Liminal Space in The Tempest
It appears that all comedies throughout all ages relies on the accuracy of its meta-commentary, all successful comedies inhabit a illusionary world filled with flickering shadows of truth and mirrors filled with elements of human behaviour. In many ways comedy takes our human experience out of our sheltered reality and into a liminal space that accentuates how strange, and in many ways mad, our life really is. The idea in question, then, is whether The Tempest does conform to this rule and to other conventional laws that a standard comedy does.
The Tempest blurs the edges of what is real, and what is not, so effortlessly and so quickly throughout the plot that it can be considered toppling over the metaphorical edge of reason towards a chaotic illusion, however, the comedic structure holds the play together and preventing it from entering a genre closer the Theatre of the Absurd with no classic resolution. To achieve this affect Shakespeare initially takes away one of humanities greatest frameworks: time. Although the play moves in a chronological fashion there are no clocks featured and no mention of day by any of the characters when speaking of the island which moves the play away from our relatable world. Prospero mentions time to Miranda when talking about Naples, as he states his usurpation was “one midnight” (i), despite this being a fleeting phrase it separates Naples and the Island, which is separating our world from this new liminal space of The Island. The time element provides certainties when humans are confused of a series of events, and now that it is taken away nothing is provable and therefore cannot be thought of as real or ever happening. Throughout the plot there is also evidence that illusion is powerful on this Island for instance the stage direction “the banquet vanishes”(ii) which is contrary to anything that could actually happen in the real world. Shakespeare then emphasises the distance between The Island and our reality as Gonzalo asks “If in Naples I should report this now, would they believe me?”(iii) The answer is no, but normal rules of physics do not apply to The Island or to any liminal spaces in comedies; the Island is on a membrane of physics. Many parallels can also be made between a dream and The Tempest because many of their characteristics are familiar; in a dream ultimately nothing matters, in the same way that The Tempest follows the structure of, exposition, complication but then eventually resolution which is the joyous event in which the characters end the play in a mood better than they entered it with and so the characters have not really suffered. Throughout the play Shakespeare allows the characters to slip in and out of consciousness under the whims of Prospero at one point there is a stage direction that commands “all sleep”(iv). Shakespeare’s last address also contains the lines “We are such stuff that dreams are made on” (v)This added element of dreaming only adds to the already distorted undefinable new reality found on The Island.
In the Jacobean era it would have been very hard to achieve this effect of The Island being on the edge, and much of how the audience interpreted the play would have been reliant on the staging techniques used by the theatre companies. However, Shakespeare does allow for the difficulties of staging a storm that enters the characters into the realm of illusion and so uses language to show the audience that they are now to view the play with no such certainties. One technique in particular is very effective is the dialogue at the very beginning of the play because the audience can clearly differentiate the social status of the characters onstage due to clothing and the way they speak, characters of higher status speak in iambic pentameter, but then Shakespeare breaks down the foundations of hierarchy by making The Boatswain’s lines commanding and authoritative which is very unusual as they are towards the King Of Naples, such as when he orders them to “”to cabin. Silence!” (vi). The audience can now understand that The Island is not their reality because working class labourers are commanding Kings and Dukes, the antithesis between the Boatswain and the King would be very clear on stage and to some extent amusing for the Jacobean audience.
