Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Tragicomedy and the Philosophic Hero

Paul A. Cantor, “Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Tragicomedy and the Philosophic Hero,” in Shakespeare’s Last Plays, eds. Smith and Curtright, 115


Throughout his career Johann Goethe proved himself to be a profound student of Shakespeare and nowhere more so than in the opening scene of the second part of Faust. As Faust lies shattered by his tragic experiences in Part One, a group of spirits come to revive him. And chief among them is a figure named Ariel. Singing to the accompaniment of Aeolian harps, Goethe’s Ariel seeks to restore Faust to life:

“Relieve the bitter conflict in his heart,
Remove the burning arrows of remorse,
And cleanse his mind of memories that smart.”

By calling up a character out of The Tempest at precisely this point, Goethe demonstrates his awareness of the role of Shakespeare’s last places within the body of his work as a whole. The Tempest takes place in a post-tragic world. This does not simply mean that Shakespeare wrote the play after his great run of tragedies from Julius Caesar to Coriolanus. More profoundly, it means that in The Tempest Shakespeare is somehow dealing with the effort to move beyond tragedy, to see if there is a plane of experience that can be said to transcend the tragic.

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