Written by Lucienne Loh, 2A01B, 1996.
"Prospero's island is full of echoes and suggestions." Discuss the importance of the environment in The Tempest.
"The island is full of noises; Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight" says Caliban. The responses which the characters in The Tempest offer to their immediate surroundings reveal much about their individual traits, at the same time they allow the audience glimpses of Prospero's island as different parts of the island are isolated in the play. The island itself and the sea that surrounds it may be seen as encompassing elemental nature and throughout the play, the elements are used to emphasize the inherent nature of characters (notably Ariel and Caliban) as these elements to an Elizabethan audience possessed "primarily certain qualities attributable to matter" (Tillyard's Elizabethan World Picture). The imagery of clouds dissolving and melting, or reason that had ebbed flooding back, and in changes of state between sleeping and waking all draw on images from the natural environment that extend the main thematic concerns in The Tempest. Analogies may also be drawn between the macrocosm and microcosm and how disorder in one corresponded to disorders in the other.
The characters are placed in different parts of the island by Prospero in an attempt to illicit responses which would reveal their characters. There is suggestion that the portion of the island in which the court party are placed is rather barren and hostile. Despite Adrian's objective comments in Act II of the island as being "desert", Gonzalo in responding to the island as "here is everything advantageous to live. How lush and lusty the grass looks" reveals clearly his constant optimism and fervent belief in hope, his response is offered in contrast to Sebastian's and Antonio's response that "the ground, indeed, is tawny with an eye of green in'it", they prefer instead to see the worst in all and serve as an antithesis to Gonzalo's goodly and generous character.
In placing the court party in an environment which is in stark contrast to the elaborate court from which they came and also the source of Antonio's treacherous behaviour, their barren surroundings are an apt setting for change to be initiated, most notably in Alonso or any change to be observed, particularly in Alonso. Antonio is placed in a situation as the rest of the court party sleeps where Prospero may observe Antonio's genuine unrepentance over his past sins. Similarly, he deliberately places Caliban with Trinculo and Stephano which afford Caliban the opportunity to gain [more] valuable self-knowledge. Caliban has been shown to be highly passionate in his response to stimulus, seen in his lustful intent on Miranda but does not know the reason why this is wrong, Prospero creates an opportunity where he may become a better judge of people. [Is this really accomplished?]
The atmosphere surrounding a character often reflects his state of mind. Alonso's barren surroundings reflect the infinite loss and sadness over the presumed [good] death of Ferdinand. The temporary respite from the burdens of ruler that Prospero enjoys during the performance of the bethrothal masque is manifest in the joyous and celebratory mood created by the pastoral imagery in the songs and performance. However, when Prospero is startled by his sudden recollection of Caliban's "foul conspiracy", his troubled mind is immediately reflected in the "strange, hollow and [good] confused noise" and he creates a dark and tense atmosphere.
Prospero's island being "full of echoes and suggestions" gives rise to Spurgeon's idea that the dominant image in The Tempest is that of sound: "the sensation is in itself the physical expression as well as the symbol of the whole theme." The contrast of various sounds offered by the various characters serve as an effective dramatic device to constantly allow the audience to imagine the plethora of sounds present on the island: the roar of the surf and the winds and as a storm arises, wild sounds and thunder and also the various natural sounds present. This device has been established through the brilliant opening scene where the clamor and din of the tempest is conveyed so realistically.
Thus, we hear the roaring of the waters constantly to remind us of the physical position of the island, the reverberation of thunder and lightning through Stephano's comments and also by the entrance and exits of Ariel. We are exposed to a vast number of harsh noises: Caliban and his companion's drunken shouts, when Prospero abruptly ends the masque, a noise "strange, hollow, confused" is heard. Conversely, we hear alongside the disharmonious noises, the humming of "a thousand twanging instruments," the sweet songs and airs of Ariel and those presented in the Masque by Ceres and Iris recur throughout the play, and with wchich Prospero's rough magic is abjured and all is restored to peace. The play is thus an extremely sensual experience where mood is largely influenced by the sound imagery conveyed.
The play begins with a tempest which invokes explicitly all four elements in their uproars, G. Wilson Knight has shown how constant the "tempest" idea and symbolism is in Shakespeare's thought: the movements of the cruel, ruthless, raging sea are frequently a symbol of the passions and emotions of men. It is Prospero's responsibility then as creator of the tempest to initiate change amongst the men under his rule; he has to bring disorder to order, storm to calm in the heavens and in the minds of men, ignorance to self-knowledge and evil to good. Prospero also has to learn to quell the stormy passions in him. "Above all, as ruler and as magus, he must have absolute purity of mind in order to invoke celestial influences and must abstain from passions, which hurt the mind and pervert the judgment of reason." (Adapted from J. H. Walter's Introduction in The Player's Shakespeare's edition of The Tempest.)
