The Tempest is generally accepted as Shakespeare’s last complete play, with a performance date around 1611. In the 1623 First Folio of his collected works its novelty is probably the reason for its being placed first; its opening storm scene fronts the book, literally starting proceedings ‘with a bang’. The shipwreck of a royal party on an island anchored somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea turns out to be no trick of fortune, as we are introduced to the magician Prospero, the disinherited Duke of Milan, washed up on this island with his infant daugher 16 years ago. He has engineered this accident in order to re-assert his rights over his usurping brother before the King of Naples. He carries out a series of chess-like machinations on the board of the island with the aid of his captive spirit, Ariel, employing the natural forces of the island: music and illusion. The play is a comedy, with interwoven farcical scenes, and will eventually conclude happily, as the king’s son is promised in marriage to Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, and Prospero himself reinstated as Duke of Milan before renouncing his magic staff and book with a final and powerful plea for the audience’s forgiveness.
Although no direct source has been identified for the play as a whole, there is a fascinating relationship to New World discovery evident throughout. This has particularly been highlighted in the figure of Caliban, a grotesquely formed and morally monstrous inhabitant of the island, once its master, now Prospero’s slave. For many critics he represents a certain view of the native populations of newly colonised lands in the Americas. Shakespeare’s evident use of passages taken from Michel de Montaigne’s essay Des Canibales, newly available in English, evokes the most idealistic images of the New world, as a new Eden. There is a clear tension at work between this ideal and any form of political reality – at the very least there appears to be an open question about the nature and validity of sovereignty and enslavement.
Other dichotomies brought into play surround the early modern (and particularly Jacobean) fascination with magic. Prospero seems to stand for a kind of erudite sorcery, closely related perhaps to neoplatonic magicians such as Agrippa. By contrast, the island itself seems to spontaneously produce supernatural experiences, and Caliban’s mother was a witch in the more generally accepted sense. Furthermore, we cannot really speak of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ magic, for Prospero at times seems himself corrupted by power. The parallel drawn between his charms and the ‘spell’ cast over a theatre audience also raises questions about the whole mimetic operation of the theatre. All Prospero’s various wrongs are righted by his “deliver all” of freeing Ariel and sending the royal party home.
However, the Prospero’s epilogue to the play surpsises us by revealing that the last (and unexpected) prisoner of the play is the theatrical magician himself, whose sovereignty is suddenly dependent on the release of the audience’s mercy. The final plea of his epilogue uses an image that draws as much on the theological language of absolution as that of political imprisonment: “As you from crimes would pardon’d be/From your indulgence set me free”. This idea of an appeal to the divine through an appeal to the audience brings out the commonality of the artistic creation, enacted through the ministration of spectator and actor, just as mercy is through priest and sinner, or politics through king and subject, but all vitally owe their power to that which surpasses all charms: the Divine. This final note seems a fitting one for Shakespeare to close his many meditations on power, guilt and the nature of theatre itself.
With influences from the masque tradition, this play would later prove a popular subject for operatic adaptations from the 17th century, including one by Henry Purcell’s. Whilst recent productions (notably the RSC’s 2008–9 co-production with The Baxter Theatre Company, Capetown) have continued to emphasise the colonial themes, there has been increasing attention to other less politicised aspects of the play as well. Besides studies on forgiveness, on magic, and on stagecraft itself, recent work on Shakespeare and music has particularly used The Tempest to comment on the Bard’s evident awareness and appreciation for this element of theatrical production.
Contributed by Arabella Milbank