Rejecting the classical models of an intense, unrelieved serious action, William Shakespeare, as in many others, used also in “The Tempest” his own technique of increasing the intensity of serious action by inserting the element of comic relief. As the play is rather a Romance than a Comedy, we don’t have scenes that create roars of laughter. However, the Stephano – Trinculo episode certainly provides us with pure fun and farcical elements. There is no denying the fact that this humorous episode provides relief to the strained nerves of the audience. But Shakespeare’s purpose here seems to be much greater.
In Act II, Scene ii of “The Tempest”, we come across the ‘great plot’ by the trio Caliban and his drunken associates, Stephano and Trinculo, to conquer the island after murdering Prospero. Stephano is to be the king of that island and the other two to be his viceroys. But the whole matter starts with a wide misjudgment on both sides. In his fright, Trinculo is taken for the spirit of Prospers by Caliban. Afraid of being tormented, Caliban falls flat upon the ground to escape Trinculo’s notice. Trinculo takes him for a fish, then a monster, and at last, for an islander knocked down by thunder. As the storm is upon him, Trinculo creeps under the gaberdine of Caliban for shelter.
Stephano now enters in a drunken state and seeing four legs takes it for some queer monster of the island. The scene of recognition is highly amusing. Caliban being drunken begins to worship Stephano and promises life-long servility to him. Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban, thus won over by the “heavenly liquor”, together conspire against Prospero. It is decided that the magician is to be murdered during his afternoon sleep. Stephano is to be the king with Miranda as queen, and the two associates are to be the ministers. Thus, in the scene, a great deal of fun, a broad comic effect is intended, and it comes as a relief to the charged atmosphere of the more serious conspiracy in the previous scene.
But the progress of their conspiracy is disturbed for a while in Act III, Se ii, at first by the Trinculo-Caliban quarrel and then by the Stephano – Trinculo fight, provoked by Ariel’s unseen interference. After peace is restored, the details of the plot are laid down. The three conspirators join hands in a pledge of the fulfillment of the plot, while Stephano sings “a drinking song”, jestingly named by Prof. Dowden in “The Marseillaise” of the enchanted island. In Act V, we see the three approaching the cell of Prospero, intent on his murder. Ariel has already decoyed them into a filthy-mantled pool. Prospero orders Ariel to bring out trumpery from the cell and hang it on the lime tree as a decoy to catch the thief. As Stephano and Trinculo enter the cell, they become more intent on the finery than on the murder. Meanwhile, the conspiracy is totally foiled when Prospero sets upon them a band of spirits who in the shape of hounds pinch and hunt them.
In this comic sub-plot, Shakespeare’s other conscious purpose is to present this drunken conspiracy against Prospero’s life as a grotesque parody of the more serious conspiracy against Alonso designed by Antonio and Sebastian. But the present one with Caliban worshipping the wine bottle, the drunken butler, and jester imagining themselves as the king and viceroy of the island is truly mirthful and ridiculous. Ariel’s impish trick leads to a quarrel between the conspirators and lastly the ambitious overlords decoyed by a robe all these are rich food for laughter
Again, the tricks of Ariel to set Caliban against Trinculo are but the repetition of Puck’s tricks in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. These are humorous things that are rightly enjoyed by ordinary folk. But of the higher and more refined humor of Shakespeare, which plays like sunshine on the ripples in the mature comedies, we’ve not the faintest suspicion in the play. The humour here is broad, almost descending into horseplay.