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The Tempest: Virtue and Vice

Lorrie Jerrell Leininger, in her academic article "The Miranda Trap: Sexism and Racism in Shakespeare's Tempest," points out one of my favorite interpretations of the play: the allegorical Christian one.

Leininger begins addressing this interpretation by saying that

The most elusive yet far reaching function of Miranda in the play involves the role of her chastity in the allegorical scheme. Most critics agree that the chastity of Miranda and Ferdinand ... symbolizes all human virtue ... while Caliban's lust symbolizes all human vice. (289)

I am actually trying to write an essay that takes a closer look at the relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand as a blessed union; I have also built up an argument in my mind lately that concerns Prospero in the role of God throughout the play.

Leininger goes on to examine Christian-humanist traditions with respect to this idea of virtues and vices, and she mentions that

It was "only natural" that the educated and priveleged be identified with virtue and spirit, and that those who do society's dirty work, and all outsiders, be identified with vice and matter. (290)

While this observation may apply to some of the characters in The Tempest, I think it is important to note that not all of them are so easily divided in black-and-white. Some of them, such as Prospero or Alonso, exhibit both virtues and vices. For example: athough Alonso took part in a scheme to extricate Prospero from his dukedom, he also shows overwhelming concern for his son, and grief over his supposed death, until the end of the play.

In fact, I'm not so certain that Caliban should be so quickly identified as "the embodiment of lust, disobedience, and irremediable evil" in the play (290-291). Sure, he exhibits some qualities that are less-than-noble, but at the same time, he expresses a profound sense of "spirit" (which Leininger practically equates with virtue). He is sensitive to the magic of the isle, and even though he shows a lot of contempt for Miranda and especially Prospero, he does so with some of the most striking lines in the entire play.

Oh, and Ferdinand, who Leininger says is one of the "virtuous," also shows some pretty obvious lust for Miranda, asking her questions about her virginity and almost constantly commenting on her profound beauty.

Leininger presents some interesting points, though some of them seem to depend upon sweeping generalizations; she seems rather skeptical--in fact, almost bitter--when discussing them, too, which made her argument significantly less effective.


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Grieving over a fallen son can be taken as a form of selfishness. Darth Vader destroys whole planets for fun, but he's suddenly redeemed because he saves his own son? Feh.

Can you point out a particular sweeping generalization that you found noteworthy?

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