Taking a Second Look at Courtly Love: Shakespeare’s The Tempest

June 18, 2022 by Essay Writer

William Shakespeare’s usage of the trope of courtly love in The Tempest is not what it seems. In The Tempest, a man trained in the art of magic, Prospero, causes a shipwreck on his island. On this ship is his brother, Antonio, who usurped Prospero’s dukedom in Milan and sent him off to sea. The King of Napes, Alonso, is also on this ship, and his son, Ferdinand, falls in love with Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. The trope of courtly love is most clearly seen in the affection between Miranda and Ferdinand. This trope emerged in medieval European literature, and some of its characteristics include a flawless lady who is unattainable or not easily accessed, a need for secrecy, and participants taken from the nobility. At first, one may think that courtly love is used to show how fairytale-perfect Miranda and Ferdinand’s love is, but actually, the utter perfection of their love calls upon the reader to question its authenticity. This skepticism adds yet another layer to Prospero’s character, as he might be the one controlling the love, and speaks to the condition of women during Shakespeare’s own time.

Aspects of Ferdinand and Miranda’s relationship clearly align with the trope of courtly love. When Ferdinand first lays eyes on Miranda, he exclaims, “Most sure, the goddess/ On whom these airs attend!” (I.ii.423-4) She is so beautiful, so flawless, that he does not believe he is human. She is also unattainable, as Prospero strives to add some difficulty to this love, so they appreciate it more. Ferdinand is sent to undertake labor on the island while Miranda watches. Prospero even commands Miranda not to tell Ferdinand her name, a command which she disobeys (III.i.36-7). This adds a level of secrecy to their relationship. Ferdinand and Miranda think they now have a secret between them, but Prospero is actually there, unseen, watching over them (III.i.14). Both characters are also members of nobility. Ferdinand is the son of the King of Naples, and Miranda is the daughter of the former Duke of Milan. Their relationship adheres so closely, so perfectly to the trop of courtly love. It is too perfect to believe, and that is exactly what Shakespeare wants the reader to think.

While Ferdinand and Miranda’s relationship may seem like the truest of love, it may just be another one of Prospero’s spells. With Ferdinand and Miranda together, Prospero has his dignity and his noble stature restored. He also gets some revenge on his usurping brother. The premise of this courtly love seems all too convenient. The play hints multiple times that this arrangement all might just be for Prospero’s gain, even tough he claims that he has “done nothing but in care of” Miranda (I.ii.16). That is what he first tells Miranda to try and console her when she is distraught about the shipwreck. Right from the start, Prospero assures Miranda that he is doing this all for her, casting himself as an affectionate father. However, this intention shows that he has already planned Ferdinand and Miranda’s marriage, that Miranda does not have a choice. He may claim that his efforts are all for her, but Prospero inadvertently reveals that his work is all for him. Prospero casts a spell on Miranda, putting her to sleep, which shows that he has no problem using his magic on her. He even goes so far as to tell her, “I know thou canst not choose” (I.ii.186). The lack of specificity in this phrase leads the reader to wonder whether Miranda has any choice at all.

Another example of Prospero’s self-interested planning arises during Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding celebration. When Prospero calls upon Iris, Ceres, and Juno, he says, “Spirits, which by mind art/ I have from their confined/ called to enact/ My present fancies” (IV.i.120-3). This statement is supposed to be a blessing to Miranda and Ferdinand’s marriage, but Prospero says it is all for him, his fancies. He is doing all this for himself and to showcase his art, not for his daughter and her newlywed. A second instance highlights Prospero’s controlling nature through the use of imagery; the first time the audience sees Miranda and Ferdinand, they are playing chess. Prospero “discovers” them, which in Shakespeare’s time meant to reveal characters previously unseen (V.i.172). Prospero revealing the couple playing chess makes them appear to be a show he is putting on, as if they are playing characters rather than themselves. The newlyweds are also playing chess, a game that symbolizes the conquering of kingdoms, thus indicating that their relationship might exist solely to restore Prospero’s nobility. The evidence clearly shows that Prospero has manipulated Miranda and Ferdinand; their love may not be as true as it first appears.

Why would Shakespeare choose to manipulate courtly love as Prospero has manipulated Miranda and Ferdinand? For one thing, this manipulation serves to add another layer to Prospero’s character. He may appear to be a loving father at first read, but scrutinizing the details reveals that he is rather cunning. Making Prospero more dynamic gives his final speech, the epilogue, more meaning. He disowns his magic once his dukedom is restored and begs the audience to set him free with applause. Perhaps Prospero knows that the audience has picked up on his poor behavior, and that is where this guilt comes from. He wants the audience to acknowledge the fact that his end (dukedom) justifies his means (the manipulation of his own daughter). Shakespeare could also be commenting on the way women were treated in his time. The only two women we hear of in the play are married off in exchange for power. They were pawns (a purposeful reference to chess) used to build relationships between kingdoms. Miranda is not the only woman being used to achieve nobility. After all, the whole purpose of the men traveling was to marry King Alonso’s daughter off to the King of Tunisia, a trip which occasioned Prosper’s tempest. Here, Shakespeare is warning against using daughters as a way to gain power, as doing so is disingenuous and unfair. Prospero did not even have to use his magic; he made it clear that Miranda had no choice.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare reinterprets courtly love to make the audience second-guess what appears to be true love. In terms of theme and psychology, the relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda serves far more purposes than one may initially assume. Shakespeare’s usage of the trope courtly love in The Tempest seems all too perfect, and thus prompts the reader to question if Shakespeare is presenting true love or solely the workings of Prospero. Such manipulation of courtly love speaks to both Prospero’s character and the limitations to women during the English Renaissance.

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