Shakespeare Saturday: The Tempest

Hell is empty and all the devils are here.

Here we are, on the final shore. (Almost) literally and figuratively. The Tempest is the last play Shakespeare wrote; he finished it around 1611, five years before his death. After Tempest, he contributed to two, possibly three, plays by John Fletcher, who was becoming the resident playwright for Shakespeare’s company of actors, The King’s Men. The elegiac spirit of this play, especially the famous “Our revels now are ended” speech and the epilogue, as well as Prospero’s symbolic act of destroying his books and his  staff, seem to suggest that Shakespeare was perhaps consciously writing his final play. Still, we don’t know how or what of he died, or indeed why he didn’t write another complete play – we don’t actually even know if he did, but it never saw daylight in his day and has been lost.

william_hamilton_prospero_and_arielThe play opens with a scene of a freak storm. The ship carrying among others the King of Naples, Alonso, the Duke of Milan, Antonio, and Alonso’s son Ferdinand is wrecked off the coast of a mysterious island inhabited by Prospero and his daughter Miranda, as well as a sprite called Ariel and a “savage” called Caliban. Prospero was the Duke until his brother deposed of him; for over a decade he has been on this island, planning his revenge. Miranda knows no other life. Caliban, who is the native of the island, resents Prospero’s enslavement of him, while Ariel’s yearning for freedom is more subtle, more polite.

While on the island, Prospero has become a powerful sorcerer, and the eponymous tempest that sinks the King’s ship has been created by him. Aided by Ariel, the men from the ship all find their way into a different part of the island – Alonso and Antonio with Alonso’s brother Sebastian and the courtier Gonzalo who helped Prospero when he was banished from Milan in one, Ferdinand on his own (believing the others to be dead) on another, and Alonso’s butler Stephano with Trinculo, a jester, on yet another. The play follows three subplots – Sebastian and Antonio’s plan to kill Alonso and Gonzalo so that Sebastian can become the king, Ferdinand’s romance with Miranda, and Stephano and Trinculo’s meeting with Caliban, leading into them conspiring to kill Prospero.

With the help of the ever present but invisible-when-needed Ariel, Prospero directs these plots – Ariel stops Sebastian and Antonio from killing Alonso and Gonzalo, and he leads Ferdinand to Miranda, while it is also through Ariel that he becomes aware of Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban’s conspiracy to kill him and sends (goblins disguised as) hellhounds to chase them. Ariel also shows himself as a harpy to Alonso, Antonio etc. and they are reminded of the wrong they have done to Prospero. Their spirits broken by the presumed death of Ferdinand, the island itself and by their realisation of their guilt, they are brought to Prospero, who – his rage spent – forgives them, and shows Alonso that his son is alive and in love with Miranda. Caliban too is forgiven, and as his final task, Prospero asks Ariel for optimal sailing weather for them all to leave the island; after this final task, he’s free. Prospero himself promises to renounce the magic arts, to break his staff and “drown” his books.

MirandaAll in all, it’s a pretty non-existing plot, full of potential for on-stage spectacle and whimsy, the text conscious of its own theatricality. But despite the simpleness of the outward story, The Tempest is one of the more complex plays Shakespeare wrote, offering scope for multiple interpretations, largely because of the historical moment it was written in – about a decade before Mayflower set sail and the colonisation of the northern America by the British began in earnest, at a time when religious puritanism was on the rise in England. Columbus had sailed to the West Indies 120 years earlier and by the Jacobean times Spain had conquered much of the Americas. The British colonialism was only beginning, but the spirit – take over the land, enslave the natives, perceive them as the sort of wild, subhuman beings as Caliban is seen as to justify your actions – was already there.

In the end, Prospero asks the audience to release him from the island with their applause; in return he will give up his sorcery. In the early 17th century England this would have been an important point – the famous Pendle witch trial would take place in 1612, the year following The Tempest’s completion. There was a moral panic following the Reformation, and the protestant King James VI of Scotland (later also King James I of England) had been afraid that witches were trying to kill him. The Jacobean audiences would have probably had little sympathy for Prospero as a character without this reformation – even if I as a modern reader find the moment a little sad.

00thomas_francis_dicksee_mirandaThe Tempest is full of strong characters, although it is unusual in that it only has one female role (there are women in the Act 4 masque, but they are not part of the plot); Miranda is the sort of ideal woman, a virtuous young girl without qualities, subservient to her father and presumably also to (the equally bland) Prince Ferdinand. It is almost a miracle that Prospero could produce in such conditions a daughter so completely devoid of any strong characteristics. Would she not pick anything up from Ariel? Or from Caliban, who so clearly is in conflict with both Miranda and Prospero, and the rather more intriguing (open for interpretation) character.

Is this really Shakespeare’s final play? Yes – to be precise, this is his last complete play. He contributed about five scenes to both Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen. It is also known that a play called Cardenio was performed by the King’s Men in 1613 and registered to Shakespeare and John Fletcher in 1653, but nothing is actually known for certain about this play, not even if Shakespeare really had anything to do with it, or was the company just using his name for publicity. He would go back to Stratford and visit London only intermittently during his final years; he was ultimately buried in the same church he had been baptised in. Both his wife Anne Hathaway and his two daughters survived him. He left no notebooks or manuscripts (three pages of a play about Sir Thomas More exist that might be in his handwriting), nor are there any reliable contemporary portraits. The First Folio would be published seven years after his death; in his book Shakespeare on Toast Ben Crystal writes that the publication of the Folio is in itself proof of the reverence Shakespeare received already in his own time – he was understood to be something so special that his work was deemed worthy of publication at a time when producing books was still expensive and difficult. The end is the beginning – The Tempest, the last play Shakespeare wrote, is the first printed in the Folio, followed by the first, Two Gentlemen of Verona.

00scene-from-the-tempest-by-william-shakespeare-1790Is it any good?

The Tempest is one of my favourite plays; it has the potential of being something truly magical on stage.

Fun fact

There’s more music composed for/based on The Tempest than for any other Shakespeare play, including dozens of operas. The latest are The Tempest by Thomas Ades from 2004, and the barque pastiche The Enchanted Island put together particularly for the Metropolitan Opera in 2011.

Best character

Really a choice between Prospero and Caliban; both can be either sympathetic or off-putting depending on the interpretation.

What say thou?

Tempest has some wonderful text to it. The expression “brave new world” is presumed to come from this play (correct me if I’m wrong), and there are few fabulous lines.

You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.

Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!

What’s past is prologue.

Thought is free.

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.

But the most famous, most wonderful are the two speeches by Prospero, from Act 4 and from the epilogue.

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. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.

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.

The last word of the Shakespearean canon proper is “free”.


After last week’s Cymbeline, more Helen Mirren. The 2011 film by Julie Taymor has made Prospero into “Prospera”, casting Mirren in the role of a world-weary wise (old) woman, but is otherwise fairly conservative and at times even a bit dull. The DVD transfer quality is also not great. The film was shot in Hawaii, and has some truly otherworldly scenery, from orange rock deserts to black beaches. Ben Winshaw as Ariel btw didn’t go to Hawaii, and shot his part in its entirety in studio – he and Mirren only actually were in the same room for two scenes.



One thought on “Shakespeare Saturday: The Tempest

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s