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The Tempest of the TimesThe Tempest of the Times

The Tempest of the Times

On the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Professor Ian Hunter explores how The Tempest, among other things, shows us fools mistaking the trappings of power for power itself

Ian Hunter
9 minute read

The year 2016 is, as former British Prime Minister David Cameron recently acknowledged in stolid political Newspeak, a significant anniversary: 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare on April 23, 1616.

Who can ever fittingly praise Shakespeare? Only, for my taste, Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose own contributions to the English language bear some comparison:

“Each change of many-colour’d life he drew, Exhausted worlds, and then imagin’d new.”

It is presumptuous, of course, to ask what any particular Shakespearean play is about; all are about life and one’s haphazard, often lonely, journey through it. This is true of the comedies, histories and tragedies, but it is especially true, it seems to me, of the late romances. The Tempest is the last play Shakespeare wrote alone (he later collaborated with John Fletcher on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen); it is one of his shortest plays. It was first performed at the Globe Theatre in 1611, when Shakespeare was 47.

The Tempest is a play within a play. In fact, in Act IV, Scene 1, the masque scene in which Prospero conjures for Ferdinand and Miranda, it is a play within a play within a play. The playwright throughout is Prospero, a Duke and a “prince of power” back in Milan, who was deposed by his treacherous brother Antonio. It is Prospero who “by mine art” conjures the storm and the ensuing shipwreck; and it is Prospero who makes sure that none aboard are drowned or injured: “Not a hair perished / On their sustaining garments not a blemish / But fresher than before.”

The Tempest is a play with only a rudimentary plot. Shakespeare is less concerned with unfolding a story than with unfolding characters. Its themes, as we shall see, include the nature of art, time, forgiveness and death.

Dr. Johnson said of another of Shakespeare’s late romances, Cymbeline, that it was impossible to offer any critique of “unresisting imbecility.” The Tempest is not quite in that category, but the story is threadbare and fantastical. The play opens with a great storm and a shipwreck. On-board is a royal party returning to Milan from having attended a wedding in Tunis; the royal party includes the King of Naples, Alonso; Prospero’s treacherous brother, Antonio; a faithful old retainer named Gonzalo; and various noblemen of dubious loyalty and self-evident ambition.

The storm disrupts a hierarchical order; as the Boatswain remarks: “What care these roarers for the name of King?” The Boatswain observes also how even the nobility quake before the ferocity of nature and the elements; the Christian reader will be reminded of the one man whom even the winds and the waves obeyed. The early exchanges between the Boatswain and Gonzalo testify to the fact that we are dealing not only with a sinking ship but a collapsing State. “The State totters” is Trinculo’s only truthful observation in the play. Sure enough, as soon as everyone is safely ashore, Sebastian (the King’s brother) and Antonio (Prospero’s brother) hatch a plot to kill the King. A bit later, Stephano and Trinculo plot to kill and overthrow Prospero, the king of the island. No calamity, Shakespeare seems to be telling us, is so dire as to entirely stifle human ambition; even in the death camps, a struggle for power will go on.

The island on which all have straggled ashore (which I shall call Caliban’s Island, since he is, by a principle dear to Shakespeare’s heart, primogeniture – the rightful owner) is a magical kingdom full of “Sounds, and sweet airs / That give delight and hurt not” but full too of foreboding. Ferdinand recognizes this when he cries out, “Hell is empty / And all the devils are here.”

The island is presided over by Prospero; its only other inhabitants, apparently, are Prospero’s virginal daughter, Miranda, and a half-man, half-creature called Caliban. True, there is also a “nymph of the sea” called Ariel, subject only to Prospero’s bidding, “invisible to every eyeball else;” but Ariel is spirit not flesh.

The brute Caliban is the offspring of a wicked witch named Sycorax, whom Propero’s beneficent magic subdued and who, when the story opens, has died. Caliban’s ambitions are twofold: to kill Prospero and to rape Miranda, thence “to people this island with Calibans.” Miranda once had pity on Caliban and (like all good liberals) thought that the answer to his brutishness was education; “I pitied thee / Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour / One thing or other.” And with what result? Caliban: “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t / Is I know how to curse.” A cynic might consider this often the culmination of a liberal education. Despite Caliban’s appearance – “a freckled whelp, hag-born – not honoured with / A human shape” – and his evil nature, Prospero acknowledges some responsibility for him: “This thing of darkness / I acknowledge mine.”

Ariel, by contrast, is an angelic figure who serves Prospero as the angels serve God. But Ariel performs her assignments with a querulous disposition and repeated pleas for freedom from Prospero’s control; Ariel’s longing for liberty foreshadows a theme that John Milton will enlarge upon a few years later in Paradise Lost.

Prospero conjures the tempest that opens the play. There follows a long, rather clumsy scene in which Prospero (a careful student of time, having decided “the time has now come”) explains to Miranda their shared past and how they came to be on Caliban’s Island. He relates how his treacherous brother usurped him; how Prospero and Miranda were exiled from Milan “in the dead of darkness,” cut loose at sea upon “a rotten carcass of a butt, not rigged / Nor tackle, sail, nor mast: the very rats / Instinctively had quit it.” (Incidentally, this seems to me a precise description of the governing Conservative Party in the last Canadian election, and of the Republican Party heading into the next U.S. election, but perhaps even Shakespeare’s prescience does not plumb such depths.) Prospero tells Miranda how the faithful Gonzalo (counterpart to Kent in King Lear) provisioned them with some supplies and, more important, books: “He furnished me / From mine own library with volumes that / I prize above my dukedom” – the bibliophile’s creed down succeeding centuries! All this had happened 12 years before; now “bountiful fortune” has conspired to bring the Court party within range of Prospero’s magic.

