Ben Jonson said in the prologue of Bartholomew Fayre
that his own play isn't "one of those that beget Tales, Tempests, and such like Drolleries." I have to agree that I often find Bill, with his frequent recourse to magic, light laughs and nostalgia, to be full of whimsy. But of course, without the knack for writing crowd-pleasers, Shakespeare wouldn't have made his fortune. The Tempest
, with all its silliness, has a plot of a kind that a child might invent. But it has taken me a while to realise that, in such a criticism, valid as it is, Jonson was taking aim at a narrow aspect of Shakespeare's late works, and he probably knew it. Shakespeare wasn't the keenest satirist, but that was entirely to be expected, given his proximity to the King and his career-long commercial focus. Besides, The Tempest
, more than any other of Shakespeare's plays, is infact self-conscious. Rather than a naïve tale, or a whimsical farce, the play would be quite redeemable if performed as a surreal comedy with plenty of ironic overtones and self-parody. It's not entirely without satire, either. It could have been written by Jonson himself. One theory
holds that Jonson did indeed write The Tempest
as a mischievous hoax of one-upmanship. I'm more prepared to believe that, than all of this Edward de Vere nonsense. I can't see how a non-actor could have produced any of the works.
Setting doubts over authorship aside, it's well known that The Tempest
is one of only two of Shakespeare's works whose plot is not based on easily identifiable sources. This partly explains its structural simplicity; to use the word 'elegance' would be a bit too reverential. Shakespeare's usual method was take a source or two, work an imaginative subplot into it, and then embellish it with speeches and action to please all classes of theatre-goer. Without a borrowed plot frame onto which to weave a play, The Tempest
reveals his plot conventions and thematic preoccupations. It has some unique features, but what I mostly see is Shakespeare's familiar skin. I find the supposed connection
of the play with the wreck of the Sea Venture
to be rather flimsy. Even if Shakespeare did draw some inspiration from the event, the importance of it to the play's development is very overstated and ignores connections to his own life and works. The Tempest
is the last of at least three of Shakespeare's plays to feature a shipwreck. There's affinity with Twelfth Night
in its musicality, and a similarity to Comedy of Errors
in its classical style. The plot utility of the shipwreck in both Comedy of Errors
and Twelfth Night
is that of a natural event that effects the separation of the protagonists. It's assumed that, after all the misadventures along the way, there will be reunions and resolutions by the plays' ends.The Tempest
forms part of this shipwreck trilogy because it too deals with a separation: that of Prospero from his dukedom. The only unique feature of The Tempest
's plot is that the role of the shipwreck is directly reversed to become an unnatural event designed to effect the resolution. It looks as if Shakespeare was just adapting plot elements from his own repertoire. Indeed, there seems to be a personal element that runs right through the shipwreck trilogy. Comedy of Errors
relies on identical twins, the inspiration for this might have come from Shakespeare's own twins, Hamnet & Judith. Twins feature again in Twelfth Night
; the presumed death of Sebastian might have been a response to the death of Hamnet. The Tempest
is about a father who approves a marriage for his daughter; it doesn't require a huge stretch of the imagination to see that this mirrors Susanna Shakespeare's marriage to John Hall.
There seems to be an assumption that Shakespeare read or heard an account of the wreck of the Sea Venture
, and then wrote a play about it in one go, at some point shortly before its first performance on 1st November 1611. I think it was more complicated than that. For such a short play, there are just too many quirks for it to reflect a simple development. For a start, of all the works of Shakespeare, The Tempest
is the one that relies most heavily on 'real' atmospherics (rather than 'reported' atmospherics). It has a masque-like feel and features a masque interlude to celebrate the wedding of Miranda & Ferdinand. Shakespeare seems never to have developed a big interest in masques before. Why now then, so late in his career? Perhaps the King's Men were trying to produce a spectacle that would make better use of the atmospherics that the company had had at their disposal at Blackfriars since 1608.
Ben Jonson was at the head of a team which had fully mastered atmosphere, with their extravagant Christmas shows at the Stuart court. The last of these had a masque called Oberon, the Faery Prince
, which was performed on New Year's Day 1611 in the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace. It seems that The Tempest
is the highly edited product of an idea that began as as a commercial counterpart to Jonson's masque, a classical-style comedy based around an Oberon-like character. The Tempest's masque interlude is somewhat similar to the 'play within a play' of A Midsummer Night's Dream
, which celebrates the double wedding. Could it be that Shakespeare wanted to reclaim the magic of the Dream
? Just how many layers of meaning are contained in the lines "
we are such stuff as dreams are made on" (4.1.157–58)? The decision to include a shipwreck could have easily been made independently of the Sea Venture
. If we are to believe that Shakespeare was exposed to an account of the wreck of the Sea Venture
; I think its role was, at best, an addition to what was already conceived.
