The Waste Land Project: The Tempest


Play * William Shakespeare * Magic! Music! Other Things! * 1611


Comparative literary analysis is difficult, and anyone who says otherwise is either a damned liar or a damned engineer who thinks they’re better than me. I am not a Shakespeare scholar. I’m barely Shakespeare literate. I’ve read and/or seen (checks internet) nineteen of thirty-seven plays. That sounds like a lot, but I assure you I barely remember any of those. And while compared to say, Chaucer, Shakespeare’s variety of English is fairly easy to deal with, he’s still not exactly Stephen King when it comes to clear, modern language. All of this is to say that both trying to make sense of the various themes at play in The Tempest and somehow put those into the context of a poem written over three hundred years later is a challenge. Especially when Eliot’s masterwork is not exactly, ah, easy to decipher. I should be clear about this paragraph. My aim is not to complain about a task I set myself which comes with exactly zero expectations and even fewer repercussions should I get bored and quit. No. This entire preamble is an extended apology to anyone reading this who is better at Shakespearing than I am, and also to anyone hoping to find some kind of shimmering, illustrious elucidation that will suddenly make The Tempest and The Waste Land clear. Disclaimer over, so let’s muddle through this.

The most striking thing about The Tempest, at least in relationship with The Waste Land, is that of tone. I’m not sure you could categorize this play as a comedy, exactly, but it is by no means a tragedy. Everything works out in the end, and in the meantime there are various pranks being pulled and some silly bits. I’ve never watched a production of The Tempest, and I might have to rectify that, because the sense I get from the text is that this play is quite the show. Or at least it has that potential. There’s a big storm which I’m sure is fun to stage. Also there is a ton of music in this thing, which is probably catnip to any theatre student who wants to set The Tempest in like, late ‘70s Los Angeles or something and Ariel is in The Germs. NOBODY STEAL THIS IDEA. Anyway, on the surface this play doesn’t appear to have much of a place within the confines of Eliot’s poem. There’s your basic Shakespearian shenanigans surrounding various dukedoms and whatnot, but there’s no sense of impending doom and apocalypse that The Waste Land is basically founded on.


This cover is weird for a lot of reasons, but mostly because the publisher thought Shakespeare needed a critic quote on the front. I’m not trusting anybody who was caught “unawares” by motherfucking William Shakespeare, ya heard?

While I may not be a Shakespeare scholar, one thing I’ve noticed in my causal enjoyment of his plays is that his plots are rarely the main attraction. At no point in my life have I been reading or watching one of his plays and wondering to myself “golly, I wonder what happens next.” I mean, mostly because I’ve never unironically used the term “golly,” but also because the ending is generally projected from the very beginning. You almost always know what you’re in for, and if some aspiring director decides to get frisky and change things up, the proper reaction should be annoyance. Romeo and Juliet should not live to become professional surfer-assassins and King Lear shouldn’t have a sick jetpack. Mmm. Okay, well if the jetpack is true to his character, fine. Because that’s really the point, in the end. Nobody goes into the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet wondering if maybe they’re going to make it this time. We’re there watch the tragedy unfold because it is inevitable, and despite that preordained suffering, we can appreciate our humanity. Or some other kind of theatre school bullshit, I don’t know. What I do know is that The Tempest is a weird play.


Listen up, girl, shit’s about to pop off up in here and I don’t want you to freak out and go ham on the first dude you see.

All the action of the play is set into motion when this cat Prospero is usurped from his rightful place as the Duke of Milan by his brother, Antonio. Alonso, the king of Naples is apparently fine with this gross injustice. Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, doesn’t seem to give much of a shit about any of this, although that may be me projecting my own disinterest in Ferdinand. Anyway, the thing about Prospero is that he’s a wizard or some shit. He also lives on this mystical island with his lovely daughter Miranda, some poor troglodyte named Caliban who is basically a slave, and a spirit named Ariel. As the play begins, Prospero has magicked up a storm real good because Alonso and a bunch of his royal cronies, including Antonio, were out on their party boat or whatever and Prospero was there to fuck em up. So everyone ends up on this island thinking those who are not in their group are dead, meanwhile Prospero is using Ariel to do pranks and manipulate people. And jam out, there’s lots of singing for a Shakespeare play. Oh, and Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love immediately, because that’s how relationships work in Shakespeare. Hijinks ensue, everyone realizes what a shithead they’ve been, Prospero gets his shit back, and Ferdinand and Miranda get it on. The Tempest, y’all.


Did the Pre-Raphaelites love them some Miranda? Oh hell yes they did.


