In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, canonical readings claim Miranda is the innocent and Ferdinand is the experienced. Taken as a priori desirable qualities, Shakespeare works to critique the conception of purity as inherently virtuous throughout his play and it’s imposition onto women of the time.
Both qualities are taken to be models of virtue. To start: What is “virtue”? Taking from Aristotle: “for to virtue belongs virtuous activity” (Book 1, Section 8). Therefore, virtue is doing good. This definition, however, does not delineate between the active pursuit of the good and inaction towards vice. The dichotomy between Miranda and Ferdinand becomes clear: Though both are “good,” one is so by circumstance, another by choice. Shakespeare approaches the innocence/experience nexus with a keen eye to parse the ways in which the two states of (in)activity interact.
Luckily, Montaigne also grapples with this question in several of his Essais, notably On Cruelty, among others. Professor Arthur Kirsch notes that “it has long been recognized that Shakespeare borrowed from Montaigne” (Kirsch, 337). This permeates many of Shakespeare’s plays but “is most palpable and most illuminating” in The Tempest (Kirsch, 338). Kirsch notes the important connections to several of Montaigne’s essays. Citing Montaigne’s important distinction that: “It seemeth that the verie name of vertue presupposeth difficulty, and inferreth resistance, and cannot well exercise it selfe without an enemy. It is peradventure the reason we call God good, mightie, liberall, and just, but we terme him not vertuous” (Montaigne, On Cruelty) (Kirsch, 341). Kirsch further develops this by connecting Montaigne’s sense of the need for struggle to a general valorization of empathy as the key to virtuous actions. Particularly, for Kirsch, the key to virtue is compassion in opposition to detachment (Kirsch 344). Whereas the Stoics performed their duties without emotional engagement with their subjects, according to Kirsch, Montaigne and Shakespeare are demanding emotional engagement (“cosuffering” is Kirsch’s term of choice) as integral to virtue. Put otherwise: “In The Tempest, in any event, suffering, compassion, is a tonic chord in the whole of action… It is revealed throughout the play in the ‘piteous heart’ of Miranda, who is animated by ‘the very virtue of compassion’” (Kirsch, 345).
Here, the emotional difficulty and engagement Montaigne is demanding as part of defining what is truly virtuous is the experience of emotional engagement. Returning to Aristotle: “for possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, Section 5).
I would like to go beyond what Kirsch has laid out in this exposition, especially in the focus upon the relation between Miranda and Ferdinand. Specifically, while one aspect of virtue is the development of compassion (emotional engagement) with one’s actions, the other is the battling of “vicious passions” as described by Montaigne. But, in order to defeat “vicious passions,” one must have such inclinations towards vice.
It is this important point that Shakespeare hopes to bring forth: True virtue includes the active resistance against our worst desires.
It is in this struggle against internal, maleficent temptations and inclinations that we prove our resolve and mettle to act well. Our struggle also consolidates and establishes our commitment towards that which we have sacrificed for. Per Montaigne, there are three kinds of virtue: one who has tamed the desire towards vice, one who checks vice when it becomes present, and one who does not even have the desire to sin (Montaigne, 310). The central example for this in The Tempest can be seen in the love between Miranda and Ferdinand.
As stated at the start, Miranda is taken to be innocent. Robert Longbaum’s introduction to the play makes note that almost all traditional readings describe Miranda as “pure” (Longbaum, lxiii). Where does this quality of hers come from? Samuel Taylor Coleridge reads this as having “all the advantages of education… She possesses all the delicacy of innocence, yet with all the powers of her mind unweakened by the combats of life” (Coleridge, 109). In Coleridge’s conception, the “combats of life” (daily life, harshness, experience) exist as obstacles and poisons that destroy and erode the possibility of virtue—virtue is a state of passivity. Notably, virtue is not uncultivated, as it is derived as part of an education, but this is one externally imposed onto Miranda by her “wise and affectionate father” (Coleridge, 109). Again, the ideal of virtue is taken as passive acceptance of rules rather than active exploration or struggle with one’s mean, base passions.
This innocence is critiqued by Shakespeare in his treatment of Miranda’s love for Ferdinand. Certainly, he considers it sincere and intense. Yet, it lacks the fullness and commitment seen in Ferdinand’s position due to Miranda’s easy-going innocence. This is not because Miranda herself fails in her actions or commitments; rather, it is the system of morality that defines a woman’s highest moral life as one of obedience and purity that restrains her ability to fully engage with those around her, to develop herself into an actively virtuous person. Shakespeare’s critique of passive virtues—including imposed sexual purity—begins from this point.
