Last night I saw a student production of The Tempest.
I’d never read the play, but knew it featured a shipwreck and a character named Ariel, as well as (in this case) a circus interpretation. Usually, I try to read the play first: my synapses take a while to sync with the nuances of Shakespeare’s words. But, as I did not have a chance to read the play beforehand, I sat back and tried to track the flow of the narrative instead.
At first, I hated Prospero.
His name is no accident. He was genial enough, but manipulative. His power he used to make things work according to his demands. He bids Ariel that she will have her freedom in two days more than he originally stated, and I didn’t buy a word of it. I wanted her to be free, and didn’t understand what he was doing except to trap her. Manipulative characters make me angry. I didn’t want to trust him.
Slowly, I understood where he was coming from, and why he ordained the ship sunk and the passengers stranded. I still didn’t like him. But even more, I saw how what looked like manipulation was also interpretable (new word?) as orchestration. Perhaps, perhaps, he was doing this for some greater good — but I still heard no kindness I could trust in his voice.
He was, at the least, clever. He spoke aloud of how he will make Ferdinand’s suit difficult, but only in order to grow the prince’s love for Miranda.
I still didn’t buy it. He was too angry. Maybe he didn’t want Ferdinand and Miranda to marry for their own sake, but for his own plan to win back his dukedom. He still had a score to settle with his brother and co-conspirators. He still had the potential to be an utter snake.
Most coming of age stories feature a realization
that the world is broken. They also feature a character
who shines through in the end.
Then, at the end of the play, he looks on the faces of his friends and enemies, and is moved.
He takes off his coat and hat, and sets them free from their blindness as he relinquishes most of his power in order to reconcile with them. He embraces his brother, the usurper who wanted his place, winning him back not with threats or anger but “I forgive you.”
Thus Prospero relinquishes his anger, but not his justice. He is given back his dukedom, but without malice and not out of fear. He wins by letting go of the source of his current prosperity in order to win back his own family.
Real Love is the gentlest breaker of hearts that are lost.
Reconciliation complete, Prospero sets the final order of The Tempest a-right. Ships are found to not be lost, son is restored to father as well as father to son, and a True wedding is announced.
At last, Prospero is alone on the stage with Ariel. Bright, fleeting Ariel that he threatened and promised to, the doer of his wishes. And in his last moment of power, Prospero relinquishes all of his unearthly power as he set Ariel free, and then returns to the world in his own right.
Most coming of age stories feature a realization that the world is broken, and needs to be fixed. They also feature a character who shines through in the end. Usually, they must learn how to use their power for the benefit of others, especially today’s YA ‘coming of age’ stories.
Maybe we lose something when we stop telling stories of how someone sets aside their power to save not just the world, but the people who broke it in the first place. Because, really, most (all?) of the angry characters in the Story are just as broken too. Especially the unlikeable ones.