The interest of The Tempest is more universal than topical. Shakespeare “is not for an age but for all time.” The Tempest is not merely a dramatic spectacle, a “glorified masque” but it also provides a valuable and weighty philosophy of life. It is this philosophy which gives universal interest to the play. This philosophy forms what is called “criticism of life.”
Some critics believe that Shakespeare has made full use of the shipwreck off the Bermudas in 1609 for sketching the plot of this play and that Shakespeare has discussed the “Colonial problem” in the play. Shakespeare does not represent the race of the natives of a colony. Caliban is a born devil whose nurture cannot stick. We cannot say for certain that the early colonialist believed that the natives were incapable of nurture or reform. The character of Caliban is complex. He is also a noble savage. He feels acutely that he is dispossessed of his island by Prospero. Shakespeare may be of the opinion that there is nothing wrong in dispossessing the islanders. He may be of the opinion that savages receive foreigners with open arms and show them the beauties of their islands and that in return the civilized foreigners might teach them their language, but the moral gulf widens and the civilized foreigners might treat the native as slaves “whom stripes may move, but not kindness.” The harsh treatment of natives may evoke the bitter, hatred of the natiVCS as we can see in the case of Caliban who hates Prospero with all his heart. On the other hand the vices of colonialists like Stephano and Trinculo might attract a native like Caliban who is lured into subjection by wine, the “celestial liquor.”
But we are not justified in saying that the enchanted island is Virginia or that the people of Milan and Naples are colonialist. The current topic of travel and colonisation supplied Shakespeare with material for creating an imaginary enchanted island and in devel~ oping the character of Caliban in order to provide comic relief. The interest of The Tempest is not merely topical or historical and the criticism in the play is not of Shakespeare’s times; the interest is universal and the criticism is the criticism of life. By criticism of life we mean the philosophy which uplifts and ennobles life. The Tempest advocates such a philosophy of life.
There is a vision of a regenerated humanity. Shakespeare has the vision of a regenerated humanity. As Middleton Murray says “The Tempest discusses “Nurture and Nature.” In The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare Wisely shows that the Art which improves Nature is not opposed to Nature but is Nature’s own art. Nature improved by nurture is clearly presented in The Tempest. Miranda speaks of “beauteous mankind” and of “a brave new world.” But Shakespeare as a practical visionary knows the difficulties in transforming the world into a brave new world. There are hard and refractory materials like Caliban that would receive no nurture. So the improved or regenerated world is only Shakespeare’s vision, his dream and does not Shakespeare say “We are such stuff As dreams are made of?”
The key-note of The Tempest is reconciliation and reunion. This is a grand tenet of its philosophy or criticism of life. “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” If selfishness is taken out of life, justice becomes mercy. It is not only Prospero, the wise dispenser of justice who says so. Even a drunkard butler like Stephano says: “Every man shift for all the rest, and let no man take care of himself.” Not selfishness but service of humanity is another keynote of The Tempest.
Another great and universal truth explained in The Tempest is that knowledge is an end (goal) and not a means. Knowledge is power and this power should be used for nobler and wiser ends for general or universal good. Prospero shows this in his life. When his noble purpose is served, he throws off his magic wand, robe and books.
The criticism of life expounded in The Tempest brings out an other universal truth. It is that true freedom consists in service, in obedience to necessitate social and moral laws. Prospero finds freedom by returning to Milan for serving his subjects. Ariel gains his freedom by serving Prospero faithfully. Caliban gets his freedom by serving Prospero under compulsion. Ferdinand and Miranda, the lovers, find joy in loyalty to love and whole-hearted self surrender.
The Epilogue in The Tempest is light and slight, but it brings out a profound truth : Prospero the pardoner, begs for pardon. Shakespeare know that all human life or every human being needs to receive forgiveness and to render it. This free exchange of forgiveness is true freedom.
Thus, we see that The Tempest is not merely a criticism of the times, but it is a grand criticism of life as also. The Tempest has not merely topical value and interest, but it has cosmic or universal value, appeal and interest.