Aspects of the Early Modern Fantastic in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. 2.

[This is the second part of a paper I gave this week at the University of St Andrews. The first part considered some general approaches to the early modern fantastic. The second part considers Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an example of what might happen if we applied the modern concept of fantasy to an early modern work of art.]

Giorgione, The Tempest (c. 1508)

The Tempest is set on a non-existent island like More’s Utopia, which combines characteristics of the East and West Indies with the epic resonances of the Mediterranean islands. It’s a secondary world, then, which can’t be placed by conventional means; we are given no help in locating it on the global map. Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, reached it in a boat without sail or oar, like a medieval saint. The men who banished him arrived there twelve years later in a more conventional vessel, steered in that direction by the agency of Christian Providence, or pagan Fortune, or Prospero’s magic, we never know exactly which. Our ignorance, even by the end of the play, of the precise mechanisms by which any of these people reached the island makes the story look like modern fantasy. Science fiction would invite us to speculate as to how it was done, while Shakespeare only asks that we consider the strangeness of the eventuality, and the equal strangeness of the nameless place where they come together.

On the island, the usual rules of the world as we know them no longer apply. The laws of nature don’t obtain: water doesn’t moisten clothing, salt doesn’t stain, dead men come back to life, old pagan myths and folkloric superstitions turn out to be true, in open defiance of the English sceptic Reginald Scot. Social rules, too, get flouted. Sailors dismiss the commands of their royal passengers, servants become kings, slaves liberate themselves, political and poetic thoughts keep surfacing at awkward moments, sometimes articulated by commoners in blank verse, sometimes expressed by slaves in song or story. All these things violate decorum, the theatrical convention whereby the social elite get to think, speak, act and even dream in a more exalted fashion than their inferiors. In these ways, too, the work plays out like modern fantasy fiction, which makes up new rules or revives old ones in the interests of representing alternative ways of living never encountered in the historical record, though often yearned for.

Isabelle Pasco as Miranda, John Gielgud as Prospero

The play makes much, too, of the mechanics of storytelling. It begins, after the initial flurry of attention-grabbing special effects that evoke the tempest of the title, with an old man settling down to tell his daughter a story. Further stories get told in the course of it, or acted out by supernatural performers, and it ends with the promise of further stories still, told over several nights like the traditional winter’s tales of an English Yuletide. The stories are as full of wonders as any traveller’s lying narrative or old wives’ tale; yet some of them, at least, get supported by the empirical testimony of the listeners’ senses. Impossibilities become possible within the island’s limits, persuading even hardened cynics to keep an open mind about the extravagant anecdotes they may have heard in the past or may hear in future.

In its hospitality to wonders Shakespeare’s island recalls the Fairy Land of Spenser, Sidney’s Arcadia or More’s Utopia; but where it differs from those other non-existent places is in the extent to which its ownership and identity are contested, as if in mimicry of war-torn Europe or the lands and trade routes throughout the world over which the European powers were also squabbling. The island’s namelessness is a symptom of its contested ownership. A name would give it specific cultural and historical associations; instead it is firmly marginal, set beyond the borders of the known or spoken, the mapped or painted. Many of its occupants arrived there against their will, by compulsion or chance: the pregnant Sycorax, banished for witchcraft from Algiers; Duke Prospero, a political exile from Milan, with his infant daughter; a load of shipwrecked Neapolitans. As a result, the play that contains the island presents itself as an excursion to the periphery, an unplanned trip to a strange location something like Sidney’s journey of discovery into the world of poetry or fiction as he describes it in the Apology. Sidney claims in his essay that he never meant to be a poet, summing up his leisure-time literary activities as an ‘unelected vocation’, which suggests a certain transgressiveness about them, since they represent a time-consuming departure from the more serious work in the world for which he was divinely ‘elected’ by a Calvinist God (though of course the term ‘unelected’ could just as easily mean simply ‘unchosen’ or ‘inadvertent’).[1] In the same way, Prospero became a scholar-magician by accident rather than design. As a young man he dedicated himself to his books at the expense of his dukedom, expecting the country to run itself – or rather, expecting his brother to run the country – and then thoroughly outraged when that same brother made himself popular enough to raise a ‘treacherous army’ strong enough to oust him from the throne (1.2.128).[2] Prospero’s exile was an effect of clashing perspectives: the Duke’s assumption that he was the natural born ruler of Milan, and his brother’s that running the country gave him the right to rule it as well, a perspective the Milanese people seem to have shared.

