Tag Archives: The Tempest

Sights, Sounds and Words in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

In Arts One this week we discussed Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I just noticed that I have two other blog posts on this book from Arts One as well: see here for a post on the play and on the film Forbidden Planet, and here for one on how to interpret Prospero’s “magic” or “art” and why he might give it up at the end (also talking about Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books). I guess I like to write blog posts on this book!

I’m writing this one because we ran out of time to talk about something in our seminar meeting that I wanted to discuss. We were focused on reading the script, but this is a play, after all, and I thought it would be useful to look at some scenes from performances of the play to think about what we lose (or gain?) when we just have the words vs when we have the visual and the auditory elements of a play. Clearly, a play is much more immersive and vivid, but one thing it does is to present the audience with a particular interpretation of the words, by the way the characters speak, their facial expressions, their movements on the stage, the stage set, and more. If you just have the words, there are multiple interpretations one could give to them, multiple ways one could imagine the story going, whereas a performance narrows those options down by the way it’s staged (there can still be room for interpretation, but I think it might be lower…?).

This means the bare words alone give directors a great deal of freedom in how to stage the play. I picked a couple of examples of the same scene played two different ways, in the videos below.

First, we have two different versions of Act I Scene 2, in which Prospero and Ariel are speaking together for the first time, and after describing how he performed the storm, Ariel asks for his freedom and Prospero gets angry.

This one is from Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company, 2014. I can’t get the link to work with a start and end time for the clip, only a start time. So just watch until about 21:40.

And this one is from a Globe Theatre production in 2013. This one ends at the end of the scene so you can watch it until the end


There is quite a difference in how Ariel is played between these two scenes. In the first one it is clear that he remembers Sycorax well, and his imprisonment in a pine tree–indeed, his memory is played out directly on stage. Prospero in this scene seems cruel, torturing Ariel by bringing up this painful memory again. As someone said in class, Prospero could be said to be inflicting psychological torture on Ariel by reminding him of this experience every single month. It makes Prospero seem like he is using this memory over and over to express his power over Ariel.

In the second video, it’s less clear. The actor playing Ariel seems to have trouble remembering where Sycorax is from, and his facial expressions earlier in the scene suggest that he doesn’t really have that vivid of a memory of her. The way Prospero is played, he seems mostly to be exasperated at having to remind Ariel over and over what he has actually forgotten. This changes the dynamic between Ariel and Prospero considerably–if Ariel really is this forgetful, then we can see why Prospero gets upset at having to constantly remind him. Prospero could be read as less cruel and more just frustrated. Though, at the same time, one could argue that Prospero doesn’t really need to remind him of this experience over and over except to keep Ariel in his power. So maybe the ultimate function of this reminder is the same as in the previous video; it’s just that Prospero could seem less cruel.


I also wanted to point to something about how the characters move on the stage as indicating various interpretations that are left open by the mere words in the text.

In this clip from the Globe Theatre’s 2013 production, I think the way Caliban and Miranda move is quite telling. This one you can stop at around 5:30.

In this scene we find that Caliban is quite literally stuck in a “hard rock” (1.2. 342-343). He often stays low to the ground, something that we see often in performances of Caliban. Possibly it’s to signal that he is not entirely human (and so doesn’t stand upright), but it also shows his subordinate status to the rest of the characters.

In addition, I find it interesting how Caliban’s movements suggest both anger and desire for rebellion against Prospero, but also significant fear. He runs at Prospero, pointing and shouting, but then also cowers backwards, hiding behind a pillar. You can see this in particular when he gives the lines about how the island is his, from Sycorax, and Prospero has taken it from him.

Then, when Caliban talks about how at first Prospero was kind to him, he is suppliant, staying low to the ground. But when he talks about how he showed Prospero various good things on the island, he starts to get angry and stands up, walking around. Then he attempts a magical incantation against Prospero: “all the charms of Sycorax…light on you!”

Miranda’s movements are telling in this scene too. She starts off cowering behind a pillar, clearly afraid of Caliban. But then when Prospero reminds Caliban of his attempted rape of Miranda, and Caliban says he would have peopled the island with Calibans, Miranda can’t take it–she gets angry and comes out shouting, moving quickly towards Caliban, who immediately cowers and drops to the ground.

