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The Tempest: A Marriage Play?

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

Although, as we have seen in a previous chapter, The Tempest was pretty certainly presented at Court, in some form or another, on Hallowmas night, 1611, it was quite certainly represented there early in 1613 to grace the nuptials of the Prince Palatine and the Princess Elizabeth, and almost as certainly played as we now have it, whether there had been a previous form or not. For while it seems we must reject Dr. Garnett's main thesis, that Shakespeare wrote it for that great occasion, I hold this much proved all but unanswerably. — As it now stands, it was written for Court, and to celebrate a wedding. I am even inclined to add "a royal wedding."

Its brevity (for a monarch and his guests must not be unduly tired, nor a bridal couple either) is one small indication. Its economy of scene-shifting, unique among Shakespeare's plays, is another and stronger one: and by a paradox, the stationary splendour of its setting, a third. For it is observable that while a Royal Banqueting House, such as that of Whitehall, allows a more sumptuous frame than an ordinary theatre; and while for a royal performance it encourages rich dress in the players, with refinement of bodily motion and the speaking voice; and while again it lends itself, as we know, to all the apparatus of a Masque; it cannot — it could not then, as Windsor cannot today — compete with a professional theatre in what we may call the tricks of the trade. When at Whitehall or at Windsor we come to these, we come, if not to "two trestles and a board," at furthest to something like a glorified Assembly-Room.

Now, as Dr. Garnett has pointed out,

"after the first brief representation of the deck of the storm-tossed vessel with which the play opens, there is practically but one scene. For though the action occasionally shifts from the space before Prosperous cell to some other part of the island, everything is avoided which might necessitate a change of decoration. Neither is there any change of costume except Prospero's assumption of his ducal robes in the last Act: and this takes place on the stage."
But of course Dr. Garnett's argument rests mainly on the two masques, and especially on the nuptial masque of Iris, Ceres, and Juno: which, if the real purpose of the play — or as I should prefer to put it, the occasional purpose — be overlooked, appears so merely an excrescence that some have hastily supposed it an interpolation. But this cannot be. If we remove the masque, Act IV (already, as it stands, much shorter than ordinary) simply crumbles to pieces; while further, as we saw in our first paper, the finest passage in the drama goes with it. For the text runs — not as so often misquoted —
And like the baseless fabric of a vision,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision;
and again
And like this unsubstantial pageant, faded.
Leave not a wrack behind.
On the other hand, if we save the masque (and Act IV along with it), we cannot deny it to be a nuptial one. It explicitly says that it is.

Thus far I have been following Dr. Garnett: and will but add two small points which seem to me to strengthen his contention. —

(1) The resemblance, subtler for its differences but not less assured, between The Tempest and A Midsummer-Night's Dream — a play undoubtedly written for Court and a wedding. With this I will deal by-and-by, when we come to Ariel and fairyland.

(2) The place of The Tempest in the First Folio. Heminge and Condell knew, of course, that it was not his first play, but almost his last, if not (as I maintain) his very last. Then why did they lead off with it? Putting aside the hypothesis that by divination they set it there as the play of all others calculated to allure every child for a hundred generations to come into his Shakespeare, to be entrapped by its magic, I suggest that, being cunning men, they started off upon the public with their revered dead master's most notorious triumph; that this triumph had owed no little of its notoriety on the one hand to having fulfilled a great occasion — the Lady Elizabeth's spousals — that set all England afire; on the other to Court approbation; which, even in our days, the 'profession' (and Heminge and Condell were actors) has been known to appreciate.

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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