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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 17 December 2015

"The Tempest" by William Shakespeare


The Tempest was probably Shakespeare's last play. In the epilogue the old magician seems to be saying goodbye to his audience.

It is all about magic. The tempest itself is conjured up by magic. The magician is Prospero, who was Duke of Milan until his brother usurped his place (usurping brothers seems to be a Shakespeare theme, eg Hamlet and Claudius); Prospero was sent out to sea and landed on this enchanted island where he used his spells to command spirits, such as Ariel, and to usurp, in his turn, the island from Caliban, deformed monstrous son on Sycorax, a witch. The magical tempest brings those involved in Prospero's usurpation to the island; with them at his mercy he can begin to wreak his revenge.

In some ways this is a Jacobean revenge tragedy except that at the end Prospero forgives everyone.

Yet, apart from Ferdinand and Prospero's daughter Miranda falling in love, nothing much happens.

In terms of drama, this is a full Shakespearean play. There is a shipwreck. There is planned murder. There is a magical banquet at which dishes appear and disappear. There is a courtly masque. And there is drunken clowning. But the only character who develops, it seems to me, is Alonso, King of Naples, who regrets his part in Prospero's usurpation and sees this as the cause of the death (he thinks) of his son Ferdinand.

Perhaps I need to see it to appreciate it. I only ever saw a youth theatre production (which was abridged but very well done and enjoyable) and a filmed version. 

Perhaps I'm not the sort of person to get beguiled by spirits. And I did feel so sorry for poor Caliban.

I have now seen this play on Saturday (matinee) 25th June 2016 at the Royal Theatre in Northampton. It was an interesting production. Several of the male roles were played by women and the gender of the character was changed; thus, Duke Prospero of Milan became Duchess Prosper. This was fine except that the children of the old characters became younger siblings so that Ferdinand was the younger brother of the King of Naples and Miranda the younger sister of Duchess Prosper. This lost the patriarchal force of the Prospero-Miranda relationship and (more seriously in my view) weakened the King of Naples overwhelming grief when he is bereft of his son and heir (somehow losing a younger brother doesn't have the same primeval appeal). 

Ariel was played by six spirits who sang his songs in harmony and shared his lines and business. This actually worked quite well, even when Prosper was reminding them of how they had been released from the cramping cleft in which Sycorax had imprisoned them: they lined up and barked 'yes mistress' at appropriate places. It also helped when the food had to magically appear and disappear.

But this play is about usurpation and colonialism; it is about revenge; it is about an old man imposing his will on his slaves, including his daughter; it is about manipulation. This production played up the magical elements brilliantly but the raw power of the human relationships were sometimes lost.

This is a scene by scene synopsis of the play.
Act 1
Scene 1: A dramatic start; a storm at sea.
Alonso, the K of Naples, his younger brother Sebastian and Alonso's son Ferdinand, together with Antonio, D of Milan and Gonzalo, a nobleman from Naples are on board a ship. The Boatswain, trying to keep the ship afloat, tells them they are in the way; when a ship is endangered all men are equal, in fact the Boatswain is the more important man: "What do you here? Shall we give o'er and drown? Have you a mind to sink?" he asks. The confusion of the storm and on board the ship is echoed my the mixture of prose and blank verse; the play starts with prose and the blank verse only begins after the soaked seamen cry that all is lost "To prayers, to prayers!" But Gonzalo's last speech is back in prose.

In the Northampton production I failed to hear a single word of the dialogue because of the noise of the storm.

Scene 2: This long scene is mostly used to tell the back story.
Miranda's first words are to accuse her father, Prospero, of creating the storm by his magic. We are immediately moved from the realism of S1 to a realm of magic. Perhaps the storm has been our entering into the liminal experience.
Prospero admits the accusation but reassures the gentle, kind and empathetic ("I have suffer'd / With those that I saw suffer") Miranda that no one has been harmed in the storm. Then, raking his magic cloak off, he tells her his reasons.

