Study Guide

The Tempest Man and the Natural World

By William Shakespeare

Man and the Natural World

Act 1, Scene 2

Full fathom five thy father lies.
   Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
   Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. 
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.

                                   Burden, within: Ding dong.
Hark, now I hear them: ding dong bell. (1.2.474-482)

Ariel isn't just being callous with his song, but pointing out that death is part of the natural process. Ferdinand is perhaps drawn away from his grief because the natural calls out to him, just as it now influences his father (were his father under the ocean).


I might call him
A thing divine, for nothing natural
I ever saw so noble. (1.2.498-500)

Is Miranda here disputing the idea of the "noble savage"?  Is there anything that we might consider "noble" in the natural world?

Abhorrèd slave,
Which any print of goodness wilt not take, 
Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each
One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes 
With words that made them known. But thy vile
Though thou didst learn, had that in 't which good
Could not abide to be with. Therefore wast thou
Deservedly confined into this rock, 
Who hadst deserved more than a prison. (1.2.422-436)

Can we ever unlearn what is natural within us? Is there a certain "civilized" kind of learning that is incompatible with man in the state of nature?


To cry to the sea that roared to us, to sigh
To th' winds whose pity, sighing back again,
Did us but loving wrong. (1.2.177-179)

Nature has always interacted in Prospero's affairs. Here, he highlights that nature is not one big capital "N" Nature, but a mix of different elements, each with moods and tendencies. At the time of their exile, Prospero remembers the sea like an enemy, and the wind like a lover.

Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness, I have used
Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honor of my child. (1.2.412-418)

Was it in Caliban's nature to ignore Prospero's nurturing? When Caliban tried to violate Miranda, was he compelled by his own natural forces, greater than his moral reasoning?

Act 2, Scene 1

I' th' commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession, 
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all,
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty— 
Yet he would be king on 't.
The latter end of his commonwealth forgets
the beginning.
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor; treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine   
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people. (2.1.162-180)

Gonzalo's speech about how he'd rule the island is taken from Montaigne's famous essay "Of Cannibals" (1580), where the Brazilian Indians are described as living at one with nature. Montaigne writes they have "no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate or politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions... no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or metal" (from John Florio's 1603 English translation). 

This liberal concept is a pretty big deal, especially since at a time when Europeans were running around calling natives in the Americas "savages," Montaigne suggests that the Brazilian Indians live a utopian lifestyle while European colonizers are the real barbarians. (This essay, by the way, is where the concept of the "noble savage" comes from.)

What's interesting is that Shakespeare puts this speech in the mouth of one of his characters. Is Shakespeare endorsing Montaigne's ideas? Maybe. Gonzalo, after all, is the play's ultimate good guy. On the other hand, Caliban, who is a kind of exotic "other," is portrayed as a complete savage in this play.

Act 3, Scene 2

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked  
I cried to dream again. (3.2.148-156)

Nature is beautiful enough to bring out the very best in even its most "unnatural" creatures.

Act 4, Scene 1

Then, as my gift and thine own acquisition
Worthily purchased take my daughter. But
If thou dost break her virgin-knot before 
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be ministered,
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate,
Sour-eyed disdain and discord shall bestrew 
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both. Therefore take heed,
As Hymen's lamps shall light you. (4.1.14-24)

Miranda's virginity, outside of its socio-cultural implications, is really also a simple mark that she is just as she was created: being a virgin, she is still in her natural state. If we think about virginity as a mark of childhood and naturalness, not as some deep moral and religious issue, we can take the edge off. What is Miranda's state of nature, and is anything natural being lost in her union to Ferdinand?

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;
And as with age his body uglier grows, 
So his mind cankers. (4.1.211-215)

Is Caliban a victim of his nature, or is Prospero foolish for thinking it could ever be otherwise?  Can both of these things be true at the same time?  (It's a mental Venn diagram!)

Act 5, Scene 1

   Where the bee sucks. there suck I:
   In a cowslip's bell I lie.
   There I couch when owls do cry. 
   On the bat's back I do fly
   After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bow
. (5.1.98-104)

Ariel sings of the natural world as he dresses Prospero in his hat and sword so Prospero can be recognized by the courtly folks. This is Ariel's last direct act for Prospero—he embraces the natural world while he dresses Prospero for the world of the court. This seems to be Ariel's delicate way of saying goodbye, which is kind of beautiful.