Problems of Stagecraft in The Tempest

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6355

Stanley Wells, University of Birmingham

This essay is offered as a tribute to Jan Kott in appreciation of all he has done to stimulate international enthusiasm for Shakespeare's plays.

The Tempest is a play that commands great admiration as a poem in dramatic form. As is well known, the editors of the First Folio gave it pride of place in that volume; and as Shakespeare's last unaided play, it is often regarded as the culmination of his career as a poetic dramatist: a final, highly personal, even visionary utterance concerned at least in part with the relationship between life and art, and having at its centre a figure who has often been regarded as Shakespeare's shadowing forth of himself.

Its plot is comparatively slight, having none of the density and complexity of the plays that immediately preceded it in Shakespeare's output such as the immensely intricate Cymbeline. Its language, on the contrary, is very substantial—far more so than would have been necessary to project the story in naturalistic terms; the poetry is rich, dense, suggestive, complexly resonant; wonderfully integrated yet also, because of the way the play is constructed, falling often into set pieces (Prospero's 'Our revels now are ended' is only the most obvious example) that are detachable and can almost be considered as poems in their own right.

Nevertheless, in spite of all its poetical power, the play has often 'proved curiously resistant to successful theatrical realization',1 and indeed has been subjected over the centuries to various kinds of adaptation in the attempt to increase its theatrical viability; and when it is performed in relatively unadapted form it often fails to live up to the expectations raised by the impression it creates, in reading, on the theatre of the mind. In short, this is a play that exemplifies more than most the tensions between literature and drama.

In this paper I want to examine certain aspects of the play in the light of the various kinds of problems posed by their theatrical realization: not simply practical problems such as may be posed by any playscript, but problems that derive particularly from features of dramatic style which, if they are not unique to this play, are at least characteristic of the mode in which it is written. And I will start with the opening scene, which in practice has proved one of the most problematical.

The Opening Scene

Representing a shipwreck caused by a storm at sea, this scene provides obvious opportunities for theatrical spectacle, opportunities which the theatre has not been slow to exploit. The opening stage direction of the original text, written to be performed on the bare boards of the Globe or the Blackfriars, refers only to sound: 'A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard.' No doubt the actors entering upon the stage would have been able to convey through gestures and bodily movements the impression that they were reeling around on a storm-driven vessel, and conceivably some properties were used to add to the atmospherics, but there could have been nothing like the visual effects demanded half a century later when the play was given at the Duke of York's theatre in an adaptation by Dryden and Davenant.

There, as the overture played, a curtain rose to reveal a new, emblematic 'frontispiece' with behind it

the Scene, which represents a thick Cloudy Sky, a very Rocky Coast, and a Tempestuous See in perpetual Agitation. This Tempest (suppos'd to be rais'd by Magick) has many dreadful Objects in it, as several Spirits in horrid shapes flying down amongst the Sailors, then rising and crossing...

(This entire section contains 6355 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

in the Air. And when the Ship is sinking, the whole House is darken'd, and a shower of Fire falls upon 'em. This is accompanied with Lightning, and several Claps of Thunder, to the end of the Storm.

The scene that follows, though it retained much of Shakespeare's dialogue, made lengthy additions to it, including a lot of nautical language indicating stage business designed to increase the impression of a storm at sea. At the end of the scene, in the midst of a shower of fire, the scene changed, the theatre darkened, and 'when the Lights return discover that Beautiful part of the Island, which was the Habitation of Prospero.'2

The emphasis on spectacle inaugurated by the Dryden-Davenant adaptation reached its apogee in Charles Kean's production at the Princess's Theatre in 1857, in which the shipwreck was represented with extraordinary vividness but in which not a word was spoken. Shakespeare was being translated into a different medium from that in which he wrote: drama was replaced by spectacular mime; the play came close to the condition of ballet.

As this production continued, one triumph of spectacular staging succeeded another, but the text throughout was so severely shortened as to incur the condemnation even of the theatre historian G. C. D. Odell—no purist in these matters—who remarked that 'the Shakespearian enthusiast must have left the theatre with a feeling of disappointment, not to say resentment and disgust, resolving hereafter to seek his poetry at Sadler's Wells, where scenery was less in evidence'.3

Those are the terms in which Odell writes about the production when he is discussing the text; but when he comes to describe the production itself he reveals a distinct ambivalence in his reactions to it, describing it as 'probably the most beautiful and astonishing ever put on the stage'. 'Purists then, like purists now', he writes—implicitly aligning himself with those who are not purists—'lamented their lost fragments of Shakespeare; but the average theatregoer simply revelled in the show for a long succession of performances.'

