January 22, 2012

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”

Posted in Book Reviews, Literature tagged , , , , , , , at 2:55 pm by faraway67

On William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

"Miranda" by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), courtesy of Wikipedia

I have read this piece several times by now, once during my school time, and then recently. After finishing it I sat down to write a review. But discussing it with a friend I recognized that this is not a piece to just read and review. So I read it again. And again. It got a real hold on me and I tried to get deeply into the stormy world of this play, allowed it to shake my mind all around and finally wrote down some impressions about it, a collection of rather random thoughts.

I am a captive fan of Shakespeare, that is for sure, but this is not at all my favourite piece. I found it – despite recognizing the artful composition, it is Shakespeare after all – quite hard to get comfortable with and even more difficult to gain sympathy for the characters, especially for Prospero, the one everyone seems to like and admire quite much.

It is a play about nature versus nurture. But I do not think that that is the only important issue. It is also about morality, power (from the beginning to the end, you will find this motif in skillful variations), justice and the mingling (i.e. “marriage”) of different, contrasting sides.

Power is the one big issue in this play, I think. It is introduced in the very first scene, and woven through the whole play. It is shown in all its disgusting facets. And the play makes clear at some point that people who claim authority where they do not have natural or professional authority, support the evil and the danger (just look at that storm scene again. The courtiers are only obstacles in the way of the boatsmen!)

But of course there are many more scenes where it becomes prominent – every single scene with Prospero breathes the foul breath of power, manipulative and harsh. I would judge otherwise if it was a kind of natural authority. But Prospero has no such authority at all. It is magic that gives him his strength, not a power that lies within his soul.
And then the power over the beast, the power of “nurture” that makes that poor beast bow and wince, shown by the two men, Stephano and Trinculo, with their rotten minds. Disgusting.

I think that nature versus nurture is worked out in almost every possible variation – and not each one of them is a good one.
There is, on the one hand, of course, Caliban. He is described in a very negative way, we get to know that there was no posibility to get proper nurture into him (I would really like to know what kind of nurture Prospero tried to give him – and why!) and even what he finally takes (language) he uses for bad, to curse. But – is he really bad? Is he really a wild beast? I doubt it. Probably in spite of it all – think about it – he is a victim. So much longing for company and love. Not knowing how to get it. Poor beast. Yes, yes, I know that Miranda story. Caliban is no “good guy”, no “noble wild man”.  But who has ever shown him how being the good guy works? Not Prospero, his master, I am afraid. He wants to have Miranda, the beautiful one, the one who is exactly what he is not. I think he hurtfully sees that and that is what he longs for. He wants to have a family with her. Here the motive of “marriage” – of mingling two ends, the beauty and the beast, her softness and his crudity in possible children – comes in. The natural urge of a male, as well, I suppose. Can you judge him for that, or for the fact that he has never learned an appropriate way of love, that in his twisted existence even his expression of love is a deformed one? I will always try to understand the “Calibans”. Not to excuse what they do. Not to whitewash them, of course not!  But to understand. I cannot fight the urge to do so, to dive down into sick and evil minds and souls to look out for that last little spark of humanity that is left there. I just cannot believe that anybody can be a monster and nothing else, even if everybody calls them that.

On the other hand there is Prospero. I have never liked him. This character has always aroused harsh and strong feelings in me. Of course life has played a cruel game with him and probably there was a time when he was indeed an innocent, a wise man, totally lost in his thoughts and studies (and even then he did not look for insight and wisdom, but for magic!). But that was long ago. When we meet him in “The Tempest”, he has learned his lesson. He is arrogant. He is an abuser. He abuses and exploits everybody. No, he is not good. He abuses Caliban, who has longed for company so much, who offered him all his knowledge about the Island for just a little bit of sympathy. Did you notice how his behaviour against Caliban mirrors his own fate? He isn’t better than his brother – Antonio took away his home, his state, and he does the same to Caliban!  He abuses Ariel, the friendly spirit of the air. Is he so much better than Sycorax? She imprisoned Ariel in a tree, Prospero chains him to his will, to do cruel acts that contradict his kind soul, liberty always so near to him, and then again he is forced to do more and more awful things. Does Prospero not only free him so that he can serve again? What kind of freedom is it that he offers to Ariel? How “good” is Prospero’s deed of liberation really? And how much better than Sycorax is he when he threatens Ariel to condemn him to the same fate of being imprisoned in a tree only for complaining?  He also abuses the other spirits and goddesses, Ferdinand, and even Miranda, his own daughter. He has set his goals – and probably he has a right to plan on them. But the way he does it is cruel. And he does not even do it with his own knowledge, power or experiences, but with magic.

He really is disgusting in the way he treats everyone around. He decides on everything. Everything and everyone has to be subject to his will. There is no heart in him, only arrogance, arrogance…

I wondered about his own description of his life before being set in that little boat. Is it not partly his own responsibility that it came to this turn? It was he who neglected his duties for the sake of magic. And why is magic so important to him? Is it the pure innocent search for enlightenment? Or rather the wish to gain control, to manipulate? At least that is how he uses the powers he gains. It was his brother who had to do all the work for him!  And then he wonders why Antonio also wants to earn the fruits. Of course  Antonio is no good character either, we learn that from his own words, and from him tempting Sebastian to treat his brother like he treated his own. But after all, how can he be astonished that he  “grew a stranger” to his state? He made himself a stranger! Was the usurpation of his state probably a just punishment for the fact that he betrayed his people long before, when he set magic skill and his books (“volumes that I prize above me dukedom!”) higher than his own people, his duty?

I got sick and furious about Prospero stating that he did “no harm” to the people on the boat! Of course, no one was killed, injured. But what about the fear, the desperation? Is this no harm? What a raw, feelingless statement! Or how he acted against that poor, grief-shaken Ferdinand. Of course he did it on purpose, he wanted him to marry Miranda, but that doesn’t make it right to throw heartlessness against somebody who needs and deserves comfort.

Then there are also the other so-called “educated men” – selfish, dumb, corrupt, mean, even criminal. Where is the value of nurture if it is only used for power, greed and evil, for reaching their own goals, without any respect, responsibility and compassion?

So. What is it that Shakespeare prefers? Nature or nurture? I think neither of them. I rather think he wants to show that both of them are harsh and beastly if they don’t entwine. Nature alone is furious and raw, nurture alone is cynical, cruel and abusive. All in all I’d say that nurture in this play too often goes at the expense of feelings and compassion. No, nurture alone is obviously not good.

Only combined, nature tamed by nurture, nurture enchanted, filled with feelings by nature, do they work out well and build real humanity. They need each other desperately. If they stay alone, they become monstrous.

I like Ferdinand. I like Miranda. These two show how things really work. They are willing to make sacrifices. Of course they are the “good ones”. Too good, actually. But they are willing to serve. They show compassion, love, dedication and a big deal of humility (though at some points Miranda seemed so much influenced by her father that she acted quite like him! A daddy’s girl indeed!).

And I like that unimportant, but in so many ways brave little Gonzalo. He is my favourite among all of the characters in that play. I like his way to combine heart and brain. His gentleness and thoughtfulness. He is just wonderful. How he thinks of those beloved books. How he tries to comfort. To remind us of human values. He is just great. So warm are my feelings for him. The others try to make a fool out of him – but they never will be able to, because he is absolutely pure.

The theme of marriage seemed also important to me, and it was stressed a lot. Beginning with the wedding of Ferdinand’s sister – a marriage between Europe and Africa, as it were, very cool. And ending with the wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda that led to the great solution, the end of tensity, and made a “happy ending” possible. And so many scenes in between, where different ends want to meet. Mingling, combining, becoming one out of two for the sake of being better, being more perfect. This was an idea I could embrace and I liked that very much.

And then of course there is the colonization theme. I wondered if it was intended by Shakespeare to bring it up. Probably what seems so obvious to us so that “The Tempest” is even banned from some libraries in the US is a rather “modern” interpretation. I am not aware that it was a big issue in Shakespearean times, though Gonzalo’s speech in Act 2 may suggest this.

Anyway, I was impressed by the power of words, of course…and I was thrilled by the deep ambiguity of many sentences. I was also enchanted with the mythological variations in the play, especially with the links of characters to the Elements, with Ariel representing both Air and Fire, Caliban the Earth, and, IMHO, the compassionate Miranda the Water (the three “children” of the magician representing the whole magic realm, as it were. I liked that. VERY COOL:-) I really found it a text to think about, and it is undoubtingly a great play. I do not have to like it, do I? I am allowed to dislike it and still admire Shakespeare’s work.

“Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will him 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 upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 3.2

Bonus: Read the whole play and a profound introduction to it or listen to a (shortened) audio rendition. Here is also an overview of which books and films reference to “The Tempest”. At last watch a glimpse of the 2010 movie “The Tempest” featuring a brilliant Helen Mirren as “Prospera”:

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