The Tempest: Shakespeare on human nature

In ‘The Tempest’, Shakespeare evokes humanity’s capacity for both “virtue” and “evil” on an island subject to both its own laws and the illusion of Prospero’s “art”. The social buttresses of 17th century Europe are cast aside by the titular “tempest”, allowing each character to act according to their fundamental nature. The play is consequently underpinned by slavery, machinations and an exploration of what it is to be “human”.  Shakespeare also measures the effect of civilised society on human nature through the colonial narrative of the play and Gonzalo’s conception of a utopian “commonwealth”. Prospero relinquishing his ambivalent “charms” links to Shakespeare’s final address to his audience and an optimistic view of human society and its capacity for reconciliation.

Shakespeare explores human nature through a natural rather than socially imposed lens on an “isle” where the true natures of all characters can manifest. Initially Shakespeare exposes humanity’s capacity for tyranny and malevolence by reducing the social moorings of Europe to a “poor isle”. “This island’s mine” suggests how inextricable the “isle” is from Caliban’s nature, as his affinity with “all the qualities o’ the isle” is associated with animalism. Caliban’s “savage”, inhuman qualities are reflected in his violent, threatening language; “wicked dew”, “unwholesome fen” and “red plague” all connote his barbaric nature. Prospero’s language towards his “abhorred slave” is, however, equally as violent, warning Caliban that “urchins” will “exercise on thee” and referring to him as a “thing most brutish”. Prospero achieves a self-righteous state of control over all other characters as his “art is of such power”, evincing his manipulative and tyrannical tendencies. Thus whilst Prospero associates “goodness” with the “human”, Shakespeare implies he is also “capable of all ill!” Sebastian’s cynicism, “rub(bing) the sore” rather than bringing the “plaster”, links to his underlying capacity for “evil”. Even Alonso’s mournful articulation of his loss, declaring Ferdinand “gone”, contrasts with Gonzalo’s optimism and wise counsel. Despite the disruption of social order by Prospero’s engineered “tempest” and Shakespeare’s exhibition of “evil natures”, the play eventually begins to move towards the “peace” that is Prospero’s true desire; the method of achieving this restoration of order shifts from suffering to forgiveness and “calm”.

Shakespeare’s final play follows a pattern of loss and restoration. As the social bonds between characters are broken by the notion of “tempest” and the illusory qualities of Prospero’s “art”, characters lose the established social moorings and the narrative is plunged into chaos. Yet notions of colonialism and governance emerge as the play finally begins to move towards Prospero’s promise to “restore” the social order disrupted by the “tempest”. Prospero’s harsh treatment of Caliban, “sty(ing)” him in a “hard rock”, echoes a colonial narrative; whilst Caliban proclaims “This island’s mine”, Prospero’s perception of the “barren…and fertile” island equates to terra nullius. Prospero regarding Caliban as “vile” and inferior after the “savage” tried to “violate/The honour of my child” leads to his subjection as a “slave”. Prospero’s domineering control, resulting from his powerful “art”, culminates in Caliban having no choice but to “obey”. In the absence of social institutions, Gonzalo also articulates his view of a utopian “commonwealth”, where he would “execute all things”. However, his optimistic view of humanity as inherently good, “innocent and pure”, contrasts with Shakespeare’s implication of the true nature of humankind. Having illustrated the potential for “all ill” as well as “goodness” in human nature, Shakespeare turns towards the restoration of order and “peace” to conclude the continuity of losing and finding. Prospero achieving a newfound sense of humanism by choosing the “rarer action” of forgiveness rather than “vengeance” prompts him to relinquish his “potent art”. In this act of relinquishment, Prospero sacrifices his command over his servants and his enemies to “restore” them to a greater understanding and reconciliation. The process, of loss and restoration of the established social moorings the characters are accustomed to, is fulfilled, as Gonzalo articulates in the final Act; “all of us” found “ourselves”.

Shakespeare draws the narrative of menace, loss and “treason” to a close in a final scene of reconciliation and forgiveness. Alonso is “penitent” for his role alongside Antonio and Sebastian in the “high wrongs” done against Prospero, who has finally chosen forgiveness as an alternative to imposed suffering to enact his justice. Whereas Prospero once threatened to “make (Caliban) roar/That beasts shall tremble at thy din”, becoming beastly in his tyrannical control, what “strength” or power he now has is only “mine own”. In renouncing his former “charms” and “faults”, asking for “mercy” from the audience, Prospero demonstrates his growth from “vengeance” and autocratic power to “virtue”. Even the shift in the play’s imagery, from Caliban’s animalism and “tempest” towards “gentle breath” and “calm seas”, highlights the triumph of reconciliation over Prospero’s machinations and the “fury” than underlies the narrative. In this way, Shakespeare suggests that the more “human” response is found in compromise and forgiveness, which are more effective tools than violence, “slavery” or even the “rough magic” of Prospero’s omnipotent “art”. The relinquishment of his “rough magic”, having been used for ambivalent purposes throughout the play, is comparable to Shakespeare’s final addressing of his audience. The epilogue, structurally, concludes the pattern of loss and restoration through Prospero’s plea to be “set…free” of his “faults” and of the island; yet more profoundly, it is Shakespeare’s final reiteration of his “project…Which was to please”. ‘The Tempest’ explores our fundamental human nature on a natural stage engineered by Prospero; Shakespeare demonstrates the “virtue” of the human response of forgiveness rather than “fury” through the process of loss and restoration that underlies the play.

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