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  • Ben Schafer

My Journey through 100 Books: The Tempest


On Tuesday, we looked at William Shakespeare's great tragedy Hamlet, the story of a young man whose pride and indecision caused his quest for vengeance to destroy everything and everyone he loved. Today we are looking at one of Shakespeare's great comedies, The Tempest. Comedy, in this theatrical sense, indicates that it is a story in which things end well for the main characters rather than the modern idea of simply a vehicle for jokes, though Shakespeare is a master of humor as well as drama even in his darkest works. Like Hamlet, this story centers around one man's quest for vengeance against a family member who betrayed him and stole his crown. Unlike the doomed Prince of Denmark, however, Prospero is saved from a dark fate by a loving daughter, loyal friends, and his own ability for forgiveness.


The play opens with a shipwreck that strands Antonio, Duke of Milan, along with Alonso, King of Naples, and Alonso's son Ferdinand (along with members of the royal retinue) on a mysterious island. The wreck is the result of a storm magically conjured by the spirit Ariel (a magical creature of air, not the Disney princess) at the behest of Prospero, Antonio's brother and the deposed Duke of Milan. Twelve years earlier, Prospero and his daughter Miranda were sent adrift to die at sea while Antonio and Alonso plotted to usurp Prospero's throne. Now a master of arcane secrets and lord of the isolated island he made his home, Prospero has set the wheels of revenge in motion. Ariel has isolated different sets of characters from each other (each group believing themselves the only survivors) and Prospero begins his game. However, there are two complications. The first is that Caliban, the monstrous son of a witch who was the former master of the island and unwilling servant of Prospero, allies himself with King Alonso's jester and his butler to engage a plot to kill Prospero and seize the island for themselves. While their intentions are very real, the comic misunderstandings and bumbling behavior make this threat more a thread of comic relief than true source of tension. The second complication is one that Prospero actually intended but that still distracts from his plot of revenge. Prince Ferdinand and Miranda meet and immediately fall in love. Prospero acts hostile to the young man but he is secretly manipulating events to test him and (if he is worthy) draw Ferdinand and Miranda together in mutual bonds of love. Rather than acting as a haughty and proud prince, Ferdinand is humble and shows himself a true servant to Miranda as she shows herself to him, neither seeking to place themselves above the other. As an aside (and to showcase how good literature builds on that of the past), Ferdinand's language referring to Miranda as a possible goddess when he first sees her cleverly mirrors the flattery used by Odysseus to the young Princess Nausicaa on the island of Phaeacia in The Odyssey. Shakespeare masterfully weaves the different groups of characters together until they are finally brought together and Ariel drops the illusions that have kept each group from finding the others (also revealing that the ship is safely held in a natural harbor with the crew simply in an enchanted sleep). At the height of his power, Prospero has the scheming Antonio, unfaithful Alonso, and murderous Caliban at his mercy and yet he choses the path of mercy over the path of vengeance and brutal (if deserved) justice. The play ends happily with Prospero's title restored, Caliban seemingly reformed and now master of the island, Ariel freed from Prospero's service, and Ferdinand and Miranda engaged to be married upon their return to Naples. I dare not even attempt to do the play justice in such a short space, but those highlights are the bare minimum to allow the discussion that is to follow.


"O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it." These lines when Miranda first sees the assembled castaways from the shipwreck for the first time brilliantly relay her optimistic spirit undampened by exposure to the dark deeds that mankind can commit. Prospero's reply of "Tis new to thee" is curt and shows the elder man's world-weary attitude, yet crucially he does not attack Miranda for her optimism even as she lavishes compliments on these people that both Prospero and the audience know are unworthy of such praise. Miranda's open heart and genuine goodness remind Prospero that even betrayers are worthy of forgiveness.

Prospero and Hamlet present a fascinating contrast of characters. Both are highly intelligent and learned men who have been extensively educated. Both have had encounters with the supernatural (Hamlet's conversation with his ghostly father and Prospero's encounters with the beastly Caliban and the benevolent Ariel). Both men even engage in deception and showcase a talent for acting (indeed, Prospero's final speech is heavily couched in theatrical language that modern audiences would recognize as "breaking the fourth wall"). Yet Hamlet is burdened by his intellect which causes him to waste time over-analyzing details and constantly shifting his opinion at every turn. Prospero's use of knowledge is controlled and confident and he takes action like a grandmaster playing a game of chess. While it is true he possesses greater power to control events through his control of magic and the services of Ariel, he also showcases the strength of will to forgo those tools of power and ultimately to surrender them entirely. The critical difference between Hamlet and Prospero is the same difference between Achilles and Odysseus. Prospero, like Odysseus, has his family to provide him with love that he does not have to earn through some kind of trial and thus gives him the emotional space to develop real humility. Hamlet and Achilles are both proud and prickly characters eager to prove their worth (one can easily see Achilles leaping into the grave of Patroclus to prove his love for his fallen friend just as we can see Hamlet's foolhardy duel over Ophelia as a dark mirror of Achilles' fight with Hector). It isn't as simple as just saying that Prospero and Odysseus had someone to fight for (indeed, as I just mentioned, both Patroclus and Ophelia show unconditional love to the ill-fated Achilles and Hamlet, respectively, and die for their association with the prideful protagonists). These were families that strengthened each other and showed a willingness to humble themselves well before the true trials came to challenge them. Miranda was raised by Prospero alone for twelve years and her kindness and generosity of spirit must be acknowledged as the products of Prospero's own teaching as much as natural inclination. The heroes that emerged from their ordeals put in the work well ahead of time to put value in something real that was outside of themselves. The heroes that faltered and brought ruin to their own people cared only for their own vanity and even the strongest hero cannot face the weight of the world on his own power alone.


Of every work covered so far in this literary adventure, The Tempest is the easiest to read and enjoy without getting bogged down in heavy thematic material or long portions of epic poetry. If you've been hesitant to jump in on anything I've covered already, consider this a great entry point. Both the plot and humor bounce at a brisk pace and a good performance (whether on stage, screen, or audio drama) will only take a couple of hours. Like Hamlet the text is available on Google Books. Unfortunately, I could not find a Shakespeare Appreciated audio version of this play, but this audio drama featuring Sir Ian McKellen as Prospero was excellent and highly recommended. Thank you for reading, and I look forward to continuing this journey with you next week.

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