Why This Play?:
I wanted to start the year off with a romance play. There’s something about the dark days and sparkle of the Christmas season that bring me to mind of the literal magic in Shakespeare’s late works. Both the time of year and the romances can be dark and foreboding while still somehow optimistic and breathtakingly beautiful. These are the plays that manage to be everything at once, especially The Tempest. We have here a story of revenge and forgiveness, of magic and mayhem, romance, murder plots, freedom, and some pretty fun comedy. It’s a tall order, and old Bill delivers.
This play makes me drift back to the part of my childhood that feels like a vivid dream: the year my family lived in Barbados. Yes, you heard me right. In reflecting back on my own family’s island time, I had all kinds of swirly thoughts running through my head. I wondered how if no man is an island, then why do we insist on sometimes acting as if we are?
So What Happens?:
A storm’s a-brewing, a whopper. Out at sea, on the way home from his daughter’s nuptials in a new kingdom, the King of Naples, Alonso, is caught in the storm with some of his court. Along for the ride are his son Ferdinand and brother Sebastian, as well as advisor Gonzalo and the Duke of Milan, Antonio. The court folk try to pull rank on the boatswain when he keeps shooing them away from the main deck so the crew has room to maneuver the ship through the storm – in a glorious class-be-damned Shakespeare moment, the boatswain flatly tells them that he values his own life more than their rank. On a nearby island, a young girl, Miranda, tearfully watches the storm rage at the ship. She runs to her father, Prospero, begging him to cease the magical spell he is casting to create the storm. Turns out Prospero has his reasons for his violence.
Prospero tells Miranda how the two of them came to inhabit the island. He used to be the Duke of Milan, until he got increasingly wrapped up in learning his magical arts. The more time he devoted to his studies, the more dukely tasks he delegated to his little brother, Antonio. Antonio got tired of being duke in all respects excepting title and goes to King Alonso to complain. [If we’re being honest, does anyone really blame Antonio in this situation? I kinda feel for the guy, doing all his brother’s work for zero credit.] Alonso saw his side of the story and gave the ok for Prospero and his (then toddler aged) daughter to be ousted and shipped away from their home. The good Gonzalo was the only guy to treat them with any kindness, making sure they had supplies enough for their trip and ensuring Prospero’s books on magic went with them. The two of them ended up on the island, where Prospero was left with his magic to raise his little girl and to reign over the supernatural creatures on the island. Prospero admits that he conjured the storm to bring his enemies to the island for a confrontation.
Prospero lulls Miranda to sleep, then calls his servant spirit, Ariel, to attention. Ariel reports that he magicked all the ships passengers to safety at various parts of the island (Prince Ferdinand alone, the king and the rest of his court separate, and the crew asleep with the ship safe at harbor). Everyone is confused, but unharmed. Ariel asks Prospero when he will be set free, as Prospero has promised. Prospero gets cranky over this reminder and tells the tale of how, years ago, an evil and pregnant witch, Sycorax, was banished to the island. She bore a monstrous son named Caliban, and then she imprisoned the spirit Ariel in a tree, where he remained trapped after she died. Upon coming to the island, Prospero discovered Ariel in the tree and freed him (thus ensuring the spirit’s service ever since). Prospero agrees to free Ariel if he carries out some final orders. Prospero and Miranda go to visit their slave, Caliban. He curses them, and we learn that they showed him great kindness and taught him their language when they were first on the island. But once Caliban attempted to rape Miranda, all niceties were done with and tensions have run high ever since.
Ariel returns, leading Ferdinand (with a charmed song) to Prospero. Upon first sight, Ferdinand and Miranda are instantly smitten – not hard for Miranda since she’s not in recent memory seen any other creature than her father or his slave monster. Prospero wants them to value each other, and thinks that they shouldn’t win their love quite so easily (plus, why not get in some pseudo revenge on the king through his son?). So, he gets gruff with Ferdinand, insists he’s a spy who’s trying to take over the island, and he coerces him into service by using magic to weaken him. Miranda tries to speak up for her new crush, but daddy’s not hearing it. Despite now being a fatherless (so he thinks) slave, Ferdinand is stoked that he gets to see Miranda every day.
