A Change of Seasons: A Formalist Approach to The Tempest

by Clifford J. Kurkowski


Last year I attended a performance of The Tempest over on the east side of Chicago. This performance was my first play in about two years and my first Shakespearean play in over a decade. The play was performed by a small repertory company in a run down section of town underneath a major street artery. I was elated to be attending the performance because I haven’t been to a play in a long time and, being a theater arts minor during my undergraduate years I wanted to see this director’s vision of how The Tempest should be performed.

The play was performed in autumn right around the end of October. I noticed right away that in constructing the set, the director used a minimalist approach. This meant that the director didn’t want the audience to concentrate on set design or props; instead his point was to make sure the audience focused on the words. The set was devoid of excessive props and the actors’ costumes were also unimportant. A point of reference, Ariel was a naked androgynous person in this director’s vision of the play.

Since this was a simple set, the lighting, sound, and structured choreography of the dance scenes played more of a major role in the director’s vision. The director wanted the audience to feel the tension, the conflict, and finally the resolution of a dramatic scene through lights, sound, dance, and words. The words of this play were very important to the director and one could see the emphasis of the words through the actors’ performance. To do this the director made sure that the actors performed towards the edge of the round stage and spoke to the audience. Since it was a very small theater and the audience was less than ten feet from the stage, this proved to be very effective.

            Overall, I enjoyed the director’s interpretation and vision of how The Tempest should be performed. I felt that I caught the essence of the play. I understood how the words, which were emphasized through the actors’ performance, played a big role in setting the tone of the scene. In turn, this created the correct conflict in areas of the stanza, and then concluded the dramatic scene with resolution. One question does come to mind: Is this how Shakespeare intended the play to be?

            While discussing this performance, a reader may ask: How does one read The Tempest then? To gain better understanding of Shakespeare’s intention to perform and write The Tempest we look to two essays that analyze the time, tone, setting, language, and performance elements in the play.

Though there are many critical approaches to The Tempest, there are two in particular that this paper will be concentrating on. One essay by Michael Goldman called “Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama” and another essay by John B. Bender called “The Day of The Tempest.”  This paper has two objectives. One is to look at both essays and interpret each author’s argument. Though both are similar in their analysis, there is a common thread that makes their arguments differ. Second is to apply each critic’s analysis to a problematic keystone passage and determine which argument is best suited to the keystone passage.  This is to show readers why one analysis works and the other one does not.

John B. Bender’s historical approach to The Tempest begins with looking at when The Tempest would have been performed. To Bender, this is an important argument because timing of when The Tempest was performed would have coincided with the change of seasons and with the Christian and Pagan holidays around that time period. Because of this, the play’s timing would have catered to a certain audience and would carry a special meaning. Bender says that

to interpret The Tempest as an anatomy of this pervasive seasonal mentality […] is to employ criticism as a bridge between the profound emotions the play arouses and our comprehension of them. Such explication of The Tempest’s seasonal and ceremonial status, far from trivializing the play by confining it to a single occasion, describes broad currents of meaning that account for its enduring power even among audiences in whom modernity has dimmed the awareness of what matters about the seasons. (235)


Bender believes that The Tempest was first performed on November 1, 1611, a day after the Pagan’s ritual day of Halloween that marked the end of summer and the beginning of the Christmas season or Hallowmas for the Christians. The timing is important to Bender because the seasonal changes signified a shift in the audience’s mentality of the world around them. He states that

chaos temporarily breaks loose and the reign of established authority gives way for a time to supernatural powers symbolized by fairies, goblins, wandering souls and witches. Halloween, the night before Hallowmas, presses the cold, dark, short days of winter – the season of death and indoor confinement – as opposed to the green out-of-doors world of summer warmth, long light, and youthful fecundity. (236)


The audience’s mentality is important to Bender because he believes that on Halloween “the power of chaos breaks loose with witches, goblins, and demons.” But on All Saints Day, November 1, power and authority is restored to the rightful people as does in The Tempest with Prospero. This mindset of chaos is a focal point in the audience’s mind because with the change of season from summer to winter came harsh weather, solitude, anxiety, doubt, confinement, and sometimes death. The pagan ritual of Halloween would often remind people of deaths to come during the winter. But the movement from the winter season to the spring brought a new beginning, a revival of life, fertility, and new crops. This was something for the audience to look forward while watching the play.

