The Tempest: Significance of the Title

Updated on November 8, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

What's in a Name!

Shakespeare himself has said, “A rose may smell as sweet as by any other name.” This statement reflects his tendency to be less choosy about the titles of his plays. The value of his plays should be judged by their worth and not simply by their names. Usually, Shakespeare has given the names of his heroes as the titles of his tragedies, for example Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet. He has also given his historical plays names of the ruling kings, though there may be very little in the play about the ruling King. In case of his other plays, especially the Romantic Comedies, he has given any fanciful title to his plays: for example, As You Like It, Twelfth Night or What You Will and A Midsummer Night's Dream. These names are meant only to capture the minds and the interest and attention of the audience. Shakespeare means that one may call these plays as one likes them or as one will but one should concentrate more on the significance of the plays. In light of this, the title of The Tempest may be evaluated as similar to other Shakespearean comedies in acting as obscurely suggestive and not overtly indicative of the play as a whole.

The Tempest: Sea-Storm

How do we account for the title of the play The Tempest? The sea-storm or tempest in the play rises and is over in the very first scene of Act I. There is nothing left of the tempest during the action of the play and yet Shakespeare has called the play The Tempest. Although most critics have accepted the title of the play as it is, there are a few exceptions who feel that the play should have been named “Prospero” as the entire action of the play moves round the figure of him.

Some might aver that The Tempest is not a good title because a tempest is suggestive of death and destruction. There is no death or destruction in the play. The passengers remain safe, even the ship remains whole and safe. The action of the play follows the storm. So, a better title would be “After The Tempest”. But would such a title be poetic? It would certainly be dull and prosaic. It may also be borne in mind that the storm is not a natural event. It is raised by Prospero by his magic art for certain purpose and the storm ceases and there is calmness. The storm in The Tempest has no destructive effects. On the other hand, it is a beneficent and benevolent storm. The action of the play results from the tempest.

The wreck of Sir George Somer’s “The Sea-Venture” had caused a commotion and a thrill of excitement in England. The Ship was wrecked in 1610. Immediately afterwards, The Tempest was written. Shakespeare as a clever artist and dramatist naturally knew what would cause a thrill and what would capture the imagination of the people. So he probably chose to give the title “The Tempest” to the play.

Tempest: Literal and Metaphoric Connotations

In such plays as Othello and King Lear, Shakespeare uses a storm as means of cutting the characters off from places and people with whom they were familiar, thus making them re-examine their relationships. The Tempest uses a similar technique. It cuts the characters off from the natural world and places them on a mysterious island where love and reconciliation are magically allowed to conquer hatred and envy. The title, therefore, refers not only to the physical storm that occurs in the first scene of the play, but to the turbulent passions of the characters, passions which, like the storm, are magically transformed into the promise of peace with which the play ends.

Prospero dominates Caliban
Prospero dominates Caliban

Suitability with Genre

The Tempest belongs to the last phase of Shakespearean Drama, popularly known as Tragi-comedy or Dark Comedy. There is a certain amount of gloom, even melancholy in the cast and setting of the plays belonging to this genre. In The Tempest, the story of love and courtship is overshadowed by alienation, subjugation and bitter loneliness. Despite his magical powers, Prospero suffers in his exile from homeland and, in turn, makes the spirits of the island suffer under his repressed misdirected impulse to subjugate. Post Colonial Critics have severely interrogated Prospero's treatment of Caliban, calling Prospero a cruel colonizer. Despite her strong bonding with her father, Miranda gets haunted by her faint memories of vibrant childhood. It is as if their lives are overcast by clouds of despair. No wonder the tempest is such a welcome change for them. Moreover, the word "tempest" suits the dark gloomy setup of Prospero's island.

The shipwreck in Act I, Scene 1, in a 1797 engraving by Benjamin Smith after a painting by George Romney
The shipwreck in Act I, Scene 1, in a 1797 engraving by Benjamin Smith after a painting by George Romney | Source

The Tempest: Nature/Super-nature Duality

The tempest that disturbed the island was one that was raised by Prospero. He was, at that point, desirous of vengeance and justice. This is set in sharp contrast to the gentle gale that Prospero wishes for in the Final Scene of the play:

"I’ll deliver all,And promise you calm seas, auspicious gales,

And sail so expeditious that shall catch

Your royal fleet far off."

The play presents not just a transformation of the weather, from a tempestuous one to a fair one. It also presents the transformation of Prospero's heart, from an agitated restless loner to a calm, pacified man. The tempest he raised was not something natural but a supernatural manifestation of his personal impulses. Therefore, the metaphoric tempest ends not in the first scene, but at the end of the play when Prospero transforms from the malicious magician to a humble human:

"Now my charms are all o'erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own,"

Casting away his supernatural might, Prospero can finally pray for deliverance and mercy of higher powers because he can separate himself from the tempest that had sustained him, empowered him and yet tormented him in his exile:

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands.

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

The tempest, from such a perspective is more than a sea-storm. It is a metaphor of Prospero's magical prowess, his supernatural potency to subjugate even the forces of nature. The title of The Tempest is therefore appropriate on multiple levels of interpretation.

Do You Believe that "The Tempest" is justified as the title of the play

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A Beautiful rendition of Prospero's last speech:

© 2017 Monami

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      SATNAM 

      3 months ago

      THX A LOT MAM FOR SHARING SUCH ARTICLE. IT HELPED ME A LOT IN MY SCHOOL PROJECT.COULD YOU PLEASE POST THE CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF STORY "THE CHINESE STATUE" BY JEFFERY ARCHER?

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