Tempest without storm

Written by K. M. Ebner-Landy

Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) operates in a state of exception very close to that described by the early 20th century German jurist Carl Schmitt. In it an emergency has lead to the suspension of the entire legal order – Schmitt’s definition of a ‘state of exception’. The Tempest shows us how a storm has led Prospero, the sovereign of this island, to suspend the primitive legal order he has established on the territory he controls. In Robert Carsen’s current production of The Tempest at the Comédie Française, there is no storm. This decision moves The Tempest away from being an early 20th century state of exception, to being one closer to the states of exception in operation today – to the CIA ‘black sites’, where detainees arrive on foreign shores with no political storm.


« By accident most strange, bountiful fortune, now my dear lady, hath mine enemies brought to this shore … », William Crane’s illustration of the scene 4 of the act I (1893)

The Tempest opens in the middle of a storm with a Shipmaster telling his Boatswain to get the ship’s sailors to do everything they can to prevent the ship from smashing onto the rocks. This storm lasts one short scene and seems like a natural disaster, but provides the key to the politics of this play. This is because, in the following scene, we find out that this storm is a political opportunity seized by Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan. When this ship sailed past the island on which he had been banished for twelve years, and when he realised that it carried the enemies that had put him on this island, Prospero decided to take advantage of this moment of fortune by creating a storm that would place the crucial men on board within his easy reach. When his daughter Miranda asks him why, he answers that ‘By accident most strange, bountiful fortune/… hath mine enemies/ Brought to this shore.’

What is revelatory about this storm is not only how it takes place but what happens afterwards. Its aftermath sees Prospero suspending the ordinary rules of the island. Prospero tells Ariel, his powerful spirit, that he cannot free him this day as promised because there is now more work to be done. Prospero then tells Miranda, his daughter, who she is – something he has started to do several times before but stopped. For Prospero, ‘the time’, ‘the hour’ and ‘the very minute’ have now finally arrived to tell his daughter the story of their lives. In this way the emergency of the storm provides becomes the opening to an extraordinary day in which the sovereign of the island can suspend its working order.

In this way, the storm opens up a ‘state of exception’ – a political concept developed by Carl Schmitt in ‘Dictatorship’ (1921) and ‘Political Theology’ (1922) which in its moment was used to bolster the Third Reich. The state of exception or Ausnahmezustand described in Political Theology is characterised by a sovereign’s ‘suspension of the entire existing order’ as a result of an emergency, ‘a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state’.[1] The sovereign is he who can decide on both ‘whether there is an extreme emergency as well as what must be done to eliminate it’.[2] The sovereign’s decision leads to a “state of exception” rather than a “state of emergency” because of the full suspension of an existing legal order.



Robert Carsen’s decision to show The Tempest in his recent production at the Comédie Française without its storm denies the audience the opportunity to see the play’s set up of a state of exception. They do not see the emergency in the form of the storm, nor the sovereign who created it. Instead we see Prospero in bed, remembering the crime that his brother and the King of Naples committed against him, before these very men are delivered to an unknown island where their wronged victim lies in wait. We do not see how these men got there, who is control of the place on which they land and what this means for this territory’s politics.

For Carsen, this is part of a choice about how to deal with Prospero’s magic. He explains that he was faced with a decision about whether to take what Prospero says about his powers at face value – that he can wake the dead, conjure the elements and make storms – or whether to interpret this magic in another way. He decided to find a form of interpretation which saw the Tempest more as ‘a psychological study… of what it is to be alive, what is a desert island.’

Carsen’s interpretation of the storm sits strangely with his idea that finding ‘explanations for characters like Ariel or Caliban can have a reductive effect on the experience’. The explanation that he finds for the storm indeed reduces the play’s effect – both politically and dramatically. In doing so, it prevents Carsen’s desire to reveal that The Tempest is a play ‘about the politics of power’ from coming to real fruition. It is not however, only politics that this scene loses, but drama. When Shakespeare appears in Ariane Mnouchkine’s current Chambre en Inde, it is by being thrown through a window as a result of this storm. Before welcoming him in we see the actress playing Mnouchkine exclaim ‘what an opening!’

Carsen’s choice to remove the storm may reduce The Tempest’s politics, but in doing so it inadvertently touches on something close to our own. This is that our contemporary states of exception have moved on from being similar to those described by Carl Schmitt. Instead of requiring the public decision of politics, they are designed to operate covertly, as if by fortune alone.


