seems to have had a few “Papists” in his family—possibly including his father John—and he also seems to have had connections with powerful Catholics beyond his family. Ackroyd notes that quite a number of the Shakespeare family’s neighbors in Stratford were Catholic. At the very least, then, young William’s way of thinking about Catholics could not have been grounded in the sentiment, “I’ve never met one.”

In sum, Shakespeare seems to have been a culturally traditionalist, affable, entrepreneurial-minded Englishman, not some atheist radical like Christopher Marlowe or irascible ruffian like Robert Greene, even if he knew and consorted with such men. What does this biography mean for his art? It’s hard to say, really. If we were to let this “businessman burgher” image lead us to suppose that Shakespeare’s plays would offer stodgy characters and lackluster, preachy action, we would be hilariously wrong. When John Keats wrote admiringly in one of his letters of the “chameleon poet” endowed with “negative capability” (the ability to explore a personality or a situation without need for immediate certainty in the moral or factual sense), he must have been thinking of Shakespeare.[10] What besides “negative capability” and chameleonic tendencies would allow an artist so completely to enter into the mindset of a charming but thoroughly wicked character such as Richard III or Iago; or a flawed but noble one like the Roman general Coriolanus; or an all-purpose rogue and morality-play “Vice” like Jack Falstaff; or an intelligent, sensitive character like Macbeth whose ambition traps him in a downward spiral of preventive murder and psychological hardness? It would be challenging to generate so many wonderful characters if you were intent on propagating some rock-solid moral drawn from your politics or religion.[11] Shakespeare disappears with remarkable ease into his multifarious characters, so that he really is what Samuel Johnson and others have called him: “a poet of nature” (including human nature). It may seem grandiose to suggest that there has never been an artist quite like Shakespeare, but it’s also defensible.


The Tudor Era begins with Henry VII (1485-1509), victor in the Wars of the Roses over the last Yorkist King Richard III (1483-85). It continues through the reigns of Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53), Mary (1553-58), and ends after Elizabeth I (1558-1603). The Stuart Era begins with the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James I (1603-25), continues with the reign of his ill-fated son Charles I (1625-49), and then after an interregnum period in which Cromwell and his Puritans ruled, it is restored in the person of Charles II (1660-85).[12]

A central period of English history with respect to Shakespeare and his dramas is the mid-fifteenth century through his own lifetime (1564-1616). Henry VII put an end to the Wars of the Roses, a period of dynastic strife between the descendants of Edward III (1327-77) stretching from 1455 to Henry’s ascension and even a few years after that, to 1487. In essence, the throne was tossed back and forth between the Houses of Lancaster and York, with the often incapacitated Lancastrian King Henry VI (son of Henry V, victor of Agincourt) ruling from 1422-61, and Yorkist Richard III getting rid of the heirs of his deceased brother and fellow Yorkist Edward IV (1461-83), who had defeated Henry VI, to rule in his own right for three fitful years (1483-85). Finally, Henry, Earl of Richmond, an exiled member of the Welsh Tudor clan, married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York to unite the two great houses. This Henry VII, of course, is the grandfather of the mightiest of English rulers, Shakespeare’s own Queen Elizabeth I. So the recent political past had been one of strife and instability, with great nobles traversing England and at times treating the people with as little respect as foreign invaders might.

Elizabeth I’s reign, which covered Shakespeare’s lifetime until his 39th year, was a time of growth, promise, and international danger for England. Her father Henry VIII’s reign (1509-47), as mentioned above, swept Martin Luther’s bracing Protestant Reformation into England from the Continent, posing a severe challenge to the safety and consciences of many English citizens, and while at first Queen Elizabeth seemed content to require only outward conformity with the new Protestant dispensation, genuine threats from the Popes in Rome and from Catholic plotting led her into ever-more severe means of dealing with Catholic priests infiltrating England from Europe and with English “recusants” and other religious malcontents. The massive Spanish Armada sent by Philip II of Spain (Elizabeth’s half-brother!) was sent on a mission in 1588 to crush the English navy and then invade England itself. Thanks in part to a major storm, the Armada failed, but the menace was real, which meant persecution and forced secrecy for many of England’s still large number of dedicated Catholics.

