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The Tempest Essay

In: Shakespeare free essays

The Tempest Essay

The Tempest, written by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), is an Elizabethan romance that combines the conventions of drama with that of Shakespearean comedies. The `tempest' in the title refers to both the tremendous storm that opens the play and the emotional conflicts that are highlighted by what follows. The Tempest was commenting on the social context of the period it was written; the fifteenth century, the `Age of Exploration', and, in this, Shakespeare was specifically referring to the Bermuda Pamphlets, and to the tale of the Sea Adventure, which lead to the theme of the Unknown and the introduction of Prospero's Art.

The Tempest raises questions that were just beginning to be asked in Shakespeare's day and that we have been puzzling over ever since. For example, it questions the true nature of man, more specifically the character of Caliban; is he in essence innocent or inevitably fallen and corrupt though redeemable either by education or through divine grace? His name, interestingly enough, seems to be an anagram or derivative of `cannibal'. This can be seen through the following lines made by Prospero: “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick…” (Act 4, Scene 1 - l 189-190). This opinion of Prospero's that Caliban is incapable of being educated or trained (nurtured) has quite an aggressive tone, which is evident with the repetition of “devil” and the alliteration of the cacophonic sounding letter `d'. This gives the responder an impression of the plot and its movement, as it emphasises certain points and contrasts this with Prospero's self-awareness, towards the end of the play, where he has realised that he too , like Caliban, has an evil side to his nature, and it is through his imaginative journey - his exile on the island - that has taught him that: “This thing of darkness, I / Acknowledge mine” (Act 5, Scene 1 - l 275-276). Here, diction with “darkness” a very evocative word, followed by the first person use of “I”, suggests to the reader that Prospero is genuinely exploring himself within the very depths of his mind, and is able to accept his faults due to his imaginative journey.

The Tempest takes places on an island of which we are not privileged to know the exact location of. Already, this hints to us, as an audience, that the play will be anything but based on mundane reality. As a play, we are expected to become non-realistic prior to viewing it. We have to be ready to be open to everything but reality. As a result of this, Shakespeare has created for us, an imaginative journey. The setting itself is enigmatic; credible and strange, lifelike and yet mysterious and unnatural. By having such a peculiar setting as well as a fairly small cast, Shakespeare's themes are developed in sharper relief. Those who are shipwrecked feel lost and forlorn, alienated and insecure. This prevents them from feeling as much in control as if they were within their normal setting. Prospero, a figure exhibiting many resemblances to the Elizabethan idea of the 'Mage', (of whom the best known is probably Dr. John Dee) and his magic is therefore better able to work on them.

Shakespeare sees the world of his play from several different and sometimes contradictory points of view, which can be noticed through the “subtleties” of Prospero's island (Act 5, Scene 1 - l 124). One of these is to appear in quite a different form to each person who looks at it, as each character in their own `transitional' state of mind, sees reflected the personal virtues they possess. Hence, the island acts like a mirror medium and Shakespeare as the composer has imaginatively constructed the setting as a result, while also commenting on the imperfections of civilization through the various flaws of those who stagger ashore. It is important to note here that Prospero has chosen to compare the courtier's experiences to “subtleties”, which were sugar-covered sweets served at the end of a banquet. They were made in the shape of mythical figures or buildings. Shakespeare has included this analogy because all the visitors to the island have had such extraordinary experiences, and at the end of it all they are served with `sweets' in other words they each have hopefully learned a few things. The audience must allow different aspects of the play's world to reveal themselves and place one another, so that they may journey with the characters and possibly gain insight into themselves through the recurring motifs of the play such as power, responsibility, trust, betrayal, love, and so forth.

It is at this stage of the play that I would like to explain the significance of the setting of the play. The island is described as a paradise. This is reminiscent of the survival stories of explorers that Shakespeare would have been exposed to, especially the story of the miraculous survival of the crew and captain when they were stranded in the Bermudas. Instead of a devil infested land, it was told to be a paradise. However, the colonial theory of the savage nature of the natives of the lands that were explored remained and was confirmed. Despite the popular belief that these monsters were unable to be taught and were not human but merely animals of a brutish nature, Shakespeare, through The Tempest, contradicts this belief through one of his key characters - the `moon-calf' Caliban.

