Hamlet and The Tempest

Bert Hornback looks at the similarities - and differences - between two of the greatest of Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare's Tempest is called a "romance," a "miracle" play, or a "fantasy" by categorists.  I don't have a name for it, except the one Shakespeare gave it.  It is--to me--either a very serious, moral double-play, or it is perverse.  And it ends with a scene not unlike the final scene in Hamlet--but with the addition of an epilogue for its stage-manager, puppet-master, god-figure, Prospero.  It is this which brought me to think about the two plays together.

From the beginning of his play, Hamlet is on his own.  Whether he has seen his father's ghost or not is irrelevant.  Marcellus is right:  "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."  What?  Hamlet suspects that the king his father was poisoned.  And that suspicion puts a very serious burden on his mind.  We are often reminded that Hamlet is a student.  And though he is home from university, his first role is still learning--but not from books, not at university.  He is in what he must learn: at home.  And--unlike Prospero--he has no magic to control the evil that he suspects.  What Hamlet learns won't save him, or Denmark.  Rather, it will kill him--and give Denmark to Norway.

Hamlet himself is an honorable young man, unwilling to enact revenge though his murdered father requires it of him.  His father's murderer--Claudius--plots with Laertes to murder Hamlet.  A poisoned cup, a sharpened, poisoned rapier. But having "touched" Hamlet with that rapier, Laertes--in an accidental change of foils-- is himself "touched."  Gertrude drinks--unknowingly--from the poisoned cup which Claudius had prepared for Hamlet. Laertes dies of the poison he intended for Hamlet--but dying, tells Hamlet of the plot.  Hamlet then "hurts" Claudius with the poisoned rapier. 

Hamlet is the last to die.  He tries to explain what has happened--"Had I but time. . . O. I could tell you."  But he doesn't have time:  "The rest is silence." He asks Horatio to "tell [his] story"--which is the cue for Fortinbras and the English ambassador to come on stage.  They will be the audience for Horatio who--seemingly with something like glee--assumes the responsibility for explaining what has happened:


            . . .  let me speak to th' yet unknowing world

            How these things came about.  So shall you hear

            Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts;

            Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters;

            Of death put on by cunning and forc'd cause;

            And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

            Fall'n on th' inventors' heads.  All this can I

            Truly deliver.

Fortinbras and the others leave the stage with Horatio.  From the preview Horatio has just given,

we know that what they hear will be an Elizabethan version of tabloid sensationalism.  We--the audience--are left with the obligation to understand Hamlet's "story"--and his heroism. 

The end of The Tempest--ten years later--is formally the same.   The plays are very different, of course.  There is no murder in The Tempest, and in the end the evil previously   done--to Prospero-- is forgiven by him.  Act five opens with Ariel's report to Prospero:  Alonso and his followers are all "confined," off-stage.  They are brought before Prospero--costumed now in his "magic robes"--and accused of their crimes.  His accusation takes but eight short lines, and then he says:  "I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art."   

Prospero frees the villains.  Another ten lines, and he promises Ariel that he, too, "shalt ere long be free." Ariel's servitude--and his desire for freedom--are part of the focus of The Tempest from the second scene of act one until the the play's final line, and as they frame the play deserve our serious attention.

  In act one Ariel reminds Prospero that he has promised Ariel his "liberty." .And again, "Ariel, I shall miss thee, / But yet thou shalt have freedom."  Ariel, however, has committed no crime; he has simply been Prospero's slave.

In act five, Alonso gives up his claim to Prospero's dukedom, and asks that Prospero "pardon . . . [his] wrongs." Prospero agrees, and also forgives Sebastian, his "most wicked . . . brother."  And as an after-thought, a hundred and twenty lines on, he tells Ariel to "set Caliban and his companions free."  He then accuses them--to Alonso and Sebastian--of having "robb'd" him--and of having "plotted" together to "take [his] life." We must remember, here, that Alonso and Sebastian have also robbed him, and plotted to take his life.  With a few pinches and stings as punishment, Prospero sends Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo to clean his "cell":  to "trim it handsomely."

Why?  So that his noble guests but forgiven criminal guests--"your Highness and your train," he says--may go there, to "take [their]rest."  And while they rest, he will tell them 

                                                the story of my life,

            And the particular accidents gone by

            Since I came to this isle. 

But Prospero isn't the fool that Horatio is.  Horatio doesn't understand the story he has to tell. His summary would fit any number of the bloody "tragedies" Shakespeare's audience could have seen in London at the beginning of the seventeenth century.  Horatio will make a mess of the story he tells.  He doesn't understand it at all.  Ten years later it is Prospero's turn--and, unlike poor, stupid Horatio, Prospero understands his play.  Has understood it, all along.  He has been in control of it--as though he were Shakespeare, not Shakespeare's creation.  And Prospero's control produces a very sour selective justice. 

Both plays are in some sense about governance and order.  But the perspectives are very different.  Hamlet comes out of the Elizabethan tradition of what were called "revenge tragedies"--but Hamlet is not such, despite what Horatio thinks.  Hamlet is a play about its central character's moral heroism.  The Tempest, however, is very much a "revenge" play--not a "romance" or a fantastic dream of civilization restored by magic.  At its end, Prospero abuses his black slave, Caliban, along with his jester and butler.  Since the play began, Ariel has been asking for his freedom, but Prospero has refused.  Only when Prospero has completed his revenge--with Ariel's aid--does Prospero set his fairy slave "free."

            Prospero forgives Alonso, however, for stealing his dukedom and exiling him--and calls Alonso "Highness."  He also pardons Alonso's treacherous brother Sebastian, and his own usurping brother Antonio.  He invites them to "his poor cell"--Caliban and the other two were sent to clean it for these gentlemen--and proposes to entertain his noble but erstwhile murderous guests for the night.  Come morning, Ariel will be used one last time by his master, to conduct them safely home--and then Ariel will be freed. From slavery

            Tonight, the three forgiven villains all disappear--into Prospero's "cell."  The scene reminds me of Fortinbras and the British Ambassador at the end of Hamlet, following Horatio off-stage to hear his gory, sensationalist version of the "story" Hamlet wanted told.  The promise of that scene--Horatio's story of "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts; / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters" made a very quick, and rancid end to Hamlet.  But we know Hamlet's story--can "tell" it as he asked, can "report[him] and [his] cause aright."  At the end of The Tempest, we know both parts of Prospero's story:  how his dukedom was stolen from him and himself exiled, and his tyrannical rule of his island.   But this, surely, is not "the story of [his] life" with which he will entertain his generously forgiven noble guests before he produces their lost ship to send them home.

Prospero ushers these magically repentant but formerly villainous "guests" into his cell, gives Ariel one last charge before setting him "free"--and himself remains on stage, to speak to us. 

"Since I have my dukedom got," he says--prosperously--he wants to go home.  And, coyly, he asks for our help in getting there:


                              . . . release me from my bands

                              With the help of your good hands.

            Do I want to applaud for Prospero, as he asks?  I don't.  Reading Hamlet--and then reading The Tempest--I think I will resist Prospero's appeal for applause.  I will maybe sit on my hands.






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