Finally, we get a clear demonstration of Prospero causing Caliban pain, around 4:40. When Prospero says he is going to fill Caliban with cramps, Caliban writes on the ground–clearly, Prospero is already doing so. This we can see from the stage production; it’s not necessarily clear in the text.


These are just a few examples of what one can see when looking at performances vs. just reading the words. I haven’t talked about things like set or costumes, which also can convey meaning through vision. Reading the text of a play is in some ways just a small sliver of the meaning one can get from the work, but at the same time, it’s more open to multiple interpretations because the words can be said in so many different ways, with different facial expressions, different movements, etc. So reading the text could leave one’s imagination freer than watching a performance!


Drowning Prospero’s Books

Books Destroyed, Flickr photo shared by darkday, licensed CC BY 2.0

Books Destroyed, Flickr photo shared by darkday, licensed CC BY 2.0


In our seminar group for Arts One this week we puzzled over several things in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, including why Prospero drowns his books at the end. In the play he says he is going to do so:

But this rough magic
I here abjure; and when I have required
Some heavenly music–which even now I do–
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book. (5.1.50, p. 190)

In Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books we see the books actually being drowned: he and Ariel throw them in the water. Though as an aside, I think it’s Ariel who throws the books in the water except the last two books: Ariel gives The Works of William Shakespeare to Prospero, along with the “missing play” from it, according to the film, which is The Tempest. Then Prospero throws those books away. I think Ariel does all the others, and Prospero does those. I haven’t yet figured out what to make of that (thus it’s an aside).

In this post I want to suggest a couple of interpreations of Prospero giving up his “art,” drowning his books, at the end of the play. Along the way, I’ll also give my ideas about what interpretations we might give to his magic in the first place.

Prospero as Shakespeare, or a playwright generally, or a filmmaker

As one of our seminar members pointed out, Prospero getting rid of his books makes sense if we take him as a representative of Shakespeare himself, and if we take this play as a kind of farewell to the theatre on Shakespeare’s part.

Title Page of the First Folio, 1623, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Title Page of the First Folio, 1623, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

And there is good reason why we might think Prospero is Shakespeare: he does act like a playwright, insofar as he puts on a show for others that is a false reality, created through music, actors (the spirits) and what the spirits say (such as in the harpy scene). He also literally puts on a kind of theatre performance in the form of a masque for Ferdinand and Miranda. And his speech right before the bit quoted above about how he’ll give up his “rough magic” certainly sounds like the “magic” could refer to the power of theatre, or of fiction generally:

… I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war; …
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
… Graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. … (5.1.41-49, p. 190)

These certainly sound like the sorts of things one can do in fiction, and also in fictional plays of course.

Thus one interpretation of Prospero’s “art” or magic is the power of the playwright to create entire worlds, to make (almost) anything happen as they wish, to create an apparent reality that others might believe to the degree that they allow themselves to be immersed in the play.

Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books takes up this idea as well, interpreting the play in such a way that Prospero is clearly the playwright of the whole story, as well as a character in it. Though of course, as the film is not a theatre production, and doesn’t look like one until the very end (as noted in lecture), we might say that Prospero is a filmmaker, that his magic is the power of filmmaking. (In both of these cases, plays and films, I’m combining the work of the writer and director, the latter being the person who decides what everything is going to look and sound like…so the magic would be that of the person writing and the person directing.)


Why he would give up his books under this interpretation

If we take something like this to be a valid interpretation of Prospero’s magic, and Prospero as, therefore, a playwright like Shakespeare, then it makes sense he would give up his magic at the end. Not only insofar as we think of this play as Shakespeare’s “goodbye,” but also in the sense that the play/film comes to an end. The magic of immersing the audience in a story is ending, the magic of creating a fake reality that we might get lost in and forget ourselves and our reality for some time (remember Gonzalo towards the end saying that Ferdinand found a wife “where he himself was lost,” Prospero found his dukedom in the isle, “and all of us ourselves/ When no man was his own” (5.1. 210, p. 199)). Just as Alonso, Gonzalo, Antonio, Sebastian and the others come to see the “real” reality at the end, after having Prospero’s charms wear off, so the audience of the play/film will soon be emerging from the false reality into the more “real.”

