Analysis of Shakespeare's The Tempest - A Jungian Interpretation

Analysis of Shakespeare's The Tempest - A Jungian Interpretation

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A Jungian Interpretation of the Tempest

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 verses 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." 1

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.

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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? (As Jung and most of us have wondered: How can evil exist if God is all-powerful and good? You’ll be relieved to know I won’t try to answer that in this paper, but) 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." 2 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. However, Prospero has denied responsibility for Caliban. Prospero does not know he has an unconscious, potentially barbaric side. And when that side goes ignored and unacknowledged, it can become ever more dangerous and unruly and affect a person’s outer world (synchronistically) and return to haunt him in ever more unexpected and dangerous ways. Caliban is the shadow of the island and of Prospero’s mind. "Dr. Jung has pointed out that the shadow cast by the conscious mind of the individual contains the hidden, repressed and unfavorable (or nefarious) aspects of the personality …. The shadow has good qualities - normal instincts and creative impulses. Ego and shadow, indeed although separate, are inextricably linked together in much the same way that thought and feeling are related to each other." 3 Jung further states in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, "The shadow personifies everything the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly." In other words, any part of ourselves that we do not accept unconditionally, splits off and becomes more and more primitive and can be projected outward. The Self must integrate or individuate the abyss, the horror, the unpleasantness in order to be complete. If this balancing does not transpire, negative attributes will seem to attack from the outside. Projection will occur. So as with synchronicity: External events take place in space and time which are representations of the thoughts and feelings of Prospero. Some are conscious (Ariel). Some are unconscious (Caliban). The unconscious deals as easily in fantasy as in reality, just as on Prospero’s island. It is his dream, his imagery, his psyche working on some serious conflicts and failures for which he blames others.

In Prospero’s perfect ordered world, why are anarchy, conspiracy and rebellion so prevalent? Why is there a constant struggle to keep disorder at bay and murder from occurring? Caliban, Antonio, Trinculo, Stephano and Sebastian are all permitted to busily plot murder and betrayal. Only late in the play does Prospero seem to remember or become aware that mischief is proceeding too far. Why is the all-knowing protagonist so unaware of what is taking place in his world? This is often explained as dramatic effect or theatrical device, but I think Prospero can only deal with a problem when he is aware of it and he is not always cognizant of what is happening on his island: ‘I had forgot that foul conspiracy of that beast Caliban.’

And what of one of the more denied, repressed, unmentionable taboos today and throughout human history, only safely dealt with through myth and symbol? Incest; the molestation and rape of one’s own daughter. Miranda has reached womanhood with herself and her father as the only two humans in their world. ‘In mine own cell till thou didst seek to violate the honor of my child.’ Prospero has controlled and stopped this impulse in time, but again the dark side was possibly expressed through Caliban with Prospero trying to bury him even deeper in a cave.

Speaking of Miranda and Ferdinand and the other human visitors on the island, I think it is significant that they are drawn so thinly as characters while Caliban and Ariel (other than Prospero himself) are the most richly drawn out. Within our psyches, our Ariels and Calibans are only symbolic representations or archetypes. Yet on this island of imagination, we are inside Prospero’s mind. Ariel, Caliban and other assorted goddesses, nymphs, fairies and spirits are the real ones and the human beings are thinly drawn cardboard cut-outs; mere portraitures of types. Inside Prospero’s mind, the human beings are the archetypes. Ferdinand is ‘hero’, but such an obvious characature. Miranda is ‘wise and innocent child’, but a little too innocent for reality. Indeed, she does not even seem to function or exist when she is out of sight and mind of Prospero. He simply puts her to sleep. How convenient. There is growth and education taking place as part of some of the human beings’ development, but not as deep and unscripted as the growth and education of Prospero himself. (By the way, another archetype: Trinculo the jester is, what else? ‘jester’, though it might be argued he lacks the wisdom in folly.)

