The King and the Poet: The Tempest, Whitehall, Winter, 1613
The fall and winter of 1612-13, probably the last of Shakespeare's tenure as resident playwright with the King's Men, were disturbed times at Whitehall. Robert Cecil, the real power behind the throne and the most farsighted politician in England, had died on May 24, 1612, aged forty-nine. The court, mean as ever, buzzed with the news that he had died of syphilis. Arbella Stuart, melancholy and with a streak of willfulness, was also gone from the court, having tried the king's patience too far at last. Her story is pure Shakespearean romance from beginning to end. She had a claim to the throne, as good in law as that of James, who kept her at court like Hamlet in Claudius' Elsinore, so that he could keep an eye on her and prevent her marriage, which might have produced a dangerous heir. Life at court kept Arbella broke, as it did most courtiers, and she played the marriage card, her only trump, more than once, in order to extract money and gifts from James. In 1610 she seems to have been carried away by her own game and fell in love with William Seymour, the second son of Lord Beauchamp, descended through Catherine Grey from Henry VII, and the one man whom James could not allow her to marry. Seymour's claim to the throne combined with Arbella's held the possibility of political mischief, if anyone cared to make it—as someone always did. Nervous about the legitimacy of his own claim to the throne, and brokering every court marriage to prevent rivals, James questioned the lovers, separately and together, about their relationship.
The scene intrigued the Venetian ambassador for its undercurrents, and his report is worth repeating for what it tells us about the way in which the king interacted with his courtiers, particularly about marriage:
As we reported, the King is anxious that the marriage of the lady Arabella [sic] with the nephew of the Earl of Hertford should not go forward, so as to avoid the union of the claims of these two houses, who are the nearest to the Crown. After examination separately they were both summoned before the King, the Prince and the Council and ordered to give up all negotiations for marriage. Lady Arabella spoke at length, denying her guilt and insisting on her unhappy plight. She complained again that her patrimony had been conceded by the King to others. She had sold two rings he had given her. She was then required to beg the King's pardon, but replied that seeing herself deserted she had imagined that she could not be accused if she sought a husband of her own rank. All the same, if error she had made she humbly begged pardon. This did not satisfy the King; he demanded an absolute confession of wrong and an unconditional request for forgiveness. That she complied with, and received fresh promises of money and leave to marry provided the King approved. (Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts Relating to English Affairs, Existing in the Archives and Collections of Venice and in other Libraries of North Italy, 37 vols., ed. R. L. Brown et al., 1864-1947, XI, p. 439)
Money was the king's usual way of patching up quarrels, and Arbella took it, but she went on to marry Seymour secretly in the spring of 1610. The king was furious when he heard, exclaiming that a woman with royal blood had no right to live or marry as she wished. James then played the role of the villainous king of romance, like Leontes in The Winter's Tale (which, with its obvious connections to Arbella, was performed in court on November 5, 1611), confining Seymour to the tower and trying to send Arbella to Durham in 1611, although he got her no farther than Highgate. Arbella dressed as a man, in black wig, long cape, and rapier—just like Portia or Rosalind—and fled to France, whither William also went. At the last moment Arbella's ship was captured, and she was returned to England and the Tower, where, still like some heroine of romance—Hermione, say—imprisoned by a cruel tyrant, she lingered until 1614 and then died. James remained unrelenting to her pleas to be reunited with William, responding only with a stern Calvinist message, "Ye had eaten of the forbidden tree" (David N. Durant, Arbella Stuart, a Rival to the Queen, 1978, p. 184).
In a better world, 1613 would be best remembered as the year in which the last heretic was burned in England, when the wretched Bartholomew Legate died at Smithfield on March 18 and a few days later Edward Wightman suffered the same fate at Lichfield for no better reason than to affirm the authority of an ecclesiastical court to inflict capital punishment. But no one cared much for the suffering of these unknowns in the crowded time when over the course of a year the scandalous divorce of Frances Howard from the earl of Essex was pushed by the king, Cecil died, Arbella went to the Tower, the princess Elizabeth was betrothed, and Henry, prince of Wales, died after a long and mysterious illness in the fall of 1612, leaving his brother, the unpromising Charles, the successor to the throne.