On Caliban’s Island, the shipwrecked passengers are separated into four groups, and each undertakes an odyssey. Ferdinand, the King’s son, sets off in search of his father. On the way, he meets Miranda. “O fair encounter of two most rare affections,” says Prospero as he observes how love at first sight goes on. The Court party sets out in search of Ferdinand, which is odd since they all have concluded, from what they saw and heard, that Ferdinand drowned. Nevertheless, they wander about “through fortnights and meanders” (Gonzalo’s term), never getting anywhere. At one point, Ariel prepares and sets before them a heavenly banquet, recalling the feeding of the children of Israel in the desert, but the banquet is snatched away before it can be eaten. Gonzalo is a political visionary, an early Marx or Lenin, in quest of Utopia, a place without laws, sovereignty, class distinction or poverty: “No name of magistrate… All things in common nature should produce / Without sweat or endeavour.” Finally, there are Stephano and Trinculo, drunken louts who fall in with Caliban – “a most poor, credulous monster” – and the three embark on a pursuit of power; their goal is to find and murder Prospero and take over the island. But they get lost, fall into a horse pond, are chased by dogs and eventually stumble upon some fine haberdashery that Prospero has deliberately left out to tempt them. Temporarily diverted, Stephano and Trinculo are more interested in playing dress-up than in seizing power; even Caliban perceives their folly: “Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash.” But Stephano and Trinculo are fools, and fools often mistake the accoutrements of power for power itself; henceforth, the trio ceases to be any real threat to Prospero.

As these groups all engage in their hopeless quests on this island “where no man was his own,” the playwright, Prospero, arranges that each will discover a truth about life and (perhaps this is the same thing) a truth about himself. Alonso and Ferdinand, father and son, find each other in happy reconciliation – “now all the blessings of a glad father compass thee about” – but it happens just as Ferdinand is about to leave his father and marry Miranda. The Court party, to their visible disconcertment, finds the rightful king of the island, Prospero, as, to his delight, does the faithful Gonzalo. Now Gonzalo finds something more substantial than his dreamy Utopia – he rediscovers authority. The dissolution of the State is halted when Prospero promises to return to Milan. Even the ridiculous insurgents, Stephano and Trinculo, discover something better than power, a rarer treasure: forgiveness and pardon.

The Tempest is a play haunted by time. As Northrop Frye pointed out, the Latin root tempestas can mean both time and a storm. The proverb that says time and tide wait for no man operates in every scene. Prospero, acting through Ariel, controls the unfolding of events, but even Prospero cannot control time. Characters are sometimes frozen, in mid-action even, as time may be briefly suspended; but there is an impersonal remorselessness that drives the play to its denouement. The play takes about three hours to perform, and the action unfolds in that same time span. Alonso comments on this, noting that Ferdinand and Miranda have known each other but three hours and yet will marry for life.

Another theme that runs through The Tempest is release. In Ariel’s case, release from servitude; in Antonio’s case, release from the burden of guilt. But no one, not even Prospero, obtains a release from time (“And as with age his body uglier grows / So his mind cankers” is Prospero’s lament.) In the Epilogue, in Act V, having released Ariel to freedom, Prospero entreats the audience to “Release me from my bonds / With the help of your good hands.”

Forgiveness is a central theme of the play. When Ariel informs Prospero that the Court party has been assembled – “brimful of sorrow and dismay” – Prospero is at first triumphant, gloating how his plan has succeeded: “These, mine enemies, are all knit up / In their distractions: they now are in my pow’r.” But then Ariel says that if he should but look upon them, “your affections would become tender.” Conscience-stricken, Prospero replies:

“And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel.
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.”

It is following this magnificent speech that Prospero resolves to abjure his “rough magic” to “break my staff / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book.” This has generally, and in my view correctly, been interpreted as Shakespeare’s farewell, taking his leave of the stage and of his art.

The wedding masque in Act IV, Scene 1 is a vision of paradise, or of earth before the fall. Albeit the words are spoken by pagan gods (Iris, Ceres and Juno), “this most majestic vision,” as Ferdinand calls it, is Christian in origin. It is complete with a rainbow, God’s promise against future tempests and floods. The masque is a glimpse of a future state in which man and nature, winter and summer, will “honour, riches, marriage-blessing / Long continuance and increasing….” Ferdinand certainly understands it as a vision of Heaven (“Let me live here forever,” he exclaims), and as the vision fades, Prospero delivers himself of one of the most beautiful soliloquies in the Shakespeare canon:

“… be cheerful, sir.
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,
Yea, 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….”

Prospero announces that he intends now to “retire me to my Milan, where / Every third thought shall be my grave.” So his end is his beginning; for Prospero, the wheel has come full circle. The Court party will return to Milan as well, aboard a ship that is miraculously, the Boatswain announces, “… tight and yare and bravely rigged as when / We first put out to sea.” Even Caliban is to be pardoned, and he promises, “I’ll be wise hereafter / And seek for grace.” From this island where no man was his own, each player is on his way to a place and a future where he will know and be known. This is, perhaps, the greatest magic that the tempest has wrought.

Prospero’s last words are:

“… 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 pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”

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