Written by Yeo Siew Lian, 2A01B, 1996.
"The play is constructed on a framework of ideas rather than on any dramatic principle. Even the characters are symbolic." Discuss.
It is certainly undeniable that The Tempest is "constructed on a framework of ideas". It is "ideas" that are presented throughout, and the play is built around the presentation of these themes -- themes such as the argument over whether nature is superior to nurture or vice versa (as in the case of Caliban and Antonio, the first being one on whom all efforts at nurture "can never stick" due to the inherent baseness of his nature, the second being one whom neither nature nor nurture has availed to deter him from consciously choosing evil ), the moral duties of the sovereign (in the case of Prospero and Alonso, both of whom have to go through physical or emotional distress because of their negligence, in one way or another, or these duties), the transitoriness of all material things (as in Prospero's speech following the masque), the rights of the colonialist and whether he is exploiting or educating the natives (in the case of Prospero and Caliban), the argument over whether "enlightened" civilisation is superior to the "natural man" or otherwise , and the importance of retaining social hierarchy.
It is also, to a certain extent, not inaccurate to suggest that the characters, or at least the important ones, have a symbolic function.Prospero does symbolise "Art" and enlightened civilisation , Caliban "Nature" and the primitive, uncontrolled succumbing to instinctual, sometimes base, urges that results from the lack of "civilisation", Ferdinand and Miranda the purity and virtue of noble birth , most of the court party (Antonio, Alonso, Sebastian; on a different level, Stephano and Trinculo) the imperfection of civilisation in the form of "sophisticated decadence" (Kermode).
As such, it would appear that The Tempest is "constructed on a framework of ideas rather than on any dramatic principle". However, this would be excessive, upon closer scrutiny. The characters, while perhaps symbolic, are never purely so ; and by suggesting that they symbolise abstract ideas would be to detract from the richness of the characters in question, for they are never symbolic to the extent of being allegorical. [True ?] They are, firstly, not "flat" characters in Forster's sense (i.e. that they do not develop in the course of the play), the exceptions being comparatively minor characters like Antonio, Gonzalo, Ferdinand, Miranda, and the "lower" characters like Stephano and Trinculo . Prospero learns the necessity of a ruler's knowing the limitations of his subjects and acting accordingly, the necessity of relinquishing his "Art" in order to fit in with the rest of humanity, from whom he has been separated, both directly and indirectly, by his "Art", the necessity of forgiveness , amongst other things, and he develops from being a slightly equivocal figure who may or may not be plotting to wreak his vengeance on Antonio and Alonso and who conjures up a storm, symbol of chaos, with an "Art" which must have seemed somewhat dubious [your intention?] to an Elizabethan audience, to the enlightened, magnaminous figure of Act V, from a paranoid tyrant-figure in his gross overreaction to Ariel's civil request that he remember his promise to free him in Act I Scene II to the speaker of the benevolent, even affectionate "My Ariel, chick, / That is thy charge: then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well!" of the conclusion. Alonso realises his mistake in abetting a disruption of the social hierarchy, and also makes an implicit acknowledgement of his duties as king by his coming to terms with Ferdinand's supposed death before he finds out that he is still alive [still flat]. Caliban, meanwhile, also learns the importance of submitting to superior judgement, when he realises that his own judgement is inherently flawed ("What a thrice-double ass / Was I, to take this drunkard for a god, / And worship this dull fool!") - a realisation that increases his resolve to "be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace" and which makes him less of a potential liability than he was. Also, the characters themselves contain numerous psychological subtleties and moral "grey areas" that would not be typical of characters strictly symbolic to the point of being allegorical. Prospero and Caliban, for example, are not dialectical entities representing "Art" and Nature insofar that if an argument is being presented, it is never done in terms of black and white, but almost always with qualification . For example, Prospero himself, while symbolising enlightened civilisation, nevertheless (at least in the early part of the play) shows a remarkable lack of self-knowledge which is evident in his lack of consciousness of the part his negligence played in the usurpation of Antonio ; he only sounds self-righteous, almost proud, in his "I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated / To closeness and the bettering of my mind / With that which, but by being so retir'd, / O'er-priz'd all popular rate, in my false brother / Awak'd an evil nature" -- which all sounds very well, until one remembers that a good ruler is obliged to keep an eye on "worldly ends" , if but for the benefit of his people. Miranda's vehement reaction to Caliban in Act I Scene II, while natural and not unjustified under the circumstances, is never qualified obviously in the play, which may be somewhat disturbing, since the development of Prospero has shown that it is important for a ruler to be aware of and accept the irremediable shortcomings and limitations of his subjects in order to keep them in check.
Moreover, to deny the presence of an underlying dramatic principle would not do justice to the dramatic management of The Tempest. While it does contain the ambiguity that earned it a place among the "problem plays" of Shakespeare, it nevertheless follows certain set patterns -- one of which is that of the pastoral tragicomedy. Also, if it was purely "constructed on a framework of ideas rather than on any dramatic principle", Ariel, whose presence serves only to highlight the differences between Prospero and Caliban, since the audience inevitably will draw conclusions from his reactions to them, and who serves to facilitate the movement of the plot, should theoretically be excluded, since he does not represent an "idea".
As such, it should rather be said that the play "is constructed on a framework of ideas which is then integrated with the dramatic principle" -- something which is perhaps most evident in the masque, which theatrically makes sense as a form of diversion and also to keep the audience in suspense about the fate of the court party, but also symbolises, through Prospero's "We are such stuff as dreams are made on", the transitoriness of everything material.
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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