Text versus Spectacle?

These conflicting judgements are symptomatic of a constant ambivalence in the reactions of audiences to poetic drama: a feeling on the one hand that the text is what most matters, that the highest pleasures offered by the play are those that come through language, and at the same time a somewhat guilty feeling that in the theatre other values may supervene, even that the play's poetic integrity may be subverted by the more physical pleasures provided in its theatrical realization.

In recent times we have perhaps become a little more tolerant of adaptation, more receptive to the notion that each attempt to put a play on the stage must differ from every other one, and that it is ultimately impossible to define an essence which only is the play itself; we may respond to the pleasures of productions that alter the text, that substitute theatrical for verbal effects, that use the text as a jumping-off ground for an experience very different from that conveyed by reading alone, even a reading that is fully informed by consciousness of theatrical values.

Nevertheless there are many directors who work with full texts, and many audiences who are interested in the efforts that can made to be faithful to these texts; they present a challenge, and even if the challenge is finally evaded it is worth discussing the nature of this challenge and the terms in which it may be faced.

To return to Scene One of The Tempest: although the theatres of Shakespeare's time offered far less opportunity for spectacular staging than those of later ages, the mode in which this scene is composed is not conspicuously poetical. Most of the dialogue is written in prose. This may seem a mere technicality, because Shakespeare's prose can itself be very poetical, but here the prose is relatively naturalistic, colloquial indiction, often subservient to the bustling action that it serves: 'Hey, my hearts! Cheerly, cheerly, my hearts! Yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to the master's whistle … ' and so on. In spite of a few antiquated expressions, it conveys an impression of modernity; and much of it could stand without alteration in, for instance, a television script.

If this were all, nothing might be lost by submerging it by action, or even by abandoning it altogether in the manner of Charles Kean. But if we look at it closely, and especially in the light of what is to come in later scenes, we may begin to feel that the impression of naturalism is illusory, that the dialogue is not simply atmospheric in the manner that spectacular productions (of any age) emphasize, and that neither is it simply expository of action, setting up the initial situation of the plot.

Rather, the scene is one in which what is represented has emblematic as well as narrative significance, and in which what is said is no less important than what is represented: it is expository of the play's ideas as well as of its plot, and introduces us to what it is perhaps too unfashionable to call the 'themes' of the play—to those ideas that enrich its texture and that have caused it to be regarded not just as a stimulus to theatrical effect but also as one of the more important documents in our literary as well as our theatrical heritage. Let us try to look at the scene not from a single point of view but as a whole, a piece of poetical drama.4

The Ship as Microcosm

We may note first that, as the play is to take place on an island, so this scene takes place upon a ship—itself a kind of island, giving the scene some of the aspects of a microcosm of the whole play. As I have remarked, it opens not with dialogue, but with sound—the ominous sound of thunder and of lightning (I'm not entirely clear what lightning sounds like). In the shorthand of drama, this sound of the elements threatening human life can immediately establish a mode in which symbol is important, in which anything that is heard or seen has significance beyond the mundane. The opening dialogue of the scene, and therefore of the play, gives us an image of authority—the authority exercised by the master of a ship as he gives orders to his crew: it introduces us to the concept of authority as an instrument of control: the master is controlling the crew's efforts which themselves are directed to control the ship so as to withstand the onslaught of forces mysteriously inimical to human life.

Having given us a glimpse of one kind of authority, Shakespeare rapidly juxtaposes it with another. On the ship the master has the kind of authority that a king exercises over the country that he rules. And the next characters to enter are a king—Alonso, King of Naples—and members of his court. It must be one of the minor problems in producing the play that these characters are not named in the dialogue of the scene, and that their offices, so important to our understanding of what is happening, are only implicitly alluded to: this is something that can be at least partially solved by costuming, but it is symptomatic of one of the more awkward aspects of the play's technique.

