Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 815-88).

Act 1, Scene 2 (826-27, Macbeth’s warrior status)

Macbeth is already a hero when the play begins. Much of what is narrated in Scene 2 concerns his bravery during the battles against the rebel Macdonwald, Cawdor, and Norway. His martial valor exceeds that of everyone else in the field, and there’s an exuberant quality to his actions in the service of King Duncan: Macbeth, “Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel / Which smoked with bloody execution, / Like valour’s minion / Carved out his passage till he faced the slave [Macdonwald]…” (826, 2.17ff). So the pattern of the bold and loyal warrior is set, and Macbeth will be able to use it to his advantage against Duncan, just as the former Thane of Cawdor must have done.

Incidentally, on Shakespeare’s borrowing from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, as usual the poet plays fast and loose with his material—Duncan and Macbeth’s two reigns stretched from 1034-57, the time just before the Norman Conquest, but there’s a lot of conflation when it comes to the fighting. The idea of Macbeth’s being set on to the murder by his wife comes from the story of an earlier Scottish king, Duff, who was murdered by Donwald—that’s where the business of killing the chamberlains and blaming them comes from, for instance. Holinshed’s Banquo is a very bad fellow from the outset, and his Duncan is a weak young man, not a hallowed elder. Some of the references to witches can be found in Holinshed, and England’s Scottish-born King James I liked the subject of witchcraft and even wrote a book on it, entitled Daemonology. He traced his ancestry back to Banquo and Fleance, so he is part of the royal line that taunts Macbeth by stretching out “to the crack of doom.”

Act 1, Scenes 1 and 3 (825-26, 827-31, Witches prophesy, Macbeth’s first thoughts)

The classical Fates were Clotho the spinner, Atropos the “unturning” cutter, Lachesis the “allotter” or measurer, daughters all of Zeus and Themis. As the ancients sometimes saw it, the Fates or Moirai possessed a power over events independent even of the gods, who could not control them. But this conception of an externally imposed fate is impersonal and irrational; there’s no ultimate or ulterior meaning to it, and the Greek way of holding a person accountable for confronting a fate that can’t be altered is equally strange, if admirable. I’d say the witches in Macbeth are in a different category: they don’t possess deterministic power over mortals. The witches claim to know (and really seem to know) that Macbeth will first be Cawdor and then king, while Banquo will father many kings. But they don’t claim the direct power to alter events: note how one witch responds to an insult: she will plague the insulter’s husband, but can’t stop his ship from reaching port: “Though his barque cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-tossed” (828, 3.23-24). Neither do they force Macbeth to do what he subsequently does. He may seem almost hypnotized by the witches, but hypnotism only works because people secretly want to do the things they are supposedly commanded to do. That sounds like the correct way to describe the relationship between Macbeth and the witches. They can set forth a vision, but they can’t make Macbeth’s decisions for him. He understands that their bare statements don’t necessarily mean he ought to seize the crown by force. I suspect that what the witches know most intimately is Macbeth’s character. Their meeting with him isn’t an anonymous call or an accident; they know who he is and prepare to meet him at the end of the “hurly-burly” battle. (825, 1.3-4) They have given Macbeth the apparent certainty that he is to become king, and he will do exactly as he subsequently does. Perhaps the most important thing the witches know is that the measure of ambition in their man outweighs his conscience.

In his lectures, Coleridge says that the value of Shakespeare’s supernaturalism is to set an excited tone right away and thereby to prepare us for Macbeth’s central deed in Act 2. (He contrasts this movement with Hamlet, which starts out conversationally and moves to high rhetoric.) But the supernatural is more than a stage prop or plot device here: we are to understand the witches to be real. The witches (and the ghost of Banquo later) are more than a metaphor for states of mind. To use the romanticist framework, Shakespeare is an imaginative poet who brings together traditional beliefs and images in a more vital, dynamic way than a merely mechanical or fanciful poet. Such an imaginative poet will, suggests Coleridge, balance and reconcile “opposite and discordant qualities”: Macbeth’s ambition is material, and the supernatural forces are equally real. Neither cancels the other but instead both correlate or even mix in a way that leaves both Macbeth and us distinctly uneasy. The Norton editors make something like this point when they write that the witches are never apprehended or punished once Macbeth is dead and Malcolm inherits, and when they refer to the play’s “nebulous infection, a bleeding of the demonic into the secular and the secular into the demonic” (820).

The effect that the witches’ prophecies have upon Macbeth is profound and unsettling: “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good” and “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is / But what is not” (830, 3.129-30, 138-41). All that Macbeth had formerly taken for granted is now in play, and Macbeth’s murderous thoughts coexist uneasily with his hope that “chance may crown me / Without my stir” (830, 3.142-43).

Act 1, Scene 4 (831-32, Malcolm heir, Macbeth chooses violent path, self-division)

Duncan is still shocked by the treachery of the now executed Thane of Cawdor, saying, “He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust” (831, 4.12). Duncan makes Malcolm Prince of Cumberland and heir to the throne, which galls Macbeth, who apparently thought the crown might come to him just as honorably as the honors he has won up to this point: Malcolm’s preeminence is “a step / On which I must fall down or else o’erleap” (832, 4.48ff), and it makes a division within him: “Stars, hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires….” (832, 4.50-51)

Act 1, Scene 5 (832-34, Lady Macbeth’s unsexing; anxieties about Macbeth)

Lady Macbeth’s receptivity and determination are on display: she is exhilarated at the news of the great change to come, and calls on the heavens to “unsex” her, to make her as steely and strong as a male warrior, stopping up all portals of sentiment and leaving room and capacity only for necessary action. (833, 5.38-52) She has no doubt that the witches’ prophecy will come true and that it will require violent setting-on, but her role is that of the cunning woman, the plotter and seducer—Macbeth must do the deed, which causes her great anxiety: “Yet do I fear thy nature. / It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way” (833, 5.14-16). As in classical tragedy, when a woman tries to take on the attributes of a male hero, she will be sorely punished. As the play proceeds and Macbeth steps up to become the hardened king his wife had asked for, she will lose the “unsexed” quality of the first act, and with it the capacity to steer Macbeth by means of taunts and reproaches.

Act 1, Scenes 6-7 (834-38, Macbeth ponders ethics, Lady Macbeth brings him round)

Duncan unsuspectingly arrives at Macbeth’s castle, praising its location as “a pleasant seat” (834, 1.6.1). In Scene 7, Macbeth’s initial reflections remind us of the play’s Christian underpinnings: Duncan is his feudal lord, his guest, and a good man. (835 7.12-16) The prospective deed is all ways damnable, and Macbeth is in no doubt of its source in wicked ambition or the likelihood of retribution: “we but teach / Bloody instructions which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor” (835 7.8-10) and “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition…” (836, 7.25-27). As Robert Bridges asks, how could someone so horrified by the prospective crime actually commit it? The Norton editors point out that Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most self-aware villain; unlike, say, Richard III, whom we can hardly imagine doing other than what he does, Macbeth has the capacity to do good or ill; we know that his choice is sincerely meditated and deeply felt, and he understands the true nature of what he’s about to do.

Nonetheless, Lady Macbeth brings him round to his longstanding code as a warrior: his masculine honor, she convinces him, calls for him to take the crown, not sit back and wait for it to be delivered to him by good fortune. The basic conflict between Christian sentiment and pagan heroism we will find in the revenge play Hamlet obtains in Macbeth: Macbeth’s bloody Senecan ambition can only be satisfied by violating Christian principle. Faced with competing codes since he will have it so, he must make a moral choice. He has made division within himself, and in consequence must carefully manage the yawning divide between what is and what seems to be: “Away, and mock the time with fairest show. / False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (837, 7.81-82).

Act 2, Scene 1 (837-38, Is this a dagger? Macbeth talks himself into the deed)

Macbeth utters some of the most famous lines in the Shakespearean canon: “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. / I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. / Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible / To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but / A dagger of the mind, a false creation / Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?” (838, 1.33-39) What is the status of the dagger? There are no stage directions telling us that the ghostly knife is actually before Macbeth, and he tries to firm up his sanity by insisting that “It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes” (838, 1.48-49). Even so, the dagger seems real enough to him and the very double of the actual blade he has drawn in preparation for killing Duncan, and Macbeth admits that it “marshals” (838, 1.42) him where he was going, that it concentrates and gathers up his spiritual and bodily forces. The dagger’s power may seem to take on the cast of fate or necessity, but it may be more accurate to suggest that it makes manifest the weirdness of the world through which Macbeth now walks: the very objects speak to him, and torment him with animistic pranks.

He prays for an easy, quiet kill that accords with the silence and deadness of nature itself: “Thou sure and firm-set earth, / Hear not my steps which way they walk, for fear / Thy very stones prate of my whereabout” (838 1.56-58) and seems quite resolved, saying “I go, and it is done” (838, 1.62), but we know that such facility in dealing violent death cannot be.

