Donderslagen en bliksemflitsen verlichten een zwellende zee, terwijl een schip onder de golven knikt. Het is geen gewone storm, maar een gewelddadige en wraakzuchtige storm en het vormt het toneel voor het meest raadselachtige toneelstuk van Shakespeare. Waarom resoneert dit toneelstuk ook vandaag de dag nog met lezers? Iseult Gillespie onderzoekt het.
Claps of thunder and flashes of lightning illuminate a swelling sea, as a ship buckles beneath the waves. This is no ordinary storm, but a violent and vengeful tempest, and it sets the stage for Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play. As the skies clear, we are invited into a world that seems far removed from our own, but is rife with familiar concerns about freedom, power, and control.
The Tempest is set on a desert island, exposed to the elements and ruled with magic and might by Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan. Betrayed by his brother Antonio, Prospero has been marooned on the island for twelve years with his daughter Miranda and his beloved books. In this time he’s learned the magic of the island and uses it to harness its elementary spirits. He also rules over the island’s only earthly inhabitant, the dejected and demonized Caliban.
But after years of plotting revenge, Prospero’s foe is finally in sight. With the help of the fluttering sprite Ariel, the magician destroys his brother’s ship and washes its sailors ashore. Prospero’s plotting even extends to his daughter’s love life, whom he plans to fall for stranded prince Ferdinand. And as Prospero and Ariel close in on Antonio, Caliban joins forces with some drunken sailors, who hatch a comic plot to take the island.
The play strips society down to its basest desires, with each faction in hot pursuit of power- be it over the land, other people, or their own destiny. But Shakespeare knows that power is always a moving target; and as he reveals these characters’ dark histories, we begin to wonder if this vicious cycle will ever end.
Although Prospero was wronged by Antonio, he has long inflicted his own abuses on the island, hoarding its magical properties and natural re-sources for himself. Caliban especially resents this takeover. The son of Sycorax, a witch who previously ruled the island, he initially helped the exiles find their footing. But he’s since become their slave, and rants with furious regret: “And then I loved thee,/ And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle/ The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile./ Cursed be I that did so!”
With his thunderous language and seething anger, Caliban constantly reminds Prospero of what came before: this island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, Which thou takest from me. Yet Sycorax also abused the island, and imprisoned Ariel until Prospero released him. Now Ariel spends the play hoping to repay his debt and earn his freedom, while Caliban is enslaved indefinitely, or at least as long as Prospero is in charge.
For these reasons and many more, The Tempest has often been read as an exploration of colonialism, and the moral dilemmas that come with en-counters of “brave new world(s).” Questions of agency and justice hang over the play: is Caliban the rightful master of the land? Will Ariel flutter free? And is Prospero the mighty overseer- or is there some deeper magic at work, beyond any one character’s grasp?
Throughout the play, Ariel constantly reminds Prospero of the freedom he is owed. But the question lingers of whether the invader will be able to relinquish his grip. The question of ending one’s reign is particularly potent given that The Tempest is believed to be Shakespeare’s final play. In many ways Prospero’s actions echo that of the great entertainer him-self, who hatched elaborate plots, maneuvered those around him, and cast a spell over characters and audience alike.
But by the end of his grand performance of power and control, Prospero’s final lines see him humbled by his audience – and the power that they hold over his creations. “With the help of your good hands./ Gentle breath of yours my sails/ Must fill or else my project fails,/ Which was to please.” This evokes Shakespeare’s own role as the great entertainer who surrenders himself, ultimately, to our applause.