Here is an example of a complete essay written on the subject of The Tempest.
‘The Tempest has been seen amongst other things as a statement by Shakespeare about the end of his writing life, as an allegory about the effects of colonialism and as an illustration of the difficulty or real communication. The variety of interpretations of The Tempest show that texts are capable of being explored in different ways.’
Explore The Tempest and your other play in the light of the idea that texts are capable of a ‘variety of interpretations’.
Texts are most certainly capable of being interpreted in different ways, and these interpretations will vary from person to person and in fact, throughout time. For instance, Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have interpreted ‘The Tempest’ differently than a modern day audience, as morals and ideals have changed dramatically. Similarly, due to the ambiguous nature of Friel’s play ‘Translations,’ this could also be viewed in many different ways and each audience member may apply their own experiences to the situations in the play.
Some people have interpreted the plays ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare and ‘Translations’ by Brian Friel as a means of reflecting the writers’ own views and beliefs. For instance, many critics believe that ‘The Tempest’ was one of the last plays to be written by Shakespeare, and so it has been suggested that the play is a statement by him about the end of his writing life.
Firstly, this may be due to the fact that Prospero seems to be an allegorical figure for Shakespeare himself, particularly through his control over the characters and events in the play, much like a playwright. For example, it was Prospero that ordered Ariel to create the tempest that shipwrecks the characters on the island, and it was Prospero that brought Ferdinand and Miranda together. He also seems to have an element of control over all of the characters in the play in one way or another, whether it be directly or through Ariel. In fact, it could be argued that Prospero controls the characters in the play like pieces on a chess board, which is significant, as Ferdinand and Miranda are ‘playing at chess’ in Act 5, Scene 1. Therefore, whatever is said by Prospero could be interpreted as being what Shakespeare wants to say to the audience.
This includes a speech concerning Prospero’s magic, which could refer to Shakespeare’s writing. During this speech, Prospero states how ‘the great globe itself…shall dissolve’ and that, ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on.’ The reference to the ’globe’ could be alluding to Shakespeare’s theatre, which he knows will fade and eventually vanish. At the time the play was performed in 1611, Shakespeare would have been about 45 years old. Although this does not seem old today, it was considered fairly old in the Jacobean period, and Shakespeare faced competition from younger playwrights. There is evidence in the play to suggest that Shakespeare realised this, which includes Prospero stating, ‘my old brain is troubled’ and how he wishes ‘To still [his] beating mind.’ Therefore, these suggest that Shakespeare is tired of writing and feels it has become ‘insubstantial,’ like the ‘actors’ and ‘baseless fabric’ of a play. Later on in the play, Prospero even states, ‘I’ll break my staff’ and ‘I’ll drown my book,’ which suggests that like Prospero is giving up his magic, Shakespeare is giving up his writing.
In ‘Translations,’ it is unclear which character best represents Friel’s views, as their attitudes vary, which allows the audience to interpret the play in different ways. Some may argue that Friel has included such characters as the Donnelly twins and Doalty to show that violence is the best way to fight against colonisation. For instance, Doalty states: ‘I’ve damned little to defend but he’ll not put me out without a fight. And there’ll be others who think the same as me.’ Some people may see this as heroic and patriotic, and the only way these characters can respond to the English. On the other hand, it could be argued that Friel in fact shows violence to be a negative way to respond, as it simply leads to more and more violence, such as the actions of Lancey in the play and by the IRA today.
It has however been suggested that the character of Hugh reflects Friel’s view most efficiently, as he is a realist character that acknowledges the fact he should hold onto his culture, but also accepts the fact that he must change with the environment around him in order to survive. For instance, although Hugh constantly dismisses the English language and culture, stating how it is used ‘usually for the purposes of commerce’ and it is a language that ‘couldn’t really express’ them, he does attempt to prepare for the future by accepting the job at the new English speaking National School, and acknowledges the fact that ‘a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of…fact,’ if they are unwilling to move forward.
Another interpretation of these plays can be that they are allegories about the effects of colonialism. Colonisation is a contextual issue for ‘The Tempest,’ as many people were travelling to America, or ‘The New World’ at the time the play was performed. In fact, Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition was financed by King James I, and many of the English thought they had a natural right to colonise other countries and their populations.
