Bright Lights Film Journal

Going to Extremes #4: <em>The Tempest</em> (Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go)

C. W. Sharpe, Caliban. Miranda. Prospero. The Tempest (1875)

“While I get Sam Goldwyn’s point about messages and Western Union, I think Shakespeare is always sending the same one: to overcome our worst weaknesses, first we must see them for what they are.”

The Tempest has been called the most filmic of Shakespeare’s plays; and there’s an edgy darkness in its fantasy that reminds us of anything from 1940s Disney to recent screen adaptations of comic superheroes. More controversially, it’s also the most self-revealing of the plays – particularly on the theme of work.

A page from the First Folio of Shakespeare plays in 1623

But the strange thing is that this is one of the least obviously promising of dramas – initially, anyhow. True, we’re immediately among a ship’s crew and passengers facing imminent death by drowning. Never mind, though; because, as a weather-controlling wizard explains to his worried daughter, “no harm” will come to any of them. Also dulling anticipation somewhat and adding to a sense of storm-before-the-calm, he decides now is the time to tell her exactly how they came to their island twelve years before, when she was only three.

On the other hand, perhaps we’re seduced by Prospero’s tale of himself: the trusting, bookish Duke of Milan, betrayed by Antonio, the much-loved younger brother who – allowed to govern in his place – suddenly seized power and set older brother and little niece adrift on a tide to nowhere. (Antonio’s decision not to kill them outright was also pure Machiavelli: no self-respecting fratricide leaves a bloody trail running straight to his own door.)

Michael Hordern as Prospero in the 1980 BBC version of The Tempest

So from the start, Prospero is a complex figure: idealistic, even spiritual, but completely unrealistic about human nature – especially his own. For the innocent among us, he’s a premature sighting of Lev Tolstoi, Mohandas Ghandi, and John Lennon. For students of world literature he’s a close cousin of his exact contemporary, Don Quixote. For Shakespeare wallahs, though, he’s a strong reminder of Vincentio, Duke of Vienna in Measure for Measure – someone else born to rule but, by following his spiritual leanings too closely, also someone who endangers himself and others.

Prospero’s lax approach to high office makes us think twice before assuming his brother’s crimes will soon be punished. Yet, among the passengers spared from drowning, didn’t we just glimpse someone arrogant enough to be Antonio? At this point we might wonder what’s in store for him on an island where this Merlin figure (or is it Dr Faustus?) calls all the shots. If so, it’s best not to hold our breath because – even in this relatively short play – revenge is a dish served slow.

Come to think of it, Shakespeare often delays any gratification we seek; and plots – like spells – must be coiled before being unwound. At any rate, what we’re seeing, even this soon, is that the Bard’s final play (excluding Henry VIII, that heavily collaborative effort with John Fletcher) deals not just with godlike magic but also with some extremely human aspects of power.

* * *

Shakespeare didn’t just share in the intellectual reception to Niccolo Machiavelli. Under Elizabeth and James, he’d always lived in a world where acts of violence – by the state or more casually instigated – weren’t exactly unusual. So it’s hardly surprising if, among the themes reprised in the last four plays, power – and its often fatal attractions – stands out.

Nevertheless, in latter days there have been attempts to protect Shakespeare from “too much” political analysis. I’m thinking of English director Peter Brook and his response to Grigori Kozintsev’s filmed version of Hamlet (USSR, 1964). For many cinema buffs, this is one of the best Shakespeare adaptations to date; and, because politics are seen here in terms of personal relationships, matters of state and emotional innerness are not the mutually contradicting forces that Brook implies.

This point is rather important, I think; and to give a deeper sense of Shakespeare’s holistic approach to power, I’ll briefly set aside this study of the last plays to look at some of the first: the three Parts of Henry VI plus Richard III.

Others have noticed that the original success of this tetralogy shows, above all, that fears of civil war and mob rule were still alive a century after the Wars of the Roses had ended. For film students in particular, the BBC / Time-Life productions of these early plays offer a fascinating – if stamina-demanding – view of the “Tudor propaganda” on which Shakespeare cut his teeth.