The King, having entered upon the scene, immediately starts trying to exert an authority that is irrelevant to the circumstances in which he finds himself. On board, the ship's master is king: Alonso's assumption of authority is irrelevant, is indeed subversive of the authority of the true ruler of this little kingdom: and the play that follows is to be much concerned with usurpation, both in the past and in the present.

The Boatswain's rebukes of Alonso and his fellows—at first polite ('I pray you, keep below'), then more insistent ('You mar our labour. Keep your cabin—you do assist the storm')—show two kinds of authority in collision, resulting in danger to each, as the Boatswain points out: 'you do assist the storm'. We are shown vividly and verbally that in some circumstances the higher power may be at the mercy of a lesser one; a parallel image might be that of a king having to submit to a medical authority. We are shown this through words: 'What cares these roarers for the name of king?' asks the exasperated Boatswain, in a simple, direct, and memorable sentence that epitomizes the situation—and that has resonances characteristic of the play in that the word 'roarers' could mean not only roaring winds and waves but also rioters, that is those who try to subvert authority. Significant too is the formulation 'the name of king'; the power of a king derives partly from the name of the office that he occupies, from a word which in itself has no power to quell the inimical forces of thunder and lightning—a theme that Shakespeare had already memorably explored in both Richard II and King Lear.

The Boatswain expands upon his rebuke in response to Gonzalo's injunction 'yet remember whom thou hast aboard'. 'None that I love more than myself', he replies; 'You are a councillor; if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more—use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long, and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap.'

As the brief scene progresses, we see that the clash between two systems of authority produces reactions that are expressive of character. Sebastian and Antonio are harsh, insolent, and uncharitable—everything that they themselves accuse the Boatswain of being. Gonzalo, on the other hand, is good-humoured, tolerant, and humane. In the face of increasing disaster both the mariners and the more sympathetic members of the King's party abandon all claims to authority and resort to prayer—and if we know the play in advance we will remember that it is to end with a request for the audience's prayers. But two characters—Antonio and Sebastian—seem entirely resistant to the idea that their fate depends upon any power beyond that of the sailors: 'We are merely cheated of our lives by drunkards', says Antonio—and we may remember that there will be drunkenness, a condition in which self-control is as it were voluntarily abnegated, in the play, too.

So far as we know at the end of the scene, as the ship splits apart, the storm has won, though Shakespeare cunningly provides a transition with Gonzalo's closing words:

Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground—long heath, brown furze, anything. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death.

There are, then, several different sorts of problem in this scene. One is for the actors to establish the characters in the audience's imaginations on the basis of relatively little information. Another is to determine the appropriate balance between naturalism and stylization. And most important, at least for a director who seeks (granted the changes in theatrical conditions between Shakespeare's times and ours) to achieve Shakespeare's effects in his own way, is to allow the ideas that the scene articulates to make themselves apparent: if elaborate sound effects are used, and if visual spectacle is to play its part in the presentation of the scene, the orchestration of these effects must be such that the words carrying the scene's ideas are not lost.

The problem is similar to that of the storm scenes in King Lear, though there it is more apparent because Lear so obviously must be heard: even Charles Kean—assuming he was playing Lear himself—would not have totally eliminated words there.

Problems of Narrative and Character

The opening scene shows us something of the struggle that man has to exert to impose order on his universe, and at the beginning of the next scene we see a man who does literally have power, albeit a limited power, to exert control over the forces of nature. I say at the beginning of the second scene, but directors have frequently chosen to bring Prospero—and even (as in Sam Mendes's 1993 Stratford production) Ariel too—on stage at the very beginning of the play to show us that the storm is of Prospero's making. To do this runs the risk of diminishing the impact of the storm; foregrounding narrative over symbol, it suggests from the start that man can control the elements, and so reduces the scene's emblematic quality. It also adds yet another unidentified character to the scene, at least for audiences who are unfamiliar with the play.

The second scene is very much of a contrast with the first in both verbal style and dramatic mode, and taken together the two scenes represent a variation upon a technique of double exposition that Shakespeare uses elsewhere—notably in, for instance, Hamlet and Macbeth, where too a vividly atmospheric scene or episode is followed by one that lays out information essential to our understanding of the action in a more leisurely, amplificatory style.

