Are Ferdinand and Miranda Shakespeare’s dullest couple? Compared with Shakespeare’s other young lovers like Romeo and Juliet, they are a pretty uninspiring pair. It's sometimes suggested that as the play isn’t really about them as people; they can be seen as symbols, whose union is a plot device for the purpose of cementing the reconciliation of the play’s final moments. This always seems rather an unfair judgement on a couple who can have a real impact on the complex play.
Sadly, Ferdinand is never going to be anybody’s dream role, especially with such meaty roles as Caliban and Ariel in the same play. Richard Burton, that most masculine of actors, was dismissive about his own playing of the part in 1951. His Ferdinand went “tottering about, with nothing to say of any real moment, bloodless, liverless, kidneyless, a useless member of the human race”. As the most exciting bit of business Ferdinand has is to carry logs round the stage, Burton has a point, and he was playing Henry V at the same time! Other actors have got more out of the role, for example, Michael Maloney, David Fahm and Oliver Dimsdale have all been successful by playing him with simple dignity.
The key to Ferdinand is his relationship with Miranda, and she offers much more scope for an actress. Prospero’s daughter has grown up in the absence of any other woman; her father and Caliban the only humans she has known. We see her at the moment where she becomes aware of herself as an independent person: compassionate, innocent, ardent and naïve. The audience knows that the shipwrecked men are the same ones who banished Prospero fourteen years previously, but Miranda, on seeing them, claims the famous lines:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!"
There are many ways of playing Miranda, but the success of both parts is in their relationship with each other. They are parts for real company actors who act with generosity to each other and their fellows. Although they are essential parts of the play, their role is not to supply comedy or high drama, as these are more than adequately dealt with elsewhere.
The most successful pairing I have seen was that of Nikki Amuka-Bird and Oliver Dimsdale at the Pit and The Other Place in 2000. Both played with great charm, sincerity and simplicity.
The Tempest is about many things, including betrayal and the abuse of power. In a play which can pull in many different directions, Ferdinand and Miranda can be the calm centre in the middle of the storm, their marriage a symbol of peace and reconciliation, and a promise for the future.