Michael Clark as Caliban

Accordingly, the island too is a place where perspectives clash. For Prospero the place represents a sign that ‘Providence divine’ (1.2.159) shares his opinion as to how badly he has been treated, and that it will support him in regaining his inheritance – a perspective that seems to be confirmed by the arrival off its shores of his brother and the man who helped him seize the dukedom, the King of Naples. For the sole surviving native of the island, Caliban, on the other hand, Prospero is as much of a usurper as Prospero’s brother was for Prospero. And as the ship’s occupants land in scattered groups on the island’s shore, each group takes a different view of who should rule it and how it should be ruled. A single perspective on the appropriate government or governor for this particular patch of ground simply doesn’t exist; and this of course casts doubt on Prospero’s claim to have a unique arrangement with Providence that his hereditary rights will be restored to him.

For one thing, Providence is a Christian concept and there are competing religious affiliations on the island. Caliban worships Setebos, and is still worshipping that god in the final act when he swears to ‘be wise hereafter, / And sue for grace’ (what, I wonder, might the ‘grace of Setebos’ consist of?) (5.1.294-5). At one point Caliban takes Stephano for a god, but returns to his old faith when Stephano fails him. Prospero himself repeatedly links his magic art with varieties of paganism: ‘bountiful Fortune’ (1.2.178), who may or may not be the same as Providence; the Greek and Roman gods he invokes in the masque he puts on for Ferdinand and Miranda, deities whose blessings (and potential curses if the pair disobey his ‘hests’) he evidently expects will have a material effect on the young couple; rural English folkloric beliefs in the ‘elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves’ (5.1.33). Meanwhile other people on the island can imagine other theological arrangements. The spirit Ariel describes himself and his fellow spirits as ‘ministers of Fate’ (3.3.61), which he puts in the hands of what he calls the ‘powers’ (3.3.73) – perhaps again the classical gods, since he is disguised at this point as a classical Harpy, though their namelessness makes them a kind of placeholder for whatever deities you choose to put there. And Miranda sees her father Prospero as a deity. When she thinks he has sunk the ship and drowned its crew she tells him:

          had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth, or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed, and
The fraughting souls within her. (1.2.10-13)

Her implied recognition of her father as a ‘god of power’ here is importantly qualified by her ability to imagine herself in his position, with the same magical abilities; and this capacity of people to imagine themselves as other people, and in particular as other people of power, is precisely what led to the supplanting of Prospero by his brother as Duke of Milan, and what threatens to supplant him on his island.[3]

Mark Quartley as Ariel

The same capacity to imagine himself as someone else is shared by Prospero’s slave-spirit, Ariel. When he reports the impact of Prospero’s magic on the human castaways from the ship he tells his master that ‘Your charm so strongly works ’em / That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender’; and when Prospero asks ‘Dost thou think so, spirit?’ Ariel replies ‘Mine would, sir, were I human’ (5.1.17-20). Ariel, then, here balances Miranda at the beginning of the play, who visualized herself as a godlike alternative Prospero; though the spirit whose power the magician exploits doesn’t see him as godlike. For Ariel, Prospero is human, and the question of who is human in the play – Caliban is variously referred to as beast, devil or man – opens up a range of other perspectives as to the possibilities available to the occupants of Shakespeare’s island. If Prospero is neither a god nor the darling of a Christian Providence then he can claim no divine sanction for what he is doing; his dream of avenging the perceived wrong done to him becomes a personal fantasy, a quirk or daydream, which would be on a par with everyone else’s daydreams if it weren’t for the power he wields – which is itself entirely dependent on the powers of the slave-spirit Ariel.