This long speech is punctuated by regular accusations that Miranda is not paying attention to him: what a teacher he is! This is brilliant Shakespeare, breaking up a long speech so that the audience have time to gather their wits and regroup (and the accusations of not paying attention are levelled at the audience, perhaps). She repeatedly reassures him that she is: "Your tale, sir, would cure deafness."

Prospero's story is that he used to be the Duke of Milan but, when Miranda was a little girl, just three, Prospero's brother Antonio, to whom Prospero had delegated most f the actual business of government, form a treacherous alliance with Alonso the King of Naples and overthrew Prospero who was sent out to sea with his baby girl in a small ship. Fortunately a "noble Neapolitan", Gonzalo, gave them what was necessary as well as Prospero's magic books.

But now is Prospero's opportunity for revenge. The ship in the storm contained all his enemies: Antonio and Alonso, as well as the good Gonzalo, and Sebastian, the younger brother of Alonso, King of Naples, and Ferdinand, son a heir to Alonso. These passengers on the ship all jumped overboard and have been safely washed up on the ships; the mariners stayed with the ship which is now safe in harbour.

Miranda, after this long tale, falls asleep. Prospero puts his cloak back on (back to magic) calls his magic spirit Ariel, who created the storm. Ariel is a sort of puck. He describes how Ferdinand was first to leap from the ship, "hair up-staring" and is now sitting with his arms folded ("in this sad knot") "in an odd angle of the isle", painting a picture of awkwardness.

Then Ariel reminds Prospero that he has been promised his liberty. The blank verse here is fractured, jumping backwards and forwards as the two discuss and argue, a long way from the end-stopped complete line blank verse that Shakespeare's early plays are written in. Prospero is angry with his slave, reminding him that he freed him from being painfully trapped in a "cloven pine" for twelve years, a fate he had been doomed to by Caliban's mother, the witch Sycorax (who then died so was unable to release him). Ariel reluctantly (very curt end lines: "My liberty"; "No"; "I do not sir"; "Pardon, master" etc) accepts he will continue to obey Prospero. This is the piece which, in the Northampton version, was acheieved with a line up of Ariels all barking their answers like soldiers.

Now Prospero wakes Miranda and calls Caliban. While Ariel is a spirit of the air, of fire, of water, Caliban is an ugly misshapen brute, a spirit of the earth (his name is cognate with both the Caribbean, where the Tempest is more or less set, and 'cannibal' which were both in turn named after the violent Carib Amerindian tribe rather than the gentle Arawaks). Caliban is also Prospero's slave and he resents it, pointing out that he was the son of the witch Sycorax who originally ruled the island; ironically Prospero the usurped has become Prospero the usurper. Prospero bullies Caliban, calling him names: slave, earth, tortoise, poisonous slave, lying slave, filth; and threatening him with pinches and side-stitches. He claims that he looked after Caliban in his own house (although presumably it would have once been Caliban's own) "till thou didst seek to violate / The honour of my child" and Caliban smirks "O ho, O ho! Would't had been done / Thou didst prevent me - I had people else/ This isle with Calibans". So at some stage Caliban tried to rape Miranda.

But now Caliban is a slave and all that Prospero has taught him is dust and ashes: "You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is I know how to curse." But he has to obey.

So Prospero, the protagonist, is actually a usurper who bullies Ariel and Caliban to be his slaves. Not a nice man!

Ferdinand enters, accompanied by an Ariel he cannot see, who sings to him; he thinks it is the sounds of nature. Despite these soothing sounds, Ferdinand is mourning his father whom he thinks has drowned. This should be made much more of but as soon as Miranda sees Ferdinand she is smitten and he with her: "At the first sight" they are in love. But Prospero recognises (in an aside to the audience; this was very well done in the Northampton version) that (if only for the sake of the play!) he can't make the path of true love too easy: "I must uneasy make lest too light winning / Make the prize light." Calling Ferdinand a traitor he manacles him (despite Miranda's protests) and takes him prisoner.

