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  • Title: The Tempest: Critical Introduction
  • Author: Paul Yachnin
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-370-0

    Copyright Paul Yachnin. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Paul Yachnin
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    Critical Introduction

    2. Thinking and Feeling

    Harshness and Tenderness

    At the start all hell breaks loose. The beginning of the play is spectacular and action-packed. There are flashes of lightning, rolling thunder, and urgent shouts of distress. People are running about, either in sheer panic or in rapid, orchestrated labor. As we have heard, the opening stage direction says, "A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard. Enter a Shipmaster and a Boatswain." The actors are shouting to be heard over the noise of the storm (the first word is pronounced, "bosun"):

    Here, master. What cheer?
    Good. Speak to the mariners. Fall to it yarely or we run ourselves aground. Bestir! Bestir!
    (TLN 1-9)

    In the face of dire danger, the mariners work together with admirable skill and courage. "Yarely" (nimbly and diligently) and "cheerly" (heartily) are the key words used to characterize their cooperative action. The courtiers, who are their passengers, show far less patience or fortitude. Shakespeare differs from the Strachey letter's description of how both the sailors and passengers worked to save the ship. The change makes a political point about the possible failings even of high-ranking people just as it does about the possible abilities and virtues of commoners. The usually good-humored counselor Gonzalo turns his own fear of dying into a wish to see the Boatswain hanged: "his complexion is perfect gallows," he says. "Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging. Make the rope of his destiny our cable, for our own doth little advantage" (TLN 37-40) Prospero's villainous brother Antonio, also terrified of the storm, puts the same wish more directly and rudely: "Hang, cur! hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker!" The Boatswain is abrupt enough in his turn, shouting at his social superiors to shut up and to get out of the way: "What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin; silence! Trouble us not!" (TLN 24-6).

    20This scene of deafening noise, exploding fireworks, whirling action and angry exchange is, however, also one that features moments of poignant fellow feeling. The mariners work together yarely and cheerly, as we have seen. Once there seems no hope of saving the ship, they leave the stage to pray and to await their deaths. At the moment the ship seems to be breaking up, we hear them taking leave of their absent families and of each other--"We split, we split! Farewell, my wife and children! / Farewell, brother! We split, We split, We split!" (TLN 72-3) Even the villains Sebastian and Antonio, finally face-to-face with death, have the sense to think about someone beside themselves. They do not mention either prayer or divine mercy, but they do show a spark of compassion as they leave the stage to say good-bye to the King, who has stayed below decks during the storm. By the way, we can note that, even at this moment of noisy cataclysm, Shakespeare is taking care to make subtle but telling distinctions between characters: Antonio seems incapable of seeing anything except that everyone is going to drown, whereas Sebastian is thinking about the actual act of exchanging words of farewell:

    Let's all sink wi'th' King.
    Let's take leave of him.
    (TLN 74-5)

    The storm scene shows us an artist at the top of his powers. In the sections that follow, we will look more closely at some of the brilliant features of structure, language, and character that make the play such a pleasure to read and perform, as well as at the history of the play as literature and as theater, but here it is important to understand Shakespeare not only as a supremely accomplished artist but also as a remarkably clear-eyed and compassionate thinker. Indeed from beginning to end, The Tempest is a philosophical drama that is intent on exploring the couplings of harshness and tenderness in human life; the play instructs its readers and spectators in complex and even contradictory ways of understanding and responding to the world and of holding these very different ways of seeing and feeling together.

    The harshness can come from nature, as it does, or seems to do, in the storm. And, as we have also seen, it can come from humankind, as when Antonio, frightened for his own life, curses the Boatswain and wishes him hanged. Prospero has a well-developed harsh side, which he keeps turned toward Caliban (who fears him more or less as the tortured fears the torturer) and a harshness that he can on occasion turn against Ariel or even his daughter. His most acerbic remark is aimed at Antonio--"most wicked sir -- whom to call brother / Would even infect my mouth -- I do forgive / Thy rankest fault" (TLN 2094-6). Antonio himself is capable of real cruelty, as we learn once Prospero begins to tell his story to his daughter Miranda in the second scene. Twelve years before the action of the play, Antonio handed his brother Prospero and Prospero's three-year-old daughter Miranda over to a "treacherous army," a small commando force directed by the Neapolitan counselor Gonzalo (more about him in Section 3). The poor man and little child were cast adrift at sea in an unseaworthy boat--"A rotten carcass of a butt: not rigged, / . . . The very rats / Instinctively have quit it (TLN 252-4)". But tellingly, the injury done to him as well as his own physical suffering engendered in Prospero a deep and enduring tenderness toward his daughter Miranda, who, he tells her, was an angel that kept him going through his hardship--

