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Introductory Lecture on the Tempest
Copyright Ian Johnston, Malaspina University-College, 1996

[The following is the text of a short lecture delivered, in part, in Liberal Studies 302 on February 28, 1996]

A. Introduction

Today I wish to provide something of a short introduction to Shakespeare's Tempest, first, by acknowledging some of the interpretative richness of this play and, second, by proffering an approach which I find particular interesting and appealing. Then, we will have two other initial "takes" on the play, so that by the end of these short lectures you should have a better idea of some of the ways in which one might begin to shape an interpretation.

Let me begin by acknowledging an interesting point about this play: interpretations of the Tempest tend to be shaped quite strongly by the particular background which the interpreter brings to it. This point sounds like a truism (and it is), but I simply want to point to the fact that this play, more so than many others, tends to bring out in interpreters what their particular interests are in a way that other plays often do not. At least that has been my experience.

In part, this happens because this play puts a good deal of pressure on us to treat it allegorically, that is, to find a conceptual framework which will coordinate our understanding of what goes on in the play. I think we feel this mainly because there is little complex characterization in the Tempest (except perhaps for the figure of Prospero himself) and there are many elements which we cannot simply account for by taking the action naturalistically. So we want to know what they stand for: What exactly is Prospero's magic? What does Caliban represent? Is the island a representation of the new world or a world of the imagination or something else? And so on. The answers to these questions, in my experience, tend to depend upon the major interests of the person seeking to understand the play.

So, for example, those, like me, with a strong interest in reading Shakespeare and a lively interest in theatrical productions of Shakespeare, tend to emphasize the extent to which the main focus in the Tempest is on the nature of art and illusion, especially theatrical art. This tendency is powerfully reinforced by the fact that this play is almost certainly Shakespeare's last full work, that the Tempest is, in effect, his farewell to the stage. No doubt there is a certain sentimentality in this view (certainly in my case there is).

People with a strong interest in politics, however, often take a different slant, and see the play as having less to do with an exploration of theatre than with a probing artistic analysis of important political issues, especially those relevant to the oppression of the inhabitants of the new world or to the relationship between the intellectual and the political world. So, for example, the play has been presented as a statement about colonial attitudes in the third world or as an exploration about the role of the intellectual in post-glasnost Poland. Other interpreters dismiss those suggestions and see in the play a vital exploration of education (the nature versus nurture dispute) or theories of politics or knowledge or whatever.

What we want to do today is give you a sample of three different short "takes" on the play. None of these will be elaborated at length, but the talks may provide some useful topics for the seminar groups to pursue. This lecture is thus the lead off in a trio of initial possibilities.

The Tempest as an Exploration of the Nature of Art

I want to begin with a very obvious point. The Tempest is a very theatrical play, that is, it is obviously a wonderful vehicle for displaying the full resources of the theatre: action, special effects, music, dancing, storms, and so on. Anyone who wants a Shakespearean play to produce mainly as an extravagant theatrical tour de force (say, a rock and roll extravaganza or an opera) would turn naturally to this play, which is rivaled only by Midsummer Night's Dream in this respect. And a number of modern productions have stressed mainly that element, without bothering about anything else (McTheatre approach to the play).

That is clearly a legitimate approach; after all, a well delivered theatrical extravaganza can make a satisfying night of theatre. And it is clear that The Tempest does depend for much of its effectiveness on a wide range of special effects- -sound, lighting, fantastic visions, a whole realm of "magic." But I think there's more to the theatricality of the play than just its style. In my view, a central issue of the Tempest is an exploration into the nature of theatre itself.

To give you a sense of what I mean, let me mention two questions that puzzled me about this play when I first read it. The first is this: If Prospero's power is so effective against his opponents as it appears to be, then why didn't he use it back in Milan to avoid having to be exiled in the first place? And the second one, which arises naturally from that first one, is this: Given that Prospero is so keen on his magic and takes such delight in it and that it gives him so much power, why does he abandon it before returning to Milan?

