The Tempest Characters Analysis features noted Shakespeare
scholar William Hazlitt's famous critical essay about
characters of The Tempest.
THERE can be little doubt that Shakespear was the most
universal genius that ever lived. "Either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral,
scene individual or poem unlimited, he is the only man.
Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light for
him." He has not only the same absolute command
over our laughter and our tears, all the resources of
passion, of wit, of thought, of observation, but he
has the most unbounded range of fanciful invention,
whether terrible or playful, the same insight into the
world of imagination that he has into the world of reality;
and over all there presides the same truth of character
and nature, and the same spirit of humanity. His ideal
beings are as true and natural as his real characters;
that is, as consistent with themselves, or if we suppose
such beings to exist at all, they could not act, speak,
or feel otherwise than as he makes them. He has invented
for them a language, manners, and sentiments of their
own, from the tremendous imprecations of the Witches
in Macbeth, when they do "a deed without a name,"
to the sylph-like expressions of Ariel, who "does
his spiriting gently"; the mischievous tricks and
gossiping of Robin Goodfellow, or the uncouth gabbling
and emphatic gesticulations of Caliban in this play.
The TEMPEST is one of the most original and perfect
of Shakespear's productions, and he has shewn in it
all the variety of his powers. It is full of grace and
grandeur. The human and ima-ginary characters, the dramatic
and the grotesque, are blended together with the greatest
art, and without any appearance of it. Though he has
here given "to airy nothing a local habitation
and a name," yet that part which is only the fantastic
creation of his mind, has the same palpable texture,
and coheres "semblably" with the rest. As
the preternatural' part has the air of reality, and
almost haunts the imagination with a sense of truth,
the real characters and events partake of the wildness
of a dream. The stately magician, Prospero, driven from
his dukedom, but around whom (so potent is his art)
airy spirits throng numberless to do his bidding; his
daughter Miranda ("worthy of that name") to
whom all the power of his art points, and who seems
the goddess of the isle; the princely Ferdinand, cast
by fate upon the heaven of his happiness in this idol
of his love; the delicate Ariel; the savage Caliban,
half brute, half demon; the drunken ship's crew—are
all connected parts of the story, and can hardly be
spared from the place they fill. Even the local scenery
is of a piece and character with the subject. Prospero's
enchanted island seems to have risen up out of the sea;
the airy music, the tempest-tost vessel, the turbulent
waves, all have the effect of the landscape background
of some fine picture. Shakespear's pencil is (to use
an allusion of his own) "like the dyer's hand,
subdued to what it works in." Every-thing in him,
though it partakes of "the liberty of wit,"
is also subjected to "the law "of the understanding.
For instance, even the drunken sailors, who are made
reeling-ripe, share, in the disorder of their minds
and bodies, in the tumult of the elements, and seem
on shore to be as much at the mercy of chance as they
were before at the mercy of the winds and waves. These
fellows with their sea-wit are the least to our taste
of any part of the play: but they are as like drunken
sailors as they can be, and are an indirect foil to
Caliban, whose figure acquires a classical dignity in
The character of Caliban is generally thought (and
justly so) to be one of the author's master-pieces.
It is not indeed pleasant to see this character on the
stage any more than it is to see the god Pan personated
there. But in itself it is one of the wildest and most
abstracted of all Shakespear's characters, whose deformity
whether of body or mind is redeemed by the power and
truth of the imagination displayed in it. It is the
essence of grossness, but there is not a particle of
vulgarity in it. Shakespear has described the brutal
mind of Caliban in contact with the pure and original
forms of nature; the character grows out of the soil
where it is rooted, uncontrouled, uncouth and wild,
uncramped by any of the meannesses of custom. It is
"of the earth, earthy." It seems almost to
have been dug out of the ground, with a soul instinctively
superadded to it answering to its wants and origin.
Vulgarity is not natural coarseness, but conventional
coarseness, learnt from others, contrary to, or without
an entire conformity of natural power and disposition;
as fashion is the common-place affectation of what is
elegant and refined without any feeling of the essence
of it. Schlegel, the admirable German critic on Shakespear,
observes that Caliban is a poetical character, and "always
speaks in blank verse." He first comes in thus:
"Caliban. As wicked dew as e'er my mother brush'd
With raven's feather from unwholesome fen,
Drop on you both! a south-west blow on ye,
And blister you all o'er!
Prospero. For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up; urchins
Shall, for that vast of night that they may work,
All exercise on thee: thou shalt be pinched
As thick as honey-combs, each pinch more stingin
g Than bees that made them.
Caliban. I must eat my dinner
This island's mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. When thou camest first,
Thou stroak'dst me, and mad'st much of me; would'st
Water with berries in't; and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less
That burn by day and night; and then I lov'd thee,
And shew'd thee all the qualities o' th' isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Curs'd be I that I did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light oh you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Who first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o' th' island."
