The Tempest: Shakespeare’s Final Stage Magic
Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, was written in a world in where the influence of the English language was expanding. Beginning in 1476 when William Caxton established the first significant English press in Westminster and continuing on through the next century with the mass publication of various versions of the Bible in English, the English language grew into textual legitimization (Crystal, 56). The discovery of the Americas and the spread of colonization carried along this newly-printed language. As a result of this geographic expansion, English was constantly changing and evolving while still growing in power and legitimacy. Alien places and people naturally required the English language to mature. William Shakespeare’s plays brought this evolving language into physical form, and no other play but The Tempest best embodies the meeting of alien places and people. In the microcosm of his plays, Shakespeare used language to transform and shift an audience’s perception of the world as the play unfolded on the stage. In The Tempest, Shakespeare utilizes his power as a playwright to construct a world in which the ephemeral, the physical, and the theatrical seem to mesh together seamlessly into a tale of profound vengeance and reconciliation.
The Tale of The Tempest
Years ago, Prospero was the Duke of Milan, and he spent his days ensconced in his study in pursuit of mystical knowledge. Prospero’s brother, Antonio, accused him of shirking his duties as Duke and usurped him. Antonio and his conspirators left Prospero and his young daughter, Miranda, to die stranded on a raft at sea. Luckily, their raft made its way to a (almost) deserted island where Prospero plotted his revenge.
The play begins twelve years later with Antonio and other men from the court of Milan on a ship at sea, in the grip of a great tempest. It seems this storm was summoned by Prospero’s magic, and he brings the men ashore to his island to exact revenge. With the help of his servants Caliban, a half-demon monster, and Ariel, a shape-shifting spirit that is at times more terrifying than Caliban, Prospero toys with his enemies as they wander throughout the island, often through the marvelous spectacle of his magic. But by the end of the play, Prospero summons his enemies to him in the spirit of forgiveness. His daughter, Miranda, marries the son of one of Prospero’s former enemies. Finally, Prospero casts away his magic staff and returns to Milan.
Within The Tempest, language has a great power to control and mystify, and in a similar way, Prospero, the magus and protagonist, uses his magic to control the other characters around him. The words that the characters speak are used to affect change in one another, quickly and severely, changing motivations and appearances frequently. The magic power of words keeps this play in a constant state of change. This change makes it possible for alien worlds to collide, alliances to form and break quickly, and perceptions to shift. But in time, Prospero’s perception of the world is changed, as well, and he renounces his magic altogether.
The period in which The Tempest was written was full of discovery, as well. Shakespeare composed his writing in one of the most formative eras of the modern English language: the English Renaissance. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, great scientific and exploratory discoveries occurred (e.g. the works of Copernicus and the colonization of the Americas) which literally changed the way people viewed the world. As the world expanded rapidly around them, English-speakers found themselves in dire need for a new vocabulary. Providing a new vocabulary was the task of writers who looked to other languages for answers: “There were no words in the language to talk accurately about the new concepts, techniques, and inventions which were coming from Europe, and so writers began to borrow them” (Crystal, 60). Shakespeare is famously attributed to many words that are a part of the modern English lexicon, but he was definitely not the first writer of the era to create his own words. A good example of one of these writers is Thomas Elyot who, when faced with translating a Latin or Greek text to English, often created completely new English equivalents for the words that had no simple translation. His purpose was to give contemporary readers of English access to Classical texts. (Crystal, 60) Shakespeare, on the other hand, wrote to enhance the meaning behind his characters’ words and actions. Many words that we use today were first printed in Shakespeare’s texts because he found them to be the best fit in the plays’ form and content.
Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest¸ was first published into print in 1623 in the first Folio (or F1) of Shakespeare’s collected works. This followed his death by seven years. The play was certainly performed before Shakespeare’s death (the earliest recorded account being in 1611), but Shakespeare’s works were not often published into print until many years past their initial production.