The capacity of characters to imagine themselves taking each other’s places becomes increasingly apparent as the play goes on. In many cases, as with Prospero’s brother Antonio and Caliban, their claim to have the right to take someone else’s place is pretty good. Caliban’s foiled attempt to rape Miranda is an example; it’s a bid to confirm his claim to the island by ‘peopling’ it with his offspring, begotten on the body of the only child of the colonial oppressor (1.2.352-3). In this it directly equates to Prospero’s plans to regain his power in Italy through his daughter’s marriage to Ferdinand, son and heir to the King of Naples. The difference, of course, is that Miranda is in love with Ferdinand (something Prospero may have engineered with his charms), whereas she never saw Caliban as a potential sexual partner. But what would have happened if she had not been in love with the Neapolitan prince? In that case she might have found herself in the position of Alonso’s daughter Claribel, who was married to the King of Tunis against her will (this is the traitor Sebastian’s assertion, but no one denies it). Forced marriage is rape, so Caliban’s intention to rape Miranda could well have been a behaviour he has imbibed from the values of his Italian tutors. He did it because he imagined himself in Prospero’s place as king of the island, with heirs enough to found a dynasty. The ‘darkness’ of Caliban’s nature, as Prospero calls it in the final act (5.1.275), reflects the darkness of Prospero’s – just as Miranda’s perception of Caliban may well have been based on her father’s view of him.

Ferdinand and Ariel, by Sir John Everett Millais (1850)

Other characters who legitimately imagine themselves in the positions of others include young Ferdinand, Alonso’s heir, who on arriving at the island believes his father to be dead and so assumes the title King of Naples. Ariel encourages this inadvertent usurpation by singing him a song about his father’s corpse – ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’ – which imagines the royal body being supplanted or replaced by submarine wildlife: ‘Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange’ (5.2.399-404). Yet Prospero, who put Ariel up to this exercise in misdirection, pretends to believe that Ferdinand has committed an act of treason in claiming the Neapolitan crown. He enslaves him as he enslaved Caliban and Ariel, and in the process again casts doubt on the validity of his own claims to stand for justice, whether human or divine.

Stephano (centre), Trinculo and Caliban, by Johann Heinrich Ramberg (early 19th century)

More surprisingly, Stephano the drunken butler has an excellent claim to imagine himself king of the island when we first meet him. Like Ferdinand he assumes that the rest of the crew were drowned in the tempest of the opening scene; and after drinking from his bottle – itself serving as a replacement for the Bible that confirms a subject’s oath of allegiance and a monarch’s obligation to serve the people (‘kiss the book’, 2.2.131) – the legitimate ruler of the island, Caliban, swears fealty to him. So Stephano’s statement at the end of his first scene in the play, ‘Trinculo, the King and all our company else being drowned, we will inherit here’ (2.2.174-5), has a far stronger mandate than Prospero’s claim to be monarch of Caliban’s country. In addition, his rule is far more egalitarian. He begins by thinking of enslaving Caliban, just as Prospero did; but he quickly sets Caliban free and begins to elevate him in his commonwealth, first to the position of his ‘lieutenant’ (3.2.14), who will not be allowed to ‘suffer indignity’ (3.2.35), and then to his ‘viceroy’ (3.2.106), whose status equals that of Trinculo, and whose title puts him next in line to the king himself (a viceroy takes the king’s place at official functions, becoming him, so to speak, when he is unavailable). Ironically, it’s only Prospero’s belongings that break up this miniature utopia of liberated servants, and their quasi-egalitarian philosophy remains undamaged by their humiliation and capture. In Act III they sing a round declaring that ‘Thought is free’ (3.2.121) – whose ribald primary sense doesn’t mask its political application;[4] while in the final act Stephano is still proclaiming his commitment to social equality: ‘Every man shift for all the rest, and let no man care for himself; for all is but fortune. Coragio, bully-monster, coragio!’ (5.1.256-8). Prospero’s repeated promises of freedom to his slave spirit Ariel – whose implementation gets deferred till after the play’s ending – sound profoundly unconvincing by comparison.

Chris Cooper as Antonio, Alan Cumming as Sebastian

The most extended meditation on imaginative replacement of others occurs in Act 2 scene 1, where we first meet Prospero’s usurpers – Alonso, Antonio, Alonso’s brother Sebastian – along with his benefactor, Gonzalo. In this scene Gonzalo playfully imagines himself as the replacement king of the island, inadvertently deposing Caliban and Prospero from power in his mental exercise as well as his monarch, Alonso, and that monarch’s next of kin (Ferdinand, Claribel, Sebastian). Like Stephano’s, Gonzalo’s lighthearted act of treason enables a utopian alternative island to form temporarily in the mind’s eye of the audience, a place where ‘All things in common Nature should produce / Without sweat or endeavour […] To feed my innocent people’ (2.1.155-60). Sebastian and Antonio mock the inconsistency of Gonzalo’s fantastic commonwealth, since like Stephano he plans to be king of this egalitarian paradise, but their scorn may also stem from the fact that their own views on supplanting other rulers have no truck with equality. As Antonio seeks to persuade Sebastian to kill his brother in his sleep – imaginatively replacing the king’s sleeping body with a dead one – he points out how he himself has flourished since replacing his brother: ‘look how well my garments sit upon me, / Much feater than before. My brother’s servants / Were then my fellows; now they are my men’ (2.1.267-9). In this their views on governance are close to Prospero’s, who never seems to have thought to make his fellow human beings coequals with him in his new home; and like Prospero they take themselves to be the darlings of a Fortune who has given them the opportunity to make their imaginings real by putting Alonso and his lords to sleep, leaving them at the mercy of the would-be usurpers’ blades.

