If you have just three weeks to get as much as you can out of Shakespeare, then you either want to see or be in The Tempest, which is the last play Shakespeare wrote by himself and one of the only plays he ever wrote for which he himself invented the plot. That is not to say, however, that the play is entirely new. I don’t believe it is. Instead, I think Shakespeare uses The Tempest to revisit all of his favorite stories, characters, and themes from throughout his career. In the same way that modern television shows will sometimes do a series retrospective, Shakespeare shows us, in a remarkably short play, many of the things that made him a star.
Take, for instance, the opening scene. Shakespeare begins his very last solo play with a chaotic storm and shipwreck at sea. He also began what many consider his very first solo play, The Comedy of Errors, with a man whose plight is directly related to (you guessed it): a storm at sea. Shakespeare revisits the shipwreck idea again in Twelfth Night and Pericles, but in the The Tempest, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to create the storm. He calls for it most obviously with the stage direction “A tempestuous noise of Thunder and Lightning heard,” suggesting the use of sound effects to create wind and rain, but he also manifests the storm through his mastery of language, which shows quick jumps in dialogue, high stakes fear, and the lower class characters’ complete abandonment of respect for the social order. The creation of special effects through language serves Shakespeare in other plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale, and Macbeth. What I love most about the storm scene that opens The Tempest is that it can only be achieved in the playhouse through a spectacular team effort. If you’ll forgive the pun, all hands must be on deck to produce this chaotic wizardry. To me, that is very much what ASCTC is all about: working incredibly hard as a unit to produce something that truly dazzles people.
Since I mentioned Macbeth, I’d like to draw attention to two of the ambitious plotters of our story, Antonio and Sebastian. They are both clearly capable of treachery and have already engaged in such behavior prior to the play’s beginning, but their relationship shows a need for further coaxing towards murder. Such killer-coaxing is introduced as early as 2 Henry VI with Gloucester and his wife Eleanor, then elevated to greater fame with Macbeth and his Lady. Again we see a theme and character dynamic that Shakespeare clearly enjoyed writing, and The Tempest revisits it, though the play shows us a very different outcome.
Shakespeare parodies Antonio and Sebastian’s murderous ambition within the same play by having a drunken butler, Stephano, and his similarly inebriated cohort, Trinculo, plot to murder Prospero. The idea of a pair of clownish characters is certainly present in The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but the dynamic of Stephano and Triculo reminds me most of the drunken sots Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. They are funny, if not too terribly bright, and they are led on in their mischief with the help of Maria. In The Tempest, however, our loutish lushes are led on by Caliban, a native creature of the island. Rather than Twelfth Night, I think Caliban hearkens back to the play that made Shakespeare famous, Richard III. Both Caliban and our favorite crookback killer are misshapen, both harbor murderous thoughts, both have odd relationships with their mothers, and both are mocked for their “inhuman” appearance and apparent lack of place in the order of things.
In addition to the plays I already mentioned, The Tempest also invokes themes from King Lear, Hamlet, Cymbeline, and many more. Just take a look at this speech from the last scene:
I have bedimm’d the noontide sun,
Shakespeare does this any time he sets a scene at night. His plays, like ours at ASCTC will be, were often performed during the day; it is through language and connection with the audience that he achieves this “magical” feat.
call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar:
As I mentioned earlier, Shakespeare conjured these storms in many plays to bring about terror, joy, and sometimes the combination of both.
graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art.
Pericles, Brutus, Hamlet, Leontes, and Macbeth will all attest to Shakespeare’s power to do this. This passage is one of my favorites in the speech because it is so blatantly about other plays! Nowhere in The Tempest does a character die and return, but Shakespeare is keen to remind us that he does possess such a power.
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.
Music is magic. Shakespeare makes use of this device over and over. Music accompanies the loss of Antony’s heroic spirit, the reviving of both Hermione and Imogen, and the entrance of all manner of spirits, both good and evil. Music and sound are incredibly important to The Tempest, and I look forward to exploring all the magic we can mine.
Finally, despite all of the magic contained in The Tempest, a healthy and sometimes frightening dose of reality serves as a counterbalance. As many of us know, that reality is not always easy to swallow. For all the love, loyalty, and friendship that life offers, it also guarantees us loss, mistakes, grief, and regret. However, to wish all that negativity away or to hide ourselves from it is to negate exactly what it is to be human: to make choices and live with them None of us are perfect, and neither is anyone in the play. The Tempest shows us as we are: scared, violent, ambitious, and proud, but it also shows us what we CAN be: forgiving, humble, loving, and free. All any of us can do is try to be better than we were yesterday.
What an appropriate sentiment to embrace before undertaking a theatrical production! Let go of pettiness, remember who you are, work hard, and try to be better every day. I will do my best to just that. I hope you’ll join me.
Benjamin Curns (Director of The Tempest) has worked with American Shakespeare Center Theatre Camp in many different capacities. He has directed two pre-show performances and four productions (Othello, All’s Well That Ends Well, 2 Henry IV, and The Winter’s Tale); he has taught workshops in both speaking verse and knife-fighting for the stage; and, he has served as fight director for Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, and the alumni camp production of Macbeth. As an actor, he has appeared in dozens of ASC productions and played the title roles in Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Henry VIII. He looks forward to directing Much Ado About Nothing for ASC’s touring troupe later this summer.