I puzzled over these questions until I came to what seems to me the most satisfying answer. It is a very obvious one: the magic does not work in Milan; it is effective only on the island, away from the Machiavellian world of the court, where plotting against each other, even against one's own family, for the sake of political power is the order of the day and where, if you take your mind off the political realities for very long, you may find yourself in a boat with a load of books heading to an unknown exile. Prospero's magic can only become effective in a special place, a world of spirits, of illusion, song, and enchantment, on a magic island--in other words, in the theatre.

After all, look what happens in this play. A bunch of political types from the busy court of Naples and Milan are lured away from their power political business into a world of illusion, where they are led around by strange powers (above all, music and apparitions) they do not fully comprehend but whom they cannot resist until they all come together inside Prospero's magic circle. Prospero controls the entire experiment through his ability to create and sustain illusions. He is throughout the master of the action, and there is never any suspense (well, almost none), since he has such absolute control of human beings through his control of what they see and hear and experience.

If we accept this possibility as an interpretative metaphor, then we need to explore how that might make sense of other elements in the play. Remember that in such questions the Principle of Inclusiveness is an important guiding rule: the interpretation should make sense of as much of the play as possible, and in any conflict between rival interpretative possibilities one important criterion for judgment is the adequacy of each interpretation at providing a coherent and consistent sense of as much of the play as possible.

In order to pursue this idea of the Tempest as an exploration of the nature of theatrical art, I want to turn for a while to what happens in the play.

C. Prospero's Experiment

The Tempest, it is clear, features an experiment by Prospero. He has not brought the Europeans to the vicinity of the island, but when they do come close to it, he has, through the power of illusion, lured them into his very special realm. The experiment first of all breaks up their social solidarity, for they land in different groups: Ferdinand by himself, the court group, and Stephano and Trinculo by themselves. The magic leads them by separate paths until they all meet in the circle drawn by Prospero in front of his cave. There he removes the spell of the illusions; the human family recognizes each other, and together they resolve to return to Italy, leaving behind the powers of the magic associated with the island.

What is the purpose of Prospero's experiment? He never gives us a clear statement, but it seems clear that one important element in that purpose is Miranda. He wants to arrange things on her behalf, and of all the people in the play, her situation is the most transformed: she is going back to Europe a royal bride, filled with a sense of enthusiasm and joy at the prospect of living among so many fine people in a society that, quite literally, thrills her imagination..

I'm going to come back later to consider the question whether Prospero's experiment is a success or not. But however we judge it, it seems clear that one great success is the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. The experiment brings them together, awakens their sense of wonder at the world and at each other, and is sending them back to Milan full of the finest hopes for the world. These two young people carry with them the major weight of the optimistic comic hopes of the play's resolution.

Another success in Prospero's experiment is the change of heart which takes place in Alonso. Prospero's actions bring Alonso face to face with his past evil conduct and prompt him to repent and reconcile himself with Prospero, even to the point of surrendering the political power he took away so long ago. Moreover, we might want to argue that there's is the beginning of a similar change in Caliban, who at least comes to realize something of his own foolishness in resisting Prospero in favour of two drunken European low lifes.

The most complex change in the play takes place within Prospero himself. In considering his motives for undertaking the experiment, we cannot escape the sense that Prospero harbors a great deal of resentment about his treatment back in Milan and is never very far from wanting to exact a harsh revenge. After all, he has it in his power significantly to injure the parties that treated him so badly. What's very interesting about this is that Prospero learns that that is not the appropriate response. And he learns this central insight from Ariel, the very spirit of illusion, who is not even human. Speaking of the fact that all of Prospero's enemies are now in his power and are painfully confused, Ariel says:

Ariel: . . . if you beheld them now, your affections would become tender.

Prospero: Does thou think so spirit?

Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.

Prospero: 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 mov'd 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. (5.1. 18-28)

This is a key recognition in the play: virtue expressed in forgiveness is a higher human attribute than vengeance. And in the conclusion of the play, Prospero does not even mention the list of crimes against him. He simply offers to forgive and accept what has happened to him, in a spirit of reconciliation.

