By Dennis Abrams
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most cherished works. Yet, at the same, it can seem his most abstruse, and even at time unfathomable. It recounts the story of an exiled Italian ruler who inflicts revenges upon his usurpers by calling up a magical “tempest” that shipwrecks them on his island, a story that is apparently one of Shakespeare’s own devising, and which has tempted an even wider number of competing analysis than usual. Some see the play as an allegory of divine learning, as the mage Prospero uses his celestial powers to conquer evil and restore the forces of good. Others, especially recently, have been taken by the play’s dissident colonial themes, and its depiction of an island colonized by white Europeans who enslave its indigenous inhabitants. (We’ll see Bloom is not entirely enamored of this reading of the play.) And others see The Tempest as the playwright’s bewitching swan-song to the theater, Prospero “drowning” his book at the play’s end just as Shakespeare soon after writing the play turned his back on the stage and entered retirement. Though that last theory is probably mere sentiment – not least because there would be more co-written plays to come – it is true that The Tempest dwells more than any other Shakespearean play on the vivid transformations brought about by dramatic poetry and spectacle, and some of its most astonishing moments harness Prospero’s magic to the illusions conjured in the theater. Though, as I hope you’ve seen, all of Shakespeare’s plays are dazzling in their own way, The Tempest still holds a special charge for audiences and readers alike.
The first recorded performance of The Tempest, almost certainly the last play that Shakespeare wrote on his own, was in court in November 1611. It seems likely that it was written earlier that year, or possibly in late 1610 – around the same time as The Winter’s Tale.
The Tempest’s plot seems to be original – almost uniquely among Shakespeare’s plays – but may have been inspired by reports of an actual shipwreck in 1610, as well as Montaigne’s essay “Of the Cannibals.” The influence of Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses has also been identified.
The 1623 Folio version provides the only authoritative text, and contains unusually detailed stage directions, which seems to suggest that the person who typeset it might have seen the play performed.
From Mark Van Doren:
“If Shakespeare thought of ‘The Tempest as the last play he would write he may have said to himself – silently, we must assume – that he could afford to let action come in it to a kind of rest; that its task was not so much to tell a story as to fix a vision; that the symbols he hitherto had defined his art by concealing might now confess themselves, even obtrude themselves, in measured dance and significant song; and that while he was at it he would recapitulate his poetic career. It is interesting to conjecture thus, but it is perilous. ‘The Tempest’ does bind up in final form a host of themes with which its author has been concerned. It is a mirror in which, if we hold it very still, we can gaze backward at all the recent plays, and behind them will be glimpses of a past as old as the tragedies, the middle comedies, and even ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Or it is a thicket or resonant trees, in an odd angle of the Shakespearean wood, which hums with echoes of every distant aisle. And certainly its symbols expose themselves as their ancestors in Shakespeare and quite abstract. The trouble is that the meanings are not self-evident. One interpretation of “The Tempest” does not agree with another. And there is deeper trouble in the truth that any interpretation, even the wildest, is more or less plausible. This deep trouble, and this deep truth, should warn us that ‘The Tempest’ is a composition about which we had better not be too knowing. If it is one of Shakespeare’s successes, and obviously it is, it will not yield its secret easily; or it has no secret to yield. Notwithstanding its visionary grace, its tendency toward lyric abstraction, it keeps that lifelike surface and that humor with which Shakespeare has always protected his meaning if it head one: that impenetrable shield off which the spears of interpretation invariably glance – or return, bent in the shaft and dulled at the point, to the hand of the thrower. It may well be that Shakespeare in ‘The Tempest’ is telling us for the last time, and consciously for the last time, about the world. But what he is telling us cannot be simple, or we could agree that it is this or that. Perhaps it is this; that the world is not simple. Or, mysteriously enough, that it is what we all take it to be, just as ‘The Tempest’ is whatever would take it to be. Any set of symbols, moved close to this play, lights up as in an electric field. Its meaning, in other words, is precisely as rich as the human mind, and it says that the world is what it is. But what the world is cannot be said in a sentence. Or even in a poem as complete and beautiful as ‘The Tempest.’”
From Tony Tanner:
(The True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia, anon., 1610)
I might call him
A thing divine; for nothing natural
I ever saw so noble.
That a monster should be such a natural!
These are not natural events; they strengthen
From strange to stranger.
