Shakespeare’s The Tempest presents the spectacle of a magician-prince who manipulates inhuman powers to regain his usurped dukedom and secure a marriage for his daughter that promises to make his descendants kings. The fantasy elements of the story, the play’s incisive interrogation of political power, and its seemingly scandalous (to modern audiences) representations of colonial and patriarchal power have attracted a good deal of interest from readers and scholars in recent decades. However, most also recognize that the play is almost entirely devoid of plot or dramatic tension, in the usual sense. Because Prospero is so firmly in control of events on the island for nearly the entire play, there is little serious doubt that he will prevail in the end. Thus, if the play is to be taken on its own terms rather than refashioned into something that better fits current expectations, we must find the play’s dramatic life somewhere other than in its action. I argue that that the dramatic heart of the play may be found in the fertile confluence of ethics, rhetoric, aesthetics, and metaphysics that shapes its reflection upon justice in a postlapsarian world. The climax is not a matter of exterior action, but a crisis of will and of ethical persuasion. What matters is not whether the wrathful Prospero will prevail over his enemies in the end, but whether he will prevail over himself. Does the exertion of power inevitably turn humans into monsters? Within the play, this question hinges upon a breathless moment of persuasion which is best understood through the lens of Augustinian moral ontology. Shakespeare revises Augustine’s equation of being with goodness, and nonbeing with evil to offer tempered hope for ethical aesthetics in Ariel’s inhuman persuasion.


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pp. 302-330
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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