Indeed an authorial comment on the colonial theory, Shakespeare gives Caliban the most beautiful lines in the play and he is surely the most interesting and original creation of the play, the character who makes the largest demands of Shakespeare's imagination and on ours. With regard to “the isle”, Caliban comments: “Be not afeared, the isle is full of noises”, “sweet airs” and “sounds” that allow him to escape his reality of his enslavement by Prospero, and open him up to the possibility of “riches” or the fantasy of freedom/power that his dreaming would bring (Act 3, Scene 2 - ll 130-136). He further shows his longing for the music that wills him to sleep by saying that “When I waked / I cried to dream again” (Act 3, Scene 2 - ll 137-138). This most famously quoted verse of Caliban is a direct attack on the colonial theory by the author. Caliban is able to speak in verse like those of the noble classes and is the most open to an imaginative journey as his poetic lines convey. In his last words Caliban hopes he will “…be wiser hereafter / And seek for grace…” (Act 5, Scene 1 - ll 293-294). Here, Shakespeare has used diction with words “seek” and “grace” to create pathos for the character of Caliban. However, it is unlikely that his knowledge acquired through his imaginative journey will be sustained because he is quick to find fault and to moan, believing for example that the main benefit he has gained from learning to speak is in learning to curse (Act 1, Scene 2 - ll362-364).

The play opens with a huge storm - a tempest - in which Shakespeare uses a number of techniques to make it a reality. This is presented in prose, which draws the responder into the text and it is only when tragedy seems imminent that the language turns to blank verse, which creates dramatic tension. The prose and blank verse of the play alternate throughout, according to what must be developed thematically or not. Gonzalo's use of prose in his final speech in this scene combines with his optimistic humour to relieve the tension, which is for the purpose of the audience, to provide relief to a certain extent and set them up for the next scene. The very first stage direction `A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning' authenticates the opening act and creates suspense for the audience. He uses recurring imagery of the storm: “roarers”, “the sea”, “sink”, “drowning”, and “the washing of ten tides”. The stage direction `Enter MARINERS, wet' is Shakespeare's invitation to the audience's imagination and offers them exciting theatrical action. Furthermore, sound imagery is also used with the clamorous noises and frightened seafarers and this reinforces the threatening sense of the storm. However, the audience is also aware of the happenings over those (the royal court) who, in natural circumstances, would be the superiors. Shakespeare uses the lines of the Boatswain: “When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin. Silence! Trouble us not” (Act 1, Scene 1 - l 15-16), as a metaphor for the play. Both the storm and the Boatswain's behaviour of little or no respect represent the many challenges to authority, which recur throughout the play. This questions the social hierarchy that was typical of the time in which the play was written, and its role of importance in the face of its extinction. The audience is aware of the tempest's ferocity yet are also forced to acknowledge these occurrences on the boat.

It is in the following scene that we are introduced to Shakespeare's use of magic as a vehicle for the imaginative journey and the theme of illusion, as the tempest of the storm seemed life threatening but in fact was conjured up by supernatural elements. One of the most original transformations of The Tempest ever filmed mocks the tempest and the audience's belief in it, thanks to Shakespeare's creative techniques. In Prospero's Books (1991) by Peter Greenaway, a toy-boat is used to represent the ship of the royal court. Ariel, who is in the form of a young angel boy, urinates on this toy-boat and the ship is shown to lose its course and sink, as a result of Ariel's actions. Sound effects of laughing and giggling are employed to denote the seriousness of the tempest storm. The joke is obvious to those familiar with The Tempest and the film scene is an interesting take on Shakespeare's work. Following on, Miranda pleads: “If by your art, my dearest father, you have / Put the wild waters into this roar, allay them” (Act 1, Scene 2 - ll 1-2). This line tells us that it was at Prospero's hand that the storm had occurred. Miranda's use of “if” signifies not only her horror of the storm, but also her fear of her father's power. This introduces the theme of power in this play that Shakespeare extensively explores. Later, we are also told of Prospero's `project' of revenge against those that have done him wrong, thus being the reason for the exile of the people from the boat onto the island, which reveals that the `tables have turned' once again, since the usurped ruler's enemies are under his power. Prospero's line “Now I arise” (Act 1, Scene 2 - l 169), make use of pun word play. It's literal meaning is shown with the stage directions (Standing), but it's symbolic meaning refers to his fortunes improving, which is directly implied in line 179 when Prospero calls Fortune `my dear lady' (fortune is now on my side). This plan of revenge is the central plot to the play, and hence the theme of reconciliation is explored along with that of power.