Act 2, Scene 2 (839-40, Macbeth’s reaction to murder: no “out of sight, out of mind”)

Macbeth’s initial reaction to his bloody act is one of horror: why wasn’t anything heard? (839, 2.14) He is shaken by his inability to say amen in response to the grooms’ sleepy “God bless us” (839, 2.26-27), and reports to Lady Macbeth that after stabbing Duncan, “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more, / Macbeth does murder sleep’…” (839, 2.33-34). He even has a touch of “Lady Macbeth’s disease,” as that later manifests in her: he asks, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” (840, 2. 58-59) the hand-washing in this scene is both practical since the evidence must be eliminated and ritually significant, an act of forgetting, if not of attaining forgiveness. But it gives no relief, which is an ominous sign for Macbeth and his wife, in spite of her seeming confidence that “A little water clears us of this deed” (840, 2.65). Getting rid of the deed’s effects will not put the murder out of mind. The knocking at the gate “appals” Macbeth (840, 2.56); by now, his sensibilities are both heightened and deranged. Macbeth’s final words in this scene point the way forward: “To know my deed ‘twere best not know myself “ (840, 2.71). Necessary now is the deadening of his own consciousness, and certainly of his conscience, which is yet raw. But for the moment, Lady Macbeth has had to grab the daggers from him and take care of insinuating the grooms’ guilt for Duncan’s murder. (840, 2.51) She is the “man” at this point; she has been unsexed just as she had asked.

Act 2, Scene 3 (841-44, Porter; Macduff discovers murder, Macbeth explains)

The Porter’s scene (841-42) links well with the revelation of Macbeth’s crime. Romantic-era critic Thomas DeQuincey wrote in “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” that the Porter scene captures the moment when a murderous act beyond civilized existence is just beginning to give way to the ordinary dimension of life, to the quotidian. That’s why, he explains, the scene is so effective, even startling. In part, it provides comic relief after the murder and initial reaction on the part of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and in part it heightens the tension of the next scene, in which the crime meets the light of day and Macbeth must explain to people not steeped in depravity and horrid intent his rash action in killing the grooms as they slept. But most significantly, I believe, the Porter’s comments teach us a lesson about desire: namely, ambition is like drunkenness. At first, it may seem as if the contrast is greater since drink “provokes the desire” but “takes away the performance” (841, 3.27-28). Macbeth the ambitious man doesn’t have much trouble acting on his ambition: he performs. But at a deeper level, he does run into trouble because he no longer controls his destiny. He “unmans” himself and becomes a violent fool; his boldest deeds are in truth passive reactions to necessity. Ultimately, then, ambition is a kind of madness, and it makes its indulgers lose free will and self-respect. In that way, then, ambition is perhaps as great an “equivocator” (841, 3.29) as “much drink.” Macbeth becomes as impotent as the drunken lecher of the Porter’s imagining, even as he hacks his way through the kingship he has wrongly won.

The other thing about the Porter’s interruption is that it widens the frame from the selfish little circle of Macbeth and his wicked wife. The old Porter couldn’t care less about the goings-on at the Castle. He has his own desires, his own problems, his own wisdom, and his play-acting as Satan’s gatekeeper cuts Macbeth’s role as “grand criminal” down to size, so that we may for a time see in it a damnably common act of betrayal, fueled by vile ambition and justified by knavish equivocation. This is a variation on the strategy we find in Lear, where the King is seldom left alone with his thoughts. Shakespeare wants to carry us along with Macbeth’s story, but he won’t let us merge our identity with that of the protagonist. Drama is a transpersonal form of poetic art: it stages and allows for the development of great personalities, but it doesn’t let them swallow up the stage. Shakespeare is interested to show how people respond to one another, how human behavior turns upon triangulations of desire and other basic elements of our nature. We don’t get from him the claim of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost that “the mind is its own place” (1.254) but rather John Donne’s statement, “No man is an island, entire unto itself” (Devotions, Meditation 17).

Seeming or appearing to be a certain kind of person is not necessarily to be that kind of person, and the cost of maintaining the gap is often ruinous, a form of slavery to one’s desires and deeds. This gap becomes still more apparent in Macbeth when Macduff discovers the murder (842, 3.59), and Macbeth, now returned to the world of normalcy, of forensic cause and effect, must justify his rash action: “I do repent me of my fury” (843, 3.103), he blurts out, but his words aren’t very convincing. Malcolm is inexperienced, but he’s a Machiavellian in the making: he heads for England. He and brother Donalbain are “the usual suspects,” and he knows somebody has a powerful interest in framing the two. But Donalbain gets the best summation of the state of affairs: “Where we are / There’s daggers in men’s smiles” (844, 3.135-36).

Act 2, Scene 4 (844-45, Nature’s first revenge: eclipse; Macbeth crowned)

An eclipse of the sun occurs, and an old man makes the connection: the eclipse is “unnatural, / Even like the deed that’s done” (844b, 3.10-11). The natural world will signify, it will have its revenge for the unnatural acts, the wicked artifice, just enacted by Macbeth and his wife. He will struggle with conscience and, at least for a time, will seem to have killed it altogether, along with fear. For the moment, he is a great success, and we hear that he has traveled to Scone to be crowned king. (845, 3.31)

Act 3, Scene 1 (845-49, “To be safely thus”: anxiety, seeking security)

Banquo’s ambition appears, but only as distrustful speculation of Macbeth: “Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all / As the weird women promised; and I fear / Thou played’st most foully for’t. Yet it was said / It should not stand in thy posterity…” (845, 1.1-4). Macbeth’s stronger and more ruthless ambition—this time “to be safely thus” (846, 1.50) dominates the scene; he engages some flunkies with a grudge to cut down Banquo and Fleance (847-48), whose continued existence is unbearable to him: “For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind, / For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered…” (847, 1.66-67). Macbeth is confronting the hollow man image that he will soon become: the witches promised him only “a barren scepter” (847, 1.63), and at the cost of his soul, the “eternal jewel” (847, 1.69) possessed by even the humblest of men, that barren scepter is all he presently has.

In general, much of Act 3 is taken up with immediate consequences, with the need for security in the wake of Duncan’s murder. The play deals with the relationship between spiritual error and its material and psychological consequences. Good film versions such as Roman Polanski’s (starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis) or Philip Casson’s 1979 production starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench handle the transformation of Macbeth from outwardly loyal thane into murderous fiend with appropriate abruptness. Power hates a vacuum, and Macbeth must fill up the vacuum forthwith. We see a transition from the initially pensive Macbeth to “Macbeth 2.0,” hard, resolute and ruthless, a man willing to betray and strike down anyone who threatens him. His busy wickedness at present is the flip side of acedia or apathy.

Act 3, Scene 2 (849-50, Terrible dreams, resolutions, Banquo taken down)

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reflect and strategize, and we see both the spiritual effects of the act and a determination to quell the psychological disturbance while at the same time continuing the trail of bloody securement: “But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer, / Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly” (849, 2.18-21). The cost of keeping up the division between seeming and being shows again in this second scene: as Macbeth tells his queen, they must “make our faces visors to our hearts, / Disguising what they are” (849, 35-36): the face must not betray what the heart contains—Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both recognize this as an unsafe way to live, but they have no alternative if they want to keep the power they have falsely won.

“What’s to be done?” asks Lady Macbeth. (850, 2.45) She suspects that Macbeth will have Banquo killed, it seems, but he keeps this partly to himself. Why? We might ask, since the queen is already complicit in the worst that Macbeth has done. Still, the king is intent on keeping his precise plans to himself: “Come, seeling night, / Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day, / And with thy bloody and invisible hand / Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond / Which keeps me pale” (850, 2.46-51). This is a hawking metaphor—the night (the falconer) will do the office of the falcon (day); the rational, humane day must give preference to the terror-laced opportunities of night. One bad deed calls for another: “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (850, 2.56). As yet, Macbeth doesn’t seem to realize that no security for him or his queen will ever emerge. No matter—Banquo is killed at 3.3.17, though Fleance escapes.