And again, he promises Trinculo his services thus,
if he will free him from his drudgery.
"I'll shew thee the best springs; I'll pluck thee
I'll fish for thee, and get thee wood enough.
I pr'ythee let me bring thee where crabs grow,
And I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts:
Shew thee a jay's nest, and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmozet: I'll bring thee
To clust'ring filberds; and sometimes I'll get thee
Young scamels from the rock."
In conducting Stephano and Trinculo to Prospero's cell,
Caliban shews the superiority of natural capacity over
greater knowledge and greater folly; and in a former
scene, when Ariel frightens them with his music, Caliban
to encourage them accounts for it in the eloquent poetry
of the senses.
—"Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Would make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and shew riches
Ready to drop upon me: when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again."
This is not more beautiful than it is true. The poet
here shews us the savage with the simplicity of a child,
and makes the strange monster amiable. Shakespear had
to paint the human animal rude and without choice in
its pleasures, but not without the sense of pleasure
or some germ of the affections. Master Barnardine in
Measure for Measure, the savage of civilised life, is
an admirable philosophical counterpart to Caliban.
Shakespear has, as it were by design, drawn off from
Caliban the elements of whatever is ethereal and refined,
to compound them in the unearthly mould of Ariel. Nothing
was ever more finely conceived than this contrast between
the material and the spiritual, the gross and delicate.
Ariel is imaginary power, the swiftness of thought personified.
When told to make good speed by Prospero, he says, "I
drink the air before me." This is something like
Puck's boast on a similar occasion, "I'll put a
girdle round about the earth in forty minutes."
But Ariel differs from Puck in having a fellow feeling
in the interests of those he is employed about. How
exquisite is the following dialogue between him and
"Ariel. Your charm so strongly works 'em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
Prospero. Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel. Mine would, sir, were I human.
Prospero. And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion'd as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?"
It has been observed that there is a peculiar charm
in the songs introduced in Shakespear, which, without
conveying any distinct images, seem to recall all the
feelings connected with them, like snatches of half-forgotten
music heard indistinctly and at intervals. There is
this effect produced by Ariel's songs, which (as we
are told) seem to sound in the air, and as if the person
playing them were invisible. We shall give one instance
out of many of this general power.
"Enter FERDINAND; and ARIEL invisible, flaying
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands;
Curt'sied when you have, and kiss'd,
(The wild waves whist;)
Foot it featly here and there;
And sweet sprites the burden bear.
Hark, hark! bowgh-wowgh: the watch-dogs bark,
Ariel. Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Ferdinand. Where should this music be? i' the
air or the earth?
It sounds no more: and sure it waits upon
Some god o' th' island. Sitting on a bank
Weeping against the king my father's wreck,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air; thence I have follow'd it,
Or it hath drawn me rather:—but 'tis gone.—
No, it begins again.
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change,
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell—
Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong bell.
Ferdinand. The ditty does remember my drown'd father.
This is no mortal business, nor no sound
That the earth owes: I hear it now above me."—
The courtship between Ferdinand and Miranda is one
of the chief beauties of this play. It is the very purity
of love. The pretended interference of Prospero with
it heightens its interest, and is in character with
the magician, whose sense of preternatural power makes
him arbitrary, tetchy, and impatient of opposition.
The TEMPEST is a finer play than the Midsummer Night's
Dream, which has sometimes been compared with it; but
it is not so fine a poem. There are a greater number
of beautiful passages in the latter. Two of the most
striking in the TEMPEST are spoken by Prospero. The
one is that admirable one when the vision which he has
conjured up disappears, beginning "The cloud-capp'd
towers, the gorgeous palaces," etc., which has
been so often quoted, that every schoolboy knows it
by heart; the other is that which Prospero makes in
abjuring his art.
"Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets, that
By moon-shine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew, by whose aid
(Weak masters tho' ye be) I have be-dimm'd
The noon-tide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azur"d vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I giv'n fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-bas'd promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have wak'd their sleepers; oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure; and when I have requir'd
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
(To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for) I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I'll drown my book."—
We must not forget to mention among other things in
this play, that Shakespear has anticipated nearly all
the arguments on the Utopian schemes of modern philosophy.
"Gonzalo. Had I the plantation of this isle, my
Antonio. He'd sow it with nettle-seed.
Sebastian. Or docks or mallows.
Gonzalo. And were the king on't, what would I do?
Sebastian. 'Scape being drunk, for want of wine.
Gonzalo. I' the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things: for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; wealth, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all,
And women too; but innocent and pure:
Sebastian. And yet he would be king on't.
Antonio. The latter end of his commonwealth forgets
Gonzalo. All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foizon, all abundance
To feed my innocent people!
Sebastian. No marrying 'mong his subjects?
Antonio. None, man; all idle; whores and knaves.
Gonzalo. I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.
Sebastian. Save his majesty!"