13 January 2013

The Tempest

I forgot to specify that my reading order is being dictated by my copy of the Complete Works. It goes: comedies, histories, tragedies, and poetry. If a special request is made for a specific work to show up earlier, I'll be happy to take you up on the suggestion, but otherwise, I'm just reading through the book as is.

The Tempest is one of the more well-known comedies. I've read it in the past, and have seen it performed, so re-reading it hasn't been a chore. For those less familiar with the story, I'll offer a summary. The Tempest is the story of a duke in exile, who, having learnt to be magician, uses his magic and the spirits he commands to create a storm that brings those responsible for his exile to his island, including the King of Naples and his handsome young son. Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan, has lived on the island for years with his daughter Miranda for company. His only other companions are the sprite Ariel, whom he freed from captivity and who now serves him, and Caliban, the son of the witch who had previously ruled the island. Ariel is styled an airy spirit, mostly benevolent, while Caliban is deemed sub-human and evil. Miranda, Prospero's daughter meets one of the shipwrecked men, Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples, and immediately falls in love with him. Her father, wishing the match to be a little more solid than love at first sight, forces Ferdinand to work for him and lets Miranda watch and sympathise.

In the meantime, Prospero sets Ariel to tormenting the men responsible for his sufferings, to bring them to repentance. As this is happening, two sailors from the ship run into Caliban, and together the three plot to do away with Prospero. Naturally, Ariel overhears, warns Prospero, and the magician and his sprite chase them off.

When Prospero deems that Ferdinand has proved himself, he grants permission for Miranda and Ferdinand to become betrothed. After dealing with Caliban and company, he meets with his former enemies, forgives them, and they reconcile. There is much rejoicing over Ferdinand and Miranda's betrothal. Prospero forgives Caliban and the two sailors for trying to kill him, and then sets Ariel free. As he is to return to Milan, he renounces his magic and bids the audience farewell.

The Tempest has never been my favourite of the comedies, but it does provide many possibilities for staging, given the liberal use of magic and the sprites running around the island. When I was in high school, my drama class read the play and our teacher had us do costume designs for our own visions of the show. I set my version at a 1920s beach resort, and had a lot of fun drawing pictures of the outfits for the characters.

Some years ago, I got to see a production of Tempest in Portland, Oregon. I believe the actors were from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and they'd taken their production on the road. There were only 3 or 4 actors in the show, and they switched parts around beautifully. No real set, minimal props, but an excellently done show, especially for a play that one automatically thinks of staging lavishly.

I get easily irritated with the characters in Tempest for various reasons. One of the largest irritants is the dynamic between Prospero and Caliban. Prospero assumes that Caliban is naturally evil because of his lineage and his appearance, and then treats him so. Caliban points out that Prospero had at first treated him kindly, and then had started treating him poorly, so now he hates him, where once he had adored him. This always troubles me, because Prospero commits the fallacy of assuming that Caliban is evil because he looks unpleasant, and then because he treats him poorly, Caliban responds in kind. It's easy to judge others by their appearances (I know I certainly do), but The Tempest illustrates that it can be dangerous to do so.

A read again through The Tempest made me pick out a few quotes that I'd forgotten or not really noticed before. They're listed below. On to The Two Gentlemen of Verona!

Interesting Quotes
"If he be not born to be hanged, our case is miserable" Gonzalo, Tempest I.1.33-34

"You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!" Caliban, Tempest I.2.363-365

"He receives comfort like cold porridge" Sebastian, Tempest, II.1.10-11

"Look, he's winding up the watch of his
wit; by and by it will strike" Sebastian, Tempest, II.1.14-15

"The trust you speak doth lack some gentleness,
And time to speak it in. You rub the sore
When you should bring the plaster" Gonzalo, Tempest, II.1.142-144

"Do not infest your mind with beating on
The strangeness of this business" Prospero, Tempest, V.1.246-247

1 comment:

  1. Prospero's attitude toward Caliban is certainly troubling, but the shift in Prospero's behaviour was at least partially due to Caliban's making advances on Miranda (1.2). Admittedly, we'd need more information about the incident before we could be sure in using it to justify Prospero's choice. If said advances were unwelcome to Miranda (which seems likely, if she recognised them as such, considering how young Miranda must have been at the time), I think that Prospero's downgrading of Caliban's status in the community is pretty reasonable. On the other hand, if Prospero's perception of the incident was skewed due to his opinion of Caliban's origins (maybe he started to get suspicious of signs of friendship between the two as Miranda grew closer to maturity), Prospero bears the blame for doing some pretty serious damage to Caliban's character. Looking back at the text, despite the likelihood that there were class (and possibly race) issues involved as well, I'm inclined to lean more toward the first theory.


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