The Shapeliness of The Tempest

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7516

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...

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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 distinct character groups' (p. 173).

In fact, we can go even further than Rose, for the play's opening scene introduces as the first two characters brought onstage the ship's Master and Boatswain, two people who will not reappear again until the end of the play's last scene, providing another 'distinct character group' marking another outermost frame to the play. This turns Rose's triple frame into a quadruple one, which, although slightly blurred around the edges, now accommodates all the play's scenes and all its characters bar one, predictably Ariel. That even Prospero is held within this pattern seems highly significant.

Rose, with engaging honesty, admits to being unsure what to make of this shape he perceives, a shape that is architectural in the extreme. He describes it as having 'little dramatic function' and comments that 'it seems to be merely a display of virtuosity, a pyrotechnical grand finale from the age's most accomplished dramatist on the eve of his retirement' (p. 174). 'Alternatively', he hesitantly adds, 'both the unities and the design can be regarded as the structural correlative to the central theme—discipline. Like Prospero, Shakespeare derives the authority to preach self-control from his own practice' (p. 174). One line of argument emanating from such a position would be that Prospero himself is thus subject to discipline and Ariel's indiscipline, his status as free floater, defines his ambiguous relation to authority.

I have myself to admit that I have no idea how Rose's extraordinary perception of this 'extraordinary triple frame' (now a quadruple frame in my extension of it) can be demonstrated in performance. Throughout his book, Rose sets out simpler architectural shapes operating through time, diagrams of spatial interconnectedness that seem to defy the temporal unfolding of theatre. The realisation of visual diagrams in time is mysterious and, when I have described the pattern of The Tempest to directors they have been initially fascinated and then frustrated, unable to suggest how to make an audience see this in the course of production. However, neither of Rose's explanations—virtuosity and the virtues of discipline—seem satisfactory or sufficient, the former too straightforwardly aesthetic, the latter far too simplistic in its response to the play's stresses and strains.

Rose's pattern of characters emphasises The Tempest's nine-scene form but it is also clearly a play written in five acts, a structure that, apart from Henry V, had not engaged Shakespeare significantly. At the end of Act 4, Prospero and Ariel leave the stage, having seen the spirits disguised as dogs start hunting Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano; at the beginning of Act 5 they re-enter. This is the only time in Shakespeare's works, according to the best authorities, that the so-called 'law of re-entry', the putative law that says a character cannot exit and immediately re-enter at the start of the next scene, is unequivocally broken.

Prospero's opening lines here define the moment of climax, the play's action coming to its close: 'Now does my project gather to a head' (5.1.1).4 The opening dialogue of this act also marks the crucial movement of Prospero's own intentions from revenge to forgiveness, to 'virtue', as Prospero himself defines it, as Ariel describes the effect of the spectacle of the three madmen: ' if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender' (5.1.18-19). 'Tender' is a word that was earlier used by Adrian to describe the island itself, a place that seems 'to be desert … Uninhabitable, and almost inaccessible … Yet … It must needs be of subtle, tender, and delicate temperance' (2.1.37-45), terms that might now almost be applied to Prospero whose inaccessibility to some other affections will be transformed to tender temperance. The exit and re-entry, the gap where nothing happens save the performance of act-music, are the precondition of change, of the alteration of Prospero's fixed purpose to the possibility of a different action. As Margreta de Grazia remarks, 'Prospero decides to take the action that will free him and his enemies to move and act again'.5

The change comes about, as de Grazia points out, 'from no prior action' (p. 249), but from Ariel's description of an action or rather a sight of immobility, a spectacle of magical imprisonment, for the lords are 'confined together' (5.1.7) just as Sycorax 'did confine' Ariel (1.2.275), or Caliban was 'deservedly confined into this rock' by Prospero (1.2.363). The lords have been trapped in 'the lime-grove which weather-fends your cell' (5.1.10),6 the same grove of limes or lindens as that in which Caliban and his co-conspirators are tempted by the finery of clothes, hung 'on this lime' (4.1.193, in F 'this line')—the word suggesting here lime-tree more than clothes-line and inducing in Stephano a heavy fit of punning. The grove is as completely a place of confinement as a rock or a cloven pine.

The play has explored a whole series of means of release from imprisonment and oppression,7 such as the false freedom that Ariel found from the cloven pine to Prospero's service, the one Sebastian suggests Antonio will find if he kills Alonso ('One stroke / Shall free thee from the tribute which thou payest', 2.1.297-8), and Caliban's drunken freedom-song with Trinculo and Stephano. From the opening of Act 5 on, The Tempest will define a new series of releases: the lords from the spell of madness, Caliban and company from the spell of pursuit, Ariel from the spell of service. Each release will now be from Prospero's magic, the thing he will in Act 5 promise to abjure, rather than the release of the usurping, murderous freedoms previously envisaged.