‘The Tempest’ supports this view, and the character of Caliban indicates how other civilisations were viewed as savages who accepted the fact they were to become slaves to the English colonisers. For example, Caliban is often portrayed as being less than human, and is associated with animalistic imagery, such as, ‘tortoise,’ ‘a fish,’ ‘mooncalf’ and even a ‘monster.’ He is also portrayed as being a ‘natural servant,’ as he does not wish to be free of a ‘master’ in the play, but instead wishes for a better one, and even says to Stephano, ’Let me lick thy shoe.’
Prospero is shown to control Caliban through threats of physical pain and suffering, such as,
‘If thou neglect’st, or dost unwillingly
What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps.’
Prospero also controls Ariel, though it is done in a less violent way than that used to control Caliban. Instead, Prospero promises Ariel his freedom in return for his services, such as when he states,
‘Do so, and after two days
I will discharge thee.’
In ‘Translations’, the English treat the Irish in a similar way, and threaten them in order to get them to do what they want. For instance, Lancey states that if George is not found, he will ‘shoot all livestock in Bally Beg,’ ‘embark on a series of evictions and levelling of every abode’ ’until a complete clearance is made of’ their parish.
Although Caliban does what Prospero asks, there is evidence in the play to suggest that Shakespeare was influenced by a contemporary essay called ’On Cannibals’ by Montaigne. This discussed the writer’s views on apparent ‘savages’ in countries not yet colonised. He felt that there was ‘nothing barbarous or savage’ about then, which may be shown by the eloquent language spoken by Caliban. This includes the poetic language spoken in Act 3, Scene 2, where Caliban states,
‘the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs…
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments.’
In fact, the language spoken by Caliban is often more eloquent than that spoken by the ‘civilised’ characters and contrasts to the prose spoken by Stephano and Trinculo. It also shows how Caliban is more concerned with natural beauty than possessions and power, stating, ‘it is but trash’ about Prospero’s cloak.
The colonising characters in both ’The Tempest’ and ‘Translations’ think that their actions are best for those they are forcing their language and culture onto. For instance, in ’The Tempest,’ Prospero and Miranda think that Caliban has benefited from use of their language, which is shown when Miranda states,
‘Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or another. When thou…
…wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish.’
Similarly, in ’Translations,’ the English think that ‘Ireland is privileged’ to have them come and take over, and they also think that they have the right to order the local people about, shown through the threats Lancey makes to them.
A quote from a Roman general, which is included in the play, sums up the attitude of the English and many other colonisers: ‘It’s easier to stamp out learning than to recall it,’ basically means that it is easier for the English to make the Irish learn their language than to take the time to learn the Irish language and way of life, which is evident throughout the play.
Manus in ‘Translations’ can be compared to the character Caliban in ‘The Tempest,’ as both reject the language of the coloniser. For example, in ’The Tempest,’ Caliban states,
‘You taught me your language, and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!’
Similarly, in Translations, Manus refuses to speak English ’for the benefit of the colonist,’ even though Yolland is a nice person.
Also, both characters are treated like slaves, Caliban by Prospero and Stephano, and Manus by his father, Hugh. This is shown by the way that Hugh speaks to Manus, ‘as if to a footman,’ ordering him to make his tea and fetch ‘a slice of soda bread.’ Both Manus and Caliban receive no signs of appreciation for their work.
Owen and Caliban could even be compared to one another, as their situations with the colonisers are similar. They both complied with the colonisers at first, but later regretted this when they realised that the colonisers were taking over unfairly.
Caliban states how,
‘When thou cam’st first
Thou strok’st me, and made much of me,’
‘And then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’th’isle,’ but he regrets this, stating, ‘Cursed be I that did so!’
As well as this, Owen in ‘Translations’ worked for the English, and felt that they were only ‘taking place-names that were riddled with confusion’ and ‘standardising those names,’ not realising that names have culture and history attached to them. Towards the end however, Owen does realise that it was ‘a mistake,’ and appreciates the implications of changing the names, such as the violence it has caused amongst his family and friends.
The two plays have also been interpreted as illustrations of the difficulty of real communication, which is particularly evident in the play ‘Translations.’
In fact, Act 2 Scene 2 is very effective in showing the differences between Maire and Yolland, as Friel has juxtaposed their cultures in order to highlight the difficulty they experience in communicating with each other. This speech shows how not only do they speak different languages, but the two also want different things. For instance, the way they express their love for one another varies. Whereas Maire speaks of the physical aspects she finds attractive, Yolland is more passionate. Also, a huge conflict of interests is revealed when Yolland states how he is ‘not going to leave here,’ and Maire states, ‘Take me away with you George.’ This could therefore be suggesting that the English and the Irish could never communicate properly as they come from different cultures and want different things.
