The Tempest, Act 2


The next scene, 2.1, divides the gentles according to their moral character. Gonzalo is the ancient optimist, and Sebastian and Antonio the young cynics. I don’t think we’re yet to identify the old loquacious optimist with the benevolent courtier that Prospero had mentioned to Miranda, the one who gave him his books. But whom do the audience trust, identify with, and what exactly are we to think of the island? Gonzalo points to the bare stage and sees it as the island that is “of subtle, tender, and delicate temperance.” And after some mockery of this language by Antonio and Sebastian, he exclaims “How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!” Antonio says, “The ground indeed is tawny.” This is another of those contested stage directions: which is the audience to see? One imagines the stage of the Globe is literally tawny, but are we to accept Gonzalo’s poetic scene painting? Then the same with their garments, presumably neither wet or dry literally, but part of the dramatic contestation. Then Gonzalo’s Montaignesque imagination of the Golden Age, which similarly draws mockery from the cynical pair, but may correspond to a more benevolent understanding of the isle. Or maybe not. Of course Gonzalo’s imagined mastery of the isle contradicts his portrayal of the Golden Age. But his purpose in part is to cheer the grieving Alonso. Finally Ariel puts all but A. and S. to sleep with his solemn music, and the two are left to guard the sleeping Alonso. And what follows is a dialogue between the two that becomes Macbeth-like and leads to their drawing of swords to assassinate Alonso.  Ariel’s awakening of Gonzalo of course interrupts the possible tragic course of things and seems to resolve something of how this will go. So is the island green or tawny?


So is the play going to be about the tempering of Prospero? Or about the substitution of one wood bearer for another?

On 2.1:

Don’t we know that the Gonzalo we meet in 2.1 is the same as the one we hear about at 1.2.161?

I assume you’re right that the stage at the Globe, or wherever “The Tempest” was played, was bare. But should we be any less ready to accept the verbal scene-painting here than we are in other Shakespeare plays? Yes, Gonzalo the comforter has a motive for declaring the island to be a green world, but then Antonio the cynic has a motive too: he derives some pleasure from contradicting Gonzalo and from emphasizing the negative.

The dialogue from about 2.1.10 to line 63 is virtually stichomythia, though it’s in prose. Shakespeare showing off?

Gonzalo on the commonwealth presents another character who imagines he can be “king” of the island, and reminds us that Sycorax used to be the “queen.” Later we will hear that Sebastian, rather than Claribel, might become ruler (of Naples) by killing Alonso, and that Stephano imagines that he and Trinculo can “inherit” the island, and be kings, now that the king is apparently dead.

Why does Ariel put Alonso, Gonzalo, and the others to sleep at 194 only to wake them at 320 (especially since Ariel says that Prospero foresaw the danger)? It makes me think of Milton’s God, who provides opportunity (via free will) for man to sin or not sin, and foresees that he will sin.

Antonio’s temptation of Sebastian (who seems a little slow on the uptake) does perhaps remind us of Lady Macbeth, but do we also think of Hamlet coming upon the praying Claudius — “Now could I do it pat” — but losing the opportunity?

I don’t understand the exchange about “widow Dido” (though it would sound funny on the tongue). I suppose it suggests that Gonzalo’s mind is on the ancient world (Dido) while Sebastian/Antonio’s is on the modern/present (Claribel).

On 2.2:

Caliban is not wholly repulsive. Why is he continually tormented by Prospero’s spirits? Are we invited to think that he is being unfairly punished?

2.2 is a storm scene, and I found myself thinking of Lear on the heath, coming upon Poor Tom and he (Lear) thinking of a poor, bare, forked animal. And then the animal complains about being tormented by spirits, as Poor Tom complains of the foul fiend. Could Shakespeare be recycling tragedy, with a twist?

Caliban thinks Stephano a “wondrous man” and a “brave god” just as Miranda thinks Ferdinand a “brave form . . . a spirit . . . a thing divine.” And Ferdinand thinks Miranda a “goddess” and a “wonder.” (“Brave” gets thrown around a lot: Stephano’s exit line in 2.2. is “O brave monster.”)

