Written by Ng Yi-Sheng, 1A01A, 30 May 1997.
Discuss the elements of Masque present in The Tempest and the extent to which the play might be considered to be a Masque.
The Tempest was written in the earrly Stuart period in England when masques were becoming exceedingly popular, and were often performed at weddings to honour marriages. The Tempest is heavily influenced by elements of the masque, and can be performed with the same purposes as one, although it is far too rich to be classified simply into that genre of plays.
In masques the use of spectacle was extensive. The Tempest reflects this in many ways. The very first scene, Act I scene i, is that of a ship in action, and requires elaborate special effects to convey a sense of realism. The banquet scene in Act III scene iii requires a "quaint device" to make it vanish, and also makes extensive use of costume, dance and music, as the spirits enter in the form of shapeless creatures and Ariel is the form of a harpy. The masque within the play in Act IV requires elaborate costumes for the goddesses and, ideally, machinery for Juno to descend as deus ex machina with. It also involves great amounts of song and dance. The entire play makes extensive use of music, with Ariel's songs and Prospero's charms as well as the "sweet airs" of the island itself. Being non-human, Caliban, Ariel and the spirits require elaborate costume to make them appear so, and the court party members are decked in their finest court apparel, having just been at Claribel's wedding, so that Miranda is taken aback by the "brave new world / That hath such creatures in't" on seeing them.
The elements of pastoral comedy in The Tempest are also linked to those of the masque. A natural man, Caliban, exists. So do a pair of noble young lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, who are brought together in the pastoral setting of an island, unaffected by the corruptive influences of civilisation, making Miranda an innocent and undeceitful young woman. She has had no time for "vainer hours", as other princesses would have, leading to vanity, but has been educated by Prospero, showing she is innocent rather than ignorant. She is uncoquettish and direct in her advances to Ferdinand in Act III scene ii, and yet is filial, worrying about disobeying her father in what she feels is right. It is her virtue and innate nobility that make Ferdinand mistake her, on their first encounter, as "most sure the goddess of this island". Ferdinand is also virtuous, having the chivalry to bear logs for Prospero as punishment simply because he has been defeated and having the ability to let "the pure white virgin snow upon my heart / Abate the ardour of my liver." The chastity of the two lovers points toward the need for reason to rule passion for a harmonious relationship. This is reinforced again by the masque, in which the unruly Vesus and Cupid are omitted, and instead include Ceres, Juno and Iris, goddesses of the harvest, reflecting man's harmony with nature; marriage, reflecting the importance of marriage vows; and the rainbow, reflecting the harmony of nature.
The presence of the goddesses themselves in the masque reflects the element of divine intervention in the masque. In masques, it was common for characters from Græco-Roman mythology to be featured, blessing the couple. Divine intervention is also manifested in Ariel, who can only do good, as seen by the fact that he could not work for Sycorax. He is subordinated to Prospero, as well as all the other spirits, weaving in the concept of the supernatural. Ariel also alludes to mythology in his attirements as a seanymph and harpy.
However, it would be wrong to classify The Tempest as a masque, as although it contains many elements of the masque, it features a structured plot with an exploration of controversial ideas and themes, such as that of nature versus nurture in Caliban and Antonio, and that of disruption of social hierarchy. Masques tended to rely more on spectacle and moral than on plot; the plot was often weak or non-existent. Through this, we can see that Shakespeare incorporated elements of the masque into that of his conventional plays, producing a play that can be well-regarded in both respects.
The Tempest contains certain antimasque elements, such as the conspiracies for murder. Antonio and Sebastian prove that even with all the benefits of noble birth and civilised education, evil men can be produced. This is against traditional masque ideas of nobility. Antonio's act of usurping Prospero, and their intention to murder Alonso and usurp his throne, give the play tragic elements as well, as they value their personal benefits over those of society.
The mock court party also has antimasque qualities, as the rough humour of their folly in attempting to be rulers tickles us in a base way. However, their intent to murder Prospero also presents a dark side of the play, and Caliban is a base, dull, uncivilised brute rather than the innocent and noble natural [nice] man of Spenser. The fact that he can appreciate the music while many of the people from civilisation cannot points to the fact that he does have a degree of the purity which is destroyed by civilisation, but otherwise, we are little inclined to admire him.
The struggle of Prospero to assert his reason over his passion, planning for the future rather than succumbing to his temptations for revenge, are also against the idea of the masque. Prospero, as the central character, has little to do with the elements of the masque at all, as the main concern of the plot is his education of the people on the island and his own education as a result of this.
Thus, it would be impossible to claim that The Tempest is a masque, but possible to claim it has much to owe the masque. It is a masque to the limited extent that it contains most of the elements of the masque, but this is transcended by the fact that it contains much more that is not, making it a better and more profound play.
Bingo. At this stage it would be absurd to expect more. A bit more emphasis in spots is necessary to distinguish between mere observation and analysis but in all this is quite good. Well done. 25/30.
Art vs. Nature (E-Ching's),
Art vs. Nature (Rouh Phin's),
Prospero as Ruler, Prospero vs. Caliban,
The Tempest as Masque, Apparitions and Stage Spectacle,
Ideas vs. Dramatic Principle, Island of Echoes & Suggestions,
Comic Resolution, Prospero Context
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