Sunday, May 29, 2011

Discussion: The Tempest

The play: The Tempest

The plot tweet: Marooned and usurped duke Prospero uses magic powers -- and Ariel's help -- to be "revenged" on his enemies and find husband for Miranda.

My favorite line:
My library was dukedom large enough.


I have a special place in my heart for Shakespeare's most magical plays, Midsummer and Tempest. If you'll forgive the pun, these plays bewitch me, and they reawaken my wonder at what can be accomplished on a little wooden stage.

Since we learned our lesson last week about autobiographical readings of Shakespeare's work, let's soundly reject the traditional view that The Tempest is Shakespeare's farewell to the stage -- especially since we now know that he wrote other plays afterward. But it's hard, isn't it? It's hard to read lines like this and not see a double meaning:
... These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
It's hard to imagine that Shakespeare -- who surely knew he was nearing retirement -- didn't feel a double meaning in these lines. But, as Oprah said in her farewell show this week, "When you know better, you do better." Thanks to James Shapiro, we now know better, so we'll set the autobiographical implications aside.

I'm also deeply uncomfortable with readings of this play (or any Shakespeare play) that impose the reader's own ideology, be it feminist criticism, Marxist criticism or what have you. Some scholars read this play as a critique of colonialism and set up Caliban as the hero, defending his island from colonization. I can't accept this reading. Caliban has few redeeming qualities; instead he is both an attempted murderer and an attempted rapist. We have no reason to suppose that Shakespeare intended us to side with Caliban -- unless we are prepared to twist the play to suit our own views.

If The Tempest is neither a colonialist critique nor an artist's farewell to the stage, what is it?

First, it is one of just a handful of Shakespeare's plays to observe the three classical unities of action, time and space. (Comedy of Errors is another.) It's interesting to me that Shakespeare would return to this idea late in his career. He seems to be returning to the classical roots of his art. The effect on the audience is to make them participants in the magic of the play, because they are experiencing the onstage events in real time.

Second, The Tempest shares many themes, such as reunion, forgiveness and redemption, with the other late romances. But, rather than show us the entire back story, as The Winter's Tale and Pericles do, The Tempest skips over the first part of its own story, bringing us directly to the moment of reunion.

These two factors combine to create a real intensity, beyond what I normally feel in a Shakespearean "comedy." Prospero is in charge here, and every moment he is moving us closer to the grand culmination of his plot.

Here's something I haven't yet decided: At what point does Prospero abandon his plan for revenge and choose the "rarer action" of forgiveness? If he intends to destroy everyone, why not just wreck the ship at the beginning? That's not his plan at all, of course; he intends all along for Ferdinand and Miranda to meet and fall in love. But what had he planned to do to the others, once they were within his power, before Ariel changed his mind? I'd love to invite Prospero to a dinner party and ask him that. I'll bet it would have been good.

Coming to the end of The Tempest -- and the end of our "Shakespeare in a Year" challenge -- is a bittersweet moment. In a few days, I'll do another post about the overall challenge. For now, I'm still absorbing the idea that I will never read anything new by Shakespeare, unless some dotty English matron finds Cardenio in her attic. On the other hand, the magic of Shakespeare is that his work, even after four centuries, continues to be new every time it is read and performed.

Thank you, Will, for an incredible journey.

1 comment:

  1. This is a true inspirational play and there are many different meanings and sides for people to discover and learn.