The Tempest as an Inversion of Shakespearean Tropes

The Tempest is quite the black sheep in regards to the rest of Shakespeare’s plays, as it shakes up the status quo of what the regimented expectations in which Shakespearean comedy and tragedy came to be known. The Tempest contains much of the same formula as Shakespeare’s other plays, with the incorporation of magic and the occult to set the conflict of the plot in motion. This trope has been repeatedly employed throughout Shakespeare’s canon, such as the Faerie troupes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream creating confusion among the Athenian youths, the ghost of King Hamlet (or was it?) planting the seeds of revenge in Prince Hamlet’s head, and the meddling witches foretelling of Macbeth’s rise to power. In all of these instances though, humans were not among the world of magic – they were simply bystanders, idle playthings who were the object of a magical being’s willpower. However, in The Tempest, we see a human who has finally mastered and made use of magic to further his own agenda: Prospero, the dethroned Duke of Milan. He goes so far as to manage to enslave the spirit Ariel to do his bidding by freeing him from “a pine” he was imprisoned in (1.2.293). Prospero’s power leads him to bewitch his own daughter into slumber: “Thou art inclined to sleep; ’tis a good dullness, / and give it way. I know thou canst not choose.” (1.2.185-6), which sets Prospero up as a anti-hero protagonist. We sympathize with his plight of being usurped of the throne, but we detest his cloaked manipulation of his own daughter with magic. Prospero also incapacitates Ferdinand with a charm: “For I can here disarm thee with this stick / And make thy weapon drop.” (1.2.473-4). We now know that Prospero can use his magic to do battle, and to turn the tides in his favor. This gives Prospero an unprecedented level of power over the other characters in the play, a level of power which Shakespearean humans are seldom to possess. Prospero beats a swordsman while he himself is unarmed (sans his magic), a feat uncommon in the canon. From this opening act alone, we view Prospero as a threat, a force to be reckoned with, and a ruthless practitioner of magic to achieve what he once lost.

Another trope of Shakespeare’s which is inverted in The Tempest is the concept of love at first sight, a trope Shakespeare relies on throughout many of his plays, both comic and tragic. Juliet and Romeo’s “spring fling” of a misguided romance and Viola’s head-over-heels mutual infatuation for the oafishly bland Orsinus come to mind as examples of this trope. In The Tempest, Shakespeare pokes fun at one of his most critically panned, yet widely romanticized tropes in the characters of Miranda and Ferdinand, who fall in love at first sight, as many characters of Shakespeare’s plays do. Prospero, in viewing this exchange, downplays their love, being a sort of devil’s advocate, proclaiming the audience’s thoughts into the narrative of the play. Miranda has only had one man in her life besides her father, the slave Caliban, who sought to take advantage of her, as Prospero reminds us: “Thou didst seek to violate / The honor of my child.” (1.2.348-9). As a foil to Caliban, Ferdinand seems like an “angel” (1.2.482), which Prospero sees as a reason for Miranda’s misguided feelings for Ferdinand. This rationality is in conflict with Shakespeare’s previous depictions of love at first sight as pure, which makes the play all the more comedic and enjoyable, knowing the bard can poke fun at some of the more unbelievable plot devices he has used.

As a subversion, Shakespeare sets up The Tempest as a play where anything can happen, and the previous rules under which Shakespearean narrative has been played out in the past are not to be expected by the audience. This subversion creates a more profound experience on even the well-read playgoer, as stories thrive on the suspense given off by uncertainty, and the powerful use of irony can thus be implemented as the audience’s expectations are inverted to better give the dialogue and exposition of the play its comedic and playful voice. This is then coupled with the mythical fantasy nature of the narrative as a means of bewitching the crowd to leave the audience in awe and wonder, their imagination begging the question: “what will happen next?”

Things to consider as reading of the play continues are: 1. Will Prospero’s magic forever be this powerful, or will he have another fall from grace? 2. Is Prospero withholding some information from his grandiose story, thus making him a shrouded villain, or is his cause just? 3. Will Ariel find a way to revolt and gain freedom? 4. What is Gonzalo’s role as a double agent for both Prospero and Antonio?


One thought on “The Tempest as an Inversion of Shakespearean Tropes

  1. Cyrus

    This is a good analysis of the changes that Shakespeare makes to some of his well-worn, tropes, John. You are right to point to how the play shifts away from some of the stories that we have seen elsewhere. This makes it all the more interesting when we see examples of similarities–moments where the play follows some of the patterns we have seen before. These are cast in a new light within the shifts of this play.


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