Act 3, Scene 4 (851-54, Banquo’s ghost, resolve: all action; tedium of bloody future)

Banquo’s ghost appears during a banquet, taking Macbeth’s place of honor, and the effect is immediate: “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake / Thy gory locks at me” (852, 4.49-50). Macbeth’s guests see only a fit of madness that unmans the King. They don’t even know Banquo is dead, only that he’s missing. This scene directly undoes Macbeth’s attempt to play the smooth Machiavel—his behavior unsettles everyone around him; even his wife. His strange words pay tribute to the weirdness of the time: “The time has been / That, when the brains were out, the man would die, / And there an end. But now they rise again…” (853, 4.77-79). But when he recovers, he determines to find out the worst and thereby discover the most brutal and efficient means to maintain his power: “I will . . . to the weird sisters. / More they shall speak, for now I am bent to know / By the worst means the worst” (854, 4.132-34). There’s no need to hold back since he’s already deep in evil, haunted by the dark forces to which he has succumbed: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (854, 4.135-37). He must now act so quickly that there’s no time left to analyze his actions beforehand. As quickly as the mind can conceive, the hand will act (854, 4.139). Macbeth’s words may remind us of Richard III’s resolution, “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (4.2.64–67). It would be tiresome to Macbeth to retrace his steps, to be penitent; the only way is forward, wading through more blood. But that way forward may also now begin to seem tedious. In the remaining few scenes, Hecate mocks human pretensions to permanence and safety (855, 5.32-33), we hear that Malcolm has found refuge at the court of England’s Edward the Confessor, and that Macduff has followed him there to seek help from Edward against Macbeth. (857, 6.21ff)

Act 4, Scene 1 (857-61, Witches’ three visions, Banquo’s line; Macbeth’s resolve)

Macbeth meets for the second time with the weird sisters. Three visions tell him to beware Macduff, that no man of woman born can harm him, and that only when Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill will he be defeated. (859-60) The first two of these prophecies actually reinforce each other, we later find out. The magic-mirror image of Banquo’s issue reigning forever unsettles Macbeth most: “What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?” (860, 1.133) Repetition is sin’s most savage punishment. Sin punishes itself, trapping unrepentant sinners in their wicked patterns of conduct and desire. This is a traditional idea: you can find it not only in Augustine’s Confessions but in Dante, Milton, Hopkins—just about any Christian literary artist. Macbeth considers his own life safe, but he is frustrated, perpetuity being like the fruit that turns to ashes when Satan and his legions, newly turned to serpents in hell, addict-like, cannot resist eating it (PL 10.538ff). He resolves to act his bloody deeds as soon as conceived: Macduff’s family to be slaughtered: “From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand… / The Castle of Macduff I will surprise…” (861, 2.163-166).

Act 4, Scene 2 (861-63, Lady Macduff & kids murdered: their perspective)

Before they are cruelly murdered, Lady Macduff and her son give us yet another perspective on the great events that overtake them and afflict the kingdom of Scotland: the boy’s innocence strikes home when he says in response to Lady Macduff’s insistence that traitors must be hanged, “the liars and swearers are fools, for there / are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang / up them . (863, 2.56-58) We hear and see the private consequences of public disorder; plus an emphasis on the natural affective ties that bind people and reinforce charity and social order: the dimension of humanity that Macbeth and his queen have scorned. Why, by the way, did Macduff leave the family unprotected? He seems culpable there, almost a “traitor” in putting affairs of state before family; this makes sense in the patriarchal context of English royal politics in Shakespeare’s time.

Act 4, Scene 3 (864-69, Malcolm’s “confession”; Macduff’s grief; Scotland’s misery)

Malcolm confesses to Macduff what an awful villain he is—next to him, he says, Macbeth is an angel. (865, 3.51ff) But this claim is ridiculous—in Holinshed, Malcolm does this only to test Macduff, and that’s the implication here as well. It’s probably also the case that he’s showing the proper use of speculation—to shore up one’s sense of virtue. Malcolm’s ploy serves to emphasize the crime Macbeth committed in moving from thought to act, and reassures us that while human nature is corrupted, the corruption’s effects can be kept in check. Macbeth’s “throne of blood” need not become the universal, irresistible pattern of royal conduct, even though we saw in the previous scene what happens to the innocent when royalty does not resist: derangement and denaturation of the very landscape and destruction of life and property, as is well indicated by Ross when he says that in Scotland, “good men’s lives / Expire before the flowers in their caps, / Dying or ere they sicken” (867, 3 172-74).

Macduff is relieved to hear that Malcolm was only testing him, and there is much helpful news thanks to the help coming miserable Scotland’s way from England. (867-68) In his attempt to harness Macduff’s grief (869) after he hears from Ross about the death of his wife and children, Malcolm again shows his inexperience—he’s a young man filled with valorous words from some classical manual of rhetoric. As Macduff says, “He has no children” (869, 2.217) and can’t feel the loss of them as a man should. Macduff, unlike Macbeth, is still human, and does not subscribe to the “hardness” doctrine of masculinity set forth by the wicked usurping royal couple. Nature’s bonds of affection are still powerful within him, and Macduff, ever the warrior, comes round to Malcolm’s program of action.

Act 5, Scene 1 (869-70, Lady Macbeth’s madness)

By now, Lady Macbeth has been driven mad by her guilt, and has obsessive-compulsive disorder, in this case a hand-washing compulsion: “who would have thought the / old man to have had so much blood in him?” (870, 1.33-34) Well, an average human body contains about six quarts of blood (1½ gallons). The queen’s physical manifestation reveals a psychic derangement: she can’t expunge her guilt, which shows up as imaginary blood stains on her hands, and her physician can do nothing to help her: “More needs she the divine than the physician” (870, 1.64). What is the point of showing Lady Macbeth’s insanity, a physiological problem, when the supernatural agents are real enough? This is not a pure psychodrama, but the witches are not causes of human evil; they only assist those who would do wickedness. What affects Lady Macbeth in the private sphere and in purely mental terms plays out for Macbeth in the broader material, public sphere that belongs to him. Action, battles and machinations constitute his attempt to scrub his hands and conscience clean, but violence and betrayal accomplish no such thing. Repetition rules the day: wedded to his illegitimate power, Macbeth will repeat the same pattern to the bitter, desperate end.

Act 5, Scenes 2-3 (871-73, enemy approaches, Macbeth’s brittle resolutions)

Macbeth’s opponents are on the march towards Birnam, but the king has deluded himself by now—he had earlier denounced the witches for the visions afforded him—and thinks he still leads a charmed life, (871, 3.1ff) so he dismisses those who are abandoning him: “fly, false thanes, and mingle with the English epicures!” (871, 3.7) But his claims ring hollow, as he himself reveals: “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…” (872, 3.23-27). The words are aesthetically pleasing, but hollow and not directly related to the realm of action: this man is tired of living. Macbeth resolves to steel himself in violence, saying, “I’ll fight till from my bones my flesh be hacked” (872, 3.33) and remains distant from his wife’s sufferings: he asks the doctor philosophically, “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?” (872, 3.42) and rejects physic altogether when the doctor cannot give him a positive answer. As for his own situation, the witches’ charms are better than any medicine: “I will not be afraid of death and bane / Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane” (873, 3.61-62).

Act 5, Scene 4 (873-73, Birnam’s boughs advance: appropriate weirdness of nature)

Malcolm orders the soldiers each to cut down a tree bough (873, 4.4-7) and use it to deceive Macbeth’s defenders about the advancing host’s numbers. So Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane, but we and Macbeth aren’t witnessing a violation of the laws of nature. Nature seems bizarre and uncanny to Macbeth because he himself has become unnatural. But this apparent weirdness in the behavior of nature serves as a way of giving him his desserts—he has betrayed his natural lord (his “father” in Jacobean political theory) and turned his marriage bond into a criminal partnership. In broad terms, the deployment of natural objects to pay Macbeth back stems from the fact that Shakespeare is working within a Christian framework where sin has deranged the entire Creation, just as it will later in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Eve “pluck’d, she ate, / Earth felt the wound” (9.781-82). Nature responds as by sympathetic magic to human error, reflecting that error back to us if we know how to interpret nature’s signs. The weird, the uncanny, is in this context a function of Providence, which makes use of whatever is at hand to punish those who transgress and fail to repent.

Act 5, Scene 5 (874-75, Lady Macbeth dies, Birnam comes to Dunsinane, life’s a “walking shadow”)

Even before he learns in the middle of this scene that Birnam Wood is on the move, Macbeth has begun to call for destruction and decreation; of the enemy, he says, “Here let them lie / Till famine and the ague eat them up” (874, 5.3-4). He pronounces his own spiritual death sentence with the line “I have almost forgot the taste of fears” (874, 5.9) and can’t find it in himself to bewail the death of the queen (874, 5.16-27), for “She should have died hereafter” (874, 5.17). Her passing only leads Macbeth to say that life is ultimately meaningless, pointless repetition: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (874, 5.23-27). After a messenger informs him about the moving forest, Macbeth explicitly invites general destruction: “I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun, / and wish th’estate o’th’ world were now undone” (875, 5.47-50).

Act 5, Scenes 6-11 (875-78, Macduff’s revenge against “hell-hound”; Malcolm king)

Macbeth confidently kills young Siward, and rejects classical honor-suicide, choosing to direct violence at others instead. But then in Scene 10, he is confronted by Macduff, who reveals that he was born by cesarean section: “Macduff was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped” (877, 10.15-16). This new information causes Macbeth to lose his courage and momentarily drop his adamantine front, but he quickly recovers with curses against the witches on his lips—“be these juggling fiends no more believed, / That palter with us in a double sense” (877, 10.19-20), only to be slain by the resolute revenger Macduff. In the end, the terms he and others use to describe him are mostly non-human: a baited bear, a hell-hound, and Lady Macbeth is described as “fiend-like” (878, 11.35). Macduff has sworn revenge, and he gets it.

