Sunday, June 7, 2015

Reading The Tempest by William Shakespeare #1

I have called the post # 1 because it is only some of what the play made me think about. This does not imply that there will be a second post, though there might. 

(Scene from Shakespeare's Tempest by William Hogarth, circa 1735. There's Miranda with Prospero, Caliban sneaking up on her, Ferdinand gazing at her and Ariel hovering above.)

The other day, wide awake at two in the morning and worrying about life, I decided I needed Shakespeare-therapy. Over the past year, I have come to realize there is no quick read like a Shakespeare and he actually has wisdom for every occasion - I kid not. Why The Tempest? It is one of my favourite Shakespeares. It is a curiously unclassifiable play - a blend of tragicomedy, romance and fantasy, perhaps even horror. It is lyrical and in some parts, truly poignant.

Summary: The play begins with a storm and a shipwreck. On the wrecked ship are Alonso, the King of Naples and his son Ferdinand, the prince, who are on their way to Italy after the wedding of Alonso’s daughter. They are accompanied by the rest of the wedding party, who all get stranded on different parts of a strange island.

Meanwhile, a magician called Prospero tells the story of how they came to be on the very same island to the audience and his daughter Miranda. Now this story is critical to the play, so Prospero commands your and Miranda's full attention. She assures him she is listening, as Shakespeare throws your way cheekily self-indulgent lines like, "Your tale, sir, would cure deafness."

Twelve years before the events of the play, Prospero and a three-year old Miranda were put to sea to die by his brother, who usurped his Dukedom. They survived and found exile on the small island.

Now Prospero has forced its only earthly inhabitant, a barely-human savage called Caliban, into slavery. He has imprisoned a cupidlike spirit called Ariel to serve him and it is with Ariel's assistance that he raised the tempest that caused the ship to overturn. Prospero's manipulative plan is to make Ferdinand fall in love with and marry Miranda, and to seek revenge on his brother and the King. Ultimately though, The Tempest becomes the story of Prospero's redemption.

On reading Shakespeare: Shakespeare, I always feel, is wise about a lot of things without the guise of providing solutions. He shows you things as they are, promises and delivers entertainment, and leaves the job of interpretation all up to you. There was a time when I would only read Shakespearean plays in modern-day translation, or pick up copies with word keys, or often, be very doubtful of my opinions on the plays till I binged on academic articles and research papers. Those days are gone. I am the common people he staged his plays for, after all. An MA in Literature doesn't make Shakespeare any more enjoyable.

On the play: Most obviously, The Tempest is a political play on colonization. Prospero is the great big power that has set out to do the world a favour, Caliban the savage monster he means to educate. Prospero enslaves Caliban, tries to civilize him, teaches him to speak and cannot fathom why, after all the help, Caliban loathes him. An old Lit professor had pointed this out once as a favourite dialogue -

Prospero to Caliban, "thou didst not, savage, know thine own meaning."
Caliban's retort, "You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse."

Initially, Caliban earns your pity. When he sets himself free, you realize he has gained no insight from his twelve miserable years of captivity. He soon meets two shipwrecked drunkards and even as he celebrates his liberty from Prospero, he has slaved himself to someone new. Caliban has intelligence, no doubt, but no faculty to use it. Your pity for Caliban doesn't take away from the fact that he lets himself be made into a fool. He also lacks conscience, which is essentially a social concept, as is evident in his violent advances on Miranda. And these never allow you to wholly sympathise with him. In a political interpretation, Miranda plays the role of a missionary, helpful and just, but in the end, misguided in her support. She never does care for Caliban, and forgets all her ties to the island once she falls for Ferdinand. The Tempest also talks about noble lies. Politics is deception, Shakespeare seems to say.

But political theory is hardly my turf. And it is only one way of looking at the play. Like with Lord of the Flies by William Golding, my favourite exercise with this allegory involves thinking of the whole cast of characters as conflicting aspects of the mind. The play is set on an island, a fabricated world that exists out of time and space. It may be set within the mind. Dissecting the psychological implications of the events is an unending fascination.

