The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last comedy and almost certainly the last play he wrote without the collaboration of others. It is one of those works of art that suffer from the familiarity we feel with them. We read it as schoolchildren; we have probably seen several productions of it; its sea-changes and brave new worlds and our being such stuff as dreams are made of have entered into common usage. We are probably not aware of how strange it is. The only other play in which supernatural beings take major parts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, impresses by cleverness as much as by enchantment. The Tempest is not an obviously clever play. It is haunting — full of strange echoes half heard and less than half remembered. Works of art of this kind are very difficult to talk about. They encourage either a vaguely ‘poetic’ response, or explanations that shift very rapidly and often imperceptibly into creative perversions of whatever meaning the work in question actually possesses. The title recalls, quite circumstantially, Giorgione’s ‘Tempesta’, another of these mysterious creations that cry out to the onlooker to complete them by providing an explanation of their strangeness. And like Giorgione’s painting, Shakespeare’s play resists explanation. The column and the stream of the picture, the melodies and visions of the play, are the more powerfully alive to the imagination for being parts of a whole that is whole by virtue of nothing we can finally explain. We can plot their iconography and track down their sources, we can sound what stops we please; but we cannot pluck out the heart of their mystery.


Magic Circle Brotherly Love Shakespearean Drama Subsidiary Character Narrow Time Span 
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© Patrick Swinden 1973

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  • Patrick Swinden

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