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ASIDES: These Charms Dissolve: On Shakespeare’s The Tempest

By Paul A . Kottman

There are at least two truisms about Shakespeare’s drama, generally, and The Tempest, in particular, with which many audiences are likely to be familiar.


Geraint Wyn Davies as Prospero. Photo by Scott Suchman.

First, Shakespearean drama contains many “meta-theatrical” moments, or scenes in which the plays seem to reflect on themselves— as if Shakespearean drama is sometimes about itself, or about its own status as theatrical drama. While Shakespearean drama is essentially the artistic presentation of actions and predicaments before an audience, Shakespeare also calls attention, from within his plays, to the stakes and implications of such presentations. Think of the way Hamlet tries to capture the conscience of Claudius by staging The Mousetrap, or of the way that the opening Chorus of Henry V alerts us to the “imaginary forces” required to watch a play, or indeed of Prospero’s direct appeal to the audience in the Epilogue in The Tempest—in virtue of which Prospero appears simultaneously in character and as the actor playing Prospero.

Second, The Tempest is likely Shakespeare’s valedictory, the last play that he wrote alone. It is, I think, difficult not to imagine Shakespeare himself speaking when Prospero utters those final words of the Epilogue. “Now my charms are all overthrown,/ And what strength I have’s mine own…”

Taken together, what can these two truisms tell us about The Tempest?

By working artistically to finally let go of his Art, Prospero seems to offer an intense reflection on one final aim of Shakespearean theater: to transcend drama (or art) from within the sphere of dramatic art. But what do we mean by dramatic art or “Art” here? And what could it mean to transcend an art from within its own sphere?


The Tempest, 1886, Ivan Aivazovsky

Consider, first, Prospero’s “art”— not just as a fictional device but also as an allegorical presentation of the dramatic arts or of Art generally. Like all Art, Prospero’s “art” denies nature’s authority over the artist. Most basically, Art just is a denial of nature’s power to tell us what to do with natural elements. Art has always been an elemental way we work with and through the seeming indifference of Nature in order to achieve our own aims. Human beings move immensely heavy material to build temples and palaces, turn colors and rough surfaces into painting, change sound waves and instruments into symphonies. Distilling all of this, Shakespeare’s allegory shows Prospero’s art to be as powerful as anything yet seen in the history of human Art:

I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ’twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-bas’d promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have wak’d their sleepers, op’d forth, and let ’em forth
By my so potent Art …
– act 5, scene 1

That said, Shakespeare’s dramatic interest in Prospero’s art—his interest in theatrical drama generally—lies not in any natural-environmental consequences, but in the social-historical aftermath. By artfully denying Nature’s authority, we teach ourselves what we are capable of. Through Art, that is, we alter our self-conception—we no longer see the course of history as set by an all-powerful God or Nature, but rather come to see ourselves as capable of anything. Art is a fundamental practice through which we have come to better understand ourselves—our activities and social bonds—as self-determining or up to us. Think of The Tempest’s opening scene—in which our very experience of “natural” elements (the storm, the waves) is presented as an artistic, human accomplishment. After all, the meaning of the tempest is nowhere to be found in the frothy waves but, as Miranda, and the audience discover, it resides in the stirring social consequences that follow upon the storm. Even those on the ship feel that their fate lies not in the indifference of the roaring sea to the King’s command, but in recognizing the autonomous capacities of their own hands—inebriated as they are: “We are merely cheated of our lives by drunkards…” (act 1, scene 1).


Avery Glymph, Rachel Mewbron and the Ensemble of The Tempest. Photo by Scott Suchman.

With all this in mind, and to return to the questions I posed earlier, consider one of the more puzzling moments of The Tempest, act 4, scene 1—in which the most refined spectacular techniques of Shakespeare’s era (so called Masques) are pressed into the service of filling the island with strange sights and sounds: spirits, trances, somnolence, charms. Why does Shakespeare present this overwrought exhibition of theatrical “art”? What is he trying to show, or achieve?

In one sense, act 4, scene 1 simply puts the sensuous capacities of theatrical drama on self-conscious display, in order to show the broader expressive freedom of the theatre with respect to other artistic media. Theatrical drama can contain music without being reducible to a musical performance, it can contain dance without being taken for a gambol or a ballet, it can contain spectacles of all sorts without being reducible to mere show. Moreover, theatrical drama can purposefully show this containment of other media as essential to its own specific expressive power—much like cinema today. Which is, of course, just what Prospero demonstrates. All of this—whatever else it might mean in the context of The Tempest (and it is not at all clear what else the demonstrations from act 4, scene 1 are “about”)—can be taken as Shakespeare’s presentation of various components of dramatic practices that would normally escape our attention, that we might otherwise pass over as simply part of the proceedings at a playhouse.

