Even if, because I’m yet to see a convincing production, The Tempest isn’t my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, it does contain my favourite line: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” As well as encapsulating human existence in eighteen lines, it’s always seemed to me to be a moment when Prospero breaks from the suspended disbelief of his fictional world and considers his own existence as a construct and in a way that slots in the space in reality between the actor portraying him and the audience.
Such woolly mysticism is probably nonsense but as Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T Vaughan (henceforth known as the Vaughans) demonstrate in their superb introduction to the newly revised third series Arden Shakespeare edition, of all Shakespeare’s plays The Tempest, because so much of it's world and characterisation have apparently been left deliberately vague, critics and creatives across the centuries have fallen over themselves to pour into the precipice all kinds of what some might describe as analytical construction and others dated prejudices. Imagine the six years the internet spent talking about tv's Lost (itself heavily influenced by the play) stretched across four centuries.
That’s true of much of the canon, but in The Tempest’s case the depth of investigation is particularly rigorous and resolves about twin, linked subjects: the location of the island and the nationality of Caliban. Unable to accept this receptacle of Propero’s Arts as a fantastical construct, writers have sought to position it geographically and metaphorically as anywhere from the North Atlantic coast of Africa to Ireland to encompassing both North and South America, with Caliban revealed to be a cannibalistic expression of any number of their inhabitants.
This makes for uncomfortable reading. By the early twentieth century The Tempest was actively being described as Shakespeare’s American play, with Prospero symbolic of White colonial powers and Caliban as the savage, subjugated native Americans even though as American Scholar Elmer Edgar Still noted “there is not a word in The Tempest about America or Virginia, colonies or colonizing, Indians or tomahawks, maize, mocking-birds, or tobacco. Nothing but the Bermudas, once barely mentioned as a faraway place like Tokio or Mandalay.”
Such diversions consume a high proportion of the Vaughan’s work though much is spoken of sources which are numerous but inconclusive. The Tempest lacks an ur-text, though it’s thematically informed by Ovid and Virgil and tales of exploration by Willam Strachey and Montaigne, both reproduced in the appendix, the product of Shakespeare’s magpie mind which makes for one of the shorter literary antecedent sections seen in an Arden. There’s still some room to consider the Freudian readings of the play though as you’d expect they're rather less baroque than for Hamlet.
All of this is cleanly presented and because the Vaughans are steeped in The Tempest having both produced separate volumes about the play, their attempts to cram in as much detail as possible into the introduction makes for a very dense read. But refreshingly their work lacks an agenda; probably because they’ve worked through their own opinions elsewhere they’re more relaxed about simply presenting the arguments of others and letting the reader decide as to their merits, pleasingly giving due prominence to contemporary thinkers like Bate, Wells and Kermode.
The Tempest (Arden Shakespeare) edited by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan is published by Methuen Drama. RRP £8.99 paperback. ISBN: 978-1408133477.