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Conjuring up a storm
Authority and leadership in The Tempest
Exploring The Tempest in the social and political context of Jacobean England leads Neil Bowen to
read it ‘as a coded, but nevertheless daring critique of Jacobean ideology.’
In the opening scene Shakespeare brilliantly uses the resources at his disposal to conjure a storm.
Whereas in a modern film CGI can be used to create a storm scene, in The Tempest Shakespeare
only has words, the stage and perhaps music. This means he has to work much harder than, say, a
modern film director to make the audience imagine the storm. How then does Shakespeare do this?
The situation is, of course, dramatic. The ‘ship’ is being split apart and the social order thrown into
confusion. Shakespeare uses sound effects – ‘a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning’ – to
convey this confusion. But the pace of the dialogue is more important. Shakespeare wants us to
believe these characters are in mortal danger, hence the dialogue cuts urgently from one agitated
character speaking to another. Generally the lines are also very short, often consisting of just a few
Do you hear him? You mar our Labour. Keep your cabins. (Lines 12-13)
The rhythm created is suitably swift and choppy.
Tone is also crucial in creating the drama. Normally, in Shakespeare’s plays, we expect lowly
characters to address Noblemen with respect. Indeed at the end of the play that is how the
Boatswain addresses his ‘betters’. In this crisis, however, the Boatswain is exasperated by the
Noblemen’s interference with his attempts to save the ship. And when he cries, ‘What cares these
roarers for the name of King?’ he openly challenges the authority of the King and the Court. The
challenge is underscored by a series of commands, ‘Hence...To cabin. Silence! Trouble us not’. The
language here is sharp and stark. The air crackles with sedition. Shakespeare then ratchets up the
tension through the Noblemen’s enraged response; Sebastian curses ‘a pox o’ your throat’, and
Antonio spits ‘Hang, cur, hang you whoreson, insolent noisemaker’. Later in the scene we will also
hear desperation, ‘lay her a-hold’, and despair, ‘Mercy on us! We split, we split’. The situation is
extreme and the relationships between the characters are violent and stormy.
For an audience, confusion is also created by the simple fact that the characters are not named.
Shakespeare’s usual marker of social status – verse for the nobility, prose for the plebeians – is, as
elsewhere in the play, also scrambled. A profusion of entries and exits punctuates the stage action.
Look, for instance, at lines 4, 8, 26, 32, 36, 49 and 63. Together these devices create a pervasive
sense of tension, confusion and disorder. In short a tempest is conjured.
The Great Chain of Being
For a Jacobean audience the opening of The Tempest must have been even more disorientating. The
dominant model of social order was ‘The Great Chain of Being’, a rigid, pyramid-like structure within
which all things had their rank. In the spiritual sphere, God was at the apex and underneath him
were ranked various types of angels. The earthly world reflected this divine pattern; the Monarch sat
at the tip of the pyramid, on top of the Aristocracy; the Aristocracy looked down on the teeming
merchant classes and, down at the foot were the masses, the peasants; the whole weight of the
structure upon them.
A key aspect of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ was that it was sanctioned by God. Hence seeking to
change social position, or worse, questioning the authority of those above you, was seen, not just as
questioning your betters (which could be dangerous enough) but also to be going against God
himself. The fear of threats to this rigid, top-down structure is clear in, for example, the Sumptuary
Laws or the 1598 Poor Law Act. The Sumptuary Laws controlled the dress code at court. The
wealthier and more powerful you were the more colours, patterns and fabrics you were allowed to
wear. The Queen could wear ermine, for example, whereas the Nobles were allowed fox. The Poor
Law Act made it legal to beat and drive from a parish ‘masterless men’, i.e. those that did not fit into
the ‘Great Chain of Being’. A scene where the normal hierarchy is so confused would therefore be
dangerous and alarming.
Authority in tempest
Shakespeare’s bold opening raises serious questions about leadership and authority. In a crisis,
authority appears to lie with those able to deal best with the situation. It is the boatswain who
wields power in this scene, as indicated, for instance, by his domination of the lines. The Noblemen
are at best ineffectual; at worst an encumbrance. They shout at their potential saviour, and generally
get in the way. The Boatswain’s cry challenges the authority of the King and suggests that monarchy
(and by implication ‘The Great Chain of Being’) is not natural, or God-given. Instead it is an unnatural
construct. And one which, crucially, is vulnerable to outside forces.
The ‘roarers’ are these forces rising. They are loud and violent – hence ‘roaring’ – and ready to
mount a challenge. Later in the play these rebellious forces will be represented, in comic form, by
Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban, and in more sinister form by Antonio and Sebastian. The Tempest
can be seen, then, as exposing fault lines in the seemingly impregnable social order. Thirty or so
years after the play was written, of course, these ‘roarers’ did become so powerful and insistent that
a Civil War would break out, a King be beheaded and the new social order of the ‘Commonwealth’
So from the very opening of the play questions of power, leadership and authority are raised. As in
Shakespeare’s history plays, much of the rest of the action in The Tempest wrestles with these key
Prospero’s lessons in leadership
Traditional interpretations of The Tempest have often seen the play as obliquely criticising King
James; advising him on good government. In this reading Prospero is identified with the King and is
shown, over the course of the action, to learn how to be a better leader.
