In The Tempest, the lordly Prospero, formerly known as the Duke of Milan, is marooned on a miserable island with his daughter as his only human company. He also has Caliban, a growling subhuman whose function it is, apparently, to gather firewood, and the sprite Ariel, who he inherited from the island’s former occupant — a witch who he overthrew. Notwithstanding, he has power over all time and space. He can cause the seas to rage; he can put people to sleep and make them do his bidding; he can command his sprite to turn invisible and cause mischief and, not to put too fine a point on it, he can give people crabs.
His backstory is that many years ago, when he was Duke, he delegated most of his civic power and responsibility to his brother Antonio (or sister Antonia; it doesn’t matter) because he found his studies to be more interesting. After a while, his sibling, preferring to rule in name as well as in fact, conspired with the King of Naples to boot him out and exile him to his present unpleasant digs. It is unknown why Prospero, having subsequently become a Master of the Universe, did not charter an ocean cruiser (using mental telepathy, or somesuch), go back to Milan, and, aided by spirits from the vasty deep, kick some Antonio butt.
But he didn’t. Instead, he lures a boat carrying the Duke, the King, and the King’s evil sibling (along with Prospero’s innocent friend Gonzalo and the King’s son Ferdinand, for some reason) close to his island, and thereupon lashes it with storms and causes it to be shipwrecked. He then proceeds to slap his enemies around, using invisible hands; causing them to fall asleep at inopportune moments; haunting them with ginormous meals brought by scary spirits; and duck-walking them from one end of the island to the other. Then, for unknown reasons, when he has them at his mercy he decides to forgive them. Also, to have dinner with them. Also, to surrender his supernatural powers and go back to assume his rightful place in Milan, assuming a job he never seemed to want in the first place, using for transport a boat which was formerly shipwrecked (I hope the crew is all right.) Also, his daughter decides to marry Ferdinand, the first human male she has ever seen who is not her father. Prospero’s OK with that.
The Greeks, in their theater, often set the gods against men. And the men were, shall we say, at a disadvantage. But our rooting interest, then and now, are with the humans. We hope throughout the production that the humans, who are flawed but good, like us, will find a way to prevail against the implacable gods, or at least to appease them.
The Tempest is different. Prospero, despite his arrogance, is the good guy. His enemies are fools and knaves. We must root for him, and we know at every moment that he — yawn — will triumph.
You see where I’m going with this. The Tempest is a terrible play. Prospero, larded with godlike powers and arrogant as hell, overmatches every other character. There is simply no conflict. The King’s drunk butler Stefano and Trinculo, another reprobate, join forces with Caliban against Prospero, but you know in an instant how that’s going to end up; there’s no more suspense in it than in the Harlem Globetrotters taking on the Washington Generals. I believe that were it not for the special circumstances surrounding it, we would include The Tempest along with Coriolanus, Timon of Athens and similar Shakespearian riff-raff.
The special circumstances are, of course, that it was Shakespeare’s last play — or at least the last play he wrote by himself. And critics and scholars thus see it as a valedictory for Shakespeare’s own life as an artist. The artist, having created and destroyed worlds with his pen, raised Kings and brought them low, caused lovers to come together and fly apart, now breaks his quill as Prospero buries his staff, and takes up a comfortable retirement, perhaps as a duke somewhere.
But — so what? If Shakespeare announced his retirement with The Tempest in 1611, it would have been big news for his many fans. It is less so in 2018, especially since the Bard has been dead for four hundred and two years, more or less. If he thought of his art as high magic, what of it? So do most of us, whether we be lawyers or theater critics or golf pros.
What we in the audience crave is conflict, not autobiography — the protagonist against a powerful and implacable foe, with the stakes high and very much in doubt. Our own lives are full of such conflict — will I make this sale? will I perform this contract on time? is my spouse losing interest in me? — and we go to theater to see characters confront these and other conflicts, and fail or prevail.
On the other hand, Prospero, lord of all he sees, has no worthy foe and no doubts.
But when I saw The Tempest at WSC Avant Bard — I went as a civilian, Jeff Walker having written this astute review — I saw a different take on Prospero, and it made me think about the play in a different way. As Christopher Henley plays him, Prospero is a mess: disorganized, prone to panic, subject to fits of coughing. He is also a rageaholic — infuriated, of course, at his treacherous sister and her allies, but also at his miserable slave Caliban, and even his loyal servant Ariel when that creature asks about the freedom he had long promised. And his daughter Miranda! My God, her bourgeoning curiosity about life beyond the island (and about sex!) might make him explode.
When Ferdinand, the King’s son, meets and falls in love with Miranda, Prospero is stern and demanding. He condemns Ferdinand to hard and degrading labor — to work which had hitherto been reserved for Caliban. When Ferdinand uncomplainingly complies, and when Miranda not only continues to love him but rolls up her sleeves to share in the labor, Prospero reverses himself. He was only testing Ferdinand, he assures the young Prince. In most of the productions I’ve seen I take it at face value; Lord Prospero exercises his right to judge his daughter’s suitors. In Henley’s embarrassed, hangdog take I see something else: a father who tried to shake his daughter loose from the man she loves, failed, and now abjectly admits defeat with an implausible excuse.
This Prospero, thus, may control the spirits of the vasty deep, but his self-control is extremely limited. It is evident that he is no wizard hatching a grand plot. He’s making this up on the fly. And all of a sudden, we have suspense. Of course, Prospero can smash his enemies. The question is, will he smash himself in the process?
And thus, instantly, we have conflict: Prospero vs. Prospero. It is the human conflict: pretending to powers we don’t have, and misusing the powers that we do. It is the conflict of great drama, whether it is Long Day’s Journey into Night, or Death of a Salesman, or even Hamlet. It is the same way for most of us, whether we have powers over the vasty deep, or only over the happiness of our children. Prospero struggles against his worst instincts, as do all of us. The worst instincts usually win; so it is with us.
But when they don’t, it’s a matter of wonder. There is a scene toward the end of the play in which Ariel expresses sympathy for Prospero’s enemies, laid low as they are from Prospero’s magic. Prospero marvels at the fact that the inhuman Ariel can experience empathy, where he, though human, cannot. And at that moment Prospero has his singular insight, which turns his life around: although he himself is at present incapable of empathy, he must act as though he has empathy for others, and, over time, learn to acquire it. And to do so, he must give up his god-like powers, and take his share in the human heart.
The Tempest is the Shakespeare production most subject to directorial innovation. An Aaron Posner-directed version at the Folger a couple of years ago had Stefano and Trinculo represented by hand puppets operated by Caliban. Julie Taymor’s film version turns Prospero into a woman (played by Helen Mirren); Peter Greenaway’s version had Prospero (John Gielgud) be not only in The Tempest but the author of The Tempest. WSC Avant Bard is not immune to this sort of tinkering; they have changed the gender of Prospero’s treacherous brother and the equally treacherous brother of the King of Naples, and Ariel is played by three actors. But the most important innovation they have done is to find the play’s human heart and march it front and center, giving us a Prospero who is not lofty and powerful, but flawed and fallible, like us.