Tom Conti as Gonzalo

It’s in this scene, Act 2 scene 1, that the island seems first to be identified as a fantastic space, where the impossible is made real. Interestingly, its most fantastic property is that it can be seen in such radically different ways by different people; in other words it’s a contested imaginative location from the very beginning. For Gonzalo and the young courtier Adrian it’s a lush paradise ‘of subtle, tender and delicate temperance’ (2.1.41-2), where clothes miraculously dry shortly after immersion, while for Antonio and Sebastian it’s a marshy desert and their clothes remain soaked and salt-encrusted. Interestingly, there’s no way of knowing whether the two factions of courtiers are really having different experiences; it’s perfectly possible that Gonzalo and Adrian are only claiming the island is pleasant to cheer up the king, or that Antonio is exaggerating the wretched state of his clothes. But in describing the island as paradisal Gonzalo is exercising the prerogative of poets, as Sidney saw them: makers of fictions whose imaginings could bear substantial fruit in the conduct of those who listened to them. One such poet was the classical musician Amphion, who raised the walls of Thebes with the power of his music; and Gonzalo’s earlier imaginative transformation of Tunis, where Claribel’s recent marriage took place, into the legendary city of Carthage (he tells Adrian that the two places were the same) changes a disastrous liaison into the promise of future cultural glory (Carthage was both a great civilization in itself and a staging post on the road to the founding of Rome). In doing so, Antonio and Sebastian claim, he accomplishes miracles greater even than Amphion’s elevation of the walls of Thebes:

Antonio: His word is more than the miraculous harp.
Sebastian: He hath raised the walls, and houses too.
Antonio: What impossible matter will he make easy next?
Sebastian: I think he will carry this island home in his pocket, and give it his son for an apple.
Antonio: And, sowing the kernels of it in the sea, bring forth more islands. (2.1.83-9)

The vision of further paradisal, temperate islands springing up all over the ocean reaffirms Sidney’s conviction that the poet could change the world by summoning up attractive impossibilities. This impression is only reinforced when Gonzalo goes on to imagine the island as a political utopia. For Protestants, the age of miracles is over; but for Sidney the best secular poets may have taken on the mantle of the Catholic miracle-workers, and Gonzalo’s view of Prospero’s atoll as a place where poetic wonders can be made real seems to be confirmed by subsequent events.

This happens in a number of ways. First, Miranda discovers in the castaway Ferdinand the ideal man she has always dreamed of:

          I would not wish
Any companion in the world but you,
Nor can imagination form a shape,
Besides yourself, to like of. (3.1.54-7)

This is hardly surprising, as Prospero points out, given her lack of experience; but the more experienced Ferdinand shares her view that he has met an ideal human being: ‘you, O you, /So perfect and so peerless, are created / Of every creature’s best’ (3.1.46-8). Both Ferdinand and Miranda, in other words, each fulfil the function of poetry according to Sidney, in offering the reader an ideal by which to be stirred to emulation. Again, this exchange could be dismissed as the habitual hyperbole of all new lovers. Later, however, the island also confirms the more extravagant impossibilities of travellers’ tales, as strangely shaped spirits serve food to the courtiers and the sceptics Antonio and Sebastian find themselves converted to belief in the most ridiculous of reports:

          Now I will believe
That there are unicorns; that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix’ throne; one phoenix
At this hour reigning there. (3.3.21-4)

