Self-proclaimed bibliophile, culture nut and nerdfighter. English lit. and linguistics geek. Future career in publishing.
I boarded the king's ship: now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement
- Ariel, The Tempest
The Tempest has been in my top five Shakespeare plays ever since I read it; in fact, I think it's probably my second favourite, behind Henry V. The play is about a usurped Duke of Milan, Prospero, who is stuck on an island in the Mediterranean with his daughter Miranda, and the havoc he causes when he shipwrecks a ship with the king of Naples and his men.
Oh, man. I love everything about The Tempest. It's funny (like, qualitatively and quantitatively funny), has lots of depth (emotionally), has great plotting, follows decorum (Ben Johnson would love this play!), has absolutely fantastic characters, and has a wonderful magical feel overall.
First off, the funny parts. Trinculo, a jester, and Stephano, the king's butler, basically get shitfaced in their first appearance (probably before that, actually). They are separated because of the wreck, but end up stumbling into each other with Caliban (the "original" inhabitant of the isle) as mediator. Their reunion is full of confused drunkards being confused, so obviously it's hilarious. Every time they appear in the play, it's a moment for Shakespeare to exercise how witty he is -- and it's awesome. There are jokes left, right and centre with these two and adding Caliban in the mix just makes it weirder and funnier.
This play is full of great characters. If Trinculo and Stephano weren't enough to persuade you, Ariel should. He's a little spirit that Prospero controls (and won't free even though he promised Ariel his freedom like a year ago, damn it) who constantly outdoes what Prospero tells him to do. Cause a shipwreck? Ariel makes it the worst thing ever. Spy on Caliban? Ariel causes confusion for Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo. Wake up the king of Naples and co.? Ariel sings them the cutest songs. He's basically just the best thing ever.
The next best thing is Caliban. I think Caliban is such a great character that I want to name an English Mastiff after him. He's the "original" inhabitant of the island in the sense that he was born on the island and Prospero took control of the island when he arrived, but Caliban was never an aboriginal: his mother was an immigrant. However, he represents the entire colonization debacle that was happening when Shakespeare wrote this play -- England had just arrived in the New World a couple years earlier. So it's tough to say if Caliban's character is a pro- or anti-colonization argument since the English public never really got into that kind of sentiment until much further down the line. Caliban is also interesting because he is very vulgar most of the time, but has the ability to be eloquent and kind. It's all a bit of "Was he born this way or was he made this way?" (Caliban's mother, Sycorax, was a bad witch and Prospero enslaved him, so.)
Shakespeare actually follows decorum in this play (for once, I know!). That means we get a play where the timeline is equal to the duration of the play. Nowadays we're used to going between locations, as Shakespeare does in Antony and Cleopatra, and skipping forward and backward through time, but that's just not what you do in classical drama. Sophocles would have not be down with that, and because Johnson was such a classicist he was not cool with it either. Normally I like my timelines fairly wibbly-wobbly and my scenes to be all-over location-wise (well, not so disjointed, but you know what I mean), but the straightforward classical style really works for The Tempest. I think it would be much too hard to follow if it were otherwise because there is just so much going on in this play. (And I'd rather not have another King Lear.)
I could gush on and on about this play since I love it so much. However, I'm just going to end this review with this: this play is gorgeous in setting, themes, dialogue and characters. It's so magical and so poignant that I personally think it's better than A Midsummer Night's Dream.