We find Shakespeare’s so-called final period producing three romances of which The Tempest is the best representative. Several views persist about these romances. Dowden finds in them a serene self-possession after the sounding of depths in sorrow, suffering, and guilt, and consequently, he thinks that the spirit of reconciliation observed in the happy endings is not merely a function of stage device but of a compulsive moral need. Lytton Strachey who challenges Dowden holds that the happy ending may not be a response to stage necessity but is demanded by a fairy-tale atmosphere for which a bored poet was hankering after his tragic exhaustion. Dover Wilson challenges Strachey and finds in these plays and particularly The Tempest a spiritual conversion of Shakespeare
trying to look into the heart of things. Tillyard opines that there is no cleavage between tragedies and romances, they being supplementary creations.
In The Tempest, there is much poetry, more magic, the exhibition of the supernatural powers, a pastoral atmosphere, and wild wanderings on the foams of perilous seas. These are some of the sure marks of the romances where the flight from probability is recurrent and where the search for complete impossibility is not ruled out. The laws ruling the universe of The Tempest are not the ordinary laws prevalent in space and time, at least not till the great Prospero
abandons his rough magic. Despite the action developing in a world of nature, the natural events grow increasingly stranger till they cease to be natural at all.
Shakespeare had already sounded the depths in the great tragedies, he could dive to deeper. The artist in him demanded a newer fulfillment in fresh themes and pastures new. To the rather exhausted Shakespeare, the romances provided an inexhaustible source. Product of medieval western Europe, this literary genre was still popular in Elizabethan England where it had received a grand treatment from Spenser to Greene. Shakespeare tried to organize this genre into the dramatic form and in doing so he added his typical touches.
In adopting the romances for the basis of his new drama, Shakespeare departed somewhat from the traditional romances whose normal characteristics are wanderings, disguises, surprises, pastoralism, etc. Shakespeare retained ‘these general features no doubt but he laid emphasis on certain other elements such as anger, conflict, separation, revenge, reunion, forgiveness, and reconciliation. This is nowhere clearer than in The Tempest, where Antonio’s ambition clashes with Prospero’s happiness resulting in separation on the enchanted island where father and daughter remain on banishment. The revenge motive is clear in the raising of the tempest on the sea at the behest of Prospero’s magic and airy magicians. In the end, a happy reunion comes between brother and brother, between father and son, and the wedding bell of Ferdinand and Miranda heralds regeneration. However, the original touches of Shakespeare’s romances consist in placing the dramatis personae between two generations, the old and the new. The old generation is marked by anger and revenge motives which ultimately end in forgiveness as is abundantly witnessed in The Tempest. This is also true, more or less, about two other romances of this final period.
The Tempest has a fantastic fairy-land setting in an enchanted island floating on the foam of perilous seas. The play opens in this magic atmosphere with many characters who are supernatural agencies. Prospero works wonder with his magic wand and the masque scene enhances the romantic beauty of the play. The Tempest seems to be a study of the Superhuman in human affairs showing its power and potency through Chance and Providence. It addresses itself, to quote Coleridge, to our imaginative faculty and we enjoy our journey to the enticing world of romance as we read or see the play acted.
However, the serene, comic, blessed, and romantic mood of the play depicting an enchanting world of poetic wonder is somewhat marred from the beginning by the faintly tragic rumblings coming from within. Despite the gay romantic atmosphere, there are streaks of pathetic light and dumb feelings of pain reminiscent somewhat of the preceding tragic vision of the poet-dramatist. The innocence of childhood receives a rude shock at the behest of Chance or Providence working through a conflict in which the child (Miranda) has no part. She grows up in banishment ( of course, in the magic company of her loving father ) ignorant of birth, rank, or tradition and at last is restored to her station. We can discern a tragic pattern in this play and Tillyard seems to hit the mark when he says that the Shakespearean romances are supplementary to the tragedies both in sequence and pattern. The tragic possibilities loom large in the romances and the final glow of comedy over the tragic pattern saves them from the darkness of tragedy.
Both the story and the theme of The Tempest suggest the underlying tragic pattern. Shakespeare adopted a new method in telling his tale in The Tempest where the action began at a very late point so that the entire story had to be narrated by flashback method, as we moderns may call it. The tragic element in the story is clear from the storm scene where Shakespeare seems in the words of J. D. Wilson to pack his whole tragic vision of life into one brief scene before bestowing his new vision upon us. And Tillyard tells us that The Tempest “is more typically tragic in the fashion of the age than The Winter’s Tale.” Thematically the tragic pattern is obvious in the Antonio-Sebastian-Alonso affair in the last scene of the second act. But the tragic trends were finally overcome by the comic possibilities of reconciliation and reunion, love, romance, regeneration, forgiveness, and freedom. Here Prospero ‘acted as his own agent of regeneration making Miranda into a wonder-child of his own longing, and changing the minds of his enemies through his magic art. This central motivation on Prospero succeeds ultimately in subordinating the destructive elements of the theme and makes The Tempest justly famous for its almost classical unified structure.
In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates is made to say that comic and tragic genius is allied and one who can write a comedy can write a tragedy. Although the statement is not surprisingly true of Greek drama known either to Socrates or Plato, it applies admirably to the genius of Shakespeare who has written superb comedies and tragedies and romances in which the last case the happy conclusion throws into relief a somber background compounded of conflict, jealousy, suffering, sorrow and sometimes, death. The Tempest after all ends in reunion and happiness despite all the clashes and conflicts, stresses and storms, and when the lights go out, the farewell message rings in our ears, romantic, yes, for the brave new world yet reminds us of something thrown away, something gone as if never to return. It is not perhaps exactly tragic, this feeling of farewell when a great one “let the moment go with four simple words: “Now I will rest”. That is the last plaintive tune of the play and that surveys throughout the age despite tempests of time.
Also read: Character of Gonzalo in “The Tempest”