This was a time of growing English nationalism, naval power, and exploration, with the Queen encouraging men such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake to set sail for the new world. Royal power had been much centralized from the time of feudalism and the Court was a great factor in English life during Tudor and Stuart times, but Queen Elizabeth and her successor James I were by no means unencumbered absolutists, however fond the latter was of “the divine right of kings.” In particular, the growing commercial class in London began to feel its power as an important economic force in the life of the nation, and religious Puritans began to take issue with the authority of the Crown and the Church of England (or Anglican Church) that Henry VIII had turned into a nationalist instrument when Pope Paul III excommunicated him in 1534.

The struggle between Puritans and the State intensified in the reigns of the Stuart James I and then of his son Charles I, who was executed in 1649 during the course of a bloody Civil War won by Oliver Cromwell and his faction, who were determined to establish the Rule of the Saints on English soil. These theater-closing, pleasure-disdaining Puritans ruled for only a decade or so, with Charles II returning from the Continent to initiate the Stuart Restoration of 1660, but the monarchy has never been as powerful since the Puritans’ regicidal Interregnum. Shakespeare, of course, didn’t live to see the civil strife of the 1640s, though his sister Joan did, and so did his last direct descendant, granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Hall Barnard, who died childless in 1670, ten years after the Restoration.[13] On the whole, during the Tudor and Stuart periods, English sovereigns were acutely aware of how valuable the arts could be to them in their quest to shore up and augment their own power, and Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights certainly benefited from this awareness.


Let’s leave aside political and religious history and move on to consider briefly Shakespeare’s London. It was a thriving city of perhaps 200,000-250,000 people by his day (say 1600), and the whole of England had around four million inhabitants. The neoclassical critic Samuel Johnson later declared proudly that “He that is tired of London is tired of life,” but even before his time the City must have been an exciting place to live, if not a very safe one. Many of the protections modern people take for granted didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time. Safe food and good sanitation? Forget it. Health care? Not available—aside from perhaps some herbal remedies and advice to “take the waters” or avoid strenuous exertion, physicians were about as likely to kill their patients as cure them. The germ theory of disease was unknown (it’s more or less a nineteenth-century development), and the average lifespan seems to have been around 35 years. If a person was very lucky and never contracted a serious illness or needed surgery, he or she might live to the biblical threescore and ten (70), but more likely the end would come much sooner. And there was still the Bubonic Plague to deal with in both London and the countryside—Daniel Defoe’s post-Restoration book Journal of the Plague Year (1722) conveys how horrifying and deadly a prospect that was. Material life for London’s working class of servants, apprentices, and artisans must have been rough, always a struggle. The City had its guildsmen and prosperous merchants, too, but all were subject to the difficulties of life in a noisy, dirty, dangerous environment.

One thing to draw from this characterization is that life in early modern London retained some of the uncertainties of medieval times, in particular a deep sense of the tenuousness of existence itself—people never knew when they or someone they loved would be carried off by the plague or some other sickness, or by an accident due to unsafe conditions. Death was an acknowledged, if feared, part of everyday life. That kind of awareness makes for a very different sensibility from ours because our culture tends to distance us from the presence and processes of death. At the same time, London offered a new sense of possibility and liveliness, a sense of the larger world “out there,” the one beyond Europe being explored by Raleigh and Drake and others. London was becoming to some degree cosmopolitan, a place that invited the world in rather than excluding it. In plays such as The Tempest, Shakespeare plays to this awareness of the greater world beyond England, no doubt much to his audiences’ delight.


