The Tempest: the Influence of Shakespeare on Contemporary Literature

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Indigo, Olympos, The Habit of Art, Island, Forbidden Planet, yellow sky. What do these texts have in common? All of these texts are interpretations of William Shaskpeare’s play, The Tempest, but what is it about Shakespeare which garners him a plethora of praise even in modern society and his plays being so universal that they are studied across the globe. “The past is powerfully present”, the complexity of such a statement is captured distinctly by playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ is able to transcend time through its presentation of themes and ideas relevant in contemporary society. The relevancy of themes and ideas can be attributed by the stagnancy of human behaviour and emotions. The themes and ideas which Shakespeare discusses in The Tempest are not exclusive to the Elizabethan era, as there is still the presence of the ambition for power, the quenching desire for vengeance and our ability to forgive. ‘The Tempest’ is presented to the modern audience through Margaret Atwood’s adaptation, Hag Seed, in an attempt to appropriate the text to have a greater connection and relatability amongst the contemporary audience.

What does it mean to have power? What Constitutes power? Would we act differently if we had Power? Upon first reading The Tempest and Hag Seed, an aspect of the text which appeals to most readers is the exploration of the ambition of power within society. The Tempest showcases a constant power struggle between the characters, with the significant example being Prospero’s usurpation, as Prospero recounts to Miranda, “but by being so retired, O'erprized all popular rate, in my false brother Awaked an evil nature, and my trust, Like a good parent”, detailing how his position as Duke of Milan was overthrown by his brother, Alonso, being exiled to an island with his three year old daughter Miranda. The use of an emotive tone paired with Prospero’s metaphorical description, in which he likens his trust to “a good parent”, further emphasises the act of betrayal as unjust act and a violation of his trust, an insight on the extent of actions to which the desire of power can have on an individual. Initially, we may perceive Prospero as an empathetic character, as he was wronged, however the perception may swiftly shift throughout the text, as Prospero is presented as a tyrant, who after being exiled, asserts dominance and control over the island. Prospero’s control is best demonstrated through his relationships with Ariel, an entrapped spirit, Caliban whom Prospero enslaves and his daughter Miranda. Glimpses of his power are shown during such responses with Caliban, “If thou neglect or dost unwillingly What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps, Fill all thy bones with aches'', which presents the recurring motif of master and slave. The use of such motif highlights the power dynamic between Prospero and Caliban and Prospero’s abuse of power. Regarding the motif of master and slave, during the Jacobean period, it would have been socially relevant and would have been an aspect of the play which would serve greater purpose in connecting and reminiscing with the audience, in comparison to today's audience.

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The discussion of power is also prevalent in Hag Seed, as it similarly aims to explore the desire for power. Felix Phillips, who is a representation of Prospero, faces a similar act of betrayal, as Tony and Sal, characters who draw parallels to Antonio and Alonso, get Felix fired from the Makeshiweg festival. Atwood alludes to The Tempest regarding Felix’s firing, “Felix the cloud-riding enchanter, Tony the earth-based factotum and gold-grubber”, which symbolically alludes to Felix as Prospero, being concerned with mystical elements, as opposed to Tony, who is more concerned about realistic issues like Antonio. By textually alluding to The Tempest, Atwood draws our attention to the similarities in human behaviour, highlighting our ability to be just as opportunist and manipulative as in the past. A distinctive feature between the texts is Felix’s power and control. As opposed to the Prospero, Felix doesn’t have magical abilities allowing him to gain power and authority. Felix not being portrayed as a fantastical being, allows Margarett Atwood to add a sense of realism and relatability to the story. Miranda is a dissonance from The tempest, as she is represented as an imagination of Felix’s consciousness and also through the portrayal by Anne-marie in Felix’s play of the Tempest. So what warranted Margaret Atwood to disassociate from Miranda’s portrayal in the Tempest? Atwood’s background reveals her as a prolific figure in modern feminism, for which it is fair to assume that Atwood changed the character of Miranda, from Prospero’s Overly Protected and dependant daughter, to being Felix’s hallucination and a strong independent female, to insert her own views and values regarding gender roles within society. The context of contemporary society, allows and demands for strong female characters to be represented.

