Having read (some of) Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, histories, and problem plays, I naturally turned to romances and picked up The Tempest. It is believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote alone.
Let’s get the who’s who out of the way before I continue:
On the island are Prospero (the rightful Duke of Milan), his daughter Miranda (15 years old), his servant Ariel (an airy spirit), and his savage slave Caliban (son of the witch Sycorax).
Antonio is Prospero’s brother, who usurped him and is now the Duke of Milan. He works with Alonso, King of Naples. Alonso has a brother named Sebastian and a son named Ferdinand.
Gonzalo is a good councillor.
1/ The Tempest begins with a chaotic, noisy scene—the tempest (obviously). It’s then followed by a rather still scene. Act 1 scene 2 is bold, as there’s lots of talk about the events 12 years ago (especially the usurpation by Antonio) but not much action until later on. I’m very curious about how different productions stage the scene.
The story makes me think of Hamlet and Measure for Measure. Power and the thirst for power seems to be one of Shakespeare’s obsessions.
This passage is interesting:
“PROSPERO […] like one
Who having into truth—by telling of it,
Made such a sinner of his memory
To credit his own lie, he did believe
He was indeed the Duke, out o’ the’ substitution
And executing th’ outward face of royalty
With all prerogative…”
(Act 1 scene 2)
2/ The Tempest is extremely quotable. The poetry is extraordinary from beginning to end, but many “less lyrical” lines are still very quotable.
“BOATSWAIN […] What cares these roarers for the name of king?”
(Act 1 scene 1)
“MIRANDA There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple.
If the ill spirit have so fair a house,
Good things will strive to dwell with’it.”
(Act 1 scene 2)
“SEBASTIAN [Aside to Antonio] He receives comfort like cold porridge”.
(Act 2 scene 1)
“GONZALO My Lord Sebastian,
The truth you speak doth lack some gentleness,
And time to speak it in. You sub the sore
When you should bring the plaster.”
Just as a few examples.
3/ Listen to Gonzalo, when the people of Milan and Naples are on the island.
“GONZALO I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourne, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
(Act 2 scene 1)
“GONZALO All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.”
People often say everything can be found in Shakespeare, but I didn’t expect to find a communist.
About 2 minutes after Gonzalo’s utopia’s speech, Antonio tries to talk Sebastian into killing his brother Alonso in order to become king of Naples. And some time after, Caliban plots with Trinculo and Stephano the murder of Prospero.
I can’t help wondering, though, if the island was such a utopia before Prospero’s arrival.
It is worth noting that, as Tony Tanner points out in the introduction, Gonzalo’s passage is a clear reference to Montaigne’s essay “Of the Cannibales” as translated by John Florio and published in 1603.
4/ The 2 plays are of course very different, but Shakespeare seems to reuse some elements from Romeo and Juliet in The Tempest: Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love at first sight and their families are enemies; Miranda is also open, passionate, and forward like Juliet, and is the one proposing marriage; both girls are young, Miranda is 15 so older than Juliet, but innocent and inexperienced, without a mother or a nurse or any kind of female companion, and she has never seen the male sex apart from her own father and Caliban; Ferdinand has liked other girls like Romeo has loved Rosaline before meeting Juliet.
(Interestingly, in spite of the past, Prospero doesn’t object to Miranda marrying Ferdinand. I reckon he wants his daughter to later become queen).
In some other ways, The Tempest is closer to A Midsummer Night’s Dream: both are fairytales; both have magic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has fairies whereas The Tempest has a sorcerer (Prospero), spirits, and witches; both feel like dreams.
5/ If I got to quote everything I love about The Tempest, I’d put here the entire play. The poetry, the language is wonderful. But this passage has an interesting image:
“ARIEL You are three men of sin, whom destiny—
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in’t—the never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you and on this island,
Where man doth not inhabit, you ‘mongst men
Being most unfit to live. I have made you mad;
And even with suchlike valor men hang and drown
Their proper selves.”
(Act 3 scene 3)
The best speech in the play must be Prospero’s speech about renouncing his magic, but it’s too long to be put here.
6/ The conversation between Prospero and Caliban in Act 1 scene 2 is interesting. Does the colonial reading of The Tempest make sense? Tony Tanner argues:
“Disregarding the fact that all talk of ‘property rights’ on this ‘uninhabited island’ seems faintly absurd, Caliban’s claim to, as it were, legitimate ownership is dubious. It will not do to see him as representing the expropriated native of shameful colonial history. The banished Sycorax (with child) has no more ‘right’ to the island than the exiled Prospero (with child). They are both alien interlopers (call them witches, call them settlers) on a land hitherto outside of history. Admittedly she was there first; but he seems to have made a better first of things.” (Introduction)
Another point is that Prospero holds Caliban prisoner because Caliban once attempted to rape Miranda (we don’t know when it happened, but in this scene she is 15).
