Sunday, March 6, 2011

Required Work: The Tempest

Thanks to my handy Shakespeare app on my iPhone, I was able to finish reading The Tempest by way of short installments during my lunch hour. Compared to the history plays and some of Shakespeare’s other longer plays (Hamlet, I am looking in your direction), this one was a surprisingly quick read. It definitely has to be the shortest of the three required plays on the list. However, that does not take away from the entertainment value.


The Tempest is often discussed as a problem play because it doesn’t quite fit in any of the three main categories usually applied to Shakespeare’s plays: comedy, tragedy, or history. Although, if we were to follow the formula where in comedies people get married, and in tragedies people die, then The Tempest could be explained as a comedy. But of course, that would be incredibly short-sighted. For the purpose of this blog post, I will categorize this play as a romance. The Tempest was originally listed as a comedy in the First Folio. Later, editors chose to label it as a Shakespearean romance, with influences from the genre of tragicomedy. The Tempest is a fictitious narrative set far away from ordinary life. Like a romance, it involves the supernatural with elements of wandering and discovery. It is even set in a coastal region. Also, the themes I will discuss in the section below also add to the supporting evidence for labeling this play as a romance.


Most of the themes that cause The Tempest to lend itself to the romance genre apply to Prospero’s situation – themes such as transgression and redemption, loss and retrieval, exile and reunion. He is the one who has suffered the injustice which he succeeds in setting right. He is also the one who lost his title as Duke due to his scheming brother and the corrupt king. And because his brother, Antonio’s schemes were successful, he suffered exile, but is later reunited with Antonio and, as the audience is led to believe, his homeland. Of course, Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian all experience their own redemption at the end of the play when Prospero forgives them. Also, Alonso believes his son, Ferdinand, to be dead as the result of the shipwreck, but they are reunited at the end after Prospero has succeeded in having Ferdinand fall in love with his daughter, Miranda.

Another major theme that comes from the romance genre is that of magic, which comes from both Prospero and his sprite, Ariel. But this theme would be better explored in the history section.


Magic was an extremely controversial subject in Shakespeare’s day. These were the days when people were still burnt at the stake for dabbling too much in the occult and letting the wrong people find out about it. Even outside of the Catholic world, in Protestant England, magic was pretty taboo, although not all of it was considered evil. Henricus Cornelius Agrippa published his De Occulta Philosophia, which included his observations on divine magic. He described a kind of magic very similar to what we see Prospero practicing in The Tempest, one based in rationality and divinity rather than the occult. He was more interested in discovering the workings of unusual phenomena than on casting spells.

Shakespeare does distinguish Prospero as a rational as opposed to an occultist by providing the reader with the history of Sycorax, a character that is long gone by the time of this play. Sycorax is said to have worshiped the devil and whose magic was too dark to control the delicate Ariel, a being who Prospero is able to control. Sycorax’ magic is described as destructive and terrible, while Prospero’s brand of magic is said to be wondrous and beautiful. Something else that puts a positive light on Prospero’s magic is the fact that through it, he attempts to set things right, and even denounces it at the end of the play once he has achieved his means. Oh yeah, I guess I should also mention the Sycorax is the mother of the deformed and savage Caliban. Fun stuff…

See, how fun is this play? Next week I will tackle another fun play and one of my top five favorite Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night.

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