This change is only possible through the freeing of Prospero himself at the start of Act 5, the change recognised in the promise to 'break my staff (5.1.54) and bury it in the earth and 'deeper than did ever plummet sound' to 'drown my book' (5.1.56-7). 'Plummet' is an unusual word in Shakespeare's vocabulary, two of its three occurrences are in this play. Earlier Alonso had wanted to search for his missing son 'deeper than e'er plummet sounded' (3.3.101); now the same phrase is used for Prospero's magic book. The place where Ferdinand is wrongly thought to be is now the place where the source of the magic that lead to that false assumption will lie. The movement from fantasy to normality is charted in the sea-change the phrase undergoes in its repetition.

The freeing of the characters is inagurated by the unprecedented dramaturgy of re-entry, the freeing of characters from an assumed rule. I am not suggesting that the theatrical device embodies a simple meaning of enfranchisement from dramaturgical law transferred metaphorically to the rest of the action but rather that the extraordinary dramatic event in The Tempest's form emphasizes the transition, calls attention to that which too will be unprecedented, liberating and transforming, a turning away from the confinements of Prospero's magic.

The visible marks of that magic reside in three objects, three props repeatedly present on stage: the staff, the book and the robe. With the first he can conjure storms or draw a circle to define a holding-place, a space of imprisonment onstage; with the second he has the source of his power's action, the knowledge of possibility that a book of spells provides; the third is defined from the beginning as the emblem of his power and status as magus, the cunning and unnaturalness of the magus's control, announcing 'lie there, my art' (1.2.25), as, in a well-known analogue, 'at night when [Lord Burleigh] put off his gown, he used to say, Lie there, Lord Treasurer'.8

In suggesting that all three objects are present onstage I have gone slightly further than the evidence will warrant, for while the staff and robe are certainly used by Prospero, the book may not be. Those books which Prospero prized 'above my dukedom' (1.2.169) are, according to Caliban, in Prospero's cell and he repeatedly advises Stephano and Trinculo to grab them before attacking Prospero: 'Having first seized his books … Remember / First to possess his books … Burn but his books' (3.2.90-6). Perhaps Prospero was never meant to be seen to carry the book on stage, though so many images of the magus in the period and so many productions of the play have found it appropriate to show him carrying book as well as staff. Where the book is certainly seen is in its comic and distorted version, Stephano's bottle, the object Caliban and Trinculo are told to kiss ('kiss the book', 2.2.129) so that it becomes both a parodic bible but also a parodie book of power, alcohol as a form of social control, a religion enshrined in its book, the bottle. Prospero's book is the magus's bible, an object which tells him how to perform acts that are themselves distortions of religious actions, an appropriation of acts that belong orthodoxly only to Christ, 'graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth / By my so potent art' (5.1.48-50).

These objects of power enable Prospero to engineer many of the play's spectacles. In one of the play's three most spectacular moments, the appearance of Ariel as harpy, Shakespeare creates for the only time in his work a three-level vertical image, with Ariel descending and with Prospero, watching as so often in the play but placed this time, as Folio's stage-direction states, 'on the top' (, the level above the gallery. In 1938, in a speculative article examining the complex problems of staging this scene, John Cranford Adams, while describing Prospero as 'like some god of Olympus surveying mortals on the earth',9 suggests that Prospero is there partly to control the mechanics of the theatre action, to cue the music for the entrance and exit of the spirits and the machinists to operate the descent and ascent of Ariel. In modern terms we might want to think of Prospero as a visible director, like the Polish director Tadeusz Kantor who was onstage throughout his productions, moving the actors, controlling the process of the performance. In Giorgio Strehler's famous version of The Tempest for the Piccolo Teatro in Milan in 1978 Prospero became quite explicitly the play's director, as he did for Yukio Ninagawa's production in 1992. But in renaissance terms, if the concept of the stage's controller has resonance, it can have no overtones of the modern director; instead the cueing of the action was the prerogative of the prompter or, as he was always known, the book-holder. In Ninagawa's brilliant production of the play, the book that Prospero promises to drown became quite naturally the script of The Tempest, the sheets fluttering from their holder at the end. This is to make literal what is implicit, that the book controls the production, that Prospero is both playwright and book-holder, since the play's scenic form, the creation of separate character groups that enables Rose's pattern to exist, is the direct result of Prospero's power, his instruction that Ariel has fulfilled: 'And, as thou bad'st me, / In troops I have dispersed them 'bout the isle' (1.2.220-1). As book-holder Prospero is of course displaced from the normal invisibility of book-holder to audience; his stage placing here, 'on the top', marks his position of power, visible and emphatic beyond a book-holder's wildest dreams, but precisely aligned with the power of the magus as holder of magic books.