In The Tempest Prospero's narrative is so long, so relatively free from interruption, so obviously literary, that it is often seen as undramatic and in need of theatrical pepping up; but this perhaps underestimates the theatrical force of spoken narrative. An actor inevitably imbues the lines with his own personality, and, as he relives it, Prospero's account of his past can compel our interest.

Prospero's long narration, addressed to Miranda, and his subsequent interchanges with Ariel and Caliban, firmly establish him as the play's central character; indeed there is even a sense in which he might be described as the play's only fully realized human character. I don't mean by this that, as some have maintained, the entire play takes place in Prospero's mind; but it does seem to me that one of the major theatrical problems of the play lies in Shakespeare's use of what we might call foreshortening and symbolical techniques in his presentation of certain characters.

Shakespeare's techniques of characterization vary from play to play, even from phase to phase of his career. In some plays, such as Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, he is clearly very much interested in the quirks of individual personalities; in others, characterization tends to be more stylized, projecting only selected aspects of a personality and leaving the actor freedom either to maintain some detachment from the character, or to suggest hidden depths not apparent in the dialogue. One may think for example of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, who can be played as a melodramatic villain but for whom some actors try to supply psychological motivation; or of the good and bad Dukes in As You Like It, defined largely by contrast.

The plays in which this technique predominates tend to be those in which the emphasis is on ideas rather than on human psychology. Shakespeare is particularly inclined to use such devices in his late plays (especially Cymbeline with, for example, its wicked, Snow White-type Queen), but there is no other play in his output in which they are so predominant as The Tempest. In the storm scene Shakespeare rapidly establishes a contrast between Gonzalo on the one hand and, on the other, Antonio and Sebastian—this play's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Tweedledum and Tweedledee—by juxtaposing the idealism of the former with the cynicism of the latter.

Dramatizing Moral Contrasts

These are the tips of the icebergs of their personalities, all the actor has to work with at this stage of the play. And as the action continues the same techniques may be observed at work in both these and other characters. It causes particular problems, I think, in the court characters. Prospero names the more important of these in his narration, and it was perhaps in response to the shadowiness of their textual characterization that Mendes, in the production I have referred to, caused each of them to step forward from behind a screen as he did so, helping to fix their identities in our mind. Directorial devices like this, while they may sometimes seem like unnecessary impositions on a play, may also represent relevant and justifiable criticisms of it.

The difficulties with the courtiers come to a head in Act Two, Scene One, in the first part of which we witness their reactions to the shipwreck and to the island on which they find themselves, and in which contrasts between these reactions help to define them: Gonzalo again, and the very subsidiary lord Adrian—a dramatic nonentity if ever there was one—are full of idealism, especially in Gonzalo's Montaigne-inspired description of an ideal commonwealth; whereas Antonio and Sebastian take a jaundiced, cynical view of all they see.

In my experience, the audience's attention is all too liable to sag during this scene, with its somewhat obscure dialogue, its arid witticisms, and its two-dimensional characters. Roger Warren writes of it that 'It is … one of the most difficult for actors to perform and for audiences to concentrate upon', while feeling nevertheless that its problems are soluble—and were solved in Peter Hall's National Theatre production of 1988, largely as the result of subtle acting that found a psychological subtext to motivate the apparently stylized utterances. The actors, we may feel, were baling Shakespeare out; but of course a playwright can legitimately expect help from his interpreters. Another way of tackling the problems, however, might be to accept the scene's artificialities and to play it in a consciously stylized fashion.

The dramatic mode of romance within which Shakespeare is working in this play encourages the presentation of moral absolutes, and this is very apparent in The Tempest. The moral contrasts within the court party are mirrored in other relationships in the play, most strongly perhaps in that between Ferdinand, the King's son, and Caliban. Here Shakespeare employs a symbolical method of characterization which helps both to distinguish between the two characters and to point to similarities between them. Before we see Caliban, Prospero tells Miranda

    He does make our fire, Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices That profit us,

and Caliban's first words, spoken 'within', are 'There's wood enough within.' The carrying of wood is a symbolical burden, in Caliban's case a punishment imposed on him for the crime of attempted rape. The uncontrolled sexual urge is easily seen as part of that destructive disorder of which thunder and lightning had been the initial symbols. And it is a clear aspect of the play's self-conscious design that Shakespeare immediately follows the exit of the lustful figure of Caliban with the entrance of the play's romantic lover, Ferdinand.