But what about the island setting, and the escape from it, surely that must have been in some way connected to the Sea Venture
story? Not necessarily. It's significant that all three shipwreck plays are comedies. A mark of a Shakespearean comedy is an arrival at a dream-like setting or episode, an 'alternate world', where the characters then learn how to love. "Jouneys end in lovers meeting" (Twelfth Night
; 2.3.43). Meanwhile, the Shakespearean tragedies feature only one world, where the protagonist learns how to die. "To be or not to be" (Hamlet
). Let's think about what the demands of the setting in the Tempest are. Firstly, it needs to be a place far enough from Prospero's dukedom to be an 'alternate world', but not so far that the dukedom can never be regained. Secondly, it needs to be a place which is coastal, so that there can be a shipwreck. Finally, it has to be a place that has no overlord other than a marooned Prospero, so that he can manipulate the climate and characters in the style of Oberon. With these requirements, an unidentified island becomes the setting by default. It's hard to think of any other setting that would be appropriate, especially if an attempt was being made to observe the classical unities.
As far as themes are concerned, I think the most prominent one in The Tempest
is power; how to exercise it, who has the right to it, how it corrupts, and how it can be illusory. This is the most frequent theme in Shakespeare's tragedies and histories, and it makes strong appearances in his comedies. He was obsessed with it, at the poltical, societal and personal levels. In Prospero's relationship with his daughter, he's an exploration of paternalism. In his dealings with his subjects and slaves, the character looks at the emerging rhetoric of patriarchalism
. The relationship between Prospero & Ariel is reminiscent of Oberon & Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
But there's also a contrast here to the Dream
, a play in which male power is checked by strong female characters. The comparison of Titania to Elizabeth I, I think, would not have been lost on contemporary audiences. With his learnedness, right to rule and as the ultimate victor over all conspiracies against him; it's tempting to think that Prospero was a creation that was intended to flatter James I. The marriage of Miranda & Ferdinand might reflect the King's wish to unite England & Scotland. But such a connection might also be unflattering, given that Prospero is deposed in the backstory. These are interesting things to consider, and certainly they apply to how the King might have seen the play. But my feeling is that, more often than not, the actual circumstances of Elizabeth I's and James I's reigns were incidental to Bill's instinct to write plays about rulers.
From our 21st century perspective, we can not help but see Prospero as colonist, a slavemaster. But the slavery that we see throughout The Tempest
serves no political or moral message. Prospero survives with his moral standing largely intact and the audience is not made to feel any special sympathy for Caliban. We might only do so now, but only because we live in the post-colonial age; we know better. We have to remember that the ethics of colonialism and slavery was likely to be of little or no concern to Shakespeare's Londoners. England's colonial project had only just begun.
Finally then, I want to think about why and how Caliban is called and depicted as a "monster." What is the point of this character, who stands apart from the main action of the play? It seems like he is just a vehicle for farce. Caliban is an example of Bill's 'mistaken identity' stock device, albeit without plot utility. He's part of the comic confusion which moves The Tempest
along. But this doesn't mean that the character is without satire. Caliban is never really a 'savage' devoid of all civility; the "be not afeard" speech (3.2.135-43) is among the most eloquent lines of the play. Nor can it be said that Caliban is a 'noble savage', in a romantic primitavist sense. Afterall he's a rapist, relishes cursing in his master's language, and plots to murder him.
It is this subversiveness that makes Caliban satirical. The fact that his name is an anagram of the Spanish 'caníbal' (referring to the Carib) is meant to be blatant, not a hidden message. He's a parody that pokes fun at the dodgy reports of indigenous peoples that had returned to Europe during the 'age of exploration'. We know that Gonzalo's speech about how he'd rule the island (2.1.148-57) closely parodies an idealistic passage from de Montainge's Des Cannibales
(1580). These ideals are immediately deconstructed by Sebastian and Antonio. What I hope Shakespeare was trying to say by Caliban's character is that, the distinction between 'savagery' (whether 'noble' or not) and 'civility' is a naïve and laughable one. He didn't know that the distinction would continue well after his time; not in naïveté, but rather in cynicism.