Don’t forget, though, that, throughout the period, sucking up to royalty was a prerequisite for obtaining a licence to put on plays. In these circumstances, suggesting that the Tudors had brought nothing but a glorious and lasting peace was no bad move for Shakespeare & Co.

Thus, despite official middle-class distaste for plays and players, between 1589 and 1599 just outside the city in Shoreditch, the Chamberlain’s Men continued to wow the crowds in an open-roofed arena called, appropriately enough, The Theatre. (A low Elizabethan bow here to Stanley Wells.)

The Theatre, late 1500s

Even without this contextualisation, the BBC filmed versions help us see how keenly felt – how inner – these early Histories are, evoking memories of a time when, all over England, men – young and old and often from the same family – continuously and ingloriously hacked one another to bits.

Of course, killing Frenchmen wasn’t so bad; and it’s also the burden of these plays that England lost huge swathes of France as a result of energy-sapping internal strife. But, in one typically microcosmic moment, Shakespeare gets under the skin of conventional historiography with what looks like an irrelevant – and almost completely apolitical – comment.

A mural depicting the Jack Cade Rebellion

The late Tony Tanner dismisses the death scene of rebel leader Jack Cade in Henry VI Part 2 (1983), as, at best, a sop to burgeoning bourgeois sentiment. And it’s true that Cade, exhausted, hungry, and alone, is easy meat for “Alexander Iden, A Kentish Gentleman.” The known facts are that Iden dispatched Cade and, with the rebel’s head as proof, claimed his reward from the king. What followed in historical terms, however, was more, not less, unrest; and some see it as the very moment when widespread domestic turbulence went on to find outlets, not in failed rebellion, but in civil war: the Wars of the Roses had begun.

Whatever Shakespeare’s own view, he clearly felt the Iden/Cade confrontation had dramatic potential: with varying degrees of bluster, two adult males commit themselves to a deadly contest which is really no contest at all, one of them being much more assured of “success” than the other. Compared to the chaotic battle scenes of the series, this bit of incidental bloodshed looks almost sane; but there’s something going on here that the big set pieces could never hope to convey.

Directed by Jane Howell and played by Trevor Peacock (Cade) and Antony Brown (Iden), the scene portrays a “sadomasochistic,” “ambivalent” kind of violence long before these adjectives came into the language. Make of it what we will, this miniature study of power relations has its own strange power: it’s an intimate glimpse of power and powerlessness as they circle the same space, finally merging into one gruesomely amoral whole. Fancifully or not, I see this as a piece of Prospero-like magic whose underlit but deeply moral art will continue to be developed over the next twenty years.

And while I get Sam Goldwyn’s point about messages and Western Union, I think Shakespeare is always sending the same one: to overcome our worst weaknesses, first we must see them for what they are.

* * *

Returning to The Tempest, the BBC version (1980) is not a storming success. One critic used the word “staid,” which is gentler than “boring.” In mitigation we could cite the challenges any low-budget production faces. But this is rather lame when, four hundred years before CGI, audiences could still expect degrees of enchantment sadly missing here.

Prospero and Ariel

A better excuse is the problem of over-expectation: everyone knows that this is a play rich in fantasy; and, still thinking about budgets, we might secretly wish for the low-tech magic of Georges Méliès or Ray Harryhausen. Actually, as I’m trying to show, the play is about a lot more than fantasy; but, again, if the richness of the text is ignored, we’re not going to be engrossed at any level.

Having got that out of the way, as directed by John Gorrie there are plenty of things the movie gets right. For example, from early on in Shakespeare we find strong hints of what we’d call mass hypnosis, and these are all carefully brought over. On the other hand, through no fault of modern directors, modern audiences might see Prospero’s first dealings with Miranda not as “casting a spell” but as “putting her under,” perhaps for anaesthesia-free dental work!

Similarly, when, via Ariel, Prospero continues to work on distant subjects like the newly shipwrecked visitors to the island, no modern viewer’s jaw will necessarily drop in amazement. This sort of thing has influenced so much sci-fi we might be watching an old Star Trek episode. Yet, despite such potential handicaps, Gorrie cleverly manages to evoke the essential creepiness of Prospero’s mind games.

