The Tempest

I’m starting off 2012 with this classic fantasy story, which actually holds a special place in my heart besides being an objective masterpiece of drama.  It’s the first play that I ever acted in (excluding, you know, school Christmas Pageants and the lot), playing one of the magical “people of the island” that the sorcerer Prospero commands in his strange kingdom of exile.   The shapeshifting spirits that inhabit the play’s remote island take numerous forms, some animal, some human.  The most powerful is, of course, Ariel, who is the only spirit that Prospero addresses by name and is chief among the magician’s subjects.  The most fascinating thing about the island in this play is that, despite its mysterious nature, seems to carry a weight and history of its own outside of the text.

Fortunately, Shakespeare does not paint himself into a corner by trying to tie all of the loose ends that turn into dead ends...

The plot of the play itself is only a small part of the Island’s history: Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio, now Duke of Milan, happens to sail within range of the vengeful magician’s powers.  With Ariel’s help, the ship is assaulted by an imaginary storm and the passengers are magically transported to different parts of the island.  The Tempest shows how these men, each assuming that everyone else is dead, wander about the island.  Alonso, Duke of Milan, is among the largest group of presumed survivors.  His son, Ferdinand, is alone until he meets Prospero’s beautiful daughter.  Then there are Trinculo and Sebastian, the king’s servants, who decide to get excessively drunk.  We also learn about Prospero’s history: he was able to flee from Milan with his infant daughter, Miranda, on a derelict ship, “A rotten carcass of a boat, not rigg’d, Nor tackle, sail, nor mast; the very rats Instinctively had quit it.”  He tells this story to Miranda, now grown into a teenager, and the audience learns with her.  We then learn, through a dialogue with Ariel, about the previous ruler of the island: “The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy Was grown into a hoop.”  At some point, Sycorax came to the island with a child of her own, Caliban, who is frequently called “a plain fish” and “monster” by his appearance, although he is still  “honour’d with A human shape” by Prospero’s description.  This is all in the text.  The details of how Prospero came to control the island are somewhat ambiguous, however.  We also know that Prospero knew how to perform magic from his books “prized over his dukedom,” well before he ever set foot on the island.  I can’t help but notice the parallel between Prospero’s curious exile and the history of Sycorax, who “For mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible To enter human hearing, from Argier, Thou know’st, was banish’d.”   Like Prospero, she was evidently exiled with her son, Caliban.  There is of course the other parallel between the usurping Alonso, and Prospero’s own usurpation of the island from that fishlike Caliban.

More on him later.

We hear that Ariel was imprisoned by Sycorax for “A dozen years; within which space she died” and freed by Prospero at some point.  It seems that Prospero was able to conquer the island with Ariel’s help, since Caliban does not have his mother’s skill for magic.  Indeed, when Prospero found the human creature, Caliban “wouldst gabble like A thing most brutish,” until Prospero taught him how to read.  It then seems like Prospero does not know anything about Sycorax other than what the oppressed and therefore biased Ariel.  It seems that Caliban could easily be as young as Miranda when he first came to the island, if not younger.  We have no real timeline to suggest how old he is, or how old he was when Sycorax died, but it seems fair to assume that the witch would have taught her son how to control the spirits, or at least how to speak.  The relationship between, Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban then becomes that much more complicated.  Of course, Caliban loses any innocence when he gloats about the attempted rape of Miranda: “O ho, O ho! would’t had been done! Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else This isle with Calibans.”  This is where a postcolonialist critique of this text starts creeping in, comparing the relationships in this play with the relationship of Britain with her native subjects in the Americas.

But before I delve too heavily into that subject matter, here's a Dr. Who reference

There is an uncomfortable racial context to the characters of Caliban and Sycorax, who are of African descent.  Prospero calls Caliban “Thou most lying slave, Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee, Filth as thou art, with human care,” which carries an especially significant meaning to a contemporary American audience.  This can be navigated by an intelligent production that abandons the idea of Prospero as a beneficent wizard, recognizing his similarities to the “wicked Sycorax” and treating him as just another human struggling for power.  Far from belittling his situation, this actually adds depth to the character, as well as urgency to the plot of the play at hand: despite the immense power that Prospero wields, there needs to be a chance that he will fail in his sudden chance for revenge, or else the story simply isn’t interesting.   Yet, the feminist critique of the play is harder to navigate.  First, naturally, Caliban’s dead mother is painted as an evil witch, even though Prospero never met her personally and still uses Ariel as a sort of slave.  But it is also interesting to note that Prospero’s daughter Miranda is just as simple-minded as Caliban, merely fortunate enough to have Prospero as a loving though still controlling father.  Furthermore, Miranda’s mother is noticeably absent from the play, described briefly as “a piece of virtue” and then never mentioned again.  This creates a dilemma of masculine power on the island, with the exception of one scene.

