Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly on Prospero’s and other’s journeys in The Tempest.
The Tempest is a “Romance” play, best illustrated in relationship to King Lear, written six years before in 1605. Lear is a tragedy that leaves its audiences in a diminished Britain amidst the wasteland of loss, with only Lear’s brief reunion with his beloved Cordelia to comfort us—and even that reunion is made bittersweet, since both are dead by the time the curtain falls. The Tempest affords a more elegant wrap-up. Its fairytale structure—the power of Prospero’s magic; the mysterious setting somewhere in the Mediterranean; and the satisfaction of final redemption and of a wedding to close things—allows Shakespeare to tie up the play’s loose ends and to make what many have seen as his farewell to London and the stage (although he did write The Two Noble Kinsmen after this, as well as contributing to a few other plays).
The Tempest highlights several prominent themes and conventions. It is one of Shakespeare’s most spectacular plays, with its apparitions (Ariel/Harpy); its storm and shipwreck to begin the play; and the dance, the vanishing banquet, the songs, as elements of scenic display. The Tempest is also underscored by journeying: There is the interrupted journey made by Milan’s Duke Antonio and Naples’ King Alonso, which brings them to the island; the journey that Prospero has made from Milan to the island; the journey that Shakespeare the dramatist has often been said to be making as he gives us an artist (playmaking as a form of magic?) who, by the play’s end, says goodbye to his art; and the journey from activity to age, signaled by Prospero’s transformation from an artificer at the height of his powers to one wearied by his art.
What is the relationship between art and nature? We experience nature through our bodies, but perhaps it is through art that nature is more truly understood. Nowhere is this juxtaposition between art and nature more intensely felt—and perhaps more challenging—than in the relationship between Prospero, master of the island via his mind and magical practice, and Caliban, who claims ownership of the island via his birth and breeding. “This island’s mine, by Sycorax, my mother,/Which thou take’st from me,” Caliban tells Prospero, “For I am all the subjects that you have,/Which first was mine own king.” Yet while Caliban declares ownership via his birth, Prospero sees this self-appointed “king” as a perverse wretch, an “abhorred slave” whose proclivities have abused the laws of “nature.” Who has more claim to authenticity? Caliban with his unchecked appetites, or Prospero with his history of Dukedom, his rage, and the sophisticated arts that he uses to check and arouse Nature’s tides? “This rough magic I here abjure,” Prospero says near the close of the play. “I’ll break my staff,/Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,/And deeper than did ever plummet sound,/I’ll drown my book.” Why does he ultimately disclaim ownership and authority on the island? The Tempest teases us with this question.
The Tempest begins previews at our stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA, on Thursday, May 31, opens Saturday, June 2, and continues until Sunday, June 24.