The Tempest is Shakespeare’s final play. He’d written the histories, the comedies and the tragedies. Then he wrote four romances–more what we would call fantasies—that slowly warmed up to this farewell to the stage and no doubt to the life he’d led in London. Like a lot of us have discovered in our later years, the world that formed us breaks apart. This theme threads through The Tempest.
When I think about The Tempest I always think of Caliban. I remember a professor pointing out that the little song Caliban sings: “Ban, ban Caliban” is a suggestion that in his own way, this odd creature is trying to make poetry. Caliban is earthy, a not-noble savage. He was roaming about the island when Prospero, fleeing an intrigue at his court, arrived with his small daughter Miranda. Prospero enslaved Caliban to do grunt work and to keep him away from Miranda. Caliban deeply resents the curtailment of his life, but he has gotten a glimmer of something bigger than himself during his long association with and imprisonment by Prospero. He expresses this in a lovely speech in which I notice he has no trouble using language:
Be not afeared: the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about my ears; and sometimes voices
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming.
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again. (III, ii)
Levels of awareness in The Tempest are suggested by how the characters use language. From his study of the occult Prospero has discovered how to harness the magic and power of words. He uses words to create a storm and cause a ship to run aground on the island he and Miranda have inhabited for twelve years. The play opens with the storm. On the ship are Prospero’s enemies: His brother Antonio who usurped Prospero’s dukedom while Prospero studied the Hermetic mysteries. Antonio and assorted aristocrats are up on the ship deck interfering with the very capable captain and boatswain, attempting to manage the ship in the storm. They use language in an attempt to assert their ruling position in the world.
In the next scene we meet Prospero, Miranda and Ariel. Ariel is an air nymph who had been imprisoned in a tree (by Caliban’s mother, the witch Sycorax but you don’t have to remember that, I just like to say Sycorax). Prospero freed Ariel from the tree but indentured him as his servant until Prospero has accomplished his grand plan of righting his family’s wrong. Ariel is thought in action, he carries the energy of language. Prospero says his words, Ariel makes them happen.
Gradually we meet everyone on the ship. Prospero and Ariel have arranged for them to wash up on different parts of the island in isolated groups. The usurping Duke and various aristocracy are thrown together on one part of the island. Ferdinand, a royal son, has been isolated so he can slowly be led to Miranda and into the transforming power of love. A butler and a jester pop up together, and find Caliban who thinks the two of them are gods. This trio provides drunken comedic intervals while they make plans to rule the island.
The storm is a metaphor for a world that is being shaken up: the world of the play’s various characters, the Elizabethan world view of the time, Shakespeare’s life, perhaps; and more importantly, our own world, the one we carry around inside our head. We have our own stories about the way things are. Myself, I can’t be reminded often enough that I create my own narrative. It helps when the reminder goes something like this:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (IV, i)
More lines from The Tempest:
*no harm done (I, ii)
*the dark backward and abysm of time (I, ii)
*Good wombs have borne bad sons. (I, ii)
*Hell is empty and all the devils are here. (I, ii)
*Come unto these yellow sands (I, ii)
*Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (I, ii)
*Look, he’s winding up the watch of his wit; by and by it will strike. (II, i)
*This is a strange repose, to be asleep with eyes wide open. (II, i)
*What’s past is prologue (II, i)
*Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. (II, ii)
*A born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick. (IV, i)
*Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In a cow-slip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough. (V, i)
*O brave new world that has such people in’t! (V, i)