Wilde and The Tempest

I noticed that Wilde referenced The Tempest in The Decay of Lying. This struck my interest because The Tempest seems to reflect some ideas of the decadent movement. 

In The Decay of Lying, Wilde describes Shakespeare’s career as one that gradually steers away from focusing on style and opts instead for realism and freedom. He reminds the audience that “it is working within limits that the master reveals himself.” He then states that “we need not linger any longer over Shakespeare’s realism” before calling The Tempest the “most perfect of palinodes.” However, it is unclear in what way Wilde sees The Tempest as a palinode. While it could be interpreted as a palinode of the realist work described earlier, it could also be interpreted as a palinode to his stylistic work. I am more inclined to believe the latter based on the contents of The Tempest and Wilde’s view of art, though the organization of this passage could suggest the former. The Tempest switches between verse and prose depending on who is speaking. Caliban even switches between the two depending on his audience. In this way, Wilde could be criticizing Shakespeare for failing to work within a limited structure. 

Though Wilde may be criticizing this work, I find it interesting that this is not the first time we have seen him reference The Tempest. In the preface to Dorian Gray, which we read on the first day, he states, “The nineteenth-century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass.” In The Tempest, Caliban can be read many ways, but one interpretation of his character is that he represents raw human nature. With this interpretation, the line is read as humanity seeing themselves accurately in realism and despising what they see. 

While Wilde references The Tempest in these two works to make slightly different points, I find it fascinating that he has referenced it twice given the way that The Tempest could tie into the decadent movement. In The Tempest, nature is subordinated to magic and illusion as the powerful Prospero uses his magic (which could simply be interpreted as education) to conquer the island. Other characters fantasize about finding an untouched island to mold and fashion it to their liking, while Caliban, who is described as animalistic and inherently earthy, is constantly held captive by someone else. While it is certainly not the only interpretation, The Tempest can be read as a story about man’s dominance over nature. This certainly seems to be a central part of the decadent movement, which subordinates nature to man to the point that it bends at the will of art. Overall, I found this continued reference fascinating considering Wilde’s view of the relationship between nature and art.