Continuing with my plan to read plays through November, I am now starting The Tempest. I have several copies of this play, partly due to the two complete sets of Shakespeare’s works I have, one of which I covered in an earlier essay, but I also have three copies of the play in individual volumes. One from the Oxford University Press, one by Penguin Books from 1937 and the copy that I have been reading which is the beautiful Folio Society letterpress edition from 2008.
This edition is bound in green goatskin leather, blocked in gold with hand-marbled paper sides and limited to 3750 numbered copies although not all of these appear to have been produced. The book is large (14˝ x 10¾˝ – 35½cm x 27cm) and the pages clear and easy to read. As the Folio Society themselves said about these volumes…
The starting point was the text. Rather than keep text and commentary together, we decided to put them into separate volumes. Out went the elements that clutter the page : footnotes and textual variants. All that was left was Shakespeare’s words.
We decided to have the text printed by letterpress in 16-point Baskerville. The type is set in hot metal and impressed on thick, mouldmade paper. The margins are generous – over 6 centimetres – to allow the words room to breathe.
The result is a simple, understated design that is a delight to read and a pleasure to hold.
Needless to say the books were expensive (£295 per play) but they did set out to produce the finest editions available and the ones I have are amongst the treasures of my library. A comparison between the Folio Society edition and my complete Oxford Shakespeare can be seen below and it’s obvious which is the better to read.
Enough about the book, as Shakespeare himself wrote in Hamlet “The play’s the thing” and this was the last play written by Shakespeare so I’m looking forward to reading it.
The play opens with a short scene set on a ship that is caught up in the eponymous tempest and looks as though it will probably sink. On board is Alonso the King of Naples and several courtiers including Antonio the Duke of Milan, the noblemen are however getting in the way of the seamen trying to save the vessel and frankly are just a nuisance. The rest of act one takes place on the island home of Prospero and his daughter Miranda, during which we find out that Prospero is the true Duke of Milan who was usurped by his brother Antonio with the help of King Alonso.
Prospero has somehow gained magical powers during his exile on the island and with the aid of the sprite Ariel he caused the foundering of the ship but also ensured that all aboard survived. The other occupant of the island is Caliban, the son of the witch Sycorax who is enslaved to Prospero and is described as half man, half beast. Ariel is also in servitude to Prospero but this is because he rescued him from a spell by Sysorax and Prospero has promised that when he regains dukedom so Ariel will be free to go on his way. Towards the end of the first act Ferdinand (King Alonso’s son) finds Prospero and Miranda and immediately falls in love with her, which is clearly Prospero’s plan to try to regain his dukedom.
Act two moves away from Prospero to follow up the other characters in two separate scenes. In the first one the other noblemen including King Alonso assume that they are the only survivors of the wreck although Gonzalo in particular is perplexed by the condition of their clothing which suggests that this was no ordinary maritime disaster.
…Our garments being, as they were drenched in the sea, not withstanding their freshness and gloss, being rather new-dyed than stained with salt water…
…Methinks our garments are now as fresh as when we put them on in Afric, at the marriage of the King’s fair daughter…
Ariel joins the group although he is invisible to them and by means of music causes some to fall asleep leaving Sebastian (Alonso’s brother) and Antonio. Antonio suggests to Sebastian that with Ferdinand dead the only thing stopping him doing what he did to Prospero and taking the kingdom of Naples for himself is Alonso himself who is conveniently asleep at his feet. Sebastian has drawn his sword to kill Alonso when Ariel reverses the charm and the others awake. Sebastian explains the drawn sword by saying he had heard noises and was preparing to defend the king.
The second scene takes us to the last remaining significant characters in the play Trinculo the court jester and Stephano the drunk butler who has managed to salvage a barrel of wine and is happily working his way through it. These two also believe themselves the only survivors and stumble across Caliban who sees them as a means of escaping his slavery by getting them to kill Prospero. His clownish attempts to get them to help him and the drunken antics of the other two are quite funny.
Act three keeps the three groups apart and sees us catching up with them in turn in separate scenes. All three scenes are quite short and we bounce from Ferdinand and Miranda who are now getting on very well and are talking of marriage. Then to Trinculo and Stephano who are convinced by Caliban to attack Prospero but are also now quite drunk and have also introduced Caliban to wine so this plot is clearly going nowhere. Finally the king and his party meet up with Ariel and with Prospero watching and commenting although invisible to the party he can see that his plans are working.
Both of the final acts are short single scene performances and act four sees things moving forward quickly. Prospero agrees to the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda as they continue to express their love for each other and when they have left the stage he works with Ariel to ensure that the plot hatched by Caliban to get the two drunks to kill him will fail although by now none of the them are in a fit state to do anything sensible.
Finally the fifth act brings everyone together at last, Prospero draws a magic circle on the stage and lures the noblemen into it where he reveals who he really is but decides to forgive rather than punish them. He also reveals that the ship didn’t sink, instead it has been anchored off another part of the island with the crew charmed asleep, these are woken by Ariel and prepare for sailing as soon as possible. It isn’t clear what happens to Caliban, he presumably remains alone on the island but everyone else returns to Naples with Prospero renouncing his magic as he regains his dukedom.
The Tempest is grouped with the Comedies within Shakespeare’s canon however there is nothing particularly comedic about it, it is probably there because it certainly isn’t a History or Tragedy which are the only two other options. The light relief is provided by Trinculo and Stephano during their interaction with Caliban but this, as explained above, is largely self contained within scene two of acts two and three. I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare’s later mystical plays but this made for a pleasant evenings read and I’m surprised that I haven’t got round to reading it before. As usual for a Shakespeare play there are several quotes that have enriched the English language and gone on to be used even by those who don’t know where they were first created:-
Hell is empty. And all the devils are here.
Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on
O brave new world
and the probable winner for the worst chat up line of all time is given to Ferdinand
Hast thou not dropped from heaven?
Note: The kingdom of Naples and the duchy of Milan sound odd to us now as Naples in particular appears far too small to be a kingdom, but in Shakespeare’s time both these houses existed. The kingdom lasted from 1282 to 1816 although from 1501 it was effectively a title only as control of Naples passed between France, Spain and Austria depending on which monarchy was in the ascendant at the time. As for the duchy of Milan that lasted from 1395 to 1814 although over the last century of this it was absorbed into the Austrian Hapsburg empire.