36. The Tempest
Very much nearing the end of my Shakespeare reading now. The Tempest this week immediately brings back memories of my English A Level, especially since I’m staying with my parents this week, so I even read it from the edition I studied back in 2009.
I have mixed feelings about The Tempest. On the one hand, it is one of the tightest and best written of Shakespeare’s plays. On the other, I struggle to warm to it or get especially excited by it. I, personally, find it a technically excellent play that fails to connect with me emotionally.
Let’s start with the positives (and there are lots of them).
As with The Winter’s Tale, the dialogue in this play is brilliant. It is clear and engaging. Shakespeare seems to embrace longer scenes in this play, and they work very well, ebbing and flowing, almost like a piece of Chekhov at times. I always used to view act 1 scene 2 as a bit of clunky exposition but reading it this time, I found it a fascinating interaction between father and daughter. A father who is distracted, excited and agitated, on the brink of realising his long dreamed-of plans; a daughter who is scared, compassionate and eager to understand. Similarly, the whole of act 5 is one long scene that leads us to the conclusion of the story. This, for me, is a sign of a writer who is on top of his game and is fully confident in his ability to maintain the focus of the audience through the power of his dialogue alone. He doesn’t need a scene change to wake the audience up, he believes in the power and simplicity of his words.
Another dramaturgical trick that Shakespeare utilises cleverly is that of time pressure. Throughout the play there is a sense that Prospero has a set period of time within which to realise his plans or he is lost. Similarly, Ariel is counting down the time until their freedom from servitude, Caliban’s plan to murder Prospero is also time sensitive. As such, there are a lot of competing time pressures acting on different characters within the play, that serves to ramp up the dramatic tension.
The Tempest is also a brilliant play for characters. The cast is phenomenally rich and varied. Antonio and Sebastian are quite funny as the sarcastic, scheming political duo. They are mirrored by the ‘low’ comedy of Stephano and Trinculo who spend pretty much the entire play completely smashed! Caliban is a fascinating character that can be interpreted in so many different pays. How much is Caliban actually monstrous and how much is he just perceived as such? Ariel has a lot of similarities with Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but where you feel Puck is happy to please himself, Ariel seems intent on pleasing Prospero and therefore earning their freedom.
Of course, Prospero himself is the character at the heart of it all and he is no less complex than all the other. More so than any other Shakespeare play, I feel The Tempest hinges around this one central character. Hamlet and Lear are obviously focal points of their respective plays, but they are surrounded by sub-plots that draw the focus. In The Tempest we are pretty much focussed on Prospero the whole time (even if we’re with Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo plotting to murder him).
I think this is where I slightly fall out of love with the play. I struggle to warm to or be drawn in by Prospero. Yes, he has been treated badly by his brother, Antonio, but all the evidence suggests that Prospero was a pretty lousy Duke! He admits himself that he spent all his time in the library and neglected the government. Then, on the island, his rule is nothing short of tyrannical. He presides over a hostile dictatorship, punishing his slaves with brutality and violence when they don’t do what he wishes. He is also incredibly manipulative. The way he brings Miranda and Ferdinand together is so calculated. As such, I never really find myself routing for him or wishing him to succeed. I also think the focus on Prospero and the island means that this play lacks the broad questioning of life, death, power, love etc. that some of his other great plays has.
In short, I think this is an excellent play – one of Shakespeare’s best. But it fails to ignite the creative spark of excitement in me that some of his other plays do. I certainly would want to work on or even direct my own production but there are other ones that strike a stronger chord with me personally.