- Wonder, Imagination, and the Matter of Theatre in The Tempest
Ariel occurs. Recounting his performance of "the tempest" in Act I, scene 1 of The Tempest, he presents himself as being and action, fracturing grammar, spatial and temporal logic in ways that amaze and confound:
I boarded the King's ship; now on the beak, Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, I flamed amazement. Sometime I'd divide, And burn in many places; on the topmast, The yards, and bowsprit would I flame distinctly, Then meet and join . . .(1.2.195–201) 1
"I flamed" means that Ariel emits or is flames, which in the normal order of things would consume him. His very narration, however, proves his survival, evoking wonder through the utterance itself. Forceful and compacted syntax, a recognized source of wonder in Classical and Renaissance accounts of style (Biester, pp. 14; 35–40), magnifies this effect. 2 Shakespeare's transitive use of the usually intransitive verb flame reflects a not uncommon practice, as E. A. Abbott shows; 3 but this syntactic device also reflects The Tempest's own logic. Ariel crosses boundaries between [End Page 496] deed and being, verb and noun, subject and object, matter and spirit: he both is and does flames. What could be more jarring to syntax and semantics than a singular subject whose utterance claims that he can flame, divide, meet and join? Just as "a" fire consists of many flames yet functions grammatically as a singular substance in English, just as the Christian Trinity is both singular and multiple, Ariel burns in many places at once. Meanwhile, this extraordinary language seems belied by the actor's very embodiment. Ariel cannot have done what he claims; yet the prior scene has represented the very storm in which Ariel flamed. In that sense, the actor's embodiment represents what we imagine to be matter's intractability, while Ariel's claims, coupled with the storm we have just witnessed, reveal matter's fluidity and permeability to imagination. Fluidity and intractability co-exist, another source of wonder. Sound mimics these paradoxes: the assonance and consonance in flame and amazement create a near rhyme that echoes the near identity of fire and human amazement. If, as Gurr and Ichikawa observe, a Renaissance audience expected to hear more than see a play, this echo calls attention to Ariel's marvelous powers. 4 Lest the noises and pleasures of the Renaissance theatre, which recent scholarship deems to be considerable, distract audience members from this bit of language, similar moments reinforce Ariel's play in and with language and matter throughout the play. Marvelous poetic language is of a piece with a "fever" that is of "the mind," with music that "creeps," actors who vanish, new found goddesses who speak the discoverers' own language.
Amazement provides our cue: it and its cognates name the appropriate response to Ariel, his language, and to The Tempest itself. Attention to Ariel's poetic language reveals that it, like the plot, conforms to the marvels of the play and to the period's well documented love for marvels in several ways. Wonder, an aesthetic "'object of desire'" in itself, and a response to the inexplicable in classical and early modern views, may be evoked by the unexpected in style (and through other strategies that the era's handbooks taught). 5 The clause "I flamed amazement" epitomizes the unexpected in syntax as well as differing from one of the few sources found for The Tempest, William Strachey's 1610 letter, which describes just such a storm. 6 While St. Elmo's fire itself may elicit wonder, Shakespeare's syntax and diction reinforce that marvel. And no wonder: rhetoric and theatre alike depend upon audience attention, and wonders naturally evoke it. Jarring language also harmonizes with The Tempest's structural marvels—loose ends, disrupted actions, unforeseen futures—issues several critics explore. 7 [End Page 497]
The wonders of The Tempest, however, also involve imagination—in early modern psychology, the human faculty that permits perception of the world and invention of images. 8 Wonder responds to how the perceived differs from the expected, how the imagined supplants the usual, how an...