Tides oscillate the ship up and down, distant sound of lightning echoes through the sky, controlled but aggressive winds push the boat astray. The Storm, synonymous with The Tempest, symbolises Prospero’s revenge. What is Prospero’s motivation behind revenge? Revenge acts as a catalyst for driving the plot of The Tempest, as after 12 years of his exile on the island, Felix plans his revenge, as he conjures the tempest upon the ship carrying Alonso, Antonio, Stephano, Trinculo. Prospero’s demanding tone when commanding Ariel, “At this hour Lie at my mercy all mine enemies” underlines Prospero’s excitement and longing desire for revenge. The Tempest highlights revenge as a reactionary action, as a common desire to inflict upon someone as a source of redemption. Prospero’s self reference as “The wrongèd Duke of Milan” solidifies his belief of being wrongfully overthrown, fuelling his revenge. Can revenge be justifiable? During the play, we witness Prospero’s plan take place, however towards the end of the play, Prospero develops the willingness to forgive Antonio and Alonso during his speech in which he says “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance”. The anagnorisis identifies the importance of forgiveness over revenge, as prospero comes to terms with virtue, appropriately aligning with the context of the time of its composition. The Renaissance period pronounced a shift from medieval values, resulting in the formation of new human values, with forgiveness being commemorated. Prospero’s embodiment of the shift in values during the renaissance period was impactful to the value of forgiveness, as it emphasises the importance of forgiveness, as a greater option which frees people from revenge, becoming free of the burden it holds.

What causes Felix's desire for revenge? Felix’s desire for revenge in Hag Seed allows for the contrast and exploration of the motives behind revenge and the different views on Forgiveness. After Felix’s firing from the Makeshiweg festival, Felix takes up teaching at Fletcher’s correctional centre, however, his motives reveal it to be a ploy for revenge against Tony and Sal, as he utilises The Tempest play to drug the men. Comparably to Prospero, Felix exhibits the desire for revenge against his betrayal. The metaphor and the third person limited narration of the statement “He’s been chewing over revenge for 12 years” accentuates the understanding of Felix’s revenge, as the action of him ‘chewing’ metaphorically, suggests a yearning for revenge which Felix has been awaiting for a long time. A commonality which we can associate between both texts is the Protagonist’s desire for power, which represents revenge as a common human reaction and emotion which many people may associate with betrayal. Felix’s plan for revenge is successful, in which he is able to ‘forgive’ Tony and Sal. Felix’s forgiveness of Tony and Sal contrasts from Prospero’s value of virtue, as Felix lacks sincerity. “He got his revenge, such as it was. His enemies had suffered, which had been a pleasure. Then Felix had strewn forgiveness” The two contrary statements are juxtaposed to represent a conflicted statement on forgiveness, as although Felix verbally forgives his enemies, his enjoyment from the suffering showcases a lack of remorse. Do Tony and Sal deserve to be forgiven by Felix? Does Felix’s insincerity actually discredit his forgiveness? It could be argued however, that as Felix imposes the exile upon himself, he must have mercy upon himself, to relinquish the grief associated with the loss of his daughter. Felix’s insincere apology is more indicative of the way people are forgiven now, as forgiveness is viewed as something to be achieved. Would you forgive someone who has wronged you?

As we come to a conclusion, a very important takeaway should be the influence of Shakespeare on contemporary literature, as The Tempest remains relevant in its themes, ideas and values, which apply to us and our lives. Hag Seed showcases how elements from past literature can be taken and presented to a more modern audience, however that being said, an important point of notice is that certain elements of The Tempest aren’t relevant and would not connect with the audience due to the context of its composition, in which Hag Seed reworks those to be better suited to the audience. The Tempest and Hag seed prove how “The past is powerfully present”.

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The Tempest: the Influence of Shakespeare on Contemporary Literature. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“The Tempest: the Influence of Shakespeare on Contemporary Literature.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
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