Act 2
Scene 1: another long scene: the ship-wrecked aristocrats:
Gonzalo, the good courtier, who helped Prospero, is cheerful and optimistic. Sebastian, brother to the King of Naples, and Antonio, the usurper of Prospero's dukedom, are a pair of moaning pessimists who make fun of Gonzalo's panglossianism. And Alonso, King of Naples, is grieving the death of his son (younger brother in the Northampton version). Strangely, he rejects the suggestion that Ferdinand may have survived the shipwreck; most bereaved people cling to any hope long after it is reasonable. Cruelly, Sebastian blames Alonso for Ferdinand's death: "The fault's your own" and Gonzalo chides him. Then Gonzalo launches into a description of the Utopia that this island could be; he envisages a communistic commonwealth with himself as King; this is full of ironies as he is talking to his boss the King of Naples and being quite radically republican; perhaps Shakespeare wanted to emphasise how much the old order had been disrupted by the chaos of the storm on this enchanted isle.
Then Ariel arrives and puts all but Sebastian and Antonio to sleep. Taking advantage, Antonio now seeks to persuade Sebastian to usurp Naples and offers to kill Alonso there and then with his sword. Sebastian remembers that Antonio usurped his own brother and asks about the state of Antonio's conscience: "I feel not/ This deity in my bosom" replies Antonio. So Sebastian agrees to treason. 
This is a bit quick and then they have to whisper together at the side of the stage to give Ariel time to wake the sleepers up; this is a bit clumsy.  In the Northampton version Ariel was given time because, just before they slit the throats of the King and Gonzalo, they kissed (Sebastian was played as a woman called Simona), got into a passionate embrace and left the stage for a quickie! Antonio returns buttoning up his flies.
Antonio and Sebastian draw their swords but before they can use them the others wake up; Sebastian has to pretend they hear wild beasts and wanted to protect his brother, the King. The party wanders off to search for Ferdinand.

Scene 2: A comic interlude
Caliban is bringing wood for Prospero. He curses P and then, at the sound of thunder, worries about the little pinches that Prospero torments him with. Hearing a voice, afraid it is one of P's devils, C hides.
But it is Trinculo, jester to the court of Naples, and we switch to prose. He sees the hiding Caliban who smells of fish but he decides he is not a monster but an islander killed by a lightning strike. The storm coming, Trinculo hides under the cloak with Caliban.
Stephano arrives, drunk and drinking. Caliban thinks he is P's devil and he begs S for mercy; S seeing the cloak and Caliban and Trinculo underneath it thinks he has come across a strange monster having fits which, if he can cure the fits and tame it, he could enslave and then sell. So he feeds Caliban alcohol but is himself scared when Trinculo calls out to him.
The two friends are reconciled, using the bottle as Bible, and drinking together. Caliban, enamoured of the strange new taste of this new drink, pledges himself to serve Stephano. Thus are the Caribbean natives seduced with alcohol and enslaved.

Act 3:
Scene 1:
Love scene

Ferdinand has been told to stack wood by Prospero and he is labouring to obey. He is happy to be a slave because of Miranda. Miranda is upset for him and offers to carry the logs for him but he refuses her. In the Northampton version he is labouring over a great barrel that she can pick up quite easily. He woos her, telling her he is a Prince and would despise this base labour were it not for her. She asks, directly, "Do you love me?" and he says, beating around the bushes a bit, yes. The pledge to marry and join hands. Prospero, eavesdropping, is glad.

Scene 2: Another comedic interlude
Stephano and Caliban and Trinculo are all drunk. Stephano and Trinculo quarrel and Caliban, having pledged himself to Stephano, takes the part of his master. Ariel (invisible but audible) intervenes from time to time saying 'thou liest'; Caliban and Stephano attribute these words to Trinculo though he denies it and they beat him. Good slapstick stuff.
Caliban attempts to persuade Stephano to murder Prospero by hammering a nail through his head, braining him, sticking a knife in his paunch or slitting his throat. He reminds Stephano to burn Prospero's books first because without them P cannot summon any spirits; they all hate him. As inducement C offers S the bed of Miranda. S agrees to assassinate P and they plan to do it in half an hour when P will take his normal afternoon nap. Ariel, of course, has overheard all of this.