The advent of the public theater in the 1570s-1580s certainly testifies to a thriving intellectual climate in London. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold was surely right when he mentioned Elizabethan London in the same sentence as Classical Athens in this regard. In his 1866 treatise “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Arnold wrote that Shakespeare didn’t need tremendous book-learning because a lot of his acumen came from living in a culture that was alive to all that life had to offer in the Early Modern Age. Shakespeare grew up in this heady atmosphere, and his audiences were receptive to the imaginative spectacles he staged for them. Some acting companies performed up to twelve plays a week, so they had to foster a community spirit among the actors, who didn’t get much rehearsal time for their performances. Many Londoners of all classes had at least some leisure time, and aside from their attendance at crude spectacles such as bear-baiting and public executions, they flocked in impressive numbers to the several theaters (the Rose, the Swan, and others before the Globe’s opening in 1599). It should be noted that the theaters were not located in areas within the city of London’s jurisdiction since the authorities frowned upon the seamy, morally suspect presence of the lower orders in and around the major playhouses.[14]

In Shakespeare’s Audience, Alfred Harbage suggests that on any given day, several thousand inhabitants probably paid their penny or more to attend an afternoon theater performance, and the demand only went away when the Bubonic Plague struck from time to time and closed the theaters down.[15] Harbage also deals carefully with the question of audience composition: the most extreme characterizations of the London playgoers, to be sure, are the product of Puritan loathing. Not all of Shakespeare’s groundlings[16] were prostitutes or pickpockets, though some of them were. The profession wasn’t considered solid in terms of class status, and women were not allowed to become actors because it was not deemed a respectable craft for them to practice. Still, respectable people, male and female, attended the London theatres, which were a meeting ground for citizens from various stations and walks of life. For that matter, Shakespeare’s players strutted their stuff at times even before the nobility and monarchs at court, so drama was an interest that cut across large sections of Elizabethan-Jacobean society. Theater was an impressive part of the life of a burgeoning Early-Modern nation, and it served all of the purposes that art can and does serve, from reinforcing social mores to questioning them sharply; from praising monarchs to reminding them that they were, after all, only mortal; from delightful escapism to stark, almost unbearable realism.

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Set of Four + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-26546-0.


[1] See a 1709 edition of Headmaster of St. Paul’s School William Lily’s popular Latin grammar textbook; the first edition was published in 1513.)

[2] Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004. Ch. 1, “Primal Scenes,” 23-53.

[3] Greenblatt, Will in the World. Ch. 1, “Primal Scenes,” 42-53.

[4] Ackroyd, Peter. Shakespeare: the Biography. New York: Anchor Books, 2005. Ch. 8, 42-44. But as for the issue of Warwickshire dialect appearing in Shakespeare’s plays, this is a matter of contention. See, for example, this 2016 article by Ros Barber in The Conversation. It’s fair to point out that we have no reliable way to arrive at a precise sense of the dialect that prevailed in Shakespeare’s environs more than 400 years ago.

[5] A note on the “authorship controversy.” While it’s theoretically possible that the man William Shakespeare who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and lived from 1564 to 1616 did not write the works of Shakespeare, such claims seem to be consistently unconvincing. Shakespeare was well respected (if also resented by some) as a playwright—among his friends were learned fellow playwright Ben Jonson and other artistic notables, and to them we may add Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, for whom he staged fine productions at court: Elizabeth probably saw at least The Merry Wives of Windsor and Love’s Labour’s Lost, while James watched Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Henry V, and other plays. The oft-stated notion that Shakespeare couldn’t have written “Shakespeare” because he was a commoner seems fundamentally flawed. It makes more sense to suggest that an aristocrat would not have had the range of life experience to write as Shakespeare did—he wouldn’t have the varied experiences that an ordinary but strikingly observant citizen would have. In this view, William Shakespeare, a member of a tolerably prosperous but countryside-based family, was perfectly positioned to become “Shakespeare,” author of the remarkable and varied dramas we still appreciate today. Perhaps Shakespeare the man is subjected to so much suspicion because so many critics have turned “Shakespeare” into a god. When that happens, people look for the feet of clay that they think must uphold the golden image.

