The Fairytale of The Tempest

When reading Shakespeare it is easy to think, “This is a Shakespearean play, either everyone is going to die or someone is going to act foolishly which will eventually bring everyone together.” As such, one can become unimpressed with the similar hints tragedies and comedies give the reader. However, if I were to suggest a play as an entirely different genre —one maybe not even associated with plays— different expectations and Easter eggs appear to the reader, allowing for better active reading and understanding of the text. William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, The Tempest, is a fairytale.

According to various teaching websites, fairytales have approximately nine ingredients to look for. To start off slow, we’ll look at Disney.

The first ingredient is a magical object. This object holds a level of significance in the story, either as the source of a character’s power or it is the cause of important events. One fairytale that exercises this is Beauty and the Beast. When placed under a curse, the Beast is given a magic mirror that allows him to see whomever he asks to see. When given to Belle, she tries to use the mirror to show the townspeople that the Beast really is kind, thus leading the townspeople to storming the Beast’s castle. If the people hadn’t stormed the castle, Belle wouldn’t have broken the Beast’s curse.

Next, we have special first or last words, similar to, “Once Upon a Time” and/or “…and they lived happily ever after.”

There are good characters, like Cinderella who cleans, cooks, and takes care of her sisters and stepmother like a servant rather than a family member and yet she is only kind. Then there are bad characters like Cinderella’s stepmother, who refuses to recognize the orphaned Cinderella as a daughter, much less more than a maid. And, of course, there are royal characters like Prince Charming.

Typically, fairytales include an impoverished character, usually before, between, or after the story. A fairytale such as Snow White exercises this quality. Where before, Snow White was living in her castle as a maid, the moment the Evil Queen finds out Snow White is “fairest of them all,” Snow White is forced to live in the woods for her own safety. It isn’t until The Prince arrives that Snow White is able to again live in a castle.

Another clue would be the magical creatures. Snow White has her witch of a stepmother, Cinderella has her fairy godmother, Ariel is a mermaid, and Belle has her Beast. As one delves deeper into the qualities of fairytales, there are two last clues which ask the reader to look a little deeper into their knowledge of magic and the purpose of storytelling.

The first of these cognitive clues are patterns of three or seven. Snow White has her seven dwarves and Ariel is one of seven daughters.

The very last clue is a universal truth. This truth is one believed in (although not always practiced) by society as a proper lesson in which to teach the reader what to do or what not to do. The most famous lesson among these truths is Beauty and the Beast’s: it’s what is on the inside that counts.

So how does The Tempest fit? To go in the same order as the above paragraphs, the magical object in The Tempest are more like objects. Prospero is studious when it comes to his magic. Why? His magic is sourced in his books, the books that Prospero specifically asked Gonzalo about before he and his daughter ran from Milan. Without his books, Prospero’s power would be weakened. In many fairytales the magical object sets the tone in a precarious manner where the distinction between a tragedy and a happily ever after are uncertain. Unlike the Beast’s mirror that showed the French people the Beast, Prospero’s books not only set important events into motion, they are also the source of his power. The fact that Prospero’s objects are books enforces the argument, “Knowledge is power,” which runs in line with the fact that fairytales were meant to teach children about the world around them.

The second ingredient was the special first or last words. In The Tempest this is Prospero’s epilogue:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own,

Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,

I must be here confined by you,

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got

And pardoned the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell,

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands.

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardoned be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

Prospero states that he no longer practices magic, he is a normal man, yet since he is a normal and “faint” man, he is now bound by the audience’s power. He states that since he has forgiven all who deceived him, it’s the audience that must forgive him and through their forgiveness can he go back to Milan. The symbol of the audience’s forgiveness is their applause. Prospero’s epilogue is considered special because it not only ends the play with a significant and sincere address to the audience, it also contains the universal truth therefore ending the play on a clear, final note.

The good characters consist of Gonzalo, Miranda, Ferdinand, Ariel, and Alonso. Based off of morality these characters are considered “the good ones”. None of the previously mentioned characters have killed, plotted to kill, or exercised any explicit use of power over the will of others.