Where Caliban resists control, Ferdinand, who enters under the magic control of Ariel (and thus of Prospero, whose agent Ariel is), willingly accepts it as a means of winning Miranda. For him love is a power, a bondage, but one that illustrates the Christian paradox that in some kinds of service lies perfect freedom:

My spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up. My father's loss, the weakness which I feel, The wreck of all my friends, nor this man's  threats, To whom I am subdued, are but light to me, Might I but through my prison once a day Behold this maid. All corners o'th'earth Let liberty make use of—space enough Have I in such a prison.

The Love-Test and Betrothal

And Prospero imposes on Ferdinand a love-test, a task such as those to which heroes of chivalric romances were customarily subjected. In some stories, such love-tests involved heroic feats such as the subjugation of giants. Ferdinand's is less arduous: like Caliban, he has to fetch and chop Prospero's firewood. The opening stage direction of Act Three reads 'Enter Ferdinand bearing a log', and his subsequent soliloquy, followed by the dialogue between him and Miranda, bases itself on his attitude towards his task, along with Miranda's concern that he 'Work not so hard.' Whereas the first words we have heard Caliban speak are a complaint against his task—'There's wood enough within'—Ferdinand accepts his 'mean task' gladly because 'The mistress which I serve quickens what's dead,/And makes my labours pleasures.'

One of the problems in staging the play is to determine the nature and quantity of the wood to be carried by Ferdinand; it may seem a small enough point, but the decision will have a considerable effect on the tone of the scene and on the way we react to Ferdinand. If the logs are too heavy, Miranda's offer to relieve him of the task will seem absurd, and Prospero will seem to be punishing rather than testing him; if they are too light, the scene will be trivialized.

Nicholas Hytner hit the right note, I thought, when, placing this scene after the interval, he showed us Ferdinand repeatedly going to and fro in a spirit of rueful acceptance of his lot, bearing logs weighty enough to cause him moderate discomfort, before the house lights went down. The audience's amusement was channelled off before the play proper resumed. The significance of the symbolism is brought home at the end of the scene when Ferdinand, betrothing himself to Miranda, declares himself her husband 'with a heart as willing/As bondage e'er of freedom.'

Prospero has been an unseen witness of the conversation between the lovers, and at the end of the scene declares his satisfaction at their betrothal. But he is constantly concerned to sustain the distinction—not always an easy one to maintain—between lust and love, as symbolized in Caliban's uncontrolled desire and Ferdinand's acceptance of the need for self-restraint. Giving Miranda to Ferdinand, he says:

                 All thy vexations Were but my trials of thy love, and thou Hast strangely stood the test. Here, afore  heaven, I ratify this my rich gift.

Yet still he insists on the importance of control:

If thou dost break her virgin-knot before All sanctimonious ceremonies may With full and holy rite be ministered, No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall To make this contract grow,

and again,

Look thou be true; do not give dailiance Too much the rein. The strongest oaths are  straw To th' fire i' th' blood.

The explicit moralizing here is unusual for Shakespeare, though it has its parallels in other late plays; it may be seen as an aspect, perhaps even an unpleasant one, of the characterization of Prospero, but it certainly also relates to the play's overriding concern, adumbrated in the opening scene, with man's attempts to control and tame the potentially anarchic forces of nature both within and outside of himself. Thus, both the importance of sexual selfcontrol and the rewards that it may reap are the very themes of the masque that Prospero conjures up as his entertainment for the lovers.

Masque as Medium—and as Message

No one would question, I suppose, that the staging of the masque ranks high among the problems that this play presents to modern interpreters. In his essay on The Tempest Jan Kott speaks of Shakespeare's plays as 'a system of mirrors, as it were, both concave and convex, which reflect, magnify, and parody the same situation'.5 In more than one respect the masque mirrors the opening scene of the play. It is Prospero who conjures up both the storm and the masque; both episodes represent an exercise of the powers he has learnt from his books, and both are ultimately beneficent in effect. Both present technical problems to their performers; but for present-day performers the most difficult aspect of the masque rests not in the mechanics of its staging but in the outdatedness of the conventions upon which it draws.