    a cherubin
    Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile,
    Infusèd with a fortitude from heaven
    (When I have decked the sea with drops full salt
    Under my burden groaned), which raised in me
    An undergoing stomach to bear up
    Against what should ensue.
    (TLN 259-65)

    25Or consider this moment near the end of the play. Prospero has reintroduced himself to those who nearly caused his death and the death of his daughter. He transforms his anger into a painful lesson for Alonso, the King of Naples and the man whose imperialist ambitions meshed with the treachery of Antonio. Alonso has been made to believe that his son has drowned, and he has suffered inconsolable grief, until, in this scene, Prospero reveals the very much alive Ferdinand playing chess with Miranda. So preoccupied are the two young lovers that it takes them several moments to notice that they are not alone. Once they do become aware of Prospero, decked out in his duke's finery, and all the other members of the court party, Miranda says,

    O wonder!
    How many goodly creatures are there here!
    How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
    That has such people in't!
    (TLN 2157-60)

    Prospero responds in a bitterly ironic remark likely not intended to be heard by his daughter, "'Tis new to thee." How can we compass both Miranda's joy in the face of the beauty of humankind and Prospero's harsh response to the perfidy and selfishness of people? How can we hold two so diametrically opposed ideas about "mankind" in our minds? Shakespeare seems to be enjoining us to feel Miranda's sense of wonder fully and to grasp the soundness of Prospero's judgment of the men that stand together on the stage, excepting perhaps Gonzalo, and not to permit the one to displace the other.

    We might say that the gathering together of thinking and feeling about others in terms both harsh and tender is the point of Prospero's story of suffering, separation, and redemption, a story that culminates with his decision to forgive those who have wronged him. The forgiveness is not merely an intellectual choice made in the teeth of his anger, but rather a reorientation of his whole personhood in the direction of forgiveness. Ariel tells him that his enemies are entirely at his mercy and, in a weirdly subjunctive voice, comments that he would feel sorry for them if he were human. Prospero does not abandon his anger, but, as if in answer to Ariel, he nevertheless forgives his enemies so as to bear witness to his own humanity; and indeed his ability to forgive depends as much on his "sharply" passionate nature as on his "nobler reason" (TLN 2173, 2176). His passion enables his reason: because he is “kindlier moved” than Ariel is, Prospero finds himself able take the part of his “nobler reason” against his “fury” (TLN 1974-7)


    The Tempest challenges its readers and spectators to respond thoughtfully and feelingly to its complex representation of the world, to judge without sentimentality and to empathize with those we judge. One of its principal ways that the play does this is by means of metatheater, which is the element of the drama that draws attention to the theatrical practices that underlie and produce the fictional world of the play and that also works to recruit the engaged participation of the audience.

    The Tempest is Shakespeare's most metatheatrical play. Prospero is a duke and a magician, but he also seems to be a dramatist. He orders Ariel into costume ("Go make thyself like a nymph o'th'sea" [TLN 433]) and praises his performance ("Bravely the figure of this harpy hast thou / Performed, my Ariel. A grace it had, devouring! / Of my instruction hast thou nothing bated / In what thou hadst to say" [TLN 1619-22]); and he orders up and presumably also writes a theatrical performance in honor of Miranda and Ferdinand's impending nuptials: "go bring the rabble / . . . here to this place. / Incite them to quick motion, for I must / Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple / Some vanity of mine art" (TLN 1691-5). The play follows the so-called "unity of time" so attentively that the time elapsed in performance is about the same as the time represented in the play world. Timing, which is one of Prospero's obsessions, is crucial for both effective magic and successful play-making:

    What is the time o'th'day?
    Past the mid season.
    At least two glasses -- the time 'twixt six and now --
    Must by us both be spent most preciously.
    (TLN 241-3)

    In the Epilogue, finally, he tells the audience that his "project . . . was to please," which certainly was not Prospero's project but which might well have been the goal of the actor playing Prospero or of the playwright Shakespeare.

