The Tempest and Interruptions
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 will, the latter is a magical process.
At the end of The Tempest Prospero is clearly in a state of high and unstable emotion. It is not for nothing that echoes of Lear can be heard in his speeches. There has been from the outset a volcano of rage palpable beneath the surface of his manner, but he never releases it. At last he has his enemies completely in his power, and then, at the critical moment, he interrupts his revenge. This interruption of a revenge plot right at the end of the play is a very different thing from interruptions in Hamlet. Hamlet's interruption of his own decision to kill Claudius at prayer is no unequivocal act of power. Claudius for his part admits that a sense of guilt makes him hesitate, and it is irresolution that makes Laertes interrupt his own insurrection when he has Claudius completely at his mercy. These local interruptions serve to defer the expected ending, making the climax when it comes all the more intense in violent excitement. It is otherwise in The Tempest. Prospero's interrupted revenge has been explained in terms of the conventions of Jacobean tragicomedy, where a momentum towards tragedy is averted only at the last moment and with a maximum of surprise and joy. While there are affinities with tragicomedy, I think it important to notice what is unique to The Tempest—and this is the fact that Prospero's interrupted revenge is rather the climax of a whole series of masterful interruptions, not errors of judgement as in Hamlet. Moreover, from the second scene of The Tempest forwards, these interruptions occur just when a particular dramatic atmosphere has been established and when the audience has been caught up in it—a murder conspiracy, a magical banquet, a wedding masque, a mock-king pageant, a lovers' chess-game. Anticipation is fully awakened, and then suddenly, seemingly inexplicably, it is disappointed.
The abrupt switch from the shipwreck of I.1. to Prospero's dialogue with Miranda in I.2. itself constitutes the first, and largest-scale, interruption. With that switch Shakespeare announces, with the most unmistakable emphasis, that making predictions about the action of this play is not a game mere spectators, mere amateurs, can win. The play begins with a staged shipwreck when it would have been conventional, and technically so much easier, to have it merely reported (as happens at the beginning of The Comedy of Errors). The spectacular beginning promises to outdo the Red Bull players at their own game, then suddenly everything is hushed—and who does not feel a twinge of disappointment when Prospero begins his memoirs? So important is it that Shakespeare is prepared to risk sheer tedium in establishing his experimental method. The spectators begin to fear the play may not live up to its title, this is to be no action-packed remake of Henry V or King Lear.
It is no great stretch of the imagination to refer these episodes to Polonius' categories and set them down in his terms, as tragical-comical, or pastoral-historical, or tragical-comical-historical—that is, episodes where a predictable mode is signalled only to be modified by other elements. Repeatedly in this play an episode's development involves such generic mingling, so that the play's nature is continuously modified: The Tempest presents a ceaseless transformation of dramatic mode under the influence of a special alchemy that is being employed. The new chemistry of blended generic elements is itself a fitting metaphor—a metatheatrical one—for the play's master-theme. It makes the play like no other Jacobean tragicomedy. This is also apparent from the fact that the bare plot gives no real inkling of what has taken place, it is indescribable in terms other than those of performance. At the climax of The Tempest, Prospero describes his plot explicitly in terms of alchemy. He enters wearing his magician's cloak attended by Ariel:
Now does my project gather to a head.
My charms crack not, my spirits obey, and time
Goes upright with his carriage.
He offers the audience these hints of alchemy in order to suggest that in a bizarre sense he is using people as if they were components in an alchemical experiment. His alchemy is markedly theatrical, and like a dramatist he deals with impure men, not metals. Harsh methods are needed to soften up the base men before subjecting them to purification and reformation. Alchemy, at the time the play was written, was taken seriously as a fusion of religion and science and magic in a ceremonious experiment—or a scientific rite—in which gold might be summoned out of base materials.1 It was believed that success—something rarely if ever achieved—depended on the spiritual devotion of the alchemist himself as well as the most exact preparations and precise astrological timing. In the same year as The Tempest, 1610, all this was travestied by Ben Jonson in his comedy The Alchemist—a play also acted by Shakespeare's company. In The Alchemist Jonson exploits the potential for gigantic fraud which alchemy offered, but he also wrote Court Masques and poems in which he uses alchemy seriously as a metaphor—as Shakespeare does—for the purging away of spiritual impurities in men. In some Jonson poems the aspiration for spiritual purity is as value higher than life itself, as it is to be achieved only at the expense of life itself.