Prospero's Magic as the World of the Theatre

It makes sense to me to see in this Shakespeare's sense of his own art--both what it can achieve and what it cannot. The theatre--that magical world of poetry, song, illusion, pleasing and threatening apparitions--can, like Prospero's magic, educate us into a better sense of ourselves, into a final acceptance of the world, a state in which we forgive and forget in the interests of the greater human community. The theatre, that is, can reconcile us to the joys of the human community so that we do not destroy our families in a search for righting past evils in a spirit of personal revenge. It can, in a very real sense, help us fully to understand the central Christian commitment to charity, to loving our neighbour as ourselves.

In the same way, Prospero's world can awaken the young imagination to the wonder and joy of the human community, can transform our perceptions of human beings into a "brave new world," full of beauty, promise, and love, and excite our imaginations with the prospects of living life in the midst of our fellow human beings.

In the world of the Tempest, we have moved beyond tragedy. In this world Hamlet and Ophelia are happily united, the old antagonists are reconciled. This is not a sentimental vision, an easily achieved resolution. It takes time--in this case sixteen years--and a measure of faith in the human community that one is prepared to hold onto in the face of urgent personal demands. This play seems to be saying that theatrical art, the magic of Prospero, can achieve what is not possible in the world of Milan, where everyone must always be on guard, because it's a Machiavellian world ruled by the realities of power and injury.

But the play is not without its sobering ironies. And there is a good deal of discussion of just how unequivocal the celebration is at the end. For Prospero is no sentimentalist. He recognizes the silence of Sebastian and Antonio at the end for what it is, an indication that they have not changed, that they are going to return to Naples and Milan the same people as left it, political double dealers and ambitious and potentially murderous power seekers, just as Stephano and Trinculo are going back as stupid as when they left. Prospero's theatrical magic has brought them together, has forced them to see themselves, but it has had no effect on some characters (unless the staging of the end of the play conveys in non-verbal ways that the two noble would-be killers are as contrite as Alonso appears to be).

That's why in acknowledging the most famous single line quotation from the play, one needs also to examines the four words which immediately follow: Miranda: O brave new world
That has such people in't!

Prospero: `Tis new to thee.

Those four words of Prospero are wonderfully pregnant. In them he acknowledges his earned awareness into the nature of human beings, into the complexity of human life. But he is not about to deliver Miranda another sermon, for he knows that the sense of joyful and optimistic wonder which she, as a young woman, is carrying back to Italy is the world's best hope. It may be, as he well knows, naive, for Miranda has, as yet, no sense of the evils that lurk back in the political world of the city. She sees only the attractive exterior of her human surroundings with no sense yet of the potential deceptions within. But she is as well equipped as he can make her, and it is not up to him to sour her youthful enthusiasm with a more complex and less affirming mature reflection. That is something she is going to discover in her turn.

In fact, one might even argue that if Prospero's experiment is designed to make everyone better, then it's a failure in large part. And it may be that Prospero recognizes that fact. It is not unusual to stage this play in such a way that the conventional comic structure of the ending is seriously undercut by the sense of sadness in Prospero, who is returning to Milan to die. I'm not pressing this interpretation. All I want to call attention to at this point is that the ending of this play may not be the unalloyed triumph of the comic spirit that we are tempted to see there. Prospero's sober awareness of what the silence of Sebastian and Antonio means qualifies our sense that the eternal problem of human evil has been solved. One major interpretative decision any director of the play has to make concerns this ending. Just how evident and serious should those ironies be: non-existent, a light shadow under the communal joy, or a heavy reminder of what is in store back in Italy.