Prospero represents social rationale, a thinking citizen-mind. Ariel the spirit, is ambition, which serves Prospero's motives only with the promise of one day flying free. Miranda is emotion, controlled by civil logic, until she meets Ferdinand, true love, who takes away Prospero's hold on her. And Caliban is primal instinct. It yearns to be set free and you are tempted to let it have its freedom, but it is best held captive. Or rather, when social order is up against natural instinct, things will play out such that eventually somehow the former will triumph - a thought that is echoed in the ending of Lord of the Flies. A thing to note - towards the end, Prospero does recognize his responsibility for Caliban, though he still detests him, saying, "This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine." Is this Prospero reluctantly accepting that the savage is an inseparable part of him?

As for King Alonso and his party, they are mere external circumstance, who play no significant role in the events of the day, no matter how much hatred Prospero bears for them. Circumstance is largely influenced by our mind. And through Prospero's redemption, you see that circumstance is more malleable than it appears. Finally, the external obstacles are resolved only after the internal dialogue reaches its satisfying conclusion.

A few of the quote-worthy lines:

Prospero on Ferdinand and Miranda - They are both in either's powers; but this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning Make the prize light.

Miranda on Ferdinand - There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple: If the ill spirit have so fair a house, Good things will strive to dwell with't.

Ferdinand on Miranda - Might I but through my prison once a day behold this maid: all corners else o' the earth let liberty make use of; space enough have I in such a prison.

Miranda - I am a fool to weep at what I am glad of.

(Weird. For some reason I have only noted down lines about Ferdinand-and-Miranda. My new fondness for romance may be me making up for the all the love stories I hated for so many years. Anyhow, Part 2 will talk about Prospero's critical concluding monologues. Right now, I will leave you with this little gem and go try to cure my insomnia.)

King Alonso on his inability to fall sleep - What, all so soon asleep! I wish mine eyes would, with themselves, shut up my thoughts.

9 comments:

Sanveer Singh said...

Shakespeare, they say, was one of the first and greatest psychologists. :)

Viktoria Berg said...

Not sure Shakespeare would cure my insomnia, he is too much exciting. I tend to go for the troubled kings. For insomnia I would recommend exercises in arithmetics, works in under ten minutes, every time! ;-)

Priya said...

Sanveer, do they? It is true. :)

Viktoria, oh no, I read Shakespeare to cure not my insomnia but the worrying-about-life that was keeping me up. But thanks for the recommendation, that solution would work on me too! :P

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this play Priya.

You make an insightful point about the value of Shakespeare. He does indeed exude wisdom. I think that lack of solutions is in response top a very complex world that does not yield simple answers. Perhaps that is wisdom in itself.

I really enjoyed your analysis of the various characters.





Divers and Sundry said...

Reading Shakespeare... I just don't do it any more, though I enjoyed it in school. I've given up reading plays of any kind. I'd love to have a list of filmed plays that stick -or at least mostly adhere- to the written work. I love watching them.

James said...

This is certainly a good play to turn for wisdom from Shakespeare. It's one of my favorites. Among the many famous quotes from this play I especially enjoy:
“Me, poor man, my library
Was dukedom large enough.”

Priya said...

Yes, Brian, now that you put it like that, that really is wisdom in itself. Thanks! :)

Divers and Sundry, I would like such a list too. When you say you love watching them, do you have any favourite filmed plays in mind?

James, oh yes, I remember this line. :)

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

There is so much to explore in this play. I remember reading it years ago and wondering at Caliban's attitude and that of "the conquered" in general. While the people who come and take over the land think they are "improving" the life of the savages, they don't give much thought to what they destroy in the process.
I like Caliban's reply to Prospero on language. Isn't that one of the first things one learns in a new language? :)

Divers and Sundry said...

It's been so long.... I used to have a list of Greek plays and Shakespeare's plays on film. Some were much more faithful to the original than others. I don't know what happened to that list, and I never put it on my blog apparently. Here's an alphabetical list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_William_Shakespeare_screen_adaptations . Here's a chronological list: http://absoluteshakespeare.com/trivia/films/films.htm This is a list said to be of the 10 best faithful adaptations: http://flavorwire.com/478852/the-10-best-faithful-shakespeare-adaptations-on-film And here's a reddit thread from 7 months ago: http://www.reddit.com/r/movies/comments/2loww3/what_are_the_best_movies_that_are_fairly_faithful/ When the kids were little, I would watch with a copy of the play in hand and compare, trying to pick the best ones for the kids to watch.

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