Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens before the play
- Twelve years ago, Prospero, the Duke of Milan, was pushed from his throne by his brother, Antonio with the help of Alonso (King of Naples) and the King’s brother, Sebastian.
- Cast adrift with his daughter, Miranda, Prospero landed on an island, where, by the use of his magic, he has ruled over the native Caliban and the spirit Ariel.
- Hearing that his enemies are at sea, Prospero has told Ariel to raise a storm that will shipwreck them upon the isle and allow him to work his revenge.
Stuff that happens during the play
- On the island, the shipwrecked travelers are separated: Alonso, the King, searches for his son Ferdinand, feared drowned; Sebastian plots to kill his brother and usurp the crown of Naples.
- The drunken butler, Stephano, and the jester, Trinculo, are persuaded by Caliban to kill Prospero.
- Ferdinand meets Miranda and they fall in love.
- Prospero sets heavy tasks to test Ferdinand and then presents the young couple with a betrothal masque celebrating chastity and the blessings of marriage.
- Forgiveness, freedom, and a brave new world ensue.
Notes from the Directors
“O, brave new world”
The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last solo effort, and, as such, it gives his career a storybook finish.
The many strands of the play resolve matters with tragic overtones from earlier plays. Above all, Prospero’s relationship with Miranda seems an echo of Lear and Cordelia. With a self-delusion that only a father is capable of, Lear consoles Cordelia – the two of them now prisoners – by rejoicing in the prospect of being confined together. “We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage,” he tells her, oblivious to the fact that no healthy daughter would see that as a fate to be desired.
In The Tempest, Prospero has built the perfect “cage” for him and his daughter, a haven from the ups and downs of outrageous fortune, a place where they can “laugh at gilded butterflies,” an island where he can rule the very weather. What father would want to leave such a place and subject his daughter to reality? The answer this play gives is “a good father.” And Prospero, for all his vanity and arrogance, is a wise and unselfish father because he is willing to release his daughter to reality.
This choice of life over a magical kingdom makes The Tempest an extraordinary affirmation. Like Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, Shakespeare seems to be tying up loose ends and doing so in a work that affirms life.
What makes it a brilliant work of art is that Shakespeare designed the play to show that life is better than theatre – more interesting, more wonderful (Miranda’s name means “wonder). To do that the man who wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antony and Cleopatra had to write a play that entertains us without creating a richer world than the one we actually live in.
He does that by beginning the play in the middle of the “perfect storm.” Here is a boat load of people in the middle of a titanic struggle where life is at its most precious precisely because it seems to be at stake. “Seems to be,” because we find out later that the storm was not the real thing but a kind of Universal Studios ride presided over by some combination of Stephen Spielberg and Walt Disney. Theme parks are not about danger or death; they are just fun.
And the fun has just begun. We will have magic, but not as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the magic is its own force, but magic by a magician who assures of its safe outcome. And we will have fantastic characters like Ariel and Caliban, characters who put Tinkerbell and Mickey in the shade; but the surprise is that they wish they were human. And it turns out that the play’s most famous line – “O, brave new world that has such creatures in it” – is not about Prospero’s island and its supernatural inhabitants. No, those are the words that Miranda speaks when she sees human beings – some good and some flawed – and realizes that the real world, the world beyond her father’s magic park, is full of such people.
Shakespeare had spent his career putting those people into his plays and onto the stage of the Globe and the Blackfriars, and now, at the end of his last play, he puts down his book to join them in the real world. The magic kingdom – even Shakespeare’s magic kingdom – can’t compare.
Ralph Alan Cohen and Joyce peifer