Monday, 13 September 2021

G. Wilson Knight on The Tempest

This essay is in The Crown of Life

“Prospero is a composite of many Shakespearian heroes; not in ‘character’ , since there is no one quite like him elsewhere, but rather in his fortunes and the part he plays. As a sovereign wrongfully dethroned he carries the overtones of tragic royalty enjoyed by Richard II. Ejected from his dukedom by a wicked brother […] he is placed, too, like the unfortunate Duke in As You Like It and as Don Pedro might have been placed had don John’s rebellion succeeded in Much Ado About Nothing. Clarence, Orlando and Edgar suffer from similar betrayals.” 

Here Knight writes about ingratitude and the sense of desertion and betrayal that runs through many Shakespeare plays. It seems to be one of Shakespeare’s obsessions. 

“Prospero, like Timon and Bellarius—for Bellarius is another, driven to the mountains by the ingratitude of Cymberline—lives (presumably) in a cave; like Timon, by the sea. 

He is akin, too, to all princes whose depth of understanding accompanies or succeeds political failure: to Hamlet, Brutus, Richard II, Henry VI. […] Prospero is in straight descent from those other impractical governors, Agamemnon in Troilus and Cressida […]; and Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, in Measure for Measure, whose depth of study and psychological insight make execution of justice impossible. All these are in Prospero; while the surrounding action, both serious and comic, condenses the whole of Shakespeare’s political wisdom.” 

I think the character closest to Prospero is Vincentio—both manipulate the plot, like a god.  

“Prospero epitomizes nearly all Shakespeare’s most important tragic persons and experiences, and all of political enlightenment and magic, plot-directing power: he is a blend of Theseus and Oberon. He cannot be expected to do more than typify; there is not time; and, as a person, he is, no doubt, less warm, less richly human, than most of his poetic ancestors. But only if we recognize his inclusiveness, his summing of nearly all Shakespeare’s most eminent persons, shall we understand clearly what he is about. […] Prospero is controlling, not merely a Shakespearian play, but the Shakespearian world. He is thus automatically in the position of Shakespeare himself, and it is accordingly inevitable that he should often speak as with Shakespeare’s voice.” 

That is a bold statement, but Knight isn’t alone in associating Prospero with Shakespeare. After all, lots of critics read Prospero’s “I’ll drown my book” speech as the playwright saying farewell to theatre. 

Next he links Ariel to characters in other Shakespeare plays, and says: 

“… [Ariel] personifies these subtle and overruling powers of the imagination, he becomes automatically a personification of poetry itself. […] He is the poetic medium, whatever the subject handled, his powers ranging over the earthy and the ethereal, tragic and lyric, with equal ease.” 

Is that mad? I think it makes sense. 

“He is Prospero’s instrument in controlling and developing the action. […] He is Prospero’s stage-manager; more, he is the enactor of Prospero’s conception: Prospero is the artist, Ariel the art.”

I’m cutting a lot out and keeping the main points, you have to read the entire essay to see Knight’s arguments. But what about Caliban? you ask. 

“Caliban condenses Shakespeare’s concern, comical or satiric, with the animal aspect of man…” 

This is followed by a rather long passage, full of arguments and comparisons to other characters in Shakespeare, that I’m too lazy to type. Then Knight says:  

“In him is the ugliness of sexual appetite from Lucrece onwards, and also the ugliness vice raises in those who too much detest it, the ugliness of hatred itself and loathing, the ugliness of Leontes. Man, savage, ape, water-beast, dragon, semi-devil—Caliban is all of them; and because he so condenses masses of great poetry, is himself beautiful. He is the physical as opposed to the spiritual; earth and water as opposed to air and fire. That he may, like Ariel, be considered in closest relation to Prospero himself is witness by Prospero’s admission: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’ (V.i.275).” 

This is much more interesting than the reading of Ariel and Caliban as the intelligent slave and the not-so-intelligent slave. 

“Prospero uses his tempest-magic to draw his enemies to the island, and there renders them harmless. He wrecks and saves, teaches through disaster, entices and leads by music, getting them utterly under his power, redeeming and finally forgiving. What are the Shakespearian analogies? The poet himself labours to master and assimilate that unassuaged bitterness and sense of rejection so normal a lot to humanity (hence the popularity of Hamlet) by drawing the hostile elements within his own world of artistic creation; and this he does mainly through tragedy and its thunderous music; and by seeing that, in spite of logic, his creation is good. By destroying his protagonists, he renders them deathless; by expressing evil, in others and in himself, he renders it innocent. And throughout this tumult of creative activity, turning every grief to a star, making of his very loathing something ‘rich and strange’, there is a danger: a certain centre of faith or love must be preserved, this centre at least kept free from the taint of that rich, wild, earthy, lustful, violent, cursing, slimy yet glittering thing that is creation itself, or Caliban; that uses cynicism (born of the knowledge of lust) to ruin Desdemona, though not Othello’s love for her; that tries in vain, but only just in vain, to make of Timon an Apemantus. Therefore Prospero keeps Miranda intact, though threatened by Caliban…”

The interpretation of Prospero as Shakespeare is also more attractive because the epilogue is spoken by Prospero. This doesn’t mean that The Tempest has just one meaning—it is a rich play and there are many interpretations, G. Wilson Knight himself also offers a political reading of the play, and mentions the interpretation of Prospero as God and the shipwreck as the tragic destiny of humankind. But this is interesting nevertheless. 

What do you think?

(I’m probably doing the essay injustice, throwing out certain bits like this—you must read all of it yourself). 


  1. You're reading excellent literary criticism.

    1. Knight has been on my radar for a while, I'll certainly read him one day.

    2. Knight and Tony Tanner are my favourite Shakespeare critics now.
      Any thoughts on his reading of The Tempest?


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