Form and Content
As Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest is often heralded as unique from the body of his later, “mature” plays. John Russell Brown notes several of these differences in his Introduction to the Applause Shakespeare Library edition of the play:
Shakespeare was breaking new ground, not repeating popular successes. For most of his plays, he borrowed a plot from earlier narrative or drama, but here the plot seems to have been entirely his own invention. It uses traditional elements, but in new guises and to new effects. (Russell Brown, x)
One need only to look at the new and strange characters that Shakespeare has placed in his last play. Shakespeare has worked with ghosts of dead fathers and invisible fairies, but he has never created an air spirit that can change shape at will (Ariel). The same can be said for Caliban. Like the weird sisters of Hamlet, he is a character of inhuman origins, but he is unique in his half-human, half-monster dynamic. Because of the many unique traits of the text, The Tempest¸ as the final installment of Shakespeare’s plays, is often viewed as the starkest contrast from the textual and theatrical norms typical of Shakespeare’s other works.
Readers are drawn to specific imagery that constantly shifts and stretches to connect the broad range of symbolism in The Tempest. The material of the play is linked strongly to words like “strangeness” “music,” and “sleep,” and Shakespeare’s repeated choice in these themes endows the entire play with an ever-changing nature. As Reuben A. Brower states in his essay, a result of so much language dealing with “the confusion between sleep and dream and waking” is that “The island is a world of fluid, merging state of being and forms of life” (112). The magic that inhabits the world of the play only serves as a vehicle for the metaphorical language that constantly shifts the audience’s perspective on the events and characters onstage. At first we fear Ariel (as the tempest), then pity him (as a slave of Prospero), love him (as the force that guides the young lovers together), and fear him again (as the harpy that accosts the men of Milan). There are similar character changes for Prospero and Caliban, as well. What Brower states is most exciting about this play, specifically, is that Shakespeare unifies this theme of fluidity in setting, staging, and character: “I am not forgetting that it is a metaphorical design in drama, that we are interested in how Shakespeare as linked stages in a presentation of changing human relationships” (96). Drama, as a genre, uses language as the skeleton of a production; all casting, design, acting, and directing choices are traditionally based in the script. In most cases, it is all things but the words of the play that lend the most obvious spectacle and “magic” to a production. With The Tempest¸ Shakespeare purposefully works in grand metaphor and challenges traditional plot structure to endow the words of the play with a heavier burden of ambiguity. This ambiguity is what allows such dramatic character changes to occur. The play begins with Prospero’s preparations for vengeance, and he exercises control over almost all of the events onstage. Yet the play ends in Prospero’s reconciliation. Shakespeare marries this anger and forgiveness – two contrasting emotions – with the genre of drama which marries the verbal and the active, the magical with the physical.
Reconciliation – Shakespeare and Prospero
Reconciliation is one of the more prominent experiences touched on in this play. Many critics choose this word specifically when referring to the last several plays that Shakespeare wrote, and there are seemingly none that argue against its thematic relevance in The Tempest: “No one can react to Shakespeare’s later plays in a block without recognizing that the subject which constantly engaged his mind towards the close of life was Reconciliation” (Quiller-Couch, 15). Whether or not Shakespeare’s original audiences connected the dots, scholars find that the character of Prospero’s reconciliation with Antonio is symbolic of Shakespeare’s reconciliation with many different and openly debated issues surrounding the playwright as he neared the end of his life. Perhaps Shakespeare understood himself as Prospero, or the island, and he dramatized an old man’s wish to join with the main body of humanity, forgiving all past transgressions. As the play wanes, so does Prospero’s lust for revenge, and his violent attitude with Antonio shifts into an amiable one.