The harpy costume of this scene is the second of Ariel's three disguises in the play. The Puck of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ariel's precursor and the greatest of Shakespeare's metamorphic figures, is never seen transformed. Though we hear of him as crabapple, headless bear, gossip's stool and a whole host of other guises, only Bottom in the play will change shape. But, while Ariel says he has been invisibly and metamorphically present in the storm disguised as fire, where he 'flamed amazement' (1.2.199), that was not a stage effect which the Blackfriars or the Globe could run to.

Ariel's long dialogue with Prospero in 1.2, the rehearsal of his history, the monthly repetition of the story of his torment, makes clear the close and complex analogy between Prospero and Sycorax, both powerful magicians, both banished, both stuck on the island with their child, both enslavers of Ariel, an analogy which is another of the play's mirrors. After this, Prospero instructs Ariel to 'make thyself like to a nymph o'th'sea. Be subject / To no sight but thine and mine, invisible / To every eyeball else' (1.2.303-5). It is a passage that troubles editors since it is metrically corrupt, but the costume-change is itself odd, for, if Ariel is to be invisible to Ferdinand, the sea-nymph costume is 'logically pointless', as the play's most recent editor, Stephen Orgel, puts it.10 As with Feste as Sir Topas appearing to Malvolio in prison, who, as Maria says, 'mightst have done this without thy beard and gown, he sees thee not' (4.2.64-5), only the watchers will appreciate the appropriateness of the change. Prospero and the audience will enjoy the effect; its point is the charm of its visible harmony with the song.

Such pleasures of costume are genuine but Ariel's re-entry in disguise is another of the play's odd moments of dramaturgy. Prospero and Miranda have, by this stage, gone to 'visit Caliban my slave' (310), Prospero has called and Caliban growled back. Prospero calls on him to enter—'Come forth, I say! There's other business for thee. / Come, thou tortoise! When?' (317-18)—and then, 'Enter Ariel, like a water-nymph' (318.1).

Ariel has had barely a dozen lines to make the change, a remarkably short period; by comparison he has seventy lines to change into the harpy costume, though that may be more elaborate, and twentyseven lines to change into Ceres in the masque, his third and final change. In Peter Hall's production at the Old Vic in 1973 Ariel entered from the point at which Prospero, Miranda and the whole audience were staring, waiting for the first appearance of Caliban. This seems to me brilliantly right; we expect Caliban and we get a water-nymph. We do not expect Ariel to be back so quickly and Miranda cannot, in any case, see this 'Fine apparition', as Prospero calls him (319). Even Prospero must be surprised. Prospero's indulgence in the disguise, his pleasure in the theatrical appropriateness of the switch, becomes unexpected. But it is also part of the curious lurches that can occur when Ariel is onstage. Miranda may indeed be used to the way that her father talks to invisible spirits but the effect of Ariel's presence, particularly on Ferdinand, is to produce jumps in the continuity of such scenes for both Ferdinand and Miranda. What do they do when Prospero talks to Ariel? The problem is much more extreme than in the comparable case of Oberon and the Puck. For while Robin can only talk to Oberon when both are onstage, Oberon is himself invisible. The twin perspective, the super-imposed double scene, Prospero and Miranda, Prospero and Ariel, is unique to this play. Its disconnections are a mark of the island's strangeness, of the odd canons of realism appropriate to this world. The oddity of the sea-nymph costume is only a part of this effect.

Costume changes and the state of one's clothes are a peculiar trademark of The Tempest. Something about the island results in quick-drying fabrics. The wedding-clothes that Alonso and his party are wearing, the ones they put on 'in Afric, at the marriage of the King's fair daughter Claribel to the King of Tunis' (2.1.74-6), though they were, as Gonzalo remarks, 'drenched in the sea, hold notwithstanding their freshness and glosses, being rather new-dyed than stained with salt water' (67-9). Elsewhere Prospero will put on and off the robe of invisibility and of power: Henslowe's list of costumes belonging to the Admiral's Men in 1598 included 'a robe for to go invisibell'.