Scene 3: A magical banquet
This scene is based on the Aeneid (book 3) when Virgil and his companions prepare themselves a banquet only to have a flock of Harpies (the Ariels in black) swoop down upon them and devour it. Prospero watches the action from high above the stage. He was in one of the boxes, in Northampton, but his lines were voiced by one of the Ariels with an echo box. This scene was really well done.
King Alonso with good courtier Gonzalo, and the two wannabe usurpers Sebastian and Antonio, with two other lesser courtiers Adrian and Francisco are still searching for Ferdinand. But old Gonzalo can go no further and King Alonso too is tired. He despairs of finding his son: "He is drown'd ... Well, let him go."
Antonio and Sebastian are still resolved to assassinate the King the next chance they get, tonight, when the King and Gonzalo will be tired.
Suddenly spirits bring a banquet onto the stage. The shipwrecked noblemen discuss this strange event and resolve that other tall travellers' tales may also be true.
But then Ariel, dressed like a harpy, comes on stage, claps his hands and the food disappears. He then accuses the "three men of sin" (Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian) that they "did supplant good Prospero"; for which they will be punished by hellish torments.
After Ariel (and Prospero) goes, Alonso realises that his son has been killed because of his own guilt: "Therefore my son i' th' ooze is bedded; and / I'll seek him deeper then e'er plummet sounded, / And with him lie there mudded." He goes and is followed by Sebastian and Antonio. Gonzalo is fearful that they may do something rash and asks Adrian and Francisco to follow them.

Act 4: A single scene act.

At the start, Prospero permits Ferdinand to get angaged to Miranda whilst repeatedly warning him not to get to lustful and not to touch her before they are married. This doesn't work as well when Prosper is the elder sister. Then, as if to celebrate the engagement, he treats them to a masque in which Ariel plays Ceres and other spirits play her sidekicks. This 'play within a play' is a sort of liminality within a liminality; it ends when Prospero remembers that Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano are on their way to kill him. And he ends it with these famous lines:
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,
Yea, 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.

Then Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo enter. They have been led by Ariel through thorns and a stinking pond and they are grumbling. Then they see "glistering apparel" which Ariel has hung on the near lime tree and are distracted from their murderous intent with the fripperies, much to Caliban's disgust. Spirits in the shape of dogs and hounds enter and drive them away.

Prospero and Ariel leave the stage only to reappear in the next Act.

Act 5:
Scene 1:

Ariel, still hinting that his release is due, reports to his master that the Alonso and Gonzalo ans much chastened by their experiences and ready to seek forgiveness. He says: 
Your charm so strongly works 'em
That if you now beheld them, your affections

Would become tender.

PROSPERO

Dost thou think so, spirit?

ARIEL
Mine would, sir, were I human.
This was almost my favourite moment of the Northampton interpretation. Of course, Ariel is a spirit. He can't feel emotion. And he recognises that this makes him less than human. Those last three words, "were I human", were spoken with such regret! It was brilliant. 
Prospero stage manages the revelation of himself to Alonso, Gonzalo, Sebastian and Antonio. They stand, charm-struck, within his magic circle whilst he tells them off. Alonso, still reeling from the supposed death of his son and made a better man by his experiences, announces that he will restore Prospero to his Dukedom if his story is true; Gonzalo of course is good. But Sebastian and Antonio, though forgiven by Prospero, are not so redeemed.
Now Prospero reveals Ferdinand and Miranda, in love and playing chess. Gonzalo remarks that Prospero lost his Dukedom so that his descendants should rule Naples.
The Boatswain and Master of the boat appear.
Finally Prospero lets Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano out of their captivity in the lime grove.

And, promising to free Ariel, that's it.

Epilogue:
Prospero addresses the audience in ten rhyming couplets, with lots of enjambing, and asks the audience to set him free from the Enchanted Island. In Northampton she then waited for the first claps before leaving the stage.

December 2015, updated June 2016

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog:
Othello
Measure for Measure

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