Then there are the bad characters: Antonio, Sebastian, Caliban, and Sycorax. Antonio not only overthrew his brother (Prospero) from his dukedom, he also talked Sebastian into killing the King of Naples, or his brother, in other words. Had Ariel not awoken the sleeping Alonso and Gonzalo, Antonio and Sebastian would have surely succeeded in killing the king for their swords were drawn and they had gotten themselves drunk on the idea of power, Antonio having already gotten his feet wet from taking over his brother’s position. Caliban not only plots to kill Prospero, he is also quoted to having been keen on raping Miranda. Even with her powerful father standing over him, Caliban says, “Oh ho, oh ho! Would’t had been done!/Thou didst prevent me” (Shakespeare I.ii.354-355). This goes without saying of course, because his mother is the black witch Sycorax. Sycorax is described as to having trapped Ariel in a tree for disobeying her orders and torturing him with magic, all the while having come to the island from being cast out of her homeland for doing mysterious evil deeds (Shakespeare I.ii.262-284).

Next, we have our royal and impoverished characters. Alonso, the King of Naples, and his son, Ferdinand are returning on their ship from Alonso’s daughter’s wedding to the King of Tunis in Africa. On the ship is the King’s brother, Sebastian, and the (new) Duke of Milan, Antonio. On their way back from the wedding they pass an island that unbeknownst to them houses two people they made homeless: Prospero and Miranda.

The seventh clue is the appearance of magical creatures. In The Tempest these creatures are Ariel and Sycorax. Ariel is an air sprite paying a debt to the magical practitioner, Prospero. He can transform himself into fire, cause storms, put people to sleep, and call forth other magical sprits. Sycorax, as was recently described, is a black witch, one who worships the demonic god Setebos and is said to have been, “…so strong/That [she] could control the Moon” (Shakespeare V.i. 269-270). While one could argue Prospero fits into this area, he is described as neither witch nor warlock. His magic merely comes from him studying his books. Prospero isn’t a magical creature, just a human that studies and practices magic.

As we near our last two clues, we’re left with patterns and the universal truth. The majority of the patterns in this play are pairs of three. In many religions the number three is an important number. There’s the maiden, mother, and crone in wicca mythology, the three Fates in Greek, the three Norns in Nordic, and then there’s the Holy Trinity. Our patterns lie in the couplets of people paired throughout the island. We have Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban as our first threesome, Miranda, Prospero, and Ferdinand as our second, the masque of the three goddesses as our third but what about the King’s group? When the King and Gonzalo are left on the island they’re left with Sebastian and Antonio; however, those main characters are not the only ones there. In the beginning of Act II, Scene I the stage direction is written, “Enter Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Adrian, Francisco, and others” whilst this direction does not clearly state how many “others” we can safely assume this amount of characters makes up the seven; however, with the plural statement of “others” and not simply “other” one can argue that the King’s particular party… makes up more than seven (II.i.).

The most important clue of all is the universal truth. Many stories have truths, or messages to them; however, in the aspect singular to a fairytale, this universal truth is meant as a lesson and sometimes as a warning (See The Evolution of Beauty and the Beast). The Tempest’s universal truth is only made prominent when looking for it. In the beginning of The Tempest, Prospero asks Ariel to cause the passengers of the ship either jump overboard or stay on the ship until it washes them ashore. He does not take the opportunity to kill them. Why not? There are several theories one may have, so let us entertain the idea, he does not mean to kill them, rather he wants them to be afraid. Prospero wants the passengers of the ship to see his power and let them find out it was he, the one they usurped, that was causing them so much distress. This theory would explain his sending out Ariel; however, he makes Ariel invisible to everyone but him and when he’s about the castaways, he mostly makes them fall asleep. These facts cross that theory out so what else could it be? Could it be Prospero simply wants to show off his magical prowess in a look-what-you’re-missing-out-on kind of pompousness? That would explain the banquet and the ghost hounds he sets on Trinculo and his companions, then again, what do a drunk butler and a jester have to do with those who usurped his power? That leaves the banquet scene in Act III, Scene III. Prospero has a magical banquet appear before Alonso and his company, just before the men are about to eat Ariel, in the shape of a Harpy clasps on to the table and tells the company that he is a minister of Fate and because Alonso and his company subjected poor Prospero to the sea Alonso has lost his son (Shakespeare III.iii. 60-82). This is the only time in which Prospero gives a single inkling to his bitterness at the deed his brother and the king wrought on him; however, this is the first and only time Prospero takes obvious action in extracting any form of misdeeds to those he cast upon the island and it’s not even personally done by him. What, then, does that say?