A problem arises when I read something like The Tempest and have to think about it. My brain immediately rebels, like no! I got it! We did it, we’re done! Everyone’s cool in the end, remember? But then some other, probably deeply insecure part of my brain which feels like it has something to prove speaks up, and I have to sit here and try and answer questions. Why would Eliot choose this seemingly random line from a work which is so dissimilar to his own? Well whatever, let’s throw ‘em up and see what happens:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

Okay, that’s Prospero’s servant-spirit Ariel singing to Ferdinand about his dead, drowned dad. Of course, his father isn’t actually drowned, Prospero just wants him to believe he is. (Side note: there goes Shakespeare just pulling English phrases which will become common expressions for hundreds of years directly out of his ass. Sea-change, c’mon.) Okay, here’s Eliot:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,

Had a bad cold, nevertheless

Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,

With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,

(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

The lady of situations.

Okay, first of all, since it won’t come up in later editions of The Waste Land Project, allow me to point out how much I enjoy the phrase “The lady of situations.” I don’t know what that means but I love it. Now, woof, let’s spool the rest of this out. First of all, we’ve got like three threads working within this one passage from The Waste Land. First we’ve got Madame Sosostris, named for the fraud fortune teller from Crome Yellow. She’s out here dealing completely fictional Tarot cards (as Eliot mentions in his own notes) as a lark. The use of the Tarot here is purely for entertainment, because they didn’t have video games in the 1920’s, and is stripped of any ritualistic meaning it may have once had. It seems that this ritualistic meaning may have had roots in the fertility rituals that much of The Waste Land is rooted in, as noted in From Ritual to Romance. So we’ve got all that churning under the surface, and then Eliot plops a parenthetical right in the middle of it all, which is our Tempest reference. I’m trying my serious-minded grad school best to not just dismiss this as Eliot being flippant. Because T.S. Eliot was not a man anyone would ever describe as flippant. Yet given the context for this passage, and especially because it is a parenthetical, the line just seems like Eliot showing off. Like, “oh, look at this other thing I know.” And that attitude is very much like T.S. Eliot.


Lord spare me from silly-billy versions of classic literature.

Yet this is literary analysis, where there are no accidents and coincidence does not exist. I know this, because I did a brief search about The Waste Land and The Tempest and was immediately rewarded with dozens of academic articles (which I cannot read because I do not have the extremely expensive access to databases like JSTOR and the like) about this very reference. One article, written in the 60’s, claims that The Tempest is a major reference, rather than a minor one. And I would really like to read that, because it seems like a reach. Frankly, this reference seems like a very T.S. Eliot attempt at learned humor. The joke, if it is one, is clearly a stuffy, erudite examples of humor, but I wouldn’t expect anything less. This entire section featuring Madame Sosostris is a goof, an example of short-form satire lampooning the popularity of the occult among the moneyed classes at the time. Of course, like everything else in this poem, the joke has an edge to it. This is simply another example of the degradation of culture. In antiquity, humans had a real relationship with the power of nature and in so doing created various rituals calling on the supernatural in an attempt to somehow mediate these powers. Those once-serious rituals are now played for the giggles of the upper class.


Two things. First, the expression on these dude’s faces are gold: “get a load of this fucked up goblin, let’s punch it.” Second, that’s Gollum, right?

The passage used from The Tempest is about metamorphosis, and I’ve already pointed out how the term “sea-change” is yet another example of Shakespeare’s ability to straight up coin phrases out of thin air. Ariel is singing to Ferdinand here, basically trying to freak him out about his father’s supposed drowning death. Yet at the same time, the passage is somehow comforting. Like, yeah your old man is fish food, but in a way his death is beautiful, as nothing ever really ends but only transforms. Eliot is less positive in his outlook, because in this instance the transformation is a degradation. Madame Sosostris lays out a card meant to provoke – the drowned Phoenician Sailor – and makes this offhand Tempest reference as a motion to comfort. Of course nothing in The Waste Land is offhand, in the same way that nothing about T.S. Eliot is flippant, however the use of it here in that parenthetical and the emphasis placed on “Look!” marks it out as an aside. Yet by evoking The Tempest in the first place, Eliot is placing his own work within the context of Prospero’s magic island. It’s a nod to a time when people were capable of understanding magic and mysticism within the human sphere as opposed to a form of entertainment. The Tempest is about many modes of humanity, not the least of which is the transformation of perspective, which of course is paraded around in Act V. The Waste Land is about how those modes of humanity have changed with modernity. Eliot’s use of Ariel’s speech might have been delivered with a literary wink, but fitting with the tone of the poem it simply highlights what we’ve lost as a culture.

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