There was always bad blood between the prince and his father, and the court had been scandalized years earlier when James hit his son with a tennis racket for some minor irritation. In a scene that sounds like something out of Lear, the king's fool, Archie Armstrong, "was after every night they could meet him tossed like a dog in a blanket" (Francis Osborne, Historical Memoirs on the Reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James, 1658, p. 269) by Prince Henry's men, simply for pointing out to King James that his son was becoming more popular and had a larger retinue than he. This fool, despite accumulating a fortune by selling his influence in the court, seems in the end to have been entirely fool, for he later, in Charles' time, had "his coat pulled over his head" and was banished from the court for some unhelpful remarks to the archbishop of Canterbury about high church policy. Henry's death was inevitably viewed by many at court as highly suspicious. Historians have concluded that Henry died of typhoid, but during his long, painful, and undiagnosed sickness, some of the court gossips, according to Sir Simond D'Ewes, recalled Tacitus' description of the poisoning of Germanicus. Others saw in the prince's death a Catholic plot linked with the assassination in 1610 of the prince's model, Henri IV. It was even said that if James had not poisoned his son, nonetheless the physicians feared to treat the disease lest they "might possibly offend no lesse by his recovery then death" (Osborne, 269). Chief Justice Coke, by then on the outs with the king, was less circumspect, voicing the suspicions of many when he said darkly, "God knows what became of that sweet babe, Prince Henry, (but I know somewhat)" (Anthony Weldon, The Court and Character of King James, 1649, vol. I, p. 427).
The prince was dead, but arrangements were already forward for the marriage of his sister Elizabeth to Frederick of Heidelberg, Elector of the Rhineland Palatinate, and it was decided not to allow mourning to interrupt this state marriage. James intended to play a hand in Continental religious politics, which were then working up to the Thirty Years' War, and the marriage would establish an English base on the Continent. A formal betrothal was celebrated on December 27, 1612, and the wedding took place, prettily, on Valentine's Day 1613. In the period between the engagement and the wedding, the palace was busy with various festivities, and the King's Men, one of four royal companies providing plays, were paid for twenty performances, the largest number they had yet given in a single season, from Christmas through May 20. The royal pair passed their days before the wedding riding, boating, playing cards, hunting, and attending plays and other court entertainments. Frederick was made a member of the Order of the Garter in St. George's Chapel at Windsor. Rich gifts were exchanged as expressions of esteem and worth—spurs set with diamonds, a bottle cut out of a single agate, a chain of diamonds and a tiara (G. P. V. Akrigg, Jacobean Pageant, or The Court of King James I, 1962).
The court buzzed about James's "desire to be rid of [the Princess Elizabeth] with least expense" and said maliciously that the match was made only "to render himselfe the umpire of all Christian differences" (Osborne, 282). The queen was snippy. Jealous of her daughter's being the center of attention, she referred to her as "Goodwife Palsgrave," to make certain that no one missed the fact that the princess was marrying down. But whatever the family may have felt privately, James spared no expense publicly, spending£50,000, which he could ill afford, on the festivities and£40,000 more on his daughter's dower. The Thames opposite Whitehall was packed with boats of all kinds, and a model of Algiers was built on the south bank, while a display of fireworks was loosed from barges, showing Saint George battling the dragon in a setting of castles, rocks, bowers, and forests. Oohs and ahs greeted squibs ignited to create a pack of hounds chasing a deer through the air, "making many rebounds and turns with much strangeness, skipping upon the air as if it had been a usual hunting upon land" (Akrigg, 237). The coup was a naval battle in which an English fleet flying the red cross of Saint George attacked a Turkish fleet, with much mock cannon fire—and many real accidents—until the Turks surrendered and were brought by the English admiral to the Whitehall stairs, where they submitted to the royalty assembled there to watch the fete.
After these festivities, the great show of the marriage itself began. The procession took the long way to the royal chapel in Whitehall in order that as many as possible might see the bride, with her golden hair hanging loose to her waist—a sign of her virginity—and interwoven with "a roll or list of gold-spangles, pearls, right stones and diamonds" (Akrigg, 242). Her coronet alone was said, by her father, who had commissioned it, to be worth a million crowns. On a stage in the royal chapel, Elizabeth, wearing a white satin gown and jewels valued at£400,000, was joined by her mother and took a seat opposite Frederick and her father, the latter covered with rich gems said to be worth£600,000. An anthem was sung and then the dean of the Chapel preached a sermon on the wedding at Cana in Galilee. The ceremony itself was performed by the archbishop of Canterbury, attended by a bishop, both in splendid vestments. The Elector mumbled his vows in broken English. Benediction was pronounced, and another anthem, composed by Dr. John Bull especially for the occasion, was sung, after which the Garter King of Arms proclaimed to the audience the new titles of the royal couple. The royal party took communion before they withdrew from the chapel.
A state dinner was followed by Thomas Campion's Lord's Masque, set by Inigo Jones on a stage with two levels, the first for the anti-masque danced by twelve "franticks" representing various kinds of unsocial behavior. This was followed on the second stage by Prometheus fixed against a background of stars, along with eight dancing lords attended by sixteen pages. Amid "pilasters all of gold, set with Rubies, Saphyrs, Emeralds, Opals and such like," the lords moved toward silver statues that turned into living ladies. When the masque ended and the revels began, from the audience Frederick and Elizabeth were taken out to dance by the masquers first, and as the dancing began, golden statues of the bridegroom and bride flanking a silver obelisk were revealed on stage.
