It was a dark and stormy night… Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play, The Tempest, opens with a storm (the eponymous tempest) in which a group of elite passengers (a king, a duke, relatives, and courtly hangers-on) gets washed overboard (or jump) while the working sailors remain safe onboard their ship. In fact, the working class are sturdy, brave, and steadfast as they struggle to save the ship and passengers, while the panicked elites run around like headless chickens on the deck, wailing and bemoaning, afraid for their lives, and trying to convince the mariners they’re Special People Who Deserve Saving. Entitlement is a subtext in the play.
You’d almost think they were on Collingwood Council they feel so self-important, and so oblivious to the actual working people around them.
(Actually, the backstory has a tempest in it, too, before the exile to the island, before the play begins, when Prospero and Miranda were set adrift, but that’s another tale. And then there’s Caliban’s and his mother’s backstory, too, and we never really get to hear it, just the version Prospero hands out…)
We don’t get to see those doughty mariners again until the very end of the play: unfortunately, they’ve been put to sleep for the duration… rounded with a little dream? Sadly the hoi polloi get little action in this play. In spite of their brave efforts (they’re the only people who do any real work) to keep their passengers and ships safe, those who most deserve our sympathy and empathy get hustled offstage. It’s a story about the elites and their servants (and slaves) now.
But we do get to witness their often fumbling, comical, but sometimes Machiavellian plots once washed onshore, and separated into three groups (necessary for Shakespeare to weave his multiple plots into the story): love, politics, revenge, ambition, and slapstick. And some not-too subtle criticism of politicians.
And, of course, magic. But is it Prospero’s or Ariel’s? Prospero seems capable of only minor magic (mostly giving pain to Caliban); the rest seems the work of his goblin-sprites (the opening storm is Ariel’s work, and the faux dinner and spirit dogs that of Ariel and his companion sprites). It’s not well explained how Prospero’s cloak is associated with his magic, or what hold he has on Ariel. Prospero isn’t as capable as he pretends.
Those panicked shipboard elites remind me of today’s billionaires bemoaning having to pay taxes on their fortunes and crying the sky is falling when asked to pay a fair share. Or conservatives screaming they’re the victims of some imaginary conspiracy, like the “war on Christmas” or the “cancel culture of the liberal media.” Or our mayor whining his personal ambition was thwarted by local decision makers back in 2012. Shakespeare can be made topical and contemporary with only a few changes.
The storm we open with is all for show; the vengeful magician intends to bring those elites to his island for punishment over a personal slight he suffered many years ago (locals will find that scenario all too familiar…). Prospero employs his enslaved spirits to make it happen. (It was interesting to see Helen Mirren cast as Prospera in the recent film of the play; one wonders if a female protagonist would have better raised her daughter than Prospero seems to have…).
Local readers might think Prospero and his servants an apt analogy for our mayor and his enrapt, servile council (humour me by imagining any of them actually reading a book…). Instead of a magic wand, our mayor wields his vindictive judicial inquiry (aka the SVJI) and his council goblins do his bidding to weave hot air into faux designs (you’d almost think our mayor and his sycophants were trying their hardest to emulate Trump and his enablers with their Big Lie…). But Shakespeare’s Prospero and the rest have the better lines and a greater wit than our mayor and council. Metaphors only go so far.
And while our council lacks the magic and majesty of Prospero’s spirits, they seem to have quadrupled the comic pair of Trinculo and Stephano: slapstick and comic relief, our council has in excess. Gravitas, on the other hand, our council sorely lacks.
What our local play lacks is a faithful, honest, optimistic, and somewhat naive Gonzalo, the old advisor who helped shepherd Prospero to safety when he was exiled, He served Prospero in Milan, but now serves the King of Naples, Alonso. Gonzalo is a bit of a dreamer (or perhaps a visionary), but he’s also loyal, practical, and the only one of the castaways who seems to possess any common sense.
Perhaps a recent CAO who advised against wasting taxpayers’ money on the SVJI might fulfill that role in our local production. Today’s municipal advisors seem mere sycophants with limited vision and less foresignt; more like the subservient Ariel, the sprite who serves Prospero’s every need.