If this is the case what does he learn about leadership and authority?
In Act 1 Scene 2 Prospero tells the audience he lost his dukedom because he was too trusting (of his
brother, Antonio) and became too absorbed in his studies to rule effectively, ‘rapt in secret studies’,
‘neglecting wordly ends’. On the island he suffers for his mistakes, and has to learn the values of
patience and fortitude. At the end of the play he breaks his magic ‘staff’ and ‘drowns’ his books.
Thus, as his increasingly Christian language indicates, he gives up his role of magus and dedicates
himself to conscientious government.
Moreover, though Prospero may have intended to revenge his usurpation, by punishing his brother
Antonio and Alonso, in the end he refrains. Despite having all his enemies at his mercy, prompted by
Ariel ‘...if you now beheld them, your affections/ Would become tender’ (Act 5 Scene 1) he forgoes
the satisfaction of vengeance. He learns, instead, the value of mercy and the virtue of reconciliation.
He is ready by the end of the play to reassume his previous role, but now as a wiser, more
responsible leader: ‘the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance’.
And so The Tempest ends with order emerging from disorder; the ‘roarers’ reconciled by Prospero’s
justice. After the storm has passed, the Boatswain returns in Act 5, humble and deferential; Ariel is
finally freed. Gonzalo’s exclamations set the tone in his celebration of the engagement of Ferdinand
and Miranda:
O rejoice
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars. In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife.
Alternative readings
But this traditional reading marginalises aspects of the play which do not fall so neatly into its
comforting scheme. Troubling questions persist: is Claribel’s marriage, for instance, really a cause for
such celebration? Did Ferdinand really ‘find’ Miranda? What justification is there for Prospero’s
usurpation of the island?
Postcolonial writers, in particular, have highlighted the problems with the simple equation
underpinning traditional readings of The Tempest, i.e. Prospero = noble and civilised; Caliban =
savage and uncivilised. Taking their lead from the postcolonialists, modern critics emphasise the
ways in which the play questions the basis of Prospero’s power and authority. Far from presenting
Prospero as learning Humanist values, they argue, he is an altogether more sinister character. A
subtle, but arch Machiavellian, the former Duke stage-manages the action in order to regain power,
using his daughter as part of his political game, trampling on those who do not fit into his scheme.
Certainly, as the opening scene shows, conventional ideas are questioned by the play. Gonzalo’s
speech on a commonwealth, for example, provides an alternative model of society organised on an
egalitarian basis. This utopian vision is juxtaposed with the cut-throat opportunism of Sebastian and
Antonio. Moreover, Shakespeare shows how the political system depends on the subjugation of
women – both Claribel and Miranda are used for geo-political gain by their fathers, and Sycorax is
demonised by Prospero. However, it is the presentation of Caliban that most persuasively points to
the play as a coded, but nevertheless daring critique of Jacobean ideology.
Caliban, the hero
As many critics have noted, Caliban is given verse, not prose, and this can be moving and beautiful.
See for example the speech beginning, ‘The isle is full of noises/Sounds and sweet airs, that give
delight and hurt not...’ Furthermore, Caliban’s ability to recognise the beauty of music shows a
potentially civilised sensibility, in contrast to Antonio and Sebastian, for instance, who are deaf to
Ariel’s music. Another stark contrast is between the tender wonder of Caliban’s words and the brutal
language Prospero uses against him. The tirade of abuse against Caliban (‘Hag-seed’, ‘malice’, ‘this
thing of darkness’) echoes Antonio and Sebastian’s cursing of the Boatswain in the opening scene,
and Prospero’s bemonstering of Caliban, are also undercut by the visceral descriptions of his physical
suffering. Caliban’s cry of ‘This island’s mine, by Sycorax, my mother’ raises issues about authority
and colonialism that Prospero and his sympathisers would rather avoid.
The ending
The end of the play does not provide a simple return to social order; the rainbow Prospero produces
for the Masque is an illusion only. Although Prospero seems to have gained just authority, and
although characters are back within their proper place in ‘The Great Chain’, the ending is
undermined by unresolved doubts about the treatment of Caliban and of Ariel. Moreover, the
silence of Antonio suggests that the forces of discord, the potential ‘roarers’ have not yet been
properly reconciled. The manipulation of Miranda and her evident naïvety are also troublesome:
How beauteous mankind is. O brave new world
That has such people in’t.
Modern critics argue that the ending does not neatly resolve the play’s issues. Instead they are left
open and urgent. The play presents an ambiguous picture of colonialism and of the position of
women in society. The play questions the features of a good society and the basis and nature of just
authority. It shows how power can be generated, used and abused. In troubled times especially,
such as during a tempest, it challenges us to consider what constitutes good, responsible, wise
Neil Bowen
This article first appeared in emagazine 35.