“Where are we? In the three previous plays we have adjusted ourselves, imaginatively, to the worlds of classical antiquity, Roman Britain, and pre-Christian Sicily. But here there are no offered orientations. Most unusually, the Folio has a written indication of locality – ‘An un-inhabited island’ – though this may have been added by a scrivener, Ralph Crane, who worked for Shakespeare’s company and perhaps made the transcript. Whoever wrote it, it is an indication pointing to nowhere, or no-known-where I should say. Coleridge had it right when he wrote ‘in this play Shakespeare does not appeal to any sensuous impression of time and place but to the imagination.’ It opens in the middle of what seems like an Atlantic storm and shipwreck, on what turns to be a Mediterranean island, though by the end we must feel that we have passed out of geography altogether.
In a strange, late essay on the play, Henry James maintained that ‘The story in The Tempest is a thing of naught, for any story will provide a remote island, a shipwreck, and a coincidence.’ Well! But this is not as breathtakingly dismissive as it sounds. James stresses, rather, the final triumph of Shakespeare’s style – ‘its rich simplicity and its free elegance…its refinement of power…It renders the poverties and obscurities of our world in the dazzling terms of a richer and better.’ He, rightly, admires the wonderful economy of this (surprisingly short) play – ‘the economy not of poverty, but of wealth a little weary of congestion.’ (my italics). That too feels right, for there is a sense in this play of sorting things out, summarizing essentials, eschewing the distractions of life’s plentitudes. James says that the play reflects Shakespeare’s ‘charged inspiration and clarified experience,’ and ‘clarified’ is just the appropriate word. At the same time, no play is more blurring and blurred. I shall try to explain this, only apparent, contradiction.
To be sure, The Tempest has many of the features we associate with the Late Plays – an initial outbreak of disruptive evil and discord (in this play recounted, not shown); ensuing separations and reunions; and the coming together of almost divinely beautiful royal children who finally unite in a marriage presaging future harmony and renewal. What was lost – kingdoms, children – is found, though, as always, lost years cannot be retrieved. But, somehow, it’s all very different. Recognitions and reconciliations are almost passionless and automatic; there is almost no repentance and what there is is off-hand, minimal; the forgiveness is brusque and unconvincing; there is no sense of regeneration, renewal, restoration – certainly not one of redemption. Patience is mentioned, but only as not being practiced. There is no sense of the seasonal replenishment afforded by ‘great creating nature’ – it is figured in a masque, but made to seem unbelievably insubstantial, a diaphanous sketch at two or three removes from reality. In fact everything seems faint and somehow far away. The verse carries very few metaphors such as usually bring powerful extra life and presence to the words, and set off cascades of meanings in the mind. The beat of the iambic lines is so unemphatic as to be almost inaudible. Indeed, I would venture another paradox and suggest that in a curious way it is almost as though we don’t h ear the words at all but rather a strange, almost hypnotic ‘humming’ such as Gonzalo hears while sleeping on the island. I say this in the full knowledge that the word ‘roar’ (and cognates) occurs more often here than in any other play. For there is a ‘roaring’ (a strange, semantically empty, hollow-throated word) which is a kind of silence – like the hissing, humming, ‘oh-ing’ noise you hear on the radio when the programmes are over. It’s what you hear in sea-shells; and when you have been too long underwater.”
From 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.
THE TEMPEST is one of the most original and perfect of Shakespeare’s productions, and he has shown in it all the variety of his powers. It is full of grace and grandeur. The human and imaginary characters, the dramatic and the grotesque, are blended together with the greatest art, and without any appearance of it. Though he has here given ‘to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’, yet that part which is only the fantastic creation of his mind, has the same palpable texture, and coheres ‘semblably’ with the rest. As the preternatural part has the air of reality, and almost haunts the imagination with a sense of truth, the real characters and events partake of the wildness of a dream. The stately magician, Prospero, driven from his dukedom, but around whom (so potent is his art) airy spirits throng numberless to do his bidding; his daughter Miranda (‘worthy of that name’) to whom all the power of his art points, and who seems the goddess of the isle; the princely Ferdinand, cast by fate upon the haven of his happiness in this idol of his love; the delicate Ariel; the savage Caliban, half brute, half demon; the drunken ship’s crew–are all connected parts of the story, and can hardly be spared from the place they fill. Even the local scenery is of a piece and character with the subject. Prospero’s enchanted island seems to have risen up out of the sea; the airy music, the tempest-tossed vessel, the turbulent waves, all have the effect of the landscape background of some fine picture. Shakespeare’s pencil is (to use an allusion of his own) ‘like the dyer’s hand, subdued to what it works in’. Everything in him, though it partakes of ‘the liberty of wit’, is also subjected to ‘the law’ of the understanding. For instance, even the drunken sailors, who are made reeling-ripe, share, in the disorder of their minds and bodies, in the tumult of the elements, and seem on shore to be as much at the mercy of chance as they were before at the mercy of the winds and waves. These fellows with their sea-wit are the least to our taste of any part of the play: but they are as like drunken sailors as they can be, and are an indirect foil to Caliban, whose figure acquires a classical dignity in the comparison.