On the other hand, this scene could imply that it is not important for the lovers to understand one another, but that the language barrier can be overcome if they work together to find a common means of communication. It may even suggest that the two need not communicate fully to enjoy their company, which is shown by the way they both state, ‘I love the sound of your speech,’ and by the way they are brought together at the end by stating the Irish place names.
Lancey in ‘Translations’ is another character that effectively shows the difficulty of communication between the English and Irish. An example of this is when Lancey attempts to tell the local people of Baile Beag what his plans are for the town, though he must use Owen to translate so they can understand what he is saying. However, he ‘speaks as if he was addressing children,’ and thinks Jimmy is speaking Gaelic when he is in fact speaking Latin. This shows how the English are ignorant of the Irish language and culture, which makes it impossible to communicate effectively.
Manus is a character that shows difficulty in communication between both English and Irish characters. As he is unwilling to speak English ‘for the benefit of the colonist,’ he cannot speak to them properly, such as when he shouted at Yolland and later realised it was ‘The wrong gesture in the wrong language,’ as Yolland did not even understand what he was saying.
Manus is clinging to his language and culture so much that he fails to recognise Maire’s ambition to move forward. He therefore does not listen to her needs, such as her need for a man to support her, which is why she asked, ‘Did you apply for that job in the new national school?’ This results in Maire becoming frustrated at Manus and ultimately falling for Yolland.
Hugh and Manus also have no form of real communication, as Hugh talks to Manus ‘as if to a footman,’ and sees him more as his servant than his son.
Jimmy is so engrossed in his books that he cannot communicate effectively with any other characters, which leads to him being ridiculed and alienated. For example, as Jimmy is not living in reality, he gives advice on agriculture from Virgil, a poem thousands of years old, stating, ‘Black soil for corn. That’s what you should have in that upper field of yours - corn, not spuds.’ He therefore, gets replies such as, ‘Agh, g’way back home to Greece, son’ and ‘would you take a run at yourself Jimmy Jack Cassie!’
Similarly, in ‘The Tempest,’ Prospero was also engrossed in study of magic, which meant that he failed to detect his brother’s ambition and plotting to usurp him of his position as Duke of Milan. Prospero admits,
‘The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.’
This led to Prospero and Miranda being cast out to sea in the hope that they would die there, which shows how a lack of communication can lead to violence.
The most obvious characters however that seem to have difficulty in communicating are Prospero and Miranda. For example, in Act 1, Scene 2, we see that Prospero is only telling Miranda the reason why she is on the island after 12 years of living there. He states,
I should inform thee father,’
Which makes us wonder why he did not tell her earlier, or why she failed to ask before. He also seems to hide a lot of other things from Miranda, such as the reason he caused the storm. Instead, he tells her there is, ‘No harm’ and states ‘I have done nothing but in care of thee,’ which is unconvincing, as we know that it was actually for his own means entirely. He also does not allow Miranda to see Ariel, but puts her to sleep before calling him.
Throughout this scene, Prospero constantly asks Miranda, ‘Dost thou attend me?’ and ‘Dost thou hear?’ which suggests that it is Prospero always talking and Miranda listening, which is not an effective way to communicate.
Also, the relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand is manufactured by Prospero as a way to aid his own plans, which may cause problems.
The two seem to fall in love at first sight. This could be due to the fact that Ferdinand may think he is marooned on the island with no chance of leaving, and falls for Miranda because he thinks she is a ‘goddess.’ It may also be due to the fact that Ferdinand is the first man outside of the island that Miranda has ever seen, and so she is likely to be fascinated by him.
Miranda also fails to make any connection between her father’s story of betrayal and Ferdinand’s promise,
‘I’ll make you
The Queen of Naples,’ which shows a lack of communication.
Caliban cannot communicate the frustration he feels towards Prospero effectively, which leads to him seeking to ‘violate…the honour’ of Miranda, or in other words, trying to rape her. This again shows how a breakdown of communication can lead to violence.
In conclusion, it has become clear that both ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare and ‘Translations’ by Brian Friel are capable of a variety of interpretations and contain a number of ideas. These ideas can be explored in a range of ways, which results from the ambiguity of each play. The interpretations will also vary from person to person and the significance of these interpretations may depend on contextual issues of the reader.