January 28, 2011

Prospero’s Staff (no, this is not a euphemism)

I really should know better than this.  Apparently it’s been an eventful (if snowy) week in the land of academia because I had about five different ideas for posts I could write.  I finished another attack on the Common Reading Exam List (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court); I’ve had so many PhD-app-related thoughts whirring and churning that I’m pretty sure I’ve developed a stress-induce stomach ulcer; I still haven’t written you that afore-promised breakdown of the history of the English language; I would love to share some thoughts on my most recent personal project; I’ve found some exciting conferences to submit to for next year…

However, as I sat down to do a little writing for class, my little writing turned into something a bit too long and a bit too in-depth to keep to a private class discussion board.  I broke down again this semester and took another Shakespeare-related class and, as a result, I’ve been gleefully romping through my home-turf-playground.  I had to read The Tempest for class this week (along with criticism and I have to do some research and I may write a paper on it and, in the words of E.L. Doctorow, “life was suddenly wonderful and full of delicious possibility”).

There are a few pretty myths that we Shakespeareans tell.  Fantasies that we can only sort-of prove.  To me, they are the fairy tales of our field; cardinal sticking points that we choose to believe because they make us feel better about the world and how it works.  Things that are based in fact (if only the smallest bit of it), but then diverge into wild and untamed fantasies that we like to repeat to ourselves before we go to sleep at night because they make us feel more secure and happy in what we study.  Things like the Mulberry tree that stands today behind what was once Shakespeare’s House in Stratford being planted by Shakespeare himself.  There’s one about Shakespeare leaving his wife the second-best bed in his will because that would have been their marriage bed (the best bed would have been the guest bed).  Or, my personal favorite, the so-called “lost years” (between 1585 and 1595 when we simply can’t account for our Bard as there are no records of any kind in which he appears) being when he learned the craft of acting by running away and joining the Elizabethan equivalent of the circus (a wandering group of players ousted from London by plague who had happened to come through Stratford round about the time Shakespeare disappears off the map).

One of these pretty falsehoods is about The Tempest.  We know that it was written late in Shakespeare’s career as a playwright (best guess for the date of its inscription being sometime between late 1610 and its first performance on Hallowmas night in 1611).  Many believe that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre and Prospero’s magic, by extension, to be a euphemism for theatre in general (this has been expanded to mean “art” over the years).  As Prospero bids adieu to his charms, so too it is said that Shakespeare did when he finally left London to re-join his family in Stratford.

I can understand the basis for this myth.  There are, in fact, two breath-taking speeches that most scholars cite as its source.  Both are in the fifth act; the first being 5.1.1984-2008 and ending with:

…this rough Magicke
I heere abiure: and when I haue requir'd
Some heauenly Musicke (which euen now I do)
To worke mine end vpon their Sences, that
This Ayrie-charme is for, I'le breake my staffe,
Bury it certaine fadomes in the earth,
And deeper then did euer Plummet sound
Ile drowne my booke.

The second speech is the epilogue, spoken by Prospero on a blank stage:

Now my Charmes are all ore-throwne,
And what strength I haue's mine owne.
Which is most faint: now 'tis true
I must be heere confinde by you,
Or sent to Naples, Let me not
Since I haue my Dukedome got,
And pardon'd the deceiuer, dwell
In this bare Island, by your Spell,
But release me from my bands
With the helpe of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours, my Sailes
Must fill, or else my proiect failes,
Which was to please: Now I want
Spirits to enforce: Art to inchant,
And my ending is despaire,
Vnlesse I be relieu'd by praier
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy it selfe, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your Indulgence set me free.

There are, of course, several other smaller instances of Prospero’s preparation to bid farewell to his magics.  The most famous and note-worthy of these is his remark at the end of the mask he has summoned to celebrate Ferdinand and Miranda’s wedding: “We are such stuff/ as dreams are made on, and our little life/ is rounded with a sleep.” (4.1.1826-39) meaning that actors within their parts are nothing more than “airy nothings” and must, inevitably, fade with the fantasy. 

While this is a pretty fairy tale and perhaps satisfactory to those straight-up booky types, as an actor/scholar I remain unconvinced. 

The metaphor seems apt on the surface, but let us first remember that Shakespeare was more than a playwright.  His involvement with the theatre and the stage spanned all angles from playwright to producer to actor.  There is no doubt that Prospero’s magic is the driving force of the play.  His control over Ariel, Caliban, the masks, the very weather itself precipitates and drives the action of The Tempest.  Without it, the play does not exist.  The courtly characters enter the world of The Tempest and unheedingly thereby submit themselves to Prospero’s magic.  Importantly, the world of The Tempest is not one which Prospero created, it is merely one which he can control.  This is not a position that either the actor or the playwright finds himself in.  The playwright is the creator of the theatre.  It all spawns from his fancy and imagination.  He is not the puppet-master, he is the god.  The actor is the ultimate submissive in the theatrical division of power.  Much less Prospero, the actor plays Ariel or Caliban and must bend to the whims of any and all above him in the power structure (director, producer, stage manager…).  It is a pretty fantasy that the actor holds any power at all in the creation of a theatrical piece.  While the actor is showcased within it, it is not his piece to control.

Important as well is that Prospero says goodbye to fairy land to return to a very real very courtly existence.  This begs a question which may or may not be answerable; to Shakespeare, what was real and what was fairy land?  Was the far-off dream of wife and children in Stratford his reality, or was it the daily grind of theatre work which provided his bread and butter?  Was it the things he knew he had but never saw or the things he saw every day?  What was fantastical, what was magic, and what was mundane?  Is it safe to assume that “THE MAGIC OF THE THEATRE” was what Shakespeare believed he could control with staff and book and a cushy, courtly existence what awaited him outside the boundaries of London?  I don’t think we can leap to this conclusion.  Art is magical, yes, but also utterly unpredictable and fickle; something which Prospero’s magic never proves to be.  It is the court within The Tempest which proves unreliable, not the wilderness. 

The dichotomy presented by Prospero in his epilogue between “charms” which are overthrown and the strength which he relies upon within himself does not draw a direct and uncomplicated parallel to real-world biographical occurrence within Shakespeare’s life.  Prospero begs to be set free by the audience’s indulgence, but I remain unconvinced that Shakespeare felt tethered to the theatre.  Rather, wasn’t he tethered to his wife and children in Stratford?  Prospero speaks of sins that must be pardoned, Shakespeare’s sins lay not in the theatre, but rather with an all-but-forgotten family in the country. 

Little is straightforward about biographical literary criticism, and this is further complicated by authors whose biographies remain unclear.  While I do not object to this particular fairy story, I do object to any assertion that it is a steadfast truth.  We cannot grasp at airy nothings and harden them to brick.  Rather, we must see them, appreciate them, and allow our indulgence to set them free.

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