In 2017 I’ve set myself the goal of reading one Shakespeare play per month. You can find out more about the challenge over on my Instagram and please do join in with #bandofbookworms if you feel reading more of the Bard’s famous works is something you’d like to do this year! January’s play was The Tempest.
Set on a remote island full of magic, music and illusion, The Tempest is believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote alone. The title refers to the storm conjured by Prospero – exiled Duke of Milan – to lure the ship containing his treacherous brother, and other nobles, to the Island. Prospero is at the heart of the story, but in my opinion it is the presence of Ariel and Caliban, two complex non-human characters, that elevate the play from mediocre to meaningful. The love story of Miranda and Ferdinand, and the entwined court politics are a lot less captivating that those found in many of Shakespeare’s other plays.
Up until the twentieth century Prospero had generally been viewed as a benign father figure, stern but good, strict but fair. In recent years, however, he’s come to represent something less benevolent and far more complex. It is difficult to explore his relationships with Ariel and Caliban without drawing on themes of slavery, colonialism and expropriation. Prospero’s relationship with his only child, Miranda, is also vital to the story and equally challenging for a modern audience.
“Then, as my gift and thine own acquisition
Worthily purchased take my daughter”
Prospero views Miranda as his property, and her ‘virtue’ and future marriage are commodities he believes he can barter with to secure his political goals. Much as he controls the Island’s spirits with his magic, Prospero controls his daughter, contriving her match with Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples. Fortunately for Miranda she falls in love instantly with her Father’s choice, but if she hadn’t it seems fairly certain that Prospero would have insisted on the match anyway and Miranda would have obeyed.
Simon Russell Beale was a softly-spoken but commanding Prospero in the RSC’s most recent version of The Tempest which I saw in Stratford-upon-Avon at the end of December. Bare-footed and with an unassuming ‘magic cloak’, his relationship with Miranda was close and clearly affectionate in places, but he was still very much dominant and controlling, especially in regards to her relationship with Ferdinand.
Prospero is served by Ariel, a sprite he freed from imprisonment within a tree when he first arrived on the Island, and Caliban, who is roughly of human shape but described as; “Hag-seed” “Demi-devil” “Poor credulous monster” and repeatedly “Strange fish”.
Caliban, the daughter of the witch Sycorax, was initially befriended by Prospero and showed him the qualities of the isle but was reduced to a slave after he attempted to rape Miranda. Although we hear of this from Prospero, Caliban himself is quick to confirm the fact “Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else this isle with Calibans”. This makes Caliban an incredibly complicated character. Caliban was on the island first, he was free, he displayed initial kindness to Prospero and was quick to learn the English language, showing a capable mind. However, he is proud to admit his violent intentions towards Miranda and later in the play plots to murder Prospero.
In the Elizabethan era an unattractive outwards appearance was believed to convey the badness hidden within a person. Shakespeare is clearly using this device with Caliban but then he also gives him some of the most beautiful lines of the entire play;
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”
I have to admit, whilst I thought Caliban was a brilliant character I didn’t like him very much. I found it difficult to sympathise with him. I understood his belief that the Island was his by rights (though it seems like Ariel was actually there first if we’re going by that rule?), but he tried to rape Miranda. It’s difficult to see past that fact. Caliban is also easily impressed by the ridiculous Stephano and Trinculo, and quick to offer service to them, not seeming to recognise that they are, in fact, a lot worse than Prospero. The beauty of some of his lines and the prejudice of the Europeans does create a sympathetic feeling towards Caliban in places, but overall I found him unpleasant.
In contrast to his treatment of Caliban, Prospero never insults Ariel or baits him with ‘cramps’ and ‘pinches’. I suppose, from Prospero’s point of view, Ariel brings a lot more to the table. He is the cause of pretty much everything that happens in the play, from the storm to the masque to the disappearing banquet. Being able to control Ariel grants Prospero a lot of power, and as we know, Prospero likes power. He keeps Ariel obedient by constantly reminding him that he will soon set him free.
After watching the RSC production my favourite character was undoubtedly Ariel. Reminiscent of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the character’s singing, dancing, and ethereal movements were completely captivating. Reading the play for the first time this month however, I found the character far less dominant on the page. This really helped highlight to me the difference between reading a play and watching one. One of the big selling points of the RSC’s production was the use of new technology in creating Ariel. I found this brought very little to the performance however. Mark Quartley delivered such a strong version of the character that I found I was watching him, stood on the side lines, even when the projections were in use. The technology felt a bit distracting if anything.
There is a huge amount of music within The Tempest. These were some of my favourite scenes when watching the play as it seemed to fit perfectly with the magical atmosphere of the Island and make sense within the story. Ariel leads the survivors of the shipwreck to different parts of the Island with his invisible song. Later, Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo sing drunkedly. During the masque scene, the RSC made particularly beautiful use of music, making the goddesses Iris, Ceres and Juno opera singers, as they celebrated Miranda and Ferdinand’s engagement. On the page, the masque drew me out of the story a bit as it’s very poetical and symbolic but removed from the ongoing plot, seen performed however, it became a glorious spectacle that captivated my attention. It also ends with one of Prospero’s most famous speeches;
“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-capped 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 rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
The ‘great globe’ was likely a reference to Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre and nods towards Prospero’s theatricality. This is also addressed in his final epilogue which he delivers directly to the audience, seeming to show his awareness at being a character in a play, and asks them directly for applause.
Overall I enjoyed The Tempest. It is a slightly strange experience, but I believe this is exactly what Shakespeare wanted. The play’s genre is hard to define, technically classed as one of his comedies, but far more sombre, inspired by traditional ‘romances’. Its location seems incredibly distant, far removed from the real world, and allows for characters and situations that would not otherwise be possible. I realise that I’ve hardly mentioned Antonio (or Sebastian or Gonzalo or Alonso) but as characters they interested me the least. Antonio was not central enough to be a memorable Shakespeare villain. His function seemed to be to allow Prospero to explore the ideas of revenge and forgiveness, rather than being a fully-rounded character in his own right.
I definitely recommend watching a version of the play once you’ve read it (this goes for any play really) as this really helps to tie the whole experience together, from the written word to the final product.
February’s play is Much Ado About Nothing, a much more comedic comedy (if that makes sense) and one I’m really looking forward to finally reading, after watching a few version of it already!