The Tempest

By William Shakespeare


The Tempest, written in 1611, was one of Shakespeare's last plays and is grouped with the others written at the end of his career: Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. All of them have been recognised as sharing certain characteristics and are often grouped together under the title of 'romances' or, sometimes, 'tragi-comedies'. We can therefore see in The Tempest something of a dramatic hybrid: "half a tragedy and half a comedy" (World of Words (1598), John Florio). In Shakespeare's work there is, then, a juxtaposition of two dramatic kinds. He obeys Aristotle's rules governing tragedy as laid out in the Ars Poetica which demanded that the playwright give the impression that the tale is based on a historical story, the doings of highborn men - those at the court and the palace. This pattern of the decline of a King - the reverse of fortune and disastrous fall necessitated in Aristotle's principles of tragedy - was a format mastered by Shakespeare in Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet. He also successfully blends this more sombre and dignified 'higher' form in The Tempest with that of comedy: the more self-consciously fictitious (here, magical), the pastoral world, the sprites, the marriage masque, humbler figures and innocent young lovers. There is a subtle mixture of subjects of usurpation, revenge, enslavement and disaster but also magic, marriage, fertility and restoration. The Tempest adheres further to Aristotelian rules of drama through the unity of time and place. All the action takes place on stage without gaps of time in the action, in stark contrast to The Winter's Tale, for example, which has the character Time acting as a kind of 'Chorus' (see also Henry V) and filling in the fifteen year gap between the two halves of the play. In The Tempest, however, respect for neo-classical rules is shown and stage time and fictional time are shown as closely tied, timing is crucial, as Northrop Frye has observed, "Like all magicians [Prospero] observes time closely ("The very minute bids thee ope thine ear", he says to Miranda), and his charms are effective only if he follows the rhythm of time ... This feeling of time ramifies into all the imagery of The Tempest" (A Natural Perspective, 1965). We are however constantly aware of the past as there is a kaleidoscoping of time achieved through Prospero's speeches and arguments with Caliban and Ariel: through the emphasis on the faculty of memory present action is inextricable from past crimes and injustices.

Prospero is at the centre of the action throughout, either centre-stage or influencing events from behind the scenes. The island becomes his stage on which he manoeuvres the other characters like puppets in the role of demigod to enact his revenge for the enforced exile he and Miranda have suffered before the opening of the play. Shakespeare seems to make him the representative of the playwright: he has power over a cast of characters and must control them as best he can in three hours to find a satisfactory conclusion. Like Shakespeare, though, he is ageing and his powers are dwindling. He is restricted in his magic (else, of course, he would have left the island) and the boundaries of the island and the waters/air around it appear to constrain him, like the stage does the dramatist.

In parts of the play he appears along the same lines as the Old Testament God: full of ire, intent on revenge, summoning up raging storms and tempests and harpies to punish the usurping courtiers and islanders "For this, be sure, to night thou shalt have cramps,/ Side stitches that shall pen thy breath up.." (to Caliban Act I, Scene 2). Yet, unlike a God, he is not omnipotent (he is losing his capacity to cast spells) or omniscient (he must ask Ariel for assistance in spying). Prospero manipulates his little world and masters political, race and gender forces of power as he gains revenge over his usurping brother, control's the island's natives (Ariel, Sycorax and Caliban) and manipulates the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda. His "potent art" is one that even includes control of the weather and Nature as he raises a storm at the beginning that causes the shipwreck:

"I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and azured vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt ....." (V, I, 41-6)

However, we must note that the storm cannot be real as the clothes of the shipwrecked are left clean and dry. It is rather an insubstantial experience, one of 'virtual reality': evanescent and impermanent. Like a play, its effect is a surface, an impression, leaving no trace. The magician draws attention to issues of the blurring boundaries between sleeping and waking, illusion and reality:

"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep" (IV, I, 56-8)

It is not surprising, then that we can so readily align Prospero with his creator: supreme artist controlling and constructing the island like Shakespeare with his Globe theatre. Traditional readings of the play interpreted Prospero's control of its events and characters as entirely benign; he was often seen as representative of Art itself. Also, because The Tempest is almost certainly Shakespeare's final play, people have been keen to see it as Shakespeare's graceful retirement from this "insubstantial pageant faded" (IV, I, 155) and interpreted as resignation and the end of a career:

"I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than ever did plummet sound
I'll drown my book" (V, I, 50)

We should not be put off by the convenience of this assumption but sceptical of reading the play only along these lines. It is worth considering Prospero the playwright of Shakespeare's characters, but then we must also see Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream in the same light (although Puck is youthfully inept rather than old and fading). It is more useful, perhaps, to see The Tempest as another experiment following on from The Winter's Tale in taking a primarily tragic central character and making him amusing. Notice the similarities in the language used by Prospero here, by Leontes in The Winter's Tale and by King Lear. All three ageing 'heroes' are losing control of their mental faculties. However, where Lear reduces his life to nakedness and screaming at the gods, Leontes and Prospero try to manipulate their way to resolution, and due to their lack of actual control they both start to become the agents of fate. This is the fate of the romances: a mixture of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream: one of magic, sleep and dreams where nothing is ever quite real, nobody gets hurt, and everyone ends up seeming absurd and powerless.