April 8th, 2012

The Tempest

Nothing in Shakespeare's oeuvre quite prepares us for the Tempest. He has told us fairytales before, but he has never given us anything with such a shimmer to it.  Giorgione has a painting called The Tempest. Nobody knows what it means.  A thunderstorm rages above a medieval Italian town. In the foreground a naked young woman suckles her baby under a bush. A young man passes by on the road. In spite of the lowering sky the mood is calm. Shakespeare's Tempest has much the same quality. We're dreaming, there's all sorts of weirdness and threatened danger, but it's a good dream.

A good dream- a very pleasing one, but not an evasive fantasy. Within this very safe environment (all is dreamed so nothing can really hurt) there is a good deal of evil on display. When innocent Miranda hails her "brave new world" we know that most of the people she's being dazzled by are wrong'uns.  "New to you." says Prospero. Alonso has the sins of realpolitik on his head, Sebastian is cold and dull and vicious, Antonio is a total shit, Trinculo and Stephano are common or garden rogues- opportunists, exploiters, thieves. Oh, but hang on a minute- hasn't Prospero himself usurped Caliban and exploited his labour? Doesn't he exploit Ariel too? That's part of what I mean by shimmer. You think you've got hold of a moral certainty and it whisks itself out of your hand.  Who is without fault on this little island earth? Miranda, I suppose, because she doesn't know any better. Gonzalo, perhaps, but Gonzalo is also an impotent old fool. And what about Caliban? Is he any less innocent than Miranda? He has a sex drive; so has she. He wants his island back- and who can blame him? Does anyone blame Prospero for wanting his Dukedom? Virtue and right behaviour are things defined by power. Are we obliged to believe Prospero's version of events? As Shakespeare elsewhere remarks, "the usurer hangs the cozener". Or  should we be divining a deeper link between Prospero and Caliban- reading them as the disassociated parts of a single nature, the higher man struggling to keep the lower man in check, the lower man keeping the higher man rooted in the sustaining earth? Who else knows where the freshets are? 

So what about Ariel? If man has an animal nature that would like to master him, may he not also have an angelic nature that would like to be free of him? Or are we veering too close to allegory here? Shakespeare doesn't do allegory. He makes sure there are things that won't fit into any kind of reductive scheme. Take Caliban again: whole books have been written about him. I have probably written more words in this post than he speaks in the whole play, yet he seems to be inexhaustible.  Monster? Green Man? Innocent? Noble Savage? Victim of Colonization? Revolutionary? Do we know him any better for all those books?

Questions, questions, questions  How very tiresome. All the more so since none of them have answers. That's also what I mean by shimmer. Shakespeare withholds the information. How very Shakespearian of him.  The Tempest, without seeming to labour at it, is as tricky as anything by any tricky post-modernist. Borges, anyone? Robbe-Grillet?  Is Shakespeare being absent minded or artful? See, yet another question. 

In most Shakespearian comedy there comes a moment when after much gamboling the hypnotist snaps his fingers and the characters wake up and return to reality. There are relationships to be developed, responsibilities to be taken up again ."The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo". In The Tempest that moment never quite comes. The Island is the Dream and we never get off the Island. When Prospero speaks the Epilogue he is still in character. He will drown his book, but he hasn't done it yet. Perhaps there isn't any reality to return to.

The cloud-capped 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 wrack behind....

Shakespeare has been saying this sort of thing all through his career, but never before with such emphasis, such authority. 

What is there to do after this but retire to one's Dukedom (Stratford perhaps) and give every third thought to one's grave?