My fear of reading Shakespeare often comes from the mistaken belief that his books are mainly meant for scholars of literature, and contained very little for the ordinary reader. But when I read The Tempest , for the first since school, I realized Shakespeare's generosity and selflessness.
While the scholar will easily be able to enjoy all the hidden treasures of the story, Shakespeare's books were written for everyone, including the casual reader. Even though initially I was reading The Tempest to pass time, I surprisingly found the story speaking to my life and experience.
The main protagonist in the story is Prospero . He was the rightful Duke of Milan, until his ' perfidious ' brother Antonio, working together with his confederate and the sworn enemy of Prospero, the king of Naples Alonso , overthrew him.
Prospero and his daughter, Miranda were kidnapped and left die on a ' rotten carcass' of boat infested with rats and without a mast nor sail at sea. They however survived because Gonzalo, his old and loyal councillor, had left them supplies of fresh food and water.
He also left books that Prospero's prized above his dukedom, which were also the source of his magical powers. Prospero and his daughter end up in an island where they spend twelve years.
The story begins with a fiery storm that strikes a ship carrying Antonio ( Prospero's brother), Alonso (the king of Naples), his brother Sebastian , his son Ferdinand , Gonzalo and others, on their way from the wedding of the king's daughter Claribel.
It is a moment of impending defeat for all the conspirators against Prospero as their ship is repeatedly struck by lightning. The tempest was incited by Prospero using his magical powers with the assistant of his spirit, Ariel . The latter ensures that everyone lands safely on the island.
Ferdinand (the king's son) is isolated from the others, is found by Prospero who develops a fatherly liking towards him and also introduces him to his daughter. The two young people gradually fall in love. Prospero uses his magical spirit, Ariel , to bring the rest of the party from the shipwreck to him. He reveals himself to the king, and appeals to him not to fear.
He also invites the king, his sworn enemy, to spend the night in his cell, and goes on to tell him about the story of his twelve years in exile. With the ' deceivers pardoned' , Prospero is in the end restored to his realm, and his daughter, Miranda, is betrothed to the king's son.
After reading the book I felt that there were aspects of it that I felt, no doubt due to the genius of the writer, I didn't comprehend. The book is referred to as a comedy . But it was certainly no comedy to Prospero and his daughter who were uprooted from their principality and exiled for twelve years.
A strong comparison exists between this tale and events in several modern nations where coups and imprisonment of opponents are commonplace. The image of the conspirators caught up in a storm magically caused by their prisoner has strong similarities of regimes which are blighted by the disorder until power has been handed back to the legitimate rulers.
It is only the latter's authority that can quell the tempest . The book labors intensely to inform us that legitimacy has power that brute force cannot suppress or overcome, and that all other forms of power are comical. Perhaps that is where comedy in the story resides.
What also unsettles the spirit is the willingness and swiftness with which Prospero pardons his enemies. ( Or was this the writer's irony, and the machinations of a duke who was procrastinating revenge ?)
It is conceivable that The Tempest may have been the seed for Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden . Dorfman's country is also violently struck by a political tempest . In the end, as in The Tempest there is also a confrontation between the victim and the tormentors, and justice only prevailed when forgiveness was its companion.
Prospero's anger at his incarceration can only be imagined, and seen only dimly through his daughter's words to Ferdinand : ' My father is of a better nature, sir, than he appears by speech .' Perhaps there was a darkness of the soul, a gloominess of temper that his daughter felt she had to explain away.
We see this anger in Paulina at the end of the Death and the Maiden .
'And why does it always have to be people like me who have to sacrifice why are we always the ones who have to make concessions when something has to be conceded, why always me who has to bite her tongue, why?'
Another moment of ethereal beauty is when Ariel, the slave , surprisingly insists, though well looked-after, to be set free. I have no knowledge of what Shakespeare's religious beliefs were, and have no wish to ascribe any to him. But he seems to be telling the reader that freedom is a divine need of the soul and that nothing else can ever suffice in its place.
Due to the limitations of my understanding of Shakespeare's work , I couldn't help feeling that the true message of this story revealed itself to me only narrowly. Perhaps that is due to the distant era in which he lived with its attendant enigmas, the genius of the writer and the power his imaginative resources continue to have over his readers.
Perhaps just as the storm and the island were an illusion to the conspirators in the play, also the socio-political and other subtle themes of the play are just another malignant enchantment cast by the inscrutable Ariel , and that the real joke and comedy is on me.
This is however what I found beautiful about the story and the writing of Shakespeare is that he invites us, and almost mockingly implores us, to invent the meaning for ourselves. With this powerful story our powers of comprehension and consciousness are enlarged and tested.