The tale of The Tempest is well-known but we shall briefly recapitulate its salient strands. It is, primarily, the story of Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his charming child, Miranda, both banished by the usurper Antonio, his brother, and living unknown on a lonely island. Here, through a long period of successful study and practice, Prospero has matured into a master-magician, and Miranda has flowered into a marriageable maiden. The play opens with a violent storm and a resulting shipwreck, caused at the bidding of Prospero by the invisible hosts of the elements, of whom Ariel is the chief. The royal party involved in the shipwreck is saved according to Prospero’s plan, and is scattered on the shore, in three different parts of the island. Alonso, the King of Naples; Sebastian, his brother; Antonio, the usurper; Gonzalo, an honest old Councillor; and two Lords, Adrian and Francisco, land on one side of the island and most of them fall into an induced slumber, during which the vigilant and vile Antonio persuades the susceptible Sebastian to join in a plot to kill the King. Thanks to the intervention of the invisible Ariel, the plotters are prevented from fulfilling their purpose, and the entire party is led to look for Ferdinand, the son and successor of Alonso.
Meanwhile, Ferdinand has met Miranda and has been forced into her father’s service, which he patiently undergoes until Prospero is pleased to bestow on him his daughter. At the same time, in a third part of the island, Caliban, the deformed and savage slave of Prospero, has been met first by Trinculo, the King’s jester, and then by Stephano, a drunken butler, both of whom foolishly join the faithless Caliban in an abortive plot against his powerful master. These three groups are all, in the last Act, brought together near his cell by Prospero, after Antonio and Alonso and Sebastian have been made by strange and fearful sights and sounds to repent of their folly; after Ferdinand and Miranda have been treated to a visionary masque, played by spirits; and after Caliban and his companions have been brought to their senses — all of which is accomplished through the agency of Ariel. The play ends with the restoration of disturbed harmony, the recompense of the good and the repentance of the deluded, the release of Ariel from Prospero’s service, and the reconciliation of one and all to the new order ushered in by Prospero, who shows himself to be a man of wisdom and a master of destiny.
Let us first briefly consider different interpretations of the underlying theme of The Tempest. There is, first of all, the excellent but purely artistic interpretation of Dr. Tillyard whose thesis is that the play gives us the fullest sense of the different worlds within worlds which we can inhabit, and that it is also the necessary epilogue to the incomplete theme of the great tragedies.
A more ambitious and comprehensive attempt is that of Wilson Knight, who interprets the theme of the play from various points of view — poetical, philosophical, political and historical. Poetically, he considers the play artistic autobiography, its meanings revealing a wide range of universal values. Philosophically, he maintains that The Tempest portrays a wrestling of flesh and spirit. Politically, he interprets the play as the betrayal of Prospero, Plato’s philosopher-king and a representative of impractical idealism, by Antonio, Machiavelli’s Prince, and a symbol of political villainy. Lastly, the play is regarded historically as a myth of the national soul, Prospero signifying Britain’s severe, yet tolerant, religious and political instincts, Ariel typifying her inventive and poetical genius, and Caliban her colonizing spirit.
Another serious attempt at interpretation is that of Colin Still, whose study of the ‘timeless theme’ of The Tempest has not attracted the attention it deserves. He regards this ‘Mystery play’ as a deliberate allegorical account of those psychological experiences which constitute Initiation, its main features resembling those of every ceremonial ritual based upon the authentic mystical tradition of all mankind, but especially of the pagan world. Still takes Prospero as the Hierophant, and in one aspect, as God Himself; Ariel as the Angel of the Lord, Caliban as the Tempter or the Devil, and Miranda as the Celestial Bride.
The comedians, Stephano and Trinculo, led on by the Devil, constitute a failure to achieve Initiation; the experiences of the Court Party, which is of purgatorial status, constitute the Lesser Initiation, its attainment being self-discovery; while Ferdinand attains to Paradise, to the goal of the Greater Initiation which consists in receiving a ‘second life.’ The wreck is considered symbolic of the imaginary terrors of the candidate for Initiation, and the immersion in the water as symbolic of his preliminary purification. The Masque is regarded as apocalyptic in character, and the cell is taken to represent the Sanctum Sanctorum, only to be entered after full initiation. And so Still goes on giving every detail the status of a semi-esoteric symbol drawn mainly from pagan ritual.