A recent author-question effort by the excellent book-trade historian Stuart Kells is Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2018), which, starting from what is conceived of as the major problem of Shakespeare’s missing library, re-envisions the playwright as essentially a specialist in “vitalising” other colleagues’ work, a kind of middleman in the “production line” of a complex Elizabethan-Jacobean publication process (see especially pp. 208-15). This is an interesting view, but one question to ask of it would be as follows: if, as Professor Kells suggests, Ben Jonson was the “master editor” of such a project as the First Folio of 1623 and thus (allegedly along with John Florio) put the final polish on Shakespeare’s presumably mediocre work, why did Jonson never produce plays in his own name that were as sparkling as much of what we encounter in Shakespeare’s Folio? Jonson was an excellent poet and playwright, but very few readers today would claim that his work equals that of Shakespeare. By what editorial magic do we get, say, the Folio version of Hamlet from the author of Sejanus? Another question to ask concerns the poetry that Shakespeare published before his death, in particular the Sonnets that went out in Quarto format in 1609. They are widely acknowledged to be brilliant, highly polished, perhaps even unparalleled in their kind. Surely, they are not the work of a mere journeyman who desperately needed an editor, so why shouldn’t the plays be equally fine?

[6] Greenblatt, ibid. Ch. 5, “Crossing the Bridge,” 162-63.

[7] Greene, Robert. “Groats-worth of Wit.” Renascence Editions. Accessed 1/31/2024.

[8] The edition used for Shakespeare quotations is Greenblatt, Stephen, et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

[9] Which plays stood to have been lost? The eighteen are as follows: All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, King John, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter’s Tale.

[10] Keats, John. “Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 Oct. 1818.” (Keats Letters Project) Accessed 1/30/2024.

[11] This is not meant to disparage didactic authors. John Milton is exemplary in this regard. No one would say that Milton lacked firm moral, “teacherly” intentions for his art, but he was quite able to create dynamic characters and page-turning narrative.

[12] The Hanoverian line begins with George I (1714-27). The name changed to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha when Edward VII (1901-10) reigned. He was the son of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and the German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. The name changed again in the wake of WWI when “Saxe-Coburg Gotha” came to sound too Germanic. This time, it changed to the elegantly titled “House of Windsor” with George V (1910-36). The most recent three sovereigns in this line are George VI (1936-52), Elizabeth II (1952-2022) and Charles III (2022-present).

[13] However, some descendants of Shakespeare’s sister Joan Hart are still around today.

[14] On the forced relocation of theaters to land beyond the city limits, see, for example The Old Globe Theater History

[15] Harbage, Alfred. Shakespeare’s Audience. Columbia UP, 1961.

[16] Groundlings, who paid only a penny for entry, had to stand during performances rather than enjoy them seated.

The Tempest

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Norton Romances and Poems, third edition, pp. 387-448).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, Prospero’s spirit-servant Ariel whips up the effects of a tempest. Explain the appeal of the oceanic storm, both as a physical event and as a metaphor for chance, fate or some other concern. Why would a storm at sea or a shipwreck be such an effective, impactful thing to stage for early modern audiences? What risks were associated with travel either by sea or by land in that era and before?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, aside from stage directions and some statements about how to maneuver the ship in the storm, most of what we see and hear involves interaction among a limited number of the characters on board. In particular, what does the wildness of the storm do to preconceived notions about rank, authority, and decorum, as people of high and low station argue with one another about what to do? With regard to the aristocrats, what differences among Gonzalo, Antonio, and Sebastian can you discover, based on their words, actions, and reactions?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how is Miranda positioned as an important character in the play, based on her initial dialogue with Prospero? What virtues of soul and intellect does she appear to possess? What kind of relationship does the dialogue suggest that Miranda has with Prospero? How much does she know about her past, and how does she react to what she learns about her origins and status in this scene?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, Prospero, by way of informing Miranda who she is, must tell her who he once was: the Duke of Milan, Italy. What story does he tell Miranda about how the two of them ended up on a nearly deserted island? How, mainly in the context of political analysis, does Prospero explain his loss of power and his exile? Besides himself, who else does he consider responsible for his misfortunes, and why so?

