THE TEMPEST AMBIGUITY AND ABSENCE.
Where does The Tempest take place? If you’ve read or seen the play, or one of its movie adaptations, then you may recall that the action unfolds on an island. But where exactly is this island located? Shakespeare’s text offers us some clues but nothing definitive.
Ariel mentions the time he was commanded to ‘fetch dew / From the still-vexed Bermudas’ (1.2.229), which makes us think we’re in the Caribbean.
On the other hand, the party of shipwrecked Italians are on their way home from a wedding in Tunis, in North Africa, which locates us somewhere around the Mediterranean.
The ambiguities surrounding Shakespeare’s locale have vexed scholars for a long time, since the play’s setting outside England has invited comparisons between Prospero’s (or is it Caliban’s?) isle and England’s expanding empire.
Caliban, the island’s only native inhabitant (meaning he was born there), is forced to serve a European master, Prospero, who is the ousted Duke of Milan and a relative newcomer to the island, having lived there for little more than a decade.
Prospero even calls Caliban ‘my slave’ (1.2.271), and the many epithets flung at Caliban (‘monster’, ‘man-monster’, ‘misshapen knave’, ‘tortoise’, ‘fish’, ‘mooncalf’ and so on) have been challenged by generations of scholars and audiences for their racist language.
The power imbalances in Shakespeare’s play go beyond the frameworks of master-slave, coloniser-colonised, or white-black (remember that Prospero says of Caliban, ‘this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine’ (5.1.278-79).
There is also the matter of gender.
For decades feminist scholars have commented on the absence of mothers in The Tempest. For starters, Caliban’s mother Sycorax is already dead when the play opens.
Because we never see Sycorax on stage or get to hear her speak, Prospero is allowed to say all sorts of things about her that go unchallenged.
Miranda’s mother, who doesn’t even have a name, has also died before the time of the play. On the one occasion Prospero mentions his wife, it isn’t quite a glowing compliment:
‘Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and / She said thou wast my daughter’ (1.2.56-57).
In other words, Prospero is saying that he had to take his wife’s word for it that Miranda is, in fact, his child.
Given our understanding of how Shakespeare presents racial, cultural, and gender differences in the play, does it mean The Tempest shouldn’t be read, staged, and enjoyed?
Shakespeare’s play is a fantasy. But he gives us a version of the world he lived in during the early seventeenth century. Or, at least a version of the world as he understood and experienced it.
It was a world that delighted in magic, love, comedy, parties, and second chances. It was also a place steeped in more threatening things like violence and the constant struggle for power.
In Shakespeare’s time The Tempest was exceptional in its use of special effects, music, and song. It’s the first play we can be reasonably sure of that Shakespeare wrote with an indoor theatre—the Blackfriars—in mind.
The use of candlelight indoors meant that costumes would have sparkled and dazzled, especially in a smaller, more intimate venue.
In Act 4 of the play we are given a masque to celebrate Miranda and Ferdinand’s betrothal. A masque was a form of courtly entertainment combining music, dance, elaborate costumes, and moving sets.
During the masque the goddess Juno descends from the ‘heavens’—the roof over the stage—to bestow blessings on the happy couple. The Blackfriars had stage-machinery to produce these kinds of special effects.
In addition to its rich theatrical experience, there are other reasons for staging and studying The Tempest today.
Its treatment of social inequality, the duties of a good ruler, the nature of kinship and rightful inheritance, the difficulty of father-daughter relations, romantic competition, human society versus the natural world, and ultimately, the need for personal and political healing are all highly relevant to our modern times.
Indeed, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays. Prospero’s lines ‘Our revels now are ended’, and ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on’ (4.1.148-57) are very often quoted, as is Miranda’s ‘Oh, brave new world / That has such people in’t!’ (5.1.183-84).
The themes of The Tempest have sunk deeply into modern culture. Our job as good readers and theatre-makers is to be alert to the context surrounding the play—and the context surrounding each often-quoted passage. We might note that Prospero’s response to Miranda’s awe-struck ‘Oh, brave new world’ is to remark drily, ‘’Tis new to thee’ (l. 184).
It’s a rather sobering response to Miranda’s wide-eyed wonder, and reminds us that the play provides a range of differing viewpoints and experiences. And luckily for us, each performance of The Tempest allows us to renew our own wonder at Shakespeare’s art and imagination.