    30All of this playful representation of the means and motives of the players and playwright, which underlie the fictional world and the characters, is designed to keep us mindful of the made-up quality of what we are watching. That is certainly part of the effect of the shift from the first to the second scene, where we move from watching a group of men who are about to die to watching two figures alone on stage who have just witnessed the same terrifying event, which Prospero reveals to his weeping daughter as a "direful spectacle"--a magic show in which the people on the ship and we in the playhouse thought that the ship was going to founder and all on board were going to drown but in which Ariel had a special charge to ensure that no one suffered any harm. The revelation that the shipwreck was a mere illusion might seem at first intended to make the spectators less emotionally involved in the action, but Shakespearean metatheater in fact works to deepen the meaning of the play and engage the audience more actively in the unfolding action.

    Metatheater makes us thoughtful about what we are watching since it is difficult to get entirely lost in the story when we are constantly being reminded that what we are watching is a story. But, strangely enough, metatheater tends to heighten both the intellectual and emotional responses that audiences experience when they are watching the play. For one thing, Miranda models a full-hearted reaction to the spectacle of the wreck. She thinks that the disaster she has just witnessed might be a work of "art," by which she means magic, of course, but the word is resonant with the theatricality of the scene and reminds us of the necessary artificiality of all playhouse shipwrecks:

    If by your art, my dearest father, you have
    Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
    The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch
    But that the sea, mounting to th'welkin's cheek,
    Dashes the fire out. Oh! I have suffered
    With those that I saw suffer.
    (TLN 82-7)

    We are invited to feel with Miranda at the same moment we learn that the wreck, which did indeed make people suffer grievously--was a work of her father's characteristically harsh and tender art--"No harm! / I have done nothing but in care of thee -- / Of thee my dear one, thee my daughter" (TLN 99-101).

    Important also is the fact that while the wreck might have been a magical or theatrical trick, it seemed real enough to those who endured it, and its effects go on echoing within them throughout the play. We might go even further and say that metatheater reorients the audience itself toward the play by conceding the artificiality of playing and yet insisting on its real powers of reformation. It can reform the playgoers themselves, as I have been suggesting, by inducting them into a more complex thinking and feeling about the world and also by forming them into a collectivity with each other and the actors. This is a simple but important feature of the play's design and one by which Shakespeare answers a long history of antitheatricality, which must have been one of the central ideological conditions under which he wrote and acted in his plays.

    Consider this ancient and influential complaint against theater, from the Confessions of St. Augustine:

    The theater enraptured me, for its shows were filled with pictures of my own miseries and with tinder for my fires. Why is it that a man likes to grieve over doleful and tragic events which he would not want to happen to himself? The spectator likes to experience grief at such scenes, and this very sorrow is a pleasure to him. What is this but a pitiable folly? For the more a man is moved by these things, the less free is he from such passions. However, when he himself experiences it, it is usually called misery; when he experiences it with regard to others, it is called mercy. But what sort of mercy is to be shown to these unreal things upon the stage? The auditor is not aroused to go to the aid of the others; he is only asked to grieve over them. (Augustine 78-9)

    35In The Tempest, each time the actor playing Prospero reminds us that he is an actor and tells us that the justice of his cause, his own well-being, and the happiness of his beloved daughter depend on the success of his magical and theatrical fabrications, we are being invited to take his part so that, to use Prospero's words, the character whose story he is enacting does not melt "into air – into thin air" (TLN 1821). The awareness of artifice aroused by metatheatricality prompts real investments on the part of the spectators in the characters and the play and prompts also the real action of spectatorly participation in the actorly making of character and action. Where Augustine says, "the auditor is not aroused to go to the aid of the others," I suggest that the auditors are indeed aroused to go to the aid of the actors, not of course in the sense of providing rescue, but rather in the sense of contributing their attention and specific responses to the production of artifice.