5. In Act 1, Scene 2, in the course of explaining to Miranda why he lost his dukedom and got exiled from Milan, Prospero repeatedly mentions his fascination with certain abstruse studies. What studies is he talking about, in terms of specific references in the play’s text? There will be occasion later in the play to return to the nature of Prospero’s learning and magic, but at this point, to what extent do these studies seem like normal Renaissance humanist pursuits, and to what extent might they be conjectured to go beyond the boundary or normal, permissible learning?

6. In Act 1, Scene 2, how should we characterize Prospero’s interaction with the island-spirit Ariel? How does this spirit describe the present and past services he has done for Prospero, including the spectacular effects of the storm that his master commanded him to create? What is Ariel’s “back story” before he was rescued and set to work for Prospero? What does Prospero’s treatment of him throughout this scene suggest about the exiled duke’s understanding of authority and its proper uses? To what extent is Prospero’s potential for tyranny on display in this scene?

7. In Act 1, Scene 2, Prospero’s conference with Ariel is followed by a very unpleasant encounter with the native-born Caliban. This character has sometimes been allegorized by modern critics as an island native confronting the unwanted attentions of self-entitled, grasping European colonizers. Based on Caliban’s story about who he is and how he came to become Prospero’s “slave” as well as on the opposing narrative of Prospero and Miranda, how do you interpret his situation? What are Caliban’s virtues and vices, and how does he describe himself—his nature, his origins, his rights, his limitations?

8. In Act 1, Scene 2, Prince Ferdinand swims to shore, and soon Ariel sings two brief songs with musical accompaniment to draw the prince further towards land. How does Ferdinand initially understand his situation when he makes it ashore, and how does Ariel’s singing affect him? In particular, what does he make of the song that begins, “Full fathom five thy father lies” (409, 1.2.395ff)? What more can we, the audience, learn by connecting the songs to the play’s action and exploring them thematically?

9. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the first encounter between Ferdinand and Miranda go? What does each think of the other, and on what basis? It’s clear that Prospero is inwardly pleased with the meeting, but how does he nonetheless treat Ferdinand at this point? What is he trying to accomplish by treating him the way he does? How does Ferdinand respond to his predicament once he understands it?


10. In Act 2, Scene 1, what kind and quality of advice does the Neapolitan counselor Gonzalo offer disconsolate King Alonso? How does Alonso respond to this advice? How do Antonio, Sebastian, and Adrian respond to it? Fundamentally, what seems to be Gonzalo’s perspective on what has just happened to them as a group: their seemingly narrow escape from death and their presence now on a far-flung island?

11. In Act 2, Scene 1, Gonzalo’s thoughts about the island lead him to try his hand at philosophizing like Plato, builder of the ideal republic: he constructs a utopian vision of a society and its government for his hearers. What are the main features of this utopia, and what assumptions about human nature underlie it? How do Sebastian and Antonio respond to this noble vision? On the whole, does Gonzalo seem wise and good? What are his strengths and limitations? How, in terms of character and ethics, does he compare to the others in his island group?

12. In Act 2, Scene 1, when Alonso and Gonzalo fall asleep, what course of action does Antonio urge upon Alonso’s brother Sebastian? According to Antonio, what opportunity has the tempest presented to Sebastian, and how should he respond? How does he justify this course of action, which would more or less repeat the treachery he himself practiced against Prospero twelve years ago? What benefit might accrue to Antonio if Sebastian were to follow his plan? How does Ariel thwart the plot for the time being?

