Weathering the Storm of Time: Shakespeare’s Subversive Influences in The Tempest
Shakespeare is one of, if not the most influential playwright of all time, and his works are constantly referenced by modern works of art and literature. Shakespeare used and abused many tropes, and did so in a way that still fascinates and entertains audiences today.
Take for instance one of the most famous of his comedies: The Tempest. The Tempest is the tale of Prospero, Miranda, and the affairs of shipwrecked men who come ashore on their island.
In this convoluted story, Shakespeare takes influences and literary tropes from older literature and subverts them with a “modern” Renaissance twist. This relates them again to the people of his time, and when they are reinterpreted in return, it relates them to a modern audience.
Many of the influences of The Tempest can be clearly seen in the Arthurian legends of the middle ages. One of the big tropes he uses is the (now popular) trope of love at first sight. It’s obvious from Ferdinand and Miranda’s first meeting, in which he’s so besotted with her he assumes that she must have some kind of magic.
“The very instant that I saw you did
My heart fly to your service.”
-Ferdinand, The Tempest
This is parallel to the story of Lanval, the least of Arthur’s knights, who is immediately bewitched by two women who happen to be walking through a field he is resting in. This same idea of women having some sort of otherworldly beauty and presence was familiar, and would normally have been used to some sort of sad end, but in keeping it unrealistically light, Shakespeare lets his audience know that this is instead going to be a funny story.
Another commonality in this lovely trope is the setting: the woods. Most encounters with the fae in Arthurian stories take place in some kind of woods and leave the poor fool who wandered in under the spell of the creature they discovered. These commonalities don’t serve to make Miranda a fairy, though; instead, they help us understand Ferdinand’s awe at her appearance, as he acts as the knight of The Tempest.
Another influence is that of religion. Specifically, Shakespeare is drawing on the vision of Hell that was common at the time, as a desolate place of fire and tormenting demons. This was particularly influenced by Dante’s Inferno, specifically in its depiction of demons as otherworldly, terrifying creatures of the darkness.
“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!”
-Ariel repeating a drowned crewman, The Tempest
Throughout the play, the shipwrecked men call every new thing they encounter a demon or a spirit. This is especially obvious in Trinculo and Stephano’s first meeting with Caliban.
“Have we devils here?”
-Stephano, The Tempest
Shakespeare again subverts his audience’s expectations about the implications of the presence of demons, using them to make the situations they appear in funny rather than predictably dark. Here, again, is Shakespeare calling into question what we know and value from older myths.
Shakespeare used these expectations to allow his audience to better understand their world, what they value, or fear, in a way that was enjoyable. He allowed them to overcome their demons (both literally and figuratively), allowing them to look them in the face and say, “we know you. We’ve seen you before.”