In the eleventh and final scene, while Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had tried to kill all sentiment and sentimentality within themselves, the end of the play isn’t at all sentimental. Old Siward rejects mourning over his son in battle, and Malcolm, in accepting the crown, promises to do all the necessaries in the proper way. The kingdom has been set right, and the emphasis is on order and ceremony, spare and fitting words coming in advance. This seems appropriate given the derangement of the kingdom and of the dead king and queen’s psyches.

Finally, we might concentrate on Macbeth’s concluding musings and resolutions in the last several scenes. Do they constitute a classical recognition scene or not? Coleridge says the play is “pure tragedy” rather than reflective as Hamlet. But that doesn’t mean there’s no introspection or understanding coming from Macbeth. His tragedy involves the process of desiring honors and attaining them by unjust means, of buying into the epistemological / moral ambiguity served up by the Weird Sisters. Does Macbeth learn anything by the end of the play? I think he understands what he has done and why it was wrong, but it doesn’t matter to him anymore. This play shows its great maturity in the quality of Macbeth’s final musings in Act 5: the language accorded the isolated, brittle King is some of the finest Shakespeare ever gave to any character: its mixture of high aesthetic perception and utter hollowness of spirit shows an intellect undebased, but constrained now to describing and coming to terms with a situation that would horrify anyone with normal sensibilities. Macbeth’s fine words are insightful, but they are hollow, as if he himself can’t feel them and finds no comfort in them. They are empty words, not a curative and certainly no better than the “physic” he had earlier cast to the dogs because the doctor couldn’t heal his wife’s disorder. As always in Shakespeare, some interest is taken in the way a given character handles the relationship between actions and words: the words spoken by Macbeth to explain his situation to himself and his actions to others provide no relief, for that is beyond the power of language in such cases, at least when it is not accompanied by sincere sentiment.

Shakespeare’s plays have various ways of dealing with the consequences of tragic mistakes, with respect to the ability to act. King Lear, for example, gains insight at the expense of being able to wield power. By the end of the play, he and his daughter Cordelia are at the mercy of others, so even if they have become “God’s spies,” they can’t act in the political realm anymore. Macbeth follows a different pattern—once he makes his choice, he must take on the ruthlessness of the tyrant who holds his throne by injustice. Blood draws on blood until, as Macbeth says, there’s no point in going back. He acts boldly and dies fighting, but such desperation hardly makes him a hero. Instead, he’s the puppet of actions that stem from his own perverted will. The witches shoot an arrow into the heart of Macbeth, but that is not to say they are ultimately responsible for his crimes. Ambition is a kind of madness, but it is a lucid madness: images present themselves to Macbeth, truth comes in presentiment, and ambition drives him to inhabit the vision. The consequences of his behavior are predictable, if strange. Shakespeare’s genius is to take what might have been a stage villain and make him a three-dimensional character, but a three-dimensional character who is nonetheless a stunning failure as a human being.

As for the play’s politics, I can’t see how some critics’ claims that Macbeth is tinged with nihilism can be correct given that the play was in part written for King James. Why would Shakespeare deal with kingship in such a manner when he wanted an absolutist monarch to enjoy the play? The older, and probably more tenable, view of the play’s moral arc is that sin punishes itself inexorably, even if the interval between commission and punishment is sometimes longer than most of us would like. I think it is true that anarchy lurks in this play, but only in a narrow manner—the king is human, after all, even though political doctrine says he has two bodies, one mortal and the other immortal and representative of kingship itself. Macbeth makes a bad but entirely free choice, and from that point onwards his bad choice entraps him in a vicious fate that generates real chaos for others who must abide in his realm. He himself marches in linear fashion to his death, behaves like a beast (losing his title to humanity), and dies fighting. The Christian point is that free will, misused, becomes the slave of so-called fate, or necessity. As Wilde said, when we act we become puppets—Shakespeare might add, “well, only when we act badly.” Apparent disorder on the ground does not necessarily imply disorder in the heavens, in the fundamental nature of things. Still, I take the point of the Norton editors about the strangeness and equivocal quality of the supernatural realm in this play—it seems accurate to suggest, as they do, that the secular and the demonic, the physical / material and the spiritual, are by no means easy to maintain in strict separation. The witches’ “equivocation” is a power stalking human desire and endeavor.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Tempest

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Norton Romances and Poems, 2nd edition, pp. 365-425).

Shakespeare’s Romance Mode

In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985), Northrop Frye writes with precision about the defining characteristics of 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).  By contrast, in Frye’s schema, the romance pattern is cyclical, not linear; death does not define life but rather the characters in the romance will have a chance to redeem themselves and the order within which they function.  The social order in Shakespeare’s romance plays and comedies borrows from the stability and perpetuity of the great seasonal cycles that literary cultures have envied and invoked for thousands of years.

Shakespearean romance (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen) clearly differs from the straightforwardly 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, often by temporary removal into a green world of nature where magic rules and people can turn things around, romance is to be distinguished from tragedy and comedy is its Janus-like quality, its ambivalence about even the bittersweet endings it supplies.  In The Tempest, for instance, we enjoy a felicitous ending with the expectation of a marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda back in Naples and a return to power for Prospero as Duke of Milan.  The old wizard shows himself a benevolent ruler on his island and, we presume, he will be equally benevolent when he returns to his Italian duchy.  All of that sounds “comic” enough.  Still, it is easy to see that Prospero is potentially a tyrant and could plausibly misuse his powers: death, disorder, and tyranny are real threats in The Tempest, even though things turn out for the best.  To borrow from what I wrote towards the end of my notes for The Winter’s Tale, 

In Shakespeare’s romance plays,What we get is not second chances or “do-overs” in the simplest sense but rather second chances in altered circumstances; events and persons may come full circle, but there is loss and sorrow along the way, leaving even triumphant conclusions with a bittersweet taste.  None of this is to say, however, that the romance plays are anything but ultimately hopeful and mostly uplifting: they offer what may well be the most realistic orientation towards life with its recurrent opportunities and travails—not a proffer 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 of Shakespeare’s comedies; but a kind of wisdom that 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, however partial the outcome.

Act 1, Scene 1 (374-76, A tempest drives King Alonso and his mariners to abandon ship)

The first thing we see is that authority is the matter in question—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 counselor Gonzalo; he has more important things to do at the moment: to the imperious suggestion, “remember whom thou hast aboard” (375, 1.1.17), the Boatswain replies only, “if you can command these elements to silence and work / peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more.  Use your / authority” (375, 1.1.19-21).  The storm, therefore, functions as a great leveling influence, at least at this point in the play.  Still, Shakespeare is not about to ratify anarchy; this is a romance play, and the basis of the social order is about to be scrutinized.  The civil order has broken down and the characters have been compelled by Prospero to the island where things will be sorted out.

Act 1, Scene 2 (376-89, Miranda learns who she is, and who Prospero was: his story of secret studies, exile and miraculous survival; Prospero explains that his enemies are on the island now due to fortune and active pursuit of the opportunity it 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 sympathetic power of her own—she feels the suffering of those who have been shipwrecked, begging Prospero to keep them safe: “If by your art … you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (376, 1.2.1-2).  But Prospero says that no harm has been done and that the shipwreck was arranged for her sake (376, 1.2.15-16).  The question is, how to come by one’s legitimate identity?  Miranda must learn about her former place in the social order and prepare for her future role, so Prospero begins to inform her by way of posing difficult questions, the first of which elicits some remembrance of childhood attendants in Milan and the second of which, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abyss of time?” (377, 1.2.49-50), draws no further recollections on Miranda’s part.  Prospero must provide Miranda 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.

As Prospero goes on to explain, he is not entirely without blame for his own exile—he devoted himself to the liberal arts, and, “rapt in secret studies,” neglected the needs of his dukedom (378, 1.2.77; see 75-78).  That is why he gave his brother Antonio control.  The upshot of it was, says Prospero, that Antonio learned the ropes of governing and began to consider himself the rightful ruler (378-79, 1.2.102-05).  Prospero’s brother is a Machiavellian of the bad sort, but even so he stands for political realism.  One of Shakespeare’s ideals is that a good ruler must be both magnanimous and active.  In consequence, poet-kings such as Richard II must be deposed as surely as evildoers like Richard III.  Prospero wanted to lead the life contemplative or vita contemplativa to the neglect of the active life, or vita activa.  The relative merit of the two was the subject of much debate during the Renaissance, and is well memorialized in Thomas More’s Utopia.  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.  Prospero seems to have sought knowledge for a much more personal and private reason, one not closely allied with the charitable exercise of power.  Antonio at least understands that a ruler cannot simply keep the name of prince or king or duke and expect the authority to remain with it—that was one of King Lear’s mistakes, and it is also Prospero’s.  To keep the title, you must exercise the power and others must know you are exercising it.  To fail in that regard is to encourage disorder and wickedness.  Antonio apparently schemed with Alonso the King of Naples to get rid of Prospero, which was more than enough wickedness to result in Prospero’s loss of authority in Milan.