John Donne, long seeking a place at court but destined to dangle for a time longer, composed an Epithalamion describing the extended day and the sexual climax toward which it slowly moved:
And why doe you two walke,
So slowly pac'd in this procession?
Is all your care but to be look'd upon,
And to be others spectacle, and talke?
The feast, with gluttonous delaies,
Is eaten, and too long their meat they praise,
The masquers come too late, and'I thinke, will
Like Fairies, till the Cock crow them away. …
But now she is laid; What though
Yet there are more delayes, For, where is he?
He comes, and passes through Spheare after
First her sheetes, then her Armes, then any
Donne's witty freedom with the royal privy parts was matched by the interest of the king, who, with his usual frank curiosity about such matters, called on the couple after their first night and, bouncing up and down on the bridal bed, asked for explicit details of the consummation. He need not have worried, for it was a love match between the sixteen-year-olds from the start, and before its tragic end it would produce thirteen children, including Prince Rupert of the Rhine and the Princess Sophia, the progenitress of the Hanoverian kings of England.
The celebration was by no means over with the ceremonies and royal bedding, for on the next night the gentlemen of the Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn marched by torchlight down the Strand to Whitehall to present a masque by George Chapman, the dead Prince Henry's playwright. Small boys were dressed as baboons, musicians rode in cars, the masquers were costumed like the Indians of Virginia, accompanied by Moors and followed by floats and two hundred halberdiers. The next night still another masque, prepared this time by the gentlemen of Grey's Inn and the Inner Temple with Sir Francis Bacon serving as producer and master of ceremonies, arrived by water in illuminated boats. Never did Bacon experience more painfully the truth of his mot "rising into place is laborious." Nothing went well from the beginning. The masquers had trouble getting ashore at Whitehall because of the tide, and when all was ready the king was so exhausted and out of sorts that he put off the performance until another time. The masquers were despondent, feeling that, as John Chamberlain wrote (on February 18, 1613, in The Letters of John Chamberlain, Vol. I, ed. N. E. McClure, 1939), "the grace of theyre maske is quite gon when theyre apparele hath ben alredy shewed and theyre devises vented so that how yt will fall out God knowes, for they are much discouraged, and out of countenance, and the world sayes yt comes to passe after the old proverb, the properer men, the worse luck." Bacon's essay "Of Masques and Triumphs" takes the high philosophic view that "these things are but toyes," but when his own reputation was involved, he was unable to take them so lightly. He pleaded with the king, begged really, and even the king's promise to watch the masque four nights later could not repair the shattering loss of face he suffered, no matter what the reason, in having his entertainment publicly refused after such extensive and expensive preparations and, as Chamberlain understood, in having all the surprise of the masque's devices lost.
Few weddings can have been celebrated by so much artistic talent as this—Campion, Donne, Shakespeare, Bull, Chapman, Jones, Bacon, Beaumont, and Fletcher—a master demonstration of art in the service of the prince. The King's Men had to reach deep into their repertory for some of their older plays to fulfill the needs of the festivities, performing Much Ado about Nothing twice, if Benedick and Betteris is, as seems likely, Much Ado. With its war between the sexes and multiple marriages it would have been an obvious repeat during the celebration of a wedding. Altogether the plays for which they were paid were: Philaster, Knot of Fools, Much Ado about Nothing, The Maid's Tragedy, The Merry Devil of Edmonton, The Tempest, A King and No King, The Twins ' Tragedy, The Winter's Tale, Falstaff, The Moor of Venice, The Nobleman, Caesars Tragedy, Love Lies a Bleeding, A Bad Beginning Makes a Good Ending, The Captain, The Alchemist, Cardenio, Hotspur, Benedick and Betteris. The Beaumont and Fletcher team was taking Shakespeare's place by now as the resident playwrights of the King's Men, and their recent plays, A King and No King and Philaster, were the newest offerings of the season.
Still, Shakespeare remained the staple when his company played at court, and six of his plays, possibly seven, if Caesars Tragedy be taken for his Julius Caesar, were performed. So great was the need for plays that Shakespeare's recent pieces, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, which had been performed at court the year before at Hallowmas, were performed again. Bacon may not have been the only disappointed producer at these celebrations, for it is likely that an unnamed "stage play to be acted in the Great Hall by the King's players," which aroused "much expectation" on February 16, the second night after the wedding, but was then dropped because "greater pleasures [a masque] were preparing" (Edmund K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. II, 1923, p. 213), was Shakespeare's new play of the season, Henry VIII, possibly written in collaboration with John Fletcher. The play was designed as a tribute to Elizabeth Stuart, climaxing in the triumphant birth of the great queen after whom she had been so hopefully named. It is impossible to understand why Henry VIII, so suitable for the occasion, was not put on in place of one of the older plays in the spring of 1613. Something must have gone badly wrong, for the first known performance was downtown, and in June 1613 the Globe burned down during a performance of the play when cannons, fired to announce the birth of Elizabeth Tudor, ignited the thatch roof of the theater.
