A-mazing Tempests


Maze engraving from Francis Quarles' Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (1634). The image appears as an illustration in David Lindley's recent New Cambridge edition of The Tempest.

It has long been known by Shakespearean scholars that The Tempest has a special (but never fully articulated) connection to the idea of the labyrinth. In the middle ages and up through the age of Shakespeare labyrinths and mazes remained an influential technology and a set of social practices central to the ideals of (the predominantly) Christian culture of Europe. In an era when the idea of pilgrimage was still a living practice, the maze functioned as a microcosm of the pilgrim’s journey.

Visibly central to such holy landmarks as Chartres, as well as found in such nominally secular installations as English turf mazes or the 14th century garden maze or “Daedalus“of Charles the V of France, the labyrinth became an emblem for the twists and turns, the epistemic confusions and blind alleys of the self-reflective life.

As such, the maze is, just under the surface, the play’s central organizing motif, both in terms of dramatic action (plot) and geography (setting). As Vaughan and Vaughan recognize in their Arden Tempest of 1999, the play’s action largely consists of circumscribed

geographic movement writ small. The firsts four acts conclude with an invitation to move on: “Come, follow” (1.2.502); “Lead the way” (2.2.183); “follow, I pray you” (3.3.110); “follow me and do me service” (4.1.266)….The characters perambulate in small groups from one part of the island to another; only at Prospero’s final invitation, “Please you, draw near” (5.1.319), do they join in one place. Although their physical and psychological journeys through the island’s maze have ended, the play concludes with plans for a sea journey back to Milan…(17).

Indeed, Tempest includes a number of overt maze references such as when, in the third act, the wearied Gonzalo announces,

By’r lakin, I can go no further, sir;
My old bones ache: here’s a maze trod, indeed,
Through furth-rights and meanders!


The prominence of the motif is well known to Tempest editors. To Barbara Mowat among others the metaphor of the maze is deeply rooted in the play’s classical sources as well as pivotal to its action and symbolism:

Prospero is the creator of the maze in which the other characters find themselves…. Gonzalo’s “Here’s a maze trod indeed”…picks up suggestively Ovid’s description of that most infamous of mazes, created by Daedalus to enclose the Minotaur….[2]

Such distinctive internal references to mazes, as well as the  testimony of the secondary literature confirming the centrality of the metaphor to the play’s dramatic texture, fell into proper focus for Lynne and me when we first read Richard Malim’s 2004 essay, “The Spanish Maze.”  Malim proposed that an apparently lost play, performed on Shrove Monday, 1604/5 before the Court at Whitehall, under the title “A Tragedy of the Spanish Maze,” may have been The Tempest under another name.

Fully aware of the radical implications of Malim’s theory for the longstanding belief that The Tempest was not written until 1611, we set out to cross-examine and test the idea on several counts, eventually publishing our conclusions in the 2008 issue of The Oxfordian (the last one edited by Stephanie Hughes).

The idea took some getting used to, but the more we learned, the more confident we became that Malim had gotten it right. Not only was it fully plausible to think of The Tempest as a kind of “Tragedy of the Spanish Maze” (The play’s “tragic” dimension has long been acknowledged by leading Shakespearean scholars. Naples and Milan were Spanish possessions during the better part of the 15th century. And, as we have already seen, the idea of the maze is central to Tempest‘s action), but the theory opened an entire new vista on the symbolism and structure of the Shakespearean masterpiece.

One of Lynne’s first questions about Malim’s theory was whether or not we could prove by independent analysis that The Tempest was a play suitable, or even written for, Shrovetide. It soon became evident that no one in the history of Shakespearean scholarship had ever asked this question, for the simple reason that everyone — or nearly everyone — assumed that the Nov. 1, 1611, Hallowmass performance date was the first performance date. If The Tempest had any liturgical resonance, it was assumed — as in the case of John Bender’s ELH article —  to be to Hallowmass.

The many reasons for concluding that The Tempest was in fact written with Shrovetide performance in mind form the basis for our Shakespeare Yearbook “Movable Feast” article and need not be rehearsed in detail here.

But imagine our surprise when we discovered that in the Christian  liturgical calendar there was a definite association between Shrovetide (and, even more so, Lent) and the maze. It was during Lent, the period of contrition following immediately on the heels of Shrovetide festivals of license, that Christian devotees undertook pilgrimages of penitence, long and small, including “treading the labyrinth.”

Suddenly Vaughan and Vaughan’s argument that The Tempest’s “uninhabited island” was a kind of maze — into which Prospero had materialized  his enemies to exact the vengeance of their penitent self awareness, like a high priest of Lent — as well as Mowat’s observation of the play’s deep mythic roots, going back to  the maze-builder Daedalus himself –assumed their proper significance in our understanding of what the play does.

As James Walter eloquently summarizes, “The figures that establish the setting, oppositions of characters, and progression of plot in The  Tempest make visible certain archetypal desires, states, and actions common to the experience of Christian pilgrims” (62).

Joining Vaughan and Vaughan and Mowat with Walter we could now see that these  pilgrims perambulate within the confines of the magic island, kept within Prospero’s spell, in a maze constructed by his magic art, until reaching the center of the Maze — the magician’s “cell.”

Just as the real laity of Elizabethan England would follow the “movable feast” of Shrovetide with a penitential pilgrimage through a literal or metaphoric maze, Shakespeare’s characters under the influence of Prospero’s magic undertake to discover themselves by navigating the maze of life:

O, rejoice beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars: in one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis;
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost; Prospero his dukedom
In a poor island; and all of us ourselves
When no man was his own.


Although such scholars as Vaughan and Vaughan, Mowat, and Walters (among others)  understood some aspect of the Tempest puzzle, Malim supplied the lost piece by connecting the play to the “Spanish Maze.”

Assembling all these pieces it becomes blindingly obvious that Shakespeare’s play was, as we were the first to argue, originally written for Shrovetide, when Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would be enjoying the licentious and gustatory frolics of the festival while anticipating the penitential rites of lent. Thus Ariel, in service to Prospero, first tempts the sinful members of the court party with an abundant feast and then — only when they surrender to the temptation to eat, snatches it away and “devours” them with a fire and brimstone sermon just like those that thundered from every Elizabethan and Jacobean pulpit during the fasting days of Lent.



[1] These terms apparently refer to the straight (forthright) and curved (meander) elements of the traditional Church labyrinth.  Their use in this context underscores the vitality of the maze as metaphor in The Tempest.

[2] Barbara Mowat, “The Tempest, A Modern Perspective,” in The Tempest, Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, eds., New York: Washington Square Press, 1994;  196 (emphasis supplied) David Lindley’s New Cambridge edition illustrates the significance of the maze metaphor in the play with an emblem from Francis Quarles (Figure 15.1).



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