As for the status of Prospero as a magician, we are being set up for an important consideration: Prospero has been stripped of civil power by his exile, and he has put on a different kind of power signified by his magic robe.  What kind of power is it that he now possesses?  What is the source of that power?  We should not think that this power will ultimately be self-sufficient since a return to the civil order looms beyond the framework of the immediate dramatic situation.  Furthermore, Prospero understands that he is not an independent actor in his own chance at redemption—he admits that divine providence brought him ashore and that Gonzalo charitably furnished him with rich garments and the books he still values above his dukedom (380, 1.2.160-69).  Prospero will need to learn how to wield the knowledge in these books to get himself back to his former state and do some good for the people, just as he has used it to make life tolerable on the island.

Prospero also admits that an accident or fortune has brought his enemies within his power.  With this fortunate accident, he begins to operate on his own under an auspicious star (380-81, 1.2.178-85). As always, “there is a tide in the affairs of men,” as Brutus says in Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies, ), and Prospero must act now or lose his chance forever.  He is satisfied that the spirit Ariel has done his bidding, appearing as St. Elmo’s Fire (a natural phenomenon) and striking the crew of the King’s ship with madness during the storm.  The aerial spirit has also dispersed the crew about the island, separating them into logical camps.  Ferdinand, the King’s son and the first man to jump ship, is alone, for he above all is to be tested as the future successor to Prospero’s kingdom (381, 1.2.196-225).

For the first time but not for the last, the spirit Ariel chafes to gain his freedom: “Let me remember thee what thou hast promised / Which is not yet performed me” (382, 1.2.244-45).  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 in a pine tree (382-83, 1.2.258-86).  Prospero has made a sort of contract with Ariel to free him from human control at the end of a certain time; that time is very near, says Prospero: there’s just a bit more work to do, and “after two days / I will discharge thee” (383, 1.2.  301-02).  Since Ariel seems to represent imagination or the finer and more sensitive of nature’s powers, we begin to see that the play is in part about how humanity is to maintain control over the natural forces within itself and beyond itself.  Prospero threatens Ariel in a way that suggests potential tyranny: if the spirit does not obey, Prospero lowers, he will “rend an oak, / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howled away twelve winters” (383, 1.2.296-98).  In other words, he will turn into another Sycorax.  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 occasional displeasure of Prospero.

When we first meet Caliban, he is at his hostile best, cursing Prospero but submitting to him because, after all, he must eat his dinner.  Caliban has sometimes been seen as a native set upon by white Europeans.  Shakespeare’s was a great age of exploration, and European countries were busily colonizing and exploiting the New World.  The quest motif—a kind of directed adventurism—is very strong in romance generally (consider Spenser’s The Faery Queen, with its heroic Red Crosse Knight in pursuit of his lady through various lands).  A sense of magic, wonder, and strangeness pervades the romance genre, and indeed exploration is itself matter for exploration, which explains why certain critics writing about The Tempest have seen Caliban’s circumstances in terms of colonial discourse and practice.  This isn’t necessarily 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 as at least in part a thoughtful consideration of how “natives” might process the approach of European cultures, with their imperious claims of superiority and their demands for subordination.

Caliban says firmly that the island belongs to him: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me” (384, 1.2.334-35).  Prospero, however, apparently associates him with the devil, or perhaps with the unregenerate natural man, and heaps contempt upon him: “I have used thee, / Filth as thou art, with human care …” (384-85, 1.2.348-49).  All the same, Prospero admits that Caliban is useful as a servant to him and Miranda: “We cannot miss him.  He does make our fire …” (384, 1.2.314).  It is true that Caliban is controlled by his own appetites as much as by Prospero’s threats and magic, but he is not without ability—his complaints at times are eloquent.  In response to Miranda’s reminder, “I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak” (385, 1.2.356-57), Caliban hits back with the unforgettable lines, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse” (385, 1.2.366-67).  And he was good to Prospero in time of need.  His crime was to try to violate Miranda’s honor—another natural impulse he does not regret: “Would’t had been done!” he exclaims, imagining a race of Calibans got by an unwilling Miranda (385, 1.2.352).  Caliban is not appreciative of the gift of civilization Prospero has supposedly given him.  It’s reasonable to suggest that Prospero is somewhat unfair to Caliban—to say that Caliban is “capable of all ill,” as Miranda does (385, 1.2.356), 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” (385, 1.2.370) as Prospero calls him in allegorical or morality-play fashion.  The things with which Prospero threatens him are entirely natural—pain and suffering—but Caliban is afraid of Prospero because he believes that the old man’s art can control even Sycorax’s male god, Setebos (385, 1.2.375-77).  (Robert Browning’s poem “Caliban upon Setebos” is a fine Victorian character study of Caliban, covering his resentments and religious sentiments as only an eccentric conversation-poet like Browning could do.)

Meanwhile, Ferdinand is enchanted by the music of Ariel and drawn on by it.  Ariel sings that Ferdinand’s father has suffered a sea change into “something rich and strange” (386, 1.2.405).  Of course the song is not true since Alonso has not drowned, but it memorializes the deep transformations wrought by death.  What is the point of bringing up such changes here?  Ferdinand himself says that while he wept for his lost father, the music became audible and calmed both the raging waters and his sorrow (386, 1.2.395-96).  In part, the music is designed to convince the young man that he is alone, that his father is in fact drowned, which of course would make Ferdinand the new king of Naples.  In part, the song seems to distance Ferdinand from his father’s death, perhaps because the trials and transformation he is to undergo on the island leaves him little time to grieve for a royal father lost.

Ferdinand’s central question to Miranda when he meets her is whether she is a virgin: “My prime request, / … is—O you wonder— / If you be maid or no?” (387, 1.2.429-31).  That is certainly a question with institutional significance: he wants to make her his queen.  But Prospero, while inwardly delighted, knows that the prize must not be won too easily and that Ferdinand 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 Machiavellian political intriguers.  Aside from stealing the King of Naples’ title, insists Prospero, “Thou … / … hast put thyself / Upon this island as a spy, to win it / From me the lord on’t” (387, 1.2.457-60).

As for Miranda, she still needs to learn the difference between appearance and reality since she says that the handsome prince Ferdinand could not possibly mean anyone harm (388, 1.2.471-72), even though he has just drawn his sword against Prospero, however ineffectually in despite of the old man’s magic (388, 1.2.469).  She will need to understand this lesson to become a good Neapolitan queen when the time comes.  That she shows promise is obvious from her remark to the remarkably patient 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” (388, 1.2.499-501). 

Act 2, Scene 1 (389-96, Gonzalo entertains King Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian with his naïve utopia; Antonio suborns Sebastian to attempt usurpation of sleeping brother Alonso’s Neapolitan crown, but Ariel foils the attempt and the party go off in search of Ferdinand)

Neapolitan Gonzalo is an honest old counselor, a quality which shows in his trust in providence.  We must “weigh / Our sorrow with our comfort,” he tells his shipwrecked hearers (389, 2.1.8-9).  Gonzalo is also observant—he has at least noticed that their garments are strangely dry, in fact “as fresh / as when we put them on first in Afric …” (391, 2.1.68-69), and we, who know that the shipwreck is mainly Prospero’s doing, are thereby reminded that a certain wizardry is necessary to the founding and maintenance of the social order. 

Alonso despairs over the loss of his son Ferdinand: “what strange fish / Hath made his meal on thee?” (391, 2.1.112-13) but Francisco tells him that the boy may be alive, recounting his heroic attempt to survive.  Gonzalo’s utopian musings follow and seem meant to cheer the king and others.  What Gonzalo offers up is a silly pre-technological 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—” (392, 2.1.154-56; see 147-56, 159-64).  Gonzalo would undo the punishments stemming from original sin: no work, no lowering authority figures to deal with.  Sebastian is right to point out the irony that Gonzalo “would be king” of his imaginary utopian isle nonetheless (392, 2.1.157).  His utopian vision is very fine, but it hardly equals Prospero’s magic and foresight.  Gonzalo is perhaps a little 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.  In any event, Gonzalo is surrounded by people such as Sebastian and Antonio, who do not appreciate his wisdom, such as it is.  Wisdom is separated from rank for the moment, whereas both are required to keep firm order. 

