Shakespeare’s final masterpiece, self-referencing yet universal, was written just five years before he died in 1616. It all kicks of with a shipwreck, as so often happens (Twelfth Night, I’m looking at you). Maybe in Tudor times the fear of a fatal shipwreck was so great that it bolted audiences in place for the unfolding drama, much as modern travelers fear a spectacular plane crash.
It is said that the shipwreck that begins The Tempest is based on the facts of a voyage gone terribly awry in 1609, and whose story was only known in the following year. The Sea Venture was the flagship of a convoy sent to reinforce the struggling colony of Jamestown, but sailed into an unfortunate hurricane and wrecked off the coast of Bermuda in 1609. The captain and crew of the Sea Venture were presumed lost and the worst was feared until the captain rolled into court the following year with his story. I love to imagine a private letter passed around and through the hands of a spellbound Shakespeare, who in this newsworthy item saw dramatic potential for his final play.
In The Tempest it is not hard to locate Shakespeare in the protagonist of Prospero, the wizard who conjures worlds and moves men about like chess pieces to his whims, and indeed other adaptations have made explicit this co-identification. The entire piece functions as an allegory on human nature, fortune and misfortune, with the backstory of Prospero’s quarrel with his brother Antonio and his escape with his daughter Miranda in a rotten old boat to the island of their exile with its collection of spirits and fairies. Fairies quarrel with humans, and humans with fairies, when they perceive them. Miranda has led a sheltered life but for all that she seems wise and kind when confronted by the brave new world, the words she gasps when the ensemble all gathers in Prospero’s island court.
As a creative person, I think that the characters of Caliban and Ariel might be construed as his battling muses, kept in the writer’s thrall yet resisting his wishes and arguing with him. I know there is a more topical argument here to be made regarding the figure of Caliban and the role and revision of the colonial gaze, and I respect that, but hew to a more Jungian interpretation of a famous writer’s final piece and the point I suspect he may have been trying to make. This piece – once more – is ripe for a modern reboot, regarding human relationships with its very useful island/storm metaphor as a stand-in for the fragmentation of families and communities, our lives online, and our struggles to relate and re-relate to one another following the events of the pandemic.
As a parent, I find particularly poignant the Prospero/Miranda relationship, and his attempts to protect her and himself from a wild, raging world, only to be tossed into an equally wild a ranging storm onto a desert island populated by fairies and spirits. You’d think Miranda would be a hot mess, but no. She finds love, is full of hope, innocent and openly accepting the newly-landed sailors and dukes, bosuns and princes, connivers and schemers. Brave new world, she breathes, defying all expectations. I love this note of faith and hope in the next generation following mishap and hardship.
Luckily there is a relatively new adaptation of The Tempest, directed by Julie Taymor in 2010 (who also directed Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first play, which I watched and read last year and reviewed here). It was a fairly florid romp, much like Titus, with some sequences that tried to do justice to the play’s more arcane points and ended up seeming so amateur, weirdly edited and just weird. (Faces floating in outer space superimposed over Copernican manuscripts, and so on.) But I do appreciate how Prospero became Prospera, played by Helen Mirren, who is magnificent and whom I’d watch reading a book on her sofa, and Ben Whishaw as Ariel is just so magnificently androgynous and reedy, that those aspects alone were well worth a watch. Much more engaging than Prospero’s Books (1991), which Jason and I learned we each attempted to watch numerous times without success as undergraduates, mostly because it seemed to be filmed inside a dark car wash with a disrobed older actor (John Gielgud, playing Shakespeare/Prospero) shouting confusedly into the spray while Miranda swings on a trapeze. On the other hand, as an avowed fan of Michael Nyman and his work, that soundtrack is divine.
One final modern note. I was playing with ChatGPT this past weekend and was testing its ability to crawl around on the web for Shakespeare knowledge. I asked it to write me an essay on The Tempest and it coughed up this:
The Tempest is one of William Shakespeare’s most iconic plays, and it is often regarded as his final masterpiece. The play is a fantastical tale of magic, betrayal, and redemption that takes place on a remote island in the Mediterranean Sea. The Tempest is a fascinating work that continues to captivate audiences today, more than four centuries after it was first performed.
The plot of The Tempest revolves around a former duke named Prospero, who has been exiled to the island along with his daughter Miranda. Prospero was banished from Milan by his own brother, Antonio, who took his place as the Duke of Milan. Prospero has spent the years since his exile studying magic and seeking revenge against his brother and those who wronged him.
The play begins with a magical storm that is conjured by Prospero, which brings his enemies, including his brother Antonio, to the island. The storm serves as a metaphor for the turbulence that Prospero has been feeling since he was exiled. Once the storm subsides, Prospero uses his magic to manipulate the characters on the island, including a group of shipwrecked sailors and the island’s native inhabitants, the sprite Ariel and the monstrous Caliban.
The Tempest is a complex play that explores a range of themes, including the nature of power, the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, and the power of forgiveness. The play is also rich in symbolism and imagery, with the island serving as a metaphor for the human psyche and the storms representing the turbulence that can occur within our own minds.
One of the most striking aspects of The Tempest is its exploration of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Caliban, the island’s native inhabitant, is presented as a subjugated and oppressed figure, who is at the mercy of Prospero’s magic. However, the play also suggests that Caliban is capable of redemption and that he has the potential to be a more fully realized human being. This theme resonates strongly with contemporary debates about race, colonialism, and the legacies of empire.
The Tempest is also notable for its portrayal of gender. Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, is presented as a strong and capable young woman who challenges the traditional gender roles of her time. She is also a symbol of hope and redemption, serving as a beacon of light in the midst of the play’s darkness.
Another notable aspect of The Tempest is its use of language. Shakespeare’s language is often dense and complex, but in The Tempest, he employs a more poetic and musical style of writing. The play’s use of language is deeply symbolic, with characters often speaking in riddles and metaphors that reflect the play’s themes and motifs.
Overall, The Tempest is a masterpiece of English literature that continues to captivate and inspire audiences today. It is a deeply symbolic and complex work that explores a range of themes and ideas, including power, redemption, and the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. The play’s rich language, memorable characters, and powerful themes make it a timeless classic that will continue to be read, studied, and performed for generations to come.
While the essay is factually true, tell me honestly, would you rather read this, or have me crawl around my mind for thoughts I have on the plays as I read them and after, and tap them out for you here? I’m firmly in the latter camp. If I had only this to read about works, I would probably lose interest. But it is a helpful crib sheet prior to embarking. That being said, I’ve already asked ChatGPT to give me a quick 250 words on Measure for Measure – next up, with fourteen to go!