As for Prospero’s growth and education, his individuation, on the surface he has learned to become a more responsible ruler, and has learned to forgive his enemies, but two more significant things have happened to him. First, he has delved into and accepted all parts of himself. A very important line which Prospero speaks near the end of the play is, ‘These three have robbed me, and this demi-devil (for he’s a bastard one) had plotted with him to take my life. Two of these fellows you must know and own; this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’ Prospero is saying Trinculo and Stephano are the responsibility of Alonzo’s court, but more importantly, Prospero is finally fully owning, acknowledging and taking responsibility for Caliban, his shadow, his unconscious. In his growth and individuation, he has taken a big step toward integrating his shadow within himself.

The second deeper indication of growth within Prospero is his completion of the entire process; his willingness to give up his magic and the world of imagination and his return to the real world as a mortal human being. In one of his final speeches, he says, ‘Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I fortold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air …. We are such stuff as dreams are made on ….’ In a sense, he is coming out of his head and returning to the outside world. He’s giving up his ideal utopia where he could define the rules and he will now rule others (and himself) as a mature human being.

In his concluding speech, he declares, ‘Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s my own …. Let your indulgence set me free.’ He is releasing Ariel and the spirits; he is leaving Caliban alone with the island. He no longer needs the imaginary representations. He has taken all the necessary archetypes and integrated them within himself. We have seen the unconscious played out as fantasy and then a return to reality. The island was a place of transformation, reconciliation, education, regeneration and repentance.

Prospero has not only learned how to rule and forgive. He’s learned to live with others and to know, recognize and accept himself. He’s reconciled his two halves. He’s overcome his impulse to destroy and to punish. He’s learned mercy and to do without revenge. He no longer has to be a tyrant or force others to his will. He’s won the struggle with himself. His human and virtuous impulses won out over his animal and pernicious urges once all the parts were known and accepted. ‘The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.’

Now Prospero is still not a perfect man and the world is not a utopia in a golden age as Gonzalo idealized in Act II, scene 1. Caliban and Antonio had to be forced into submission. Anarchy has to be kept at bay. Though there was clear growth for Ferdinand, Miranda, Alonso, Ariel, Gonzalo and Prospero, there was only grudging repentance from Trinculo, Stephano, Sebastian and Caliban. There was silence from Antonio. Even Prospero was cruel in forgiveness, ‘For you most wicked sir, whom to call brother would even infect my mouth, I do forgive ….’ Trouble can still reappear. Prospero, if not careful, might have to take another trip to the island.

However, the conscious higher representations of social order and behavior: fair political rule, fidelity in marriage, chastity, intellect, honesty and conformity have won the day. These things to which we aspire may not always completely succeed anymore than we can return to a golden age or a utopia. Every gain is a loss. Logic, reason and conscious good may triumph, but we may lose a little of Caliban’s natural creative nobility.


Jung - Memories, Dreams, Reflections - p. 414.

Signet version - The Tempest - p. 150 - from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lecture IX.

Jung - Man and His Symbols - p. 110.

Works Consulted

Jung, C. G. Man and His Symbols (also von Franz, Henderson, Jacobi, Jaffe London: Picador, 1964.

Jung, C. G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections Glasgow: William Collins & Sons, 1963.

Jung, C. G. Synchronicity - An Acausal Connecting Principle Princeton University Press, 1973.

Palmer, D. J. (Editor) The Tempest - A Selection of Critical Essays London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1977.

Shakespeare, The Tempest (the play with textual notes and commentaries) New York: Signet Classics, 1964.

Tillyard, E. M. Shakespeare’s Last Plays London: Chatto and Windus, 1938.

Traversi, Derek Shakespeare: The Last Phase London: Hollis and Carter, 1979.

John Wilders’ lecture on The Tempest given at Oxford University - Worcester College - August 4th, 1999.

Paul Rickard’s Thinking Points and other handouts and class discussions.
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