In red, the 54 countries involved in the extraordinary rendition procedures.

The contemporary politics that this Tempest without a storm comes close to is the politics of ‘black sites’ – the network of secret CIA prisons that spanned the globe from 2002 until their use was banned by President Obama in 2009. The way these ‘black sites’ worked was by abducting at least 119 men, women and children under the auspices of ‘extraordinary rendition’, and flying them to secret prisons in the world, where they were tortured. This process involved 54 countries with 8 countries holding their own secret prisons – officially Afghanistan; Lithuania; Romania; Poland and Thailand and unofficially Morocco; Diego Garcia (British overseas territory) and Djibouti.[3] The participation of countries in this programme who did not host CIA prisons on their own territories included: detaining and torturing individuals; assisting the CIA in transportation of detainees; permitting the use of airspace and airports for secret CIA flights; providing intelligence leading to detention and extraordinary rendition and interrogating individuals.

The euphemism for the torture detainees suffered in these prisons was ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ – including water-boarding, sleep deprivation, keeping prisoners in small boxes for up to 18 hours, stress positions, forced nudity, sexual threats and so-called rectal rehydration. In its extensive 2014 report on the abuses of the Bush era, the US Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that ‘the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information’. This dossier has a new pertinence as in January 2017, the Trump administration said that it planned to review re-opening ‘black sites’ overseas, and Gina Haspel, the new CIA director appointed in March 2018, oversaw a ‘black site’ in Thailand from 2003-2005.

Open Society Foundation’s report on « black sites »

The black sites programme attempted to avoid the public seeing a storm. It was a covert operation, authorised by a “covert action memorandum of notification” – a secret order signed by President Bush the week after 9/11.

It was not politically declared and was only revealed when media and advocacy groups begun to reveal the locations and nature of these prisons. In the words of a 2012 Open Society Foundation report, these operations ‘were designed to be entirely conducted outside the United States under the utmost secrecy’ (p.61). Detainees were not tried publicly but kidnapped and brought to islands within states that operated outside the law. The arrival of these detainees was not designed to look like the decision of politics.


In order to understand the black sites network we need to understand the storm: that is how detainees were moved from their place of residence to a black site. This requires us to examine the geopolitical network on which the black sites the relied.

Europe’s role in the operation of CIA black sites was crucial, with 20 nation states facilitating extraordinary rendition (Albania, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Macedonia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom) and three European countries holding their own secret prisons.

This network of 54 countries excludes China, Russia and the continent of South America but included these 20 European states. Understanding this aspect of the storm shows us how black sites were able to operate in a particular geopolitical constellation. This is a constellation of American influence, one that (with the exclusion of South America) incidentally goes some way to match the heat map of facebook use around the world. The geopolitical fact of there not being a black site in China or Russia reveals not only clear cleavages in international political agendas, but in the nature of sovereignty: the boundaries of which were very clear in some places but could be transgressed in order to creature miniature states of exception in others.

In The Tempest, the storm either takes place in the Mediterranean or in the Caribbean – with the play referring to both the Mediterranean sea and to the Bermudas in Act 1 Scene 2. Uniquely for Shakespeare we don’t know precisely where this ‘uninhabited island’ is: in this it presents a geographical exception to a body of plays in which specific locations – Denmark, Athens, Venice – are paramount. In the contemporary network of states of exception, the territories bordering the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas prove crucial in the transportation of detainees to black sites in Europe and elsewhere, whether that is to Lithuania, Romania, Poland or to that first publicised black site in Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay.


For Schmitt, we know that the sovereign decides on the exception. In The Tempest we see Prospero deciding to seize the opportunity of his enemies sailing by to announce an exception. In the 21st century, Carsen’s production of The Tempest has not shown us this decision. In doing so it stands in a current political context in which contemporary states of exception no longer need to operate on a sovereign public decision, but attempt to take place without a storm.

[1] Carl Schmitt. 1922. Political Theology. Translated by George Schwab. 2005. Chicago: Chicago University Press. pp.6-12.

[2] Ibid. p.7

[3] I have used ‘officially’ to mean cited in the 2012 Open Society Foundation report and ‘unofficially’ to mean cited by the articles hyperlinked in the body of the article. The Open Society Report from which these figures are taken explains that ‘no comprehensive account exists of foreign government participation in these operations’ (p.61), so in time these figures might change.

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