Shakespeare's The Tempest
When I’m asked for my favourite Shakespeare play, there’s no certainty what I might say but sometimes I name The Tempest. I have seen the play many times, most recently in London in this year's "Shakespeare in the Squares" season.
The Tempest was the last play Shakespeare wrote wholly by himself and also the first to be printed in the Folio edition of his work, published in 1623, seven years after he’d died. I think that’s interesting in itself. Why did the editors of the Folio place Shakespeare’s last work first?
At a guess it’s because they recognized its very personal quality. It is one of the hallmarks of the ’Shakespeare play’ that the author’s personality is elusive. Marlowe, Jonson and Webster had stronger authorial presences in their plays, like their signature or a watermark running through the text, the plot, the argument. Shakespeare’s signature by comparison seems to be “Anon” – which may be the reason for all those the “authorship” denialists.
The Tempest is different though. It’s one of the few in which the plot was Shakespeare's own invention, and it has his dabs all over it. * M.C. Bradbrook was professor of English at Cambridge University when I was studying the subject in the late 1960s, and she concluded her The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy (published in 1955 and a very wise book) by ruminating on The Tempest. “The Tempest is almost infinitely variable; it can be staged like a pantomime, or enacted on a plain scene. This Protean power, in part a gift of the age, was yet Shakespeare’s special endowment; and the mastery of it was for him the triumph of his art."
What does Professor Bradbrook mean by the play’s “Protean power”? Greek mythology has a character Proteus who was a son of the sea-god Poseidon. His main job was to herd flocks of seals for his father, but he happened also to have a gift for prophecy, and for this reason was in much demand by humans wanting to know their fortunes. The trouble was that Proteus hated using his gift and would do all he could to avoid having to do so. The opportunity of consulting him would come when he surfaced for an afternoon nap on the island of Pharos. But you had to physically grab hold of him or he would slip back into the sea without answering any questions. Even as you restrained him, Proteus would attempt to escape by wildly and rapidly changing his shape — a lion into a serpent, and then into an eagle, a wolf or a swan. Only by being gripped tightly throughout this bout of virtuoso shape-shifting could Proteus, at the point of utter exhaustion, be forced to yield up a prophetic answer.
I think: yes, that’s a fairly good metaphor for William Shakespeare. The shape-changing, the fluid personality, the elusiveness and versatility from play to play are among his essential characteristics as a writer. The notable thing about The Tempest is that it seems to show the author at the end of his career revisiting the individual ideas and situations he had previously played with across different genres and play-plots. The deposing of one brother by another was there in Hamlet, Richard III and As You Like It. Stormy nature was explored in King Lear, while shipwrecks as specific plot-dynamics appeared in Twelfth Night, Pericles and A Winter’s Tale. Young love is essential to Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida, sex and love to Antony and Cleopatra, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure, parent-child relations to Hamlet, King Lear, Pericles, and Henry IV, magic to Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, murder and revenge to … well, they’re explored in play after play after play. And all of these are in The Tempest. You might think: what a long play it must be. It is one of Shakespeare’s shortest.
Professor Bradbrook points out that in this play the classical restrictions (all the action contained in one time and one place) are, for once in Shakespeare’s practice, strictly observed while at the same time “the full resources of the theatre in dancing, song and spectacle are certainly utilized; but the solvent is Shakespeare’s power of language, the mingling of concentration and restraint which can sum up the play in a song:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
“Something rich and strange”. Yes, as well as richness (of language), strangeness (of character and setting) is one of The Tempest’s abiding qualities. The theme of personal transformation, part self-discovery and part self-estrangement, leaves the audience in what another critic whom I admire A.D. Nuttall calls Shakespeare's “radical uncertainty”. Indeed you might say it is destabilized — or worse, shipwrecked — by bewilderment. What kind of people are these, brought together almost experimentally by Prospero (by Shakespeare) on the island? None of them is a reliable interpreter of the characters and motives of the others, none is easy to pin down in themselves, even by the audience. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”. Indeed.
Caliban is the most extraordinary of these ambiguous characters — and the one for whom there’s no precedent in any other play. His bestiality is not in question and yet there are hints of, in the much later philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's phrase, “the noble savage” in his make-up. Shakespeare’s philosophical mentor the French essayist Michel de Montaigne had written in defence of “cannibals” (in the translation of John Florio that Shakespeare knew) “They are even savage as we call those fruits wilde which nature of herself and her ordinary progress hath produced ... In those are the true most profitable vertues and naturall properties most lively and vigorous which in these we have bastardized applying to them the pleasure of our corrupted taste … We have so much by our inventions surcharged the beauties and riches of her [Nature’s] works that we have altogether overchoaked her; yet wherever her puritie shineth she makes our vaine and frivolous enterprises wonderfully ashamed”.
That Caliban himself feels he is a natural person corrupted by a form of European colonialism — “altered by our artificial devices” — comes out when he tells Prospero
You taught me language, and my profit on ’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! (I.ii.)
This radical uncertainty about Caliban’s nature is never resolved, and nor is that of Ariel. What is Ariel? He (or, as on the cover of the old Pelican Shakespeare edition, she) is a reworked Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a powerful, wonder-working spirit who in The Tempest forms the counterweight to Caliban’s over-gross physicality. Ariel in one way may seem like a representation of good, while Caliban is evil. On the other hand, there is in Caliban, as well as that hint of corrupted innocence, a being who is capable of independent thought and action, of rebellion and resistance, which are richly relatable human qualities. Such independence of thought and action is impossible for Ariel. Despite having great personal powers, the spirit is Prospero’s creature, entirely dependent on the magician’s good will, and much more thoroughly enslaved to him than Caliban. Perhaps it is she who has been most distorted by humanity’s (Prospero’s) “corrupted taste”. But in that case what independent life can she have, what can she do with herself, after the play ends and Prospero has given her freedom?
