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The Tempest and Interruptions

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Brian Gibbons, University of Münster

'Interruption' tends to have a negative connotation today, but it can be a positively stimulating experience, in the right hands, such as those of Sterne in Tristram Shandy or, a modern instance, Luis Bunuel in his witty movie The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In both these works interruption is a key narrative principle, and I want now to argue that it is a key to Shakespeare's dramatic originality in The Tempest. For Sterne or Bunuel the risk is much less than for Shakespeare, since his is performance art, unlike theirs, I do want to emphasise that I mean interruption, not deferral—for did not even Milton find deferral irresistible and call it 'sweet, reluctant, amorous delay'? No—what we have in The Tempest is, bluntly, interruption—repeated interruption—apparently breaking the basic rules of popular theatre, which are, first—get the spectators' concentrated attention and don't break it, and second—satisfy their expectations. Shakespeare breaks these two rules very early in the play and goes on doing so all the way through.

Polonius in Hamlet II.2. lists the kinds of play the visiting players can act: he begins reasonably enough, but rapidly degenerates into the absurd:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.

Shakespeare's sense of humour had not deserted him in the ten years since he wrote Hamlet—itself a very humorous work—and a sense of humour is useful in appreciating his design in The Tempest. Scholars customarily observe that the play, like The Comedy of Errors, observes the unities of time and place; they do not always add that, in both plays, Shakespeare's studious conformity to these rules for persuading audiences of a play's plausibility coincides in both plays with effects of surreal bewilderment and confusion in all directions.

But there is a serious point about seeing The Tempest as 'tragical-comical-historical-pastoral'. Put simply, what Shakespeare designs is an action showing the transcendence of human baseness. The apex of this transcendence is the renunciation by Prospero of revenge, at the point where he wins complete power over his enemies, where he declares, the rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance (V.1.27). The use of the word 'action' here is interesting—we note that renunciation, no less than revenge, is called 'action'. To refrain from killing someone, or from kissing them, can be an action just as decisive as killing or kissing (and there are sins of omission as grave as sins of commission).

To make the case as succinct as possible, my argument is that in The Tempest interruption is the expression of power. It is Prospero, directly or via Ariel, who effects all the interruptions in the play. Art, like magic, is characterised by an arresting and reordering of natural events. Prospero is a dramatic artist as well as a magician—he is a composer of human events, and it is his continuous manipulation of the action which commands the spectators' interest, intrigues them, frequently wrong-foots them. Interruptions—even scripted ones—in live performance are exciting, tantalising, because they put the dramatic illusion at risk: interruptions in The Tempest are also metatheatrical, they make a spectator self-consciously aware of theatre as metaphor for life.

Art reflects life by arresting it and reordering it, and the series of interruptions in the play prompt the reflection that all our higher attempts to understand the world—whether scientific, philosophical or artistic—involve interruption of its process in order to analyse its makeup. As a sculptor may conceive of himself as imposing a shape on a lump of living rock, or as releasing the form already present within the rock, so artistic endeavours generally seek either to impose a shape on the flux of experience or to free the shape inherent in it. The former is a virile act of...

(The entire section is 6,611 words.)