Friday, December 10, 2010

The Tempest: Adventures on a Magic Island

Miranda by John W. Waterhouse 1916

It really is as cool as it sounds.  Shakespeare’s The Tempest is like an awesome mash-up of Lost, Harry Potter, and Giligan’s Island.

What we’ve got here are five acts filled with shipwrecks, intrigue, magic, and monsters.  It really is incredibly entertaining.  The play was initially grouped with Shakespeare’s comedies, others later categorized it as a romance, but the only descriptor that really matters here is fun, because that’s exactly what The Tempest is.  It’s got everything.

The drama kicks off right away as a ship filled with important passengers (the King of Naples being one) loses its battle with a fierce storm.  However, this particular tempest is not the work of Mother Nature; it was conjured by a POWERFUL SORCERER!  Dun Dun Duuuuuunnnnnn! 

Dumbledore demonstrating what powerful sorcery looks like.

As it turns out, this particular wizard, Prospero, was formerly the Duke of Milan.  That was until Prospero’s shady brother Antonio, in conspiracy with Alonso, the King of Naples, stranded Prospero and his then two-year-old daughter Miranda at sea, taking his brother’s dukedom for himself.  The stranded father-daughter team made it to the island, and made themselves at home there, twelve years before this unfortunate boat happened to be sailing by with all of their enemies on board.   The short opening scene ends with the boat appearing to split amidst the storm and spilling it’s passengers into the stormy sea. As survivors wake up scattered about the island, they can’t be sure if anyone but the couple people in their group had survived.  It’s like the different sections of the plane in Lost: the main group didn’t find the tail section survivors until season two.   

On the simplest level, The Tempest is about Prospero looking for revenge on those that wronged him and trying to get back what they took away.  However, there are far more complex issues to deal with here.  For one, Prospero has “compelled” several others into his service.  One of these is the spirit Ariel, who Prospero rescued from a dead witch’s tree prison – that’s right, a dead witch’s tree prison.  [How awesome is this play?!] Ariel is actually the real heavy-hitter as far as magic is concerned.  It is Ariel who creates the storm and scatters the boat’s passengers, and it is Ariel who enacts the majority of Prospero’s magical commands.  Prospero has promised to free Ariel after his affairs are set to rights.   Be that as it may, Ariel is more or less enslaved for the time being.

The island’s resident man-beast, Caliban, has also been forcefully placed under Prospero’s thumb.  Son to the aforementioned dead witch, Caliban initially showed Prospero the ins and outs of the island; in turn, Prospero did his best to educate this native resident.  The relationship was amiable enough until Caliban attempted to have his way with Prospero’s daughter, at which point Prospero became convinced that education could not civilize this “savage.”  Thus, Caliban’s service became involuntary, enforced by frequent magical punishment.  In the evolution of this relationship, The Tempest alludes to some big questions concerning colonization, and certainly leaves Prospero’s level of shadiness open for debate.

A Scene from the Tempest, by Paul Falconer Poole 1856

The extreme shadiness of Prospero’s brother Antonio, on the other hand, is made perfectly clear post-shipwreck, as Antonio starts out his island-time hatching an assassination plot against King Alonso and his good-natured advisor Gonzalo.  In the process, Antonio persuades the king’s brother, Sebastian, to kill for the crown.  Remember that Antonio had been the engineer of the initial sea-stranding plot against his own brother and niece, and even now, when he is stranded, he is seeking to drive the King’s brother Sebastian to even more extreme fraternal violence. 

The Tempest is not just drama and danger though.  After all, what would a good island adventure be without a little romance?  Enter Prospero’s daughter Miranda, who, having never seen any man except her father and the monstrous Caliban, falls instantly in love with the stranded king’s handsome son, Ferdinand.   Prince Ferdinand finds himself bewitched by the young lady’s charms (magic must run in the family), and all of a sudden the island has a new Jack and Kate, a new Ron and Hermione, a new Gilligan and – well, whoever he was into.

So while it’s got magic, it’s got drama, and it’s got romance, perhaps my favorite element of The Tempest is the excellent comic relief.   The lion’s share of laughs comes courtesy of King Alonso’s servants Stephano and Trinculo, who somehow manage to salvage a stash of wine from the wreck.  Happening upon Caliban, the three proceed with a sort of drunken Three Stooges routine throughout the rest of the play.  Caliban commits himself to Stephano’s service, even begins to basically worship Stephano, and plots to have him kill his nemesis Prospero.  Sadly for Caliban, a drunken goofball makes for a poor assassin, and a horrible god.

Unlike the drunks, Prospero does keep his wits about him.  With a bit of magic, and a lot of help from Ariel, he is able to bring all things to a satisfying resolution.  Like the Lost finale, The Tempest leaves you with some questions, but still very glad you got to experience it.  

The Tempest is a finale of sorts for Shakespeare.  Though popular scholarship believes that Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsman were co-written by Shakespeare later, The Tempest (at least in this school of thought) is believed to be the last play that was all him.  Promotion for Julie Taymor’s film adaptation bills the story as “Shakespeare’s final masterpiece,” and while that might seem like a dig on those two later plays [ouch, right?], there is a great appeal in viewing The Tempest as Shakespeare’s swan song.  For one, it is such an awesome play, undoubtedly occupying a place among Shakespeare’s best, and as a fan you like to think of the guy going out with a bang.  Beyond that, there is a striking similarity between Shakespeare and the character Prospero as architects in command of the action on stage. So when this famous speech comes up in Act Four, bearing in mind the romantic idea of The Tempest as Shakespeare’s “final masterpiece,” it’s hard not to forget that this is Prospero, and not actually Shakespeare talking:

                Our revels are now 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. (4.1.165-175)

Notice how well the described scenes, unseen in The Tempest, describe the settings of different Shakespearean plays, and the potentially loaded meaning of “actors,” “pageant,” and “globe” – as in the famous Globe Theatre.  If this was Shakespeare’s last play, it was a fantastic final act; but wherever The Tempest falls chronologically in the line-up, it certainly shows the Bard at his best.

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