The Shakespeare Project: The Tempest

Now that’s more like it.

The Tempest is much more of what I think of as Shakespeare, with sympathetic characters, some comedy and great words. It was his last solo play and it’s a bit past his prime. The ending, in particular, I’ve always founds somewhat unsatisfying after a great first three acts.

One of things I’ve always noticed about Shakespeare’s plays is that the comedies are a thin layer from being tragedies and vice versa. That is, the difference between the happy conclusion of Much Ado About Nothing and the tragic conclusion of Romeo and Juliet is a tiny diversion in narrative. A few more seconds here, a few words there and Romeo becomes a comedy while Much Ado becomes a tragedy. Reading the Tempest, I wonder if it would have played better as a tragedy. It’s interesting to note that some works inspired by The Tempest — the movie The Forbidden Planet, for example — have gone in that direction.

One of the problems with this project is that Shakespeare’s plays do not read as well as they play. Shakespeare was an actor and wrote plays, I think, that would feed on great acting. One can read them by visualizing the play in one’s head, but it is never quite the same. This is particularly true of the comedies where much of the humor depends on delivery.

5 thoughts on “The Shakespeare Project: The Tempest”

  1. Hey Mike! Jim told me you were talking Shakespeare and movies over here so I thought if you didn’t mind I’d wander over and jump in. šŸ™‚

    First thing I should say – The Tempest is not a comedy. It – like Pericles, Cymbaline, A Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice – is a romance. That makes for a big difference in interpretation of the play. Free of the trappings of comedy or tragedy, as a romance this play succeeds marvelously on many levels. As a romance The Tempest uses sweeping settings, longer lengths of time and multiple vistas to further its plot. Moreover there is no need to kneed the plot into the formulas or a comedy of a tragedy, thus allowing for the bittersweet ending and the conflicted nature of the characters. Many believe The Tempest is linguistically Shakespeare’s biggest triumph, although I continue to champion Richard II (the only of his plays written entirely in verse) in that regard myself. However, even I cannot deny the impact of many of the major passages of The Tempest and their impact on the shape of writing for hundreds of years (look to T.S. Elliot’s marvelous call-back of the “those are pearls that were his eyes” passage in The Wasteland for a prime example). I think your reading of this play may be colored by your interpretation that it is a comedy, which it most certainly is not. You may want to brush up on the definition of a romance and revisit this in the future with fresh eyes – I’ll bet you’ll like it more on second read.

    Although I’m not a Patrick Stewart-in-Shakespeare fan, I have always loved his commentary on the character of Prospero. He noted that the world at large has always perceived him as a good and benevolent man and father, but that a far more accurate reading of the character saw him as a malicious and narcissistic tyrant. I was very pleased to hear those comments as that is the reading I have always favored of The Tempest – a far darker, more sinister reality than the one which is normally portrayed. The Tempest for me is a very dark and somber work with nefarious overtones throughout, not much unlike Macbeth in many regards. Its comedy, when it’s there, is very inky and edgy, with murky relationships between the characters that always keep you guessing. I’m a big Tempest fan and I urge you to revisit the play in the future with a mind towards these things.

  2. I think you’re onto something about Prospero. There’s a dark side to him, which is why I think the resolution at the end feels a bit forced and why Forbidden Planet made him more of a villain. The romance does stand out in his one as being quite strong. It makes the story is more about children redeeming parents.

    And glad to have you reading, Donna!

  3. Ack… I think I might have confused you further when I used the term “romance”. I mean as in genre, as in this definition: “a medieval narrative, originally one in verse and in some Romance dialect, treating of heroic, fantastic, or supernatural events, often in the form of allegory.” Think of “The Odyssey” or “The Faerie Queene” – a romance is an epic tale that usually spans great time or distance and involves the fantastical. When you get to Pericles or A Winter’s Tale you’ll see the genre emerge more strongly (of course Shakespeare didn’t write Pericles but that’s a story for a different time!). I’m sorry if I confused the issue further by not distinguishing “romantic” from “romance”. My bad!

    I have NEVER gotten how people read Prospero as a good guy. Not that it’s not a *valid* reading, it is, but I don’t see how it the more attractive or appropriate one. If you step back and just think about the atrocities Prospero commits both in the decades before the story begins and during the course of the play it’s rather horrible. Hell, he has an enslaved faerie who he lies to and refuses to release and a demon on call who serves his family… and just happened to try to rape his daughter. WTF? I can just hear smug satisfaction dripping from the page when he says “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”, can’t you? I think the whole play is incredibly dark and morally textured – it’s far more complex a read than most people think. Shakespeare wanted to shake people up with this one – I’d say it worked.

    Glad to be here! I’ll hit up your movie post tomorrow. If you haven’t seen it I do tweet reviews of movies every night – Jim and I post them to Stop by whenever you like! šŸ™‚

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