Shakepeare's last play

The Tempest (Signet Classic) - Robert Langbaum, William Shakespeare

It can be really annoying as you read a book and pick up all of these wonderful ideas about the themes and suddenly discover that you have forgotten them by the time you get around to writing the review. Honestly, it happens to me all the time, and it is even more annoying with these Shakespeare Signet editions which are crammed full of essays so one tends to also suffer from information overload by the time one reaches the end. I must say though that I love these Signet editions simply because of the interpretive essays that they contain – they even contain one by Samuel Taylor Colleridge.

Anyway, the Tempest is by far one of my favourite Shakesperian plays. I studied it in university, have read it six times, and seen it performed another three (and this does not include the BBC version, and Prospero's Books, which I have also watched). The play itself has so much in it that I even wonder if I could truly touch upon every aspect of it, though I will give it a go (though I will be writing a blog post later this year if I get around to seeing another performance of the play).

So, the story is about a sorcerer (Prospero) who has been banished from his dukedom and fled, with his daughter (Miranda), to an unnamed island in the Mediterranean, somewhere between Sicily and the coast of Africa. Upon arrival he confronts, and defeats, the witch Sycorax (and what a cool name that is) and becomes the island's master. Years later a ship carrying some Italian nobles, who are on their way to Tunis, get caught in a storm and land up on the island. As it turns out these nobles are the ones that removed Prospero from power. So then begins a game, of which Propsero is the master, to teach these nobles a lesson in humility (as well as marrying off his daughter to the prince Fernando).

I probably should now discuss a bit of the context to the play. Okay, I can hardly say that the New World had just been discovered (Columbus had landed there over a hundred years prior to the production of the play) but it was still very much a new world. England at established their first colony at Jamestown, and Montaigne had written an essay on the noble savage. Also there had been a story about how a ship travelling to the New World had become caught in a storm and pretty much left for dead, only to reappear a year later (and the account of this story has been included in the signet edition that I read). These documents, as well as Ovid's Aenead acted as a source to the play, but other than that this is one of Shakespeare's very few original works.

With this in mind I wish to first touch on the idea of Colonialism. There was a version of this play produced during the 19th Century that did use the idea of Colonialism in the performance, but to link this play as such is very much a post-modern interpretation of the play. However, that does not necessarily mean that this interpretation is wrong, it is just that I highly doubt that Shakespeare set out to criticise colonialism. Okay, Prospero can be seen as the European colonist who effectively invades and takes control of the island for himself, reducing Caliban to a slave (though his character does not seem to be portrayed as a noble savage, rather as a base and wild creature that cannot be tamed). The original master of the island, Sycorax, has been replaced by the enlightened European, though some of the natives of the island are unable to adapt (Caliban) while others can (Ariel). However, Prospero ends up leaving the island and in doing so gives Ariel (the enlightened native) his freedom, meaning that this island is now in effect a part of Europe, and even though Caliban has also been freed, he has not risen above his base nature.

Another idea that has been suggested is that the Island is edenic in structure, however I really don't accept that idea simply because Prospero (the God figure) does not create the island but rather takes control by defeating Sycorax. If it is the case that the island represents Eden, then what is suggested is that the island was evil prior to the arrival of Prospero and by defeating Sycorax Prospero has in effect sanctified the island. That interpretation would be all well and good if Prospero was in effect a redeemer, but in many cases his is not and I struggle to see him in that role. He is not so much redeeming the island, but usurping the rule. There is no indication (other than the fact that she was described as being a witch) that Sycorax was ever meant to be evil. However, while I may suggest that, I believe that Shakespeare wants us to believe that she was evil and needed to be defeated.

This takes me to the question of nature. Sycorax is in effect one with nature, and from Sycorax we get Ariel, who is connected with the air, and Caliban, who is connected with the earth. Prospero represents art, and the conflict on the island is the conflict between nature and art. Nature is not necessarily bad, as Ariel represents that which is beautiful in nature, that which can be tamed and transformed; while Caliban represents that which is base, wild, and untameable. Nature at its purest is in some ways beautiful, and in others wild and untameable. Nature can be tamed into a garden, but the base and wild aspects of nature, such as weeds, will always return to destroy that which has been tamed. While a dog can be tamed, the dog needs to constantly be reminded how to behave otherwise it will return to its base wild nature. Some animals can be tamed, and will remained tamed; some animals simply can never be tamed – this is Caliban: the wild, unpredictable aspect of nature.

This is where Prospero comes in – he is God. There is no two ways about it. Just as Christianity, at the time, was seen as taming the wild excesses of pagan Rome, Prospero comes to the island and tames nature. However Prospero is so much more than that. Throughout the play he is in complete control. He learnt his lesson from Milan, where he was banished because he spent more time in his books than he did ruling the city, and as such was seen as a bad ruler. However he managed to flee with his books (and his daughter) and his time on the island has taught him the necessity of sovereignty. In one performance that I watched Prospero was present in every scene, even the scenes in which Shakespeare had not written him. The tempest that brought the nobles to the island was conjured up by him. The attempted assassinated is crushed without raising a sweat, and the nobles are teased and mocked throughout the play. Prospero is in charge – Prospero is God.

There is also the idea about Prospero being Shakespeare himself, and some have interpreted the scene where Prospero breaks his wand as Shakespeare saying that he is retiring from writing plays (and since this is, allegedly, the last play he wrote alone, many believe that adds weight to the interpretation). There is merit in this belief because, like God, Shakespeare has created this island. In fact the author is god of everything they write. Okay, that may be a Calvinist interpretation of God, since the characters in the story have no freedom whatsoever. Still, considering that the only person in the play that is free is Prospero (every other character, at one time or another, is enslaved to Prospero's will), this also supports this argument. The author creates the world, creates the characters, and then creates the destiny of each and every character. The author decides whether the character lives, or dies. The author, in effect, has complete authority over the composition of the story, and everything in it.

Anyway, I think I will leave it at that as it is late, I am getting up early tomorrow to go for a drive over the Easter long weekend, and my brain, in effect, has turned to mush. However, I will say that I just love this play, and no doubt I will be writing more of it in the future.