13. In Act 2, Scene 2, Caliban reveals his disdain and abject fear of Prospero and his tormenting spirits. Soon, he is observed by the jester Trinculo and the butler Stefano, who have arrived on shore separately. What does each man think of Caliban—who or what do they believe he is? How do they hope to profit from his exotic appearance? In what sense do Trinculo and Stefano form a natural or logical group with Caliban? How does their interaction reflect on or complement the earlier one between the plotters Antonio and Sebastian?


14. In Act 3, Scene 1, what heavy task has Prospero given Ferdinand, and what is the latter’s perspective on his present labors? The affection of both Miranda and Ferdinand deserves the description “love at first sight,” but how do they differ with regard to their respective ways of processing or accounting for that profound, instant feeling? How can both of them be sure of the rightness of their affection?

15. In Act 3, Scene 1, Prospero is apparently listening in on everything that transpires between Miranda and Ferdinand. How does he respond to their conversation, and in particular to what he hears from Miranda, who boldly proposes to the young prince she loves? What complexity of feeling marks Prospero’s responses to the unfolding of the lovers’ dialogue? What accounts for this complexity?

16. In Act 3, Scene 2, what developments take place in the relationship between Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban? What deepens the latter’s dislike of Trinculo and his attachment to Stefano? How does Ariel promote this development? What does the interaction among these three characters suggest about the nature and prospects of their budding conspiracy?

17. In Act 3, Scene 2, what outline for a successful coup against Prospero does Caliban offer Stefano? How does he assess the strengths and weaknesses of his enemy Prospero? What appears to be his primary motivation in wanting to overthrow the old man? On the whole, what appears to be Caliban’s political philosophy, if we may call it that? In other words, how, in Caliban’s view, is power best won, what is it for, and who deserves to wield it?

18. In Act 3, Scene 3, what is the significance of Prospero’s magical stagecraft as he prepares to pronounce sentence against the shipwrecked men who have wronged him—why does he command Ariel to serve up a banquet and then, in the form of a harpy, to make the banquet disappear while Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian look on helplessly? See the classical source of this strange scene (Virgil’s Aeneid, 3.253-319). How does that source elucidate the event that takes place in the present play?

19. In Act 3, Scene 3, Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian have undergone the shock of Ariel’s initial visit in the form of a harpy, that spirit returns in the same form to declare their faults to them. What stern accounting of these men’s sins does he offer, and what course of action does he prescribe for the three men if they seek redemption? What will happen to them if they don’t follow this course? How does Gonzalo assess the effect that the “harpy’s” sentence has had upon the three men? Finally, what effect does this production have on Prospero himself: how does he describe his situation at this point?


20. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero, after apologizing to Ferdinand for his harsh treatment of him and warning the young man to exercise self-restraint before the wedding, tells Ariel that he feels obligated to treat the couple to what he calls “some vanity of mine art” (433, 4.1.41). Provide a brief outline of the masque arranged by Ariel, including some information about each of the divine characters that the spirits portray. What is the basic action of the masque, as enacted by Iris, Ceres, and Juno? What purpose/s does this aethereal display serve?

21. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero utters his famous lines beginning, “Our revels now are ended” and concluding with “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (437, 4.1.148-58). He follows this up with a second, briefer portion that begins “Sir, I am vexed” (437, 4.1.159-63). What is the immediate context of the first part of Prospero’s speech—that is, what spurs him to say it? What seems to be Prospero’s intention towards the young couple in saying what he says? As for the second part of the speech, why is it necessary—why might the first part of the speech not have proved comforting to Ferdinand and Miranda?

22. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero utters his speech beginning, “Our revels now are ended” (437, 4.1.148-58). In previous centuries, this moving passage was often taken as Shakespeare’s personal farewell to the theater. The reading’s fall into disuse stems from the fact that after completing The Tempest, Shakespeare collaborated on three further dramas with John Fletcher: Henry VIII, Cardenio, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Prospero is not Shakespeare, either—he is a fictional character. All this duly acknowledged, might a critic still argue that this speech offers some hint of the playwright’s mature perspective on the value of the dramatic arts, or of his own art specifically? Explain.

23. In Act 4, Scene 1, after the end of the scene’s “masque” portion, Prospero and Ariel meet to hash out what to do with the base conspirators Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban. How has Ariel positioned these three in a way that helps foil their plans? Why don’t they accomplish the murderous deed that would make Stefano king of the island, and Caliban his most devoted subject?


24. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero’s scene-beginning conversation with Ariel moves him to show the higher-class conspirators Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian some mercy. In what way is Ariel instrumental in getting Prospero to soften his stance? What key principle allows Prospero to add intellectual and moral justification to his emotion-based decision to take pity on the longstanding enemies who are now in his grasp?

25. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero says he is at last willing to part with his magic book and staff. The source of his description is Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 7.265-77. What powers does Prospero claim to have wielded? Do any of them seem troubling? If so, why? Moreover, in what spirit does Prospero make his decision to yield his magical powers? Does he seem decisive and content to let them go, or is there some ambivalence or grudging quality to his yielding? Explain.

26. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero gives us his internal, private assessment of Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian (as well as Gonzalo, about whom he thinks only good things and whom he embraces first), and then, when they are more awake, he addresses these three “men of sin” openly. How does this open performance differ in style and substance from the private assessment? Consider in particular Prospero’s public treatment of King Alonso—why is he most generous towards this man, even though he has been seriously wronged by him? As for the guilty Antonio and Sebastian, neither man ever apologizes to Prospero. Does that matter? Why or why not?

27. In Act 5, Scene 1.88-94, we are treated to Ariel’s joyful song “Where the bee sucks, there suck I,” and we know that the time has come for him to gain his freedom. What kind of future can we conjecture to lie in store for Prospero’s longtime assistant? What elements or realms has Ariel symbolized throughout the play, and what life will he enjoy now that Prospero is ready to dismiss him? How does Ariel’s song itself envision the freedom he has sought for so many years, first imprisoned by Sycorax and then pressed into service by Prospero?

28. In Act 5, Scene 1, when Prospero reveals Ferdinand and Miranda to the assembled company, they are playing chess. What is the significance of that choice of game on Shakespeare’s part, with respect to the couple’s island courtship and their prospects for a happy future? How does the elder characters’ carefully staged encounter with the young couple help to settle the reconciliation that Prospero has sought? How are the elders’ perspectives different from those of Ferdinand and Miranda, yet not incompatible with them?

29. In Act 5, Scene 1.205-13, the upright old Neapolitan counselor Gonzalo gives the other characters and us an optimistic gloss on the play’s nearly completed action. To borrow a line from another Shakespeare play, “All’s well that ends well.” To what extent do the mood and substance of the play support Gonzalo’s characteristically cheerful interpretation, which seems to affirm the successful actions undertaken by Prospero to be in alignment with divine providence? Explain.

30. In Act 5, Scene 1, Ariel drives in the base conspirators Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban to face judgment and mockery by Prospero and the other high-born characters. How does Alonso react to his ill-behaved servants Stefano and Trinculo? How does Prospero deal with Caliban, with whom he has a long, bitter history? What, if anything, do you suppose the old wizard’s statement “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (446, 5.1.278-79) might mean for Caliban’s future?

31. In the epilogue following Act 5, Scene 1, what prerogative does Prospero acknowledge as belonging to the audience? In what sense does he here put himself in the situation of his servant Ariel with respect to playgoers? How does the epilogue reflect on the relationship between art and life beyond art, between the representations of a creator and the imagination and attention of a viewer?

32. Finally, with regard to the Epilogue following Act 5, Scene 1, now that Prospero (apparently having cast away his magic book and staff) stands reduced to the level of a rather frail, mortal human being, how should we reconcile his newly diminished status to the life he has lived as a powerful wizard on an enchanted island? To what extent does Prospero’s recovery of his dukedom in Milan make up for the loss? What else has he gained, and to what degree does it compensate him for the loss of his magic?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake