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the tempest

9 august 2010

Urged on by reading James Shapiro's Contested Will and needing to review the play for a class, I have recently been re-reading The Tempest for the Nth time, with the usual ambivalence I feel in its presence.

Is The Tempest a good play, or not? I've heard professors of drama express diametrically opposite opinions. I think much of the dissent is fueled by two of the play's obvious qualities: miraculous poetry on the one hand, decided lack of dramatic tension on the other.

The Tempest is stocked with the compressed, suggestive language that Shapiro (among others) points to as the great glory of the Shakespeare's late plays. It's a world where people swear off premarital sex in the most sublime poetry (pace Tennyson) ever moulded by the lips of men:

As I hope
For quiet days, fair issue and long life
With such love as 'tis now, the murkiest den,
The most opportune place, the strong'st suggestion
Our worser genius can, shall never melt
Mine honour into lust, to take away
The edge of that day's celebration
When I shall think: or Phoebus' steeds are founder'd,
Or Night kept chain'd below.
If kids today had to repeat that instead of the fulsome True Love Waits pledge, they might actually remain abstinent before marriage. With words like that, who needs sex?

On the other hand, dramatically, where's the fun in doing whatever your future father-in-law wants (particularly seeing as how, if you don't, he'll put a spell on you and make you do it anyway)? Prospero makes everything happen in The Tempest. The only conflict in the play comes from Prospero occasionally fretting that somebody might do some harm that the omnicompetent Ariel would never let them do anyway.

I have seen many productions of The Tempest, more than I have of any other Shakespeare play. Not one has been wholly good. The problem is always Prospero, a gorgeously poetic but dramatically intractable role. Well, sometimes Tempests have other problems too, but I've never seen a good Prospero. And when you've seen six or eight actors fail in a part, you wonder if it's the fault of the part.

Any character who refers to awhile ago as "the dark backward and abysm of time" has a lot going for him right off the bat. But Shakespeare created the lush verbal textures of Prospero and gave them not much to do. I've seen Prospero done as a juggler, as a griot, as a tetchy coot. I've seen him done straight up: which is to say, as a boring and portentous patriarch. This is a character, after all, who has to remind other characters not to fall asleep while he's talking.

And since the action of the play is entirely scripted by Prospero, we're not convinced of the urgency of anything that goes on. The best scenes are those where he leaves the characters to their own devices. The three best parts for actors are Caliban and the two drunks who form common cause with him in a kind of incipient peasant's revolt, which is put down with great finality. I have never been able to understand critics who suggest that Shakespeare was in any way politically progressive; he seems to me in The Tempest, as usual, to conceive of the social class divide as an innate, unbridgeable gulf, and any expression of independent will on the part of the lower orders to be silly. No wonder Cromwell closed the theatres.

Of course, we can read Prospero as "the playwright": if not as William Shakespeare his absolute own self, then certainly as a metonym for the choices made by any playwright in disposing of the characters he's created. Much of the interest of The Tempest in "the study" lies in contemplating its metadramatic qualities. This makes for great literature, not necessarily for great theatre.

But perhaps I just need to see better Tempests.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 1623. Open Source Shakespeare.