            Goldman’s essay, “Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama” takes the formalist approach to The Tempest and believes that the “atmosphere” sets the mood of the play and not the time or date as Bender argues. The “atmosphere” is key because it controls the “enchantment.” It sets the tone of the play. Goldman writes

the quality of the enchantment is central, and that is why the atmosphere is primary. The play’s events are less important than the way they are felt: how they are received by the characters, how they appear to us, and how they are related to the areas of theatrical illusion in general. It is the characters who tell us (and the director) what life on Prospero’s island feels like. (137)


Goldman also believes that the text sets the tone of the play for the actors. If the actors read the play and sense that the mood of the play is dark and stormy, the actors will then set the tone for a dark and stormy play. He wants us to know that the actors control our illusion and nothing more.

As Goldman analyzes the text, he points out that there is a problem within The Tempest with the word “strange.” Goldman deduces that the word “strange” poses a major problem for the actors in the play and for the director. “Strangeness,” Goldman states, poses a “major acting problem.” “How does one react to “strangeness?” Goldman says that the characters respond to “strangeness” with “wonder.” The word “wonder” Goldman interprets, “is always expressed as a sudden conviction that the world is better or more abundant than one thought, that there are marvelous transforming powers at work in it” (138).

            So what does “strangeness” and “wonder” do for the text and the setting in The Tempest? Goldman believes that the language within the text combined with the “extravagantly spectacular production” and music allows the audience to view an illusion of grandeur on stage. The audience is sent into a dream-like state, a fantasy for the moment to get the audience out of the real world. Goldman believes that Prospero’s island is that place in the text. He says, “the theater, like Prospero’s island – and like festivity, mercy, love, or even the notion of freedom – is at once an escape from the self and a confrontation of it” (150).

            In contrast to this statement, Bender doesn’t believe Prospero’s island or The Tempest was an escape from reality. In fact, he feels it had an opposite effect on people. Bender believes that an audience watching a performance of The Tempest would have related this play to a “season of judgment,” something pulled directly out of their daily lives. As Bender points out, “temporality and finality, recognition and reversal, these are the cognates and the dominant tonality of the day.” A performance of The Tempest would have felt like a continuation of a prayer meeting hours before.

Between the two essays, one can see some common elements between the two authors. In fact, both authors say that Shakespeare set the tone of the play to have some festive or elaborate quality, but the authors’ interpretations differ as to why the tone was set. Bender believes that the timing and the performance of the play was set to coincide with the change of seasons and that the play’s tone contained some moral Christian and Pagan doctrine to celebrate this cyclical cycle. Goldman believes that the director’s direction and the actors’ interpretation of the words set the tone of the play’s performance. If you combine this with the masque elements of music, dance, and an elaborate set, you then have a festive imaginative play that brings illusion and fantasy to the audience.

Another way to look at how Goldman and Bender’s arguments differ is to look at how they interpret the character Prospero. Goldman believes that Prospero presents himself as the controller of the whole play. From beginning to end, Prospero, “whose motivation is not always fully explained,” controls the actions of the other characters and brings illusion to the audience, but Goldman states that there are flaws in Prospero’s character. He believes that Prospero carries signs of “irritation and impatience.” Goldman goes on to explain that the “irritation and impatience”:

is of course consistent with his situation and habits of the mind, but it’s contribution to our theatrical experience is first of all to heighten our awareness of a nagging pulse appearing now here and now there in counterpoint to the strangeness and wonder of the island. (142)


In essence, the character Prospero does more than any other character in the play. Prospero is the gatekeeper. He controls the audience and the other characters. But he is not without flaws. Prospero has human qualities Goldman believes. He shows the audience that “life is an illusion” and that the illusion he will show us will be a “product of art.” Goldman believes that Prospero “is reminding us that the special glory of his profession, the power to enchant us in the theater, is a power that lies ultimately in our gift and that it depends on our bodily participation” (148).


