Friday, April 30, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Tempest

What I love about this play: The first scene, on the ship during the storm (which could, again, easily be a throwaway) opens up all of these questions about who gets to wield authority:

Boatswain: You mar our labour. Keep your cabins; you do assist the storm ... What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin! Silence; trouble us not.
Gonzalo: Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.
Boatswain: None that I love more than myself. You are a councillor; if you can command these elements to silence and work piece of the present, we will not hand a rope more. Use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long and make yourself geady in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap ... Out of our way, I say!

And Gonzalo, the nobleman and councilor, is schooled, because the hierarchies of the civilized world are worth nothing against the tempest. (I also love the Boatswain’s curt “Work you, then” – addressed to Sebastian and Antonio, who share Gonzalo’s snobbery but lack his innate decency.)

Pretty much everything else in this play is also about power and authority – who gets to rule the island, who gets to preserve and recount history, and why. Does knowledge confer power? Right of birth? Right of possession? And what happens once all of the characters have found their way to the island, a new world where nearly everything “doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange”? (Or not. One of the striking things about the island, with all of its magic and wonder and strangeness, is how quickly it starts to mirror the old world. Mostof the characters’ first instinct is to dominate it, and the second is to figure out how they can turn everything to a profit. As Gonzalo imagines a Utopia, Sebastian and Antonio undercut him:)

Gonzalo: I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too – but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty –
Sebastian: Yet he would be king on ‘t.
Antonio: The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

I get the sense that this has happened before – that Prospero, and probably Sycorax and Caliban before him, have tried to fashion the island into a paradise according to their varying definitions, and have run hard up against human nature. And really, that struggle against our worst natures is what makes this play interesting; Prospero pretty much has everything his own way, and we know that from the start, so the real conflict is between him and his own dark side. I think Ariel’s “Mine would, sir, were I human” line in 5.1. should be a big turning point, dissuading Prospero from a much uglier revenge. Even so, he takes a really freaking long time and an inordinate number of farewell speeches to abdicate his power, which is perhaps just as well, since the speeches are so gorgeous.

Everybody quotes the “Our revels now are ended” bit – which I do love very much – but since it’s not as well known, I think I’ll finish off my month of blogging with this one:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

Favorite memory: This is another one that I got to see at the Globe, this time on my second trip to London in 2000. YOU GUYS I WAS INCHES AWAY FROM VANESSA REDGRAVE PLAYING PROSPERO. I must say this in capital letters. Also, it was generally an awesomely fun show, and the Caliban / Stefano / Trinculo scenes featured fish being thrown into the audience. (There is not, as a general rule, enough fish-throwing at the theater.)


Susan said...

Are you done? Are there no more plays? I'll miss this series!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Susan -- Thanks! And yes, NaPoMo is over and I am done; the only plays left are ones that I either don't know well at all, or am not excited enough about to do a full post about them, or both.

Bardiac said...

Hey Fretful,

This has been an excellent series! I'm glad you reminded me how very much I love some specific plays, even though I don't teach them much.