Alonso and his courtiers have made it to shore, and the king is devastated over his missing son. Gonzalo tries to comfort him, while Sebastian and Antonio engage in some glorious sarcasm and mockery to cope with their new shipwrecked status. Gonzalo then rhapsodizes about starting a new nation from scratch on the island (thanks, Montaigne!), before the king cuts him off. Ariel charms the group to sleep with a song, excepting Sebastian and Antonio. As the two stand sentinel, Antonio tells the king’s brother how awesomely his usurpation of Prospero’s dukedom came about, and he convinces Sebastian to get on board with murdering Alonso so he can become king. [Let’s face it – this is dubious at best, and really only there to highlight the villainy of usurpation. They have no confirmation that Prince Ferdinand is dead, and Antonio brushes off Alonso’s daughter as sold off to another kingdom. Plus, how could Sebastian be rightful King of Naples if he’s stuck on a godforsaken island?!?! The 17th century wasn’t exactly rife with opportunities to work remotely.] Anyway, the two have just decided to commit some murders and are raising their swords to strike when Ariel sings a warning to wake Gonzalo. The two villains pass off their drawn swords as protection against loud noises.
Elsewhere on the island, Caliban is doing his chores when he spots the king’s fool, Trinculo, wandering alone. Frightened (and thinking it’s one of Prospero’s spirit lackeys to torment him), he hides under his cloak. Trinculo sees another storm approaching, and finding no other shelter, resolves to hide with a silent Caliban. The king’s butler, Stephano, shows up with a large bottle of booze and a head full of song. He thinks he’s stumbled on a new world monster that might fetch him some money, and he gives Caliban a couple of hearty pulls on the bottle. Trinculo emerges, giddy to see his friend. Caliban glorifies Stephano and his bottle, casting off any responsibility to Prospero.
Ferdinand is now working for Prospero, toting logs about. He’s waxing all starry-eyed about Miranda when she comes to visit him. They reveal their mutual L-O-V-E (so innocent! so pure!), and promise to marry. Unknown to them, Prospero witnesses this whole encounter, and is pleased that everything’s moving along ok on that end. Ariel has some fun messing about with Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban, mimicking their voices and encouraging them to fight. Caliban proposes to Stephano that he become king of the island…he just has to get rid of Prospero’s books (the source of his power) and murder him to do so. Ruh-roh – Ariel’s going to have to get this news back over to Prospero pronto. Finally, the court group is tiredly wandering about when they come upon a feast that Prospero has magically created. Just as they’re about to enjoy it, Ariel appears in the form of a shrill harpy and accuses Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian of cruelly ousting Prospero from Milan. The storm has been their punishment, and the king and his men are petrified and guilt-ridden.
Act IV is devoted to magic and romance. Prospero calls the young lovers to him, and consents to their marriage – under the condition that they refrain from getting it on until after their wedding. The prince understands and agrees (best to get in good with the father-in-law from the get go). To celebrate the impending nuptials, Prospero uses his magic to summon Juno, Ceres, and Iris and other spirits to sing blessings and to dance for their entertainment. The revelry is cut short when Prospero remembers he has a hit out on him, and he needs to deal with Caliban and company, stat. There’s a lovely little moment after the show is cancelled when Prospero mulls (half to himself) about the beautiful but ephemeral nature of his magic. He decides to distract them from murder with the trappings of royalty – his old clothes hung out on a line. It works like gangbusters: Trinculo and Stephano strut around in the found garments, while Caliban tries to rally them to their purpose. Prospero sends some conjured hellhounds and a scary Ariel to chase them around as punishment.
Ariel checks in on the court, and reports back to Prospero that they are all stuck in a cycle of extreme sorrow and remorse. Prospero is swayed by Ariel’s gentle report, and decides that he is ready to forgive his brother and the king for their past cruelty to him. His revenge is finished, and with it so must he give up his magic. It is only through that process that he could return to his former life as Duke of Milan and to fold his daughter into society. He draws a magic circle with his staff, and Ariel leads Alonso and his court into it. Prospero changes back into his cast-off Milan garments and presents himself to the amazed group. Prospero takes the opportunity to properly reprimand each party before he forgives them (way to get the last word in!). Alonso restores his title, and Prospero reveals their smitten kids. Miranda’s mind is completely blown by seeing even more new people, and Alonso happily reunites with his son and welcomes Miranda as his new daughter.