In devising quasi-alchemical projects on his enemies Prospero resembles a playwright designing a drama of providence. Shakespeare had already—in 1604—six years earlier, written such a drama, Measure for Measure, in which the Duke hands over power to a wicked Deputy, but secretly, disguised as a priest, contrives to frustrate his evil. It is a high-risk adventure and the Duke, who is far from omnipotent, is only saved by extraordinary fortune, or coincidence, or providence—the ironic mode permits a spectator some choice. Still, from the process whereby a secret evil is made to express itself, goodness results. The Duke refers to this process with the metaphor of unfolding, of bringing to light, the obscure and secret essence of Angelo, who in turn uses the metaphor of assaying metal to test its purity before stamping it as gold 'coinage:'
Let there be some more test made of my metal
Before so noble and so great a figure
Be stamped upon it
If the emergence of spiritual gold is achieved, though not without qualification, then it may be that the guilty Deputy, converted at the darkest point of his iniquity, is right to interpret the outcome as a wonder—as the operation of mysterious powers mediated by a true adept:
I perceive your grace, like power divine,
Hath looked upon my passes.
Prospero, however, wears a magician's cloak, not a Friar's robes as does the Duke, and Prospero's book is not the Bible. Shakespeare combines in him elements of different magic traditions, some of them not without disquieting suggestion; but the central role of Prospero in the play, read simply as well as allegorically, conforms to Christian ethics, and the outcome for his enemies and friends alike seems to them providential.
It is important to notice that, while Measure for Measure offers some precedent, unlike the Duke in the earlier play Prospero is no improvising amateur and is not reduced to helplessness by unforeseen accidents. On the contrary, he is deeply experienced, most circumspect in his magic ritual observances, consulting his book and using a special cloak and staff: like a priest, he must summon the higher power, it is not intrinsic to his nature, and when it vanishes he reverts to the human. Against the superhuman scale of the power he wields must be set certain significant limitations. Magician he may be, yet he is apparently not powerful enough to reach out as far as Milan and transform his enemies there at will. He asserts that his powers are vast—he can command graves to open and their dead to rise, he has bedimmed/ The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,/ And 'twixt the green sea and the azur 'd vault/ Set roaring war, he has loosed thunderbolts, yet for this, his great project, the conversion of human hearts, he has had to study and wait for years and even now it depends on a particular star reaching its zenith. This human alchemy can only be fulfilled at the set moment.
Prospero combines attributes of the playwright, the magician, the ruler-by-divine-right. He has more power through his art than any other figure in Shakespeare, and his few small lapses of memory (wry reminders that he is still human) do not impair his authority. We may contrast Measure for Measure where much of the excitement arises from the mistakes made by the Duke. By means of Ariel Prospero can oversee what happens to a supreme degree. Ariel has more scope than Puck and can intervene more directly than the Witches in Macbeth. At the same time, compared to these analogous plays, in The Tempest Shakespeare greatly restricts the scope of the action, it is composed in exemplary terms with symbolic characters and events, and the dialogue often draws attention to this. As we shall see in the sequence of episodes I want to examine, there is a strongly emblematic element in the stage imagery—the play indeed is largely composed in terms of a sequence of emblematic stage images, its visual and verbal language both exceptionally graphic, offering sharply focused recognition of a sensory world. This is a remarkable feature of the play—individual episodes seem simple to understand, most characters may be interpreted without difficulty; it is with the developing action as a whole, and Prospero's growing importance in it, that complexity arises.
To take stock of the argument so far: I am interested in the significance of the interruptions in The Tempest, which I take to be prominent as reflecting the play's domination by Prospero; for magic, like art, is characterised by an arresting and reordering of natural events. In the play, Prospero is determined to reorder the past in the deepest sense, to reorientate the natures of the people in the play, including himself. It is a play in which this philosopher-father-priest-ruler seeks to revise what we all know as the way of the world, and in a certain sense, once he has done it, his life is complete and his thoughts turn rapidly towards death. How will the marriage of his daughter turn out? What of the unregenerate Sebastian, or the solitary Caliban? These questions, which in another kind of dramatic treatment of the story could be important, are in The Tempest subordinated to what is the great issue for Prospero, to transform and reconstitute the state of things and of people, as they are found at the beginning of the play, and to effect a work of human alchemy.
