I was going through my bookshelf, thinking, which book should I read next? when I stumbled across a work that I once hated. Despised, in fact. It was a course book, from back when I was taking English Literature in A Levels, a play. This time, when I saw it, a wave of nostalgia overtook me. I remembered reading it between classes, desperate to draw some meaning from Shakespeare’s words before the mid-term exams. And so, I picked it up again. Let’s take a journey into the past, I thought to myself. Let’s revisit those memories.
The Tempest is a romantic comedy in which Shakespeare gives a final turn and absorbs other, non-romantic comedy-ish elements. It’s one of the most original of Shakespeare’s productions, & he has shown in it all the variety of his powers. Full of grace and grandeur, the human and imaginary characters, the dramatic and the grotesque are all blended together with the greatest art and without any appearance of awkward contrivance.
The romantic comedy genre draws heavily from the tradition of a romance, a fictitious narrative set away from ordinary life. Romances were typically based around themes such as the supernatural, wandering, exploration & discovery, all of which are present in this play. Also, as found in The Tempest, romances were often set in coastal regions, and typically featured exotic, fantastical locations, the themes of transgression and redemption, loss & retrieval, exile and reunion. The play was further influenced by the then-new genre of tragicomedy as well as by the development of the courtly masque form.
The Tempest differs from Shakespeare’s other plays in its observation of a stricter, more organized style. The clearest indication of this is the playwright’s respect for the three unities of the play: the unities of time, place & action. His other plays rarely respected the three unities, taking place in separate locations, miles apart and over several days, or even years. The play’s events unfold in real time before the audience, with Prospero even declaring in the last Act that everything has happened in more or less three hours.
All action is unified into one basic plot: Prospero’s struggle to regain his dukedom. It is also confined to one place: a fictional island. The Tempest is the last play Shakespeare ever wrote, and is closely linked to four other plays: Pericles, Henry VIII, Cymbelime & A Winter’s Tale. All these plays have much in common. There is, in all of them, a violence of expression (intense style, forceful, fast-moving pace), an unreality of atmosphere and an improbability of the plot. Furthermore, they all deal with the themes of separation and reunion; separation of royal parents from their children. Wilson Knight says that the last plays are “myths of immortality”, legends dealing with the fundamental issues of life and death.
Shakespeare believed in the philosophical concept of the continuity of life. Parents renew themselves in their children. We see that The Tempest ends not in death but in redemption, and the renewal of life in a younger generation (Ferdinand and Miranda).
The storm is a powerful symbol of natural or moral disaster. Shakespeare used this metaphor in his great tragedies, particularly King Lear. In this play, the storm does not have a controlling power, but it does affect the characters in the fact that the shipwreck in in the control of Prospero’s providential white magic.
The spectacular & theatrical is used to great effect. The Tempest is a play of forgiveness. The ‘sin’ that has been committed is the banishing of Prospero and his daughter, the usurpation of a lawfully appointed ruler. The philosophical theory of the divine right of kings is brought into use here. A king was considered to be a representation of God in socio-political terms; to rebel against him is a sin against God. Sin creates retaliation and revenge. Vengeance is taken against the offender. This brings about redemption & reconciliation. Mercy is ultimately extended to the offender by Prospero.
Antonio & Sebastian are evil villains but they can be forgiven because they are human. Somehow, we cannot treat Caliban in the same way. At the end, alone, he is still unreconciled and becomes “his own king” . There is, however, the faint suggestion that even he may be capable of reform.
“I’ll be wise hereafter and seek for grace…” – Caliban
The word “grace” carries Christian religious connotations which Shakespeare emphasizes. The heart of the lay rests on an interesting concept: that of expiational suffering. To expiate means to atone, and atonement through suffering will lead to redemption. We can see that this is much more complicated than a superficial interpretation of the play, which shows it as a story of a magician and his tricks. The heart of all tragic experience in Shakespeare’s work (which is also present in King Lear) is that the hero must atone.
“For I am bound upon a wheel of fire that my tears so scald like molten lead…”
We are made conscious that suffering is present in order to atone. This concept brings tragic connotations into a romantic comedy. Madness is used to cleanse all that is vicious in Alonso and his party. It represents a disorder of the mind, while the storm represents a disorder of nature.
The three villains (Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio) become aggravated to the extent that they begin to see apparitions and become victims of fits of madness, They lose their senses. Gonzalo interprets their insanity as a consequence of their own guilt. The punishment (madness), is used negatively for suffering and simultaneously, is the agent in bringing about the cure. Particularly in Alonso’s case, the desperation caused by the apparent loss of his son cuts into him deeply enough to cause an emotional crisis & produces a vital change of personality.
So, just a romantic comedy? I think not.