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The Shapeliness of The Tempest

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Peter Holland, Cambridge

When in 1667 Sir William Davenant turned his attention to adapting Shakespeare's The Tempest, he found a play that seemed to him in need of something more. The story is familiar: the addition of Hippolito to balance Miranda, Dorinda to balance Hippolito, Caliban's sister Sycorax to balance both the others and, to crown it all, Ariel's sweetheart Milcha to balance all the others. The process even involved the doubling of authorship as Davenant called in Dryden to balance himself.

What Dryden and Davenant did to The Tempest was a response, however excessive, to something about the nature of the play, an implication of mirroring and reflection, a suggestion of pattern and parallel, an understanding of the peculiar dramatic form of the play they are transforming. They took much further the play's own possibilities of mirroring, implied by such well-recognised features as the parallel openings of successive scenes of Shakespeare's play, 2.2 and 3.1, both beginning with a character carrying on logs, Caliban and Ferdinand.

Dominated by Kermode's 1954 Arden edition, criticism of The Tempest seemed for a long time concerned with little but nature and nurture. Just when it looked as though we had escaped that, there is now a concern bordering on obsession with the play as the epitome of the tensions in colonialism. This trend in academic criticism had been anticipated in adaptations like Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête (1969) or in productions like Jonathan Miller's at the Mermaid Theatre in 1970 which made of Ariel and Caliban the contrast between house-nigger and field-nigger of much recent black analysis of the structures of colonial power. An even earlier, if surprising, comprehension of the model comes in a letter by Eric Gill when he was carving his powerful stone sculpture of Prospero and Ariel to go on the BBC's Broadcasting House:

'Prospero and Ariel'. Well, you think. The Tempest and romance and Shakespeare and all that stuff. Very clever of the BBC to hit on the idea, Ariel and aerial, Ha! Ha! And the BBC kidding itself, in the approved manner of all big organizations … , that it represents all that is good and noble and disinterested—like the British Empire or Selfridges.1

Nevertheless, there is still a need to attend to the play's form, its dramatic structure, its scenic method, to work, that is, unfashionably close to the play as a theatrical object, to respond as Davenant and Dryden did to its odd shape, its strange shapeliness. For not only does The Tempest observe the unities of time and place in a way unprecedented in Shakespeare—a familiar fact about the play, echoing and intensifying the formal tightness he had explored as early as The Comedy of Errors and hardly again thereafter—but its scenic form is original, innovative and, above all, curious in its shapeliness.2

The study of scenic form in Shakespeare to explore his dramaturgy is still a comparatively new discipline. It effectively begins with Emrys Jones's Scenic Form in Shakespeare (1971) and with Mark Rose's Shakespearean Design (1972). Identifying it as 'one of the most disciplined, most severely controlled plays in the canon',3 Rose points out that The Tempest has fewer scenes than any Shakespeare play since A Midsummer Night's Dream, only nine in all. He then defines, with the help of a diagram, a remarkable feature of that sequence. The middle scene of the nine, the fifth, is 3.1, in which Ferdinand carries logs with Miranda and with Prospero watching. The scene before this, 2.2, has Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo and so too does the sixth scene, 3.2. The scene before that, the play's third, 2.1, is a 'lords' scene for Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian; so too is the seventh, 3.3. The scene before that, 1.2, ends with Prospero, Ferdinand and Miranda and the eighth scene, 4.1, starts with the same group of characters. As Rose sums it up, "Surrounding the centrepiece, and accounting for almost the entire play, is thus an extraordinary triple frame comprised of...

(The entire section is 7,516 words.)