Still’s thesis, though basically sound, is obscured by theological terminology, and its detailed application often leads to a certain forcing of analogy. Prospero, for instance, is a man, not God, and Caliban is too clearly a thing of Nature to be called a Devil, or Satan. Still’s centre of reference is altogether less in the poetry or in the philosophy than in a rigid system of pagan symbolism applied to the play.
In theosophical terms, we can approach The Tempest from at least three angles — the psychological, the cosmic and the occult. Of these, we shall adopt the last for detailed interpretation of the characters in the play. Before that, however, it will be worthwhile to indicate how the psychological and the cosmic keys may be applied.
The psychological key enables us to construe the theme of The Tempest in terms of the principles of the human constitution and the everyday experiences of the majority of mankind. In this line of interpretation, Prospero would represent Atman, the universal Self, which overbroods the remaining constituents of man, and allows for their rescue from all internal disequilibrium, thus producing that divine and unifying harmony which spells poise and proportion, as well as power and peace. Miranda, the daughter of Prospero, would be that specialization of Atman which we know as Buddhi, the spiritual and at present passive principle in man, the vehicle of Atman, and at once the expression and the essence of pure wisdom and of true compassion. It is in this sense that Miranda represents the fallen and Sleeping Soul of the uninitiated and deluded man. Ferdinand, the Prince who aspires to the companionship of Miranda, could be made to symbolize the higher Manas, the incarnated ray of the Divine in Man, while Antonio, the usurper who plans to secure personal power at the cost of his weakening conscience, could represent the kama manas, or the desire-mind. To complete the picture, Caliban could be taken as the kamarupa or the passional part of man in material form, and Ariel as the type of the assemblage of presiding deities, devatas or elementals, in the human personality. This, in silhouette form, would be the system of symbols that could be constructed on the basis of the psychological key — a system which, interesting as it is in its ramifying implications, it would not be difficult to develop.
The second interpretation, which we have called the cosmic, follows from a comprehensive view of the evolutionary stream in Nature, of the Great Ladder of Being. This interpretation is implied in H.P. Blavatsky’s oft-quoted statement that
the Ego begins his life-pilgrimage as a sprite, an ‘Ariel,’ or a ‘Puck’; he plays the part of a super, is a soldier, a servant, one of the chorus; rises then to ‘speaking parts,’ plays leading roles, interspersed with insignificant parts, till he finally retires from the stage as ‘Prospero,’ the magician.The Key to Theosophy, 34
In this line of interpretation, the play presents an image of the glorious supremacy of the perfected human soul over all other things and beings. At the peak of the evolutionary ascent stands Prospero, the representative of wise and compassionate god-manhood, in its true relation to the combined elements of existence — the physical powers of the external world — and the varieties of character with which it comes into contact. He is the ruling power to which the whole series is subject, from Caliban the densest to Ariel the most ethereal extreme. In Prospero we have the finest fruition of the co-ordinate development of the spiritual and the material lines of evolution.
Next to Prospero comes that charming couple, Ferdinand and Miranda, exquisite flowers of human existence that blossom forth under the benign care of their patriarch and Guru. From these we descend, by a most harmonious moral gradation, through the agency of the skilfully interposed figure of the good Gonzalo, to the representatives of the baser intellectual properties of humanity. We refer to the cunning, cruel, selfish and treacherous worldlings, who vary in their degrees of delusion from the confirmed villainy of Antonio to the folly of Alonso. Next, we have those representatives of the baser sensual attributes of the mass of humanity — the drunken, ribald, foolish retainers of the royal party, Stephano and Trinculo, whose ignorance, knavery and stupidity make them objects more of pity than of hate. Lowest in the scale of humanity comes the gross and uncouth Caliban, who represents the brutal and animal propensities of the nature of man which Prospero, the type of its noblest development, holds in lordly subjection. Lastly, below the human and the animal levels of life, in this wonderful gamut of being, comes the whole class of elementals, the subtler forces and the invisible nerves of nature, the spirits of the elements, who are represented by Ariel and the shining figures of the Masque who are alike governed by the sovereign soul of Prospero. Shakespeare obviously knew of these invisible spirits and recognized their place in the panorama of evolution.
The Gupta Vidya II