The Tempest: The play
William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a play that explores a theme of burgeoning English imperialism, and a good bit of history is needed to fully grasp it. The play was written in the beginning of the 17th century, at a time when the English were starting their conquest of New England, while also conducting a brutal colonization effort in Ireland. The concepts of race and prejudice were being shaped by experiences with the white and pagan Irish, in a sort of ironic prelude to the introduction of the “savage” brown Native American and the “inhuman” African slave. The play explores these ideas in a time frame where they were still growing and developing, a concept wholly alien to our society today. But to transport oneself to this mindset is to fully understand what Shakespeare means in his commentary on colonization.
Colonization, at the time, was a very new word and a concept that was still being understood. The Irish were considered by most to be pagan and grotesquely savage, but Ireland was considered an unspoiled and beautiful land that deserved a chance to develop through Christianity and participation in the English economy. These ideas, developed during Shakespeare’s life, are explored through Trinculo and Stephano’s interactions with Caliban, and Gonzalo’s monologues, respectively. Trinculo and Stephano represent the idea of exploitation and gaining status and wealth in the homeland. They reject the idea of advancing principles, and instead favor advancing their status in the preexisting society of England (2.2.18 “The Tempest”). Trinculo does this by pondering taking the “fishman” back to England and showing him off to people for silver pieces. Stephano outright enslaves Caliban for personal use, by giving him wine and promising to free him from Prospero. This represents the imperial mindset to colonization. This mindset seeks to enhance the motherland, with no regard to the native population. This idea can be seen used in the European colonization of Africa, and parts of the Americas. Gonzalo, however, represents an idealized way of approaching colonization. He seeks the inherent beauty of the unspoiled land, where the possibilities for settlement and creation are endless (2.1.162 “The Tempest”). But the folly of his idea exists in his belief that work would not be done by the “men and women.” This curious and seemingly foolish idea seems to make no sense; how can a colony, which is intended to become a nation, be created without work? As Ronald Takaki says in his essay, “The ‘Tempest’ in the Wilderness,” the answer lies in Gonzalo’s verbal segregation of the islanders and the “human generation” of Naples (3.3.34). The belief during the Irish colonization effort was that the Irish were “savages” and unable to have human qualities. For instance, laws were passed that kept marriage between English and Irish. A precedent of hatred was set that exists today (to a lesser degree, of course). Gonzalo represents the assumption that the gentry would not work, and the natives would jump at the chance to help build this nation while remaining subservient to the colonizers.
A more muddled combination of these ideas can be found in Prospero. He and his ward represent the reality of the situation. They have been banished by their greedy “brothers” to find fortune elsewhere. This represents a more intricate working of Shakespeare’s play that the economic system of the English was such that the exploration of new lands was imperative, as stagnation was unacceptable. Jonathan Gil Harris brings up the point that mercantilism was not a sustainable economic policy and the conquering of new lands was required to remain a strong nation. Prospero represents the explorers that were sent by a society that demanded more wealth. Pressures from society, in the form of the promise of high wages or the lack of alternative jobs, “banished” them, just like Prospero (however, he was banished due to the greed of his brother), and when they arrived at their mysterious destination, they convinced the natives, with “magic,” to build their empires (in Jamestown, to an extent, and then in many other European colonies), which Prospero did as well, albeit with Caliban.
The “magic” in the play is the power to convince and manipulate. There is no definitive proof that Prospero ever has magical powers, and in fact, there are hints to the contrary. The infamous monologue at the end of the play is supposedly a display of his “powers,” but no sorcery exists that convinces the audience to “fill his sails,” yet audiences invariably acquiesce to his demands.
The Tempest: The Film
The film version of this Shakespearean classic has the difficult task of recouping million dollars with a script that is 400 years old. For better or worse, modern audiences do not respond favorably to the language of Shakespeare, and the stories do not necessarily guarantee box office success either. The film’s solution to the challenge of drawing big audiences is a heavy reliance on computer-generated imagery. Presenting interesting visuals and compelling locales, the crew uses modern solutions to modern problems. This solution is hampered by one thing, a relatively small budget. The grandiose nature of the tempest, Ariel’s magic, Caliban’s grotesque nature, and all the exotic scenery of the island demand a suitably beefy budget, and the director could not secure it. This problem extends in multiple directions, as the director was chosen during a precarious time in her career (her Broadway Spiderman was in a downward spiral) to head a movie that was intended to be a relatively low-budget film (20 million dollars). The resulting CGI is also low budget, and even though the impressive promotion poster has visuals that seem to be in line with modern special effects (nowadays almost exclusively CGI), the resulting CGI is sub par.
Another aspect of the film that was critical to its creation was the attachment of big name actors. An actor or actress of notable repute plays every part in the film. The film benefits from this by having professional players (these people are of notable repute for a reason) and by giving audiences another dimension to understanding the characters. For instance, Helen Mirren is a stately actress that is perhaps best known for her Academy Award-winning performance in The Queen. She brings that same royal air to Prospera. Regardless of the time constraints of film, her casting gives the audience a leg up in understanding the character. Helen Mirren allows the audience to know that even though Prospera is a wretch living on an island after being thrown out of her own country, she is still qualified to take back her dukedom and lord over Naples once again.
The Tempest: The Adaptation
The adaptation of the play inadvertently applies the conclusions that modern society has drawn to the questions brought up by the 400-year-old story. As Roger Ebert notes, the themes of prejudice and race are changed with the casting of Djimon Hounsou as Caliban. Caliban is originally a nationless foreigner. The Irish were treated terribly, and they were white and converted to Christianity. Djimon brings, like Helen Mirren, connotations to his character via his previous work. His breakout role, which he was nominated for several awards, was an African slave in the film Amistad. His position as Caliban draws the lines of prejudice as heavily racial, as they are widely held to be today. But in the original play, Alonso is coming back from marrying his daughter to a prince in the Algiers, a man that was most certainly of a darker complexion. Prejudice in marriage rights, as mentioned previously, was created without the delineating factor of race. So Djimon now forces Caliban, a representative for the injustices done to the native, to be of a different color, at least in the minds of the audience. This implicit hegemony changes the meaning of the play in a very large way, but also in a way that is not readily apparent without careful analysis, which is not really possible in a two-hour film.
Prospero’s change to Prospera for the film also plays off of modern temperaments. In Shakespeare’s day, only males were allowed to act. So for a female to not only act, but to be a duke (or at least a duchess that holds the powers of a duke) would be a very strange occurrence. Modern days have ushered in an era of striving for equality, but the reality of the situation is very different. While the swap is a very inexpensive change that would garner attention and explore an interesting retelling, it does leave out some of the themes of the play.
These changes turn the story from one that examines a motif of the effects of colonization to a story that makes great attempts to garner attention amongst the myriad of adaptations of Shakespearean stories. Regardless of the success or ease of making these differences, the adaptation loses some of the things Shakespeare tried to say. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Modern audiences would most certainly detest a story criticizing, and in US society, making prejudice about color makes the theme much more recognizable.
The Journal of American History
Vol. 79, No. 3, Discovering America: A Special Issue (Dec., 1992), pp. 892-912
Jonathan Gil Harris. Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare’s England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Project MUSE. Web. 27 Jan. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Roger Ebert, . n. page. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-tempest-2010>.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/Saint Martin’s, 2009. Print.
edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan, see Shakespeare