For the past semester, a group of our middle and high school students have been spending their afternoons rehearsing Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This weekend they had their final performance at our first ever theater competition, hosted by Meridian World School. Competing against Meridian and Gateway Academy, our theater students won numerous awards, represented our school proudly, and showed the power of their education in the liberal arts.
Though the competition did not recognize a best play, I was so proud to see our students not only memorize and perform, but understand, Shakespeare’s language. Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest can be challenging at first, but Founders students know what’s it’s like to study great texts, and their experience studying logic, rhetoric, and literature helps them see that the play is actually very funny, very moving, and an important reflection on the human soul and human happiness.
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most misunderstood plays. Today it is almost always read through the lens of political correctness, when in fact it teaches lessons much deeper than the political problems we’re dealing with today.
The best easily accessible talks on the The Tempest I know of are by Paul Cantor, a professor at the University of Virginia, and Stephen Smith of Hillsdale College. And Harry V. Jaffa and Allan Bloom are the founders of a whole school of thought that takes Shakespeare’s plays as works of philosophy, as relevant today as they were when they were written.
These teachers and others taught me to read The Tempest alongside Plato’s Republic, which is perhaps the most important work of philosophy ever written and an important part of our high school curriculum. The Republic teaches us that we must choose between the contemplative or philosophic life and the active or political life. It teaches us that the human soul contains three parts: our reason, our spiritedness, and our desires, and that our happiness lies in correctly ordering our souls through virtue and in the pursuit of the best way of life.
Shakespeare knew Plato well, and The Tempest shows some of the most important themes from Plato’s Republic brought to life. There is Prospero, the former duke, a scholarly man who was exiled from political rule because he sat in his study reading books rather than addressing the problems in his kingdom. He chose the contemplative life in the midst of his political responsibilities, and of course it was not long before his throne was taken and he found himself stranded on an island with his daughter Miranda. Prospero lost his kingdom because of his mistakes as a ruler and during the course of the play he learns to make amends for the errors he made as a young man. There is a lesson in the play about the responsibilities of rule and the limits of the political life–in the ordinary world, it is impossible to be a philosopher and a ruler at the same time.
The island is a magical place, and the perfect place on which to learn the art of rule. It is perfect because not only does Prospero have complete power over the island and the people on it (something not possible for an ordinary king), but it is a world in which he doesn’t have to choose between the active life and the contemplative life. He can be a philosopher and a king at the same time, reading books and practicing the art of rule simultaneously. With his cloak and staff he commands his daughter to sleep when he wants to make a plan in secret, and through the power of his fairy servant Ariel he causes a storm that wrecks the ship of his enemies just as they are sailing close to his island. His authority over the island is complete, like the authority of Shakespeare himself in writing the play.
I love the play because of what it teaches us about the human soul and how human beings can lead lives of happiness. Following Plato, C.S. Lewis teaches us that learning to be happy means getting the parts of our soul–our reason, our spiritedness, and our desires–in order. Reason must rule our desires with the help of spiritedness.
Besides Prospero, Miranda, and Ariel, the only other resident of the island is the horrible Caliban, a grotesque creature driven by solely the basest desires. Prospero’s rule over Caliban and Ariel would be unjust if they were human, but of course they are not. The island is an imaginary place, and in the characters of Ariel and Caliban, Shakespeare is imaging what it would be like of one part of the human soul (our reason, our spiritedness, or our desire) was separated from the others in an individual creature. Just as reason must govern spiritedness and desire, Prospero must govern Ariel and Caliban.
In learning to rule in a way that mirrors the order within a well shaped human soul, Prospero is learning the lessons he needed to know as the Duke of Milan. Because he has come to understand the human soul and the art of rule, he earns his dukedom back, finds a suitable husband for his beloved daughter, and forgives his enemies. He concludes the play having learned how to be not just a better ruler, but a better man.
I’ve been watching the play during rehearsals, and mentioned already how difficult it is for high school students to put on such a challenging play. I was so impressed by the quality of the students’ performances, and the judges were too. Please join me in congratulating the following students for winning our school’s first-ever theater awards.
- Honorable Mention
- Sarah W. as Miranda
- Eross C. as Prospero
- Olivia H. as Ariel
- All Star Cast
- Christine J. as Trinculo
- Anne S. as Stephano
- Ryan W. as Sebastian
- Timothy S. as Alonso
- Kyle S. as Antonio
- Best Actor
- Michael P. as Caliban
There is talk of one final encore performance of the play. Please keep your eye on the Archers in Action between now and the end of December!
In the meantime, please enjoy these photos from the performances that have already happened.