Today’s letter is T, for The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Huh? you may ask. Why is she writing about a Shakespeare play in an A to Z about fantasy and SF?
Of course, if you’re familiar with the play, you may have some idea of why. It has fantastical elements, plenty of them. Well, so have several of his other plays. There are ghosts a-plenty. There are prophecies that come true. There are witches.
But unlike most of the others, this one has influenced a lot of SF and fantasy that has followed.
Let’s check it out. I won’t assume you know about it - only last year, my well-read sister and I went to see Twelfth Night. I actually had to avoid spoilers for a play I had assumed she had at least heard about, apart from the title!
So, The Tempest - first the blurb, then some of the stories it has influenced. Prospero is a former Duke of Milan. He was so caught up in his magical studies that while he was busy being a nerd, his brother was able to overthrow him and take over. Fortunately a kindly old courtier gave him and his baby daughter Miranda supplies in the tiny boat they were sent off in. They have been on this island for about twelve years. Miranda is now fourteen, but so was Juliet when she fell in love, and this at least ends happily. Prospero has set himself up nicely on the island and has a bunch of spirits working for him, including Ariel, a spirit of air, and Caliban, whose witch mother had enslaved Ariel in the first place and is now dead. Caliban is surly, but Prospero argues that he lost all claim to decent treatment when he tried to rape Miranda. That happened before the play begins.
A ship is passing the island. Aboard is a party returning from a wedding, which includes Prospero’s nasty brother and a fellow aristocrat whose son Ferdinand is also aboard. Prospero has arranged a magical storm, the Tempest of the title, to bring them to land. Ferdinand thinks he’s the sole survivor. Actually, as it turns out, no damage has been done. Prospero just wanted a bit of revenge. In the meantime, the nasty characters are plotting against each other, a couple of sailors get Caliban drunk and take advantage of his resentment and Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love - remember, this boy is the first human male, apart from her Dad, Miranda has ever seen! Caliban isn’t quite human, so doesn’t count.
All ends well, with the baddies getting their comeuppance, Caliban annoyed at having been tricked by the sailors and Prospero declaring he will be retiring from magic, after an impressive display with spirits performing for the company. It’s a gorgeous play, which I have seen several times on stage and which has been filmed more than once in its own right - and influencing others.
Firstly, there is Forbidden Planet, that classic SF film of the 1950s - Robbie the Robot, Monsters from the Id, which had destroyed the race which invented a certain machine and are now threatening to destroy the human scientist(Walter Pidgeon) who had discovered it. His has a beautiful daughter, though her name isn’t Miranda. That is well known to have been inspired by The Tempest.
Someone once said that The Tempest is the first of many science fiction stories about the scientist and his beautiful daughter. I can see that, can’t you?
The Star Trek episode “Requiem For Methuselah” in its turn was inspired by Forbidden Planet! In fact, Trek in general was influenced by that film. So...could we say that Shakespeare’s work helped inspire the original series?
Poul Anderson’s novel A Midsummer Tempest is also inspired by this play. It’s not just the title. The novel is set in a universe in which everything Shakespeare wrote was true, and he is known as the Great Historian.
The time is during the English Civil War. Charles I’s nephew, Rupert of the Rhine is the hero of this novel. With Charles on the verge of being overthrown, Rupert must find his way to Prospero’s Island, to search for Prospero’s magic book and staff, then get them back to England in time to save his uncle. Some of the characters from the play are still alive. An ageing Caliban is on the island, mourning his loss of Miranda. The thing is, while they may be right about many things, the Roundheads can’t handle the wondrous or the magical. They aren’t what the land needs. Charles has plenty of faults, and needs to up his game, but he is what the land needs.
Can you think of some more fantastical works inspired by Shakespeare?