The spirits’ kindness beyond the customary practices of human beings extends the impossibilities they stand for to include Gonzalo’s utopian vision (and suitably enough, it’s Gonzalo who remarks on it). Meanwhile the island’s native, Caliban, who was capable of perceiving the island as a marshy wasteland when he was cursing his owner (‘All the infections that the sun sucks up / From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall’, 2.2.1-2), treats Stephano and Trinculo to a vision of its paradisal aspect: ‘the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’ (3.2.133-4). Caliban associates these ‘sweet airs’ with the pleasure of dreaming – a state that makes him forget his enslaved condition and find himself a king once more – so we can’t be certain they’re anything more substantial than psychological projections. His account of these happy moments, though, reinforces our sense of the island as a place that generates Sidneian poetic fantasies in astonishing abundance; and it also indicates, as Gonzalo’s perspective did, that not all these fantasies are conjured up by its self-styled ruler, Prospero. It’s hard to imagine that the ‘sounds and sweet airs’ Caliban experiences were provided for his delectation by Prospero’s orders. Throughout the play, Ariel shows an independence of mind that allows him to improvise wonders when they occur to him – like Robin Goodfellow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Frank Kermode has pointed out.[5] Could the other spirits have done the same in blessing Caliban’s rest, by virtue of the inhuman kindness Gonzalo notes in them?

Helen Mirren as Prospera

The greatest miracle the island produces is a radical change of heart in Prospero himself. The process of change begins after a feast of impossibilities he has himself served up – a masque performed by spirits, featuring non-existent classical deities. As the masque comes to a sudden close, Prospero suddenly seems to realize that he is not the only human being capable of conjuring up wonders; that they are, in fact, integral to human experience, since even the most extraordinary and seemingly permanent structures we encounter in our lives have the evanescent quality of dreamscapes:

The cloud-capped towers, 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 wrack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (4.1.152-8)

This new perspective is precipitated by an abrupt recollection of Prospero’s would-be usurpers, Stephano, Trinculo, and that master of dreamscapes Caliban – drunkards whose magic bottle has liberated their imaginations from submission to conventional hierarchies. Their challenge to his hierarchical point of view would seem to be what yields his famous vision of transience, which makes castles in the sky of substantial structures and associates them with dramatic performances (‘pageants’) as well as dreams. The magician remains unable to imagine things from Caliban’s point of view – he continues to typecast the islander as a ‘born devil’ till the end of the play – but not long afterwards he succeeds in seeing things from the perspective of another slave of his, Ariel. When the spirit tells him he would pity the distraught courtiers if he were capable of human pity, Prospero recalls his own capacity for the sympathy – the act of putting oneself in someone else’s place – that so many of the other characters have displayed in the course of the action:

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art? (5.1.21-4)

In recognizing himself as of the courtier’s ‘kind’ or kin – no better, no worse – Prospero is especially moved by the presence among them of his saviour Gonzalo, the man whose kindness in stocking his boat with supplies enabled him to survive the voyage to the island so many years previously. As he studies the Neapolitans, Prospero finds himself ‘sociable’ to Gonzalo’s feelings (5.1.63), weeping the same tears of contrition and pity, occupying in effect the same emotional space. This sympathy makes it possible for Prospero to imagine himself as being legitimately supplanted or replaced by other human beings in time to come. His revelation to the exhausted courtiers of the long-lost Ferdinand playing at chess with Miranda displays them in Prospero’s own cell, a space which is in effect his ducal ‘court’ as well as his habitation (5.1.166). Their presence in that simultaneously private and public location predicts their eventual usurpation of Prospero’s place at the court of Milan, as well as of Alonso’s place in Naples. And this may explain the exiled Duke’s later observation that when he returns to his dukedom ‘every third thought will be my grave’ (5.1.311): once he is buried, after all, he will be replaced by the next generation, like every other mortal. Those third thoughts of his might well be about the interchangeability of human beings, and hence about their kinship and equal status, regardless of the greater or lesser titles they have been accidentally endowed with.

Ferdinand and Miranda Playing Chess, by Gillot Saint-Èvre (1822)

The revelation of the lovers in Prospero’s cell marks the culminating moment of two miraculous events: the discovery that the former Duke of Milan is still alive, against all odds, and the seeming resurrection of the King’s dead son. These are ‘wonders’, as Prospero points out, and as such typical of the contents of old wives’ tales, the winter’s tales that gave an earlier Shakespeare play its title – itself recalling the title of another work of the 1580s, George Peele’s extravagant comedy The Old Wives’ Tale (printed 1595), which contains many of the ingredients of The Tempest (an enchanter, a servant spirit, lost travellers, slaves, metamorphoses, musical interludes, etc. etc.). The final scene of The Tempest sees the play we have watched being gradually transformed into a traveller’s tale full of impossibilities, a ‘most strange story’, as Alonso puts it (5.1.117), which nevertheless has substance to it (Prospero calls it ‘the story of my life’, 5.1.304). And the play’s epilogue sees the whole imaginative shebang acknowledged as a collective exercise on the part of the spectators as well as the cast of Shakespeare’s company.