There are three sets of noble or monarchical costume in the play: alongside the first, the clothes that the lords group wears throughout, must come those, the second, that tempt Stephano and Trinculo. Prospero describes the 'glistering apparell', as the Folio stage-direction has it, as 'The trumpery in my house' (4.1.186). Editors have a tough time with the phrase and when Orgel suggests, rather desperately, that 'Prospero, suiting his art to his audience, produces carnival costumes from his cell',11 I am not sure what he is thinking of. Of course the costumes must be the sort that would attract Stephano and Trinculo and divert their attention from the plot in hand but what would Prospero be doing with carnival costumes in his cell in the first place? It seems unlikely that they were put in the boat by Gonzalo. Stage responses have recently tended to be extreme, producing gold cloaks and ermine collars in abundance, pantomime theatre costumes that have no connection with the language of costume in the play.

What would Prospero see as 'trumpery' and what would impress Stephano and Trinculo? It is quite conceivable that the wedding finery of the lords might rate the comment 'trumpery' from Prospero and the gowns and jerkins specifically mentioned might well be versions of the lord's costumes. This would tie their fascination for the drunks more directly to their perception of aristocratic style—about which a butler and a jester might be presumed to know something and with which they might well be fascinated—and would then become a structural midterm leading to the third aristocratic costume, Prospero's dressing in the hat and rapier from his cell so that he can 'myself present / As I was sometime Milan' (5.1.85-6).

The worldly costume of a prime duke, itself the sort of trumpery that Prospero disdained when for him his library was dukedom large enough, is rather unremarkable onstage. The final costume change, which one might reasonably expect to be triumphant and climactic, serves only to make Prospero rather insignificant. I am always struck in performance by the way that Prospero as Duke, shorn of the magic robe, becomes oddly unimportant and strangely easy to ignore. An ordinary man, in normal doublet and hose, hat and rapier, Prospero's ordinary ducal clothes may be less gaudy, less fine than the festive wedding-clothes of the lords. After the initial recognition, Alonso and the others seem just as interested in Ferdinand and Miranda, in the master and boatswain, in Stephano and Trinculo, and, above all, in Caliban, as in Prospero. They can treat him rather too much like an equal.

In fact, dressed like or less well than the others, Prospero is not recognisably the magus who has controlled the play. I am not convinced, for instance, that even Alonso suspects what Prospero has done to them. When they were held in their distraction in the magic circle, that strange moment when they are each analysed and defined by Prospero, they cannot hear him (for it is only at the end of the speech that, as he says, 'Their understanding / Begins to swell', 5.1.79-80). Prospero's speech is, in effect, a soliloquy. Harry Berger goes so far as to see the speech as a rehearsal: 'It is as if he hesitates to put on the real scene without one more dress rehearsal; or as if he is primarily aiming the words at himself, reminding himself of the part he has decided to play, and of the parts he has written for them, as penitents'.12 But, if Berger is right, this proves to be a dress rehearsal without a performance, with the actors, especially Antonio and Sebastian, prone to refuse this casting against type.

Alonso, amazed by the sailors, wonders

This is as strange a maze as e'er men trod, And there is in this business more than nature Was ever conduct of. Some oracle Must rectify our knowledge.                                (5.1.245-8)

His words pick up the maze that Gonzalo had earlier described as 'trod indeed' (3.3.2), all the amazement that has gone through the play from the point when Ariel flamed amazement in the first scene onwards, through Miranda's 'amazement' that Prospero calms (1.2.14), and all the 'strangeness' that has beat over and over again in the lines—26 times in all its cognate forms (strange, strangely, strangeness, stranger), many more if one adds in Folio's stage-directions. Some Alonsos direct the lines very pointedly at Prospero, identifying him as the oracle who can 'rectify our knowledge' but Prospero's reply, 'Sir, my liege, / Do not infest your mind with beating on / The strangeness of this business' (248-50), suggests that Alonso is worrying about how he can explain it, not waiting for Prospero to provide the explanation. There is, after all, no reason for Alonso and the others to think that Prospero can explain it or that he has unusual powers—they cannot see Ariel, have not yet seen Caliban—and Prospero, who has spent so much of the play invisibly watching others, becomes in the end too ordinarily visible to be credited with them.