But the older plays served, and by the spring of 1613 Shakespeare's Tempest, perhaps reworked, some have said, to add the betrothal masque that Prospero provides for Ferdinand and Miranda, suited the occasion on which it was performed somewhat more shrewdly than could have been anticipated when it was first played at court about a year and a half earlier. Prospero instructing his daughter and her prospective husband in the duties of marriage, and providing a magnificent betrothal masque for them, fit very nicely with the Solomonic James lecturing his children, spending a fortune displaying them to the public eye, and providing numerous amusements.
Claribel, daughter of Alonso, the play's king of Naples, in sailing to her wedding in Tunis journeyed no farther than did Elizabeth when she sailed out of the Thames shortly after her own wedding. The beautiful and prolific Winter Queen went first to Heidelberg and then to Bohemia, where she was crowned queen. She and her husband were deposed in 1620, after which she remained in exile, not to return to England for fifty years. And then only after her beloved brother Charles, although defended by her remarkable sons, Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Prince Maurice his faithful companion, had been executed, and her nephew Charles II had at last been restored to the English throne. The Stuarts, by no means excluding the stodgy but still quirkily interesting James I, are surely the most romantic of the European royal families. The Romanovs cannot match them. From Mary, queen of Scots, and the martyr king, Charles I, to the Old Pretender and Bonny Prince Charlie, the Stuart family underwent a journey from Holyrood Palace to the back street in Rome where the dissolute Young Pretender died and suffered a "sea change" no less total than those sung of in The Tempest, where the skeletons of drowned men turn to coral and their eye sockets fill with pearls.
Before so sea-changed a family, The Tempest opened appropriately, though ominously, with a spectacular scene of falling yardarms, wildfire, a great storm, and a ship striking rocks, which much resembled a recently printed description of a wreck in the Bermudas of ships on their way to the new Virginia colony. The survivors in the play are cast up on a desert island, similar to the brave new worlds that Englishmen on the eve of empire were at that time encountering in Asia, Africa, and America. The courtiers were naturally curious about what went on in these far places, and especially what the natives were like—were they cannibals or noble savages? There was money involved as well, for the court was investing heavily in these new ventures. The earl of Northampton, who after Cecil's death had become the real power in the government, invested a good deal in the Irish plantation in Ulster—the native Irish being thought of as aliens at least as strange as the Indians of North America—in the Hudson Ventures in 1610, in the Northwest Passage Company of two years later, and in a Newfoundland plantation intended to trade fish with the Mediterranean. Salisbury, Pembroke, Shakespeare's old patron Southampton, and 650 other members of the highest levels of society had put large sums into the Virginia project.
The Tempest projected the freshness and excitement of the newfound lands where the courtiers were investing their surplus capital. Springs and brine pits, berries and trees, fish and birds, pignuts and filberts, untrodden beaches where the "printless foot" flies across the yellow sand and the flats of oozy tidal mud, a sky "full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not." The courtiers' conflicting expectations of the natives—hard and soft primitivism at once—were confirmed by the aborigines who appeared on the stage. Caliban (an anagram of cannibal), repellent and fish-like, all earth and water, is the savage of hard primitivism, lusting to rape white women, good only for menial work, controlled by superior intelligence and force. Ariel is the more delicate and playful side of uncivilized life, a fanciful and obedient noble savage, treading "the ooze Of the salt deep," running "upon the sharp wind of the North," doing his master's "business in the veins o' th' earth When it is bak'd with frost" (1.2.255). The emerging image of the white man's burden was loaded on Prospero, the patriarchal ruler of the island, whose magical knowledge and stern moral sense give him absolute power over the untrustworthy aborigines, as well as over the female of his own family, his daughter Miranda.
Humanist artist that he always was, Shakespeare once again stooped to truth and moralized his song, dramatizing for the court not only the wonders of the brave new world of overseas colonies, but the various ways that their European discoverers could and did conceive of their new possessions and subjects. For the old courtier Gonzalo, as for those who would later settle the many Utopian communities of America, the new world offers the opportunity to recover the lost Eden where, freed of the weight of European society, human nature will be purified and the sins of the old world left behind:
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any
Would I not have; but nature should bring
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
If for some the new world is potentially John Winthrop's "City on a Hill," to others it is imperialism's city of gold, Cortez's Mexico, Pizarro's Peru, a fountain of eternal youth, to be taken by those bold enough to seize and hold it. The drunken servingmen Trinculo and Stephano find on the island an opportunity to plunder and rape; they enslave the one native they encounter and treat him as a monster to be taken home and displayed in a sideshow. To the courtiers Antonio and Sebastian the island is the heart of darkness, with no policeman around the corner, a place to kill their king, Alonso, and seize power for themselves.
