Guest Post: The Real Magic of ‘The Tempest’

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

The Tempest appeared in our 2016 Actors’ Renaissance Season. Patrick Midgley is an actor who has worked with the ASC both in residence and on tour, a personal trainer, and a director who just opened his first show at Hoosier Shakes.


The Real Magic of The Tempest
by Patrick Midgley

At the 2015 Blackfriars Conference, Jeremy Lopez began his presentation with a refreshingly abrupt thesis: “Really good stuff happens in Act Three, Scene One.”

The audience burst into applause.

But Dr. Lopez was not satisfied.  If you assert that Shakespeare follows any kind of rule, you’re in for trouble, and Dr. Lopez knew this.  Shakespeare writes in iambic pentameter, sure, and that’s a fixed and regular pattern: a rule for writing.  But when Shakespeare breaks his rules — or follows someone else’s, seemingly inexplicably — that’s when the really really good stuff happens.  He takes rules, genres, and styles and transforms them into something new, something entirely his own.  Something sublime.

So Dr. Lopez’s presentation began by examining the exceptions to the “Good-Stuff-In-Three-One” Rule.  He looked at plays like Othello, where in 3.1 a clown — heretofore unnoticed, and conspicuously out of place — enters and cajoles the audience into making bonfires.  Antony and Cleopatra served as another exception: there, 3.1 is a rather unremarkable scene starring Ventidius, Silius and a dead Pacorus in which the two living characters debate the merits of remaining unremarkable when you’re under the employ of remarkable men.  In As You Like It, you’d expect to find Jaques’s “All the world’s a stage” speech, but instead you find a discordant scene between Duke Frederick and Oliver, in which the Duke commands Oliver to find Orlando and bring him to court, dead or alive.  Dr. Lopez suggested that 3.1s that aren’t “really good” are worth considering, because they often serve as the world in which the play could or should exist: the calm and rational 3.1 between Cleomenes and Dion, for example, which starkly contrasts Leontes irrational, tyrannical court.

But what about the 3.1s that don’t challenge Dr. Lopez’s rule?  The ones where “really good stuff” really does happen?  As I sat listening to Dr. Lopez’s presentation, I recalled all the 3.1s that I had experienced at the American Shakespeare Center.

During the 2011 Hamlet, I sat backstage and listened to John Harrell deliver Shakespeare’s most famous speech: “To be, or not to be”.  During the 2014 Macbeth, I played the First Murderer to James Keegan’s daunting Thane and agreed to murder Banquo and his son Fleance.  And most recently, in the 2015 Midsummer, I stood behind a curtain in the musicians’ balcony, twirling a whirligig while Rick Blunt’s Puck ambushed the Mechanicals’ rehearsal.

Henry V’s 3.1 begins with “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, / Or close the walls up with our English dead!” In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Berowne discovers, to his horror, that he is head over heels in love, and in Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice realizes the same.  In The Merry Wives of Windsor’s 3.1, Falstaff finds a way to use a buck basket as a getaway vehicle.  King Lear’s 3.1 is the storm.  If you’re going to fall in love, take an impossible risk, or give a great speech, 3.1 is the place to do it.

5943895140_43286861df_oBut there was one 3.1 that transformed the way I look at Shakespeare and acting more than any other scene.  It was one of the most terrifying and rewarding scenes I’ve ever played because it was one of the simplest.  All I had to do was look a beautiful girl in the eye and convince her that I loved her with all my heart, soul, mind, and body.

There’s nowhere to hide in a scene like that.  You’re either true or false.

That particular 3.1 was in The Tempest.

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, probably his last solo effort, and it falls into a category that modern scholars call Romances.  The ASC has staged two of Shakespeare’s Romances at the Blackfriars Playhouse  in the last two years: Pericles, starring Greg Phelps in the title role, and The Winter’s Tale, starring James Keegan as Leontes and Abbie Hawk as Hermione.

If you saw either of those plays, Shakespeare’s “rules” for a Romance will be familiar to you.  First, there is a potentially tragic event introduced early in Act 1: remember the threat of Antiochus’s “public war or private treason” in Pericles, or Leontes’ sudden fit of jealousy in The Winter’s Tale.  So something bad happens.

Don’t worry!  The “something bad” gets tied up by Act 5, but there’s a hitch: it all hinges on a very, very unlikely act of forgiveness or reunion between family members.  Remember how impossible it seemed that Thaisa (Sara Hymes) and Pericles (Gregg Phelps) could ever be reunited?  She had presumably died in childbirth and then been cast into the ocean in a sealed coffin, only to be resurrected by Cerimon’s magic, and then hidden away as a priestess in Diane’s temple in Ephesus.  But somehow, thanks to the gods’ (eventual) kindness and Pericles’s silent strength, the two find each other once again.  And then there’s Leontes, perhaps most unlikely of all: he has to  first forgive himself and then be forgiven by his best friend, his wife, and his daughter for an unforgivable act of tyrannous cruelty.  The reward for his redemption comes through Paulina’s patient magic — or,to put it another way, through her potent art.