Warren Clarke as Caliban

As for Caribbean voodoo, is it really appearing for the first time in Western Art? Or – in Shakespeare’s Caliban – aren’t most of the references drawn from good old European witchcraft, albeit pressed into service to depict an alien inhabitant of the New World?

Though Caribbean folk tales have been hugely exploited by cinema, Gorrie’s decision is to avoid zombie-isms with an ape-like Caliban, the better to encourage that mixture of sympathy and disgust that Shakespearean villains had evinced so often before.

It’s also to the director’s credit that the long comic scenes with their references to getting pissed up and, indeed, pissed off, are not censored. This is important because Earth, in Caliban, completes a quartet formed by Air (Ariel), Water (Miranda), and Fire (Prospero). Paradoxically, any cuts to the medieval “science” risk negating Shakespeare’s more nuanced Renaissance views.

For similar reasons the play can’t afford omissions from its broader discussion of alcohol, however rambling. Remember that the first time we meet Antonio, he’s on board a sinking ship complaining, not unnaturally, that he doesn’t want to die. The trouble is, he and his high-born friends are sure they can manage the situation better than any master mariner; and Antonio is particularly incensed that his group – his class – will be “cheated of our lives by drunkards.”

For the Bard, the imperfect “earth” of our body is, like it or not, the principal site of our being – spiritually and politically. This means that the ways we relate to ourselves and to each other are – long before Marx and Freud – understood to be centred on Class and the Self. But no single class, much less one despotic individual, can expect to dominate every sphere of human activity – not without dire consequences, anyway. So at the very beginning of The Tempest we have a distinct course correction for Renaissance Man as defined decades before in the Florence of the Medicis. And again, English speakers have to thank Grigori Kozintsev’s Russian-language production of Hamlet (with subtitles!) for making this bespoke Shakespearean attitude so beautifully clear.

More obviously connected to The Tempest and much more typical of ’60s cinema is Age of Consent from 1968; this is a late Michael Powell effort in which James Mason plays an artist seeking refuge from the gallery system on his own desert island. The broad hint is that all work – even when distinguished by the term “creative” – is a kind of slavery. This is extremely apposite to any reading of The Tempest, and it gets our hopes up for good things to come in Powell’s scenario. Meanwhile, the fact that Mason’s island is actually quite crowded with “down-to-earth” Ozzies works better than one might think. Then there’s the glorious sunlight, captured by great colour photography; and – I almost forgot – the young Shakespearean actress, Helen Mirren as “Cora,” undergoes a sexual awakening while posing naked for the artist.

Helen Mirren and James Mason in Age of Consent

But in this shipwreck of a movie not much is salvaged from a plot in which a middle-aged man calmly holds back until a lovely young virgin, as soon as legally possible, falls head over heels in love with him. Interpreting the last point in the shallow waters of a sunlit beach, Age of Consent now only amazes by the starkness of its contrast with Buñuel’s brutal satire The Young One (1961). Deserving much wider fame, this is one of the best films from the director’s Mexican period; and here everyone’s sexual behaviour – not just that of another pair of mismatched lovers – comes under scrutiny.

The sad thing is that Mason and Powell ended up with Age of Consent because they couldn’t fund a more formal adaptation of The Tempest; and, for me, the loss of a screen Prospero played by one the most intelligent actors of his generation is almost too cruel to contemplate. (Decades later, Mirren played Prospera in a film that hardly redeems the loss; though, to be fair, it probably wasn’t trying.)

* * *

Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban

Shakespeare’s Prospero is nothing if not a world-weary older man; and for BBC/Time-Life, Michael Hordern delivers this aspect of the role with something to spare. However, in Shakespeare there are opportunities – demands even – for a much more energised bitterness. As Miranda points out: “Never till this day, / Saw I him touch’d with anger so distemper’d.” Remember that “this day” refers, very unusually for the Bard, to the entire action of the play – certainly not too long for an old man to stay angry. The Prospero of the text is definitely not going “gentle into that good night,” but, as Dylan Thomas might wish, he’s going to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Underplaying the anger risks a drift toward The Tempest as slightly over-fanciful retirement speech – albeit the most famous one in Art History!

