“…the great globe itself,/Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,/Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep” (IV.i.153-158).
Upon my first reading of The Tempest, I took away two things: the quote above and the riddling of the word “art”–with its many connotations–used throughout the play. I have to forewarn you that I am partial to this play because I feel it is a culmination with so many of the elements and aspects encountered in other plays we’ve read. But as much as I would like to spill the beans, I will stick to my thoughts of what we as readers find in the exposition of Act I.
Right from the start, the characters are in the throes of a tempest with a feeling of chaos on board. As we come to discover, the tempest–much like death–has an equalizing, democratizing aspect to it which inverts the social order of the “rude mechanicals” of the ship–in this case, the boatswain and mariners–with that of the gentlemen (king, prince, duke, councilor, etc.). The boatswain says it best to Gonzalo: “What cares these/roarers for the name of king?” (I.i.16-17). Rich or poor, high-born or low-born, royalty or plebeian, all of those distinctions go out the window once one faces the inevitable “elements.” I’d also like to think that the manipulation of the elements and weather are somehow tied to Prospero’s psyche filled with vengeance. According to the Norton Critical Edition, the earliest recorded performance of The Tempest was 1611. That would put our friend, Will the Bard at 47 years old, so it should come as no surprise that he shifts his attention of subject matter to contemplating what one’s life amounts to during the declining years.
Professor D. likes for us to be mindful of settings. I find it interesting that Shakespeare sets the scene of The Tempest on “an uninhabited island.” We will come to find out that it does in fact have inhabitants, but something about the lack of a tie to an imperialistic power/nation allows for unconventional happenings to occur. I think we can very much consider it as another “green space” similar to the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream or Portia’s residence, Belmont, in The Merchant of Venice. The topography of the island is actually quite similar to the liminal grange where Mariana is stashed away in Measure for Measure. Anyhow, it may be worth keeping an eye out to see how the setting of the island coincides with the events that are about to unfold.
The last thing I want to bring up is how my reading of Prospero has changed slightly. Upon my first reading, I had somewhat of a woe-to-Prospero empathy. However, this time around, I’m not feeling as sympathetic towards Prospero. When he finally decides to reveal to his teenage (pure and virginal, mind you) daughter, Miranda about their origins leading to their current circumstances, Prospero recounts how his “perfidious” brother, Antonio usurps his dukedom. This bequeathing [usurping] of power is similar to what happens between the duke and Angelo in Measure for Measure; however, Prospero doesn’t share in the duke’s design when the duke states: “Hence shall we see,/If power change purpose, what our seemers be” (Measure for Measure, I.v.53-54). Prospero admits to his negligence of ducal duties in favor of books and learning: “I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated/To closeness and the bettering of my mind–” (I.ii.89-90), as well as: “I loved my books…From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom” (I.ii.166-168). Now, we’ve come across enough characters to know the corrupting effect(s) that go along with power. Are we really supposed to feel for a guy who turns his back on the responsibilities that are part and parcel of his position? I don’t find it surprising that Antonio would be seduced by this taste of power and want more of it for himself.
Another point that turns me off about Prospero is the master/servant power dynamic he has with Ariel and Caliban. It is also here that I’d like to share somewhat of a digression. Is it me or can we possibly read Ariel as the supernatural embodiment of Prospero’s learning and “art” rather than a separate entity? True, Prospero recounts for us how he saved Ariel from his/her previous master, the “foul witch Sycorax,” but, can’t Ariel be another manifestation with magic powers like his “robe?” Hmmmm…Okay, back to the point. I bring up the relationship because there still seems to be a sense of entitlement and hierarchy in Prospero (you can take the duke out of Milan but you can’t take Milan out of the duke, I guess)…but all the while, how far would he have gotten without the domination he has over Ariel and Caliban? It is this slippage–again, reminiscent of the duke in Measure for Measure–afforded to Prospero which makes him slightly more complex/complicated a character. And while Caliban is a fascinating character in his own right, I feel like I’ve over-shared (like I do in class).
PS – for those of you possibly considering a reworking of The Tempest for your casebook assignment, here is a link of the recent movie adaptation directed by Julie Taymor (the same director of the stylized Titus Andronicus which we saw in class). How does your perception of the play change–if at all–by having our main character converted to a duchess: Prospera?