Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Tempest: Sources and An Anthology of Themes

Margaret Leighton as Ariel, Ralph Richardson as Prospero (1952)
Out of numerous sources from reality and literature, Shakespeare's alchemy creates a myth: of Prospero, who uses his learning to command the magic of an uncharted island through the powerful spirit called Ariel, while defending his daughter Miranda against the animalistic man called Caliban. It begins with a shipwreck caused by Prospero’s magic that deposits Italian nobles and their retinue on this island, including men who are part of Prospero’s past as the deposed duke of Milan. They wander to their self-revealing fates on his magic island, according to his plan.

 This myth has fed countless other stories and supplied metaphors for many discussions through the years, just as this play itself has been interpreted and presented on stage in many different ways.The Tempest is rare if not singular in that Shakespeare does not base it on an existing text.  But there are likely sources, even for the basic story.

Litcritter Northrop Frye points to commedia del' arte, in which actors improvised on a loose scenario with stock characters and an assortment of bits and gags.  Several of the scenari involve a magician living on a magic island, a stock character sometimes named Prospero, whose comic business involves keeping undesirable suitors away from his daughters.  Shakespeare knew the tradition, and it's likely that in the original production of the Tempest, the comic business involving the jester Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban was improvised, commedia-style. (photo from NCRT production with Brian Walker as Trinculo, Tyler Egerer as Stephano and Kenneth Wigley as Caliban.)

  Onto such a basic story, Shakespeare could add other layers.  Contemporary playwright (and Oscar-winning screenwriter of Shakespeare in Love) Tom Stoppard says that he knows he has a play when he has two or three ideas he can try to bring together.  This is pretty clearly what Shakespeare does.  Only he doesn't always stop at two or three.

An isolated island might suggest the tradition of Utopian stories.  It also in turn suggests contemporary voyages to the New World, which was already being identified with Utopian possibilities.  Shakespeare knew   about the new English explorations and Virginia colonies.  He even knew people involved in them.  In particular he read accounts of the shipwreck in which hundreds of colonists and the new governor of Virginia had perished, and then the amazing accounts of the unexpected survival of all of those who were shipwrecked.  They came ashore in Bermuda, had some political intrigues while there, and finally built a new ship and completed their voyage to Virginia.

As a showman, he noticed how natives of distant lands such as the Americas were paraded for profit as curiosities in England.  When a couple of characters in The Tempest see Caliban, their first thoughts are how to make money by exhibiting him.    
Chyna Leigh as Ariel, Scott Malcolm as
Prospero at NCRT

Shakespeare had literary sources for other elements of the play.  He read Montaigne’s ironic essay on cannibals, which is reflected in Gonzalo’s Utopian musings about a radically different society based on a direct relationship to nature.  He had The Aeneid for some sense of voyaging in the Mediterranean (mythic and otherwise), and he transferred a speech from Ovid's Metamorphoses, when Prospero gives up his magic with virtually the same words as Medea uses to invoke her dark powers.  

Another major source is..the plays of Shakespeare. In some respects it's kind of anthology of clips from his greatest hits: there’s the royal treachery of his histories, a romance in a pastoral setting, a philosophical protagonist, spectacle, magic, music, and a couple of clowns. But they are oddly like clips--there are conspiracies that go nowhere.  This might be the only Shakespeare in which there's a terrible shipwreck and several characters plot murder, but no one dies.

When he wrote The Tempest, Shakespeare was near the end of his theatrical career.  Some sentimentally suggest that he may have himself played Prospero, but he seemed to have given up acting some years before.  His plays, his acting, his financial interest in the theatre had made him a wealthy and respected man.  He collaborated on a few more plays but basically he went back to Stratford.  Unfortunately it wasn't a long retirement.  He died in 1616, about five years after he wrote The Tempest. He was 52.

So theatre was his life, and his plays reflect that in many ways he saw life through the lens of theatre.  The Tempest certainly is an example--and many would say, the prime example.

Some observers believe the play is about the "insubstantial pageant" of life as theatre, or the playwright/director as magician.  Others see it as centered on the issues of colonialism, or a meditation on nature, nature v. nurture, and human nature. The themes of revenge and forgiveness are often cited. There's evidence for all these concerns and more in this play.

Northrup Frye (in his book Creation and Recreation) finds in it themes that run through Shakespeare's last romances, particularly The Winter's Tale as well as The Tempest: a "double resolution" of "young people forming the nucleus of a new social order" and "of older people restored to their original lives through the arts..."  This is the key to a deeper vision, of integrating the timeless (the arts and myth, as represented in The Tempest by the masque of gods and goddesses, especially of the cycle of life) into a vision of the future.  It is "a transfiguration into a world we keep making..."

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