Let’s step back for a moment and take a look at all the things Prospero has not done to those who left he and his daughter homeless. Prospero did not kill when he immediately could have, the only time he used fear was to draw thieves away from his cell and get the ship’s company on the island, while he uses his magical powers he is virtually invisible all the while he uses them. As a good fairytale detective, what can one draw? Let’s add one more clue: the simple fact that Prospero is the first to forgive those who not only usurped but plotted to kill him. The most powerful man, as it is stated in the play (Shakespeare I.ii.371-374) is Prospero, so why then is this powerful man —arguably more powerful than the King due to his being on Prospero’s island— not as vengeful and greedy as Shakespeare’s other characters? Simple answer, Prospero is responsible for bearing the universal truth of forgiveness.

Prospero does not kill, frighten, or show off his magical power for revenge or a power play, instead he plots certain events for each individual character to recognize their faults. He makes a secret plan to marry Miranda off to the Prince of Naples, rather than secretly plan to kill him for revenge. Prospero’s choreography of events is mostly done for Alonso and Antonio in the banquet scene. After this scene, Prospero forgives his brother and the King, all the while accepting the king’s plea for forgiveness. After chasing off drunk Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban for stealing expensive garments, the trio get off with a simple, chaste, repercussion even though the three were planning to kill Prospero in their drunken stupor. Why make Prospero the flag-bearer? He is the best example Shakespeare can provide. Similar to an older sibling being a role model for the younger, Shakespeare gives the reader a man with metaphysical power, servants —one a sprite and the other the son of a witch— and the best possible motive for revenge: the homelessness of he and his daughter; and makes him forgive and befriend those who usurped him. Why provide a lesson at all? Shakespeare was famous for providing progressive thoughts in regard to race and war. Being a famous dramaturge, Shakespeare is then presented with an important opportunity to convey a message to an adult audience. In this way, Shakespeare has made it known that despite a series of unfortunate events, revenge can be seen as unimportant by those with the most power.

At this time in history, fairytales were drafted as warnings to children. Usually, the summation was, “Don’t go into the woods,” otherwise little boys and girls will be eaten by witches or wolves! Shakespeare took the general idea of something meant for children —a lesson learned— and let it grow about five feet so that it could be better introduced to an adult audience. Forgive, otherwise you’ll be stranded on an island of isolation. The only people that are there are the ones that have to be. After everyone was forgiven and Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban cleaned up Prospero’s cell and Alonso blessed Ferdinand’s and Miranda’s marriage did Miranda and Prospero finally return home. This time with better relationships than when they left.

If one were to view The Tempest as the romance play it is argued to be, similar patterns would erupt like those in previous comedies, such as The Merchant of Venice or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When caught up with a stereotype it may be hard to un-see all of the patterns a romantic comedy elicits like all of the other romantic comedies. With this singular view, the message in The Tempest and clues for the flow of the play go unnoticed or are lumped in with other romantic comedy molds. However, it takes a suggested change of lens to view such a read and reread play as something different than what it’s been called for hundreds of years. Once a pattern is noticed the play turns into an Easter egg hunt in search of magical creatures and princes, but most of all that universal truth.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest was a complete turnaround from the usual revenge plays one has seen in the past. Where before Prospero is determined to get back at those who usurped him from his dukedom and caused he and his daughter to be homeless, the play ends with both sides asking for forgiveness and a happily ever after. Given this change of events and pattern from something that could have been a tragedy with a good cause, one is left to speculate and analyze the text for its overall meaning and tone. As such, certain Easter eggs and clues were left behind for the reader to find. If read from the point of view of a fairytale, The Tempest has a metamorphosis which takes on a whole new meaning to a romantic Shakespearean play. When read as a comedy or love story, as The Tempest is often called, one can become easily nonplussed by finding its usual footprints that make it comedy and love story.

Allowing The Tempest to open itself into the realm of fairytales provides not only a closer reading of the text, but more information to be stored on that particular play and different facets of Shakespeare himself to be revealed. This gives permission for new hints to be found and a better understanding of the play’s message in whole: forgive.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac for The Tempest


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