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Completed: Tempest

The Tempest
William Shakespeare

I can tell it’s been a while since I’ve read a play, as I’d forgotten how short they are. So much action must occur in such a short time frame, that reading it through, it almost seems as if too much has happened too quickly. In the space of a few lines, two characters have fallen in love, others have plotted and failed an assassination, and our hero has overcome all obstacles, but meanwhile I’m still on my lunch break, wondering how all this happened in a half-hour. If you wish to truly appreciate Shakespeare’s language—his jokes, his puns, his poetry, his meter and rhyme, his allusions—he is probably best read carefully, however I suspect that one of the many advantages of seeing his plays performed live is that the timeline feels more natural. Much as a scriptwriter today fits a year’s worth of action into a two-hour movie epic, without the audience feeling shortchanged, Shakespeare could cover a day or more in a short frame, and his audience would not feel shortchanged.

Of course, in The Tempest, I do feel a little cut short, even when I acknowledge the constraints of the format. I’ll accept that Miranda and Ferdinand could fall in love so swiftly (there was some encouragement, after all), or that Prospero could use his magical powers to persuade his enemies to realign their desires with his, but what about the others? Alonso has accepted Prospero’s return to his Dukedom of Milan, apparently so moved to repentance due to Prospero’s and Ariel’s reminder of his guilt, that he is content to aid Prospero without the monetary tribute previously given by Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother. But Antonio’s response to this is never given. He too was exposed to the condemnations voiced by Ariel, but where Alonso grieved, Antonio (and Sebastian) drew swords, ready to fight. Yet at the end, he gives no response, seemingly cowed by Prospero’s knowledge of the assassination plan against Alonso. I cannot help but feel however, that back in Milan, Antonio will not take Prospero’s return as Duke well. It would have been nice to hear him give voice to something in the final scene beyond his mocking of Caliban.

For Caliban, I have no further conclusion. His short-lived belief in Stefano as a god makes him seem childish, misguided by so little as a bottle of wine. Miranda does not view him as a man: in Act 3, she tells Ferdinand that the only men she has seen are Ferdinand and her father [III.i.50-52]. I think perhaps, that Caliban is not meant to be taken seriously, or as more than a child. Prospero does not view him with any sympathy, and this seems the direction in which the reader is guided. On the other hand, Caliban’s interactions with Stephano and Trinculo showcase such a childlike naïveté, that I feel sympathy for him, for his inability to be considered human, if nothing else. It seems no wonder he has acted badly.

I still have mixed emotions about Prospero as well. I think my problem here is that I am looking at this from the 21st century viewpoint. He makes it clear in Act 5 that his primary motivation is to regain his Dukedom:

My dukedom since you have given me again,
I will require you with as good a thing,
At least bring forth a wonder to content ye
As much as me my dukedom.
[V.i.168-171]

Which makes me think he prizes his power over his daughter. However, his attitude would have been expected in Shakespeare’s time. The best value in a daughter was to marry her well, and hope to advance her fortunes—and her family’s. It is also clear throughout the play that Prospero loves his daughter and is happy that she loves her future husband, and he her. To criticize his motivations, I think, is to put too much of a contemporary view on things.

I also have to commend Prospero for his attitude of forgiveness. Not only is he willing to forgive the past actions of his brother and the King of Naples, but he is willing to keep silent about his brother’s plot to overthrow Alonso on Sebastian’s behalf. The play is a romance, not a tragedy, and therefore Prospero does what he must to keep everyone as content as they may be.

I truly enjoyed reading The Tempest, which I read as part of Allie’s read-along. I didn’t really spend any time analyzing the language or digging into the plot, as I read it mostly for pure enjoyment. It is fun to realize that even such an old work can still be approached as something to be enjoyed rather than endured. I’ve been thinking about reading some more Shakespeare for some time, and I think I will have to pursue that thought. Perhaps a read of Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado about Nothing is in order.

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