Monday, June 8, 2009

Shakespeare's The Tempest Then and Now

Ahh how perspectives change and yet trully insightful people all get it right in the first place. Shapekeare's The Tempest, known as his "American Fable" currently being performed in Seattle by the Seattle Shakespeare Company, presents a contemporary perspective on the play as suggesting forgiveness. Yet this play only a few years ago was recognized as a parable of the earliest years of European colonization in the Americas. In 1609 the British were founding a colony in Virginia and England was excited. Shakespeare wrote this play using diaries by shipwrecked crews who landed in Bermuda and other primary sources.
So the story is that of an Italian duke whose dukedom has been stolen by his brother while he was brooding over books. He has landed after a shipwreck on an isolated island, but one which had indigenous inhabitants, represented in the play by Caliban.
Here is what surprised me. In 1964 in his book Machine in the Garden, Technology and the Pastoral Ideal, based on ideas he developed in the late 1950s, Leo Marx referred to this play as An American Fable did a protracted analysis of it as a reference to European civilization taming nature, the contradiction of nature and culture, etc etc.

But when I saw it, I was astounded by Shakespeare's acute understanding that Europeans were going to take over, destroy and enslave the Indians in their path. A speech by Caliban states just that. Of course his position as a"primitive" and "uncivilized" human being in the play echoes the dominant perspectives of Europeans in the seventeenth century ( and still really), but Caliban speaks eloquently of his love for his island, and the fact that after he showed the invadeing European around, the Duke enlsaved him. But Caliban's eloquence in spite of his constant assault as a sub human being by the Europeans, suggests that in the early seventeenth century there was also awe and respect for Indinas. Indeed, they were perceived as independent kingdoms, and their leaders were often celebrated as fellow royalites in these early days of European contact.

Then more Europeans ( Stephano above with Caliban) land on the Island, the result of a storm that the Duke (Prospero) caused by his magical powers in order to bring his brother and fellow plotters there.
They also want to take over the island. They suggest taking Caliban back to England as a trophy, which is exactly what was happening then with people like Pocohontas, who died very young in England. An amazing portrait of her survives in Elizabethan clothing.

The new arrivals give alcohol to Caliban and he immediately becomes tamed and subject to their will ( another perceptive prediction on Shakespeare's part, perhaps based on a reference in a contemporary diary about the susceptability of Indians to alcohol.)
But in the end the Europeans depart, back to "civiliation".

The program of the Tempest said not one work about all this.
All we got was "forgiveness" and that forgiveness is not Caliban's for his oppression, but the Duke for his brother's perfidy. So much for the new age of post racism. Well, of course Shakespeare doesn't exactly explain Caliban's feelings at the end of the play. The ending is unlike Shakespeare except for the dramatic death of the senior Duke. Everyone else just seems to move on without any explanation.

The trappings are Shakespeare, but the content is radically different. Go see it!


Carrington's Arch Spanning Architecture said...

I was sitting next to you at the play; so I am excited to read your comments. Good response,

Seattle Shakespeare Company said...

Thanks for provding another perspective on the play and we're glad you enjoyed it. Hope you can join us in December for Twelfth Night.

ekyale said...

Great Article. Pity I missed the play, but I've just returned from the States some weeks before. I'd love to see The Tempest on stage, it's one of my favorite.

I've just written on The Tempest myself. Even though in German, maybe you (or one of your readers) might wanna have a look?
The article about Shakespeare, The Tempest, Interpretation can be found here.

Best wishes from Berlin! :-)