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Let’s Play: A1S2 The Tempest – Prospero tells Miranda their history

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The Tempest starts with an enormous storm in which a boat is being shipwrecked and the passengers and crew fear losing their lives. All is sound and confusion so we (the audience) don’t get much of a chance to understand what the play is about.

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All becomes clear in A1S2 in which Prospero explains to his daughter Miranda how they come to be on the desert island. In this exercise, we’re not going to explore the whole scene (you can do that after you’ve finished this exercise), only until Miranda falls asleep.

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Why don’t you start by reading the scene and then we’ll come back and explore it in some detail? You need two players: the first to play Prospero, the ‘lord’ of the isle, and the second to play his daughter, Miranda, who has a supporting role in the scene, and may find her attention wandering. We’re reading the scene to see what we can learn about the relationship between Prospero and Miranda, and their ‘backstory’ – how they come to be where they are.

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Click on the following links to go to the scene with your character in highlight text mode (your lines highlit in yellow). Here are the links:

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Player 1: Prospero

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Player2: Miranda

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So, now you’ve played the scene once, let me tell you what I think it tells us about Prospero and Miranda:

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The scene starts with Miranda rushing on stage and describing the storm to Prospero – ‘her dearesst father’ – and to us in the audience. But she starts by suggesting that Prospero might have the power to create the storm – and to make it calm down. Miranda thinks her father, Prospero, has great powers.

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She then goes on to describe the storm and how ‘I have suffered with those that I saw suffer’ – the people on the boat. If she had powers, she would have stopped the storm. Miranda empathizes with the suffering of the people on the boat and wants it stopped.

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How does Prospero react? He wants Miranda’s suffering stopped: ‘Tell your piteous heart there’s no harm done’, and then again, ‘I have done nothing but in care of thee, of thee, my dear one, my daughter’. Prospero loves his daughter and tells her  that no harm is done, and it has all been done for her.

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He also tells her she doesn’t  know where he came from, or who she is, which he’s going to spend the rest of the time until Miranda falls asleep, telling her, and the audience, about.

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Now it isn’t too difficult to work out the story of how Prospero was overthrown by his brother, with the help of the King of Naples, and was put to sea in a leaky boat with his baby duaghter, and eventually arrived on the island, with Caliban, Ariel, and Sycarax – I’ll let you explore that yourself. But there’s something else which is very interesting in this scene.

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Whilst Miranda (and the audience) are listening to Prospero’s tale, he asks Miranda three times if she is listening to him:

Dost thou attend me?
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Thou attend’st not!
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Dost thou hear?
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In each of these three cases, Miranda answers the question in less than a half line and Prospero resumes his tale.

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Why has the author broken up this story, which only takes up 40 lines (Arden: A1S2 , nlines 66 – 106) with these interrupts. Why?

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If you’re playing this scene as Miranda, or Prospero, or directing it, you need to find a convincing reason why, and that explanation should inform your playing of the scene.

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I used to think that the author was nervous that the audience would get bored with this long story and so introduced the interrupts, to break up the monologue with some dialogue. But the best playwright in the English language, worrying about holding the audience’s attention for 40 lines? It’s not credible.

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Perhaps it says something about Miranda’s relationship with her father. Yes, she loves him dearly, but his stories of the past are really rather boring, and she does lose attention. But that’s not really convincing. She shows plenty of interest before those forty lines, and plenty of interest after them, so that idea doesn’t really hold water.

 

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For a while I had a lovely theory, which I think could make work in a production:

Miranda is feeling tired, and she is nearly falling asleep.
Three times Prospero tries to keep her awake, and then…
At the end of his  story of how they came to the island,  Prospero lets his daughter (not through his magic, but because she can’t help it) fall asleep:

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Thou art inclined to sleep: ’tis a good dullness,
And give it way: I know thou canst not choose.

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So Miranda falls asleep, and the rest of the play is Miranda’s dream – a bit like the start of Alice in Wonderland, only to wake up towards the end of the play:

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These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all Spirits and
Are melted into Air, into thin Air;
And – like the baseless fabric of this vision –
The Cloud-capped Towers, the gorgeous Palaces,
The solemn Temples, the great Globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial Pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

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To my mind the play has a dream-like quality: the king and his courtiers wandering the island; the lustful Caliban preying on the innocent girl; the handsome prince who comes to wake her from her dream.

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I think one could make this work, and Derek Jarman’s Tempest (see our review at:  Review (***): The Tempest; Jarman; 1979) goes some way towards that vision.

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There’s only one problem, and that is that I am not sure that Shakespeare’s vision of the play was like that.

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So my not altogether satisfactory working hypoothesis is that the writer’s purpose in writing this story with the three interrupts is something like the following:

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Prospero is very bitter and angry about his overthrow and his sacrifice to the waves.
As he tells Miranda the story he becomes enrapt in his anger (which the audience sees) and so upset that he forgets his daughter.
From time to time, he becomes aware of her again, and checks she”s still with him:

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Dost thou attend me?
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Thou attend’st not!
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Dost thou hear?
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The story of The Tempest is then not the story of Miranda’s dream, but of a revengeful Prospero struggling to overcome those feelings and forgive his enemies, so that his daughter, and his enemy’s son, can make all right again in the next generation. Or maybe it’s both stories?

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Plus everything else that goes on the play of course.

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Now, when you read this scene, how do you think it should be played, and how does that affect your playing of the scene? I hope you come up with some even better interpretation of the scene (and the play) which lives up to the C17 script, and your modern sensibilities.

 

 

This scene and Act 4 Scene  (Magic and Masque at Miranda and Ferdinand’s nuptials) really tell the story of Prospero, Miranda, and Ferdinand, so you might like to play both scenes together to get a good idea of the plot of The Tempest.

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Let’s play!

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

 

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