And from Harold Bloom:
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the two visionary comedies – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest – these days share the sad distinction of being the worst interpreted and performed. Erotomania possesses the critics and directors of the Dream, while ideology drives the bespoilers of The Tempest. Caliban, a poignant but cowardly (and murderous) half-human creature (his father a sea devil, whether fish or amphibian), has become an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter. This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at the view is simply not interested in reading the play at all. Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists – the usual suspects – know their causes but not Shakespeare’s plays.
Because The Tempest (1611) was Shakespeare’s last play without the collaboration of John Fletcher, and probably had been a success at the Globe, it heads off the First Folio, printed as the first of the comedies. We know that The Tempest was presented at the court of James I, which probably accounts for its masquelike features. The play is fundamentally plotless; its one outer event is the magically induced storm of the first scene, which rather oddly gives the play its title. If there is any literary source at all, it would be Montaigne’s essay on the Cannibals, who are echoed in Caliban’s name though not in his nature. Yet Montaigne, as in Hamlet, was more provocation than source, and Caliban is anything but a celebration of the natural man. The Tempest is neither a discourse on colonialism nor a mystical testament. It is a wildly experimental stage comedy, prompted ultimately, I suspect, by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Prospero, Shakespeare’s magus, carries a name that is the Italian translation of Faustus, which is the Latin cognomen (‘the favored one’) that Simon Magus the Gnostic took when he went to Rome. With Ariel, a sprite or angel (the name is Hebrew for ‘the lion of God.’), as his familiar rather than Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, Prospero is Shakespeare’s anti-Faust, and a final transcending of Marlowe.”
From Marjorie Garber:
“Shakespeare’s powerful late romance The Tempest has been addressed by modern critics from two important perspectives: as a fable of art and creation, and as a colonialist allegory. These readings very much depend on one’s conception of European man’s place in the universe, and on whether a figure like Prospero stands for all mankind or for one side of a conflict.
The first interpretation, following upon the ideas of Renaissance humanism and the place of the artist/playwright/magician, offers a story of mankind at the center of the universe, of ‘man’ as creator and authority. Such a reading is, by its nature, at once aesthetic, philosophical, and skeptical. Prospero is man-the-artist, or man-the-scholar: Ariel and Caliban represent his ethereal and material selves – the one airy, imaginative, and swift; the second earthy, gross, and appetitive. Prospero has often been seen as a figure for the artist as creator – as Shakespeare’s self-conception, an artist figure unifying the world around him by his ‘so potent art.’ By his magic, his good magic, or what has been described as white (or benevolent) magic, he subdues anarchic figures around him, like Caliban and his mother Sycorax, the previous ruler of the island, who is also a magician (often thought of as a practitioner of black, or malevolent magic). Prospero’s magic books enable him as well to thwart the incipient revolts of both high and low conspirators, and to exact a species of revenge against those who usurped his dukedom and set him adrift on the sea – for The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most compelling ‘revenge tragedies,’ turned, at the last moment, toward forgiveness.
But there is something troubling about this idealized picture of a Renaissance man accommodated with arts and crafts, dominance and power, in a little world, a little island, that he takes and makes his own. Many critical observers, especially in the later twentieth century, have seen Prospero as a colonizer of alien territory not his own, a European master who comes to an island in the New World, displaces its native ruler, enslaves its indigenous population (in this case emblematized by Caliban), and makes its rightful inhabitants work for him and his family as servants, fetching wood and water, while he and his daughter enjoy all the amenities of the temperate climate and the fertile land. The tensions between the aesthetic and the political lie at the heart of the play.