Caliban’s delight in the island’s riches might be compared to Gonzalo’s, Caliban’s concrete and specific (“crabs. . . pignuts. . . clus’rings filberts”), Gonzalo’s general and generic (“How green”) and abstract (“Nature should bring forth/ . . . all foison, all abundance”). Caliban offers to show them to Stephano, just as he once showed them to Prospero.

1.2 ends with Prospero telling Ariel to await further orders, and telling Ferdinand to “Come, follow.” 2.1 ends with Alonso telling Gonzalo to “lead away.” 2.2 ends with Stephano telling Caliban to “lead the way.”

By the end of the scene we have been introduced to all the people on the island. Each of the three groups has in it a plotter/planner: Prospero; Antonio and Sebastian; and Stephano and Trinculo. But Prospero is clearly in charge: he has more resources: he has Ariel. We have every reason to think the three groups will all bump into each other soon — it’s apparently not a big island.


Or maybe the testing of Prospero? What he’s going to do seems the only thing still undetermined. Ferdinand and Miranda are headed in a clear direction. And Ariel’s protection of Alonso is preventing tragedy. And Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban are too incompetent, and drunk, for any successful outcome.

We don’t know, on stage, the name yet of the celebrant of the Golden Age. We learned Gonzalo’s name in Prospero’s earlier account, but the garrulous old courtier isn’t named until 2.1 174, when he is ironically proclaimed governor of the Golden Age isle by Antonio.

In regard to scene painting and what we’re to believe about the isle, I suspect the two contrasting versions we’re given are meant to confuse or cause us to think we may have to choose — between Gonzalo’s benevolent, and naive, Golden Age, and Antonio and Sebastian’s cynical, and literally (in terms of the stage) true, version. And the latter is what shortly leads to potential assassination and tragedy. And of course the Caliban and company group also prevent any Golden Age possibility, but in an entirely different direction. I think it’s this vacillation about how we’re to understand the isle that makes me think of experimental theater. And maybe the artificiality of the entrances and exits as well.

Ariel seems to be enacting a trial of Antonio and Sebastian — is it at Prospero’s prompt? but I don’t think we ever hear that — and so the scene from when Alonso is made to sleep becomes a reveal of their continued evil nature. Ariel lets them proceed up to the moment when they’d kill Alonso, then allows Gonzalo to awaken as the savior of the king, as he had once saved Prospero? Now Prospero can see — is he hanging out on the upper stage? — that A. and S. continue in their depravity.

I’m thinking the “widow Dido” may be a schoolmasterly joke left over from Sh’s stint of teaching back in Stratford (or maybe it was with that family in the North), the point being that Dido really is a widow, even though we think of her only as a tragic, and romantic, heroine. And of course Aeneas is a widower too, since he lost Creusa leaving Troy. And where the hell is Carthage anyway? Yes, “widow Dido” does sound comic on the tongue. But only old — and schoolmasterly — Gonzalo would come up with this. Did Sh. play Gonzalo? I don’t think it’s known, but I’d bet on it.

I hadn’t thought of Caliban as a version of Poor Tom, but his list of tortures does make me, and perhaps an audience, feel some pity for him. The recycling of Poor Tom as Caliban does stand things on their head and turn tragedy to a strange comedy. This scene of Trinculo hiding under Caliban’s cloak and being discovered by Stephano is always pretty funny on stage.

I think there is a kind of connection of Caliban to the natural world that seems oddly attractive, like his lines promising to find food and drink for Stephano and Trinculo (as you note), and later his response to the music of the isle. Is Sh. thinking of him as a sort of indigenous and autochthonous being? He had also been this to Prospero before the attempted assault on Miranda. So his possible connection to Gonzalo’s Golden Age might seem real. Is he a version of Montaigne’s cannibals? Clearly Prospero’s harshness hasn’t done any good in bringing up Caliban.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell