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I first saw a production of the Tempest when I was far too young to understand the language or appreciate the plot. I recall that I was frightened by the opening scene that (if acted well) portrays very vividly the terror of shipwreck. I was then bemused by the attempts of the adults with me to explain the whole idea of spirits that could be conjured up by magicians to control the winds. These same adults were the ones responsible for my rational upbringing through which, by the age of seven, I already knew to disregard fairies and the like as childish things. I had no understanding of drunkenness so the humour of the later scenes involving drunken sailors was completely lost on me. I think I would have been horrified by the treatment meted out to the slave, having no sense of historical perspective in which to place this. I was too young also to appreciate the romantic storyline of love at first sight being blind to all obstacles in its path. I remember being vaguely reassured that it was a happy ending and content with the explanation that it was all make-believe, if more than a little puzzled by the extent of adult interest in it.
Returning to this play through adult eyes I find it much more interesting. The overall message is a feel-good one: that in the final analysis love and forgiveness triumph over hatred, plotting and revenge. In choosing this theme, Shakespeare wisely kept to a safe non-sectarian Christian message, unlikely to cause offence to either Catholic or Protestant audience members. In choosing to explore the use of spirits and magic in a remote island setting, Shakespeare also avoided much explicit reference to established religion. The play was written in 1611 in the reign of James I. The stability of Elizabeth I’s reign had come to an end. Shakespeare, himself, was an old man as is the central character of the play, Prospero.
Prospero is living on an island with his daughter, Miranda, served by a spirit, Ariel, and a slave, Caliban. Once the Duke of Milan, but usurped in that position by his brother Antonio and forced into exile, Prospero invokes magic to lure his adversaries to the island and into his power with the intent of righting the wrongs of the past. Antonio is shipwrecked together with Alonso (King of Naples), his brother Sebastian and his son Ferdinand. Sebastian is ambitious and plans to kill Alonso so that he can become King of Naples. When Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love, however, the united future of Milan and Naples looks assured, and the futility of all the various plots, past and present, among the older generations becomes apparent. In parallel with this storyline, it emerges that Caliban has a prior claim to the island that Prospero has seized, and is seeking revenge. His attempts towards this provide humour and he is in due course pardoned by Prospero who by the end of the play is intent on relinquishing his powers and retiring.
The Virginia Connection
For me, the most interesting aspect of this play is the number of parallels that can be drawn with real events that occurred in and around Virginia at that time. In 1611 news from the new colonies would be circulating at many levels within society. Returning adventurers would have to account for massive disasters; many of their crews would relate their own versions of encounters with the savages in distant lands. Spin would be applied to save face or “heads would roll” (literally in those days). Many of the explanations would undoubtedly include magic spirits to account for ill fortune. It would be hard to know what to believe. It is known that Shakespeare referenced an account of the 1609 journey to Virginia that resulted in a shipwreck in the Bermudas but I think it highly likely that he had access to other contemporary accounts whether written or word-of-mouth. Is it possible that Shakespeare already knew that among the savages encountered, a father and daughter: Powhatan and Pocahontas would stand out in history? Powhatan had already been crowned as a vassal king with allegiance to James I, although it is clear from accounts of the proceedings that he did not understand the ceremony. Captain Smith whose life Pocahontas is said to have saved, was already back in London, describing her exceptional intelligence and her all-powerful father, in stark contrast to any previously held views of “savages” almost certainly represented in the Tempest by the ugly, uneducated Caliban.
Gossip at the time included the idea that previous settlers in Virginia who had gone missing might have been absorbed into native communities. This was supported by a sighting of a relatively white native child and must have aroused very many mixed feelings. Shakespeare could not have foreseen that only 3 years later, Pocahontas would marry John Rolfe, an English settler and that she would accompany him on his return to England in 1616.
Within the play there is an entertainment in the form of singing and dancing of nymphs to celebrate the love match. I found this section quite tedious to read, but in a performance it gives the producer a lot of scope for imaginative and stunning visual effects. The play seems designed to be performed on the night before the solemnisation of a wedding which begs the question whether it was originally written with a particular wedding in mind. Some commentators have suggested Frederick V as a candidate although his wedding did not take place until 1613. While it is possible to view this section as a celebration only of the union of Miranda and Ferdinand, it is more likely that it was intended as a wedding masque.
Old age and other themes
Towards the end of the play, once love and freedom have triumphed, we are left to ponder just how much of what we have seen was in any sense “real” and to reflect with Prospero (and with Shakespeare) on the outlook of diminished powers in retirement and old age. Were my parents right when they assured me that this was a happy ending? I’m not so sure.
As with much of Shakespeare’s work, there are timeless themes within the play that still hold a relevance to today’s audiences. Questions that remain unanswered over the centuries: To what extent should any individual wield power over another?; To what extent should one culture enforce itself upon another? To what extent should youth respect the wisdom of age? Shakespeare doesn’t offer solutions, only observations. We get to see characters acting foolishly and others acting wisely. We have the freedom to judge and act for ourselves. Prospero, at the very least, shows us how to accept our personal limitations with dignity.
excellent detailed commentary, i must read it again!
hasbok 26.03.2006 23:28
an outstanding review, superb.
reginabelga 28.01.2005 13:45
Excellent critique. A professor could not improve this review. It covers all aspects of the play plus interesting and thought-provoking historical background. I didn't appreciate it when I had to study it. I thought it was a load of nonsense and that Shakespeare was losing his touch. But then I was struggling with the language; let alone Shakespearean use of language. Do do some more and enlighten us all.