Tuesday, May 02, 2006

In a Teapot...

Last month’s Great Books selection was The Tempest by Willy “The Man” Shakespeare. Okay, maybe he wasn’t called “The Man,” but wouldn’t that have been great if he was? And if Chris Marlowe was nicknamed “Chico” instead of “Kit?”

Look at that, haven’t even started talking, and already I’m on a tangent.

So The Tempest is a strange little play about a guy that has been badly wronged (Prospero), who gets a chance to get back at those that wronged him. He uses magical powers to get them stranded on his island, and he leads them right into his clutches, and then he… completely forgives them, and they all live happily ever after.

So that whole complete, undeserved forgiveness thing: great in a Christian, not so powerful for a play’s plot. As Bob Massey pointed out, all set up, no payoff.

Now Master Jack Gilbert had another take on the play – it wasn’t intended to be about plot, at least not about the folks that wronged our hero. No, it is all about Prospero and William. You see, this was the last play that Shakespeare wrote by himself, and many (including Jack) see this as wild Bill’s final hurrah, his way of saying “ta-ta” to his audience. And for that fare-thee-well, Prospero is a stand in for the playwright.

This is supported in Prospero’s speeches using play metaphors to describe his powers, such as the famous:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air…
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Sure sounds like a playwright saying the play is ending. At by the stories finale, Prospero lays down his books, the ones that allow him to create all these magical worlds.

As if to say that William Shakespeare is now done, and his fabrications ready to fade.

It seems almost fatalistic – although a joyful fatalism that chooses to go out on a note of grace rather than spite. Here is the Bard himself, saying

…the great globe itself
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Really, Bill? Your stuff is just going to fade away? I wonder if he really thought that his work was done; or was he just playing up false modesty, knowing in his heart of hearts that a couple of C-notes later folks like me would be blogging about him?

I’d like to think it is a mix. With the humility expressed by Prospero, mayhap he was indeed saying goodbye, knowing that he would be setting down the pen soon – but that the books he would toss into the sea may find themselves floating off to new readers. His earlier work may be going farther than the man himself, may be saying more than he alone could.

After all, this is the same play where he says “the past is prologue…”

Methinks he doth profess much…

Just my thoughts,


PS The picture is from the NY Shakespeare fest’s production, Patrick Stewart as Prospero. One of my last acts before leaving NY oh so many years ago was watching this production. What a gift…


janet said...

We saw Patrick Stewart in 'The Tempest' as well... yes, a true gift. And also saw Ralph Fiennes as Hamlet -- also incredible...

Sarah said...

I've always taken the parallel between Prospero & Will's ending his playwrighting career as less fatalistic than most have interpreted it.

Look at the broader context of the story: Prospero was exiled in the first place because he'd spent so much time with his magic books that he'd forgotten to do his job (he was a ruling duke). At the end of the play, he sets aside his magic hobby, and is going back to his proper job.

I think Shakespeare, having made his fortune on the stage, had reached a point in his life where he wanted to actually live his "normal life". And apparently he did.