The Theatre Metaphor in The Tempest


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The Theatre Metaphor in The Tempest

 

The theatre metaphor also helps to explain why, in the last analysis, Prospero has to surrender his magical powers. Life cannot be lived out in the world of illusions, delightful and educative as they can often be. Life must be lived in the real world, in Milan or in Naples, and Miranda cannot thus entirely fulfill herself on the island. The realities of life must be encountered and dealt with as best we can. The world of the theatre can remind us of things we may too easily forget; it can liberate and encourage youthful wonder and excitement at all the diverse richness of life; it can, at times, even wake people up to more important issues than their own Machiavellian urge to self-aggrandizement, and, most important of all, it can educate us into forgiveness. But it can never finally solve the problem of evil, and it can never provide an acceptable environment for a fully realized adult life.

 

Prospero, as I see it, doesn't start the play fully realizing all this. He launches his experiment from a mixture of motives, perhaps not entirely sure what he going to do (after all, one gets the sense that there's a good deal of improvising going on). But he learns in the play to avoid the twin dangers to his experiment, the two main threats to the value of his theatrical magic.

 

The first I have already alluded to, namely, the danger of using of his powers purely for vengeance. Prospero, like Shakespeare, is a master illusionist, and he is tempted to channel his personal frustrations into his art, to exact vengeance against wrongs done in Milan through the power of his art (perhaps, as some have argued, as Shakespeare is doing for unknown personal reasons against women in Hamlet and Lear). But he learns from Ariel that to do this is to deny the moral value of the art, whose major purpose is to reconcile us to ourselves and our community, not to even a personal score.

 

The second great threat which we see in this play is that Prospero may get too involved in his own wonderful capabilities, he may become too much the showman, too proud of showing off his skill to attend to the final purpose of what he is doing.

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We see this in the scene in which Prospero puts on a special display of his theatrical powers for Ferdinand and Miranda--his desire to show off makes him forget that he has more important issues to attend to, once again putting his art in the service of the social experiment. And it's interesting to note that it was his self-absorption in his own magic that got Prospero in trouble in the first place in Milan (as he admits), when he neglected his responsibilities for the self-absorbing pleasures of his books. There's a strong sense in this play that, whatever the powers and wonders of the illusion, one has to maintain a firm sense of what it is for, what it can and cannot do, and where it is most appropriate. It can never substitute for or conjure away the complexities of life in the community.

 

This approach helps me to understand, too, the logic behind Prospero's surrender of his magic. He has done all he can do. Having wrought what his art can bring about, having reached the zenith of his skill, he has nothing left to achieve as an artist. He is going home, back to the human community, perhaps to die, perhaps to enjoy a different life, now able to appreciate more fully what he did not understand so long ago, the proper relationship between the world governed by magic and illusion and the world in which most of us have to live most of the time--the compromised world of politics, alcohol, buying and selling, family strife. So he releases Ariel; he has no more work for him to do, and Ariel does not belong in Milan.

 

Of course, it is critically illegitimate and no doubt very sentimental to link Prospero's giving up of his art with Shakespeare's decision to give up writing plays and to return to Stratford to enjoy life with his grandchildren (in fact, he did not give up the theatrical life immediately after writing this play). But it's a very tempting connection, especially in the light of the wonderful speech in 4.1, one of the most frequently quoted passages in the play, a speech which has come to be called "Shakespeare's Farewell to the Stage."

 

I'd like to conclude this part of the lecture by reading this speech, urging you to remember that Shakespeare's theatre, called the Globe, was destroyed by fire very soon after the Tempest was first performed (a facsimile has just been reconstructed on the banks of the Thames very close to the original site and is now open for business).

Be cheerful, sir.

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 wrack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

 

Dreams may be the stuff of life, they may energize us, delight us, educate us, and reconcile us to each other, but we cannot live life as a dream. We may carry what we learn in the world of illusion with us into life, and perhaps we may be able, through art, to learn about how to deal with the evil in the world, including our own. But art is not a substitute for life, and it cannot alter the fundamental conditions of the human community. The magic island is not Milan, and human beings belong in Milan with all its dangers, if they are to be fully human. Life must be lived historically, not aesthetically.

 


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