Monday, April 28, 2014

William Shakespeare's The Tempest as a Romance

"Romance" was not a generic classification in Shakespeare's time.  The modern term "romance" refers to a new kind of play, a hybrid of comic and tragic elements, developed and popularized by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher between 1607 and 1613. Their Philaster, 1609, is typical of the genre.  At the end of his theatrical career, Shakespeare wrote four such plays which are now commonly grouped together as the Romances: Pericles (1607-1608); Cymbeline (1609-1610); The Winter's Tale (1610-1611);and The Tempest (1611).

A romance is unrealistic. A romance usually has an improbable plot; rapid action; surprises; extraordinary occurrences such as shipwrecks; disguises; riddles; children or parents lost and found; supernatural events or beings etc. The Tempest, as a romance, has almost all these characteristics.

The plot of The Tempest includes improbable happenings. The setting of the play is in a remote island. We find ourselves on a remote, enchanted island which is full of `noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” It has a romantic glow, a rainbow world that has been created entirely out of the imagination. The entire atmosphere is surcharged with magic and enchantment.  There are strange events and shows. The play begins with a shipwreck. The passengers on board the ship are cast ashore. On a previous occasion, twelve years ago, Prospero and Miranda had themselves been cast ashore on the same island after having been exposed to all the dangers from the sea and the sky. Now, although all the passengers have been saved from death, King Alonso is separated from his son Ferdinand and believes him dead.

An air of unreality pervades the play because of the striking role of the supernatural. Supernatural elements abound in romances and characters often seem "larger than life".

In the play, Prospero with his magical power emerges as a typical romance character with larger than life stature. He has absolute control over human affairs, over the forces of nature, and even over the spirits of the air.The whole action of the story is governed by the supernatural powers of Prospero operating through Ariel, a spirit of the air who is ever ready to carry out Prospero’s commands. Ariel is himself a supernatural being with supernatural powers. Ariel can assume any shape he likes, and he is invisible to human eyes except to the eyes of Prospero. Prospero commands the services not only of Ariel but also of a horde of many other spirits, goblins and fairies. A large number of the spirits of earth, water, fire, and air do service to Prospero.

Like a perfect romance, the play abounds in supernatural happenings. The storm on the sea, the shipwreck, the preservation of the lives of the passengers and the crew aswell as of the ship itself,the laying down of the banquet by the strange shapes, the denunciation of the three sinners by a harpy; the presentation of a masque for the entertainment of Ferdinand and Miranda-all these events, which are crucial to the development of the plot and which also have an interest of their own for the reader as well as the spectator in a theatre are brought about by supernatural means. These supernatural events and situations lend to the island an atmosphere of enchancement.

In a romance plot is not logical, because in a romance cause and effect are often ignored.  The action, serious in theme, subject matter and tone, seems to be leading to a tragic catastrophe until unexpected trick brings the conflict to harmonious resolution. Reason can find no explanation for strange happenings on island. They are incidents such as happen in a fairy tale or in a dream world. In The Tempest the plot is also going to end tragically, if Prospero does not twist it into a comedy.

Another common feature of romances is the love of a virtuous hero and heroine.Miranda and Ferdinand are the beautiful and virtuous heroine and the brave and handsome hero typical of romance. Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda as soon as he sees her, and she too falls in love with him at first sight. Their love for each other is intense and ardent. Ferdinand willingly undergoes the labour of pilling up logs in order to be near Miranda and she tells him that she would become his wife and his life-long servant. A love affair becomes even more romantic when there is an obstacle or hurdle to be overcome, and in the present case, the initial severity and harshness of Prospero towards Ferdinand is the inpediment which is, however, soon overcome.

Because romances combine both tragic and comic elements, Fletcher called them "tragi-comedies".According to Fletcher, a tragi-comedy "wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy."  Like comedy, romance includes a love-intrigue and culminates in a happy ending. Like tragedy, romance has a serious plot-line that includes betrayals, tyrants, usurpers of thrones etc and treats serious themes. A romance is darker in tone (more serious) than comedy.  While tragedy emphasizes evil, and comedy minimizes it, romance acknowledges evil -- the reality of human suffering.

Tragedy depicts alienation and destruction, Romance, reconciliation and restoration.  In tragedies, characters are destroyed as a result of their own actions and choices; in Romance, characters respond to situations and events rather than provoking them.  Tragedy tends to be concerned with revenge, Romance with forgiveness.  The Tempest also ends with reconciliation and restoration, not with destruction and isolation. At the end of The Tempest also a full reconcilation takes place between Prospero and his enemies after he has made a long speech reminding Alonso and the others of their crime and then pronouncing his forgiveness upon them.

Another feature in which a romance differs from a comedy is the "happy ending". Both comedy and romance end with a happy ending. But while the tone of comedy is genial and exuberant, Romance has a muted tone of happiness -- joy mixed with sorrow.  Like comedies, Romances tend to end with weddings, but the focus is less on the personal happiness of bride and groom  than on the healing of rifts within the total human community.  Thus, whereas comedy focusses on youth, Romance often has middle-aged and older protagonists in pivotal roles.  Similarly, while tragedy deals with events leading up to individual deaths, Romance emphasizes the cycle of life and death.

Moreover, in a romance the "happy ending" may seem unmotivated or contrived, not unlike the deus ex machina endings of classical comedy where a God appears at the end of the play to "fix" everything.  Realism is not the point.  Romance requires us to suspend disbelief in the "unrealistic" nature of the plot and experience it on its own terms.

While tragedy explores characters in depth means emphasizing on individual psychology, Romance focuses instead on archetypes, the collective and symbolic patterns of human experience.  Compared to characters in a Shakespearean tragedy (or comedy), romance characters may seem shallow or one-dimensional.  But Romance characters are not meant to be psychologically credible; their experiences have symbolic significance extending beyond the limits of their own lives and beyond rational comprehension.  In Romance, the emphasis shifts from individual human nature to Nature. In the play we also find Prospero and Caliban representing two types of human Nature. It can be easily said in The Play Prospero represents the colonialists and Caliban represents the colonized.

Thus, in every way The Tempest comes out to be a romance. Here the setting, plot structure, the characters and the supernatural happenings make The Tempest a perfect romance.