Interestingly, Caliban doesn’t seem to have learnt much from the experience with Prospero when he meets Trinculo (the king’s jester) and Stephano (the king’s butler), who also “survive” the shipwreck and get on the island.
I can, however, understand readers who read The Tempest through the lens of postcolonial theory, as Caliban’s born on the island and that’s the only place he has ever known. Shakespeare gives voice to Caliban, and from Caliban’s perspective, the island is taken away from him, freedom is taken away from him. The character is, for most of the play, primitive, simple, naïve, and angry, but Shakespeare also gives him this fantastic speech:
“CALIBAN Be not afeared; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”
(Act 3 scene 3)
Such a speech must come from Caliban, not Prospero. For Prospero, his stay on the island is temporary and his aim is to return to Milan.
The speech has another significance, I’m going to quote Tony Tanner:
“… Caliban also reveals an (innate) sensitivity, which manifests itself in one of the most beautiful speeches in the play—not, surely, something Shakespeare would have given him if he wanted us to share the unqualifiedly negative Prospero view of Caliban.” (Introduction)
7/ I like the contrast between Ariel and Caliban. Look:
“ARIEL Before you can say “Come” and “Go”,
And breathe twice and cry “So, so”,
Each one, tripping on his toe,
Will be here with mop and mow.
Do you love me, master? No?
PROSPERO Dearly, my delicate Ariel. Do not approach
Till thou dost hear me call.”
(Act 4 scene 1)
It comes as a surprise that Ariel asks “Do you love me, master?”, and Prospero’s answer is also surprisingly tender.
Now look at this exchange, when Ariel tells Prospero about the prisoners:
“ARIEL Your charm so strongly works’ em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
PROSPERO Dost thou think so, spirit?
ARIEL Mine would, sir, were I human.”
(Act 5 scene 1)
That’s a thought-provoking passage. The non-human is more humane.
On a related point, after writing about the savagery of Caliban, Tony Tanner compares him to Stephano and Trinculo and says “He is primitive; they are degenerate.” He then says:
“The real ‘monsters’ on the island are, of course Sebastian and, particularly, Antonio. […] Antonio really is an utterly recalcitrant piece of degraded nature; impervious to, and contemptuous of, any grace or kindness. He may have the bearing of a courtier, but in him we see nature denatured, the last humanizing flicker extinguished.” (Introduction)
That’s a good point.
8/ The ending of The Tempest is a scene of reconciliation (or is it?). On the surface everything seems to be resolved: Prospero no longer wants a revenge, and would have his dukedom restored; Alonso seems to have more humanity after the painful fear of having lost his son, and now reunites with him; Ferdinand and Miranda are going to get married; Prospero reconciles with Alonso; Caliban’s plan to kill Prospero fails; Antonio and Sebastian no longer want to kill Alonso, because Ferdinand is alive; and Ariel is now free.
But there’s no real sense of reconciliation because the people who most need it are Prospero and Antonio, and they cannot reconcile—Antonio barely speaks in the final scene. Sebastian meanwhile may not have a reason to kill his brother anymore, but the fact remains that the thought has entered his head, that he has tried to kill Alonso earlier.
Added to that is the sense that the innocent, sheltered Miranda is unequipped for life in Naples. She has seen some savagery and unkindness on the island (see Caliban), but doesn’t know the wickedness and evil of people like Antonio or Sebastian.
Some readers may not like the ending, but to me, it’s like the ending of Measure for Measure: there are lots of questions, and a sense of unease about the characters’ future, but that’s no problem.
What a wonderful play.
9/ I’m going to end my blog post by quoting William Hazlitt:
“There can be little doubt that Shakespeare was the most universal genius that ever lived. 'Either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited, he is the only man. Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light for him.' He has not only the same absolute command over our laughter and our tears, all the resources of passion, of wit, of thought, of observation, but he has the most unbounded range of fanciful invention, whether terrible or playful, the same insight into the world of imagination that he has into the world of reality; and over all there presides the same truth of character and nature, and the same spirit of humanity. His ideal beings are as true and natural as his real characters; that is, as consistent with themselves, or if we suppose such beings to exist at all, they could not act, speak, or feel otherwise than as he makes them. He has invented for them a language, manners, and sentiments of their own, from the tremendous imprecations of the Witches in Macbeth, when they do 'a deed without a name', to the sylph-like expressions 'of Ariel, who 'does his spiriting gently'; the mischievous tricks and gossiping of Robin Goodfellow, or the uncouth gabbling and emphatic gesticulations of Caliban in this play.” (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays)