Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The Tempest by William Shakespeare, 1610-1611

I have to preface this review with a confession. I am not qualified to judge Shakespeare on his language, style or choice of words. I'm a very casual reader of the Bard and I simply don't have the authority to critique Shakespeare on more scholarly grounds.

What I read Shakespeare for (other than looking smart in public, of course) are the stories. It's easy to forget, what with all the thee-ing and thou-ing and archaic language, that Shakespeare was first and foremost a fantastic storyteller.

Just last year, I read and loved Richard III (1591), which was a wonderfully subtle character portrait and a fast-paced narrative of politics and betrayal. I really enjoyed the play as a story.

The Tempest really didn't impress me, from the perspective of storytelling. It was too simply plotted, too much like a fable. Unlike Shakespeare's witty comedies and penetrating dramas, The Tempest is far more interested in pageantry and spectacle than character.

Obviously, the man can write just about any human being on the planet into a corner. His speeches and dialogues are still crisp and clean today, even if the language has me going for the footnotes.

I know it's an old favorite, but take Prospero's speech from Act IV, Scene 1:

Prospero: Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air;

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

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 rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. ----- (Signet edition, pages 103-104)

I mean, it's clear to everyone that William Shakespeare is a beautiful writer. That one speech works on three different levels. From an in-universe perspective, Prospero is explaining the end of a revel of spirits at his command. It is also a commentary on the nature of theater, and if you dig a little bit deeper, life itself, too.

But my problem with The Tempest is that it didn't engage me emotionally. The play itself is kind of an odd duck. It's not a comedy or a drama, but a kind of broad melodrama. The characters and their situation are painted with such broad strokes that it's impossible to get too involved.

The plot: Prospero, a wizard and the ousted Duke of Milan, lives on a deserted island with his virginal daughter Miranda. Prospero employs a host of supernatural beings as servants. When a ship bearing the new Duke of Milan and assorted other bigwigs passes by, he raises a tempest and crashes them on the island, where he can exact revenge at his leisure.

There are three main groups of characters: Prospero, Miranda, Ariel (a spirit) and Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, who all mostly stay near or around Prospero's house. Alonso (King of Naples), Antonio (the new Duke of Milan, and Prospero's brother) and a few other political types, just wander around the jungle, while Caliban (a misshapen monster and one of Prospero's servants) joins forces with a jester and a drunken butler from the ship to conspire against Prospero.

There's a lot going on, and not enough time to really develop the characters. Miranda, for instance, has only a handful of lines even though she plays a key role. Likewise, Antonio, who is the most obvious main villain, is not at all fleshed out and doesn't even do anything overly villainous.

And since Prospero's pulling the strings throughout the entire play, there's little suspense as to how it'll all turn out. He's an all-powerful magician that never faces any kind of real threat from anyone, which makes the play's dramatic tension nonexistent.

Take the subplot of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano bumbling around drunkenly, plotting Prospero's death. The fact that the three least-important characters in the play are wandering around under the impression that they're running the show is an obvious source of comedy, but the play doesn't really need a comic-relief subplot that goes nowhere. They present no threat to the main characters and they are quickly dispatched at the end of the play with no real payoff.

Or take the fact that the conflict between Prospero and Antonio is never addressed at all. Antonio plays no significant role in the play's action and gets no comeuppance during the climax, which makes the overall plot of the play feel a little sloppy.

I know that criticizing Shakespeare on his storytelling is tough. He's an absolute master, and reading The Tempest from a literary perspective is rather awe-inspiring. But story-wise the play has more in common with fairy tales or parables than with the more emotionally mature work of Shakespeare's earlier period. Perhaps as he got older the Bard just didn't put as much effort into his plots.

But despite my problems with the play's story and structure, it's still Shakespeare. It's still amazing and funny and poignant and lyrical. There's such beauty and depth in the language. It never ceases to astonish me how readable and relevant Shakespeare's plays still are.

NEXT TIME: I'm still reading The Host and I should be done by the end of the week. I'll post my thoughts as soon as I'm done.

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