If Prospero could achieve wonders on the stage, it was with the help of the ‘good hands’ of his willing audience. The audience worked as crew on the imaginative ship of the production, helping to make the tempest happen in the opening scene, to accept that Miranda was a woman, not a cross-dressed boy, that the goddesses in Prospero’s masque were played by spirits rather than ordinary members of Shakespeare’s company, and that the surface of the stage was made of rocks and sand and mud, not the wooden planks of an early modern playhouse. The audience must therefore also assist with the final wonder, Prospero’s return to Naples. The sails of his ship must be filled by their ‘gentle breath’ in a benign inversion of the violent winds that sent Odysseus off on his ten-years’ journey round the Mediterranean in Homer’s epic. Their sympathy with him, their capacity for putting themselves in his place, must be activated for one last time to send him home, their applause signaling the willingness of their busy imaginations to do the work of crafting him a happy ending. Prospero’s epilogue, in other words, invites us to imagine ourselves as Prospero, endowing us all with ducal status, making us all the beneficiaries of a fairy tale conclusion we ourselves construct. It also invites us to imagine ourselves as Prospero’s spirits, those newly liberated slaves whose abscondment is what drove him to appeal for our assistance in the first place. The epilogue, then, identifies the stage as the space where for a strictly limited time the utopian egalitarianism of Gonzalo’s and Stephano’s visions is necessarily achieved every time a successful performance takes place.

Miranda, by John William Waterhouse (1916)

The possibility of that final replacement – of hierarchy with utopian egalitarianism, of a dukedom with a theatrical collective – was made available in the final scene by Prospero’s own revelation of that ‘wonder’ Miranda in his cell, alongside that other wonder, the resurrected Ferdinand. Miranda’s name, of course, means ‘wonderful’ (from Latin miranda), and so suggests that she embodies the condition of wonder in the play: that is, the immediate emotional response to astonishing novelties, the state that preexists any effort to rationalize them – something close to the experience of ‘hesitation’ Tzvetan Todorov makes central to his understanding of the fantastic.[6] The young couple’s bodies are one of the wonders of the island, as we’ve seen: both represent ideals of the male and female forms. And Miranda makes a yet more remarkable wonder happen on stage in the final act, when she briefly allows the audience to see all humankind as wonderful, despite – well, despite everything the audience knows about the species in general, and the characters on stage in particular. ‘O, wonder!’ she exclaims as she catches sight of the Neapolitan courtiers:

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in it! (5.1.181-4)

Prospero’s response to her reaction sounds cynical: ‘’Tis new to thee’; and Aldous Huxley’s use of one phrase of it for the title of his famous dystopia makes it hard to avoid reading both the response and the phrase itself as anything but ironic. But at that particular moment in the play the Neapolitan courtiers themselves seem to be as wonder-struck as young Miranda. Alonso briefly endows the girl with the divine status she imagined for herself in the second scene: ‘Is she the goddess that hath severed us / And brought us thus together?’ (5.1.187-8). And although Ferdinand at once claims Miranda as his possession (‘I chose her when I could not ask my father / For his advice’, 5.1.190-1), Gonzalo promptly steps in to make the couple equal again by endowing them both with royal status: ‘Look down, you gods, / And on this couple drop a blessed crown!’ (5.1.201-2). The old man’s timely reminder that the young couple will shortly replace both Alonso and Prospero makes possible the impossibility of some sort of genuine ‘brave new world’, free from the rivalries and acts of treason that characterized the older generation. The extent and nature of that possibility will depend on how cynical the collaborative audience is feeling (or has been made to feel by any given production) as the play draws to a close.