Ariel's final costume was as Ceres in the masque, the third of the play's spectacular scenes. Complex and dense in its iconology, rich in its allusions and implications for the play as a whole, the masque is a vision of a world that might have been, a golden world like Gonzalo's fantasy, but one that cannot be achieved. Its idyll of abundance and perfection, present both in Juno's song and in the dance of nymphs and reapers, cannot reach the proper conclusion of masque, that moment of structural necessity in the form when the masquers take the members of the audience into the masque-world, combining the image and reality in dancing. Instead, 'To a strange, hollow, and confused noise, [the spirits] … heavily vanish' (

The Folio text of Tempest derives, it is generally agreed, from a Ralph Crane transcript. Some have argued, most particularly John Jowett, that its stage directions have large quantities of Crane added to briefer putative Shakespeare originals; Jowett indeed claims to be able to define word by word which bits of the stage directions are Shakespeare's and which Crane's.13 He may well be right but, as Greg observed, the style of the stage directions 'is the language of a spectator recording with appreciation the ingenuity of the staging, and there is no reason why Crane should not have seen The Tempest'.14 Even so, the language of the stage directions has such remarkable and unusual resonance within the structure of the play and such coherence that, if not Shakespearean, they can quite reasonably be taken to record Shakespearean stage effects. They are integrated within and integral to the nature of the only early text of The Tempest we have.

It is justifiable, then, to investigate this 'strange, hollow and confused noise'. Orgel, following OED, finds the sound 'sepulchral' and compares the sounds of birds in Strachey's letter, one of Shakespeare's sources. But, although no-one appears to have noticed it, there has already been both another confused noise heard and a second strange, hollow noise heard or at least described in the play. One of the Folio directions for the sounds of the ship-wreck in the first scene—the sound that makes the mariners assume the ship has split or the sound of the mariners making that assumption—is described as 'A confused noise within'. When Ariel wakes Alonso and the other sleepers as Antonio and Sebastian are about to strike, the sound of the song is described by Sebastian: 'Even now we heard a hollow burst of bellowing, / Like bulls, or rather lions' (2.1.316-17, my emphasis). Sebastian is probably lying, of course; the sound he describes is part of his excuse for having drawn his sword. Antonio, predictably, expands on the idea: 'O, 'twas a din to fright a monster's ear, / To make an earthquake! Sure it was the roar / Of a whole herd of lions' (319-21, my emphasis).

The change from the music of Ariel's song to the conspirators' description of it as noise is much like the change from the music of the masquers' dance to the 'confused noise'. The hollow bellow, the din, the roar connects with a whole series of sounds heard through the play, for if the isle is full of noises a surprising number of them are roars, from the sound of the tempest onwards: the 'roarers' who disdain the name of king (1.1.16-17), the 'roar' into which Prospero's magic has put 'the wild waters' (1.2.2), the 'sulphurous roaring' of Ariel's thunder and lightning (1.2.205) which will lead to the 'confused noise' as the ship breaks but which is also the sound that accompanied Prospero's and Miranda's journey to the island, when the sea 'roared to us' (1.2.149).

Roaring is also the sound that Caliban will produce if he suffers the 'old cramps' that Prospero threatens him with, they will 'make thee roar' (1.2.371-2). After the end of the masque, brought about by Prospero's forgetfulness of the 'foul conspiracy', he will plague the conspirators 'Even to roaring' (4.1.193) and, as they are chased offstage by the spirit-dogs, Ariel will hear them crying, fulfilling now Prospero's threat to Caliban in 1.2, 'Hark, they roar!' (259). The sounds of the tempest and the sounds of people in pain are the same sounds. The last description of roaring links to the sound that awakened Alonso and the others, for when the Boatswain tries to describe the sound that he and the other sailors heard, the sound that made them wake up, he speaks of 'strange and several noises, / Of roaring, shrieking, howling, jingling chains, / And more diversity of sounds, all horrible' (5.1.235-7).

Jonson's Masque of Queens was performed on February 2nd 1609. It contains his first great antimasque, his response to the queen's instruction to 'think on some dance or show that might precede hers and have the place of a foil or false masque', the performances of the witches that stand, says Jonson, 'not as a masque but a spectacle of strangeness'.15 The end of the antimasque is cataclysmic:

In the heat of their dance on the sudden was heard a sound of loud music, as if many instruments had made one blast; with which not only the hags themselves but the hell into which they ran quite vanished, and the whole face of the scene altered, scarce suffering the memory of such a thing.

(p. 134)

Orgel, in editing The Tempest, rightly points to the rich connections between Prospero's speech 'Our revels now are ended' and the common comments on the ephemerality of masques, those pageants which so often displayed 'The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, / The solemn temples, the great globe itself (4.1.152-3).

