2008: for a Shakespeare seminar
Shakespeare’s development as a Renaissance playwright did not come to a culmination in Macbeth and The Tempest so much as it broke entirely new ground. Macbeth, in its bloody orgy of death, and The Tempest, in the utter avoidance of death, at once celebrate mortality and examine the nature of ruling with eyes of skepticism and belief. Shakespeare in both of these plays is not seeking to convince the reader, but to provoke him.
Macbeth is a play dominated by its title character, death, and darkness. It begins with the dialogue of the witches, whose demonic words would spur to action thoughts already lodged deep and dark in Macbeth’s breast. The play, which does not occur entirely at night, seems so to the reader, so shrouded in mystery, ill thoughts, and castle shadows as it is. This element of night and darkness cannot help but be an element that imprisons Macbeth such that even if he did want to escape his murderous thoughts (which he does not), he could not escape the shroud of the play. This is a shroud that is lit only by the “brief candle” (V.v.23) that lights “the stage” (V.v.25) of life. The play is aptly named as Macbeth pronounces no fewer than one third of the lines in the entire play. The other characters are only peripheral extensions of Macbeth’s own person – Lady Macbeth, an evil conscience urging him on to more evil, Banquo and Macduff, necessarily competing correctives to his own ambition, Fleance and Malcolm/Donalbain, avenging angels of what he knows to be wrong (Duncan’s murder).
The Tempest, while it starts on the same theme of magic as Macbeth, in a storm of Ariel and Prospero’s design, is entirely cast within the daytime. A strange island, as much a character as the many in the ensemble cast that Shakespeare welcomes onstage, is the setting for this settling of old scores. A play without a believable, or at least, a compelling and driving plot, Shakespeare must instead allude to magic, lost kingdoms, young love, and murderous usurping designs. It is out of this sorcerer’s brew that the reader must drink, and perhaps why The Tempest has survived the last 50 years of pointed neocolonial literary interpretation is because it is so much more than Prospero bearing the white man’s burden in civilizing Caliban. In this, arguably one of his last plays, Shakespeare refuses to neatly fall into the patterns he has become accustomed to in the years of Twelfth Night, Henry V, and Hamlet. This is a tragic-comedic island-ic farce of sorts.
It might very well be a farce precisely because of the one-dimensional characters that Shakespeare evokes in the play. They are all types of some kind – Miranda – wonder, Ferdinand – young idealism, Alonso – old betrayal, Antonio and Sebastian – young betrayal, Gonzalo – old loyalty, Caliban – old hatred. The two most real characters are a spirit – Ariel, and Prospero – a man who has gained the ability to raise people from the dead, yet leaves it all behind, the fruit of the labors of his years of exile, to return to governmental duties which he has self-confessed to a lack of interest in [“The government I cast upon my brother” (I.ii.75)]. This enigma wants scanning. Perhaps the clue is in Prospero’s response to Ferdinand upon the interruption of his wedding-play:
…These our actors
(as I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep
If Prospero knows that all things are stuff such as “dreams are made on” then perhaps he wishes to leave the mysterious isle of spirits and return to the Milan of reality, where he will think on death with “every third thought” (V.i.312). Or perhaps he has realized that he has gone too far in the exercise of spirits by raising bodies from the dead, a power reserved to God, and knows that escape from the island is the only way that he might escape the clutch of the conjuring arts. Shakespeare shrouds a certainty of interpretation in the mists that surround this island.
There is no lack of certainty regarding Macbeth and his actions throughout the play. Macbeth, as brilliant in his prose as perhaps any other Shakespeare character, provides luminosity throughout the dark play. Though his words shine with a dark and evil light, still yet do they shine and light us unto his purpose, never blunted, ever whetted, and ever clear. The end is clear to the reader in the beginning, for the ordered universe of Scotland, unlike the uncertain universe of Prospero’s island, will have order restored, and not at the command of a sorcerer, but by the sword of an avenger. That is perhaps why audience response to Macbeth is so much more predictable than audience response to The Tempest. Macbeth himself says that “blood will have blood” (III.v.121) and we know that the violation of trust by a close ally, nay a kinsman even, will only be answered in blood, and yet in the ending of the play there is no consolation, only recognition that bloody, deviant tyranny is not immortal. This clear interpretation, as discussed above, is missing from The Tempest because Shakespeare deliberately obscures it.
The slight comedy provided in both these plays flows almost as water in a desert – it is readily seized upon, and too soon gone. The sole foray into comedy in Macbeth is the scene between the Porter and Macduff in Act II, Scene III. In a nod to the Gunpowder Plot, which occurred in the same year as Macbeth was written, in which the Jesuitical device of equivocation was used by the conspirators, Shakespeare uses the comedy of the Porter to expose the equivocation of Macbeth for what it is: a lie. The Porter wisely delivers this sensibility to Macduff, who would not seize upon the consequences for two more acts. In The Tempest, there are several instances of humor, including the Trinculo/Stephano/Caliban confusion and worship, the tête-à-têtes between Prospero and Ariel (revealing and funny in their own right), and the character of Gonzalo, functioning here as the Old Shepherd of The Winter’s Tale, who in his giving of provisions to Prospero and Miranda has enabled the entire tale to be told. Here Shakespeare manages to pluck comedy out of tragedy, and add to the ambiguity and equivocation of the island of Prospero – an equivocation which acts as a life saver in The Tempest, in contrast to the equivocation that enables the death of kings and nobles in Macbeth.
While Macbeth as a play is consonant with Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Henry V, among others, The Tempest defies a true corollary in Shakespeare’s work. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often seen by critics as a companion piece –but there is too much true comedy, character development, and satisfaction of resolution in that play to bear a fair resemblance. If Macbeth, in seeking the crown, found himself crushed by rightful order, as Richard II, much less cruel and much more clumsy, similarly did, Prospero leaves the order of his island for the disorder of “regular” human existence in Milan. Shakespeare leaves us in these masterpieces testaments of order (Macbeth) and question of order (The Tempest). If he is imaging himself in the breaking of Prospero’s staff, he is relinquishing control, real or supposed, over the order of the play-cum-life and leaves the reader with a view of naked chaos.
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