The Bardathon: 32 – The Tempest

The Tempest is the last of that trio of plays that may with justice be referred to as Shakespeare’s last artistic testament, and, as in the other two, Shakespeare is still experimenting with form. But while with Cymbeline Shakespeare had ran into problems because there was too much plot, here, there seems to be too little: after the central climax in Act 3 for instance, where Alonso recognises his guilt, there is no drama at all until the final tableau, and Shakespeare has to fill up much of the fourth act with a somewhat irrelevant masque. Admittedly, immediately after the masque, Prospero speaks some of the most miraculously beautiful lines ever written, but one may justifiably ask: “Where is the drama?”

Indeed, one may ask that question throughout the play. Regarded as a poem, it is mysterious and beautiful, and clearly the product of a very great genius; but regarded as a drama, it seems to me the least satisfactory of the last three plays. Even Cymbeline, which often gets a bad press, contains scenes of dramatic power: The Tempest, as far as I can see, doesn’t.

For drama requires conflict, and tension, and suspense. And the only real conflict here is the conflict within Prospero’s mind: now that he has his enemies at his mercy, what should he do with them? And really, for the drama to end satisfactorily, there really is only one way this particular conflict could be resolved, so there’s not much tension on that score either. In the other scenes, we see Caliban plot with Trinculo and Stephano to murder Prospero, but there’s no tension or suspense there: we know that Prospero has all that under control. We also see Alonso, Gonzalo, and the two evil brothers – Sebastian and Antonio – but even here, there’s no real suspense or tension, because, once again, Prospero – through his servant, the spirit Ariel – has the situation under control. So where are the conflicts that generate drama? Where is the tension, where is the suspense? One might almost get the impression that Shakespeare was bored writing drama, and may perhaps have preferred to have written this instead as a narrative poem.

One can only conjecture why this most accomplished of writers for the stage would create so undramatic a work, but there is far too much conjecture about this play as it is. The most well-known of these is that this is in effect an autobiographical play, and that Prosepro was a self-portrait; and that Prospero’s abjuration of his art was, effectively, Shakespeare’s. I don’t know that we should make too much of this. Shakespeare did, after all, go on to work on at least three more plays after The TempestCardenio (now lost), Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen: it is true that all three of these were, most likely, collaborations; and it is also true that neither of the two existing plays is touched with Shakespeare’s genius. But the fact that he agreed to work on them at all, and that he made a more than competent job of them, does not suggest to me a writer bored with writing plays. And one must remember also that The Tempest had been preceded immediately by The Winter’s Tale, a work of the most consummate stagecraft. Did Shakespeare change overnight from a man in complete control of dramatic form to a man who was bored with it, and couldn’t be bothered? I doubt it.

And yet, the mystery remains. Why is The Tempest so poor as drama? Why does Shakespeare present the exposition in so long and so tedious a speech? I suppose there are times when one must shrug one’s shoulders and admit that it is impossible even to try to understand what goes on in a mind such as Shakespeare’s.

The work itself, I have noticed, tends to be valued most highly by those who prefer poetry to drama. And as poetry, there is no doubt that this is one of the high water marks of Shakespeare’s career: it is extraordinarily beautiful. But for all that, The Tempest is a play I never could warm to, and this latest reading has, I’m sorry to say, left me, not for the first time, quite unmoved.

It seems in many ways a somewhat bitter play. Alonso is repentant: the apparent loss of his son teaches him humanity. But Antonio and Sebastian remain as evil as ever, and one can’t help wondering whether Prospero’s decision to forgive them was correct. The forgiveness itself seems somewhat less that whole-hearted:

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault; all of them.

Cymbeline had ended on a note of celebration, and The Winter’s Tale with a sense of radiance and serenity, but the mingled chime that ends this last play is not entirely harmonious: Prospero may renounce his art, and every third thought be of his grave, but there seems little sense of joy, or serenity, or even of fulfilment. Mankind may be thought wonderful only by someone such as Miranda, for whom it is all new:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

‘Tis new to thee.

Even the union of the young lovers promises little hope for the future.

The Tempest is usually thought of as Shakespeare’s final artistic testament. I prefer to think of The Winter’s Tale as occupying that position. The Tempest, I am afraid, leaves me, for all its undoubted poetic greatness, as puzzled and as dissatisfied as ever. At least, in dramatic terms.

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