Prospero, as the protagonist, is subject to many scholars’ intense focuses. The character of Prospero is afforded a great amount of supernatural power onstage, and as Prospero exercises control over the elements and other characters, parallels are visible to a playwright’s control over the world of the play. As John Russell Brown states in his introduction to The Applause Shakespeare Library: The Tempest, “Prospero . . . is like a dramatist in charge of a play: noise, music, change of scene, action, marvels, and human encounters all occur as he wills them” (ix). This parallel is the foundation of the conception that Shakespeare modeled the character of Prospero after himself, an artist nearing the end of his life. The Tempest, after all, is the last play that he ever solely conceived. The plot structure and relative staging of the play seem to be more or less Shakespeare’s invention, contrasting his usual borrowing of other common dramatic devices. As Prospero uses his textual knowledge to shape the natural world around him, so has Shakespeare apparently shaped the structure of this play to something entirely new and efficacious.
Despite this parallel, several critics have renounced the concept of Shakespeare’s final play being autobiographical. Rather than looking for the “inner meaning” underlying the play, scholars like Elmer Edgar Stoll argue that interpretations that look for any message not already present in the text “trouble” and “disturb . . . the artistic effect” (26). This school of thought warns readers of the dramatic text to not insert messages where Shakespeare intended none simply because the play was the last one that he wrote. Stoll’s argument denounces the concept of Prospero being a dramatized version of the playwright: “And Prospero is not Shakespeare any more than (as fewer think) he is James I, except in the sense that the dramatist, not the Scotch monarch, created him” (25). Stoll goes on to describe how readers must take into account the “reality” of this play. Despite its fantastic spectacle, the true power of the script lies in the humanity and relatable nature of each of the characters. This reality extends especially to the characters of Ariel and Caliban who are certainly supernatural but only proportionately so to the human condition: “For, above mankind (or, in Caliban’s case, beneath it), these creations are, though fashioned after its similitude” (26). These spirit and half-demon characters were intended to be played by human actors after all; it follows that their supernatural existence extends from a human perspective.
The End of Magic
To put it briefly, Shakespeare’s The Tempest is as equally ever-changing and powerful as its title metaphor. While the play begins with anger and chaos, it ends with forgiveness and resolution. This intense shift in play dynamics in only four hours can be attributed to the layers of metaphor that tie the piece together. As magic quickly changes the natural world around these characters, so does metaphor and language change their way of understanding this world around them.
But what is the significance of Prospero’s discarding of his staff and book? Some scholars find this action to be a final farewell to the island by Prospero, or perhaps Prospero wishes to do away with the magic that brought him to the island in the first place. Since the power of language so closely ties into the power of magic (and the power of drama) in this play, one can understand that this is the result of Prospero’s motivations shifting from selfishness to compassion. Rather than using magic and words to control those around him, Prospero has chosen to control his own, selfish desires in order to rejoin the others in mutual trust. And yet the play remains magical and mysterious throughout the ending as the words of the play hang fresh in the air. John S. Mebane comments on this concluding moment as one that represents the whole of the magic within the play: “Prospero’s abjuration of his art . . . underscores the ambiguity of magic in The Tempest, a mysteriousness which is appropriate . . . for a work which reveals the ambiguities of life itself” (Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age, 179). As spectacular and supernatural as this play is, the genre of drama endows the piece with a physical significance that is difficult to ignore. This relatable feature is the result of the magic that comes from a lifetime of work in both the word and stage of theatre. What is magical and ephemeral is embodied by the simple and corporeal, and by this construction, Shakespeare’s fleeting farewell lives on in permanence.
Brown, John R. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Appluase Shakespeare Library: The Tempest. By William Shakespeare. New York: Applause, 1996. Ix-Xix. Print.Collins, Michael J. “The Tempest by William Shakespeare.” Theatre Journal May 37.2 (1985): 222-24.
Brower, Reuben A. “The Tempest.” Ed. Hallett Smith. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Tempest. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 94-114. Print.
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.
Mebane, John S. Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1989. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Andrew Gurr. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
Stoll, E. E. “The Tempest.” Ed. Hallett Smith. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Tempest. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 25-33. Print.
Quiller-Couch, Arthur. “The Tempest.” Ed. Hallett Smith. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Tempest. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 12-19. Print.
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