Few Londoners would have lived by choice in Elizabethan Southwark, which Thomas Dekker described as a 'continuali alehouse', so for many spectators, going to the King's Men performances at the Globe amphitheatre on the south bank involved taking a boat across the river.2 Going to see The Tempest might therefore involve getting a bit wet, before and afterwards. Whether it be the Black-friars playhouse north of the Thames or the Globe on the south bank, the theatre is very close to the river which, downstream of London Bridge, is full of shipping. The playhouse is constructed of the same materials as those used in the nearby shipyards. It has a wooden frame, the stage-platform and heavens are wooden decking; rope and winches are used for its trapdoors and lifting gear, wood and canvas for props, a cannonball in a thunder-run, (and perhaps also a real cannon) for sound-effects, and gunpowder for special-effects. It is worked by actors and stagehands in ways very similar to the ways all hands work a ship.
This is the Elizabethan stage and the technical resources are limited. The spectators are accustomed to its established conventions—rough and ready though they may seem—of representing human experience. The opening scene of The Tempest, which represents a storm, has a kind of graphic literal quality. It can in certain respects be extremely realistic. Yet this is a non-scenic stage, and before a performance begins the spectators will have become familiar with the open wooden platform and its stage posts, backed by the tiring house facade. In such circumstances it was necessary to make the fact that a performance was beginning absolutely clear, and this especially if the dramatic fiction involved actors wearing real working clothes and performing real tasks—heaving on ropes, climbing up and down ladders, opening hatches, shouting to make themselves heard, being soused with water. It would have to be made clear that this is a code to be interpreted, that those men up on the wooden stage are wearing costume not their own clothes, are going through rehearsed mime not moving naturally, and repeating memorised lines not speaking spontaneously.
In the first scene of The Tempest the language is very important, despite the exciting spectacular action. The dialogue tells the spectators that the ship is in a state of commotion because it is being driven towards rocks, the sailors are losing control of it and the passengers are badly behaved. We notice also that the language—evidently Shakespeare requires it to be audible despite the noises and flashes created by the theatre's special effects—the language compares the waves to insurgents and the storm-tossed ship to a state imperilled by malignant fortune or bad captainship. The spectators accept this theatrical code but then this is suddenly shut off when the second scene begins: Prospero comes in with Miranda and then we learn that what we have become imaginatively involved in was mere illusion. Well, this isn't fair. The spectators may be fools for parting with their money to watch a play but here in this second scene they are mocked for having used their imagination. Shakespeare begins very early in the play to make the audience understand that part of the experience the play offers is to make them question how they interpret what they see and how they interpret the codes by which art reflects reality—whatever level of reality may be in question. The storm that seems in the first place real and only in the second place emblematic, then has to be re-read, in the light of Prospero's explanation, as mainly emblematic and only incidentally literal/ real.
So it is a magical storm created by Prospero wearing magic robes but the function of the storm is not to smash the ship and drown his enemies—on the contrary—the function of the storm is to be interrupted, to awaken mortal fear in those who confront death and then to stop them dying, stop them drowning, suspend the moment; and for the sailors that moment is suspended until the very end of the play, when they are brought on again and are invited to remember their deathly terror and absorb the experience. The moment of the storm sinks only to rise again, and those men emerge at the end to realise that they have come close to dying—and that experience may profoundly change them. This is a small figure in which one sees reflected the whole idea of the play—Shakespeare's Prospero designs an alchemical process even for the sailors. Of course Prospero cannot enforce change. As this is a play for a Christian monarch, James I, and an officially Christian society, so there must be a recognition that however powerful Prospero is, his art can only release what is there. The men who are the raw material of alchemy are free to choose, to turn into gold or stay leadenly impure. That is a counter-pressure to The Tempest's large symbolic concern with summoning up spiritual gold—gold which in alchemy's own terms is spirit which is refined in the process of conversion, the dross separated off from it. Just as, in human terms, a capacity to be good, a spirit, has to be awakened, the root meaning of the word education being a leading out of inner worth. So much then for the shipwreck, that is episode one, and a prodigious one indeed.