Unless you cast Prospero as a woman

When Miranda becomes engaged to Ferdinand, with Prospero’s blessing, after the boy proves his devotion by collecting firewood – a task usually assigned to Caliban.  This scene is commonly edited to remove a humorous segment that involves the utterly random appearance of Iris, Ceres, and Juno.  Prospero summons them to deliver blessings on his daughter’s marriage, and the “nymphs, call’d Naiads, of the windring brooks” usually remain in the edit, but the uncut goddess scene is apparently hard to come by.  I actually really like the full scene because, of course, it’s the sort of random thing that always amuses me in Shakespeare’s plays.  But also, it happens to illustrate the exact nature of Prospero’s power.  Prospero’s command to Ariel sounds almost pathetic when the goddesses are summoned: “I must Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple Some vanity of mine art: it is my promise, And they expect it from me.”  Prospero isn’t picky about what the show of power is, he simply wants a pretty spectacle.  Ariel responds by summoning deities from the Roman Pantheon, which is a pretty significant response.    The text presents them as the actual goddesses, not “the rabble” that normally accompany “A vision of the Island.”  It almost suggests a shift in the power dynamic between Ariel and Prospero.  Plus, there’s the fact that this scene is a swell of feminine divine power in an otherwise masculine play.  Yes, Prospero insists that they are “Spirits, which by mine art I have from their confines call’d to enact My present fancies,” but we know from the dialogue that he just had with Ariel that this is bullshit.  He even commands the teenagers to “hush, and be mute, Or else our spell is marr’d,” and then almost immediately interrupts the ritual himself once he realizes that Caliban is coming to kill him.  The Island is a place of illusion, and even Prospero should not be taken at his word in such a place.

Honestly, if my brother was neglecting his duties as a head of state so that he could become a recluse that studied the occult... I'd usurp him too.

Like most of Shakespeare’s later plays, the play ends in forgiveness, though Prospero makes a point to threaten his brother before the entire crew unites and leaves the island.  And, perhaps most famously of all, Prospero renounces his books and therefore his magic.  But it makes me so curious to think about what happens to the Island after he leaves, not just to Ariel and the other spirits, but to Caliban.  It does not seem like he would join human civilization with the ship, but he would not be ruler of the island if he stayed with Ariel.  The relationship between Prospero and his supernatural slaves remains a fascinating dramatization of colonizer and colonized.  Of course, the Island would logically exist somewhere reasonably close to both Italy and Algeria, given the geography of how both Prospero and Sycorax found it.  Yet the implications of British colonization in the Americas is a tempting setting to draw upon.  Exact geography has never restrained Shakespeare before, so I don’t see a problem with setting this play in a fictionalized version of early colonial America.

Like Roanoke, Virginia, which is probably #2 on a list of "Things that fantasy and horror writers like speculate about," right after Nikola Tesla.

But really, The Tempest is so beautiful archetypal that it can be set almost anywhere, at any point in history.  And unlike most Shakespeare plays, which will inevitably get some unnecessarily obscure concept or setting, The Tempest can actually benefit from strange, exotic, and otherwise alien environments.  The important thing is to have a full understanding of the Island, so that there is a fully realized community of spirits that’s under Prospero’s control.  Ariel yearns to be free, and even Prospero takes the opportunity to go back to civilization instead of remain king of this fantastical place.  Otherwise, everyone is just running through the motions, and the only character that has a concrete objective is a humanoid attempted rapist.

And we can't have that.

I will also say that to actually perform this play, you need a budget.  I don’t think I felt that way about any Shakespeare play since Antony and Cleopatra, but The Tempest really does require spectacle to be effective.  Illusions are important to the Island, in every way, and even if you attempted a hyper-minimalistic and theatrical  world, then you still need very specific moments that carry visual weight, creating a sense of wonder.  Theatre is a sort of magic, anyways, and the audience deserves to share in the amazement that even Prospero feels sometimes.

So, with that, I will end my thoughts this week, and like Prospero, “a turn or two I’ll walk, To still my beating mind.” I love that line.  There’s nothing like a good walk to settle your thoughts.  Ah, this play!

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