Prospero, to Goldman, is an actor shedding his role as a regular man for the duration of the performance in order to give the audience art. An art that the audience can celebrate and watch if only for a little while to get them out of their own world.

            Bender looks at Prospero in a different way. He believes that “Prospero’s human nobility and virtue are attained through risk.” Hence, Prospero is more than a man; he is a “witch who has distorted the frame of nature much as it is distorted on Halloween.”  Bender believes that Shakespeare uses Prospero as a, “hero poised at the juncture that Hallowmas epitomizes in seasonal terms.”

            So what kind of a man does Bender believe Prospero is? From the description in his essay, Prospero has many human qualities but carries “God-like attributes.” Prospero manages his “high spirited” ways by taking risks and by delving into “white magic.” But in order to keep a “temperate balance” between human man and a “nobler man” he has to attain “Prudence.”

In order to attain Prudence a man has to fulfill three parts. First, a man has to be able to look at his past and his wrongdoings. Second, a man has to study and understand the present with “intelligence.” Third, a man must have “foresight” to look towards the future. Combining all these items brings a “harmonic balance.”

            Bender also believes that

in the past Prospero lost his authority through absorption in the supernatural arts; in the present he regains his Dukedom by employing those arts at the apogee of their force – only to abandon them in favor of a “nobler reason:, in the future he will contemplate death and final judgment. Having attained Prudence and being an old man, he finds that “Every third thought shall be my grave.” (252)


This, Bender states, is Prospero’s way of attempting to keep “harmonic balance’ in order to tame his “spirited mind.”

             However, Goldman’s view of Prospero is quiet different then Bender’s. To Goldman, Prospero is an actor, a plain man that dons an elaborate costume and acts out a performance. Within the setting of the play, the audience can see that Prospero controls everything around him: the actors, the set, and the illusion of the mind. For a brief moment the audience is transcended into his world where it is beautiful and the story he tells has importance. Prospero the actor wants the audience to listen to him. When his performance is over Prospero wants to be released. Let him be a man again, not an actor. The performance is done. He wants the audience to go back to their real lives.

            In contrast, Bender believes that Prospero is much more than an actor on stage. Bender views Prospero as a “nobler” man with “God-like” qualities who is able to control nature and perform magic. To Bender, Prospero lost his kingdom because he delved into magic. In order to gain back all he has lost, Prospero had to attain “prudence.” When he has attained “prudence” Prospero and the rest of the people in his world went back to normal, back to their regular cycle of life. Bender believes Shakespeare incorporated many of the Christian doctrines and pagan rituals within the character and in the play. This way the audience can relate to what was going on around them. Seasonal changes, the beginning of the Christmas season, prayers and scripture readings relating to the changing cycles. All of this was honored by performing The Tempest on November 1, in the beginning of the afternoon after the audience came back from church services.

            It is important to understand Goldman and Bender’s interpretations of the character Prospero because of the way they analyze Prospero’s Epilogue. Prospero’s Epilogue is a keystone passage for both authors and myself because it gives the readers and audience a chance to finally answer some questions about the play.       

Bender looks at Prospero’s Epilogue and determines that everything previously in chaos now comes to a close. In order to get this setting right, Bender analyzes what time of the day Prospero would have carried out his Epilogue. Bender believes that the Epilogue would have been conducted in the late afternoon to coincide with the “Evening Prayer in Shakespeare’s day,” maybe even posing as a “surrogate for a liturgy” (244). This sets the tone for the audience because they would have, “appointed scriptures fresh in mind from services or family prayer” from earlier in the day. Bender believes Shakespeare does this so that the audience can relate better to the play and associate the scriptures to the play’s meaning.

            Bender looks at the Epilogue as a closure for Prospero. He believes that Prospero has attained “prudence” and is able to keep his mind in a “harmonic” and “temperate balance” after he has given up succumbing to the supernatural forces. He feels that Prospero’s Epilogue is asking the audience to “bless him” because he has “attained virtue through his own strength, forsaken magic, and proffered mercy.”

            Bender notices this in the following lines from the Epilogue:

                        Since I have my dukedom got

                        And pardoned the deceiver, dwell                    

                        In this bare island by your spell,

                        But release me from my hands

                        With the help of your good hands.

