Shakespeare’s plays have been variously interpreted by literary scholars. Some of his plays have been dubbed as romances. The Tempest is critically acclaimed as the finest form of romance with the admixture of both the comic and tragic elements. Thus, ‘tragi-comedy‘ is an apt epithet for The Tempest.
Such literary genre appeared in the first decade of seventeenth century in England. Phillip Sidney, an eminent Elizabethan scholar, scornfully rejected tragi-comedy as a mongrel form in his Apology for Poetry. According to Aristotle and his followers tragedy mainly dealt with princes and noblemen whereas comedy dealt with the people of lower classes. Shakespeare evinced his adroit art of weaving serious matter along with amusing situations in The Tempest. It is, therefore, a convincingly etched out tragi-comedy.
The striking feature of The Tempest is its plot structure finely balanced with the blending of tragic earnestness and comic laughter. In the opening scene a superb levity is maintained by juxtaposing both the serious and the comical jocularity. We witness a ship being tossed by the sea-waves because a heavy gale is blowing. All the passengers are in utter danger as they find themselves faced with impending calamity. No doubt, such precarious situation is a serious matter. But Shakespeare’s dramatic art quite convincingly introduces witty quips uttered by Gonzalo who ridicules the boatswain:
I have great comfort from this fellow: methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect gallows.
Likewise, Act one Scene two begins with an atmosphere pervaded by sadness as Prospero gives his daughter a detailed account of misfortunes which he had experienced owing to the perfidy of his brother Antonio:
My brother, and thy uncle, call’d Antonio,– I pray thee, mark me, that a brother should / Be so perfidious
Herein lies the unsurpassed theatrical art of the dramatist; such sentimental effusion induces within us an emergence of fellow-feeling with Prospero. Such harrowing tale of Prospero intensifies tragic gloom and elucidates the reason behind Prospero’s arrival in the island. The atmosphere is tempered with the love-making between Ferdinand and Miranda. Thus shakespeare’s ingenious method of introducing the twin strands of tragic and comic impulse is extraordinary:
They are both in either’s pow’rs: but this swift business/ I must uneasy make, lest too light winning / Make the prize light
Act two Scene one is a combination of joyful mirth and tragic gloom. Apart from Alonso’s grief over the supposed death of his son, the scene is almost peculiar to festive comedy. We enjoy boundless enjoyment at the expense of Gonzalo who is assailed with sarcastic remarks by both Antonio and Sebastian. Moreover, we laugh a lot at Gonzalo’s absurd comment of ideal commonwealth:
All things in common Nature should produce / Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony, / Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine, / Would I not have;but Nature should bring forth, / Of it own kind, all foison, all abundance, / To feed my innocent people.
Such comic pleasure is definitely a fine stratagem on the part of the playwright to bring forth jovial spirit of comedy. Also, a serious note creeps out when we see Antonio prevails upon Sebastian to agree to the assassination of Alonso and Gonzalo.
Act two Scene two is merely farcical and most amusing, as we find Trinculo and Stephano come upon Caliban who is a hilariously looking monster indulging in drunken revelry.
Act three is mostly a romantic scene but there is still vivid the vein of comedy when we see to find the concourse of Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, and their subsequent conversation is amusing enough to entertain us.
Again, Act three Scene three is no doubt serious; it is where a banquet is laid before Alonso and his companions. Over here Ariel appears in the shape of a harpy and denounces the three men of sin. And the banquet vanishes away owing to trick of Ariel. Alonso remarks: “O. It is monstrous,monstrous!”
The masque in Act four Scene one is followed by three conspirators who have decided to make an attempt on Prospero’s life. We again enjoy hilarious laughter when we find Trinculo and Stehano feel attracted by the gaudy and worthless garment. It was in reality the trick of Prospero’s black magic.
We are really amused on seeing how Stephano
Act five is all perfect specimen of solemn seriousness. Ariel reports to Prospero about the miserable condition of three sinners:
Confin’d together / In the same fashion as you gave in charge, / just as you left them; all prisoners, sir, / In the lime-grove which weather-fends your cell; / They can not budge till your release.
Ariel pleads for mercy towards the sufferers. Prospero assures him that he himself is thinking of forgiving his enemies. Prospero tells Ariel —
The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.
Prospero makes a long speech in which he recalls all the wonderful deeds which he had performed on this island by means of supernatural power. Then the sinners and the other members of Alonso’s party appear before Prospero who confronts them all and makes another long speech. Next, he reminds Sebastian and Antonio of their obnoxious and hateful misdeeds. At the same time Prospero pronounces his forgiveness towards all the sinners. Alonso is reunited with Ferdinand. All come to know that Ferdinand is engaged to Miranda. This is mainly a scene of reconciliation. The happy ending of the play obliterates the tragic elements, or at least diminishes their effect.
Thus a fusion is made between tragic and comic spirit of the play. There are tragic elements like Prospero’s fall from power, villainy of Caliban, the murder plot and the theme of revenge. On the other hand, we have a romance between Miranda and Ferdinand, a humorous subplot with the lower-class Stephano and Trinculo, and the lighter elements of the bridal masque and other harmless magic. This is why most critics consider “The Tempest” as an appropriate example of a play that has a good dose of tragedy and comedy in it. In fact, in the light of this play, we would be justified in regarding tragi-comedy as a legitimate form of drama in its own right.