To others, the encounters with the vastnesses of an untouched nature bring profound psychological changes. Loss, and his helplessness within it, engender in the king of Naples remembrance and repentance for old wrongs he has done. His son, the youthful Ferdinand, finds the wonder of love in his new condition of freedom. Prospero, who preceded all these visitors to the island, has found in his exile a close encounter with his own person, body, and appetite in the form of Caliban, his imagination and creation in Ariel, and he has developed as a result a new sense of self and his magical powers over the world.
The primary work of the Renaissance artist was to create the lavish displays of wealth and grandeur required by noble patrons to spectacularize their authority, wealth, and power. This was as true for Shakespeare as it was for other artists who worked in the palace, the church, and the great houses. The Tempest supplied his noble audience with images of the expansion of empire: into the religious politics of the Continent and into the conquest of the new world. But from time to time the artist took a place in his art, along with his patrons and their interests.
Even some workaday Renaissance painters and sculptors began to think of themselves in time as artists rather than simple craftsmen and servants of their patrons. They asserted their improved social status by cultivating good manners, stressing their intellectual attainments, and, in Italy, organizing painting fraternities like the Academia di Santa Luca. Concepts of "the artist" and "the work of art," especially in Italy and even more especially in the fine arts, began to take rough shape, usually in connection with the greatest artists. Giorgio Vasari wrote stories of their lives in the 1550s and 1560s, and by the 1600s a mythology of the artist had already taken shape. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was said to have handed brushes to Titian as he painted and, in a different version of the same story, Cardinal Barberini was described as holding the mirror for Bernini as he chiseled his self-portrait in the face of David. Although only the statutes of Moses and of the two slaves were completed, the myth of Art created a pretty picture of Michelangelo and Pope Julius II, artist and patron together, sitting in a marble quarry planning for the pope a tomb of such previously unknown beauty that it would realize the human dream of perfection in art. The paintings by towering figures like Titian were sought without regard for subject or size, and as early as around 1520 works were commissioned "for no other reason than the desire of the patron to have, for example, a Michelangelo: that is to say, an example of his unique virtù, or his art; the subject, size or even medium do not matter" (John Shearman, Mannerism, 1967, p. 44).
The success of art increasingly "led to two results in the mind of the artist, … the concept of the work of art as an enduring virtuoso performance ('something stupendous') and the concept of the 'absolute' work of art" (Shearman, 44). More and more, artists asserted their social dignity and the importance of the artist and his work in cultural life. By the mid-seventeenth century the painter Salvator Rosa could boast to a wouldbe patron in a high romantic fashion that "I do not paint to enrich myself, but purely for my own satisfaction. I must allow myself to be carried away by the transports of enthusiasm and use my brushes only when I feel myself rapt" (Francis Haskell, Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, rev. ed., 1980, p. 22). Rosa refused to set a price for his pictures beforehand on the grounds that he did not know how his work was going to turn out. "I can see," said an agent, "that he would rather starve to death than let the quality of his produce fall in reputation" (23).
This elevated status and increased sense of dignity registered itself in various ways—self-portraits of the artist, for example, which were becoming commonplace; or the inclusion of art within the artwork, like the play within the play. Artist figures moved among their social superiors inside the work, like the poet in Shakespeare's sonnets and the painter in Velázquez's Las Meninas. Michelangelo painted an image in The Last Judgment of himself sitting woefully holding his skin as the flayed Marsyas, who contested with the god of art, Apollo, on oboe against the flute and lost.
Nowhere does Renaissance art speak of its powers with more confidence than in The Tempest, where its greatest dramatic poet, figured as an exiled duke-magician instructing kings and their heirs on a desert island, proudly catalogues the accomplishments of his theatrical magic in a list that invokes with eerie memories the entire Shakespearean oeuvre:
I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous
And 'twixt the green sea and the azur'd vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-bas'd
Have I made shake, and by the spurs pluck'd
The pine and cedar. Graves at my command
Have wak'd their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em
By my so potent art.
In the play, Prospero's magic is the magic of the theater, his power the theatrical one of staging illusions that deeply move and teach his audience. Compared to the rough actualities of production and performance on the Bankside and even in Whitehall, the circumstances on the island stage of The Tempest are ideal for the exercise of Prospero's art. Whatever the playwright-magician conceives is performed instantly by Ariel and his "meaner fellows." The skill of Ariel's spirit-actors transfixes his noble audiences, renders them "spellbound," totally absorbed in the tableaux put before them, something a court dramatist must have dreamed of more often than he achieved it. And though the theatrical experiences are intensely real to the stage audiences, they are never in physical danger. The clothes which the travelers wear in the shipwreck are not stained by seawater and lose no color. The great storm and the destruction of the ship that seem catastrophic to them are only illusions, done and undone with the wave of a wand.
