by Dr. Jayson Grieser
A Hamlet who forgives? A Lear who regains his kingdom? After writing the greatest tragedies the world has ever seen, Shakespeare, at the end of his career, turned to something surprising, something derided by contemporary Philip Sidney as “mongrel,” not mentioned by Aristotle, and rejected by Cicero who said, “the comic is abhorrent in tragedy and the tragic abhorrent in comedy.” Shakespeare took up a Renaissance invention, the tragicomedy, or what we now call a romance.
Shakespeare’s final plays, written in consecutive years beginning in 1608, comprise Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. These adventure tales include shipwrecks and wonder and unlikely reunions; they sparkle with father-daughter relationships, providence, and forgiveness. In The Tempest, Prospero, the Duke of Milan, having neglected his duties for his books, loses his dukedom to his “false brother,” who then allies with Alonzo of Naples. These usurpers cast Prospero and his three-year-old daughter to sea in a “rotten carcass of a butt.” But by “providence divine” the pair comes ashore on the island of the witch Sycorax, her son Caliban, and the locked up good spirit, Ariel. At the beginning of the play, some twelve years later, Prospero commands a tempest to shipwreck the whole lot of his enemies on the island.
Prospero will avenge himself on them all!
But, no, he doesn’t; in the turning point of the play, Ariel, seeing the power of Prospero’s charms on the guilty says he, being only a spirit, would “become tender.” Prospero says if a thing of air can know such mercy, so shall he:
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall become themselves. (Act V.1)
Instead of demanding revenge, as does the ghost in Hamlet, Ariel hints at tenderheartedness. Instead of negligence awakening evil and leading to death as in King Lear, repentance destroys evil and Prospero regains his dukedom.
Marriage, not murder, prevails under Prospero’s magic and Ariel’s music. A wonderful new creation, a baptized and brave new world is the project of Prospero, as Ariel’s most famous song foretells:
Full fathom five they father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange. (Act 1.2)
In the end, Prospero unveils his crowning achievement: his daughter, Miranda. She will marry Prince Ferdinand, the son of his former enemy, Alonzo of Naples. Like all of the romances, the play ends in wonder. Upon seeing Ferdinand (who was presumed drowned) and Miranda (whom no one but Ferdinand had seen up to this point) playing chess together, Sebastian cries, “A most high miracle!” Ferdinand kneeling proclaims, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful. I have cursed them without cause.” Alonso gives his blessing to the couple and Miranda herself declares, “How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! / O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (Act V.1).
The Tempest*, a powerful fable about the power of art and grace to perfect nature, is Shakespeare’s last complete play, an enchanting, golden work full of music and wonder that concludes with an epilogue that may very well be Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage.
*If you want to watch the play, The Globe on Screen performance starring Roger Allam is newly released on DVD. I recommend this performance but warn that the drunk jester Trinculo’s costume includes a phallus, which in a perverse way is fitting to him. If you can ignore that, the casting and acting, and especially the articulation of the lines, are commendable.
Dr. Jayson Grieser is NSA’s Fellow of Literature and teaches Persuasive Writing, Senior Traditio, and various electives and graduate-level classes.