Ursula K.Le Guin, American author of The Left Hand of Darkness, (born 1929) once said: “My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world and exiles me from it.” Prospero, who was captive by his obsession with revenge, due partly to his irresponsibility as ruler and his concern instead for his `books' - figurative of his imagination, learns to forgive as he becomes a catalyst for the characters in the play and they indirectly become catalysts for his journey. Prospero must reconcile the past with the present in order to progress towards and beyond the future. In the end he asks for forgiveness, directly addressing the audience in a rhyming epilogue at the conclusion of the play. He ends with: “And as of crimes you would pardoned be/ Let your indulgence set me free” (Act 5, Scene 1 - ll 19-20). These last words imply that in the completion of his Imaginative Journey, Prospero is now without the Art necessary to free himself. He must instead turn to the power of the responder to save him, in this case, quite literally asking for their applause and support to help him to reach Naples with the king's party. Also, the last line is a parallel with Shakespeare's separation from theatre, as many believe that The Tempest may have been Shakespeare's farewell to the art with which he had wrought such wonders. Prospero's epilogue is a significant resolution to give up his magic (power), books, staff and so on, which are symbols of the dramatic element of the play and are the `tools' along with Ariel and Caliban that he uses in his journey to reach his destination and therefore forgive instead of taking vengeance. Prospero has taken an inner journey, which was catalysed by his imaginative journey. His innate goodness is shown by the fact that although he has the power to take revenge, repentance and reconciliation are sought in its place. He has learnt that “The rarer action is / In virtue, than in vengeance” (Act 5, Scene 1 - ll 27-28) and this realisation makes him worthy of his dukedom. The diction of “virtue” has many associations such as: mercy, forgiveness, magnanimity, humanity, love, reason, and good faith. This technique along with the contrast of “virtue” over “vengeance” and the alliteration of the vowel sounding `v' reinforces the theme of reconciliation and the part the imaginative journey played in this outcome. A transformed man, he can now leave his enchanted island and return with his daughter and the others to Milan.

A new generation hints at new alliances and the healing of old wounds and grievances. This is symbolised with the journey of love that Miranda and Ferdinand embark on. The younger generation brings about the harmony/peace that the older generation had conflict over. Prospero is willing to forget the sadness of the past and move on to a future that is hopefully to be blessed with greater happiness: “Let us not burden our remembrances with / A heaviness that's gone (Act 5, Scene 1 - ll 198-199). There is no longer any need for the magician to summon up his elves and sprites and this is symbolised in the setting free of Ariel: “I'll deliver all, / And promise you calm seas, auspicious gales, / And sail so expeditious that shall catch / Your royal fleet far off. My Ariel, chick, / That is they charge. Then to the elements / Be free and fare thou well. Please you draw near” (Act 5, Scene 1 - ll 313-317). Here, Prospero's language is rich in imagery.

Very little actually seems to happen in terms of plot compared with other Shakespearean romances and this is largely because Prospero is dictating the fates of all inhabitants. Theatrical spectacle, imaginative masques and supernatural happenings rather than significant dramatic struggles inspire the characters to undergo a journey of the mind. This causes some of them to reflect and ponder, resulting for some in sustained and positive transformation. Others such as Antonio are beyond real redemption.

As Miranda comments with such unexpected insight, “Good wombs have borne bad sons”, for Antonio is an example of a corrupted and unnatural man. He is unable to comprehend the kindness of others and so it comes as no surprise when Prospero offers forgiveness for him that he gives no word of gratitude or repentance. “…most wicked sir, whom to call brother / Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive / Thy rankest fault-all of them…” (Act 5, Scene 1 - l30-132). Here, Shakespeare has given Prospero shorter, terser sentences compared to other lines such as Prospero's description of his brother's treachery, which uses narrative and longer sentencing, showing that great emotion is involved in his reconciliation. He does not feel guilt or remorse or even shame when his villainy is exposed. In fact, during the reconciliation of Act 5 he remains silent except for one sarcastic jab at Caliban who although wicked is a far more likeable creature than Antonio.