After experiencing wreck and immersion, the travelers straggle ashore in three groups at different points of the island, each thinking the others dead. Ferdinand, the young prince of Naples, comes out of the waves first, alone and utterly despairing, "Sitting on a bank, Weeping again the King my father's wrack." But then Prospero's art begins to work on him positively, as it already has negatively by stripping him of his social identity, and the music of Ariel's song creeps by him upon the waters, "Allaying both their fury and my passion With its sweet air" (1.2.393). The strange promise of the song means nothing to Ferdinand, but it is intriguing enough to get him up on his feet and moving off the beach toward the center of the island. Life is renewed at once by the sight of Prospero's daughter, Miranda (whose name means "wonder"), already in love with him, as he is with her, at first sight. But Prospero's and Shakespeare's art is moral as well as erotically stimulating, and Prospero freezes Ferdinand when he advances with sword uplifted—like the "hellish Pyrrhus" in Hamlet—and then puts him to the hard Calibanish work necessary to keep the world going.
Miranda has previously been instructed by her father, who recounted for her how they came to the island and what they experienced there. The engaged couple is later instructed in the necessity of premarital chastity, after which they are treated to a celebratory masque, "a most majestic vision," written by Prospero and executed by Ariel and his actors. The ballet is danced by country nymphs and swains, while the goddesses Juno and Ceres invoke the fertility of a bursting world of plenty to bless the plighted pair:
Honor, riches, marriage-blessing,
Long continuance, and increasing,
Hourly joys be still upon you!
At the play's end Ferdinand and Miranda are at the center of the island and are there revealed by the drawing of a theatrical curtain, engaged in a game of chess, a play within a play, life and marriage as an intricate artwork. At every stage of their journey the young lovers have been instructed and controlled by Prospero's art, arriving at a point where social life becomes an art form, a combination of game and theater.
If art in the Ferdinand and Miranda plot shows "virtue her feature," the Trinculo-Stephano plot shows "scorn her own image." These servants come to the island like some group of Conrad's thugs—say, Mr. Brown and his gang in Victory—debarking in paradise to pollute it. Intoxication is their passage into the illusion of the island, and they ride ashore on a cask of wine, which they begin to imbibe at once. They see not the wedding masque but Caliban's Hollywood adventure of killing Prospero, taking over the island, and raping Miranda. "O brave monster," says Stephano, "lead the way," as he introduces the monster to liquor and to the possibility of an anarchic freedom: '"Ban, 'Ban, Ca-Caliban, Has a new master, get a new man."
Prospero's art controls these comic conquistadors, and as they move on his cell planning gory mayhem, he has Ariel put in their way a heap of colorful theatrical costumes and gilded props. Much to Caliban's disgust, Stephano and Trinculo immediately begin looting these tinsel fineries, losing sight of their plan. These are children, capable of viciousness but easily diverted and amused by any kind of gaudy spectacle and by fantasies of dressing up as great nobles and bold heroes. Theater is crude and its audiences often vulgar, and the playwright manages the appetites he encourages by fear, as well as pleasure. As the servants root around among the bright clothes, putting on a colorful coat, belting on a sword, trying on a plumed hat, Prospero calls up a pack of dogs. They come yelping and roaring through the woods, like some obligatory ending of a cheap crime movie, to chase Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban through brambles and briars, driving them at last into a foul pond where they stand mired up to their chins in mud and rotting matter.
Prospero's art does not address these groundlings—"capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise"—through their reason, but deters them from mischief by amusing them at times and frightening them at others. The groundlings are, however, apparently capable of learning something, for after he gets out of the pond Stephano mumbles, "Every man shift for all the rest, and let no man take care for himself (5.1.256). But no real regeneration takes place, and Stephano and Trinculo are sent back, along with Caliban, to menial work once more, which they are glad to accept to escape the freedom which has been so disappointing and painful.
Theater shows the very age and body of the time his form and pressure to the court group gathered around Alonso: his counselor Gonzalo; Antonio, who usurped Prospero's dukedom; and Sebastian, brother to the king of Naples. The habits of life in all these older men are deeply ingrained, not easily changed, and the men are, with the exception of Gonzalo who is incurably innocent, inured to their guilt. The journey to the center of the island, which represents geographically the change of heart that Prospero's art works toward, is therefore more lengthy and painful for them, and their transformation less complete, than it is for Ferdinand. Alonso's immersion in the ocean of an indifferent and violent nature in the opening shipwreck, and the loss of his son, Ferdinand, overwhelm the king with despair, but Sebastian and Antonio are unmoved by the storm. The island is for them an opportunity to seize power. When Prospero's art produces before the famished wanderers a rich banquet and then causes it to disappear to remind them of their sins and to show them the necessity of "heart's sorrow," the effect is less than complete. Sebastian and Antonio refuse to acknowledge any guilt, and, drawing their swords, they race through the island striking at the air, like the passionmad lovers pursuing one another in the forest of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Alonso, however, is more deeply touched, and the banquet tableau opens up a buried memory of the old wrong that he had done Prospero. But the beginnings of repentance at first drive him only deeper into despair and thoughts of suicide.