I noticed how in the film Alonso, etc., had cloth over their eyes during the whole film until towards the end, after Prospero has Ariel take off his magic cloak and presents himself “As [he] was sometime Milan” (5.1.86, p. 192). When Prospero has taken off his cloak (or right before it…I can’t remember), Ariel takes off those blindfolds and the nobles can now see the “true” reality. This is also when they are able to speak in their own voices, when they and Ferdinand and Miranda move their lips rather than having Prospero speak for them as during the earlier part of the film. These elements of the film really show well, I think, how Prospero is no longer using his magic to put on a show for them, that they are themselves at this point (including Ferdinand and Miranda, who were being “written” by Prospero earlier).

So I think we can interpret Prospero giving up his books as the ending to the false reality that he has created.



Another way of thinking about Prospero’s art and why he gives it up

As I mentioned in class, we can also add a political element to the power of the playwright/director/filmmaker, given the purpose of court masques at the time. According to an article entitled “Prospero’s Dream: The Tempest and the Court Masque Inverted,” by Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen,

The court masque played a crucial role in the way Renaissance monarchs chose to think about themselves. Masques served essentially as images of the order, peace and harmony brought about by the monarch’s mere presence, and expressed didactic truths about the monarchy. . . .  Under James 1, the form of the masque developed into two contrasting parts. The first section, or antimasque, offered an image of vice and disorder, which, in the second section, the masque proper, was superseded by the workings of royal power, and an ordered, harmonious world, with the king at its centre, was established.

James I of England, c. 1620. Public domain on Wikimedia Commons.

James I of England, c. 1620. Public domain on Wikimedia Commons.

The way I understand this is that court masques showed a visual and auditory spectacle of the monarch’s power, and portrayed that power as able to create “an ordered, harmonious world” out of chaos. As van Dijkhuizen goes on to say, “The court masque, then, manifested an important theatrical image of kingship; royalty’s prime mode of expression was fundamentally histrionic,” where “histrionic” means related to theatre, acting, drama–especially insofar as one is overly dramatic, affected, over-playing a part.

I’m thinking, then, that Prospero’s magic could be related to how royal power at the time may have been propped up in part by something like an idealistic image of that power, something portrayed through court masques but also through other trappings of royalty such as rituals and ceremonies, lavish clothes and properties, even extreme exhibitions of power through grisly executions meant to show how great the “ordering” power of the monarch is against “disorder” (this last bit comes from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which we’ll read some of later in the year). And this, ultimately, is all show, a fake reality meant to manipulate what the populace thinks of the monarch.


So why would Prospero give this up?

If this makes sense as an interpretation of his magic, why give that up at the end? He is, after all, going back to Milan to rule at least for some time, during which “every third thought shall be [his] grave” (5.1.311, p. 204). Once he has gotten his political power back, wouldn’t this sort of spectacle of power be useful?

There are probably several ways to think about this, but here’s one.

Prospero may be said to realize that there could be problems with focusing too much on providing the “show” of power and not enough on ruling in actuality. He of course found out what happens when you don’t pay attention to the state, when he more or less gave control of Milan to Antonio. But during the play itself he also could be said to realize that putting on a show is not enough. During the masque he has Ariel and the other spirits perform for Ferdinand and Miranda, he suddenly interrupts it and says:

I had forgot that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates
Against my life …. (4.1.139-140)

While paying too much attention to the show of power, and trying to convince Ferdinand and Miranda to keep chaste through this masque that counters the disorder of Venus and Cupid trying to entice the two lovers to give into their lust before marriage, Prospero forgets what is actually going on in his “kingdom” on the isle. One can get so lost in the show of power that one fails to pay enough attention to what is necessary to keep it.

We might then connect this to what Professor Crawford said about James I not being a very politically savvy monarch, but someone who loved books and also the theatre. But I don’t know enough about him to take this very far.

