Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1611) has a well-deserved reputation for being difficult to comprehend. For one thing, there is no obvious plot, just three groups of shipwrecked survivors who wander across the desolate island that is inhabited by Prospero, a master of the ancient arts of sorcery. They eventually all meet in Prospero’s underground cell, where he removes the spells he has placed them under, and then inexplicably sets all free. Also, Shakespeare doesn’t provide any motivation for Prospero’s obsessive study of these dark secular arts, which makes his gesture at the end of the play in freeing his captives and relinquishing his esoteric powers all the more puzzling. How are we to make sense of it?
Julie Taymor’s faithful film version (2010) of The Tempest brings seamless CGI dramatizations and high production values to the original Shakespeare play. It opens with Prospera’s (played by Helen Mirren) backstory of how she neglected her political power as the Duke of Milan in order to pursue her studies of the esoteric arts to gain power over the elements, with the result that her brother Antonio (played by Chris Cooper) betrayed her as allegedly a witch, usurping her title and exiling her and her 3-year old daughter Miranda to an island prison, taking nothing but some clothes, some food, and some of her hermetic books. The film then picks up the narrative 12 years later. Prospera as the Magus has used her esoteric knowledge to control the elements of wind and fire, in the person of the sprite Ariel (played by Ben Whishaw) and its legion of shadows, and the elements of earth and water, in the person of Caliban, now the foster-child of Prospera, who has begun his education and taught him language, but who has enslaved him (his duties include bringing firewood to Prospera’s cell and catching fish for her dinner, which he vehemently detests).
The key relationship, however, is between Prospera and the sprite Ariel, who longs to be free from Prospera’s dominion. As the play begins, Prospera commands Ariel to use its power over wind and fire to shipwreck not only the evil Antonio and his corrupt assistant Sebastian, but also the blameless King of Naples and his entourage including the wise Gonzalo, onto the Magus’ island. The shipwrecked passengers are broken up into groups, with the heir to the Kingdom of Naples, the flawless Ferdinand (played by Reeve Carney) landing alone, completely unhurt, who happens upon the virginal Miranda (the lovely Felicity Jones) and instantly they mutually fall in love. Prospera even commands a masque-dance to commemorate their betrothal. All of this is true to the original Shakespeare play.
Djimon Hounsou plays Caliban in a traditional manner, consistent with his 100-some lines of dialogue, as a spurned acolyte, violently resenting the master’s inattention. In the throes of his resentment, Caliban betrays his step-mother-mistress and conspires with the drunkard Stephano (Alfred Molina) and the jester Trinculo (Russell Brand) to kill Prospera in her cell during her afternoon nap. But Prospera is forewarned of their plot by Ariel. These three buffoons parade across the island’s lava landscape in a parody of self-important bluster, but then are hounded by Ariel as the Harpy, in full black feathers and giant crow’s-beak, into a glen nearby Prospera’s cell, with all the other shipwrecked characters in thrall to her power now located within her cell, as the play’s denouement approaches.
Ariel’s success is rewarded with its freedom, and it returns to the airy heights unfettered by Prospera’s powers of dominion.
Now in her private element, and despite the moral outrage she has suffered at the hands of her brother Antonio and his stooge Sebastian, Prospera chooses to forego her righteous vengeance on these middling personalities. Indeed, what is the point of torturing these petty, greedy mediocrities? She disavows her esoteric power over wind, fire, water, and earth by tossing her magus’ staff into the sea, along with her hermetic books.
What is the significance of the knowledge that Prospera had obtained at great cost to her, but now abandons? This is the unanswered question of this late Shakespearean play. If you persist in uncovering the depths of true knowledge, and reach a coherent vision of that reality, what does that mean? Perhaps Shakespeare is saying, “Seek to achieve your own understanding, I cannot do that for you.” Isn’t this the most human accomplishment, a lifetime of immersion in philosophy, science, the arts, and of course, love?