Finally there is the magician himself. It seems clear at the outset what Prospero wants: his Dukedom back and the punishment of his brother alongside that of the King of Naples, the two prime enemies whose shipwreck together on his island of exile he has arranged by sorcery. In Shakespeare it is usual for those seeking revenge to be morally compromised in one way or another, and Prospero is no exception. But what is so odd here is a reticence about what it is that worries Prospero so much. Generally he is full of confident command, yet there is still something nagging at him, an element of doubt and misgiving. He knows what he wants, and he knows how to get it, but he is at the same time haunted by a fault, a sin, a transgression that needs expiation.
If you judge Prospero by what he does at the end of the play, the answer is actually not hard to find. Unlike almost all the other plays, there is very little of Christianity in The Tempest, but in these concluding scenes Prospero’s revenge project seems to be shadowed by the church’s absolute ban on the practice of magic. Sorcery and witchcraft were dealings with the devil and in that perspective there is no getting away from the charge that Prospero has achieved his revenge and his restitution by using mortally sinful methods. If he wants to die in a state of grace, if he wants salvation, he has to give up magic.
He tells the audience directly that he used his powers to rule and distort nature, and that now “this rough magic I abjure”. He promises to break his magician’s staff and burn his conjurer’s books — and the fact that he can actually do so distinguishes Prospero from Marlowe’s doomed Doctor Faustus. Interestingly Faustus cries out in the same words as Prospero — “I’ll burn my books” — but in his case repentance comes far too late. The promise in The Tempest of final salvation is what distinguishes Shakespeare's comedy from the tragedy of Marlowe’s own last play.
For all that, there is still a doubtful note in Prospero’s renunciation, the suspicion that he may not after all avoid damnation in the end. What Prospero calls his project is definitely concluded. His magic having done its work has been put aside, and “our revels now are ended”. But notice the difference here compared with other most Shakespearean comedies. Those end with joyful revels, not with the end of revels. That note of joy — marriage, completion, satisfaction – that resolves Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, shifts from major to minor in Prospero’s final uncertainty about his own fate.
Of course, there’s even more to it than that. The end of The Tempest is not just the end of a play in which magic is renounced, it is the end of a career in which playwriting is renounced. It is a commonplace to say that Prospero in his final speech to the audience (“Please you, draw near”) is Shakespeare himself speaking as if at his retirement dinner, complete with that necessary hint of self-deprecation and ruefulness.
But not many gold-watch-receiving retirees ask their audience to forgive them as Prospero/Shakespeare does. What forgiveness does he want? He has spent a lifetime dealing in illusion — the illusion of drama — and of deploying magic — the magic of poetry. Remembering that poetry and theatre, like witchcraft, were routinely condemned by fundamentalist Christians of Shakespeare’s time as being profoundly sinful, I wonder if Shakespeare’s virtuosity and quicksilver verbal inventiveness, placed in the service of the patrons of The Globe Theatre, was finally burdensome and even shameful to him and, like Ariel, he wanted to be released from it. Perhaps, just like Proteus hating to deliver prophecies, Shakespeare wants to be free of playwriting. He therefore wants to be forgiven by his audience for deserting them, for his desire simply to go back to Stratford, put his feet up and forget the whole thing. Here is Prospero's (and Shakespeare's) speech in full, its words chosen with the utmost care, not least in the final couplet's echo of the Lord's Prayer - "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those...".
Now my charms are all o'erthrown
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free
*Since writing this I've seen an article in the Times Literary Supplement by Penny McCarthy, and subsequent readers' letters, in which the sources for The Tempest and its date are discussed at some length (TLS 21 July and letters on 11 and 18 August 2023). One reader Richard Andrews wrote resoundingly to the editor that "The notion that the play is the only one by Shakespeare that has no narrative sources (an idea still regularly peddled in theatre programmes) is absolutely false."
Reference is made in these discussions to several Italian literary and historical sources. Plays with similar characteristics to The Tempest include a surprising pre-1605 German one, Die Schöne Sidea by Jacob Ayrer, and an English one Eastward Ho! a Jacobean comedy by Ben Jonson and collaborators, also dated 1605. Even earlier Tempest-like material from the London stage turns up in plays by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe from as early as Queen Elizabeth's reign.
Two contradictory possibilities are offered: (a) that these were parodies of or references to an already famous play by Shakespeare (written before 1605, or even before 1690), or (b) that he cherry-picked those pre-existing sources for details in his own plot in 1611. Either way there are problems here for two conventionally held beliefs, which are that (a) The Tempest was Shakespeare's farewell to the theatre and, on the other hand, that (b) the plot was entirely his own invention.
But we have to bear in mind that there are wide gaps in what we know about Shakespeare's professional activity. Half his known plays (including The Tempest) were unpublished in his lifetime. Some have certainly been lost. Others may have been revised, even tranformed, between productions, so that it seems quite possible this play's clear valedictory notes were specifically introduced for the 1611 Whitehall production. If there was an earlier, now lost, version or versions of The Tempest by Shakespeare knocking around before that date, it would merely indicate that Shakespeare's primary source for the play's ultimate text was not Jacob Ayrer, Ben Jonson, or the New World letter-writer William Strachey, but actually ... himself.