Everybody knows William Shakespeare, the great Bard of tragedies, comedies, sonnets, romances and poetry. But was The Tempest a musical?
True, many of the great playwright's comedies feature the odd song here and there. But a notable British stage director now claims that the writer's late masterpiece The Tempest was actually intended as a full musical.
"The whole play resembles a musical court masque in its structure, as well as having a separate masque scene within it," Jonathan Holmes, the artistic director of London's Jericho House theatre company, told the Observer. Holmes, who's directing a production of The Tempest for Jericho that opens next month, researched the play for two years; he bases his theory on surviving written stage directions from the seventeenth century and on analysis of the play's structure and content.
Believed written around 1610-11, The Tempest tells the story of a banished duke, Prospero, shipwrecked on an uncharted island with his daughter, Miranda. With the help magical spirit Ariel and his own conjuring powers, Prospero sets a plot in motion to lure his enemies to the island, expose them and restore everyone to his or her rightful place. While the play was classified as a comedy in its publication in the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, contemporary scholars often refer to it as one of Shakespeare's "romance" plays, alongside The Winter's Tale and Pericles.
Holmes believes that Shakespeare should have given an equal writing credit for The Tempest to composer and lute player Robert Johnson (not to be confused with the 1930s blues legend, of course). The director claims he has found proof that Shakespeare and Johnson worked as partners on the play and contributed to it equally. It's already well known that Johnson, King James I's court lutenist, wrote at least two songs for the play, "Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I" and "Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies".
"Academics have wondered for years why music is quite so central to the play. I have always felt that it reads like there is something missing," Holmes said. "There are gaps in the text, and character development is cut short. It has a reputation as an underwritten play, although it seems clear that extra text has not been cut or lost."
Holmes added that music was likely used for The Tempest in a way not unlike a modern movie score. "The norm in the play, I now believe, was continuous sound, though there is nothing else like this in Jacobean drama... Although the idea of a score is something we are used to, it was revolutionary at the time. It meant that the characters didn't appear to hear the music. It shaped the narrative, and it changed the number of lines a character needed. In terms of dramatic importance, it is as if we've been missing a character all this time."
The director's theory has received cautious support from at least one credible Shakespearean scholar. "I would want to see the evidence, but this sounds possible," Stanley Wells, who has edited Shakespeare plays for Oxford University Press, told the Observer. Wells, who also is the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, added: "I can quite believe The Tempest might have been conceived as a musical entertainment. It very much fits into the scheme of the play, and... it is also probable there was more music than we have recorded. "
Holmes's conclusions will be revealed in detail in a formal study to be released in September, according to the Daily Telegraph.