Hot take. The Tempest is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays. We come to Shakespeare with an entire history of criticism before us. Even if we don’t understand why, we think some of the plays are more important. We inherit a belief about which ones are most valuable, which characters are most interesting. Here’s the thing: people have been blinded by what they don’t want to see. There is an epistemology of hate. People know what they allow themselves to understand, and they reject any kind of knowledge that interferes with their beliefs.
The result is to have created a lopsided canon, a version of Shakespeare that fits an ideology. It is an ideology of power and hatred. This is not to say that Shakespeare himself was racist or misogynistic, but that many characters in the plays are. Furthermore, the way we have read and valued the plays is also through an ideological lens. The way we have read Shakespeare says a lot about the limitations of our worldview.
The Tempest is a play about hate more than it is about love. The love is staged, it is shallow and fake. The hate is real, though, and it goes deep. It is a cancerous hatred between brothers. Hatred is portrayed as a blinding force, as an overwhelming urge to do the wrong thing. The villains in Shakespeare are not in control of their actions. They are impelled by some powerful negative belief. They are tormented figures who attempt to transform their suffering by interfering with happy people’s plans. Through this exercise of negative power, they try to feel better.
Caliban’s hatred of Prospero and Miranda derives from his disappointed sense of entitlement, of his social isolation. He is alienated from everyone, a wretch. Caliban is surely a model for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. His famous response to Miranda’s chiding him that she had taught him to speak is the essence of the wretch’s consciousness in Shelley’s novel. “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!”
Miranda addresses Caliban as abhorred slave. They recall how he attempted to rape her, and he states that he wishes he had succeeded. It is not a very friendly situation. Kind of toxic if you ask me. The idea that people love this play strongly suggests that they are aligned with an ideology of hate.
I also don’t think that the figure of Prospero is analogous to a writer for the theater. He is more of a slave master than anything. He represents someone banished who becomes powerful in the land where they are exiled. Although the colonization of the Americas was only beginning, it is easier to see Prospero as a colonist than a director of the theater.
He enslaves Caliban and Ariel to do his work on the island and motivates their employment with threats and cruel tortures. He justifies it left and right. He saved Caliban from his wretched condition through education. He freed Ariel from a pine tree where she was stuck. For these acts of liberation, he assumes a fee of total obedience. He frees them only to make them into slaves.
The Tempest like many of Shakespeare’s plays shows us how blind we are to our own subjectivity. Characters in the play act from a sense of urgency they in many ways do not understand. Ideology, the influence of the ideas of the ruling class, and epistemology, our ways of knowing, will always be intertwined. Our ability to know is limited by our ideological beliefs, especially when they are motivated by hatred.