In Our Time: The Tempest

On Sunday we listened to the In Our Time programme about Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which was discussed by Jonathan Bate (Worcester College, Oxford), Erin Sullivan (University of Birmingham) and Katherine Duncan-Jones (Somerville College, Oxford). This was the last play written solely by Shakespeare, around 1610, and is also the only one where he made the plot up entirely from scratch. The action almost entirely takes place on an island (perhaps in the Mediterranean, perhaps in the Atlantic, it’s not specified). Prospero was Duke of Milan, but his position has been usurped by his younger brother and so Prospero and his daughter Miranda have gone into exile on this island. The island is uninhabited except for the spirit Ariel and Caliban, the deformed/monstrous son of the deceased witch Sycorax (who was previously banished to the island). The opening scene shows Prospero’s brother and a boatload of people from Naples (including the King) caught in a storm (raised by Prospero) and being shipwrecked on the island. The plot revolves around Miranda and one of the nobles falling in love, Caliban in rebellion against Prospero’s authoritarian rule over the island and Prospero and his brother reconciling (eventually).

After Bate gave a summary of the plot the programme moved on to looking at the ways that Shakespeare’s life and the politics and issues of the day influenced the play. Parallels are often drawn between Prospero (using his magic to manipulate and direct all the others on the island) and Shakespeare (using his art of playwriting to manage and direct the action on stage, and to shape the imagination of the audience). This parallel is increased by the last section of the play where Prospero talks about giving up his art and retiring. As this is Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play this can be seen as Shakespeare talking about his own retirement. Another way that Shakespeare’s own circumstances inform the writing of this particular play is that later in his career he and his acting company bought an indoor theatre. This meant that more lighting effects and sound effects were possible than in the outdoor theatres. And it’s easier to do special effects like having someone fly when you’re in a room where you can fix a hoist to the ceiling.

One obvious way that the political situation of the time informs the play is that Shakespeare’s company were frequently called upon to perform plays at court; even more often after James took the throne than in Elizabeth’s time. The plays he wrote therefore needed to be entertaining to the King, and to pander to his interests and enthusiasms. One of the things that King James VI & I was particularly interested in was magic, and he believed that there was both black magic (that of witches) and good magic. In the play Sycorax (who never appears but is referred to) is an embodiment of evil magic, and Prospero’s magic is presented as good magic. However Shakespeare leaves the question of whether there’s any real difference between the two open for the audience to think about. Family and dynastic marriages were also of interest to James (and to his wife) – they had children, unlike James’s predecessor on the throne, and had to think about marriages for them. So the plot thread with Miranda, and Prospero’s orchestration of her romance with Ferdinand, would appeal to the royals.

For all that Shakespeare made up the plot of this play, it’s still informed by stories or events he’d heard of. For instance the whole set-up of a ruler usurped by a brother going into exile to study magic comes from a real life event. One of the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire had had that happen – but it seems he was quite happy with that state of affairs, and devoted the rest of his life to magic rather than trying to regain his throne. Obviously in The Tempest Prospero isn’t happy, and this may be another way of appealing to James (who firmly believed in the divine right of kings). Another real life event that underpins Shakespeare’s story was the shipwreck of a ship going to Virginia in Bermuda. (This same event is important in Pocahontas’s life as her future English husband was on that very ship – the In Our Time about her aired the week after this one, but we listened to it a few weeks ago (post)).

Colonialism is also an important theme in the play, and it’s one that’s only grown in importance in modern times. The island is “uninhabited” – which means except for Caliban. Even by the standards of the time Caliban should’ve had rights to the land by virtue of having been born there, but Prospero still feels he has the right to rule the land because he’s more important than Caliban (I paraphrase heavily here). Caliban is described initially as monstrous and deformed, and there’s some reference to how if they could get him back to Naples they could display him in a fair and make a lot of money. That’s actually a reference to what really happened to some poor Inuit person, brought back to London and displayed as a fairground attraction (he didn’t take long to die, apparently). This was an era when explorers were discovering the strange (to Europeans) flora and fauna of the Americas, and it was thought that there might be not-quite-human people out there too, over whom obviously the “superior” Europeans would rule. But there were more enlightened viewpoints even at the time – the experts talked about an essay called “Of Cannibals” by Montaigne which argues that just because the customs of other people are different doesn’t mean they are wrong. It’s worth noting that Caliban is almost an anagram of Cannibal, and is also similar to Cariban (which is what people called Carribeans at the time). Caliban isn’t just depicted as monstrous, however. He’s portrayed as a sympathetic character, and Duncan-Jones was saying that the best lines and best poetry in the play are given to Caliban. Shakespeare is again not coming down on one side or the other – he’s giving the audience something to think or argue about.

The play fell out of favour after Shakespeare’s time. In particular after the Civil Wars it was rewritten as more of a rom-com called An Enchanted Isle. Partly this was because it was seen as an “old” play, so needed reworking for the new fashions. And partly because there are various speeches in the play that think about different ways the world could be ruled – and that would be quite a raw and touchy subject for the time. In the 19th Century the play was rediscovered and across the course of the 20th Century it increasingly appealed to a post-colonial audience. The experts talked a bit about more modern reimaginings of the play including one where Ariel is coded as Martin Luther King and Caliban as Malcom X (Prospero, obviously, remains the authoritarian white man).

The Tempest isn’t one of the plays I knew much about before listening to this programme, it was interesting to learn more (I don’t get to it in the Shakespeare MOOC I’m doing for another couple of weeks).