The problem is both literary and theatrical. Even the more highly educated members of a modern audience are likely to be less familiar than their Jacobean counterparts with either the mythological or the poetical traditions on which Shakespeare draws in his representation of Iris, Ceres, and Juno. And the framework in which he presents them, the formal structure of a masque, is one that, highly topical at the time of the play's first performances, went out of fashion during the next few decades, and now requires a major exercise of the historical imagination before it can convey anything of the excitement that it must have had in the early seventeenth century—the great age of the court masque, represented at its finest in the collaborative work of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones.

In The Tempest Shakespeare provides for the audiences of the public theatres at least a shadow of the glory that the form achieved at the court of King James, where it stood at once as a symbol of power and wealth—frequently used as such in the game of power politics—and as a celebration of the highest achievements of civilization, in which the arts of music, dancing, painting, poetry, and acting combined in entertainments whose splendour was enhanced by their folly—for immense amounts of money were lavished upon a single evening's entertainment by those who did not have the good fortune, like Prospero, to be able to command unpaid spirits to enact their fancies.

An attempt on the part of a modern director to reproduce the conventions of the Jacobean masque is likely to mean little or nothing to members of a modern audience, and is rarely attempted. More commonly an effort is made to reproduce the effect of these conventions through other means. It is not particularly difficult to convey a sense of the splendour of the masque, as a 'vanity' of Prospero's art designed to divert the lovers. Often it has been sung, sometimes adopting the musical and theatrical conventions of a particular operatic style of the past—that of Monteverdi or Cavalli, for instance. Sam Mendes, in his 1993 production, flew down a large model of a Victorian toy theatre and represented the goddesses almost as mechanical figures.

The difficulty, as with the storm, is to convey the sense of the words that the goddesses utter, to convey the moral message that underpins the spectacle and that relates it to the system of ideas embodied in the play. Prospero is certainly present throughout this performance, and we see him here in multiple functions—as father to Miranda, as an artist capable of devising this show, as a kind of surrogate playwright, as a magician, and also as a monarch with power (like James I) to create a lavish entertainment to be attended only by his personal guests.

But we see him also as teacher. Just as Ben Jonson's masques, for all their splendour, often carried a moral message—the 'more removed mysteries' of which he speaks in the preface to Hymenaei—so Prospero's is very much designed to reinforce the injunctions to pre-marital chastity that precede it. Iris alludes explicitly to the temptations with which Venus and Cupid have beset the lovers, and praises the strength of will—the self-control—with which these temptations have been resisted:

       Here thought they to have done Some wanton charm upon this man and maid, Whose vows are that no bed-right shall be  paid Till Hymen's torch be lighted; but in vain. Mars's hot minion is returned again; Her waspish-headed son has broke his  arrows, Swears he will shoot no more, but play with  sparrow And be a boy right out.

The masque will lose its point unless the director ensures that its message is not submerged in spectacle. In the printed text of Hymenaei, Jonson says:

Nor was there wanting whatsoever might give to the furniture or complement, either in richness, or strangeness of the habits, delicacy of dances, magnificence of the scene, or divine rapture of music. Only the envy was that it lasted not still, or, now it is past, cannot by imagination, much less description, be recovered to a part of that spirit it had in the gliding by.

Here Jonson describes his awareness of the transience that Prospero is soon to acknowledge: if the masque is a fitting symbol of the greatest splendour that man can achieve, it is a fitting symbol too of the impermanence of all human effort; the visions of a Prospero are at the mercy of the Calibans of this world; power that can create can also destroy, and so, when Prospero recalls 'that foul conspiracy/Of the beast Caliban and his confederates' against his life, the vision vanishes, leaving not a rack behind.

Crisis, Calculation—and Renunciation

One last problem that I want to mention briefly is a matter of interpretation rather than of stagecraft in the more limited sense, but it is crucial to the presentation of the play. While the masque is being performed, the King and his followers are prisoners, unable, as Ariel says, to 'budge' until Prospero releases them. Prospero finds himself in a position of complete power over his enemies, and Ariel tells him:

        Your charm so strongly works 'em That if you now beheld them, your affections Would become tender.

It is a moment of crisis in the portrayal of Prospero, and it is also a moment that is subject to varied interpretation. 'Dost think so, spirit?' asks Prospero, and Ariel replies: 'Mine would, sir, were I human.' Prospero may well pause for thought before his next speech.

                  And mine shall. Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling Of their afflictions, and shall not myself, One of their kind, that relish all as sharply Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou  art? Though with their high wrongs I am struck to  th'quick, Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury Do I take part. The rarer action is In virtue than in vengeance. They being  penitent, The sole drift of my purpose doth extend Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.

This is certainly a speech of self-examination. The interpretive question is whether it also represents a moment of crisis at which Prospero's intentions towards the shipwrecked men undergo a radical change.

Is it only now that Prospero decides upon forgiveness? Or, at the other extreme, can the whole action of the play be seen as essentially benevolent, the result of a desire to bring his enemies to a state of self-awareness which could naturally lead on their part to penitence and reconciliation? Or does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes? Or has Shakespeare deliberately left the question open?

Many arguments could be adduced on both sides of the question, and I doubt if any definitive answer can be found.

I would ask only that the style in which the speech is written be taken into account. To me, Prospero does not sound here like a man going through a crisis of the soul, being wrenched from one course of action to another that is fundamentally different. There is not here the sense of anguish that we hear in, for example, Macbeth's 'If it were done when 'tis done … '. If the actor is going to suggest conversion, he will have to do so not through the words he speaks but between the lines—in, perhaps, the silence between Ariel's 'Mine would, sir, were I human' and Prospero's 'And mine shall.'

In any case, it is after this final test, or demonstration, of his self-mastery that Prospero is able to describe his intention to renounce his supernatural, powers. The speech in which he does so—'Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves'—is remarkable for the way it offers a verbal recreation of the powers that Prospero has been able to exert at the very moment that he renounces them. 'But this rough magic I here abjure'—it's as if, in some paradoxical way, the greatest of his achievements was not the exercise of power but the capacity to give it up. It is an acknowledgement of limitation, of humanity, and of mortality. In exercising, not vengeance, but virtue, Prospero is able to reveal to Alonso that his son, Ferdinand, is alive, and to bring about their reunion. When he reveals the lovers, they are playing chess—yet another symbol, surely, of self-control.

The final paradox of a play that has been so deeply concerned with control and restraint is that it ends in liberty. Ariel, who has done the services required of him, is freed. All the travellers are freed from the island to which they came unwillingly; and finally Prospero himself, freed from the responsibility of exerting his power, appeals to the audience to free him from the stage.

There are of course many more problems in the staging of The Tempest of which I could have written—problems in the visual representation of Ariel and Caliban, for instance, or in the integration into the masque of the nymphs and reapers, in the staging of the magical banquet and the 'spirits in shape of dogs and hounds' who torment Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. But whichever I had chosen, they would all need to be related to questions of interpretation, to the projection through theatrical means of the significances that we can derive from the play's text.

It is in the nature of the transmission of Shakespeare's plays that we can conjecture far more about the literary than the theatrical impact that they made in their own time, whether in reading or in performance. Critics and scholars may be inclined to overemphasize the literary; though the theatre can do something to redress the balance, it can never hope to arrive with any certainty at the solutions found in Shakespeare's day; but it may at least find ways of projecting the text which will work in terms of today's audiences.


1 Roger Warren, Staging Shakespeare's Late Plays, p. 13, Quotations from The Tempest are from Stephen Orgel's Oxford Shakespeare edition (Oxford, 1987).

2 Cited from the New Variorum edition, ed. H. H. Furness (Philadelphia, 1892, reprinted 1964), p. 392, 395.

3 G. C. D. Odell, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving (New York, 1922, reprinted 1963), Vol. II, p. 294.

4 The original staging of the scene is examined in detail in Andrew Gurr, 'The Tempest's Tempest at Blackfriars', Shakespeare Survey 41 (Cambridge, 1989), p. 91-102.

5 Jan Kott, Shakespeare our Contemporary (London, 1964), p. 183.

Source: "Problems of Stagecraft in The Tempest," in New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. X, No.40, November, 1994, pp. 348-57.


Other Voices: The Sweet, Dangerous Air(s) of Shakespeare's Tempest


Redeeming The Tempest: Romance and Politics