Ariel brings the drunkards forward, and Prospero opts to forgive them too. Caliban even outright apologizes. The group learns that the boat is safely in harbor and all the sailors are accounted for as well. Prospero invites everyone to rest the night to hear his stories of the island before they all set sail for Naples the following day. Prospero’s last order of business is to free his beloved spirit Ariel. He remains on the stage alone, for a simple, sad, beautiful epilogue that confirms he has renounced his magic. The final act of magic has been this production, and the audience’s applause will cease the spell.
Check This Out:
I’ve seen this play (RSC in Stratford, June 1998), performed in this play (in the role of Miranda, sporting a big-ass geisha wig in a kabuki-style production), studied this play…and you can add “viewed Julie Taymor film based on the play” to the list. I do love the idea of a female lead, Prospera, and Helen Mirren is always compelling, powerful, and magnetic. Taymor (whether on stage or screen) consistently provides a gorgeous visual spectacle, and I do so love a female director with such strong vision. I found some of the special effects regarding Ariel more distracting than magical, but the casting and the framing shots of the island landscape were a total treat.
I love the varying takes on the songs that Ariel uses to summon/charm the castaways. Music in Shakespeare is a fascinating subject, since we don’t exactly have any recordings or even much sheet music from his period. He’s written many songs for his plays, and Play On is a great resource to hear a few examples. You’ll find two versions of Full Fathom Five here.
I dive into island stuff in the section below, but this play really brings to mind John Donne, particularly Meditation XVII of his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (which was published the year after the First Folio!). Prospero’s magic cuts him off from people, and Donne’s most famous words come to mind as a lesson for someone in his situation. It’s a wonder that this beautiful bit was written just a few years after The Tempest:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
Thoughts and Themes:
Island life is a strange one. It can be an isolated existence, wrapped in your own little cocoon. Islands feel just a notch off from reality’s timeline – it’s one of the reasons why so many people in the first world desire an island vacation or get-away property. You want to literally escape the doldrums of your everyday life? Hie thee to an island, my friend, where it’s all white sands and fruity cocktails and the blessed lie of “no mobile reception here”. Real life islanders, the ones who live out their every day in the place that others deem a relaxing paradise, know better. You can get away from outside stresses, but islands are the last place in the world where you can be distracted from yourself.
I’m originally from North Carolina. My parents were an engineer and a nurse, respectively, and they worked hard and long hours while raising two little kids (amazingly, somewhere in there my father also chiseled away at earning his masters, a process that would take him years while working full time). We lived a pretty quiet small-town southern life. Until the year I was seven, when Daddy got the opportunity to manage a facility in a very unusual and remote area. We moved to the tiny Caribbean nation of Barbados just in time for me to start second grade (or Upper One as it was called at St. Angela’s School). It was easily the hugest thing that had ever happened to my parents, never mind me and my little brother. We dove headfirst into paradise and just tried to stay afloat.
I have very vivid memories of that time. Sleeping under mosquito nets because our home had bars over the eternally open windows rather than glass. Tree frogs living in our shower and green monkeys harassing my father by routinely (and very purposely) pooping on his car. The feel of my school uniform: thin, soft cotton shirtdresses in pastel gingham. Working so hard to catch up on a school system whose curriculum was a full year more advanced than the American system I had previously known (learning my times tables up to 12, for example). I remember going to the beach every Sunday after mass and dusting raw cane sugar onto my morning bowl of cornflakes (the refined stuff shipped from the States was crazy expensive). I recall my firm resolve to share a room with my four-year-old brother because everything smelled/sounded/felt so different from the home I had left, and he was one of my few initial comforts.
Unlike Prospero, my father wasn’t banished to an island – we moved as a result of a calculated career move and a chance for adventure and the unknown. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a jarring experience, even if he did choose it. My parents knew no one, our accents were difficult for locals to understand. We had to deal with a break-in to our home and (I swear to God) the wild alpha male monkey that chased a petrified me out of the park where his troop resided.
