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Staging Shakespeare's Tempest

From Notes on Shakespeare's Workmanship. Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch. New York, H. Holt and Company, 1917.

In the public theatres of that time, the main stage was uncurtained, and its front ran boldly out into the auditorium. Now I think that in the Banqueting House at Whitehall that front was flattened back so as to be almost, if not quite, straight; and that this strange proscenium very likely had a frontal curtain. But this matters little; for, like every Elizabethan theatre, public or private, the Banqueting House had an inner stage, and that of course had curtains. We have seen to what uses this second, inner, stage lent itself. It served as Juliet's tomb, and Hero's; for Hermione on her pedestal; for the play-scene in Hamlet; for Richard's tent; for Desdemona's bedchamber and Imogen's; for Imogen's cave, too, and Timon's, and, in this play, Prospero's. We know that, since its curtains could be opened or shut at will, properties could be shifted behind them, and therefore whenever in an Elizabethan play we come on a scene that demands a certain amount of stage upholstery we may at once be sure that it was erected on the inner stage. In The Tempest this inner stage serves three purposes. It serves

(1) for Prospero's cave,

(2) for the masque of Ceres and Juno (a scene within a scene),

and (3) lastly for what comes first the shipwreck itself; since to present the deck of a ship in a gale many 'properties' are required: the foot of a mast, at least, some leading ropes, and running gear, odd cordage, raffle, spars, deck-hamper broken adrift; with lightning and thunder produced from the wings and the 'flies.' You cannot call your deck-hands up on to a naked stage, and set them to run about hauling on ropes which are not there and howling to imitate a gale. For properties on the outer stage, reading the play, I can find no more necessary to be provided than two chairs and a clothes-line, all in Act IV.

So, to a bang and a rolling roar of thunder, the inner curtains fall open, and we are shown out at sea beyond the island the deck of a long-laboured ship: men running, shouting, cursing; master and bo'sun bawling orders; canvas banging with loud reports, wind whistling, lightning and St. Elmo's light, and all that a competent stage-manager can adventitiously supply from the wings.

This opening scene has been criticised: but my poor nautical knowledge applauds it for a first-class gale. Of course ships are built on improved designs and can lie nowadays several points closer up to the wind: but even nowadays, caught, as Alonzo's crew were, full on a lee-shore, a man must trim his judgment to the force of the wind and what is called the 'scend' of the sea. This in shoaling water heaves your vessel shoreward all the while. Then, if your judgment tells you that your upper masts will carry the weight, you may claw off by piling on canvas and driving her: and it will be the bolder, happier chance that naturally tempts you. But with the gale beyond a certain force and Prospero was not conjuring by halves you have to reckon if your spars are man enough for it; and if in your judgment they are not, then to down their canvas, "try her with main course " as the Bo'sun does in seamanlike fashion, and ride to it even lowering the upper spars themselves as could be readily done in an Elizabethan ship and so ease her drifting to leeward: for aloft, now, they are so much useless cumber and hold the wind.

We have to remember, too, that with an Elizabethan ship this moment for deciding on the second-best would necessarily come sooner than on a modern one. She was good enough in any sea-room. "Blow, till thou burst thy wind," the Bo'sun challenges heaven," if there he room enough. But this is just the point. He has no fear of her in seaworthiness, but of her capacity to nose off a coast.

In short, the storm is a good storm, and the master handles his vessel well, giving the right orders sharp and prompt. The critics criticise more plausibly when they come to the actual wreck. For Scene 1 ends on the cry, "We split, we split, we split!" as if she were actually on the rocks and striking. In Scene 2 Miranda at first confirms this. She has seen

a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her,
Dash'd all to pieces.
She hears the cry of the crew.
O, that cry did knock
Against my very heart!
She sees them suffer. Yet later on she appears to have seen the ship founder a very different thing; and yet again we have a description of Ferdinand's swimming for shore and beating the surges under him; and by this time we know from Ariel that there has been no real striking or foundering.
Safely in harbour
Is the king's ship; in the deep nook where once
Thou call'dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
From the still-vex'd Bermoothes, there she's hid:
The mariners all under hatches stow'd;
Who, with a charm join'd to their suffer'd labour,
I have left asleep.
But, to be sure, I make very little of these supposed inconsistencies. It is surely not difficult, when we have listened to Ariel
I boarded the king's ship; now on the beak.
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flam'd amazement: sometimes I'ld divide
And burn in many places; on the topmast.
The yards and bowsprit would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. Jove's lightnings, the precursors
O' the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not: the fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege, and make his bold waves tremble
Yea, his dread trident shake.
and again
All but mariners
Plung'd in the foaming brine and quit the vessel,
Then all afire with me.
it is surely not difficult, remembering this to be a fairy coast and the conjured storm mixed with illusions, to reconcile the discrepancies. As for Miranda's account of it well, I have seen two or three wrecks and come near sharing in one, and I do not want to see another. But whereas in one I have seen a ship strike and visibly go to pieces in three successive waves (the masts falling together like sticks of barley-sugar all crumbled and gone in some fifteen or twenty seconds), in another it happened very much as Miranda saw it a ship, a squall that blotted out everything, then a clear horizon again, but no ship. That was a small craft, almost a boat. But we have all heard tell how the Eurydice went down, racing up past the Needles with her gun-ports open, close to home. To those watching her from the cliffs the squall blotted her out, passed in less than a minute, and, where she had been, nothing but the waves ran. Such an interval would leave Ariel time for all his beneficent conjuring.

How to cite this article:

Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas, Sir. Notes on Shakespeare's Workmanship. New York, H. Holt and Company, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 20 Oct. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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