For Miranda, Ferdinand “is the third man that e’er [she] saw; the first / That e’er [she] sighed for” (Shakespeare, 24). And, as the third man she has ever seen, she falls completely in love with him. The first two men cannot be considered serious candidates in this contest—Prospero is her father and Caliban is their servant (who previously attempted to rape her). Thus, Ferdinand is the first actual potential love Miranda can court, and she commits to him without hesitance.
Compare this to Ferdinand’s commitment. He comments: “Full many a lady I have eyed with best regard, and many a time / Th’ harmony of their tongues hath into bondage / Brought my too diligent ear. For several virtues / Have I liked several women; never any / With so full soul but some defect in her / Did quarrel with the noblest grace she owed, And put it to the foil. But you, O you, So perfect and so peerless, are created / Of every creature’s best” (Shakespeare, 49). Ferdinand’s virtue has been generated through the combat of life in which his consideration and engagement with multiple suitors has led him to finding the true perfect match in Miranda. Ferdinand is admirable for having resisted and/or overcome possible temptations and his commitment can be considered more full and complete in their love by being a product of experience. Ferdinand knows precisely what he is sacrificing by committing to Miranda (namely, all the other possible suitors).
Regularly, characters comment on the importance of Miranda’s state of being a virgin. Ferdinand states: “O, if a virgin, And your affection not gone forth, I’ll make you The Queen of Naples” (Shakespeare, 24). Prospero notes the importance of not breaking the virgin-knot before marriage (Shakespeare, 63). In this way, they relegate Miranda’s greatest triumphs to mere passive existence, her objecthood as “virgin”.
One could consider Shakespeare as advocating the idea that women can only practice virtue in passive acceptance from these descriptions of Miranda. In actuality, he subverts these assumptions in Miranda’s famous lines: “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world That has such people in’t!” (Shakespeare, 81).
These lines (in part) exist as a counterweight and condemnation of the cultural system that has relegated Miranda to a cloistered existence, an education so fearful of the loss of purity that it has robbed her of experience. Miranda exclaims these lines upon meeting even more visitors to the island (Ferdinand’s attendants). For her, the awe that had accompanied finding Ferdinand earlier in the play translates now to all men (though not in the same way). What Shakespeare reveals here is the failure of Miranda’s education to equip her in the countering of temptation (the vicious passions). The best Prospero can offer is the warning “‘Tis new to thee” (Shakespeare, 81). In this late interaction, Prospero recognizes that Miranda’s sheltering and lack of access to the world (which has cultivated the passive virtue of purity) has failed to generate the experience and active ability needed in the combating of temptations, especially in a new and unknown world. While Miranda’s innocence gives her an appreciation and admiration of all things new, it also makes her gullible and potentially capricious.
In contrast, Ferdinand declares: “the strong’st suggestion / Our worser genius can, shall never melt / Mine honor into lust” (Shakespeare, 63). His will being tempered by active engagement in the world of vice and temptation, he has become accustomed to the possibility of honor turning into lust, in the need for active struggle against one’s “worser genius.” In this way, one can imagine Ferdinand as being more actually equipped to maintain his commitment to Miranda through his education of experience.
In summary: Sexist conceptions of virtue in Shakespeare’s time defined purity as the highest moral good for women. This attitudes leads to the confinement of women (ie. Miranda on her isolated island) to prevent them from being “led astray” in the real world. What Shakespeare and Montaigne recognize, however, is that this fear of moral impurity prevents the possibility of true virtue as the chosen and active life that strives to be good while surrounded by and engaging with the vices. Akin to a muscle that is developed by repeated activity and engagement, hiding from possible injury only means not training and strengthening said muscle. It is that brave new world we should all be supported in engaging with, despite its many risks. Only there will we find and form our best selves.
- Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, translated by W. D. Ross, 1924. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Lecture IX,” In The Lectures of 1811-1812, The Tempest, edited by Robert Longbaum, pp. 106-119. Signet Classics, 1998.
- Kirsch, Arthur. “Virtue, Vice, and Compassion in Montaigne and The Tempest.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 37, no. 2, [Rice University, Johns Hopkins University Press], 1997, pp. 337–52, https://doi.org/10.2307/450837.
- Longbaum, Robert. “Introduction.” The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Signet Classics, 1998, pp. lxiii-lxxvii.
- de Montaigne, Michel. “On Cruelty” or “Of Cruelty.” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame, Stanford University Press, 1943.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tempest, edited by Robert Longbaum, Signet Classics, 1998.