There is an old Lancashire comic monologue entitled 'The Lion and Albert'3 which has the verse:
They didn't think much to the ocean,
The waves they was fiddlin' and small,
There was no wrecks and nobody drownded,
'Fact nothing to laugh at at all.
That neatly sums up the potential disappointment of a certain type of spectator at The Tempest—'no wrecks and nobody drownded'. What by the way is the mode of this first scene? Tragical, yes, but since there are courtiers, perhaps historical tragical. But then it turns out that they don't drown, so perhaps rather tragicomical or is it tragical-historical-comical, or, given the political issue expressed through artfully simple natural imagery, perhaps there is a tinge of pastoral—so perhaps it blends into tragical-historical-comical-pastoral? More accurately one would say the tone of the play is opalescent, as shades of different modes and styles shimmer constantly across its surface.
The first scene concerns the fate of a political group on the ship of state, but that is held in suspension until Act II scene 1, when these not-drowned courtiers surface again. It is a long scene consisting of a sequence of units: each unit deals with a main topic or issue, but Gonzalo's observations are very evidently focal. Gonzalo has been reading Florio's Montaigne, and reading it so closely that he repeats its phrasing almost word for word.4 Montaigne describes conditions for a kind of ideal society, defined in terms of what is absent from it, though all too familiarly present in Renaissance Europe. The courtiers listen to him and react cynically and mockingly, their mere presence exhibiting the vicious energies of human nature which his ideal scheme seems to ignore, but which constitute the most obvious practical obstacle. The version of Utopia Gonzalo describes is cast in pastoral style—for elsewhere in Shakespeare, and in Renaissance literature generally, pastoral is characterised by its concern with the issue of the golden world, with life as it might be, or as it once was, perfect, but as it certainly is not, here and now. By moving away from the realities of the moment to a simplifed idealised form, it is easier to reflect philosophically on ideals. So it is with Gonzalo—he mediatates, he is old and a little foolish and presumably suffering from shock, since he's just been saved from drowning; but the courtiers who surround him are so unmoved, so unaffected by his vision of the ideal, that they can only think of seizing power by murder, and the murder that they plan is absolutely the stock in trade of Elizabethan drama—whether Kyd or Marlowe, or Shakespeare from Henry VI to Hamlet, or Jacobean versions such as The Revenger's Tragedy. When Sebastian and Antonio go to stab their sleeping companions to death, the spectators can feel at home, for this is a familiar and highly exciting speciality of the house (the Polonius-style catalogue of types of tragedy offered by the Chief Player in Stopparci's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead5 is no exaggeration of Elizabethan practice). So, a spectator may say to himself, it was a disappointment that it wasn't a real storm in scene 1 and those people did not drown, but at least now there is the prospect of good bloody acts of multiple murder. And then what does Shakespeare do? He freezes the action and there isn't even a decent wounding! It is another moment when a perfectly satisfactory type of Elizabethan play is getting under way and the spectators anticipate with relish the conventional pleasures so clearly signalled from the stage—and Shakespeare goes and interrupts it.
Ariel has no sense of humour or too much, too sophisticated, a sense of humour. The point being made by these interruptions is centrally important. For a Jacobean audience the kind of experience and meaning represented by such cynical murderousness ought at this date, 1610, to be boring in its predictability and superficiality—whether on the stage or in contemporary history. There is nothing to be learnt from it. Obviously enough, even courtiers from the highest civilised culture will, given the opportunity, display the iniquity with which they were bora but which has been inflamed by contact with power. This is old news, though it be every day's news. Shakespeare in The Tempest is interested in pressing further, and Prospero too has his sights set on something beyond. He does not want these courtiers to commit even more sins (coming from a usurper's court in Italy they are unlikely to be new to politic violence). What must therefore happen here is something imaginatively and philosophically different and better—but is it better as theatre, better for the theatre-spectators?
