“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”
This is definitely an unusual review for me to write, but also an important one in a number of ways. I’ve never really enjoyed reading plays for fun before now; I’ve always thought they ought to be performed rather than read, but it’s something that will become pretty important during my English degree – so I decided I should get some practice in. It’s also the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and there’s been loads of brilliant TV about Shakespeare recently which has kept him at the forefront of my mind. This led me to realise that I really don’t know enough of his plays, so I decided to take a step to remedy that and read his final play: The Tempest.
The play is a shining example of the Latin expression “in media res” (and I promise that’s the most pretentious thing I’ll say for the rest of this review). It’s a snapshot of a much bigger story (At one point, one character explicitly states “What’s past is prologue”), tackling themes as diverse as colonisation, magic, political unrest and family with some of the Shakespeare’s best verse.
I’ll try and summarise the plot as best I can: Prospero is a powerful sorcerer who used to be Duke of Milan before he was banished, along with his daughter Miranda, to a mysterious island that is almost uninhabited save for Caliban, who Prospero soon enslaves and teaches English. The play begins 12 years later, as Prospero creates a tempest (vicious storm) to wreck a ship carrying his brother, Antonio, who initially overthrew Prospero, and several dignitaries from Naples including the King (Alonso) and his son (Ferdinand).
There are three different plots/conspiracies to keep track of as the play moves forward:
- Prospero is attempting to get Ferdinand and Miranda together, without letting them know that he’s attempting anything at all
- Antonio and Sebastian (Alonso’s brother), neither of whom are very nice, are plotting to kill Alonso
- Caliban, Stephano (Alonso’s butler) and Trinculo (Alonso’s jester) get super drunk and subsequently plot to overthrow Prospero and free Caliban from his servitude.
It’s fair to say there’s a lot going on here, even if we ignore subplots about Caliban’s mummy problems and Alonso’s contradictory whims on ruling an island free from governance – and I haven’t even mentioned Ariel yet, an incredibly tricksy spirit creature who, in unwelcome servitude, performs most of Prospero’s magic on his behalf and also spends most of the play being invisible to most of the characters. Yet, somehow, it all works beautifully, and what sounds convoluted here translates on the stage into each character having a clear emotional arc and understandable motives that carry them through the story.
Of course, a crucial element of that is having compelling characters in the first place, which The Tempest does in spades. Prospero is as multi-faceted as he is interesting: by turns a doting father, a vengeful brother, a rigorous slave-master and simply a man conflicted, this is a part that offers a wealth of material for an actor to portray. Although he has a lot of the best lines, I’d say Caliban gets a fair few great ones as well (he speaks the lines at the top of this review), and a character arc to support such powerful prose. Miranda gets one of the play’s most famous lines…
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!”
…yet she, along with Ferdinand, is actually given very little to do aside from fawning about and allowing for Prospero’s expositions to be directed at a character instead of delivered in a soliloquy. Antonio and Sebastian make very compelling villains, and Alonso comes across as very well-meaning but also understandably murderable (which isn’t a word but I’m going with it anyway). Trinculo and Stephano also make excellent foils to the magical goings-on around the island, keeping the focus profoundly on the human cost of Prospero’s meddlings – and even though he’s not strictly human, Ariel’s characterisation achieves a similar feat.
Shakespeare is not afraid to navigate some tonal about-turns as he moves between storylines. Prospero’s beef with his old statesmen is played out with an epic scope involving magic and gods and monsters, while Miranda and Ferdinand’s blossoming love is, in its sweetness, almost profoundly simple by comparison. The tales of the other sailor’s attempts to navigate and survive the island are painted in welcome swathes of broad comedy, and Alonso manages to appear respectable even as he’s undercut by Sebastian and Antonio. Caliban is a character who straddles a few of this play’s tonal shifts, starting out as a tragic figure and slowly transmogrifying into a sort of tragicomic drunkard whose woes are far more severe for him than they appear to the audience.
I think what the play does best is invest each character and scene with the same straight-faced sincerity. For instance, the scenes of Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo falling about drunk were legitimately hilarious, but at no point did that lessen the impact of Caliban’s suffering from the audience, or reduce it in importance compared to, say, the murderous plots or young love or dark magic found in the rest of the play.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this play – in part due to reading it on the Heuristic Shakespeare app, where the play is performed to you as you read it, and you can tap around to study the text in-depth as you read it. The picture here shows how it looks when in use, and you should definitely check out if you have an iPad. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for interesting-looking productions of The Tempest in the future, if only to see how on earth they stage the more supernatural elements of the play. You may be able to tell from the number of quotes I’ve littered throughout this review how in love with the language of this play I find myself, so I’ll leave it to Prospero/Shakespeare to cap of this review with a beautiful quote from near the end of the play, which functions rather neatly as an ode to the art of theatre itself:
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”