Four Sides of Shakespeare's The Tempest


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Four Sides of The Tempest

 

 

1

"They all enter the circle which Prospero had made, and there stand charm'd"

 

 

In the First Folio edition of The Tempest, at the climax of the action, Shakespeare instructs that the magician Prospero inscribe a magic circle on the bare Elizabethan stage into which all the various characters of the action will be drawn: sage and fool, monarch and savage, clown and lover, young and old, cynic and innocent.

 

 

It is as if Shakespeare, through Prospero, has assembled a representative sample of divided humanity, and brought them together deliberately to re-enact the oldest of rituals and the most insistent themes of history and of psychology The divisions among these characters resonate deeply, with many implications. They have been elaborated in generations of Western thought: together with Prospero, the spirit Ariel and the grotesque Caliban have been "read" through such critical lenses as Thomas Aquinas' division of human nature between spiritual and animal elements, or Darwin's evolutionary ladder, or Freud's superego and id,or through images of colonialism, or Jung's conflation of history with psychology, in which "our world is dissociated like a neurotic." In such a view, the reintegration of fractured family and society that takes place in this play is at the same time a reintegration of the divided and conflicted self into health and wholeness.

 

 

In Georgia Shakespeare Festival' s The Tempest, the circle on the stage floor, the Shakespearean sign of wholeness, is the Jungian symbol of the "Quaternity of the Mandala,"a square-within-a-circle that was a symbol of the resolution of opposites and a sign of the transformation of both individual and collective consciousness, the full promise of human potential.

 

 

Thus, when Prospero, having chosen the road of reconciliation over that of recrimination and rejection,

draws the rapacious and rebellious Caliban into the magic circle, only to say of him "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine," we seem for a moment to pass beyond the logic of power and punishment into a higher, more inclusive awareness. The magician who will shortly surrender his powers, sees and acknowledges the brutish side of himself, his own abjection, power-lust, possessive-ness, and scheming resentment.

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It is a momentary glimpse beyond a normal way of seeing, made possible only by Prospero's magic, and, as its source, Shakespeare's mature art.

 

 

2

"O brave new world"

 

 

The setting for this play, an unknown island, is in many qways an ideal space of open promise and

possibility. After the initial storm scene, in which the faith, civility, and social order and rank of the known world are all broken down in an uproar of the elements, Shakespeare is careful to call to mind legendary places and stories of innocence and hope. The island setting recalls a contemporary text, Thomas More's utopia... King Alonso's journey from Italy to Tunis and back follows the history of Virgil's Aeneas, a classical journey of redemption. Gonzalo recalls the classical image of the pastoral Golden Age (an image that returns in the royal entertainment Prospero presents to bless Miranda and Ferdinand as the new royal couple). So Prospero's island can be seen as a kind of tabula rasa in which justice and felicity might finally be created. And yet the shadow of brothers betraying and murdering innocent brothers recalls Eden and mankind's fall into the first crime. And the successive overthrows of Ariel by Sycorax and of Caliban by Prospero have already marked the island with a violent history. The island cannot remain pure.

 

 

3

"thou Hast Strangely stood the test"

 

 

It is possible to see in The Tempest a kind of repeated testing of human nature on both personal and public levels, because the responsible expression of political power and the achievement of a fully realized selfhood are richly interlaced throughout the play. The most obvious case is the test Prospero visits on Prince Ferdinand-he is reduced from a crown prince to a laborer and, more fundamentally, is challenged to restrain his sexual feeling for Miranda. When the Prince proves his self-mastery, he earns a blessing by the goddesses who promise prosperity and fertility, equally for himself, his beloved, and the kingdom they will lead. Wisdom begins in an internal journey, redeems fallen nature, and blossoms into action and moral responsibility.

 

 

Where Ferdinand, the child of tyranny, must learn self-abnegation, Miranda must learn to separate her will from her father's. Defying him in order to individuate herself (and thus to achieve her father's higher purpose for her). Alonso, the tyrant, must learn loss and deprivation before he can surrender ill-gotten power, reconciling with an enemy he had thought dead and regaining a son who had seemed lost. And there are those, such as the villain, Antonio, who never articulate their repentance nor any wisdom gained from their temptations and losses. Not all the tests offered in The Tempest yield positive results.

 

And, ultimately, can it be denied that Prospero has set up a test for himself as well, in which the temptation to revile and punish must be weighed against the desire to reconcile and reconnect? Prospero cannot, it seems, separate himself from the pageant of divided and fallen humanity that populates his play; he must, in the end, join the action, test himself, and help to bring it all, however perilously, to a close.

 

4

"This insubstantial Pageant"

 

Several of Shakespeare's early and middle plays turn on an act of disguise, deception, a kind of theatrical trickery. In the four great late romances, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, these tricks are unveiled at the very end-imagined tragedies and losses are undone in an instant, and reconciliation and recovery triumph. But in The Tempest, we are brought inside the deceiver's plot from the beginning: we are backstage as Prospero stages the illusory tragedies and trials of the other characters. Here, then, the suspense is focused on whether or not these simulated wonders will have their desired, deeply humanizing effect. In effect, The Tempest can be read as a celebration of the playwright's art.

 

Yet, in the end, Prospero leaves behind his "art" and frees the spirit Ariel who has been compelled to

"perform" the roles of gods, nymphs, and harpies in turn. The theater remains impure, a place of mixed

elements, unreconciled, in constant tension. The world of reconciliation-including reconciliation to

mortality and human weakness-must be evoked offstage, after the play is finished and all has been left behind. Thus, Prospero's final pleading to be freed of the theatrical space, to be let out of his own magic circle, has a poignant ambiguity: while celebrating the theater (and, perhaps the theatrum mundi, the theater-of-the-world), The Tempest seems to delineate its limits as well, all the while looking beyond.


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