Many critics have thought about The Tempest as a comedy or a tragedy and as tragi-comedy due to the different elements supporting each in the play. The idea of an overshadowing gloomy presence is achieved throughout by the constant plots of revenge and murder, these include Caliban, Sebastian and Antonio and although the plots are never fulfilled there can still be considered an underlying evil surrounding the characters. Therefore, the play is also on the edge genres; as it contains multi-layered plots but does not maintain the law that in tragi-comedies the controlling characters are ugly. At the time of The Tempest’s release no much debate would have arisen because our modern audience empathises with Caliban. The slightly wistful stage direction “Exeunt Caliban”(vii) has sparked much discussion of whether Caliban gets his resolution, and if not, is the play a comedy? Similarly a modern audience has pondered post-play whether Antonio and Sebastian will be punished any further for their attempted murder or whether they will attempt to overthrow Alonso again, evidence that they will can be found in the line “O’ but one word” (viii) which suggests that Sebastian is so close to killing Gonzalo and has no moral quarrels to do so which makes the modern audience think that another usurpation is imminent. One must also take into account the interpretation of the Jacobean audience because they would argue that the play is not on the edge of the two genres because there is a clear resolution for all the human character; they would go on to explain that Caliban is a stereotypical, one dimensional native who belongs on The Island so he gets his classical “happy ending”. I, as a modern member of a modern audience, respond differently to the Jacobean audience, and I maintain that Caliban has been brought into the realm of humanity and education because of Prospero, Shakespeare makes it explicit that Prospero has done this in the lines “Took pains to make thee speak” (ix) and because of this education Caliban is now trapped on the liminal space forever where he cannot converse or progress on his new education, through this it is clear that Caliban is left in a worse situation than he was before Prospero arrived so he is a tragic character. Once again the Jacobean audience would find this view perplexing because to them Caliban is an aesthetic of exaggeration and anti-humanism that is fundamentally interesting to them, and often humorous. An eminent critic also agreed with their stance stating “We find him (Caliban) only laughably horrible and as marvellous, though at the bottom, a feeble monster, highly interesting, for we see from the first that none of his threats will be fulfilled” (x) Shakespeare has allowed, depending on how he is portrayed, for Caliban to be ridiculed by the audience on a higher level than any other character, the modern audience holds empathy with Caliban which is what makes the genre so hard to define.
Prospero, as a character, can be considered on the edge for a number of reasons. Firstly he is on the edge of being God as he has the characteristic of one; he is omniscient, omnipotent and arguably omnibenevolent. On the other hand the theory that Prospero is a metaphor for God means that the Island has to be intrinsically though as: completely not on the edge. One critic has even likened The Island to The Garden Of Eden “Prospero’s island appears to be an ideal utopia…every character gets what they deserve. Prospero’s island is perfect.” (xi) In my opinion Prospero is not so much as a God because he holds minimal purchase in the real world so he is more as a conjurer and illusionist, all power he has is linked to deception not physical displays of control, even the storm is an illusion because the characters emerge dry from the water. Prospero therefore, for a modern audience, is on the edge of dictatorship and justice. He appears to be a dictator when he sends Miranda to sleep when she wishes to stay awake, or when he makes Caliban serve him as a slave, but he is also presented by Shakespeare as a witty enforcer of justice, such as when he effectively turns Antonio and Sebastian into Il Capitanos from commedia dell’arte as they are arrogant, this is shown when they attack the invisible birds shouting “I’ll fight their legions o’er” (xii) which emphasises their delusion and pompousness, as well as being visibly funny.
In conclusion, I believe that The Tempest can never be solely defined as inhabiting a liminal space and being on the edge because so much of the play’s effect and nature depends on the portrayal of the play and the audience’s era and mood. For me, on a personal level, I think that The Tempest does occupy this liminal space because the boundaries between reality and illusion are so skewed, and even the characters who are typically one dimensional stereotypes but rather complex beings are close to leaving this definition and becoming something else entirely.
(i) Act 1, Scene 2, 128
(ii) Act 3, scene 3, 54
(iii) Act 3, Scene 3, 29
(iv) Act 2, Scene 1, 184
(v) Act 4, Scene 1, 157
(vi) Act 1, Scene 1, 16
(vii) Act 5, Scene 1, 298
(viii) Act 2, Scene 1, 290
(ix) Act 1, Scene 2, 354
(x) The Damn: its history, literature and influence on civilisation vol. 13 Edited by Alfred Bates.
(xi) www.art-xy.com, The Tempest summary
(xii) Act 3, Scene 3, 54
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