First staged in 1611, with King James present in the audience, The Tempest was subsequently performed as part of the marriage celebration for his daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, whom the King was about to ‘lose’ to her husband, Frederick, the Elector Palatine – just as Prospero ‘loses’ his daughter, Miranda, as he tells Alonso, King of Naples, ‘in this last tempest,’ to Ferdinand, the King’s son. So the political and social context, the timeliness, of the play may have been evident from the beginning.
Although it takes the form of an extended scene of instruction between Prospero and Miranda, father and daughter, the play is fundamentally built on the continuous contrast between Prospero’s two servants, Ariel and Caliban, mind and body, imagination and desire or lust. If Ariel is imagination personified, surely Caliban is something like libido (sexual desire) or id (basic human drives). If one thing is clear on Prospero’s island, it is that, for all his anarchic and disruptive qualities, Caliban is necessary – like the body itself. ‘We cannot miss him,’ says Prospero (meaning, ‘We cannot do without him.’). ‘He does make our fire,/Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices/That profit us’ (1.2.314-316). Later in the play, after Caliban foils the conspiracy against his life, Prospero will say ruefully of him, ‘This thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine’ (5.1.278-279). What Prospero acknowledges in this phrase is not only responsibility (Caliban is my slave), but also identity (Caliban, the ‘thing of darkness,’ is part of me).
In one way, we might say that The Tempest is macrocosmic: Caliban is a spirit of earth and water, Ariel a spirit of fire and air, and together they are elements harnessed by Prospero, here a kind of magician and wonder-worker closely allied to Renaissance science. Together these figures give us a picture of the world. In another way we could say that The Tempest is microcosmic, its structural design a mirror of the human psyche: Caliban,. Who is necessary and burdensome, the libido, the id, a ‘thing of darkness’ who must be acknowledged; Ariel the spirit of imagination incarnate, who cannot be possessed forever, and therefore must be allowed to depart in freedom. And in yet a third way the play’s design illustrates the basic doctrines of Renaissance humanist philosophy. Mankind is a creature a little lower than the angels, caught between the bestial and the celestial, a creature of infinite possibilities. In all these patterns Prospero stands between the poles marked out by Ariel and Caliban.
The second kind of interpretation, the colonial or postcolonial narrative, follows upon early modern voyages of exploration and discovery, ‘first contact,’ and the encounters with, and exploitation of, indigenous peoples in the New World. In this interpretive context The Tempest is not idealizing, aesthetic, and ‘timeless,’ but rather topical, contextual, ‘political,’ and in dialogue with the times. Yet manifestly this dichotomy will break down, both in literary analysis and in performance. It is perfectly possible for a play about a mage, artist, and father to be, at the same time, a play about a colonial governor, since Prospero himself is, or was, the Duke of Milan. His neglect of his ducal responsibilities (‘rapt in secret studies,’ he allowed his brother to scheme against him) led first to his usurpation and exile, then to his establishment of an alternative government on the island, displacing and enslaving the native inhabitant Caliban, whose mother, Syorcax, had ruled there before Prospero’s arrival and who, as Caliban says, ‘first was mine own king’ (1.2.345)
Caliban’s name is a variant of ‘cannibal’ (deriving from ‘Carib,’ a fierce nation of the West Indies), and Shakespeare’s play owes much to Montaigne’s essay ‘Of Cannibals’ (1580), which draws trenchant and unflattering comparisons between the supposedly civilized Europeans and the native islanders. ‘There is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to,’ Montaigne writes. Despite the nakedness and unfamiliar ways of all these tribes, contemporary European societies ‘surpass them in every kind of barbarism,’ like treachery, disloyalty, tyranny, and cruelty, which ‘are everyday vices in us.’ As for cannibalism itself, there ‘is more barbarity in lacerating by rack and torture a body still fully able to feel things, in roasting him little by little…than in roasting and eating him after his death.’