The movement of the sea runs as an overtone throughout the play and serves not only to reveal the perturbation of various characters but helps also to sustain the tragic potential in the play. Miranda is troubled by the "roar" of "the wild waters", Prospero's recollection of his brother's treachery in leaving them at the mercy of "the sea that roar'd to us" reflects vengeful passions. Alonso thinks of drowning himself "deeper than e'er plummet sounded" and Prospero in echoing words undertakes to drown his books, signifying the end of his role as magician and emphasizing his commitment as a ruler of people. At the end reason is to wash away passions and "understanding begins to swell, and the approaching tide will shortly fill the reasonable shore" for Alonso and Prospero, and to some extent Caliban.
Miranda, Prospero and Alonso all have uneasy minds that echo the beating of the sea. Miranda pleads her father to "still (the) beating in (her) mind", Prospero makes reference to his "beating mind" in his philosophical discussion revealing himself to be an increasingly wearied man. He echoes this expression when he comforts Alonso not to "infest (his) mind with beating on the strangeness of this business" and reveals an empathy and sensitivity not present in his vengeful tone in Act I.
An Elizabethan audience would be acutely aware that Caliban would possess elementary qualities of the earth and Ariel the celestial qualities of the air. Prospero reminds us that Ariel was "but air", he addresses Caliban as "thou, earth, thou!" It was believed that spirits such as Ariel, their substance being airy could act on a man's spirit and soul. Ariel draws compassion and forgiveness from Prospero. However, Shakespeare does not offer the simple stereotypes that limit Caliban and Ariel to the inherent qualities of their respective elements. Caliban is not wholly earthy and base, he possesses qualities of kindness and understanding revealed in his initial treatment of Miranda and Prospero and in his sensitive respose to the sounds that pervade the island. [good (last 4 sentences)]
The noblest element of all was believed to be fire and was invisible to human sight and thus a fitting transition to the eternal realms of the planets. Ariel can be seen to be a link for Prospero between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the celestial bodies. Ariel's descriptions of his task show him to possess fiery qualities "be't to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire ... would I flame distinctly ... the fire and cracks of sulphurous roaring." Whereas Ariel seems to possess the nobler qualities of both air and fire, Caliban is more attuned to the earth and water and is attached to the lowest of the elements, the earth. Caliban showed Miranda and Prospero "all the qualities o' th' isle ... The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile". In his curses to Prospero he draws upon earthy images "Lay all the infections that the sun suck up, From bogs, fens, flats on Prosper fall". Caliban is thus seen as being of the lowest order in the hierarchy.
In Prospero's most revealing speech in Act 4, he talks about the dissolution from dream life to sleep that sets a period to man's endeavors: "our actors ... melted in thin air, And like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud capped towers ... the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherits, shall dissolve ... we are such stuff as dreams are made of and our little life is rounded with a sleep." Prospero draws on the transient nature of the physical environment, which are as yet based on earth, despite towers reaching into the celestial bodies of the sky and indeed calls to mind the insignificance of humanity in contrast to the greater heavenly planes.
We see too in Prospero's speech the vulnerability of age as he reveals an increasing weariness towards life on earth and looks to the sleep of death where he will be free from the complexities of life. He must turn his energies to that which must immediately concern him (Caliban's conspiracy and the court party) which appear to him when judged objectively trivial complications of man. Prospero appears to long for a clarity of thought and purity of mind that would make him an effective ruler in the short span of time he does have left with the physical earth and indeed he asks for grace from greater powers in the stars which is further extended to his epilogue where he asks for prayers to set him free. There is also the acknowledgment that if the heavens fulfill their vast and uncomplicated wheeling and afford him grace then Prospero has a responsibility not to allow the workings of his own little world to degenerate, a responsibility which he thoroughly accepts at the end where he is able to judge each of his subjects within their appropriate spheres of ability and potential. He recognizes Caliban's limitations as well as Antonio's potential for evil and the need to control both.
The environment in The Tempest can be seen to be vast, extending much further than the island and the surrounding sea to the celestial heavens above. The themes of pastoral tragicomedy can be seen in "the formulation of poetic propositions concerning the status of human life in relation to nature, and the mercy of a providence which gives new life when the old is scarred by sin or lost in folly". (Kermode's introduction from the Arden edition.) And indeed, the importance of the environment in the play can be seen in its effective fulfillment of the pastoral tragicomedy form. [Good point of closure.]
You have answered well. There are times when I question how thoroughly you understand certain points you make, but there is no question that you have made good and effective use of secondary + primary sources. Development in spots is crying for attention. You give the nuts and bolts but rarely take the point to completion. This is in part because the relevance of certain comments to the question is not always apparent. It is still an 'A' essay - good work.
Art vs. Nature (E-Ching's),
Art vs. Nature (Rouh Phin's),
Prospero as Ruler, Prospero vs. Caliban,
The Tempest as Masque, Apparitions and Stage Spectacle,
Ideas vs. Dramatic Principle, Island of Echoes & Suggestions,
Comic Resolution, Prospero Context
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