                        Gentle breath of yours my sails

                        Must fill, or else my project fails, (6-12)


Bender feels that Prospero is asking the audience to forgive him and that the only way he can be set free is for the audience to pray for his soul to be released from Purgatory. If the audience does not set his soul free he be will considered one of the “men of sin.”

            For Bender, Prospero’s Epilogue is the right closure for the play. In Bender’s mind, the play would have been performed on November 1 at around two o’clock in the afternoon just as “Morning Prayers” were being let out. On stage, the actors would sing and dance as if they were performing a pagan ritual. The costumes would be reminiscent of a court masque. And at around 4:00 p.m. as the play was beginning to end and the chaos on the stage subsides, Prospero would enter on stage and ask the audience for forgiveness. He is a man who went and attained “prudence.” He was able to balance his life out and is able to see death on the other side. He is ready for change and wants the audience to help him get there by praying for his soul and forgiving him. Prospero is no longer afraid of what lies ahead.

            Goldman, however, believes that Prospero is asking the audience to set him free. He believes that Prospero turns into a regular man on stage. Prospero, the actor, has given the audience an illusion in the theater through the power of enchantment.  He says that Prospero is

strictly governed by human limitation; he has only his own strength to rely on. He asks us to set him free, again by a gesture of human kindness. He asks that our applause rise to heaven, and his language once more reminds us of a wondrous dream-like apparitions in the sky […] like the cloud-capped towers that, like the Globe itself, fade into thin air. (149)


Goldman believes that once the play has ended the audience is in shock because they thrust out of the illusion that Prospero has carefully constructed with words, dance, and elaborate costumes. He feels that Prospero restores “freedom” and that he is telling us “life is like a dream, leaving not a wrack behind.” Goldman sees this in this stanza:

                        Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

                        And my ending is despair,

                        Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,

                        Which pierces so that it assaults

                        Mercy itself and frees all faults.

                        As you come from crimes would pardon’d be,

                        Let your indulgence set me free. (1-20)


The line that Goldman uses in Prospero’s Epilogue proves his point; “Let your indulgence set me free” implores the audience to free themselves from Prospero’s illusion of grandeur. Prospero is now just a man who has asked the audience to indulge him in fantasy as he tells a story. Prospero, the actor, has limitations. The man on the stage, Goldman states, is telling the audience that “life is a dream, and dream is a deeply needed mode of apprehending reality” (150).

            Goldman’s interpretation of Prospero’s Epilogue shows us that time; setting, tone, and language hold a deeper meaning for the director who produces the play and for the actors who perform it. Goldman has shown us that if the actors and the director do not set the mood of the play, the audience will not be able to move into their illusion. Thus making the play useless to the audience. As the audience we need to ask ourselves this question; What is entertainment to us? Should we let actors on a stage bring us into their fantasy world? Is entertainment part of a dream? Is life a dream-like state?

            Bender’s look at The Tempest is an in-depth historical analysis of the play. He tries to pinpoint the time the play would have started, the date, the place; he goes beyond by saying that the Christian Doctrine during Shakespeare’s time emphasized it’s teaching through the play. Bender may be right within a historical context but I don’t believe that it would apply to today’s modern world or today’s modern performance of The Tempest.

            The essence of Goldman’s essay carries a stronger argument. He believes that the text of the play has more of the author’s intent contained in it. Goldman and I believe that the author’s intent was to entertain the audience and to bring the audience into a world of illusion. Of course, the actors, director, set construction, music, and choreography all play a vital role in bringing about the illusion of the play but Goldman is right: the play is a drama and an art form. It is there for entertainment. The art is for the audience to enjoy. And the audience is there to forget about their reality if only for a little or until an actor tells the audience to set him free.



Works Cited


Bender, John B. “The Day of The Tempest.” ELH. Vol. 47. Issue 2.

Princeton: John Hopkins University Press, (1980): 235-258.


Goldman, Michael. “Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama.”

Princeton: Princeton University Press, (1972): 124-150.


Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. A Case Study in Critical Controversy.

Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.