Dramatic Art in Shakespeare's The Tempest

The Tempest is Shakespeare's last play; however it is regarded as one of the mature and successful plays of all time. His play contains many salient features which brings the height of success in his late career. One of the most appreciated features of his play, The Tempest, is spectacular. Chief interest in the play is probably the series of unusual occurrences that challenge attention one after the other.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Naming some of them, we have the play of wind and fire in the shipwreck, the foiled attempt of Ferdinand to fight a duel, the gestures, behavior, and jests of the courtiers, the thwarted murder of Alonso, Ferdinand, Miranda, and the wood pile, the bottle of liquor and the drunkards, the appearance and disappearance of the banquet, the harpy, goddesses, nymphs, and reapers, the line of garments, and the arrival one after the other of the groups of characters towards the close. Dress plays a large part in variety, rich and elaborate with the court, chaste and white of spirits, the wildness of the drunkards and grotesque with Caliban.

Another characteristic of this play is that it consists of supernatural elements. The structure and action of the play depend almost on the use of the supernatural. It includes spirits of air, earth, fire and water. A distinction is made between the evil of witchcraft and the good of magic at its best. Strange sounds of the island dominate the play, thunder and roaring at the wreck, thunder and lightning accompanying evil, and soft, solemn, or sweet music attending the good. The courtiers are put to sleep and awakened with songs. The banquet, goddesses, spirits, reapers, dogs, and garments appear from nowhere and mysteriously vanish. The mystery of the unknown pervades in nearly every scene.

Humor is next most significant feature of The Tempest. Humor may be found in situations, speech, gestures, and actions. The humor of this play lies almost altogether in the actions, speech and gestures of the quarreling courtiers and drunken rascals. The court jester, who normally should supply wit and humor, is too drunk and quarrelsome to exercise his inventive skill. Incidents such as the dogs chasing the rascals and the quarrel of Trinculo and Caliban depend for their humor on the skill of the performers of the play on the stage.

 Though The Tempest does not fully support the element of romance, it has some features of being having elements of romance. The world of the play lies in the imagination; a condition in which good finally prevails and evil is suitably punished or abolished. The love story is that of a courteous, correct young man, so naïve at the outset that he reveals his experiences in love to a maiden who has never seen a young man before; and their love at first sight reaches maturity at once. The strange sounds of the island, the genial atmosphere and vegetation, the mysterious appearing at every happening and the control of all by Ariel creates a romantic surrounding.

The use of contrast tends to bring out personality and heighten interest by placing opposites side by side. It occurs in scenes, characters, dress, and action. The terror of the storm and wreck is set off by the quiet conversation of Prospero and Miranda. The mourning of Alonso is followed by the drunken scene of Stephano and Caliban. Caliban, the earthy creature is at the other extreme of airy Ariel. Gonzalo stands out in strong relief from Sebastian and Antonio, and Ferdinand with his court experience comes face to face with Miranda's ingenuousness. The reapers in their work-a-day dress are ridiculous in their dancing with the nymphs in gossamer robes. Contrasting pairs are found in Prospero and his brother coupled with Alonso and his brother; the plot of Sebastian and Antonio is reflected in that of Stephano and Caliban.

We find little use of this device to hold the interest of the audience because of the shortness of time and rapidity of action. Prospero tells us in advance of his intentions regarding his daughter and Ferdinand. The audience knows that Ariel will forestall the plots of the conspirators. There is a certain amount of suspense in the effect of the betrothal upon Alonso and the punishment and rewards to be meted out to those concerned.

Dramatic Situations is created in this play which is another major characteristic. These are occasions when the attention of the audience becomes tense in expectation. They are allied with suspense, but the latter continues until the solutions are reached, while the former is momentary. We find it in a sharp exchange of sallies between Gonzalo and the Boatswain, in the threatened duel between Ferdinand and Prospero, in the drawn swords of Antonio and Sebastian, in the disappearance of the banquet just as the courtiers are moving towards it, in Prospero's listening unseen at the meeting of the lovers, and in the introduction of Miranda to Alonso.

 The situation of dramatic irony occurs when the audiences know of conditions unknown to the characters on the stage, or when some of the characters know and the others do not. This irony is used much more frequently in tragedies and historical plays than in comedies and masques. In The Tempest it runs quietly through the play in our knowing of the work of Ariel while the players do not. Specific examples of its occurrence are found in Prospero's listening in at the lovers, in the courtiers when in the magic circle as Prospero exposes their characters, and in Ariel's interference in the plots against Alonso and Prospero.

Fate is the intervention of some force over which human beings have no control. It is called Providence and Destiny in the play, but is by no means a characteristic of the play. But it was fate that directed Prospero's "rotten butt" to the island that brought Antonio and the Neapolitan court together in a ship near the island. Again, it separated the passengers from the crew after the wreck and then brought them in separate groups to land, each believing the other lost.

Nemesis is the Greek goddess of retributive justice, "an eye for an eye" who inflicts suitable punishment for the sinner. Caliban's beastliness is punished by animal pains; Antonio loses the power he seized; the drunken state of the villains leads them into thorns and filth; and Trinculo's quarrelsome nature earns him a beating. Good deeds also bring rewards Gonzalo's loyalty, Prospero's serious studies, and Alonso's repentance result in their final happiness.

Very few lines of the play have become popular quotations. The best known one is found in Prospero's speech to Ferdinand after the dance of the reapers in Act Iv, "we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep". Ariel's last song, "Where the bee sucks, there suck I', is another well-known line.

There are only two philosophers in the play, Prospero and Gonzalo. Prospero believes that life is a brief interval between the sleep of the unknown past and that of the future, that life is good, that its chief enjoyment is found in books and study, that good will finally overcome evil, and that sin must be punished. Gonzalo believes in loyalty and optimism, in making the best of a bad situation, and in the enjoyment of life, "an acre of barren ground better than a thousand furlongs of sea".