The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s more romantic plays and one of their more popular ones recently. Whilst I understand why it’s well known as a comedy I will also explore why in the latter years it has been known as a Shakespearean romance.
We begin surrounded with magic, as the desposed Duke of Milan, Prospero, attempts to sink a ship as his daughter Miranda looks on. Propsero is aided by a magical spirit called Ariel, and on the island they live on there is also a deformed being named Caliban. Caliban used to be close with Propsero and Miranda until he attempted to rape the girl. We soon discover that the beings on the ship sunken was Prospero’s old brother Sebastian and his son Ferdinand. Upon this setting we follow the character through the play.
The Tempest covers many themes: love, loss, forgiveness and freedom. This is a play exploring much between the brothers Prospero and Sebastian as well as the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand. In many ways, what is also interesting is the parallels between Prospero and the way of the writer or creator.
Prospero, as a magician, has the ability to weave and create in the same way the playwright does. His pyrotechnics and magic with the stage are akin to the magic of stage effects and today like the special FX we see in films. But much as Propero leads and creates, he cannot do it alone. Ariel helps Prospero enact his plans and thus the playwright cannot on his own stage the full majesty of his work without the numerous other people helping it. Even to be able to create the magician lives in isolation, quite literally in Prospero’s case, and playwrights themselves live in a lonely place be able to write such unique stories.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
However, in the role of the creator it also raises questions as to wether or not the creator is benevolent or an unrightful fiddler. Different portrayals help create a uniqueness to The Tempest that does not occurr in other Shakespeare plays. How true are Prospero’s meanings? Is he a true hero, driven by fatherly love and righteouness or is he a meddler consumed by a belief in goodness. The same goes for Caliban? Is he a twisted being born or made? Shakespeare many times toys with the nature of evil being made or born. He is an ugly, mutilated thing – does this turn him into the bitter and tricky being we see in the play, or is it Prospero’s treatment that pushes him over the edge? To what extent is his capacity for ‘dishonesty’ already existent within him given his appearance and heritage?
These are questions that would have plagued the Elizabethan audience in many ways: Shakespeare plays on the fears of witchcraft in that age, and to what extent it can be recognised in people. Given the stereotypes around witches it makes for an interesting set up that Prospero is in many ways the hero of the party, the man that is actually wronged.
As with Shakespeare plays placed in the comedy categories the ending might be predictable, but to get there we go through more though provoking scenarios than might be found in some of Shakespeare’s more flippant plays. Indeed, it is not that a comedy cannot be thought provoking and interesting, but it is a characteristic of Shakespeare’s ‘romances’ that there is more depth. The Tempest is a different kind of ‘comedy’ and one that indeed does provoke laughs from characters such as Stefano and Trinculo. Go see The Tempest for a happy ending, but don’t expect not to be challenged by it along the way.
(photo credit: Ben Whishaw as Ariel in the 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest)