Savvy Saturday – The Tempest

Last weekend, I had an amazing opportunity to see a live production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is a fascinating play that in many ways is a study of authorship, of power, and of writing itself. The Tempest was the last play that Shakespeare wrote before setting down his pen and retiring. Its protagonist, the magician Prospero, is often seen as an author-insertion character – Shakespeare’s writing a play about himself, in some ways. Like Shakespeare, like any novelist, Prospero creates stories that magically come to life to make others’ lives happier, and has to choose to use that power for good or for evil. The fact that Prospero uses magic in the context of a play to actually influence other characters’ lives is a narrative metaphor for the role of the novelist or playwright in creating stories about fictional characters, molding and shaping their lives, and in so doing, shaping and influencing the lives of readers.

As a fantasy novelist, it was great fun to see Prospero-as-storyteller, and Prospero-as-magician, shaping a story with his creative mind and narrative sense that would be fitting and would turn out “right” for all involved (him restored to his lost dukedom, his daughter blissfully wed to a prince, and mercy for those who have done wrong), and using his magic and mind to make it all happen as he willed. We, as novelists, have to have both creativity and a narrative sense to identify what kind of story to tell, and also a kind of magic – a storytelling magic – to create events and characters in such a way that they are believable, that they interact believably, and that they through their interactions with the plot ultimately create a story that will hold readers’ attention. Good stories aren’t just narratives, they’re living, breathing souls that speak to readers deeply, bringing with them glimpses of truth about real life. Good plays, similarly, aren’t just words spoken by actors; they are corporeal dreams that are inhabited for a time by real people, giving insight into life even as they entertain.

Shakespeare, through Prospero, shows novelists the power and the importance of our art and craft. We must carefully think through the consequences of our narrative decisions. We cannot treat all characters alike – while some characters need to be brought up short by a flaming, terrifying vision of a fire spirit to drive them mad with guilt, others may need to be physically restrained lest they hurt themselves and others, and some characters may just be able to be warned and guided to do the right thing by sharing with them words of truth. While some characters are driven by the promise of true love, others are driven by the desire for freedom, for power, or for pleasure. Some characters are stubborn and do not take kindly to instruction, preferring to go their own way though they harm themselves over and over in the process. Others are more tractable, preferring to listen to instruction and advice (whether good or bad) and change their behavior with the hopes of improving their lives and situations.

And we as authors give them life and purpose and move them into tense situations, pull the rugs out from under their feet, tantalize them with offers of fulfilling their goals, and then make it difficult for them to reach those goals. We as authors pull the strings, weave the tapestries, tell the stories. And sometimes, like Prospero, in telling the stories, we find ourselves being changed. Sometimes, in telling the stories, we realize new things about ourselves. And sometimes, those things we realize can then be put back into the stories we write to help others. The dreams we envision shape our waking lives, and can be used to create dreams for others that, when they wake, make them “cry to dream again.”

One of Shakespeare’s dreams was The Tempest, and I am glad to have inhabited it for a time.

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