Not that Prospero is the only angry one on the island. The violently oppressed “savage and deformed Slave,” Caliban, obviously has a lot to be angry about; and – in Shakespeare if not in Gorrie’s film – we feel a real courage mixed with the bravado and servile joy when he breaks from Prospero’s control to work for those not very aristocratic masters Trinculo (a jester) and Stephano (a drunken butler).

Here Shakespeare is very much of his time in linking moral authority with the “high-born.” As ever, though, he complicates the issue by insinuating ideas of moral merit – of taking one’s responsibilities seriously. In fact, what’s unusual about Caliban’s new management team is that, for once, the least Puritan of playwrights, in a complex and mordant meditation on alcohol, doesn’t flinch from implying the need to stay sober, at least some of the time, if we’re not to become a bit too earthy.


But it’s the stranded group led by Alonso, King of Naples, who draw us deeper into Shakespeare’s worldview. Through them we begin to see that this “uninhabited Island” is essentially a symbolic place, very useful – in the context of early global exploration – for comparing Utopian ideals with cynical land grabs.

As for early cartography, despite the fact that Europeans had been sailing west for over a hundred years, the Bermudan hints strewn through the play don’t even pin things to the Atlantic. What really matters, it seems, is that some bitterly familiar old world power struggles are somehow surviving the most hazardous of voyages – East or West! So the “location” Shakespeare chooses is an entirely moral entity. And with brother-usurping Antonio encouraging Sebastian, a prince of Naples, to murder his own sleeping brother, King Alonso, we could be back in Macbeth or Julius Caesar.

The text has indeed been veering toward Ancient Rome; and, as though to prevent us feeling too lost(!), we’re reminded that what was once Carthage is now Tunis. But there is a consistent rationale here, even if it is of the blink-and-you-miss-it kind. Tunis is where Sebastian’s niece, Claribel, is queen; and if she knew anything about Alonso’s death, she’d inherit the kingdom of Naples. But as Antonio points out to a wavering Sebastian, “unless the sun were post,” the news is very unlikely to reach her, which reminds us how ruthless Antonio is and, less designedly, how slow and treacherous travel was in those days.

David Dixon (right) as Ariel

Yet if, like me, you still hanker after a literal location for Prospero’s HQ, these quaint Revenge Tragedy convolutions lead to an uncharted and uninhabited island situated somewhere in the southern Med. But then, mocking our attempts to follow any of this, Ariel arrives – accompanied as always by the magic of music – to fulfil one of his last remaining contractual obligations to Prospero: in this case, waking the sleeping Alonso and thereby foiling any assassination attempt!

* * *

Meanwhile, yet another anger lurks behind words and action; and this concerns the fact that, in the Europe left behind by early wild sea rovers, expectations remained obstinately high about all the gains they should be making – and bringing home. This is the psychology festering underneath Sebastian’s weirdly sarcastic attack on the upbeat “honest old counsellor, Gonzalo’: “I think he will carry this island home in his pocket, and give it his son for an apple.” [!!!]

We’re being reminded here that, whereas today’s narratives take some account of the realities facing early explorers, in the era of The Tempest, failed attempts to make big profits would, more often than not, arouse disgust at the subhuman ineptitude of those involved!

Colin Farrell and Q’orianka Kilcher in The New World

Terence Malick’s 2005 film The New World takes a long hard look at precisely this territory – albeit too long and hard, to judge by the critical and public response. But for those who find unexpectedly complex emotions among Shakespeare’s marooned voyagers, Malick’s film is surprisingly supportive. It’s also good on love affairs between people of different races: Pocahontas, an Algonquin princess, does indeed have a very mad affair with Captain Smith, exactly as Peggy Lee sings it. But, unlike Malick, the song leaves out a sequel, where – thinking her lover dead – she’s still young enough to overcome despair and move on with the plantation-owning (and patently still-living) John Rolfe. (For its relevance to The Tempest, particularly the Bermudan references, see Kieran Docherty’s 2007 book Sea Venture.)

