Tech and the Tempest: Some Brief Thoughts

I was pleased to come across Gregory Doran’s remarks about The Tempest, which will be staged at the RSC in the summer with a “digital” Ariel (/Aerial?).  Doran points out the influence of court spectacle on Shakespeare, noting that early modern “masques” were

the multi-media events of their day, using innovative technology from the Continent to produce astonishing effects, with moving lights, and stage machinery that could make people fly, and descend from the clouds.

Such spectacles found their way into commercial theatres, and my PhD thesis explored, in part, the way in which new technology infuses The Tempest.

Indeed, it will be rather exciting to see a “technological” Ariel in Stratford in November.  I have spent some time investigating the echoes of machinery and invention that reverberate around the “spirit” in the play.

The Renaissance made little distinction between magic and technology, and the two were often part of the same discourse.  Both magic and machinery have their roots in what the period called “natural philosophy”–where the beginnings of modern science can be detected. In writings on technology, invention, and machinery, the language and philosophy of scientific progress is blurred with terms of and allusions to alchemical magic: both were seen as forms of technological creation.

Dreams and fantasies of technology were prevalent, and the “mage/proto-scientist” Roger Bacon (c.1219-c.1292) was frequently invoked throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as an authority on technological possibilities.  The sixteenth-century prose history, The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon, for instance, suggest an early idea of an aeroplane:

an Instrument may be made to flye withal, if one sit in the midst of the Instrument, & doe turne an Engine, by which the wings being Artifically composed, may beat ayre after the manner of a flying Bird. (C4r)

One of Ariel’s entrances in The Tempest recalls such a moment, and the spirit is described in technological detail from “puppetry” to musical instruments:

The windes did sing it to me: and the Thunder

(That deepe and dreadfull Organ-Pipe) pronounc’d

The name of Prosper . . .

Two manuscripts (c. 1603) in the British Library describe fantastical inventions imagined by Henry Reginald.  They devise a secure method of communication: a “flying messenger” who can transport “secrete Intelligence” (MS 4403 f.154; MS 4384 f.72a). Ariel seems to represent such a figure/device, descending like a “Harpey” to deliver Prospero’s message and perform some rather impressive stage effects.

As a character who echoes not only masque spectacle but actual technological innovations (and there are further parallels with machine books, inventions, and perpetual motion machines), it seems perfectly fit that Ariel should be reimagined with today’s technology, as an avatar.  Julie Taymor’s Tempest (2010) presented a part-CGI Ariel (Ben Whishaw) and Lucy Bailey’s The Winter’s Tale (RSC, 2013) featured an exit pursued by a CGI bear; both experimentations enliven the plays with twenty-first-century “devices,” mixing media and adding an element of “marvel” to familiar texts.

The Tempest is suffused with the strangeness, marvel, and wonder that accompany the spectacles of contemporary technology.  In early modern England, technology was charged with moral and social meaning, and it offered a “strange” and powerful sight; it will be fascinating to see the technological resonances of the play expanded further into our own age.



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