With both Gonzalo and King Alonso fast asleep, the talk between Sebastian and Antonio 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” (393, 2.1.204-05).  Sebastian doesn’t quite follow, so Antonio spells it all out for him: both men believe Ferdinand is drowned, and of course 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” (395, 2.1.256-58).  Antonio openly invites Sebastian to follow his example as usurper of Milan, and the gambit works: Sebastian declares, “As thou got’st Milan, / I’ll come by Naples” (396, 2.1.86-87).  So we have passed from Gonzalo’s false but harmless utopia to potentially lethal political intrigue. 

Antonio, who says to Sebastian of the recent events that saw their shipwreck, “what’s past is prologue” (395, 2.1.249), sees only the operation of random chance in the storm that cause the wreck.  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 tempest; it is a thing of nature brought on by human and superhuman magic.  It is even associated with providence since Prospero himself, by his lights, was steered after his own shipwreck by divine providence.  Antonio mistakenly sees his friends and potential subjects as passive men just waiting to take orders, but his scheme is foiled by Ariel, who warns Gonzalo to “Shake off slumber, and beware” (396, 2.1.300).  With Gonzalo and King Alonso now awake, they all set off to look for Ferdinand (396, 2.1.318-19).

Act 2, Scene 2 (397-401, 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 describing his reaction at the torments Prospero’s spirit-agents visit upon him because of his misbehavior: “For every trifle are they set upon me …” (397, 2.2.8).  When he meets up with Stefano and Trinculo, we will get a chance to see how Caliban perceives the island’s 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” (397, 2.2.16-17). 

Trinculo and Stefano have their own ideas about paradise—they assume everyone else has perished in the storm, so this island is theirs, so far as they know.  Trinculo meets Caliban, even seeking protection under the clothing of this supposed natural man (397, 2.2.35-36) and later joins with Stefano to turn him into a willing subject on the basis of drink, which seems to be the god of this nascent kingdom.  At least, that’s Caliban’s view: “That’s a brave god, and bears celestial liquor. / I will kneel to him” (399, 2.2.109-10).  Liquor provides shelter for Stefano, just as an ordinary garment serves to clothe Trinculo.  On the whole, this section acts as a parody of the previous scene, which was about the misguided intrigue of Antonio and Sebastian against King Alonso of Naples.  Caliban sees the arrival of these two drunkards as a chance for freedom, as he construes his willingness to serve a new master: “‘Ban, ‘ban, Cacaliban / Has a new master.—Get a new man!” (401, 2.2.175-76)  Prospero, that is, can go get himself a new abjectly fearful servant: Caliban has found new lords more to his liking, and he’s positively overjoyed about it.  This so-called monster, whom Stefano sees as a potential exotic present for an emperor (398, 2.2.65-67), promises to uncover for his new masters “every fertile inch o’th’ island” along with “the best springs” and choicest berries (400, 2.2.140,152).

On the whole, the second act has been about a pair of false attempts to set up a new kingdom over the wreck of the old, with Antonio and Sebastian trying to seize the opportunity to make their own “providence,” and Stefano and Trinculo (along with Caliban) trying to set up their own crazy government.

Act 3, Scene 1 (401-03, Courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda advances; Prospero goes to his book to prepare for his triumph over enemies)

The third act transitions to the more legitimate attempts at self-discovery on the part of Ferdinand and Miranda; this focus will, in turn, gesture towards a regenerated dukedom in Milan, even though the play ends with everyone still on the island.  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 one can set up a fool’s paradise: “The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead, / And makes my labours pleasures” (401, 3.1.6-7).  By his patience, Ferdinand shows the potential for nobility. 

The name “Miranda” means “she who is to be looked upon [with wonder].”  Prospero’s daughter is virtuous, and her virtue is part of the island’s special quality.  Like Adam in Paradise Lost, however, Ferdinand will need some warning not to be overly fond of Miranda’s charms.  The pair have some negotiating to do, and must move from the language of innocent courtship to a permanently enduring union—after all, they are the future of the state, and cannot remain in paradise forever, if indeed one wants to say that’s where they are at present.

Miranda thinks as highly of Ferdinand as he does of her: “I would not wish / Any companion in the world but you” (402, 3.1.54-55).  Prospero blesses the union to himself since he is apparently convinced that Ferdinand and Miranda will prove compatible, but he must not allow premature sexual relations between them to ruin the budding romance.  Language will prove essential to a proper match between the two lovers, and marriage is an institution, not a simple declaration.  Prospero must go back to his books and work up appropriate magic to complete his triumph over his enemies and his own anger towards them for their transgressions.  This will require delaying the courtship he beholds for a little while even as he blesses and furthers it: “I’ll to my book, / For yet ere supper-time must I perform / Much business appertaining” (403, 3.1.95-97).

Act 3, Scene 2 (403-06, 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 lord and master, and chafing at Trinculo’s bad manners and disrespectful treatment of a faithful servant: “How does thy honour?  Let me lick thy shoe. / I’ll not serve him; he is not valiant” (404, 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 …” (404, 3.2.50).  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 …” (405, 3.2.82-83).  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 …” (405, 3.2.101-02). They all serve their own base material desires.  Ariel, however, is looking over them even as they devise their plot (406, 3.2.110), and the would-be ruler ends up following the “monster” Caliban (406, 3.2.145).  Well, Caliban does know his island, which is “full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (406, 3.2.130-31).

Act 3, Scene 3 (407-10, King Alonso’s despair over Ferdinand begins and ends the scene; Prospero nearing the pinnacle of his powers: spirits lay out a banquet for Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian and Ariel, playing 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: “Even here I will put off my hope …” (407, 3.2.7).  Nature seems to have won the battle.  As the banquet is brought by Prospero’s spirits, Sebastian sees only “drollery” (407, 3.3.21), 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 …” (407, 3.3.31-33).  The wonder of exploration is part of romance, and Antonio testifies to his own sense of wonder: “Travellers ne’er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn ‘em” (407, 3.3.26-27).  The banquet itself, and the appearance of Ariel as a harpy, 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 humans that they will suffer famine before they reach their destined home in Italy.

Ariel has set his victims a fool’s banquet, and as he makes it disappear, he explains sternly to these “three men of sin” (408, 3.3.53), some of whom attending are plotting against King Alonso, that they have been driven here to be punished for their sins in exiling Prospero (409, 3.3.69-75).  For this offense, they are threatened with “Ling’ring perdition” (409, 3.3.77), lest they feel “heart’s sorrow” and demonstrate “a clear life ensuing” (409, 3.3.81-82).   Failure would mean a futile repetition of the romance pattern, one stripped of meaning and redemptive quality.  At present, they still think Ferdinand is dead, and Prospero has no intention of telling them otherwise just now.  This is the first of two high points in Prospero’s wielding of power: as he says, “My high charms work, / And these mine enemies are all knit up / In their distractions.  They now are in my power” (409, 3.3.88-90).  Prospero goes off to see Ferdinand and Miranda.  This decision in itself has a powerful effect—Alonso, hearing the very waves, winds and thunder speak “The name of Prosper” (409, 3.3.99), feels bitter remorse at the loss of his son and wishes for death (409, 3.3.100-02).  Gonzalo sends help to keep the “desperate” three from further harm (410, 3.3.104; see 104-09).

Act 4, Scene 1 (410-17, 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 them)

Prospero insists that Ferdinand should not behave like Caliban and spoil the honor of his daughter, lest “discord, shall bestrew / The union of your bed with weeds …” (410, 4.1.20-21).  There is much play here about the value of language—Prospero says Miranda will outstrip all praise (410, 4.1.10), and then says that Ferdinand has spoken fairly and will have his daughter (410, 4.1.13-14).  Ceremony is important for the obvious reason: it is necessary to bless this socially and politically significant union.  Marriage is part of the magic of civilization.  Prospero bids Ariel bring the lesser-spirit “rabble” (an important word here in terms of governance: the lower orders amongst the spirits, so to speak, will help bring order from chaos) so that he may give the young couple a demonstration of his powers: “I must / Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple / Some vanity of mine art.  It is my promise …” (411, 4.1.39-41).  Iris, the rainbow-goddess and Juno’s messenger, bids Ceres—the latter a fertility and agriculture goddess—to provide sport with the lovers and offer up her own special gift of abundance in perpetuity and, therefore, a secure future. 

At Juno’s behest, she and Ceres celebrate the marriage contract of Miranda and Ferdinand, and Ceres details the beneficence of nature that she brings” Earth’s increase, and foison plenty …” (413, 4.1.110; see 103-17).  Iris herself tells us that while Venus (goddess of love) and her son Cupid had thought to do some mischief to Ferdinand and Miranda by rendering their love somewhat unchaste, they have failed in that mission, and all is well (412, 4.1.94-95).