So while you might guess that the “Romance” plays are more about the young lovers, they’re actually more focused on redemption and reconciliation.  In fact, the real heroes of the Romances are older characters like Paulina and Pericles whose superpowers are patience and endurance.  And while you might guess that because Shakespeare wrote Romances later in his career, he’d be more likely to ignore classical plot structures, Shakespeare seems to become more interested in structure as he matures.

Both Pericles and The Winter’s Tale challenge the audience to keep up with an almost impossible structure.  In Pericles, Shakespeare swiftly cuts across Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Ephesus, Pentapolis, and the Mediterranean Sea (got all that?).  And in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare swiftly cuts across sixteen years just a few lines–and you’re encouraged to go with it by none other than the living embodiment of Time Itself.

Neither of these gambles sounds like something that “should” work on stage.  But they do, beautifully so, and the reason is twofold: (1) Shakespeare trusts your imagination to do the work, and (2) Shakespeare is the greatest playwright the world has ever seen.

Those two things are probably related.

The Romances are as vast as a human lifespan.  It’s as if, late in his career, Shakespeare was beginning to fit the enormity of human life to the endless possibilities presented by a theatre of the imagination.  He was celebrating the fact that the theatre could do anything with the help of an audience–fly across the world or resurrect the dead, for example– and suggesting that the perhaps the most important thing we can do is to learn to forgive each other.

The Tempest mostly follows the rules of the Romances.  It’s a play about monsters and magic, storms and shipwrecks, the savagery of nature and the ultimate power of forgiveness.  There’s a musical fairy who can turn himself into fire and lightning, a cast-away court of conspiracists, drunk clowns, and a dance party hosted by goddesses.  With all that magic and splendor and supernatural ceremony, can you imagine how incredible 3.1 must be?  It’s Shakespeare’s big finale, and the stage is set for the most miraculous scene ever seen.  And here’s how it starts:

Enter FERDINAND, bearing a log.

Not quite what you were expecting, is it?

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The Tempest’s 3.1 is a quiet, sincere love scene between Miranda and Ferdinand.  In the exact center of the play — its very heart — the clouds part, the monsters hide, and even the most mighty magician in the whole world has to sit quietly and watch.  Two young people who think they might love each other encounter each other, alone for the very first time, and tell each other how they feel.  They talk about what they’re afraid of.  They talk about what they hope for.  And they talk about how beautiful the other one is.

MIRANDA
Do you love me?

FERDINAND
O heaven, O earth, bear witness to this sound
And crown what I profess with kind event
If I speak true! if hollowly, invert
What best is boded me to mischief! I
Beyond all limit of what else i’ the world
Do love, prize, honour you.

MIRANDA
I am a fool
To weep at what I am glad of.

This is real magic.  No spell in Prospero’s book or magical feat performed by Ariel can make these two people fall in love and begin the long, hard, wonderful journey of a shared life.  It’s up to them.  They choose it.

Of all Shakespeare’s magnificent, brilliant, and bottomless 3.1s, this is my favorite.  When I played Ferdinand to Miriam Donald Burrows beautiful, feisty, sincere, and hilarious Miranda in 2011, I had only to look her in the eye and speak the truth to her.  It reminded me that acting in Shakespeare’s plays can be an expression of our noblest selves.

Shakespeare has always made me want to be a better person and reminded me of what is most important in my life.  I hope you’ll come back this winter and see two new people play Ferdinand and Miranda.  I’ll be playing the sea monster and not the prince for this go-around.  I hope you’ll love it.  Because, after all, really good stuff really does happen in 3.1.

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Real Magic of ‘The Tempest’

  1. While it is true the good stuff often happens in Act 3, scene 1 (or 2), to think that Shakespeare had anything to do with it is wrong. No, I’m not starting an authorship argument here. It’s just that the divisions of the plays into acts and scenes was not done by Shakespeare. This was done by editors after the fact. Shakespeare wrote scenes for his actors which were then compiled into a promptbook. I’m sure he did intend to put the good stuff in the middle of the play, but not formulaically into Act 3, scene 2.

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    • As I recall, Lopez did address that aspect of textual pedagogy in the presentation Midgley mentions at the beginning of this article. From an actor’s perspective, however, the act and scene breaks are nearly always delineated, and it’s easy to see how an actor could then notice a pattern emerging among them.

      Of course, we also don’t know that Shakespeare *didn’t* put act and scene breaks into some of his plays in the original writing, particularly by the time he was writing ‘The Tempest’, since by that point he was writing for the indoor theatre, where the need to trim wicks and re-light candles necessitated a break in the action every 20-30 minutes. We can see that other authors of the same period certainly made use of those breaks (Middleton’s ‘Changeling’ employs one of them as a plot device), and in Shakespeare’s case, they seem to start occurring when we have characters exit and then re-enter what would be immediately if not for the act break, as (IIRC) happens at least once in ‘The Tempest’. Without a time machine, we’ll never know for sure either way, but evidence exists to suggest that at least some act breaks may have been authorially intended in plays written for the indoor space.

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      • Of course an excellent point and very well taken, Michael. Another more practical definition of 3.1 that I like is “the one right after Interlude.” But even that, of course, is murkier and more complicated than it seems. As I recall, Dr. Lopez also ceded your point. Still a thought-provoking and enjoyable observation for me.

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