Colonialist readings have gained force in the last fifty years by analogy with the historical events of postcolonialism, whether in South Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, but they are also entirely pertinent to Shakespeare’s own time. During the years when The Tempest was written and first performed, Europe, and England in particular, was in the heyday of the period of colonial exploration. Sir Walter Raleigh is one important and charismatic figure who went from the Elizabethan court to the New World, and in his account, The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana (1596), he describes encounters with native populations of just this kind. Captain John Smith set out with the Virginia colonists in 1606, and his General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624) is another key source for this period, documenting the encounter of Englishmen (for which we may read Prospero’s Italians/Europeans) with a native culture and climate in the New World.
There are moments in the play that clearly evoke the local historical context: as, for example, when Trinculo, the drunken jester, stumbling over the recumbent form of Caliban, imagines a fast way to make money, by exhibiting him back in the Old World for a fee:
Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday-fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man. Any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.
‘Were I in England’ is Shakespeare’s typical sly wit – an in-joke for the English audience, like the scene in which the gravedigger in Hamlet remarks that no one in England would detect Hamlet’s infirmity, ‘There the men are as mad as he.’ (5.1.142-143).
Many of the twentieth-century rewritings of The Tempest are inspired by New World concerns, and even are written from the point of view of the oppressed. The Uruguayan philosopher and critic Jose Enrique Rodo wrote his Ariel in 1900, calling upon Latin America to retain cultural values unsullied by the materialism of the United States; in 1913 he published El Mirador de Prospero (Prospero’s Balcony). Martinican playwright Aime Cesarie published the first version of his Une Tempete, a radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, in 1968, and the Cuban revolutionary intellectual Roberto Fernandez Retamar wrote his Caliban in 1971. The story of The Tempest has intersected, repeatedly and always interestingly, with other ‘political’ and colonial moments, through and beyond the postcolonial period of the mid-twentieth century. In many revisionist readings, Caliban becomes a more central and sympathetic figure. In some productions, dating as early as the turn of the last century, he is a loner and misunderstood ‘hero,’ dispossessed of his birthright by the invading Europeans. From W.H. Auden’s poem The Sea and the Mirror (19440 to Cesarie’s Une Tempete, an adaptation explicitly made ‘for a Black theater,’ to films as diverse as Forbidden Planet (1956) and Prospero’s Books (1991), The Tempest has retained its power and fascination.
But is Prospero’s enchanted island in the Old World or the New World? The play’s indebtedness to many new World texts is evident in its descriptions: the storm in the ‘still-vexed Bermudas’; the native inhabitants, often associated by critics with American Indians; the echoes of Jamestown and the early Virginia tracts, as well as of Montaigne’s influential account of New World natives. In literal geographical terms, however, the island must be located in the Mediterranean Sea, not far from the coast of Africa. The King and court party are returning from the wedding of Claribel to an African in Tunis, and Sycorax hails from Algiers (‘Argier’). Scholars have also begun to remind us that an even closer island, one actually within the ‘British isles,’ was famed for the wildness of its inhabitants, linking Ireland as yet another colonial space evoked by the play’s suggestively rich and elusive landscape. That all these associations seem germane is now virtually taken for granted.
What is most magical about the isle, however, is that in being many places at once, geographically, culturally, and mythographically hybrid, it eludes location and becomes a space for poetry, and for dream. It is not found on any map, Prospero’s enchanted island, while drawn from real explorations and published accounts, is ultimately a country of the mind. And this is made clear by the very structure of the play, which starts out in medias res, in clamor, in shipwreck, and in darkness.”
From G. Wilson Knight, “The Shakespearian Superman: An Essay on ‘The Tempest’”
‘As Zarathustra thus discoursed he stood nigh unto the entrance of his cave; but with the final words he slipped away from his guests and fled for a brief while into the open air.
O clean odours around me! he cried. O blessed stillness around me! But where are my beasts? Draw nigh, mine Eagle and my Serpent!
Tell me, my beasts – all these Higher men, smell they, perchance, not sweet? O clean odours around me! Now only do I know and feel how I love you, my beasts!
