Broken Narrative

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is riddled with interruption. All facets of the play from Prospero’s language to the play’s plot as a whole are consistently disrupted. This style of narrative contrasts the play’s establishment of time and place, which are standard of any traditionally well-made plot, and Shakespeare’s typically more coherent plays. An audience may ask then: why is interruption so central to The Tempest? How does such a disjoint narrative actually enhance instead of confuse the play’s story? And, what, if anything, might interruption reveal to the audience?

Dr. A. Lynne Magnusson, director of English graduate studies at the University of Toronto, explores the use of disruption within this play in her article “Interruption in ‘The Tempest’.” In her writing, Magnusson relays the existing theories on this topic as well as her own. Perhaps her most interesting observation of the existing scholarly discourse is about James Sutherland who stipulates, “Shakespeare’s impatience and difficulty with formal composition [caused] him to write in a careless fashion without concern for the expressive needs of the dramatic situation” (55). In other words, it would appear as though Sutherland suggests that the use of interruption in The Tempest reflects a kind of laziness on Shakespeare’s behalf. As such, its employment would not be deliberate, but incidental. If this theory holds true, I wonder: if the audience perceives the interruption as such a half-hearted attempt at writing, what the effect of interruption is if not included intentionally and how disruption changes the intended impact or value of the text? In short, Sutherland’s idea calls into question the meaning of the interruptive style. Magnusson, by contrast, argues not that the style offers meaning but that “style is the meaning” (55).

To make her case, Lynne Magnusson references Prospero the most of all The Tempest’s characters. Prospero’s pattern of speech is perhaps best exemplified when he attempts to relay how his brother Antonio usurped his position as Duke. However, Prospero is wholly unable to complete his thought as he fails to use any verb in conjunction with the anticipated subject “My brother” (1.2.66-77). Furthermore, as Magnusson observes, “grammatical subjects are repeatedly forgotten in the proliferation of circumstantial detail” (56). Due to the Prospero’s total lack of syntactical logic, his resulting speech becomes practically incoherent or, as Magnusson suggests, shapeless and disorganized.

This amorphous speech provides an example of how Prospero relays events so that “there is no one clear patter in the actions of the past” (57). It is as though Shakespeare wrote Prospero’s attempts and subsequent failures to weave a narrative into his past so as to demonstrate that there is no natural narrative to the events of one’s life. Instead, any kind of personal story is a reality based fiction that is constructed by men in an effort to make sense of their lives. In short, as Magnusson states, “the play represents life or external reality as shapeless…yet it represents the human mind in opposition as shape-making and shape-needing” (57). The crux of Magnusson’s argument is, in essence, summed up in this quote. She believes that interruption is in The Tempest is used to highlight the human desire to make sense of life events by forcing those events into the framework of a history. She implies that Shakespeare introduces disruption not out of laziness then, but instead as a critic of an irrational human need.