Unlike many other plays, this one has no quarto edition, so the Folio text is the sole source. It has some unusually complex stage directions in it, also unlike the other plays. The story seems to run along tickety-boo until Act IV when Ariel, Ceres, Juno and Iris get in play and make the spectacle (fake dinner scene). That bit just seems so out of place with the rest. Yes, I know it was likely a masque put on for the court of King James and meant to be a showy delight, but still… it meanders from drama into Midsummer Night’s Dream territory with it.
(I suppose the metaphor here might be that the elites in the play are gulled by the fake dinner like council was gulled by the mayor into believing there was something substantial in his SVJI when it was all just piffle.)
One thing I picked up while reading Emma Smith’s book, This is Shakespeare (Pelican Books, 2019) is that none of the characters in any of the plays are described. They speak, they act, but it is up to the reader to clothe and define their appearance. But in most cases, stage directions are slim so even the acting is vague and we have to fit action to the words ourselves. Imagination is a wonderful attribute. When watching council I like to imagine one of them might wake and actually suggest doing something for the community instead of simply to please the mayor. Hasn’t happened yet in real life, of course.
Who are Adrian and Francisco? Alonso’s lords, apparently, but very minor characters: they have virtually no role in the play, no backstory. Their very few lines are usually given to others, I suppose to reduce the cast (and costs). Adrian has a mere eight very short lines, Francisco has a short speech and a single, short line after. Not sure why the Bard included them at all. They are mere foils to the pessimism and cynicism of Sebastian and Antonio. They aren’t drawn into the assassination subplot, either. They are as useless onstage as councillors… well, no need to name them. you already know which ones are useless, inept, dimwitted, and never speak anything worth repeating.
And who are the “others” mentioned in the stage directions (Act II, Sc. 1): “Enter ALONSO, SEBASTIAN, ANTONIO, GONZALO, ADRIAN, FRANCISCO, and others”? These ineffective, almost invisible “lords” (they have no speaking role) might also seem an apt metaphor for our mostly silent, rubber-stamping council who serve for little aside from window dressing, slavishly attending their Great Leader’s needs, and the occasional outburst of theatrical righteous indignation from Councillor Mcleod (who comically chuffed that a resident “besmirched” council’s reputation — like Henry V when he said to Montjoy, “Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirched…” but it’s not as if there was anything left of council’s already shredded reputation to shine; it was sullied long ago from their own behaviour).
The play is supposedly a revenge play (Prospero’s revenge against those who overthrew him as duke), but he doesn’t really accomplish it (his brother who deposed him, Antonio, is strangely silent when he loses his dukedom to Prospero at the end of the play, and one wonders if he was plotting something of his own). Prospero’s “revenge” seems more of a modest chastisement. He forgives his brother and the rest just when he has everyone in his power and you expect him to punish them. Hardly vengeful (but a good example for our revenge-obsessed council, should they deign to read the play, although I doubt our mayor would ever consider it).
It’s unclear why Prospero wants his dukedom back, since he neglected his civic duties when he had it last (and was rather properly deposed for ignoring his responsibilities… wait: our own mayor has abandoned his civic duties to run for MPP, putting personal ambition before responsibilities. Another parallel?) Prospero is far more interested in his books (I understand his passion… but suggest our mayor has little to no affection for reading, so that parallel is out the window). Plus Prospero’s been out of the governing game for the past 12 years. Who would even remember him when he returns? And why does he “drown” only one book when he arrived on the island with several?
Is Shakespeare making a comment on the inappropriateness of hereditary government compared to a meritocracy here? Prospero gets all of his authority, power, and rights back simply by being him, without having to actually earn it, without having to prove he is capable of governing. Our mayor got handed the PC nomination without having to work for it… and he’s not proven himself capable of governing this term… hmmm… I can’t escape those parallels, can I?
It’s hard to feel sympathetic towards Prospero because most of the time he seems to be a petty tyrant and bully, whose magic seems to be used mostly to cause pain in others (our mayor, again…). I feel more sympathetic towards Caliban, who seems the victim of Prospero’s unjust wrath. Just as I feel for the victims of our own mayor’s bitter, petty, puerile vendetta against those who thwarted his ambition in 2012… so many Calibans are among us here.
The only really likeable person among the shipwrecked is Gonzalo and he’s pretty fuzzy-headed at times.
But where is the villain? Where is the play’s Iago? Caliban cons Stephano and Trinculo into misbehaving, to even plot murder, but nothing serious comes of it. Sebastian and Antonio plot to kill King Alonso while he sleeps, but are easily put off their intent by Ariel. Antonio, who connived to steal Prospero’s kingdom, doesn’t come across as more than a second-rate villain. Is Prospero the villain in protagonist disguise? Like our mayor is the villain in our own communal activities?
