The stage at Southwark Playhouse is roughly the size of the National Theatre’s toilet, but that is where the comparison ends. This talented, well thought through performance cost just £6 – cheaper than the cinema. I had never seen The Tempest performed and was really hoping it wouldn’t disappoint – it didn’t.
The play was Shakespeare’s last solo effort, and for many his last great work. Over the years it has been interpreted in many different ways. It has been branded a critique of British colonialism and of hierarchical society. The play was commissioned for the wedding of King James’s daughter, and largely because of this some critics read it as a dull historical parable. Most interestingly, Prospero has been deemed a characterisation of Shakespeare himself.
Politically, the play has delighted both ends of the spectrum. For an increasingly reactionary Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Tempest illustrated Shakespeare’s ‘profound veneration for all the established institutions of society, and for those classes which form the permanent elements of the state’. Coleridge went on to single out Caliban as a caricature of Jacobinism. This provoked a torrent of abuse from William Hazlitt: ‘Why does Mr Coleridge provoke us,’ he began, ‘to write as great nonsense as he talks?’ – moving on to remind Coleridge of his earlier pro-Jacobin lectures, and proposing a counter-argument where Caliban has natural sovereignty over the island.
Within The Tempest there are echoes of all the rest of Shakespeare’s earlier plays. We have a father’s anxiety in giving away his daughter, the betrayal of a legitimate ruler, a murderous hatred between brothers, nature and nurture, loss of identity, the harnessing of magical powers, love in ignorance of social hierarchy, the dream of manipulating others through art.
The storm, as in Lear, is nature’s great leveller. The play begins with a ship going down in a tempest raised by Prospero. The boatswain exclaims to the king and his followers that their divinity and rank will not save them from the elements: ‘What care these roarers for the name of King?’ The levelling theme continues in the next act with Gonzalo’s utopian fantasy – a society with ‘riches, poverty, none… no sovereignty’. But Gonzalo’s ideal is exactly that – a dizzy daydream of how society was once or might be one day. The words stamped on the foot of Marx’s ridiculous headstone come to mind: ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.’
By far the most interesting piece of criticism I have ever read was WH Auden’s poem ‘The Sea and the Mirror’. When you’ve read this poem, and the accompanying essay, the play will never seem the same. Auden read the play as a meditation on art itself, with Prospero’s conjuring a representation of Shakespeare’s power as a playwright. The play questions whether art actually has any bearing on the world, showing it as an escapist distraction that often turns us into the kind of inadequate philosophers Marx wrote of, or dreamers like Gonzalo. We see the effect of Prospero’s power on Caliban:
‘Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises.
Sound, sweet air, that delight and hurt not.
Sometime a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ear, 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.’
Caliban is captivated by the magic of the island into dreaming, but when he wakes the reality of his persecution remains. He leads a drunken revolt against Prospero – ‘Freedom, high-day!’ And had the distraction of the play within the play (put on for the newly-weds Ferdinand and Miranda) gone on much longer, his rebellion might have succeeded. But Prospero realises halfway through that he has forgotten about Caliban. This is the moment the penny drops for Prospero – ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on.’ This moment of realisation was really emphasised by Hilton McRae, as Prospero, in a way I was not expecting. It was typical of a production that had thought through the significance of every word and line.
Prospero then breaks his magic staff, drowns his book, releases Ariel – Auden reads Ariel as the spirit of his imagination – and leaves his world of magic and illusion behind to confront the real world.
Prospero’s farewell to the island, though people do not like to hear it, is in some ways Shakespeare’s good riddance to the theatre.
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