Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Tempest - Shakespeare

The plot in the 'The Tempest' is on the thin side.  A former duke named Prospero was ousted from power and cast adrift with his young daughter, Miranda.  A loyalist smuggled his books of learning to him and Prospero became a wizard of sorts.  The two landed on an island with magic elements and Prospero took control.  Some years later, a boat went past his island containing the men who wronged him.  Prospero caused a storm, i.e. a tempest, and brought the men to his island.
While there, some of the men show their true colors and try for another power play.  The son of the king falls for Miranda, and vice versa.  Two of the lower class men fall in with the sole native of the island, Caliban, and plot to overthrow Prospero.  But Prospero's control over the island, helped by his servant fairy Ariel, is complete and he is in no danger.
As I said, the story is on the thin side, but the poetry is outstanding.  My favorite is probably Caliban's dream:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
Very good stuff.  The cloud capp'd towers speech is also very nice:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. 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-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.
I'd never read the Tempest before this.  Some months ago I bought a book that contains stories from Shakespeare for children.  My daughter recognized that the Tempest was a famous play and asked me to read that story to her.  I didn't want to since I wanted the story fresh for myself when I read it.  So I jumped the line and read the Tempest earlier than I would have otherwise.
Does it deserve the fame?  I'm not sure.  It doesn't read as a stand out from the romances.  I'd put at least half a dozen of the straight comedies above it.  But maybe the poetry reads better from the stage.  Or maybe the spectacle of the magic and storm plays better.  I honestly don't know.

It's always interesting to me how some of Shakespeare's plays are absolutely soaked in magic, while others are incredibly realist.  I read the Tempest while reading the history plays and the difference is striking.  Prospero's magic is over-arching.  Ariel is a (trapped) fairy who can perform seeming miracles.  Caliban is born of a monster of some sort named Sycorax, who had some evil magic.  The entire story depends on magic abilities to do incredible things.  It is all fantasy.

Is Prospero a hero?  That's the question that I kept asking myself.  He was betrayed and kicked out power.  He arrives at an island to find the former ruler has recently died.  He turns her son, Caliban, into a kind of slave.  He frees Ariel (and the others) from the trees where they were imprisoned, but then binds them to do his work. 
Even when the other men show up, it isn't clear if he is a good man or not.  He threatens their ship with a storm but keeps them safe.  He separates them and lets them believe that the others have died.  He 'allows' his daughter to fall in love with literally the first outside man she sees, but then she sets the man onto a pointless task.  In the end, all is revealed and forgiven.  Prospero gives up his books, and magic.  He is restored to his former position.  (Miranda and her new love will be happily married.)   
But is Prospero a good man?  I can't tell.  Something in his manner made me feel that he deserved little or no sympathy.  I wonder if I would feel differently after watching a few performances?

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