ABOUT THE PLAY: The Tempest
By Drew Lichtenberg, Production Dramaturg
In 1609, a group of settlers sailing to the Virginia colony wrecked, after a sudden sea-storm, on a strange island: Bermuda, where they subsisted on bananas and rum until they could rebuild a bark and sail home. Back in England, the survivor William Strachey’s account of the shipwreck became a source of great fascination, which seems to be where Shakespeare encountered it. Strachey’s venture had been funded by the Earl of Pembroke, Shakespeare’s patron, and Strachey himself would later live in Blackfriars, close to the indoor theatre where The Tempest was first performed.
We have no evidence that Strachey saw the play, but if he did he would have seen his own experiences reflected back at him in astonishing fashion. Considered Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest is also one of his strangest and most mysterious, a play that hints at profound personal meanings while also departing in many ways, large and small, from Shakespeare’s customary dramaturgical practice.
Among Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest is unusually short, and Shakespeare is keen to observe the classical rules of dramatic structure he ignores elsewhere. The action unfolds in real time and in one place (a nameless island, a la Strachey’s “Bermoothes”), made possible because Shakespeare follows Aristotle’s advice, relegating much of the play’s plot to backstory.
This plot concerns Prospero, once the Duke of Milan, but usurped by his scheming brother and sent to sea with his daughter in an open boat. Now, over a decade later, these conspirators happen to be sailing by when Prospero—now a powerful magician—decides to crash their ship and have his revenge, running them through a series of arduous illusions enabled by his magical powers.
So far, so simple. In The Tempest, however, Shakespeare doubles, triples, even quadruples this plot, resulting in a cascade that forces us to reflect on usurper and usurped, master and slave. For when Prospero arrived at the island, we also learn, he took the rightful inheritance of the island’s two natives: Ariel and Caliban.
For these two inspired creations—unlike anything else in his drama—Shakespeare invents entirely new dramatic languages. The “delicate spirit” Ariel, able to adopt any shape, serves as stage manager of Prospero’s remarkable theatricals. Ariel’s detached yet sympathetic perspective on human behavior (familiar to fans of Star Trek) strikes a Spock-like note, framing the human actors of the play to be puzzling, strange, ultimately worth value. In her interactions with Prospero, we witness the servant becoming the master of the master, Art communing with Life.
Caliban, on the other hand, is the play’s most striking portrait of humanity, even though he speaks a mere 100 lines, and is subjected to a constant and dehumanizing stream of abuse—described as a monster or animal, a “savage and deformed slave,” a “fish.” Untutored, Caliban possesses a tragic poetry all his own, at odds with the comic prose of the drunkard and clown who share his plot. Caliban’s unique ability to apprehend the natural world—his poignant reverie on the island’s music, at the midpoint of the play—mingles tenses with a curious and sublime grace.
“The isle is full of noises,” says Caliban. Indeed, The Tempest is also the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays, shot through with strange sounds. The play, to paraphrase Ariel, is something “rich and strange,” a beautiful object that loses us in its own mazelike rhythms. Writing at the end of his career, Shakespeare seems to have reached a peak of virtuosity, and there is an unmistakable nostalgia pervading Prospero’s menagerie of theatrical effects, which seem like replays of so many moments from Shakespeare’s career. One senses Shakespeare, with Prospero, looking into the “dark backward and abysm of time,” recollecting a life lived in dreams, creating illusions for the stage.
Perhaps this is the reason for the play’s economical structure, and Prospero’s fateful decision to renounce his theatrical magic. By relegating so much to backstory, Shakespeare devotes his action to final reckonings. Invariably, they are tender and human. The tempest, it turns out, was an illusion created by Prospero, and all of us are safe, despite our momentary terror. In other words, a piece of theatre. The same could be said of practically every scene in the play, full of sound and fury, signifying something.
This play, Shakespeare’s veritable last word in the theatre, ultimately addresses theatre’s limitations, its ultimate failure to manifest dream as reality. Shifting from a medieval to a new-world setting, from a world on the verge of eclipse to one on the verge of discovery, Shakespeare seems to be hinting at a loss of mystery. The dramatic action is nothing less than the destruction of the theatrical illusion itself, and with it, the setting of the sun on an entire era in world history.