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Song of Melancholy
“We have seen how these final plays tend to refashion old imagery into some surprising dramatic incident; of which the most striking are the jewel-thrown-into-the-sea, Thaisa in her casket-coffin; Pericles on board his storm-tossed ship; the co-presence of actual storm and bear, an old poetic association, in The Winter’s Tale; the appearance of Jupiter the Thunderer in Cymbeline. This is, however, a variation of a normal Shakespearian process; for Shakespeare is continually at work splitting up and recombining already used plots, persons, and themes, weaving something ‘new and strange’ from old material. Much of his later tragedy and history is contained in Titus Andronicus and Henry VI; much of later comedy in Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Two Gentleman of Verona. The opposition of cynic and romantic in Romeo and Juliet gives us Mercutio and Romeo; the same opposition – with what a difference! – becomes Iago and Othello; and again, Enobarbus and Antony. Prince Hal and Hotspur together makes Henry V; and as for Falstaff, his massive bulk contains in embryo much of the later tragedies in their nihilistic, king-shattering, impact; though, as comedian, he stands between Sir Toby and Autolycus. One could go on, and on.
The last plays are peculiar in their seizing on poetry itself, as it were, for their dominating efforts; and in doing this also find themselves often reversing the logic of life as we know it, redeveloping the discoveries and recognitions of old comedy into more purposeful conclusions, impregnated with a far higher order of dramatic belief. The finding of Aemiilia as an abbess in The Comedy of Errors forecasts the finding of Thaisa as priestess of Diana in Pericles; the recovery of Hero, supposed dead in Much Ado About Nothing that of Hermione; Juliet and Imogen suffer each a living death after use of similar potions. What is first subsidiary, or hinted by the poetry itself, as when Romeo or Cleopatra dream of reunion beyond, or within, death (Romeo and Juliet, v.i.1-9; Antony and Cleopatra, v.ii.75-100) is rendered convincing later.
This tendency The Tempest drives to the limit. For once, Shakespeare has no objective story before him from which to create. He spins his plot from his own poetic world entirely, simplifying the main issues of his total work – plot, poetry, persons; whittling off the non-essential and leaving the naked truth exposed. The Tempest, patterned of storm and music, is thus an interpretation of Shakespeare’s world.”
And finally, from Auden:
“The Tempest is the last play wholly by Shakespeare, written in 1611 at or before the time he retired to Stratford. He was later brought in as a collaborator in the writing of Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. People have very naturally and in a sense rightly considered the play Shakespeare’s farewell piece. Whether or not Shakespeare was conscious of it is irrelevant. I don’t believe people die until they’ve done their work, and when they have, they die. There are surprisingly few incomplete works in art. People, as a rule,, die when they wish to. It’s not a shame that Mozart, Keats, Shelley died young: they’d finished their work.
The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was written for a command performance, are the only plays of Shakespeare with an original plot. The Tempest is also his only play observing the unities of time, place, and action – which accounts for Prospero’s long, expository narrative at the beginning of the play instead of action. Maybe he made a bet with Ben Jonson about whether he could do it or not.
Lastly, in The Tempest, Shakespeare succeeds in writing myth – he’d been trying to earlier, not altogether successfully. George MacDonald’s children’s books, such as The Princess and the Goblin are very good examples of mythopoeic writing. C. S. Lewis remarks, in discussing MacDonald and myth, that
‘the Myth does not essentially exist in words at all. WE all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version – whose words – are we thinking when we say this?
For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone’s words…What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all – say by a mime, or a film. And I find this to be true of all such stories…Any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, ‘done the trick.’ After that you can throw the means of communication away…In poetry the words are the body and the ‘theme’ or ‘content’ is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul: the words, or mime, or film, or pictorial series are not even clothes – they are not much more than a telephone. Of this I had evidence some years ago when I first heard the story of Kafka’s Castle related in conversation and afterwards I read the book for myself. The reading added nothing. I had already received the myth, which was all that mattered.’
The great myths in the Christian period are Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, the Wandering Jew. Among the great modern myths are Sherlock Holmes and L’il Abner, neither of which exhibits a talent for literary expression. Rider Haggard’s She is another example of a myth in which literary distinction is largely absent. Comic strips are good place to start in understanding the nature of myths, because their language is unimportant. There are some famous passage of poetry in The Tempest, including ‘Our revels now are ended’ (IV.i.148ff) and ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves.’ (V.i.33ff), but they are accidental. Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear only exist in words. In The Tempest only the wedding masque – which is very good, and apposite – and possibly Ariel’s songs are dependent on poetry. Otherwise you could put The Tempest in a comic strip.”
As you can see from this introduction, The Tempest, while indisputably a great play, is open to a wide array of interpretations. This should be interesting.
Our next reading: The Tempest, Act One
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning