How believable is the Tempest?”

December 1, 2009

in Essays

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Shakespeare uses fantasy in his play The Tempest, but where such fantasy cannot be viewed as a metaphor for real issues, it only serves to enhance the realism of the play.

Some elements of the play appear fantastical, for example Caliban, but upon further inspection, Shakespeare leaves it to the audience’s imagination whether Caliban is actually some strange half-man half-fish son of the devil, or merely a dehumanised slave in the hands of Prospero.

Caliban is seen as a new world figure that shows Prospero around when he first arrives on the island. We see in the play that Prospero doesn’t, in the beginning, view Caliban as a half-wild savage, and appear to work in partnership with him and shares his “cell” with him, until he tries to rape Miranda, and is cast out. Caliban’s actual origins are somewhat hazy, his mother was a witch named Sycorax, “this blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child” by sailors who feared her. His paternal parentage is unclear, but Prospero calls Caliban, “got by the devil himself”, implying that Sycorax made a pact, and had sex with, Satan. This is in line with the beliefs surrounding witchcraft at the time of the play, when witchcraft was believed to be very real, and witchcraft trials were very much in force. From the point of view of the audience, the portrayal of magic and strange half-breed men was perfectly real, and so the play was realistic without seeming fantastical. In the light of modern knowledge and science, most people believe powerful wizards and cross species children are impossible, but the what is now fantasy forms an important part of the play, if not as fact, then as metaphor for real life issues. This is still often a ploy of writers today. For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while superficially about a girl with supernatural powers fighting demons and vampires, is believed by many to actually be a metaphorical account of one’s girl’s struggles with her “inner demons” so to speak, and the vampires are merely representative of her struggle towards maturity. Caliban’s savagery is now not a biological fact, but a way through which he is viewed, not being as high-born as Caliban and Miranda, and is therefore shunned as “a thing most brutish”, even though he has just the same amount of emotional development. So, although what was once viewed as fact is now “fantasy”, it is still just as believable to today’s audience, just as metaphor.

Another example of this is Prospero’s magic. On one level, you have magical spells, to lighten the play and give it, and Prospero, a bit of mystery. On the other, it is a metaphor for psychological power and of his great knowledge and learning. Prospero places great value on education, to the point of being so wrapped up in learning he was usurped by his brother, and “I loved my books”, evidently enjoys reading for its own sake as well. Caliban realises that Prospero’s power stems from reading his magic books, and tells Stephano and Trinculo, “Having first seized his books”. Taken non-literally, this could be saying that Prospero is nothing without his deep learning and education from books “without them he’s but a sot,” but is very powerful with it “my state grew stronger, being transported and rapt in secret studies”.

Caliban seems to feel that Ariel’s subservience to Prospero would not be as forthcoming had Prospero not been a great sorcerer, “nor hath not one spirit to command: they all do hate him as rootedly as I”, thus being true to the old proverb “Knowledge is power”, and is therefore entirely believable. However, power does not go naturally hand in hand with wisdom, and Prospero is realistically portrayed as a man with very human shortcomings. When Ariel asks that he be freed one year earlier for good behaviour, Prospero bursts out into fury, and claims Ariel is ungrateful, “Dost thou forget from what a torment I did free thee?” a reaction somewhat extreme for the original request, a totally human reaction that the audience would have been able to identify with. But as the Play progresses, Prospero’s judgements become sounder and his manipulation of the characters more shrewd, as one would expect from the ex-ruler of a dukedom. The politics and political characters contained within the play are not fantastical at all, but a determinedly real portrayal of the lives of nobility. Obviously, in England, there weren’t plots to kill various monarchs every five minutes, although some people at that time believed there were, but the attitudes of the nobles is very similar to the nobles of the time of the play, and as the leading political figures of the country would have seen the play for themselves, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have objected to the foibles of the characters ( Stephano’s drunkenness, Antonio’s insane greed for power, Prospero’s Machiavellian attitudes to power), unless they had been accurate. Even today, the politics of the highest politicians today is generally the same: one big fight to stay on top, regardless of how. This is one of the most central tents of the play, and it’s most realistic and believable part.

Ariel, on the other hand, is portrayed very clearly as a spirit, without a corporeal body. He is part of the supernatural, invisible world that is present throughout the play, and gives it its surreal component. However, unlike Caliban, Ariel serves willingly, because he recognises that Prospero has great power over him and serving freely will in the end pay off better than fighting, a hope realised when Prospero frees him at the end of the play, because he intends to give up his magic and return to Naples. Ariel is now free to do what he likes and is bound to no expectations, a dream many members of the audience, held to class boundaries, would no doubt have liked, so perhaps Ariel is not so fantastical at all. In the Tempest, the theme of power is rife. Naturally, Prospero holds most of the power of the play, but Miranda can use Prospero’s love for her as power over him, although she does not use it. But throughout the play, the subordinate characters are never silent about their servitude, with the exception of Ariel and Gonzalo, reflecting the New World theme of equality. Caliban constantly curses his enslavement to Prospero, and yearns to be free in a mirror of the colonial desire to be free of England. Strangely Caliban wishes to replace the old master (Prospero) with a new one (Stephano) stating, “I’ll kiss thy foot; I’ll swear myself thy subject” and “’Ban, ‘Ban, Cacaliban/ Has a new master: get a new man.” He seems to believe that he cannot live on his own any more, and if he cannot be free of a master, he may as well have a kind one. A desire to be free from service is inherent in most human beings and the audience can sympathise, knowing the pressures and bound commitments of their own lives.

The masque is a play within the play, set up by Prospero to celebrate Ferdinand and Miranda’s wedding. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, masques were popular forms of entertainment in England. Masques featured masked actors performing allegorical, often highly ritualised stories drawn from mythology and folklore. Prospero’s masque features Juno, the symbol of marriage and family life in Roman mythology, and Ceres, the symbol of agriculture, and thus of nature, growth, prosperity, and rebirth, all notions intimately connected to marriage. Marriage, in this part of the play is seen as necessary for the healthy order of society. Love has really nothing to do with it; marriage is just a way of papering over the cracks, so to speak. But the masque is more than just Shakespeare’s expounding on his views of marriage, it is a way for Prospero to convey he is pleased with Miranda’s choice of husband, even if it is rudely interrupted half-way through. The fact that the masque is conjured up by spirits rather than actual actors is fairly irrelevant to the story, but is a mere plot device to enable the masque to take place (how else would Prospero have acquired actors, and the props needed?)

In conclusion, although things such as the presence of Caliban and Ariel, Prospero’s magic, and the masque seem bizarre, and implausible, these are things used by Shakespeare to show the audience important underlying themes and motifs, which, although one might not have thought, makes the play seem even more believable.

Reminding you just in case you’ve forgotten. :)
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