In their different ways these older courtiers are "spell-stopped," locked in their reactions to the knowledge of guilt that the island and Ariel's production has made them know and unable on their own to take the next step. In this condition they are brought to Prospero's cell at the center of the island where, in the words of the original stage direction, "all enter the circle which Prospero has made, and there stand charm'd" (5.1.56). In the "O" of this ultimate magical theater, Prospero makes himself known, forgives those who set him adrift so long ago, draws the curtain to reveal Miranda and Ferdinand, and reunites the royal family. Ariel's song symbolically foreshadows the transformation that is the central plot of all the Shakespearean comedies and tragedies and is the ultimate form of the sea change that Prospero's art works on the visitors to his theatrical island:
Full fadom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
As usual in Shakespeare, not everyone shares in the regeneration and community that the end of the play brings. Antonio and Sebastian refuse the feast of life, speaking no word in the last scene until the end, when they recover their bravado enough to snarl at the offered forgiveness. The "thing of darkness," Caliban, remains unregenerate (to become the darling of late twentieth-century anticolonialists), and Prospero has to acknowledge his inescapable involvement with him. The art of theater can work its magic on some but not all, change some things but not everything. But for those who open themselves to its spell and allow their feelings to flow with it, it provides a renewal after all seems lost, a feeling of union with the rest of being, "a sea-change Into something rich and strange." Even the sailors on the king's ship who sleep out the time of the action are brought to the stage at the center of the island to share in the general reunion and forgiveness with which the play ends.
The artist-magician of The Tempest is the leading character in a sketchy version of "The Growth of a Poet's Mind," in which the artist is very much made, not born. Once Prospero was the great duke of Milan—non sanz droit?—athirst with a desire for knowledge, who avoided the practical responsibilities of life to bury himself in his study with his books. His magic is founded on the lore preserved in arcane volumes like the work of Paracelsus or "thrice-great Hermes," but the written word cannot alone give him the power to work his will upon the world by means of art. Experience finally gives him that power. Only after having been betrayed and deposed by his brother and set adrift in the open sea in a leaking boat with his infant daughter, Miranda, and only after living long years in exile on a desert island, working with Ariel and Caliban, does the scholar develop the magical skills of the artist. Only, that is, after going through the standard journey of Shakespearean tragedy, like that of Lear in his movement from the castle to the heath, is the artist able to work his magic. Theatrical magic is not, in the Shakespearean art myth, some supernatural gift but wisdom about life acquired only after long study and painful experience.
Prospero's art is not finally perfected until he encounters and masters those mirrors of the division in his own nature, the physical Caliban (body) and the delicate Ariel (fancy). But Prospero's ego-control of these two components of his art, sensual appetite and playful inventiveness, is never complete. In an artistic psychomachia, both body and spirit continue throughout the play to long for the freedom to live their own lives exempt from work in one case, confinement or limitation in the other. The education of the Shakespearean artist is no Wordsworthian election by higher powers, as in The Prelude—"I made no vows, but vows Were then made for me"—but a much more realistic and painful training involving hard study, disillusionment, isolation, and a painful process of learning how to master the basic powers out of which the creating reason, or the romantic imagination, makes art.
The purpose of art is never so unambiguous for Prospero as it would be for the romantic Wordsworth. In the first exercise of his art, the illusion of a shipwreck with which the play opens, the powers of the artist are used for the intensely personal end of revenge against those on board, Prospero's brother, Antonio, and Alonso, king of Naples, who set him and his daughter adrift in the open sea to die. And as Prospero uses his art to manipulate the feelings and manage the wanderings of the castaways throughout the play, his heart remains hard toward them. But when at the end of the play Ariel reveals the suffering of his old enemies, he is, like Lear in similar circumstances, made pregnant to good pity:
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier mov'd than thou
Though with their high wrongs I am strook to
Yet, with my nobler reason, 'gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.
Art, as Shakespeare depicts it, begins as a satiric art to hurt and instruct enemies, but ends in comic identification and sympathy with the audiences it manipulates.
If there is some piece of Shakespearean biography in this, the key is unfortunately lost forever, though it would be easy enough to contrive parallels. But art is longer than life, and in the Shakespearean view it apparently transforms its practitioners as well as its audiences, moving them from narrow purposes to larger understanding, and from self-serving interests to broadly shared humanitarian concerns.
