The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
One of the questions this book asks that is worth exploring is the extent to which context matters when it comes to viewing the excellence of a play . After all, the play is concerned with questions of death, political power, and legitimacy, and it was the last play that Shakespeare wrote without some collaboration with members of the next generation of Jacobean playwrights. In addition, the play was the first one in Shakespeare’s First Folio, and that condition as well gave the play a heavy degree of weight when it comes to being viewed as an apologia for Shakespeare’s life as a playwright. Can the play as a whole hold that kind of weight, and was it meant to? Can the play hold the weight of being an early exploration of European imperialism in drama, which freights the way that the book looks at Ariel and Caliban and the way that European exiles created massively powerful colonial regimes that had dramatic effects on the local indigenous population as well as that of others that they encountered along the way? Perhaps not, but that is the sort of weight that the Tempest carries because of its context in the life of the writer as well as within the situation of England in the early 17th century as it was embarking on a lengthy and successful imperialistic period.
This short book of barely more than 150 pages begins with a lengthy introduction that discusses mastery and rule in the play, magic, the context of Caliban and Sycorax, the plantation themes of the play, court and masque life, and poetic faith. After that there are some textual notes and key facts about the play. The text of the Tempest, which includes only nine scenes in five acts and a dozen speaking roles of any significance, takes up about 85 pages. After that, the play includes some brief textual notes and a scene-by-scene analysis that is more than a tenth the size of the play’s text itself. After this there is a look at the Tempest in performance that includes a discussion with Sam Mendes, who did an RSC version of the Tempest during the 1990’s before coming to fame in Hollywood by directing American Beauty. After that the play contains the usual (for this series) look at Shakespeare’s career in the theater, the chronology of Shakespeare’s works, as well as suggestions for further reading and viewing, references, and acknowledgements.
The Tempest is truly a fascinating play and at its center is a mysterious and powerful exiled ruler with some darker overtones. Do we see Prospero as a victim of his quest for knowledge, as a stand-in for God or a playwright seeking to direct people to fulfill his grand purposes, or as a jealous father and colonialist prototype? What we see in a play like this one depends a great deal on who we are and where we come from and what our perspective is. Speaking for myself, I find Prospero to be a man not unlike myself, someone with an experience in exile, with a love of acquiring knowledge and power through one’s intellectual capabilities, and also someone who likes to carry my own plans and wishes into fruition even with the difficulties of working one’s will with recalcitrant people. Nevertheless, not everyone will be as fond of Prospero or will be able to relate to him as much. Some people may find themselves relating to Caliban and cursing their supposed problems due to colonialism and view themselves with a victim mentality. It is pretty clear that Shakespeare’s feelings towards such matters were complicated, and I think in that complexity we find a great deal of genuine humanity.
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