Masques may indeed fade but the way that Prospero's 'insubstantial pageant' vanishes suddenly to the accompaniment of a confused noise is remarkably like the transition from anti-masque to masque in Jonson's form, performed a couple of years before The Tempest and in the same place, Whitehall, where Shakespeare's play would, by chance, be similarly presented. For Prospero's masque is a vision of perfection as unattainable and as ineffective as the imperfect world of Jonson's anti-masque. In some sense Prospero's masque can only be a 'foil or false' show, not a true one, for the meeting of worlds in The Tempest will not be and cannot be between masquers and spectators but a reunion of people on an island that is itself by turns real and unreal.

Orgel suggests three possible antimasques to Prospero's masque: the opening storm, the harpy's banquet and the personified abstractions that would destroy the union of the marriage-bed, 'barren hate, / Soureyed disdain, and discord'.16 The witches of the antimasque in The Masque of Queens gather 'fraught with spite / To overthrow the glory of this night',17 their dances and songs are charms of opposition and chaos. Their world is a combination of magic and conspiracy and I cannot help but be struck by the resonance with The Tempest, for the masque which is created by Prospero's magic is disrupted by a conspiracy designed to 'overthrow the glory' of Prospero's day. It is as if the masque must halt and disappear because the anti-masque's action now, through Prospero's forgetfulness, follows the masque rather than preceding it, leaving it coded by its opposition (anti) rather than its sequence (ante), the binary structure of Jonsonian masque irreparably and impossibly reversed. It makes Prospero's masque a premature event, too early for a celebration of union, something that must wait for Act 5 and, in particular, the moment when Ferdinand and Miranda, spectators to the earlier masque, themselves become actors in the emblematic action of the chess-game, presented to spectators with whom they as actors will join to ask for blessing.

The most significant moment of spectacle and dramaturgical oddity, is the tempest itself. As Anne Barton and Andrew Gurr have shown,18 Shakespeare is responding in the scene to two contradictory impulses. The first is the frequent and conventional acknowledgement that showing sea-storms was beyond the stage's capabilities. Part 1 of Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West, for instance, first performed just before or just after The Tempest, has the Chorus announce 'Our stage so lamely can express a sea / That we are forc'd by Chorus to discourse / What should have been in action'. In his earlier play, The Four Prentices of London, Heywood takes the equally conventional next step, suggesting that the audience's imagination must create what cannot be shown, relying on the language to represent as vividly as possible the scene that cannot be seen:

Imagine now yee see the aire made thicke With stormy tempests, that disturbe the sea: And the foure windes at warre among  themselves:

And the weake Barkes wherein the brothers  saile, Split on strange rockes, and they enforc't to  swim.19

Shakespeare had demonstrated the same technique in Henry V and had returned to it in Pericles, recognising the dramatic potential of the ambiguous event, the event that defies performance and tensely opposes the stage's own show. In many ways, the virtuoso handling of the opening scene of The Tempest, its extraordinary demonstration of the limits of stage realism, of the potential for show, suggests a master-dramatist showing off, that Accompanied 'pyrotechnical grand Rose finale' Mark Rose describes.20 Accompanied by the roaring sound, the 'tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning' described in the Folio stage-direction, the mariners' nautical jargon quickly conjures up the storm, the frenetic activity of efficient seamen working fast under stress, the variety of survival measures they take and their failure, as well as their arguments with the aristocratic passengers.

But, as Peter Hall discovered when rehearsing the scene for his production at the National Theatre in 1988, mere activity is not the answer. After several rehearsals, Hall gloomily muttered 'The scene is becoming what it always is, just a lot of desperate noise'.21 Hall's solution was to underplay the realism, to adopt 'a more formalized approach'. Beginning the scene in a 'deadly quiet that seemed much more dangerous', Hall made 'the sounds punctuating the scene … more surrealistic—and much more disturbing—than the usual violent storm which drowns everything'.22 Interestingly, both Nicholas Hytner in his production for the RSC in 1988 and Peter Brook in his version, La Tempête (1990), adopted similarly eerie solutions to the problem of staging the storm.

The second impulse that Shakespeare was responding to is the one technique for the representation of the consequences of shipwreck that the renaissance stage regularly employed, the entrance of characters 'wet'. In The Thracian Wonder (1599), for instance, comes the direction 'Enter old Antimon bringing in Ariadne shipwrecked, the Clown turning the child up and down, and wringing the Clouts … Enter Radagon all wet, looking about for shelter as shipwrecked'.23 Each of the shipwrecked brothers in Heywood's The Four Prentices, cast away in France, Ireland and Venice, duly enters 'all wet'. The Folio stage direction in the storm at the start of The Tempest, 'Enter Mariners wet', was, as Anne Barton has said, 'clearly designed to make the calamity as convincing and tangible as possible, for characters and audience alike' (p. 45).