As for Prospero, and maybe a Shakespearian comment on royal power, perhaps he gives up his magic because he realizes that the practicalities of ruling are more important than the show of power? Or at least, that focusing too much on the latter can be a dangerous distraction from the former. And further, Prospero then follows this interruption of his masque with his famous speech about how the “vision” he has produced is “baseless,” and so is our lives:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, 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. … (4.1.148-158, pp. 180-181)

Prospero seems to realize that there is a problem with “The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces …” that are part of the trappings of royalty. It is all “baseless,” false, unreal. So perhaps he is ready to give that up?


Still, there’s a problem

But that doesn’t mean we can go from this false reality of the show of power to some more substantial reality, according to this speech. Indeed, everything is in some sense “insubstantial,” destined to “dissolve”; our lives are like dreams.

Public domain from Pixabay

Public domain from Pixabay

This idea is exhibited elsewhere in the play and film as well. When Prospero gives up his magic and Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo and the others come back to their senses, the “reality” they then inhabit is still within the play and the film, of course. They emerge out of one false reality into another false reality within the play and the film. So too, when we as audience members leave the theatre, it is not perhaps to some substantial reality that is significantly different from a play or a film.

The fact that the film starts to look more like a filming of a stage play after Prospero gives up his magic (which I hadn’t noticed until Professor Mota pointed it out) also pointed me in this direction. The film is over, but then we are still in a fictional story. At the end of the film, after the Epilogue, the characters applaud as Ariel runs down the stage, towards the camera, and the last image in the film looks like the page of a book that is being written on. Ariel then jumps out of the frame of that book (perhaps being free from the author, Prospero?), but we are left with the page on which writing is still happening.

Ultimately, this complicates the reading I was giving earlier about Prospero giving up his magic because it is insubstantial, baseless, fake, and he wants something more “real” in terms of being a ruler.

But then again, as one of the members of our seminar said in class, he is nearing death after all; so maybe he is just pondering the end of his own life!



Forbidden Island (The Tempest and Forbidden Planet)

Forbidden Planet Movie Poster, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Forbidden Planet Movie Poster, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).



For Arts One last week we read Shakespeare’s The Tempest and also watched Forbidden Planet, which is clearly based in part on Shakespeare’s play. I had never seen that 1956 film before, so the mystery and the big reveal at the end were a surprise for me. Then I started wondering just whether or not it could make sense to give a psychological reading to Shakespeare’s original. Here is what I managed to come up with before class last Friday, but we didn’t have time to talk about it in class. Mostly what I have are some suggestive thoughts and then questions!

The ocean and the storm, and Prospero’s art as connected to mental confusion and madness

This one is pretty easy to see from Prospero and Ariel’s conversation right after the storm. Prospero asks Ariel: “Who was so firm, so constant, that his coil/ Would not infect his reason”? Ariel: “Not a soul/ But felt a fever of the mad, and played/ Some tricks of desperation. All but mariners/ Plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel” (1.2.206-211). And of course, after they jump into the sea is when they end up on the island, confused by Prospero’s magic and illusions.

Then Ariel, when he appears as a harpy to Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio, says, “I have made you mad; / And even with such-like valour men hang and drown / Their proper selves” (3.3.57-59), thereby connecting drowning to madness.

Prospero’s art clearly makes people confused, provides illusions, clouds their reason. After the harpy scene with Ariel, Prospero says, “And these, mine enemies, are all knit up/ In their distractions. They are now in my power; / And in these fits I leave them …” (3.3.89-91). And when he breaks the charm over them: “their rising senses/ Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle/ Their clearer reason” (5.1.66-68).

Gonzalo suggests that the madness that holds Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio is caused by their guilt, suggesting that we might be able to read Prospero’s art, at least to some extent, as a kind of psychological phenomenon happening within the minds of the characters: “All three of them are desperate: their great guilt,/ Like poison given to work a great time after,/ Now ‘gins to bite the spirits.” (3.3.104-106). If we were to go with this, though, what kind of interpretation could we give to the storm, if it were somehow in the minds of the king, his son, and the nobles on the boat? Would we have to say it’s in the minds of the mariners as well?