Prospero, meanwhile, makes it clear from the start that his beloved daughter hasn’t been raised to populate the island with help from Caliban. No miscegenation here, thank you very much; and – shamefully enough – I’m not sure how much more relaxed we are now than Prospero about “mixed” marriages, even if more of us feel genuine rage at the crass racial insensitivities of colonialism.

The thing to notice, though, is that Prospero has no intention of investing his future in this distant isle, no matter how sleepily enchanted and under his control it might be. It’s just somewhere he happened to fetch up – and that accidental hint of sickness doesn’t take us too far from how he’s been feeling for the last fifteen years.

As I’ve been suggesting, the layers of bitterness strewn throughout this play are so unmissable one wonders how any production could choose to downplay them. If directors are veering instinctively away from bardic imbalance, one could argue that the comic scenes are there for a reason. And if these are not always lightweight enough, there’s the virginally innocent, selfless romance of Miranda and Ferdinand to provide relief from the massed ranks of “naughty” self-interest.

Prospero, meanwhile, is not the first father in Shakespeare to fancy himself as a match-maker. Only a couple of plays back, a fate-battered Pericles found himself teased and twitted by King Simonides, who pretended that the last thing he would ever want is for the hero to marry his daughter, Thaisa. Exactly the same strategy is used by Prospero with regard to Ferdinand. And if we wonder why Shakespeare repeats this curious trick, one simple reason could be that it went down so well on its first outing. A deeper reason – which I favour – might be Shakespeare’s wish to dissociate these “innocent” match-making fathers from the infamously “pervy” Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida.

Prospero, Ferdinand (Christopher Guard), and Miranda (Pippa Guard)

More positively, in Pericles and The Tempest there’s a real attraction between the lovers that minimizes any sense of paternal interference; and – definitely unlike Troilus – both plays have a happy ending.

So: does the BBC movie do justice to – as some would see it – the worthy but dull Miranda / Ferdinand subplot? To be fair to Shakespeare, it’s hard for any writer to make Virgin Love – in all its innocence and purity – shine as brightly as in, say, The Divine Comedy. With Dante having set the precedent so high among the stars, this is no great surprise. Yet we recall that, outside of Italy, by Shakespeare’s time Dante had lost whatever direct influence he had; and on the subject of Love, it was the much less spiritual Ovid who remained the defining literary model across Western Europe.

In fact, the Ovid of the Metamorphoses is present the first time Ferdinand and Miranda appear together (albeit before Ferdinand knows it). Ariel’s famous song – Full fathom five … appertains, as far as Ferdinand can tell, to “no mortal business”: Alonso, his “drowned” father, has, it seems, become part of a coral reef and is therefore in the most literal sense immortal. Ariel’s deliberate lie evokes, at best, a very concrete kind of spirituality – not as fleeting as the average sand mandala, nor, indeed, as true as the stuff that dreams are made of.

Miranda, Prospero, and Ferdinand

Miranda, meanwhile, perceives the music-smitten young man as “a brave form: – But ’tis a spirit.”In this context, “brave” is one of a handful of Welsh words that survived to enrich English. “Braf” (“f” pronounced “v”) equates to “lovely / fine / beautiful” and, among Welsh speakers, remains in everyday use. Speaking of Ferdinand, then, Miranda means that nothing this beautiful can be of earthly origin. The respectful daughter of only a scene ago is no longer the passive figure so uninteresting to feminist criticism. Her sexuality has come alive, and her vision both reifies and deifies the love object in one exchanged glance. As Prospero says: “At first sight / They have changed eyes.”