The revelation that Prospero created the storm and that no one was harmed startlingly denies the first scene's realism; the common mistake in productions from at least William Poel onwards of having Prospero and Miranda on stage to watch the storm works directly against everything which that realism aims to achieve, refuting the threat of the sound of the ship splitting and the desperation of the offstage cries, 'Mercy on us! / We split, we split! Farewell, my wife and children! / Farewell, brother! We split, we split, we split!' (1.1.57-9). It also undermines the confidence trick, for the audience will see, once it knows Prospero's part in all this, that the shipwrecked people do not enter wet, that the lords' clothes are fresh and glossy, and that, although Ferdinand is 'something stained', it is 'With grief not with water (1.2.417-18).

The audience, knowingly unsurprised, will not share Gonzalo's surprise. From Prospero's explanation of the storm onwards, they will be unable to share the characters' endless amazement. Theatrical thrift creates the exact and careful definition of the stage direction: it is the mariners who enter wet for all the others who appear onstage in the first scene; master and boatswain, Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Gonzalo and the rest will all have to appear subsequently in the same costumes bonedry. The mariners will not be back even in act 5; indeed I assume the actors will reappear transformed into the spirits of the island. The entry of wet characters is here a feature of the process of a shipwreck that is not a shipwreck, not the consequence of one, being in the middle of a shipwreck rather than having been shipwrecked.

The storm, the most vigorous moment of stage realism in the play, is not realism at all. It is as artifical, formal and theatrical as the harpy or the masque. Its disorientation is disturbing but not sustained. No wonder then that Kemble's production in 1807, keen to make all clear, altered the sequence of the scenes so as to play the storm after Prospero's account of it and to have songs by a chorus of 'spirits of the storm'.24 No wonder that Hazlitt described this version as 'travestie, caricature, any thing you please, but a representation'.25 The wet actors, both bearing a mark of the real and standing as a theatrical sign for something beyond, prove to have poured water over themselves for no purpose; they are wet but prove not to be, they convince us they are shipwrecked but are in no danger. The forms of performance apply even here; this storm too is structured.

Rose's triple frame with which I began breaks down at the moment of the end of the masque, for instead of seeing only Caliban, as the mirroring pattern would prescribe, we are now shown Stephano and Trinculo as well. It breaks down when Prospero loses control, forgets something, allows the conspiracy to fall outside his consciousness, the power that has so far defined the sequence of the play. But if the play starts with a storm which is not a storm, it ends with a reconciliation which is not a reconciliation, a pattern which is not a pattern. The pattern of the play's structure completes itself, not with the last scene but with the epilogue, an action that, asking for applause, seeks to conjure up its own particular noise, a storm of clapping, that makes it into its own transformed echo of the play's opening storm-scene. We might even contemplate thinking of the storm as prologue, the journey to the island balancing the epilogue which asks for help to make the journey away from the island, 'the thunder and lightning' becoming 'Gentle breath' (Epilogue, 11).

Whatever the complexities and difficulties of the end of the play, I want to focus finally on the formal importance of the play's middle scene, so often undervalued. When Ferdinand enters bearing a log, we should catch the deliberate echo of the opening of the preceding scene when Caliban enters bearing a 'burden of wood'. Both are defined in relation to Miranda: Caliban bears wood because he has become Prospero's slave after trying to have sex with Miranda by raping her; Ferdinand bears wood because he has become Prospero's slave so that he can have sex with Miranda by marrying her (though, as Prospero insists, not before marriage). Attempted sex leads to slavery; slavery will lead to achieved sex. The pattern is neat.

The scene with Miranda is played out with Prospero watching. He had of course planned the dynastic marriage from the beginning but what Prospero had not expected is that the two would fall so immediately and wondrously in love. Emotions are beyond Prospero's control—as he will find with Antonio in the last scene—however cleverly he may, like a god or a playwright, engineer the movement of bodies round the stage. Prospero's pleasure in their love is immense and positive: 'So glad of this as they I cannot be, / Who are surprised with all; but my rejoicing / At nothing can be more.' (3.1.93-5). Wearily unsurprised though he may be, there is a natural easy affection exuded by the young couple that is engaging.

It is also, I want to suggest, triumphant. Alistair Fowler has argued for the significance in Elizabethan writing of the notion of the triumphant centre.26 Even when the details of his argument became excessively immersed in numerology, his analysis of 'structural patterns in Elizabethan writing poetry', the subtitle of his book Triumphal Forms, powerfully suggested that the centre, the sovereign centre of triumph, is often at least as important as the end of a work of defiantly abstract form. In pageants and processions, triumphs and displays, the sovereign is centred. Only occasionally does this seem to be a shape that interested Shakespeare. After all, drama is defiantly linear, its narrative working so strongly against the architectural patterns of the kind of sequences that Fowler detects.