And what about Caliban’s experience of Prospero’s magic? He mostly seems to get pains from it. If we were to do a psychological reading of the play, could these be representative of some kind of pain in his own mind? I’m not sure it makes sense to think that Caliban might have guilt like the king and nobles, but he is clearly mentally pained by Prospero as well as physically.

Forbidden Planet

The psychological interpretation of the events of the play in the film is that the unconscious mind of Dr. Morbius (the Prospero character) has been able, through advanced technology from an alien civilization, to instantiate a monster in physical reality. He is not aware that he is doing it (of course! it’s unconscious), and much of the film is dedicated to trying to figure out what this monster is and how to stop it.

Dr. Morbius, like Prospero, has a great desire for knowledge. Dr. Morbius’ knowledge, along with the technology he gets from the Krell, is able to create physical manifestations of what one has in one’s mind; can Prospero do the same? In a way, yes, because he can make what he thinks of become a reality through his magic and with the help of Ariel, but I’m not sure it’s best described as physical manifestations, since it seems mostly visual and auditory illusions.

Too much knowledge, or too heavy a focus on gaining knowledge, is portrayed as dangerous in both works. It leads Dr. Morbius to unknowingly kill the other members of the crew of the Bellerophon (Bellerophon, by the way, is a mythological hero of ancient Greece who, among other things was famous for killing the Chimera–a beast with a lion’s head, a goal’s body, and a serpent’s tail. The monster in the film has a lion’s head, but I can’t recall the rest of what it looks like!), and the Krell machine kills the doctor from the ship. In the play, of course, it leads Prospero to neglect his rule. The captain of the ship in the film doesn’t rank very high on the knowledge scale, according to the Krell machine, but he is still a very effective leader as portrayed in the film. The same might be said for political rule: it’s more important to have practical and leadership skills than more abstract knowledge.

The other problem with what Dr. Morbius is doing is what killed the Krell as well: trying to become so intelligent, so moral, so peaceful that one forgets the dark side of the human psyche, which will nevertheless not disappear no matter how much one tries. What does Dr. Morbius’ unconscious mind want? To stay on the planet when the rest of his ship wants to leave (his monster destroys them when they argue for leaving and try to leave), presumably out of a thirst for knowledge; also, he wants Miranda to not be with another man (his monster starts killing people after Miranda kisses the first man from the ship, and it gets worse after she falls in love with the Captain).

Forbidden island?

Can we read Shakespeare’s play through the lens of thinking that Prospero’s unconscious might play a role in what his happening, somehow?

We could see Caliban as the “monster of the Id,” the representation of desires that, in someone whose reason and moral sense are in charge, are repressed (e.g., his attempted rape, his desire for drink, his desire for power?).  And Prospero does acknowledge Caliban as his own: “This thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine” (5.1.274-275). If we read Caliban as representing Prospero’s repressed desires, then…yikes…attempted rape of Miranda? That does seem to be along the lines of what the film suggests, with Dr. Morbius being so upset when Miranda falls in love with the Captain.

We might also read the scene where Prospero suddenly remembers the plot against his life by Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo as his unconscious suddenly coming to the fore, coming through when he had tried to repress it (4.1.139). Caliban’s plot could represent Prospero’s own desire for power and his willingness to even kill to get it. Vicente mentioned in class on Wednesday that he thought Prospero might have meant to kill Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio, and I said I hadn’t gotten that, but there is a suggestion in the play that he might have had this in mind. In 5.1, Ariel says that if he were human, he would be touched with pity at the sight of those three, and Gonzalo weeping over them, and Prospero responds by saying that if Ariel can feel a touch of pity, how much more should Prospero himself. So he says, “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,/ Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury/ Do I take part. The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeace” (5.1.25-28). He gets a hold of himself, controls his passions, and after this releases the three from their spell. And this all right after he and Ariel have stopped Caliban’s plot!


That’s all I have the time write about right now, but I’d be curious to hear what others think of these suggestions…