The elements of story: air

The elements of story # 3: air.

    Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
    as I foretold you, were all spirits and 
    are melted into air, into thin air….

-- Shakespeare, The Tempest

Prospero, the magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is a brilliant storyteller. Almost the first thing we see him doing in the play is telling his daughter Miranda the story of how the two of them came to live on this enchanted island. He tells it with such skill and power that Miranda exclaims “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.”

But the story he tells doesn’t have an ending … yet. The play that unfolds before us is the completion of that unfinished story. From start to finish we see Prospero, with his magical art, in control of everything that happens. He carefully shapes events in order to weave a happy ending, and the element he uses most in his story-shaping is air.

The chief spirit under his command, Ariel, not only has an airy name, he is mostly air himself. Ariel “performs” the storm which brings the ship carrying Prospero’s treacherous brother Antonio to the island. At Prospero’s bidding he creates lifelike visions that beguile or frighten, and just as quickly makes them dissolve. Like air, he seems to be able to go anywhere -- he has no physical limitations, other than Prospero’s power over him. (Of course Prospero has another servant who is far more solid and far less willing: Caliban, whom he refers to at one point as “thou earth.”) After one of Ariel’s visions has suddenly vanished, Prospero tells Ferdinand that the spirits have melted into thin air. He then goes on to say that everything in the world will eventually do the same, since “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Air, then, is the boundless freedom of the storytelling mind, constrained only by the storyteller’s skill and vision. Air is the breath of inspiration, by which the maker of story reimagines and shapes experience into the stuff dreams are made on. And air is the word, uttered by the breath, or spoken silently in the reader’s thoughts, which weaves the “baseless fabric” of a story.

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