All Shakespeare’s plays have transformation at their heart and we see that in his texts in several ways.
The most visible manifestation of transformation in the plays stems from Shakespeare’s pre-eminence in creating inner lives for his characters that are complex and evolving as they react to events. Before Shakespeare, literature did not present us with characters whose inner lives demand our deepest attention. But we see in Shakespeare’s plays so many characters who are in the process of reacting to events and developing, as we watch them, in ways no other characters in literature before Shakespeare did, because Shakespeare’s assumptions about character were different from those of earlier writers. Earlier characters had personality structures, and while they did react to events, we don’t see process and the development of understanding in them that we see in Shakespeare’s characters. That development of understanding in Shakespeare’s characters is responsible for the transformation we see in all of them. With Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Lear especially, we see this interiority which has become so much a part of our way of understanding human beings.
Shakespeare’s positioning as a Renaissance writer places him in the context of rapid change. The world in which he lived was fast transforming itself in science, art, philosophy, religion, medicine and many other areas. It was in the middle of the Copernican revolution, the Machiavellian influence, geographic exploration, and dynamic social change. Shakespeare’s characters begin to display a Machiavellian duplicity, or are concerned with, or promote, as we see in King Lear, both a concern for the preservation, and the dismantling of, the received Elizabethan world view. In many characters we see the impulse to replace it with a modern, science-based sensibility. Living in the times he did means that Shakespeare could not have done anything else than have his characters respond. The context of fast and widespread change in Europe enters the fabric of the plays.
And so, transformation pervades all the plays. Something common to all of them is stability giving way to confusion. The ultimate ending in the plays is restoration, however – a change back to the state before the confusion, but with a transformation having taken place – usually in the form of deeper understandings on the part of the characters At all times the context, as outlined above, informs the action and the character development. Change may happen to individuals on the most basic level. In Twelfth Night Malvolio is tricked by a false letter into changing from a puritan steward to a ridiculous would-be lover; in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Nick Bottom is magically transformed into an ass. In every play characters change in some way: it could be the change from life to death, or the dawning of new insights. Figures of power come tumbling down and villains are exposed.
None of Shakespeare’s plays is about one thing: every play is criss-crossed with a multitude of themes, so if one tried to explain a Shakespeare text in terms of one idea it would be simplistic. However, in some plays transformation is a central theme, operating at every level of the text. The Tempest is one of those and, more, it is in many ways the climax of the theme in Shakespeare’ works. It might therefore be instructive to look at transformation in that play.
The word that is usually used to talk about transformation in The Tempest is ‘metamorphosis.’ It means, simply, transformation by means of magic. In The Tempest the magician, Prospero, uses magic to bring about transformation in both the outer and inner lives of his enemies. In the process he is himself transformed and at the end of the play he demonstrates his complete, permanent transformation by renouncing his magic and its agents.
After twelve years of anger and bitterness at his banishment and imprisonment on a small island with his young daughter, Miranda, he now has the opportunity to take revenge on those who have done him wrong. He uses his magic to wreck the ship they are travelling on and bring them to the island, taking them out of their context of European politics, to an unknown and unpredictable environment. The spells Prospero casts on them transforms their emotional states. Prospero’s initial intention was to confuse, punish and teach them a lesson but finally, filled with pity, he is moved to compassion for them. This is the turning point in the story as well as in Prospero’s inner character. In letting go of his resentment and forgiving the wrongdoer, he lets go of his power over them and they waken to new insights and understandings, transformed by the forgiveness of their victim. This is the climax of the transformation theme in The Tempest. Vengeance gives way to forgiveness and mercy and transforms the lives of everyone who is affected by the previous climate of hatred. This is a deeply Christian idea and we see it throughout Shakespeare’s dramatic works.
The above explanation is simplistic, however, and doesn’t take account of the complexity of the plays. As in all Shakespeare, the central theme is interwoven with such things as linked themes and ideas, language, dramatic action, characterisation and so on. We see the transforming influence of childhood innocence feeding into the main theme, the softening influence of nature and femininity on the hard, masculine, urban political world. And in the end love and forgiveness emerge and transform the characters. In Shakespeare’s plays we will almost always find that transformation takes place in that way.