Shakespeare, it seems, has a less than zero interest in prizing “the male gaze” over its female counterpart. Quite the opposite. But the mutually transfiguring power of love is manifested so briefly that it’s very easy to underplay. Those with a low tolerance for lingering reaction shots will feel odd about this: but Act I Sc II of The Tempest has strong claims for shamelessly milking every last micro-gesture. Certainly Gorrie and his young actors have a good try at evincing something Dante-esque here. But, though no one dies in this play, it’s hardly a typical comedy; and the lovers have to carry more than their usual burden of hope in what is often a distinctly crabby and comatose text. For me, then, we need to see the rosy dawning of romance in all their scenes, however brief.

* * *

The masque in The Tempest, painting from the George Romney School

I say “comatose” if only because Sleep appears as often here as among laptop closedown options! So too does Power – as in power-switched-off, normal service to be resumed we know not when. But there’s more than a little to “save” as well. As if to make up for the underwritten roles of Miranda and Ferdinand, toward the end of the play Shakespeare brings on a masque of the goddesses Ceres, Iris, and Juno, “called from their confines,” as Prospero disarmingly – and somewhat dishonestly – claims, “to enact his fancies.” Actually, they are here to make quite a big song and dance over the forthcoming union of the lovers – and also to soften a father’s “loss” of his beloved daughter. This quintessential piece of Renaissance theatre is notoriously tricky to project for today’s audiences; but Gorrie’s version has taken Prospero too much at his word, and the scene works, if at all, only as elegant whimsy.

This is a pity because the unreliability of Prospero’s self-reporting, there from the start, becomes quite a theme of its own before we’re through. In fact, not until the late monologues, in which Shakespeare-alias-Prospero famously bids farewell to his past existence – maybe even to life itself – do we find something as honest as this: “Sir, I am vex’d; / Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled, / Be not disturb’d with my infirmity; / If you be pleased, retire into my cell, / And there repose; a turn or two I’ll walk, / To still my beating mind.”

In these remarks to Ferdinand, his soon-to-be son-in-law, Prospero is being more than self-honest: for the first time in the play he shows real consideration for another human being. Remember that he’s just been airing an older person’s sense of evanescence, of the passing nature of everything. But having uttered some largely self-calming phrases (he’s worried about Caliban’s plot against him), Prospero suddenly realises how self-absorbed and nihilistic they make him sound, especially to young ears. Finally he takes responsibility for easing his own mind and, much better yet, does so without putting a hex on anyone else. He’s just going for a walk!


Of course, moral self-improvement is never quite as straightforward or steady a process as we’d like, and, though we’re heading for a final wrap, Prospero is soon back to his old self-centred manipulations of power, especially via his “art” as a magician.

The overt subtext for “magician” at this stage of the play is “great (Renaissance) artist”: someone who, like Michelangelo, displays godlike control of his materials and thereby of Nature itself. It’s an exciting but dangerous game to play in any era; and possibly fatal for Art when Science has scarcely been born.

In fact, the net effect of The Tempest, Acts IV and V, is of an unwilling, stuttering progress, where some very unconvincing ideas of forgiveness are used en route to an otherwise ill-defined better way. All the solemn declarations about abjuring rough magic, breaking staffs, and drowning books come in the context of a blank verse that, in every soaring line, exhibits Shakespeare’s still “so potent art.” Though we want to take these suggestions of self-reform seriously, it feels like listening to someone trying to give up a powerful drug; and, adding to the usual difficulties, this particular addict – or at least his creator – just happens to be locked in a “virtuous” circle: working hard with others; making good money for others, not just himself.

After two decades with the same troupe, first in The Theatre, then in The Globe, Shakespeare’s career had proved steadier than that of any other dramatist of his era. Now in his late forties, he’s ready to move on and, at the same time, deeply unsure of what happens next.

It’s a work situation quite a few will recognize; but staying with the world of entertainment, people of my generation might think of The Beatles, whose on/off “final” split-up was predicted for at least a year before it happened. From Abbey Road – their last and probably best album – I find myself thinking of McCartney’s line: “Oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go.” Forming a disjointed part of the final medley with “You Never Give Me Your Money,” its sentiment is extremely fuzzy – sad yet relieved, McCartney’s voice mournful yet defiant. And as an “outro” to The Tempest, I can’t think of anything more perfect.