The fact that Jonson's comedy The Alchemist was performed by Shakespeare's company in the same year, 1610, has often led to the two plays being contrasted. Here it may be worthwhile to notice certain similarities. The Al-chemist begins with the bogus alchemist Subtle reminding his accomplice Face that he has already made him metaphorically a subject of alchemical transmutation, 'sublimed', 'exalted' and 'fixed', wrought to 'spirit, to quintessence', remote from the base condition in which he was found, amongst 'brooms and dust and wat'ring pots' and that Subtle's 'art' can make them finer yet. The main plot involves their pretense, to a variety of credulous investors, that the day of alchemical projection is at hand, making everyone limitlessly rich. The comic action is based on the accelerating sequence of interruptions of one sub-plot by another, and the imminent risk of expo-sure and collapse which each of these interruptions presents. The climax comes with a spectacular interruption as the great works fly 'in fumo' (that is, as a pot explodes in the kitchen) thereby dispersing all the creditors. The rogues' plot itself is then, at its very zenith, interrupted by the unexpected return of the houseowner, Lovewit, who takes their prize. Thus the gigantic fantasy enacted in his house vanishes as if it had all been illusion.
I suppose that Shakespeare, no less than Jonson, considered that the audiences in 1610, after a decade of quite extraordinary output of new plays in a range of styles, might now be knowledgeable enough to enjoy having their wits positively challenged, and would appreciate the excitement of seeing real artistic risks being run; for both Jonson and Shakespeare in these two plays certainly do take remarkable risks as playwrights, and require highly visible risks to be taken by the actors in performance. While The Alchemist may not present such obvious challenges as The Tempest does with its monsters and drolleries, in its own terms it is hazardous: its intricate construction and hectic pace make tremendous demands on the spectators' concentration and on the actors' versatility and exactness. If a single entrance cue is missed the whole play can collapse. The first interruptions in The Tempest involve confusions which an audience, cued to romance convention, might understandably find disconcerting. Here they are, having parted with their money to see a play about a tempest, and they find themselves baulked of clearly signalled, familiar pleasures twice within a quarter of an hour! Is this the master playwright William Shakespeare, getting hold of one good idea after another only to spoil them each time? Is he going to get away with it? Yet no sooner has the murder been interrupted in II. 1. than we shift to another episode, and to another big emblematic topic, so that there isn't really time to develop such speculations. In any case there is a paradoxical sense of plenitude in the throwing away of so much material, the sheer prodigality of it. The worst kind of crude spectator's taste—as represented by, say, Trinculo—is at once prompted and dismissed by Shakespeare's new interruptive style. The Elizabethan dramatists were commercial, and could not ignore the fact that the Trinculos in their audiences paid with money like anybody else. The acting companies had to keep the customers coming, and even for Shakespeare the Trinculos are a presence in his consciousness. The more discerning spectators are invited to improve their taste in drama as The Tempest develops as a play. Various kinds of imaginative and theatrical experience are being got under way, interrupted, and trans-formed by the dramatic process. It constitutes a process of education for the spectators too. In this sense Shakespeare seems at times in The Tempest curiously, possibly mischievously, Jonsonian.
The next episode is the Harpies banquet. Here is a statement at virtually the centre of the play. The emblematic nature of this Harpies episode is very clear. The courtiers, still entirely committed to mundane and wicked appetites, are offered a rich feast—'Hesperian fables true', in Milton's phrase—to confound their cynicism about Gonzalo's wonder at the island. It is a courtly banquet recalling those served after Jacobean Court Masques. The audience, although presumably aware of the presence of Prospero 'on the top (invisible) ' must interpret events at face value to begin with; they have to disregard the fact that the event is represented in terms where theatricality is undisguised ('a living drollery' is what Sebastian, aiming to be ironic, calls it, though Alonso also uses theatrical terms in commending the 'excellent dumb discourse'). The fake banquet appears by a 'quaint device' and then all suddenly vanishes. The audience may now recognise the ironic parallels between themselves and the courtiers within the dramatic fiction: both are spectators and both are mocked with art. The courtiers are mocked by means of a satiric image of contemporary Jacobean court-culture—a rich banquet; but the theatre-spectators too, taken in by Ariel's illusion, are mocked. Surely they ought to have identified it right away as mere theatrical illusion, as a Spenserian emblem expressing the truth that sensuality is delusory and its own spiritual punishment? Are not the Harpies unreal too, mere fictional creatures out of some court-poet's encyclopaedia? It is some mollification if they observe that, ironically, the most self-conscious cynic Sebastian takes Ariel's show literally and draws his sword—in his case on a double illusion, a spirit who is only playing the costume-role of a spirit in Jacobean Masque fashion.