Prospero's Farewell to the Stage

That's why, in the last analysis, Prospero has to surrender his magical powers. Life cannot be lived out in the world of illusions, delightful and educative as they can often be. Life must be lived in the real world, in Milan or in Naples, and Miranda cannot thus entirely fulfill herself on the island. The realities of life must be encountered and dealt with as best we can. The world of the theatre can remind us of things we may too easily forget; it can liberate and encourage youthful wonder and excitement at all the diverse richness of life; it can, at times, even wake people up to more important issues than their own Machiavellian urge to self-aggrandizement, and, most important of all, it can educate us into forgiveness. But it can never finally solve the problem of evil, and it can never provide an acceptable environment for a fully realized adult life.

Prospero, as I see it, doesn't start the play fully realizing all this. He launches his experiment from a mixture of motives, perhaps not entirely sure what he going to do (after all, one gets the sense that there's a good deal of improvising going on). But he learns in the play to avoid the twin dangers to his experiment, the two main threats to the value of his theatrical magic.

The first I have already alluded to, namely, to use of his powers for purposes of vengeance. Prospero, like Shakespeare, is a master illusionist, and he is tempted to channel his personal frustrations into his art, to exact vengeance against wrongs done in Milan through the power of his art (perhaps, as some have argued, as Shakespeare is doing for unknown personal reasons against women in Hamlet). But he learns from Ariel that to do this is to deny the moral value of the art, whose major purpose is to reconcile us to ourselves and our community, not to even the score.

The second great threat which we see in this play is that Prospero may get too involved in his own wonderful capabilities, he may become too much the showman, too proud of showing off his skill to attend to the final purpose of what he is doing. We see this in the scene in which Prospero puts on a special display of his theatrical powers for Ferdinand and Miranda--his desire to show off makes him forget that he has more important issues to attend to, once again putting his art in the service of the social experiment. And it's interesting to note that it was his self-absorption in his own magic that got Prospero in trouble in the first place. There's a strong sense in this play, that whatever the powers and wonders of the illusion, one has to maintain a firm sense of what it is for, what it can and cannot do, and where it is most appropriate. It can never substitute for or conjure away the complexities of life in the community.

This approach helps me to understand, too, the logic behind Prospero's surrender of his magic. He has done all he can do. Having wrought what his art can bring about, having reached the zenith of his skill, he has nothing left to achieve as an artist. He is going home, back to the human community, perhaps to die, perhaps to enjoy a different life, now able to appreciate more fully what he did not understand so long ago, the proper relationship between the world governed by magic and illusion and the world in which most of us have to live most of the time--the compromised world of politics, alcohol, buying and selling, family strife.

Of course, it is critically illegitimate and no doubt very sentimental to link Prospero's giving up of his art with Shakespeare's decision to give up writing plays and to return to Stratford to enjoy life with his grandchildren. But it's a very tempting connection, especially in the light of the wonderful speech in 4.1, one of the most frequently quoted passages in the play, a speech which has come to be called "Shakespeare's Farewell to the Stage."

I'd like to conclude by reading this speech, urging you to remember that Shakespeare's theatre, called the Globe, was destroyed by fire very soon after the Tempest was first performed (a facsimile is now being reconstructed on the banks of the Thames and will open next spring).

Prospero: 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 wrack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Dreams may be the stuff of life, they may energize us, delight us, educate us, and reconcile us to each other, but we cannot live life as a dream. We may carry what we learn in the world of illusion with us into life, and perhaps we may be able, through art, to learn about how to deal with the evil in the world, including our own. But art is not a substitute for life, and it cannot alter the fundamental conditions of the human community. The magic island is not Milan, and human beings belong in Milan with all its dangers if they are to be fully human.

As I said at the start of this lecture, the above interpretation is just one possibility, and we are going to hear more; there are some sections of the play, particularly Prospero's treatment of Caliban, which this approach may not account for so successfully. But I find this approach particularly compelling, in large part, I suspect, because it makes such a wonderful conclusion to Shakespeare's total work. It seems an entirely fitting last word from the world's greatest dramatic poet, who leaves the sources of his power on the stage which he made famous, so that the last thing we see are the instruments of the most powerful theatrical magic and are left with the question: Who will now arise to claim them?

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