But in Banquo's triumph at Macbeth's feast and here in The Tempest, the play's centre does indeed offer a triumph. In Miranda's and Ferdinand's love we might find the epitome of the structural form, the shapeliness of the play that no amount of disturbance, ambiguity, cynicism or incompletion that the ending can generate can quite overwhelm or even significantly harm. Even if Miranda is naive, even if the world is not as brave or as new as she sees it, yet when informed that 'To th'most of men [Ferdinand] is a Caliban' she is modestly and comically satisfied: 'My affections / Are then most humble. I have no ambition / To see a goodlier man' (1.2.483-6). As the slightly pompous and self-important Ferdinand of 1.2, the man wrapped up in the virtues of his courtly language, sets to his task of shifting the logs so his language takes on a new sincerity, tutored by hers, another mirror of reversal, here of her previous success as a tutor when her teaching Caliban language has only resulted in his learning how to curse.

We may wish to distrust the false play of their game at chess, for their entry as a couple into a social world is hedged around with the dangers of that threatening and deceitful world that Ferdinand's false play suggests he already shares in.27 But their love in 3.1 is an image of a world of feeling beyond any control of magic, dramaturgy and shapeliness that The Tempest can impose. Its triumph is both the central panel of a formal structure and a denial of that structuring. In that tension, it defines in more ways than one, the heart of the play.


1 Quoted by Fiona MacCarthy, 'The word became flesh', TLS, 25th December 1992, p. 15.

2 For a different recent approach to The Tempest's dramaturgy, see Stanley Wells, 'Problems of Stage-craft in The Tempest', New Theatre Quarterly 10, (1994), pp. 348-57.

3 Mark Rose, Shakespearean Design, (Camb., Mass., 1972), p. 173.

4 All quotations from The Tempest are from William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells et al, (Oxford, 1986).

5 Margreta de Grazia, 'The Tempest: Gratuitous Movement or Action without Kibes and Pinches', Shakespeare Studies 14, (1981), p. 249.

6 F reads 'Line-groue' here and, while Wells-Taylor rightly modernises to 'lime-grove', F's reading points up the echo I find below.

7 On such echoes, see Jan Kott, 'The Tempest, or Repetition' in The Bottom Translation, (Evanston, Ill., 1987), pp. 91-3.

8 Quoted in William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Stephen Orgel, (Oxford, 1987), p. 103.

9 John C. Adams, 'The Staging of The Tempest, III.iii', RES 14 (1938), p. 415.

10 Orgel, p. 117.

11 Orgel, p. 183.

12 Harry Berger, Jr., 'Miraculous Harp: A Reading of Shakespeare's Tempest', Shakespeare Studies 5, (1969), p. 276.

13 See John Jowett, 'New Created Creatures: Ralph Crane and the Stage Directions in The Tempest ' Shakespeare Survey 36, (1983), pp. 107-20.

14 W. W. Greg quoted by Orgel, p. 58.

15 Ben Jonson, The Complete Masques, ed. Stephen Orgel, (New Haven, 1969), pp. 122-3.

16 Orgel, p. 47.

17 Jonson, Masques, p. 126.

18 See Andrew Gurr, 'The Tempest's Tempest at Black-friars' Shakespeare Survey 41, (1989), pp. 91-102 and Anne Barton, '"Enter Mariners, wet": Realism in Shakespeare's Last Plays' in Nicholas Boyle and Martin Swales, eds., Realism in European Literature, (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 28-49. See also

19 Both passages quoted by Gurr, pp. 91-2.

20 Rose, p. 174.

21 Quoted by Roger Warren, Staging Shakespeare's Late Plays, (Oxford, 1990), p. 160.

22 Warren, p. 160.

23 Quoted Barton, p. 44.

24 John Philip Kemble, Prompt-books, ed. Charles H. Shattuck, 11 vols., (Charlottesville, Virginia, 1974), vol. 8, p. 16.

25 Quoted Orgel, p. 68.

26 See in particular, Triumphal Forms, (Cambridge, 1970).

27 See Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor, 'Ferdinand and Miranda at Chess', Shakespeare Survey 35, (1982), pp. 113-18, but see also

Source: "The Shapeliness of The Tempest," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 45, No. 3, July, 1995, pp. 208-29.


The King and the Poet: The Tempest, Whitehall, Winter, 1613


The Tempest (Vol. 29)