The masque of Ceres, which follows hard upon this, is the opposite of the Harpies episode, though like it in the sense that it is interrupted and exposed as a performance—that is to say, the audience are shown that it is not the actual goddesses that appear but representations, creatures merely of Prospero's and Ariel's art. This directs attention to their didactic significance. The Harpies scourge the nobility for their subjection to sensuality, the goddesses celebrate the humane ideals of marriage, associated with the great harmony and mystery of creation. Their masque is directly reminiscent of Jonson's Jacobean Masques; nevertheless, the goddesses too are interrupted. What does this mean? Prospero's forgetting the conspiracy is a testimony to the power of the wedding masque, but his abrupt recollection of it reasserts, all the more forcefully, the imperatives of power. Between the symbolic meaning of marriage and the practical complexities of life a gap is exposed, especially for those bora to political responsibility.
Hard on the heels of this episode enter the low-comic conspirators, as the stage Direction puts it, 'all wet '. They approach Prospero's cell to murder him but are distracted by a decoy, again based on tawdry theatrical illusion, 'glistering apparel'—in other words a line of old costumes. Evidently this episode is devised, by analogy to Jacobean Masque convention, as Anti-Masque to the preceding Masque of Ceres. As is proper in the Anti-Masque, the low comic grotesques, bent on anarchy, are effortlessly dispersed by the radiant goodness of the main Masque's noble hero, so Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban are easily diverted from their brutal schemes by empty sensual baits, the trappings of power—in this instance again, playhouse costumes. There then follows a second stage of this Anti-Masque, Ariel's spectacular and noisy staging of a hunt, with the grotesques as the quarry. Shakespeare's decision to present this hunt is interesting in the light of his earlier practice, where he consistently avoids doing so, inventively suggesting a hunt without staging it—as in The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus and Love's Labour's Lost. No doubt it is significant too that a staged hunt was just the kind of theatrical spectacle favoured in the early Elizabethan court, as in the performance of Gager's Dido in 1583 at Christ Church Oxford. The emphasis here in The Tempest is however on theatrical parody: this is not meant to seem a proper hunt, it is meant to be obviously a fantastic burlesque of one. Its theatrical artifice is deliberately stressed to make it unbelievable to the spectators.
The effect is to make the quarry seem all the more humiliated, since to them it is real, and to affirm Ariel's magic the more strongly. Towards the end of the play this magic makes characters believe the impossible itself, it does not create a plausible illusion. The play shows a progressive emergence of such magic, which commands authority precisely through its open surreality. This is something which Caliban tries to explain early in the action when he says 'The isle is full of noises'—although at the time he is not really credited.
Act V scene 1 begins with Prospero certain of triumph over his enemies, full of thoughts of revenge, 'struck to th'quick' and wrought to 'fury' by 'their high wrongs'. Ariel's description of their sufferings, especially those of 'the good old lord, Gonzalo', helps tip the balance: Prospero abruptly decides to interrupt his revenge—we never learn what terrible things he had in store for his enemies. He evokes the colossal scale of his powers as magician, his speech reaches its full epic momentum, unleashes violence:
to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar; graves at my command
Have wak'd their sleepers, op'd, and let'em forth
By my so potent art.
This makes the fury real and palpable. Then Prospero interrupts himself, stopping it in full career:
But this rough magic
I here abjure
When he draws his magic circle and his enemies unwittingly step into it, tension rises again. As he directly addresses Sebastian and Antonio, Prospero's fury revives:
But you, my brace of lords, were I so minded,
I here could pluck his highness' frown upon
And justify you traitors:
Then he curbs it—at this time/ 1 will tell no tales—then it revives when he confronts his brother:
For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth;
then, in a superb final exercise of power and authority, he curbs it—I do forgive (V. 1.131).