I do have happy memories of the place. I also have confusing memories. Our time in Barbados is where I first fully observed and felt the weight of my parents’ stress. Where I saw how angry and frustrating a failing work situation could be for an adult. But it was still a year of growth and proof that there was a bigger world out there, for all of us. I know I’m being vague (my dad’s career is really his story to tell), but suffice it to say that my father took a calculated gamble on this job and move…and it just didn’t pay off as he hoped.
All my life my parents have always been a strong and united front, and it’s a testament to that strength that they recognized that our supposed adventure was actually too stressful for them to maintain as long-term reality. As soon as the school year was over, we packed it in and returned to the States to live with my grandparents while my dad searched for a new job (talk about eating crow, eh?). Like Prospero and Miranda, we learned a lot about what our family was capable of surviving, but also what we needed in order to thrive. The move to Barbados was a huge leap that wasn’t destined to be our future, but the experience gave my parents the confidence to take on bigger opportunities for the sake of our little family. I’m proud of my parents and thankful that they showed me a bigger world over the course of my childhood. And thankful that they had the courage to know when to call something a loss, to pack it up to start over yet again.
So what does any of that have to do with Shakespeare? Bear with me here. Examining the character of Prospero, we see a man who forgoes his everyday responsibilities for his passion. He’s essentially punished for his obsession – his brother (who’s taken on all of Prospero’s duties as duke) gets him ousted for not performing his job. In a way, Prospero is put on an extended leave of absence, a forced vacation where he’s banished with little but his magical studies to sustain him. Here, Prospero is definitely a cautionary tale that being led solely by your interests is a bad thing. The magic he learned and its resulting power are intoxicating…but they are also the very things that put his family and position in jeopardy. You can’t consistently forget your duties for the sake of what you enjoy. Certainly, the play presents usurpation as extreme villainy (seeing Prospero’s banishment as Antonio/Alonso’s fault), but let’s not forget that Prospero does have a role in his forced move to the island.
Miranda, more so than the magic books/staff/cloak, is Prospero’s lifeline. When Prospero relays the tale of how they came to the island, he makes a point to assure his daughter that she was the source of his strength and comfort during the dark days. On this isolated island where he’s instantly powerful due to his magic and no viable candidate to challenge him, it would be so easy for Prospero to fold in on himself and succumb entirely to his art. Yet he has a daughter to care for, who loves him in return. He may have shirked any duty owed to Milan in favor of his magic, but he takes on all challenges of single fatherhood. We’ve seen Shakespearean characters obsessed with magic or with revenge before, who come out on the side of evil (ahem, Macbeth or Othello). But here, in this play late in his career, Prospero ultimately sets aside all the power that was once so important to him -- both magic and revenge. The act of forgiving Antonio and Alonso is completely tied in with his decision to cast aside his magical books. I believe it’s love for Miranda and desire to have her live among society away from the island that leads Prospero to the end of the play. And I’ll point out that neither Macbeth nor Othello had any children to help set them on the path of empathy. Prospero had his time on the island to be do as he pleased without being beholden to a real kingdom…but he realizes that is not the best course in the long-term for his family, or even for his peace of mind. In laying aside his magic, I think it’s a show that he forgives himself for having been selfish enough to get his kid banished alongside him.
In my very roundabout way, I guess I have a few points. The first is that it’s so easy to get caught up in your work/interests, to be so engrossed and excited that you devote all your time and energy to it. My other point is that The Tempest shows us that is the wrong course if you have people who are beholden to you. You have to maintain your duty to your loved ones and perform the course of action best for the whole, not just for yourself. It’s the strongest parenting lesson that anyone can learn, and it is a damned hard lesson. We all stumble along the way, and mistakes are a given. But once the mistake is apparent, it’s time to set a new course, to forgive, and to move forward. Prospero ultimately got that, as did my parents, as I do while I try to maintain work on a beloved project (this blog!) while trying to be present and loving toward my own kids and husband. Which means taking it easier on myself – if the entire canon isn’t read and reported on in exactly 365 days, then so be it.
If an island is for isolation, then it’s the place where you got to look internally. It’s the place for self-assessment. You go to an island. You can make it your home for a time. But you can’t look inward forever. So you leave changed, with a tiny part of the island carried inside you. Take as long as you need.