My favorite Shakespeare play has always been A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps because I participated in an abridged performance of it in middle school. The fairies and magic, the humor and impish tricks, the romance and the royalty all make it an ideal introduction of the Bard to the whimsical mind of a child. I do wonder, however, if I had also been exposed to The Tempest if I wouldn’t have been just as infatuated with it, set as it is on a magical island of mystery.
A.T. Quiller-Couch assumes as much in his introduction, reprinted by Calla Editions, claiming that it catches the “fluttering imaginations” of children. “For no other exerts the same instant spell upon a child or unlocks such a doorway into marvels … For the child, Shakespeare in this his closing work becomes a child again. Never, surely, was such a combination of aged, almost weary, wisdom with young-eyed romance.”
As much as I still adore A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I think my allegiance upon reading this later play has shifted. A rich, sophistication lends it an inspiring quality, plunging to great depths in its exploration of the pervading themes. The premise of the play is that Prospero, a magician and the rightful Duke of Milan, was overthrown 12 years before by his usurping younger brother, aided by the King of Naples. Cast out with his young daughter to die from exposure in a small boat, he instead landed on an island enchanted with fairies and magical spirits, whom Prospero soon commands through his powerful arts. The play opens with a great storm of Prospero’s devising seeming to sink a ship carrying, among others, his brother and the King of Naples; they are in actuality all brought in specific, separated groups to the island. The plot unfolds over a period of several hours in which Prospero carefully orchestrates events to lead to his opportunity for revenge.
The two plays do overlap in many ways. Both take the audience to a world of fantasy where divine powers and lithe fairies make sport of earthly fools. Both are wedding-plays, and Danish critic and scholar Georg Brandes notes that the absurdity of Caliban seeing a god in the drunken Trinculo reminds us of Titania’s amorous worship of Bottom. They also both heavily draw upon the ancient Roman mythology found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
It is interesting that these two plays share such thematic elements, if not similar plots, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of Shakespeare’s early works, written when he was 26, and was his first great success. The Tempest, in contrast, was Shakespeare’s swan song, and many regard Prospero as a type of self-portrait — the magician who has dazzled us with displays of wonderment vows to break his staff and drown his magic book at the play’s close, “And thence retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave.”
Brandes writes that like Prospero, Shakespeare at this point in his life “had sacrificed his position to his art, and, like him, he had dwelt upon an enchanted island in the ocean of life. He had been its lord and master, with dominion over spirits, with the spirit of the air as his servant, and the spirit of the earth as his slave. At his will graves had opened, and by his magic art the heroes of the past had lived again.” And in contrast with the midsummer of his earlier work, “everything in the play bespeaks the touch of autumn.”
Most powerful to me was the climax resolving in unexpected forgiveness, both unsolicited and unearned by the story’s villains. “At this hour lie at my mercy all mine enemies,” Prospero observes, but instead of justice, he delivers mercy.
As in all of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest is full of pithy one-liners: “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness;” “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows;” “O brave new world, that has such people in ’t!” This particular edition, published by Calla Editions, contains 40 full-color plates by the great Edmund Dulac, whose penchant for fantasy subjects is ideally suited to envisioning the enchanted island and its strange denizens.