Ferdinand and Miranda: what a couple of soppy teenagers. No wit, not spirit, no challenges to overcome, as in Romeo & Juliet, no witty banter as in Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It. They’re cardboard cutouts, hard to like, hard to empathize with. Only in their brief moment of closeness in Act III Sc. 1, so we get a sense of them as individuals. They basically see one another and fall in love at first sight, pledge to marry, and then play chess. Well, okay, I like the chess bit, but it doesn’t serve a deeper purpose in the play (chess as a metaphor, chess as a play-within-a-play, etc.).
Prospero gives Ferdinand a task to prove himself worthy of Miranda’s hand. One would expect some Herculean task, some knight-versus-dragon, find-the-holy-grail challenge to prove his mettle. But, instead, his task is… piling up sticks. Yup: he makes a woodpile. There’s more Monty Python than Mallory in that chore. Is it because Prospero doesn’t think Ferdinand is up to greater challenges? Or that, having already decided on him as a son-in-law, Prospero is simply doing the token dad thing to let Ferdy know who’s in charge? Has our mayor even given anyone on council anything more than a token task or responsibility? Methinks not, probably for the same reason.
Caliban gets a bad rap. He’s an abandoned orphan with no one to teach him language or the rules of society. He’s been alone (possibly for 12 years), and, of course, he runs into problems when humans arrive on his island. He’s treated like a servant, and later as a slave and punished for speaking back. Dissent isn’t allowed (as it isn’t allowed here, now that resident’s letters and comments are
censored “fact-checked” to conform to official narratives)
Caliban is portrayed as sexually threatening to Miranda, although again I think he’s not given a fair portrayal. After all, he goes through puberty without anyone explaining the euphemistic ‘birds and bees.’ There’s no other female on the island but Miranda, and he hasn’t seen another since his mother died (an unspecified time in the past), so under those circumstances his frustrations and lusts are understandable, if not entirely defensible.
Prospero deserves to bear some of the blame for not ensuring Caliban was raised and taught properly. Just like our mayor deserves the blame for calling for a judicial inquiry and wasting $10 million and more of taxpayers’ money on it (and still spending lavishly!). But he will never take responsibility for his own actions, unlike Caliban, who admits his faults towards the end.
In Act I Sc. 2, we learn that Prospero taught Caliban to speak, but Caliban’s response is telling:
You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
While it’s true that most Shakespearean curses are linguistic delights, there isn’t as much cursing in the play from Caliban or anyone else, in comparison to other plays. Shakespeare’s Insults (by Hill and Öttchen, Mainsail Press, 1993) has 79 phrases and lines listed from the Tempest, but few seem to have the strength and vituperation of, say, the Henry IV plays with Falstaff’s delightful verbiage. (Did you know Shakespeare used the term “besmirched” in only two of his plays?)
In Act IV, Sc. 1, Prospero is talking to Ferdinand about Miranda:
…all thy vexations
Were but my trials of thy love and thou
Hast strangely stood the test here, afore Heaven,
I ratify this my rich gift. O Ferdinand,
Do not smile at me that I boast her off,
For thou shalt find she will outstrip all praise
And make it halt behind her.
That phrase, “I boast her off” struck me as jarring and likely a typo. Yet it’s printed that way in the Collins, QPB, Arden, Pelican, and Penguin editions. The RSC says “boast her of” which is still awkward (it’s in the First Folio that way). The New Folger edition hedges with “boast [of her]” and later notes that the Folio says “boast of her.” David Bevington, in his notes to the QPB edition suggests it’s an error for “I boast of her” which is how the Norton edition phrases it. I love the Norton edition for these simple emendations.
I still argue against taking the play too closely as autobiography, as I wrote previously. Those readings allow less room for The Bard’s imagination than I think is apparent in the plays.
This was the second of the Bard’s plays I’ve read this year: in late spring I launched in my goal to read them all before my 72nd birthday. the first was Henry VIII (All is True), and since have read Richard II, King John, Julius Caesar, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, Much Ado About Nothing, and have begun both Cymbeline and Midsummer Night’s Dream. My preferred source for texts is the Norton Shakespeare.