THE TEMPEST (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
George Bernard Shaw inked the following (in 1913, “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”):
“Reflective people are not more interested in the Chamber of Horrors than in their own homes, nor in murderers, victims, and villains than in themselves; and the moment a man has acquired sufficient reflective power to cease gaping at waxworks, he is on his way to losing interest in Othello, Desdemona, and Iago exactly to the extent to which they become interesting to the police.”
George Bernard Shaw is making the excellent point that Shakespeare’s plays keep the spectator in the jury box. I endorse this thesis 100%. Shakespeare never inflicts guilt on the spectator. I feel guilty, at times, while reading Strindberg. I sometimes feel guilty while reading Ibsen. There are passages in Shaw that fill me with guilt. There are guilt-inflicting and -afflicting scenes in the films of Ingmar Bergman. But Shakespeare? Shakespeare is incapable of infusing anyone with guilt. There are enchantments, entertainments, and enticements in Shakespeare, but there is never a guilt-inspiring moment. Guilty characters (think of Alonso in The Tempest or of Lady Macbeth). But no guilty spectators, ever. At least, the probability of a guilty spectator seems an improbability to me.
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The plot of The Tempest, such as it is, should already be familiar to most. It is centered on Prospero, thaumaturge and erstwhile Duke of Milan, who is marooned on an island–more than likely, one of the Bermudas, which were explored by the English in the early seventeenth century, the time of the play’s composition. A shipwreck brings phantoms from Prospero’s past, the promise of revenge and reinstatement to Prospero, the promise of freedom to Prospero’s slaves, Ariel and Caliban, and the promise of marriage to his daughter Miranda. Revenge comes swiftly and easily, Prospero’s dukedom is restored, freedom is won, and marriage is inevitable. Since all of the protagonist’s desires are fulfilled, The Tempest is a comedy in the Shakespearean sense. There is very little struggle and thus very little worry over the outcomes. I will return to this point below.
It might be useful to survey some of the dramatis personae.
Caliban is a cheetah-speckled fish-beast and the Earth-Spirit of the play. His name is anagrammatical of “can(n)ibal.” Shakespeare read of South Seas cannibals in Montaigne, and the English of the early seventeenth century did believe that the South Seas islanders were cannibals, devils, evil spirits, fantastic creatures. Caliban is the whelp of the North African witch Sycorax; his god is Setebos. “Setebos” is the name given to a Patagonian “devil” by one of Magellan’s companions. One can see that this is indeed a text that reflects the age of the European seafaring expeditions, the Age of Exploration.
Caliban is not merely uneducated–he is not educable, not civilizable, not humanizable. His naturalness, his earthiness, his childish stupidity are what make him dangerous. It does seem that he is the one character who escapes, if only for a moment, Prospero’s power; thus, Prospero’s power is not absolute. The ex-Duke is so unsettled by the breach in his power that he takes a walk to clear his head. Then again, Prospero’s dazedness is nothing more than an interlude of impotence, an interruption of senescence or senility. As Miranda says of her father: “Never till this day / Saw I him touch’d with anger so distemper’d” [IV:i].
No one has ever seemed to notice before that Caliban’s desires mirror Prospero’s own desires. Caliban expresses his desire to burn Prospero’s books [III:ii]; Prospero drowns his own books (or “book”) toward the close of the play. Caliban expresses the desire to violate Miranda. Does Prospero have the same desire? Am I alone in believing that Prospero has incestuous feelings for his own daughter? Here is what the magus says about Miranda:
“…I visit / Young Ferdinand, whom [his fellows] suppose is drown’d, / And his and mine lov’d darling” [III:iii].
In the lines quoted above, Prospero does not separate his fatherly feelings from Ferdinand’s erotic feelings for Miranda.
Ariel is the air sprite who does nothing without Prospero’s directive, but it also might be said that Prospero does nothing without Ariel’s assistance. Ariel’s name means “The Lion of God” in Hebrew. Despite what Harold Bloom says, the etymology is neither accidental nor irrelevant to the pith of the play. Ariel releases a leonine roar in the second act and is the serf of Prospero, who is indeed the deific figure of the island. Ariel is endlessly promised a freedom that seems to be forever denied to him.
Miranda means “She Who is Admired.” Before she meets Ferdinand, her soon-to-be-husband, the only man she knows is Prospero, unless we consider Caliban to be a “man” (he is, again, a hybrid of man and fish, a fish-man or a man-fish. As Trinculo says, Caliban is “[l]egg’d like a man, and his fins [are] like arms” [II:ii]). Prospero is more than mother and father to Miranda–he is the very model of manhood. And of womanhood.
Miranda is a gift–perhaps a potlatch–from the former Milanese duke to the presumptive King of Naples, Ferdinand. It is the gift of his daughter that will lead to the restoration of Prospero’s lost dukedom. Marriage is always a political transaction, in Shakespeare:
[T]hou shalt find she will outstrip all praise,
And make it halt behind her…
[A]s my gift, and thine own acquisition
Worthily purchas’d, take my daughter [IV:i].
Note the nastiness that Prospero showers on his daughter in absentia, discussing her as if she were a horse.
Ferdinand is a big beefy beefhead. He is a Joe Rogan type. In fact, Joe Rogan was most likely born to play the role of Ferdinand. This is how he describes himself (to his fiancee):
“[F]or your sake / Am I this patient log-man” [III:i].
He Log Man lift logs good.
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The play was first performed for the amusement and bemusement of James I in November 1611. This explains why usurpation is one of the play’s leitmotifs and why it contains a wedding masque in the style of Ben Jonson. The presence of the wedding masque is not accidental: The Tempest is itself a masque and has nothing in its pretty little head other than the desire to beguile, to enchant, to entertain, and to reassure the King, his minions, and the groundlings of the Globe that the King shall always prevail. The usurping of Prospero’s power by Antonio is the antimasque; the fifth act represents the restoration of the Duke’s (and the King’s) power. In Ulysses, usurpation takes on a world-historical AND a personal significance–here, it is nothing more than a regal anxiety to be pacified.
There is beautiful poetry to be found in the play, but also some very lenient and lazy writing. Take, for instance, the following. Gonzalo, the court lawyer, intones at the close of the first scene of the first act:
“Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground–long heath, brown furze, any thing. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death.”
Well, that is a wasted bit of dialogue, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to die on dry ground rather than in a shipwreck, as the ship one is in is wrecking?
And here is one of Ariel’s excruciatingly stupid songs:
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? [IV:i].
I could quote more senile singsong, but my tolerance is limited. There are those who could read such lines and still consider all of Shakespeare, the paper Shakespeare, to be perfect. I am not one of them.
There is too much tawdry bawdry in the play, too much of what we would call today “comic relief.” With the exception of a botched assassination attempt, the entire second act is wasted on laughless comedy. The comedy is the poetic nadir of the play. It is not that the raillery is dated, nor that it has long since been drained of any humor it might have had. The problem is that it is fluff, filler–empty pages and too much empty time, time wasted idly and emptily on the stage.
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Why, exactly, should we believe that Prospero ought to be reinstated as the Milanese duke? Prospero was disgracefully inept as a duke. He explains to Miranda how his brother, Antonio, usurped control of the Milanese dukedom:
The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies…
I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retir’d,
O’er-priz’d all popular rate, in my false brother
Awak’d an evil nature… [I:ii].
The neglectful and inadvertent duke, absorbed in the dark arts, loses his material power. We won’t have to wait very long before he wins it back again. Despite all of his flaws, and of these there are many, Prospero emerges as “The Favored One,” as his name implies. He does this so effortlessly and smoothly that there is no space to wonder about the outcome. Prospero wins, without even trying to win, a game that is rigged in advance, and this (as I stated earlier) is what makes The Tempest a Shakespearean “comedy.”
A Shakespearean comedy is not a play that makes us laugh, but a play in which the (sometimes unlikable) main character is easily victorious and the principals are married off, even if they don’t want to be married off.
All Shakespearean comedies project utopias. They are not frictionless utopias, to be fair. There are discordances in every one of Shakespeare’s utopias. Antonio, the usurping brother, and Caliban, the rebel slave, provide the discordances in The Tempest. And yet these disharmonies, these frictions, only exist in order to make the triumph of favored Prospero all the sweeter. The Duke is deposed, then reinstated. The Duke is dethroned, long live the Duke!
Some commentators have mused: Why are Prospero’s adversaries so threatened by the thaumaturge after he abjures his art? Why don’t they rise up and slit his throat (which Caliban intended to do earlier)? That they do not do this is nonplussing. On the contrary, they stand in fear of the demystified mage. Even after the abjurement of his magic, Sebastian says that the “devil speaks” in Prospero and Caliban worries that his master will “chastise” him [V:i].
It is difficult to say why Prospero’s enemies are meekened and weakened at the close of the play. Perhaps, as Harold Bloom proposed, the magus does not need any of the external signs of magic. Perhaps he has interiorized all of his powers. He can break his staff, drown his book, and shed his mantle, for his power now comes from within. Or is it merely the case that Prospero’s enemies–Sebastian, Antonio, Caliban, Stefano, Trinculo–are unaware that the magus has abjured his art?
While reading the play, there will be pleasantly unpleasant thought that more mischievous readers will not be able to suppress: They will wish that Caliban would rise up and devour all of the inhabitants of the isle. This is more or less what happens in Peter Brook’s dramatization. But no, instead, Prospero wins and forgives every one of his adversaries in the proto-Nietzschean affirmation of his power.
Indeed, forgiveness is the final phase of Prospero’s revenge plot. Prospero calls his perfidious brother “wicked” and “unnatural” in the very sentences through which he forgives him:
“I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art” [V:i].
The “rarer action” [Ibid.] is to forgive rather than to avenge. But my question is thus: Can forgiveness not be a form of vengeance?
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In the Epilogue, the actor who plays Prospero steps onto the stage one last time to beg for applause: “[R]elease me from my bands / With the help of your good hands.” He asks for the spectator’s “indulgence.” He says that his project was to “please.” Only applause can free the actor from the isle of mirages over which the mage presides.
Here we have a pitiful plea for approbation from an attention-hungry actor-dramatist. It is a Pathetic Appeal in two senses of the term: On the one hand, it is the attempt to stimulate the pity of the spectators and to provoke within them the pity-driven need to clap. On the other hand, it is an appeal that is, well, pathetic, in the colloquial-American sense of the word. But then, the Actor himself is yet another mask. One mask conceals another mask conceals another mask conceals another mask, and so forth ad infinitum.
Here we have the Shakespearean conceit that life is theatre and theatre, life. The island is an island of illusions where no man is his own [V:i]. The characters on the stage, of course, are nothing more than dramatic illusions–and are themselves illusioned. We–the audience, the spectators, we human beings–we ourselves are illusions, according to Shakespeare: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” [IV:i]. Each character is seduced by simulations or seduces by simulation: The shipwreck is described as a “spectacle”; Ariel assumes the shape of a water-nymph and then a harpy; Prospero camouflages himself throughout the play in various disguises; Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano are seduced by garments hanging from the bough of a tree, etc., etc.
To please the audience, to appease the audience, to entertain the audience is also Shakespeare’s only goal in The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s most overestimated plays. I should here make the point that Shakespeare was, in the non-problematic comedies, a panderer, a jongleur of the court. His non-problematic comedies always pander. They seek to assuage their audiences’ fears. They never provoke their audiences. To return to my opening point: No one has ever been made to feel guilty by a Shakespeare play.
At the end of the day, The Tempest does bear one redeeming facet: The play sparked some of the most exciting works of literature of the twentieth century. The hallucinatory wonderlands of J. G. Ballard, for instance (by way of Joseph Conrad) would have been unthinkable without the tempestuous bluster of The Tempest, a play that never shakes the pear tree of the audience’s expectations.
Dr. Joseph Suglia