Tuesday, 19 February 2013
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
I had forgotten how great this play is. Rereading it was like sinking into a hot bath at the end of a long day and I loved revisiting all of the familiar characters and plot-lines. I was surprised at how many lines I remembered and how all of the critical analysis I had learned came right back, but not in a way that interrupted the story. The more I read Shakespeare, the more I learn that familiarity is essential to a magical reading experience. It's a good to have a background in the critical response to the play, but nothing should get in the way of the story. This is why all my rereads have been more successful than original reads so far.
One of the best things about The Tempest is the island itself. It's enchanted, full of spirits (like the mischievous Ariel) and strange happenings. It's a character in it's own right and Caliban describes it wonderfully in my favourite passage;
"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 on me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again."
How beautiful is that? I remember being caught up during my first reading as a student with the idea of the story as a metaphor for colonisation. Prospero finds this wonderful, undiscovered paradise but soon sets about enslaving the inhabitants, using their differences as moral justification. This can been seen as an analogy for slavery or for the creation of the empires, and Shakespeare appears to be reflecting the views of the time. It seems like a simple reading of the story until you get Caliban, a stupid, ugly creature according to Prospero, delivering some of the most beautiful lines of the whole play. Caliban is deliberately ambiguous and now that I am older (and a tiny bit wiser!), I can see that this ambiguity is a far more fitting way of describing what happened when Europeans first started to discover the world.
I also remember writing lots of essays about Prospero as a stand-in for Shakespeare, drowning his books at the end of the play just as Shakespeare metaphorically puts down his quill. But on this reading I was struck by the love story between Miranda and Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples. Given that Miranda has never seen any men apart from her father and Caliban, it's no wonder she instantly falls in love with Ferdinand. Given the beauty and wonder of the island, it's no surprise that he quickly falls in love with her too. But there's an endless preoccupation with Miranda's virginity and Ferdinand is at pains to make it quite clear on several occasions that he will only marry her if she is still a 'maid'. Given that this runs alongside the sub-plot of Caliban apparently attempting to 'people the isle with Calibans' using Miranda, the whole thing makes for uncomfortable reading. I'm glad that attitudes towards women have largely changed and don't think that Miranda is one of Shakespeare's finest examples of a strong female character.
It goes without saying that the writing in The Tempest is beautiful and as always, Shakespeare captures the essence of what it is to be human perfectly. Out of the plays I've read, it's definitely one of my favourites as it has a good balance of romance, comedy, magic and tragedy. I'm glad I took the time to reread it and I'm sure it won't be my last read.
Source: Personal copy (kindle)
Score: 5 out of 5
The Classics Club: Book 7 of 72
My list is here