Act 1, Scene 2 is a strong example of the striking imagery employed to allude to mysterious or enchanting subjects. In the lines 375 to 403, Ariel sings two songs each one with its own connotation and ineffable beauty. The first song is about the calming of the tempest. It is an invitation to dance by the seashore and is promptly expressed in the words: “Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands” (ll 375-376), where the waves kiss, becoming silent and calm: “kissed / The wild waves whist” (ll 377-378). There are a number of linguistic devices evident in these few lines and an exploration of these allows us to gain a deeper reading and meaning. The “yellow sands” is symbolic of hope, the hope that Prospero feels in his plan of his daughter and the son of the King of Naples eventually falling in love, hence restoring peace amongst the two `leader' figures. There is alliteration of the letter `w' in “wild”, “waves” and “whist” and this is quite euphonic sounding, which adds to and highlights the effect the first song conveys of a calming sense. Onomatopoeia exists with the word “whist”, as it implies that the roaring waves have gone into silence and its sound seems to imaginatively do so. Ariel invites spirits to join in with the chorus of watchdogs barking and cockerels crowing, which extends the song and its imagery. Ferdinand says that the music calms both the storm and his feeling of grief for his father, whom he believes drowned: “Weeping again the king my father's wrack” (line 390). Shakespeare makes use of synecdoche through the diction with the word “wrack”, as it suggests the wrecked ship, yet within it's context in the line itself refers to a remnant of something destroyed, which is the death of his father and the cacophonic word adds a greater sense of loss. The `magical' tempest is the catalysing agent in the plot and represents the struggle of all characters. However, although the tempest ends, this struggle continues for the main characters throughout the imaginative journey. Ariel's second song seems to be directly addressed to Ferdinand, to comfort him. It tells how Alonso is magically transformed: “Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes” (ll 397-398). Anthropomorphism is used here, as Alonso is given animalistic/non-human qualities, which adds to the mysteriousness and enigma of the island and strengthens the idea of the imaginative journey. The song reassures the grieving son, telling him to think of his father not as dead, but as having undergone “a sea-change / Into something rich and strange” (ll 400-401). The most significant word in the entire song is “sea-change”, which has a number of connotations including: transformation, transcendence, catharsis and metamorphosis. Throughout this play of improbable happenings, Shakespeare frequently uses the hyphen to create compound words, which conjure up stunning images. Shakespeare may have used these hyphenated words because their instability expresses the sense of wonder and ever-changing reality, which runs through the play. Shakespeare has yet again presented a new challenge to the imagination, through the act of putting the two words together to create “sea-change”. It is vividly powerful, but cannot be pinned down to a single, exact meaning, adding to the impact it has concerning the idea of the imagination. Music would be an integral part of the atmosphere in this scene, as it would deepen meaning and add to the mood of it, as experienced by the audience.

A convention in Shakespeare's times, the court masque helps break up the action of previous parts of the play. It would involve panoramic explosion of sound (music), colour, scenery, costumes, and creativity. It's visual richness would dazzle, impress, engage, and stimulate the Jacobean audience. Furthermore, it would provide an opportunity to `showcase' special effects highlighting magic, enchantment, or the `possibilities'. Today, it is no different as it still conveys a number of things. Firstly, it reinforces the character of Prospero as a magus (wizard) and his magic, abilities, and charisma. This can be seen through his command in establishing the masque: “No tongue! All eyes! Be silent!” The repeated punctuation of the exclamation point greatly connotes Prospero's passion for his art. He is the `ringmaster' in a sense, and his imagination has become the audiences inspiration and entertainment. The masque suggests the changing seasons of nature: springtime and harvest, which alludes to change and transformation of characters. There is imagery of colours, sights and sounds through the lines made by Iris and Ceres. Ceres, the goddess of harvest, symbolises the riches that will result from the wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda and represents fertility and fruitfulness. The appearance of Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, expresses the peace that follows a tempest. Just as a rainbow appears after a storm, so Iris herself is an emblem of Prospero's plan; the wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda which will harmoniously unite Milan and Naples after many years of trouble. A simile is used with Iris, as she is likened to a rainbow (Act 4, Scene1 - ll 60-83). Adjective words such as “watery arch”, “many-coloured”, “blue bow” and “rich scarf” all help to develop the power of the imagination by juxtaposing mythology and artificiality against realism. Ferdinand claims that the court masque “is a most majestic vision…” (ll 117). The use of alliteration with the `m' consonant in “most majestic” emphasizes his wonder and amazement by it all. One of the most important quotes in The Tempest is said during the masque when Prospero states: “Spirits which by mine art / I have from their confines called to enact / My present fancies”. This is a metaphor for the imaginative journey and is also a reference to Shakespeare himself. It is an allusion to the creative “spirits” or drives of Shakespeare as the composer. Just as the spirits “enact” Prospero's “fancies”, so to will the actors portray the composer's visions for the play and his own “confines” could be the depths of his imagination. The famous lines given to Prospero, beginning with the words “Our revels now are ended…” (Act 4, Scene 1 - ll 148-158) seem to utter Shakespeare's final judgement on man's little life. Sleep and dreams also feature strongly and are interwoven with the central motif of illusion versus reality. “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (ll 156-158). Such references reinforce the world of the imagination by emphasising the discrepancy between what is real and what is only illusionary.

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