Breaking in to this celebration is Prospero’s remembrance that Caliban and his new friends are plotting against him.  But we still have unfinished business, so the celebration is a false ending in accordance with classical comic structure.  Consider lines 148 and following—Prospero sums up what his wizardry has accomplished: he has demonstrated that we are “such stuff as dreams are made on.”  This remark has sometimes been taken as Shakespeare’s farewell speech as a dramatist, even though The Tempest isn’t his last play.  In any case, there is clearly a parallel between art and life to be drawn here: art has much to tell us about life; it is a kind of magic that participates in and lends decorous approval to the necessary activities of civic life and to the fulfillment of individual desire: a key purpose of Prospero’s “show,” in fact, is to bless the future union of Miranda and Ferdinand.  The young prince is delighted with the demonstration, exclaiming, “Let me live her ever!” (413, 4.1.22)

At the conclusion of the show, Prospero remembers that he still needs to deal with Caliban’s wicked conspiracy against the good order of the island and that he must, therefore, get Ferdinand and Miranda out of the way for a while.  In concluding one of the most remarkable and aesthetically pleasing passages in Shakespeare’s work, Prospero says to Ferdinand and Miranda, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (414, 4.1.156-58).  No sooner does he say this than Prospero professes himself an enfeebled, “vexed” old man (414, 4.1.158).  There are, to borrow from the Frost poem, still a number of “miles to go” before that sleep overtakes Prospero, and his magical island is not paradise after all: the consequences of human error, human fallenness if we want the theological overtones of that word, impend even here.  From here it’s on to taking care of business with that rascal Caliban and his arrogant new master Stefano and second-in-command Trinculo.  This means that Prospero is again somewhat tempted to turn tyrant—a possibility at least hinted at in his pronouncement, “I will plague them all, / Even to roaring” (415, 4.1.192-93). 

The scene ends with Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban being hunted down like animals by Prospero’s spirits, now morphed into vicious canines.  And here we are getting near the high point of Prospero’s demonstration of power, the apex of the ultimately benevolent plot he has stirred up by magic and with a little help from Lady Fortune: “At this hour,” observes Prospero, “Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” (416, 4.1.258-59).

Act 5, Scene 1 and Epilogue (417-25, Prospero forgoes vengeance: both sets of conspirators trapped, faults named, forgiven; King Alonso reunited with Ferdinand; Boatswain reports ship ready; Prospero will voyage to Naples for Miranda’s wedding, then go home to rule Milan and study the art of dying well; Ariel finally set free)

A main point is that in contrast with plays such as King Lear, in The Tempest insight doesn’t come at the cost of the capacity to act in the world.  Prospero ends by appropriately chiding the lesser group of conspirators, in particular Caliban and Stefano, but he isn’t overly harsh with them.  We are let in on the excellent thoughts whereby he makes his decision in favor of exercising genuine authority rather than playing the tyrant with his now hapless enemies: incensed as he is at their deplorable acts, Prospero recognizes inwardly that “… The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (417, 5.1.27-28).  Virtue, that is, will always prove productive of still greater good, while vengeance is merely destructive and decreative, tending to chaos instead of order.  The sinful men now in his power will again “be themselves” (417, 5.1.32) that they may receive their just reckoning and a chance at redemption.

Awaiting these sinners’ entrance into the enchanted circle he has drawn, Prospero recounts the wonders he has done on the island (417-18, 5.1.33-50) and pledges once and for all to let go of his magic staff and book and the “rough magic” it has made him capable of wielding (418, 5.1.50).  Casting a spell over the senses of his captive enemies with music, he proceeds to name to them their faults: “Most cruelly / Didst thou, Alonso, use me and my daughter. / Thy brother [Sebastian] was a furtherer in this act” (418, 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 (418-19, 5.1.74-79).  But even he is forgiven.

Ariel 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” (419, 5.1.95-96), sings this innocent, natural creature even as he invests a mortal man in robes of state.  King Alonso promptly agrees to forget his insistence on Milanese tribute for Naples (419-20, 5.1.120-21) and asks forgiveness for his complicity in the exiling of Prospero.  The wizard next demands his state back from his usurping brother Antonio: “I do forgive / Thy rankest fault, all of them, and require / My dukedom of thee …” (420, 5.1.133-35). 

King Alonso’s chief care is still, of course, for his lost son (and, by implication, the destruction of his dynastic hopes): “I wish / Myself were mudded in that oozy bed / Where my son lies” (420, 5.1.152-54).  For this despairing monarch, Prospero has one last wonder to reveal: Ferdinand and Miranda playing the ancient game of royal strategy, chess (421, 5.1.170-74).  Even Sebastian must admit that this is “A most high miracle” (421, 5.1.180).  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” (421, 5.1.174).  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, thereby cutting the young fellow down to size somewhat, but King Alonso is nonetheless struck with amazement, exclaiming, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful” (421, 5.1.181).  He and Ferdinand are reunited, and Miranda’s turn comes to marvel at the sight before her: “O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (421, 5.1.186-87)  King Alonso is very pleased with the match, and Gonzalo pronounces by way of a question Prospero’s long-ago exile from Milan a dynastic fortunate fall: “Was Milan thrust from Milan, that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?” (422, 5.1.208-09)

Ariel has brought the Boatswain and ship’s Master into Prospero’s presence, and they tell of how they beheld with wonder the ship 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 are brushed aside for the moment by a happy Prospero, for there’s still the matter of Caliban and his wicked overlords to settle. 

Ariel is commanded to set them at liberty to face judgment, and Prospero’s initial move is to admit responsibility for Caliban: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (423, 5.1.278-79).  Afraid almost for his life, the miscreant admits his error and promises to mend his ways to obedience: “… I’ll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace” (424, 5.1.298-99).  He now knows what King Alonso knows: Stefano is no god, only a “drunken butler” (423, 5.1.280).  Order at last fully restored, Prospero promises to tell his life’s story to King Alonso and his people on the eve of departure from the island.  The company will voyage 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” (424, 5.1.314).

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, without losing his chance to recover the dukedom he lost.  He has learned a costly, lengthy lesson about putting an intensely private and insatiable desire for knowledge in its proper place and showing due regard for his responsibility to maintain the symbolic and material authority that underwrites civil order.  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 man really desires is not so much to exercise great power again as a younger man might, but instead to practice the art of dying well, or ars moriendi, as it’s called in Latin.

Ariel’s final charge is to provide “calm seas, auspicious gales” for the return voyage (424, 5.1.318), and his master’s last command to him is liberation itself: “Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well” (424, 5.1.321-22).  The promise of things to come is this impending marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda, who will, we may presume, carry on in a regenerated social and political environment.  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 ever could.  Prospero, now an 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, this 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.  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.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake


Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 815-88).


1. In Act 1, Scenes 1 and 3, how is the truth status and significance of the supernatural element in this play established by the three witches or Weird Sisters? What do the Sisters look like to Macbeth and Banquo? What can we gather from their spells in these scenes? What information do they present to Macbeth and Banquo, and how do they present it?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the Sergeant describe and evaluate for King Duncan and others the performance of Macbeth during the battles against Norway, Macdonwald, and the now-disgraced Thane of Cawdor? How might the information we hear in this scene affect our understanding of the following scene, in which the Sisters reveal the future to Macbeth and Banquo?

3. In Act 1, Scene 3, how do Macbeth and Banquo, respectively, respond to the prophecies made to them? With regard to Macbeth, first, what emotional effect has the Sisters’ news and prophecy stirred up in him, and what are his reflections on his current state of mind? With regard to Banquo, how does his reaction differ from that of Macbeth?

4. In Act 1, Scenes 4 and 6, what assessment can we make of Duncan’s perceptions and his hold upon power as Scotland’s king? What are his reflections on the disloyal former Thane of Cawdor? How does Duncan comport himself towards his powerful subjects first at his own palace in Forres and then when he arrives at Macbeth’s castle home? What plan does he announce to Macbeth regarding titles and the succession?

5. In Act 1, Scene 5, how does Lady Macbeth compare to her husband in the reception of the supernatural knowledge he brings her? What anxiety does she show regarding Macbeth’s ability to succeed in the enterprise that looms before them both? What does she reveal about her position and sensibilities as a woman confronted with what would traditionally be considered a man’s violent work?

6. In Act 1, Scene 7, what is Macbeth’s self-assessment on the eve of the murder? Consider as well the conversation between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? What rhetorical means does she use to drive him towards the execution of the plot that owes so much to her ingenuity as a co-conspirator?


7. In Act 2, Scene 1, what are Macbeth’s thoughts and actions immediately prior to the dreadful act he is soon to commit against Duncan? What insight does the “Dagger” part of this scene afford Macbeth and us? What, that is, can we gather about Macbeth’s attitude towards the self-transformative deed he is about to carry out, and what, if anything, can we infer from it about his conduct in subsequent actions?

8. In Act 2, Scene 2, in the immediate aftermath of Duncan’s murder, what happens to Macbeth’s sensibilities? Choose a few examples that allow you to compare and contrast Macbeth before and after his violent crime. In particular, how do the effects of conscience manifest themselves, and what unforeseen consequences of his deed do they signal?

