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Photo © Marc Brenner

Photo by Marc Brenner

The Tempest – Footnotes

May 28, 2020 | Footnotes | 0 comments

These footnotes are a follow-up to our live discussion in episode five of the podcast, including a selection of points from my researches that we didn’t happen to include, as well as follow-up on any facts and questions that came up during our conversation with Tim.

St Elmo’s Fire

When Ariel tells Prospero how he manufactured the storm in Act 1 Scene II, he describes how he “flamed amazement”:

sometime I’d divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join.

The flares appearing at the tips of the ship’s masts might remind the sailors of the maritime weather phenomenon known as St Elmo’s Fire, where balls of light created naturally during an electrical storm would appear at the exposed points of the spars. St Elmo is an Italian name for St Erasmus, the patron saint of sailors, whose martyrdom included being painted in pitch and set alight, and his intestines being extracted and wound around a windlass. Sailors prayed to him for deliverance from the storm, seeing the electrical discharges as evidence of his presence.

The Sea Venture founders on Bermuda in 1609 – painting by Christopher Grimes

Voyages to the New World

During our conversation Tim and I referred to Shakespeare’s knowledge of the exploration of the New World that was prominent in his lifetime. In particular in 1609, two years before he wrote The Tempest, a fleet of ships was despatched to North America to establish the British colony at Jamestown in Virginia. Famously one of the ships foundered in a storm, was separated from the others, but somehow beached safely on the island of Bermuda. The tale of their miraculous landing on a paradise island was popularised in various pamphlets published in 1609/10, from which the germ of the play may have occurred to Shakespeare.

Nature vs Nurture

The idea that being nobly born predisposed a character to virtue was a common belief of Shakespeare’s time – witness by extreme extension the inherited “divine right of kings” for example. Likewise, beauty was associated with virtue and ugliness with vice or evil. The contrasting figures of Miranda and Caliban can be seen as representations of this dialectic between Nature and Nurture. Miranda is hign-born, schooled from a blank age only by her father, she is chaste and kind. While Caliban as the offspring of a witch, is “a devil, a born devil”, “capable of all ill”, “on whose nature Nurture can never stick”, despite Prospero’s “human care” and Miranda’s teachings. Their education could not restrain or replace Caliban’s inherent vile nature that compelled him to “seek to violate the honour” of Miranda.

Nature vs Art

A similar debate is suggested in the play between the value of the natural world and the civilisation created by man’s art. That same learned art that establishes virtue in individuals, is by extension also responsible for creating a civilised society. Such a view, supported by religious certainty, underpinned the superior attitude of the colonialist missions. By contrast, Shakespeare presents a world unspoilt by the infrastructure of civilisation, and it is not clear that the natural world is not a more attractive place. Gonzalo makes a poetic and persuasive speech in Act II Sc I, where he describes a brave new world that could be created on the blank canvas of the island, a new commonwealth without the accumulated realities of wealth and poverty, contracts of law, land ownership, material goods and weapons, traffic or trade, even sovereign rulers. A potential paradise where “Nature should bring forth…all abundance to feed my innocent people.”
An unspoiled island may of course stand in for the Garden of Eden, where fallen men may arrive at true self-knowledge and be redeemed thanks to the mercy of the overseeing God, in this case Prospero?

The Power of Poetry

During the course of our conversation in episode 5, Tim quoted from John Berger on the power of poetry. We couldn’t fit the whole of our discussion about this subject into the time limit on our podcast, so I wanted to share the quotation here:

“Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory or defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.”

from And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
by John Berger

In Tim’s experience of considering and performing The Tempest, he believed that the poetic power of Shakespeare’s language raised the impact of the play; that poetry transcends the story, affecting the audience by tapping into shared human experience.

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