But, again, why are we asked to be so attentive to theatrical drama’s expressive freedom—and its eventual self-dissolution at Prospero’s own command? “Well done! Avoid; no more!” (act 4, scene 1). Consider how Prospero addresses his own activity. Again, Prospero seems to locate the aim of theatrical drama both in the display of its expressive power and in the dissolution of that display.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air …
– act 4, scene 1

At first, Prospero seems here to draw attention to his own artistic prowess—the free, nature-defying capacities mentioned above. However, it soon becomes clear that he wants to connect this prowess to something like the fate of all human Art.


Geraint Wyn Davies as Prospero. Photo by Scott Suchman.

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
 Leave not a rack behind.
– act 4, scene 1

Here it might seem that Prospero is saying that all of our artistic-cultural achievements will eventually be quite lost. But if we understand this loss as owing only to the inherent frailty of material goods or to the arbitrary vagaries of history, then we are missing something. For Prospero speaks of “the baseless fabric of this vision.” What is being dissolved is not just concrete, artistic stuff, but also an “insubstantial pageant”—a vision of ourselves. The appearance and disappearance of artworks and civilizations is the pageant of our historically shifting self-conceptions—the various ways in which we have seen or understood ourselves.

Indeed, following this, Prospero invites us to identify ourselves not with this or that material creation, but rather with the imaginative activity behind this rise and fall of entire worlds.

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
– act 4, scene 1

In short, if revels end then this is because our shifting needs for different arts express and respond to our changing self-conception. After all, as a society, we no longer express our collective self-conception as we once did—in the performing of ritual tragedies, for instance, or in the building of cathedrals, or in the painting of saints’ lives. We can and do let go of certain artistic practices.

Hence, we ought to be able to see changes in our practices as determined by us—by shifts in our self-understanding, and not just by forces beyond our control. The human freedom implicit in all Art is perhaps made most explicit when we can see ourselves as capable of letting go of this or that art.

Making this explicit, I think, is Prospero’s aim—a challenge Shakespeare set for himself. Hence, at the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare will not just rehearse the standard Elizabethan-Jacobean epilogue about a play’s ending. Instead, the play’s very artistic mode must be brought to a close, revels ended from within—first of all by the artist, who drowns his book and staff.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own
– epilogue

But how can theatrical artistry and all it implies—the overcoming of nature, the artificial distance it creates between artist and audience, participants and spectators—be dissolved by the artist himself? How can theatrical drama transcend itself from within its own sphere? After all, ending a play from somewhere outside the play—by, say, pulling a fire alarm in a crowded playhouse or by conjuring a deus ex machina—is cheating. That does not bring theatrical drama to a close, but merely cuts it off.

To address this challenge, several actions seem to be required. First, the artist must risk appearing otherwise than as an artist. Certain trappings have to be jettisoned.

…I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
– act 5, scene 1

This is not only a matter of trading one guise for another, nor is it merely the artist is undergoing a shift within himself. Rather, and this is the second requirement, that the risk the artist has taken, in appearing otherwise than as an artist, also changes the way things stand for others. It would not be enough for the artist to appear as otherwise than an artist if everyone persisted in their former self-conception—if everyone were still held, as it were, by the enduring effects of that art’s spell. The spell also must dissolve—so that we, too, might see how things between us really stand now.

…The charm dissolves apace;
And as the morning steals upon the night,
Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle
Their clearer reason….
– act 5, scene 1

Third, to truly risk appearing otherwise than an artist means that the letting go of art—if it is to be a genuine risk and not merely further artifice—cannot itself be artfully accomplished. To appear as otherwise than an artist therefore could not be accomplished as an artist—lest that “appearance” be taken for another demonstration of artistry. Only a human being could appear as otherwise than as an artist.

So, finally—as if Shakespeare’s drama, as if all theatrical drama, had been a preparation for this moment—a human being stands forth, and steps away from the “art” he made and from what that art itself wrought.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own
Which is most faint…
– epilogue

But even at this point, another moment is still required. The distance between what we see and our own lives must dissolve. We must acknowledge that Prospero is not just a fictional character, that the “island” is not a safely distant aesthetic domain…

I must be here confin’d by you
… Let me not
… dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands….
– epilogue

… hence, that we are no longer acquitted from the obligation to intervene.

Nothing is sacred in Shakespeare’s drama, not even its own status as dramatic art. This status dissolves the moment that it wants something other than passive spectatorship from us—when it asks us to acknowledge others, to let them be present to us, and to become present to them. 


Paul A. Kottman is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at The New School for Social Research. The author of A Politics of the Scene (Stanford UP, 2008), Tragic Conditions in Shakespeare (J Hopkins UP, 2009) and the editor of Philosophers on Shakespeare (Stanford, 2009), he is currently completing a new book, tentatively called Romantic Love as Human Freedom.

Excerpted from full article published in the e-book Guide to the Season’s Play 2014-15 available for purchase for the Kindle or Nook.


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