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Shakespeare's The Tempest : A Jungian Interpretation

Dernière mise à jour : 17 mai 2023

Peter Simon - The Enchanted Island, 1803

(Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ariel,

From Shakespeare's The Tempest)

Extract from :

Shakespeare's The Tempest: A Jungian Interpretation

"Shakespeare’s Tempest lends itself to many different levels of meaning and interpretation. The play can be seen on a realistic plane as a tale of political power and social responsibility. It can be seen as allegory examining the growth of the human spirit.

The Tempest investigates marriage, love, culture. It is symbolic of man’s rational higher instincts versus his animal natural tendencies. This is a play of repentance, power, revenge and fate that can also be seen as fantasy, dream, imagination, metaphor or magic.

The Tempest should be allowed to represent many points of view, even those that the author was not consciously or unconsciously aware when he wrote it. One outlook does not invalidate the others. I propose to illustrate The Tempest as a play about what is occurring in the protagonist’s mind. To be more specific, it is the growth, maturing and individuation of Prospero. Shakespeare, in a sense of which he could not be conscious, was anticipating Freud and Jung. His servants, Ariel and Caliban, are the agents of synchronicity.

By synchronicity, I mean meaningful coincidence; an acausal principle relating inner mind to the external world; a vehicle whereby the ego, if it is open, can glimpse the Self. In Jung’s terms, it is strongest when an emotional attachment exists and when there is an element of risk or death.

When the subject is ready to learn, the unconscious mind can affect physical reality. By individuation, I mean,

"becoming a single homogenous being … Becoming one’s own self ... Coming into selfhood."

To begin showing how this process takes place in Prospero, I would like to take issue with some traditional views of the character. Many critics see Prospero as completely in control of everything that takes place on his island. He is seen as all-knowing, having a perfect plan in place, often seen as calm, as good, as the main force of reason and logic and Man’s highest qualities. I do not dispute all of this. Prospero is an amazingly talented, wise, mature man in control of himself and his environment, but he is not perfect. This is a play showing growth and education in its characters, but most of all, the growth and education of Prospero himself.

At the outset, he is a man in struggle, an embittered man, a vengeful tyrannical man; not God, unless it is the cruel anthropomorphic God of the early Old Testament. He is not in total control. His plan might not work; it’s dependent on timing:

‘The time twixt six and now must by us be spent most preciously.’

He is not a man of perfect judgment. He has lost his position of political authority by failing to attend to his duties. Now he has this one chance to revise that mistake or it will never be corrected. This chance comes not entirely through Prospero but,

‘by accident most strange’ and ‘a most auspicious star.’

Let’s look at the tempest, the island and Prospero’s agents of effecting the changes on the island. Water symbolizes the spirit. The tempest is a disarrangement of that spirit. It is Prospero’s wrath, his temper, anger. The island represents an enchanted locality where things do not work by the normal rules of time, space and physical action and reaction. It depicts the new unknown ‘undiscovered country’ ; lands of Shakespeare’s time. The rules of the known world may or may not apply.

Prospero’s agents of control: Ariel, of the air, the intelligent; Ariel is consciously directed; he is civilized and ordered. Time and space are not obstacles for him, but he is the rational and logical means by which Prospero effects changes in the outer world. When Ariel causes the tempest, becomes the tempest, he's Prospero’s conscious vengeance ; his upset and his anger. Prospero seems to be calm, but his intentions are not causing calm.

Caliban, the cannibal represents Man’s basest primitive instincts and his physical sensations. Caliban is forever causing upset and acting rebellious and uncontrollable, but playful and creative. Caliban does not obey Prospero’s will. If Prospero is omniscient, omnipotent and entirely in control on the island, how could Caliban exist as he does ?

I propose a somewhat controversial answer as to why Caliban can cause so much mischief and rebellion and danger in Prospero’s perfectly controlled environment. He is Prospero’s id. He is part of Prospero. Prospero has taken possession of him, but he takes no responsibility for Caliban’s actions. Caliban is Prospero’s unconscious control of the island. His unconscious synchronistic control of the outer world affects (and effects) synchronistic change as does Ariel’s conscious control.

We all need an Ariel and Caliban inside our Psyche.

"Caliban is a sort of creature of the earth, as Ariel is a sort of creature of the air. He partakes in the qualities of the brute. … Still Caliban is in some respects a noble being. He is a man in the sense of imagination : all the images he uses are drawn from nature and are highly poetical."

His ‘Be not afeard’ speech in Act III reveals him to be poetic, sensual, in tune with nature and naturally creative. He is also the physical strength of the island. We and Prospero need those creative, imaginative, brutish qualities as well as our intellectual, social, logical, conscious, ordered aspects.


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