I meant to post this ages ago, when I taught The Tempest this fall. However, I simply couldn’t seem to find time to blog. Forging forth in the new year –
Reading The Tempest, I was struck by a line at the end, where Gonzolo relates how order is restored and everyone (almost, but I’ll get to that later) finds his or her true place “in a poor isle; and all of us ourselves / When no man was his own.” (V. i. 212-213) I had a shock of recognition: of course, this is one of the primary themes of the play. The telling articulates what’s already shown through the action of the story.
During the first event in the play, readers encounter the out-of-time, disrupted setting. The ship of the King of Naples sails into a storm and ends up ruined, its crew and passengers scattered across an island. We discover later that the tempest wasn’t due to nature, but instead was created by Ariel, an airy spirit who performs deeds for a man, Prospero. Ariel seems beholden to Prospero, but not entirely enslaved by him. Like Puck, of Midsummer Night’s Dream, he has his own logic and cares, though unlike Puck, he has grace and grandeur. So, because of Ariel, Prospero, and the storm, readers see the island is a magical place of spirits, unlike, presumably, Naples or other mundane regions. It also is large enough that the passengers and crew wander without finding each other. It is surrounded by a vast ocean, which the people can travel but not tame.
On the island, Prospero is a man “not himself” in several ways. He once was the Duke of Milan, but his brother’s people set him in a ruined boat with his then young daughter Miranda, and once he was gone, this brother usurped his position, becoming the Duke of Milan. For 12 years, Prospero has ruled the island instead of Milan, bringing up the now 15-year-old Miranda and ordering about Ariel and Caliban. He also is not-himself when he encounters Ferdinand, one of those from the wrecked ship and the son of the King of Naples. Prospero guesses that Miranda and Ferdinand won’t fall in love, unless he forbids them from seeing each other. And so he pretends to be an obstacle to their immediate mutual affection. Through this pretense he succeeds in coupling his daughter to the King’s heir.
The royals wandering the island are not themselves, because they lack control and authority. They don’t have the resources or allies they’re used to. Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples, falls in love with Miranda, and encounters disapproval rather than encouragement from Prospero – certainly not what the heir to Naples might expect during courtship. He must work to win Miranda, a girl without, to his knowledge, claim to property or power outside of the island.
Caliban is the most troubling figure, as is his “not himself” role. Before the play’s opening, he lost his position as heir to the island, because of Prospero’s arrival. He is Prospero’s slave or servant, but unlike Ariel, he is an earthy creature without cleverness or grace. Over the course of the play, he allies himself with royal schemers, to gain revenge on Prospero. His new allies call him ‘monster’, but the alliance is his opportunity to make a choice, to wield an independent will. However, he chooses the illegitimate, and losing, side. Troublingly, he is a character who ends up saying of himself: “What a thrice-double ass / Was I to take this drunkard for a god / And worship this dull fool.” His pretense was to try to and act like a man rather than serve one, and in the end he sees his “true” self as a degraded creature, an ass.
In The Tempest, the action shows the players finding themselves while they’re lost. Without the action, the lines – “in a poor isle; and all of us ourselves / When no man was his own” – are simply a writer “telling” an abstract idea. With the action, with the “showing” writers so often discuss, the words are more than “telling”, they’re revelation.Reading– The Tempest could be paired with Swift’s “A Modern Proposal” to inspire a discussion on conquest and colonization. Reading both with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or a variety of stories from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven could lead to discussions about the historical and cultural results of colonialism. Discussions of Alexie’s work, in conjunction with The Tempest, also could inspire examinations of ways leaving your community and becoming “not yourself” might lead simultaneously to loss and gain of true self.
Writing – A number of books on craft discuss showing and telling. For high school students, try “Indirect Narration, or What Tells” in Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Adult and advanced students could try Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. Both titles offer writing exercises.
Writing Prompt – When have you become more yourself – who you really are – by temporarily becoming somebody or something other than yourself?