That stage-image of Prospero, motionless but full of concentrated emotion, confronting his enemies within the circle, remains in the mind's eye of the spectators as they watch a further emblematic scene: Prospero draws a curtain and reveals Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess—then this too is interrupted. It is an image for the intimate personal politics of marriage, and a metaphor of the life of a Renaissance prince, for whom self-government is inseparable from government of the state.6 The game at chess is at once the most abstract and the most personal mirror of the concerns of Prospero and of his play, of art and power arresting and reordering life.
The Tempest is composed as a sequence of interruptions. The alchemical moment of projection is achieved in un-expected terms when Prospero converts his worldly passion of power and vengeance by renouncing it, philosophically refining away what is base and venal, transcending self, and thereby enabling a similar conversion to overcome those others in the play who may be susceptible. The play's action indicates that such conversion can only take place of its own volition—the inner spirit freely inspired to self-perfection—and a Trinculo or a Sebastian, plainly, remain dross to the end. An interpretation needs to accommodate this, must allow for the unregenerate. Prospero's performance relies on complex advance planning and rehearsal, but succeeds in incorporating interruption, the great test for a teacher, a politician, or an actor; interruption is made metaphorical, but it is also the device which brings out the quintessence of drama, its commitment to the live moment of performance, of existential risk.
1 For fuller discussion of alchemy see the introduction to Elizabeth Cook, ed., Ben Jonson, The Alchemist, the New Mermaids, (London 1991) and F.H.Mares' edition in the Revels Plays (London 1967), and also the editions of Shakespeare, The Tempest, by Frank Kermode, the Arden Shakespeare (London 1954) and Stephen Orgel, the Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford 1989). All these introductions give helpful bibliographies on the subject.
2 While I restrict attention to the stage conditions in public playhouses, it is a fact that the only specific records of contemporary performance of The Tempest concern court performances, and it is possible that a court performance at Whitehall was more elaborate, using scenes and machines from recent court masques stored by the Office of the Revels, such as cloud machines capable of bearing performers and descending to the stage in, for example, the masque Hymenaei, and sea scenes as presented in Tethys Festival and The Masque of Blackness (Prospero's references to cloud-caped towers and gorgeous palaces have long been recognised as allusions to various Jacobean masque scenes. A complex use of illusionistic theatre effects in Shakespeare's play is not tied to a specific theatrical tradition, however, and this was given brilliant emphasis in the Italian production of 1978 directed by Giorgio Strehler, at the Piccolo Teatro di Milano at Teatro Lirico. The following description is from Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1993):
The opening storm lasted five full minutes: the shadow of a ship loomed behind transparent and billowing cloth, itself looking like a sail; sailors were thrown about, climbing and falling from rigging; lightning and thunder flashed and echoed in the house; huge waves rolled an crested downstage. It was spectacular, overwhelming, a powerfully physical tempest which took advantage of the large stage of the Theatro Lirico. Yet it was contextualized by a conspicuous theatricality, for the blue sea lay quietly on the floor as silk cloth before it began, the sailors were 'drowned' in its folds, and at the end of the tempest Prospero and Miranda calmly folded up a large section of cloth like a sheet and put away the magic in a stage trap. The waves were created by silk manipulated by sixteen hidden operators in transverse grooves or furrows built into the orchestra pit.
3 The monologue was written by Marriott Edgar and made famous by Stanley Holloway's performance of it.
4 The relevant passage is given in an appendix by both Kermode and Orgel in their editions.
5 PLAYER: We're more of the blood, love and rhetoric school.
GUILDENSTERN: we'll leave the choice to you, if there is anything to choose between them.
PLAYER: They're hardly divisible, sir—well, I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent and consecutive, but I can't do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory—they're all blood, you see.
GUILDENSTERN: Is that what people want?
PLAYER: It's what we do.
6 See Frank Kermode's edition, pp 122-3 n.
Source: "The Tempest and Interruptions" in Cahiers Élisabéthains, No. 45, April, 1994, pp. 47-58.