Theatre Critic and Journalist

Usurpation in The Tempest

Usurpation in The Tempest

Published by John Good for the Watermill Theatre, 27.09.2012

Nothing fascinated Shakespeare like the cycle of power; the way that rulers rise by usurpation, only to be toppled in turn. Snatch power and it will eventually be snatched from you. So the wheel turns: vengeance after vengeance, comeuppance upon comeuppance.

The great Polish critic Jan Kott called this “the Grand Mechanism,” describing feudal history as “a great staircase on which treads a constant procession of kings.” Each murderous, treacherous step brings the crown closer, but “from the highest steps there is only a leap into the abyss,” pushed by the next in line. The History plays follow the same pattern: a struggle for power, followed by a dead king and a coronation. Several tragedies follow suit: Hamlet  and Macbeth, for instance.

However, of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest – too easily dismissed as a blend of fantasy, pastoral and romance – is the most shot through with treachery and usurpation.

Twelve years earlier, Prospero was Duke of Milan, before being deposed by his brother Antonio.

Being Duke of Milan meant more than being, say, Duke of Gloucester. During the 15th Century, Italy was not a single political entity, but composed of individual states. Milan – along with Naples, Florence, Venice and the Papal States – was one of five major independents, but there were about 20 more; some no bigger than a town and its surrounding fields.

While Italy had an overall monarch, the role had little import; so much so that for two separate decades, there was no overall king. Naples, Sicily and Sardinia were kingdoms in their own right. The Duke of Milan was, essentially, a head of state.

Preferring study to government, Prospero conferred the running of the state to his brother. However, allying himself with Alonso, the King of Naples, Antonio “did supplant good Prospero” – a move twice described as “foul” in the play – throwing him into exile. Prospero brings the pair to his island precisely to reclaim his Dukedom.

On the island, however, there are two further plots. Believing Alonso’s son and heir, Ferdinand, dead, Antonio encourages his brother Sebastian to kill the king of Naples, directly echoing his own rise: “As thou got Milan,” says Sebastian, “I’ll come by Naples.” Meanwhile, Caliban encourages the drunken Stefano and foolish Trinculo to overthrow Prospero, even dubbing the former “king” before they have done so.

Unsurprisingly, this Italy was a tumultuous political landscape. Major states were constantly tussling for domination, forming temporary allegiances with one another and smaller city states. However, whenever one achieved some advance, the others would ally to halt its progress. Increasingly, they called on foreign powers and, in 1494, encouraged by Milan’s Duke Ludovico Sforza, France invaded, causing 65 years of outright war, constant betrayal and regularly deposed heads of state.

It was against this context that, in 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote his notorious political treatise The Prince, which sets out the scheming necessary to seize and, crucially, to hold onto political power. Published in 1532, it’s likely that Shakespeare would have seen a Latin translation by 1610, when he wrote The Tempest.

Like Shakespeare, Machiavelli recognised the Grand Mechanism and advocated cutthroat tactics – from which we get the term Machiavellian – to usurp and guard against usurpation oneself. One of Machiavelli’s prime examples is Cesare Borgia (1475 – 1507), part of the infamously ruthless Borgia dynasty, who is believed to have murdered his brother Juan, his brother-in-law and masterminded several political assassinations before amassing a large army to gain himself an independent state. Due to his father’s death, he never managed it.

In The Tempest, Antonio is a typically Machiavellian “great pretender”: doing bad, but seeming good. His usurpation of Prospero is slow and subtle, coming after 12 years of tributes to Alonso, securing his support. As Milan’s governor, he has “set all the hearts i’th’state / To what tune pleased his ear,” before removing Prospero from power, without needing to resort to bloodshed. Asked why he and Miranda weren’t killed, Prospero explains, “Dear they durst not, / So dear the love my people bore me.” Antonio’s exile of Prospero keeps deed clean and the populace onside – a core Machiavellian principle.

Yet, Antonio remains indebted to Alonso, so goads Sebastian into usurpation in order to reverse the relationship: “And I the king shall love thee,” says Sebastian. Again, Antonio needn’t dirty his hands.

In light of this, it’s possible to see Prospero’s “project” as a rebuttal of Machiavelli’s principles. Though he outsmarts his would be usurpers, proving himself the supreme Machiavellian, he ultimately advocates the earning and giving, rather than the taking of power. First, he grants loyal Ariel power over “the rabble” of Caliban, Trinculo and Stefano, who would “make” the island their own. Then, he passes his mantle to the next generation, ceding Miranda to Ferdiand that they might “inherit” power, rather than “steal [it] by line and level.”

Perhaps all this relates to Shakespeare himself, about to put down his quill and hoping to anoint a successor. Perhaps, it was merely fawning on the English monarchy, since the first recorded performance of The Tempest was in Court (1611), and revived for the marriage of King James 1’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth (1613). Whatever the precise motivation, Shakespeare used his final for a moral summation of the Grand Mechanism.

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