9. In Act 2, Scene 3, the Drunken Porter scene is one of the most admired instances of comic relief in tragedy (along with the Gravedigger scene in Hamlet). What makes the scene funny? (Consider the difference between the Porter’s outlook on things and the perspective of more important characters.) Moreover, what does the Porter explain that could be applied to Macbeth and his situation after killing Duncan?

10. In Act 2, Scene 3, what image of themselves do Macbeth and Lady Macbeth project towards others in the killing’s aftermath? Also in this scene, the princes Malcolm and Donalbain decide to flee the scene of their father’s assassination. What reasons do they give? What conception of politics do such reasons imply?

11. In Act 2, Scenes 3-4, how much do Banquo, Macduff, and Rosse appear to understand about what has just happened — do they suspect that Macbeth has killed his royal guest? What decision do they make towards the end of Scene 4?


12. In Act 3, Scene 1, once Macbeth has attained the throne, what problem begins to preoccupy him? What rhetorical strategy does he use to spur the agents of his plot against Macduff? How does that rhetoric stem from Macbeth’s own situation, self-image, and anxieties?

13. In Act 3, Scenes 2 and 4, how does Macbeth explain to himself and us the logic of the predicament into which his own ambition has driven him? How has the balance of his relationship with Lady Macbeth changed by this point in the play?

14. In Act 3, Scene 4, what effect does the appearance of the ghost of his onetime friend Banquo (murdered at his instance in Act 3, Scene 3) have upon Macbeth? How does this intrusion of the supernatural differ, if it does, from Macbeth’s earlier encounters with that realm in the person of the witches, for example, or when he confronted the “dagger of the mind”?

15. In Act 3, Scene 5 (probably not genuine), what is Hecat’s understanding of the Witches’ conduct from the play’s outset, and how does she clarify Macbeth’s chief human flaw or weak point?

16. In Act 3, Scene 6, how do Lennox and his fellow lord describe the current state of affairs in Scotland? What actions are under way beyond the kingdom, and why?


17. In Act 4, Scene 1, when Macbeth goes for his second visit to the Weird Sisters and Hecate, what successive visions do they unfold before him? How does Macbeth respond to each, and what plan of action does he make on the basis of what he has learned from these visions?

18. In Act 4, Scene 2, Lady Macduff and her young son are murdered. What perspective do these two characters provide that has not as yet found its way into this play about political intrigue and vaulting ambition? How might we characterize the structural principle in accordance with which this painful scene appears where it does?

19. In Act 4, Scene 3, as Malcolm and Macduff consider the way forward against Macbeth, what accusations does Malcolm level against himself? Why does he subject Macduff to this disturbing self-deprecation? Moreover, what does the scene suggest about the play’s delimitation of the boundaries of royal power?

20. In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff is informed of the murder of his own family, and Malcolm immediately tries to shape the stricken man’s response. Describe the rhetoric he employs to do so. How might this portion of the scene (Macduff’s response and Malcolm’s rhetoric) be taken as metacommentary on the ethos and language of war and manhood that runs all through this play?


21. In Act 5, Scene 1, what symptoms of insanity does Lady Macbeth display? (In responding, look up “obsessive-compulsive disorder” (OCD), which is today’s term for this character’s affliction.) What’s the point of dwelling on the Queen’s psychological symptoms in a play filled with supernatural events? Why is it Lady Macbeth and not Macbeth who suffers this fate, even though the man had himself shown some of the same guilty obsession right after the murder of Duncan?

22. In Act 5, Scene 2, Menteth, Cathness, and Angus describe Macbeth’s plight. In Scene 3, how does Macbeth bear out this description in his actions and words? How does his conversation with the doctor attending Lady Macbeth deepen our insight into his current state of mind as the forces arrayed against him begin to close in, and disaster looms?

23. In Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth faces the death of his distracted wife and the eerie news that Birnan Wood is moving towards him, making a cruel mockery of what had seemed a solid prophecy of his continued hold on power. With what quality of speech, what attitude, does he greet these events? How do his reflections mark a change from what we have become accustomed to in the king since the murder of Duncan? Do we have here a traditional recognition scene where the protagonist acknowledges the nature of his mistake and accepts the consequences, or would you describe what happens some other way? Explain.

24. In Act 5, Scenes 7-8, in what manner does Macbeth face the destruction that he now understands to be imminent? As he moves from the philosophical reflection of Scene 5 to the attitude he displays in the present scenes, what pattern has reasserted itself in Macbeth’s attitudes and actions from the play’s beginning?

25. In Act 5, Scenes 8-9, Macbeth is killed and Malcolm is proclaimed king. Several of Shakespeare’s tragedies, among them Hamlet and King Lear, end with a political restoration. Discuss the quality of that restoration in the current play; to what extent has the damage done by Macbeth been repaired? Does the principle of order seem secure at the play’s end? Explain the rationale for your response.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Tempest

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Norton Romances and Poems, 3rd edition, pp. 387-448).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what kind of “tempest” does Prospero stir up? Explain the resonance of the storm metaphor for this play. For example, what does the storm at the outset of the play do to notions about rank, worth, and so forth, as the characters on board the sinking ship argue with one another?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, how is Miranda positioned as a central character in the play, and what virtues does she appear to possess? How much does she know about her past, and what does she learn about her origins and status in this scene?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Prospero explain his loss of power and exile to Miranda? To what extent does he admit partial responsibility for his own downfall, and to what degree does he find others (his brother Antonio and the King of Naples) culpable?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, what kind of magic does Prospero wield? What seems to be the source of that magic, and to what ends is he presently employing it? Aside from Prospero’s magic, what role does Fortune or Providence (God’s plan) play in the first two scenes?

5. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Prospero treat Ariel and Caliban? What does his treatment of them suggest about his understanding of power and its proper uses? In what sense might it be said that Prospero’s potential for tyranny is on display in this scene?

6. In Act 1, Scene 2, Caliban has sometimes been allegorized by modern critics as an island native facing the onslaught of European colonizers. 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?

7. In Act 1, Scene 2, How does Ferdinand understand his situation after the shipwreck? How does Ariel’s song reinforce Ferdinand’s perceptions? Why does Prospero treat Ferdinand as he does, in spite of his inward delight at Miranda’s admiration for the young man?


8. Act 2, Scene 1, what utopian vision of governance and society does Gonzalo set forth? How do Sebastian and Antonio respond to this vision? Does Gonzalo seem wise? What are his strengths and limitations?

9. Act 2, Scene 1, what course of action does Antonio urge upon Sebastian, brother of Alonso, King of Naples? According to Antonio, what opportunity has the tempest presented to Sebastian, and how should he respond? How does Ariel thwart this evil exhortation?

10. Act 2, Scene 2, how does the comic scene with Trinculo and Stephano complement the previous one with Antonio and Sebastian? Why do Trinculo and Stephano form a natural unit with Caliban?


11. In Act 3, Scene 1, what task has Prospero given Ferdinand? What sort of interaction between Ferdinand and Miranda takes place — upon what is their affection based, and in what manner do they declare that affection? How does Prospero react to their conversation, which he overhears without their knowledge?

12. In Act 3, Scene 2, what action does Caliban urge upon Stephano? What appears to be Caliban’s view of “politics”? In other words, how should power be won, who deserves to win it, and how should it be maintained? What weakness in understanding does Caliban show in this scene?

13. 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 Ariel offer up a banquet and then, appearing as a harpy, make the banquet disappear?

14. In Act 3, Scene 3, how does Prospero describe the sin of King Alonso of Naples? How does he punish Alonso for his role in banishing him? What effect does this punishment have upon the King?


15. In Act 4, Scene 1, what demonstration of his power does Prospero give Ferdinand and Miranda, and why does he offer them this demonstration? Who are Ceres and Iris, and what is the subject of their exchange?

16. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero utters his famous remark, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (156-58)? What is the immediate context of this remark in the scene, and how, more generally, does it apply to Prospero’s own magical powers?


17. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero seems quite willing to part with his magic at long last. Why so? What has it helped him to accomplish that is perhaps even more important than exposing the faults of his enemies and getting them to promise to restore him to his dukedom?

18. 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 on Shakespeare’s part, with respect to the couple’s island courtship and their prospects for a happy future?

19. In Act 5, Scene 1, what has Alonso learned from his ordeal as a temporarily bereaved father? How does he participate in the play’s successful resolution and setting-to-rights in this final scene?

20. In Act 5, Scene 1, what future lies in store for Prospero’s onetime minions Caliban and Ariel? What power or realm has Ariel symbolized throughout the play, and what life will he enjoy now that Prospero will soon have no further need of him?

21. In the epilogue, what prerogative does Prospero acknowledge as belonging to the audience? In what sense does Prospero here put himself in the situation of his own 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?

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 © 2012 Alfred J. Drake