The Tempest makes the proud humanistic claims of pleasing and instructing that were standard for the Renaissance. But immediately after boasting of the magical powers of his theater to work sea changes without risk to its audience, the magician-dramatist Prospero, like some medieval poet—Petrarch or Chaucer—writing his palinode, abjures his "rough magic," breaks and buries his staff, and "drowns" his book "deeper than did ever plummet sound" (5.1.56). Shakespeare, soon to leave the theater and return to Stratford, had made no arrangements to publish his book. More than half his plays remained unprinted until the 1623 folio published after his death. He had a mixed attitude toward theater, partly a proud insistence on its ability to get at the truth of things and partly a feeling of shame about the crudities and deceits of its methods. Whenever players appear as characters on his stage they are bumbling, like Bottom and company in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or lower-class and hammy, like the Wittenberg troupe in Hamlet. The limitations of theater are discussed openly in Henry V, written about 1599, where, at the height of Shakespeare's powers, the Chorus apologizes for a "bending author" and the "flat unraised spirits" who "force a play," "in a little room confining mighty men," on the "unworthy scaffold" of a "wooden O," where "time … numbers, and due course of things, … cannot in their huge and proper life Be … presented." The references here are to the public theater on the Bankside, but the concerns about the limitations of theatrical pretense would apply as well to theater at court, if not to the masques, then surely to the plays performed there on the temporary trestle stages erected at the end of the hall.
These uneasy feelings about the inadequacy of theatrical spectacles are still present in The Tempest, where even the great masque of Juno and Ceres is spoken of slightingly by its creator as no more than "some vanity of mine art," its characters only "spirits" who when the performance is over "are melted into air, into thin air." The play's flimsy pretense is easily destroyed by the appearance of the drunken servants, who lack the imagination to comprehend it. In the end, having held the stage for only a brief moment and then disappeared into the nothingness where all plays go after the performance is over, "the baseless fabric of this vision" becomes no more than an "insubstantial pageant faded," leaving not even a wisp of cloud behind to mark where and what it once was.
The greatest of the world's playwrights was apparently unable to shake off his knowledge that the theater even at its best was only greasepaint trumpery, magic in its most trifling sense of prestidigitation, a few words, some stock jokes, a couple of costumes, a prop or two, music, and a dance. Here for an illusory moment, then gone forever. But then, Prospero reminds us, the great world itself is in the long run little more substantial and enduring than the brief tinseled moment of the play:
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, 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.
Whitehall and Westminster endured longer than The Tempest's two hours' traffic on the stage that evening in the palace in the late winter of 1613, when King James and his court watched the play as part of the wedding celebrations of Princess Elizabeth. But now these, too, have gone, leaving perhaps fewer traces behind—an empty banqueting hall, gossip about the king's sex life—than The Tempest. Our playwright was right: the transitoriness of the theater is its final comment upon the great globe itself and all that is in it. "All the world's a stage" was a familiar trope, and one that Shakespeare used often in his long career, and now he used it one last time to justify an art that had its force not in its permanence, as he had once boasted in Sonnet 55—"Not marble nor the gilded [monuments] Of princes shall outlast this pow'rful rhyme"—but in its evanescence.
As Prospero sailed away for Milan after breaking his staff and drowning his book, so Shakespeare about the time of The Tempest left a stage where he had performed for his royal patron for years and went back to the country town from which he came. It must have been one of the great moments of English theater when Prospero turned that night to the king and queen sitting in their State, their two remaining children beside them, and to the glittering court watching the performance, to speak one last time for the bending author and ask his royal patron for his release from service. Whatever transcendent claims his play may have made for his art, Shakespeare, like the professional court playwright he had become, deferentially asserted at the end no more than that during all these years he had sought only to amuse his royal patron and his court:
Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.
Under the patronage of kings and their nobility, the arts flourished in the Renaissance, not as "art-for-art's-sake," but as a part of the process of legitimating the state and its monarchs. Architects built great palaces, artists painted portraits of the aristocracy, sculptors made equestrian statues, historians narrated the story of the nation, poets sang the praises of the kings in epic poetry, and theatrical designers and dramatists created spectacular performance settings for divine-right ideology. Although England lagged behind the Continent in fostering the arts, the Stuarts were extraordinarily sensitive to the uses of art for the purposes of the state, and after their arrival in England, the cultural budget increased many fold. Inigo Jones worked for King James as an architect and theatrical designer, while Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of the earl of Southampton and in time became the king's official playwright. His sonnets offer an in-depth picture of the patronage relationship.
The Stuart court was in advance of the rest of Europe in its theatrical resources, and the public theaters of London provided the court with actors and playwrights of unparalleled ability. The skills of the architect-designer Inigo Jones transformed the Great Halls of the Stuart palaces into theaters of miraculous illusion. Shakespeare's Stuart plays are one of the great patronage oeuvres of the Age of Kings, comparable to such master works as Michelangelo's Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo in Florence, and the court paintings of Velázquez for the Spanish ruler, Philip IV.
Source: "The King and the Poet: The Tempest, Whitehall, Winter, 1613," in Shakespeare, the King's Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613, Yale University Press, 1995, pp. 150-69.