Djimon Hounsou as Caliban

Which brings us back to the question of whether or not the play is a fantasy. Frank Kermode’s Arden edition of the play includes appendices that remind us of the early modern technologies that could make Prospero’s magic a practical possibility for the play’s Jacobean spectators.[7] The play makes a distinction between the mendacious travellers’ tales, for which the island appears to offer material proof when in fact that proof is largely supplied by Prospero’s spirits, and the magic of Prospero, which is genuinely effective in the world of the play. Those spirits, as Kermode also demonstrates, have much in common with the fairies and elves that had been rendered non-existent by Protestant orthodoxy. Does this mean the fairies have been restored to the status of the possible, since they could simply be mischief-making devils? On the other hand, there’s no sign that Prospero’s supernatural slaves are damned, and Ariel’s relative humaneness compared to the usual habits of humanity distinctly suggests otherwise. For a strict Protestant the idea of blessed spirits being at work in the world was heretical; so we return to the notion of Shakespeare’s spirits as fantastic inventions, or of course to the possibility that strict Protestants were wrong in their perception of how the universe operates.

What Shakespeare’s play does do without any doubt at all is to set belief systems and notions of what is and is not possible at odds with one another, thus enacting on stage the ideological and religious conflicts that were being acted out all over the world at the time of writing. For different characters different things are deemed to be possible or impossible at different times. Gonzalo’s belief in Ferdinand’s survival, or in the beneficial properties of the island, are as absurd for Sebastian and Antonio as his evocation of an island utopia, though the former at least turns out to be true in the final act – ands the latter too, if my reading of the ambiguously utopian atmosphere of the play’s ending is a convincing one. Meanwhile Sebastian and Antonio begin the play not believing in traveller’s reports but become believers when faced with Prospero’s spirits – though we have no way of knowing if they retain this belief after they’ve learned who is pulling those spirits’ strings. Miranda’s belief that the courtiers of Naples are things of wonder is an extravagant fantasy of her own, which can hardly be shared by Shakespeare’s audience any more than by her father, given both what we’ve seen of Sebastian and Antonio and the general reputation of Italians in early modern England.[8] The notion that Miranda is a wonder, in the sense of an ideal human being, is something even Prospero doesn’t seem sure of, given his anxiety over whether or not she is listening to his story in the opening act, and whether or not she will listen to his injunctions to stay chaste till marriage, as expressed in the masque scene and elsewhere. Ariel and his fellow spirits are perhaps the most conspicuous fantasies in the play, being benevolent supernatural beings of the sort unacknowledged by Protestant orthodoxy and having much in common with the diminutive fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Ariel can lie in a cowslip’s bell, which makes him no bigger than Peaseblossom). Even they, however, are treated as possible beings by all in the play, and members of the audience might well have seen them as possible in their own world too: Ariel’s name is biblical, and Elizabeth I had a personal magician, John Dee, who claimed to have dealings with benevolent spirits – which he called angels – rather than damned ones.

Another term for what is possible is what Kathryn Hume refers to in Fantasy and Mimesis as ‘consensus reality’, and in The Tempest there’s no final consensus about the nature of what is and isn’t real.[9] There is, however, a consensus invoked in the play’s epilogue, as we’ve seen, which makes real the possibility of collectively imagining a happy ending for Prospero, and perhaps even for Naples under the benevolent watch of a new generation who have shown themselves open to the condition of protracted wonderment. The question of how far the play is a fantasy, in other words – and how extravagant that fantasy might finally become – is left firmly in the hands of the spectators, whose multiple perspectives have been briefly combined to invoke the multiple perspectives of the play’s diverse characters. In the end, one might say, early modern fantasy lay in the eye of the early modern beholder. Which is precisely what makes it so interesting to consider early modern literature and drama in the light of the modern fantastic.



[1] An Apology for Poetry, with Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 81, line 27.

[2] The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1970). I have changed some punctuation slightly.

[3] For Shakespeare’s interest in replacing, substituting or supplanting people, as worked out in Measure for Measure, see R. W. Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden Critical Companions (London: Thomson Learning, 2005), Afterword, pp. 213 ff. 

[4] ‘Thought is free’ is often used mockingly in early modern English to suggest unvoiced suspicions about another person’s sexual activities…

[5] See The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, Appendix B: ‘Ariel as Daemon and Fairy’, pp. 142-5.

[6] On hesitation, see Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 24-5.

[7] See The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, Appendix B.

[8] For the early modern English response to Italian culture see R. W. Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), Introduction etc. Naples in particular gets a bad press in one of the most popular prose romances of Elizabethan times, John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578).

[9] See Kathryn Hume, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (New York and London: Methuen, 1984), p. xi etc.



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