Saturday, 10 October 2015

Power Games - Shakespeare's Tempest

The Tempest

I initially suggested that I have seen the Tempest three times (on my Goodreads and Booklikes posts that is) but now that I think about it I believe I have only seen it twice before I saw this production (and I believe that both of those previous productions were also by the Bell Shakespeare Company). Anyway, when I discovered that they were staging another production (this time only in Sydney) I pretty quickly booked my tickets because it happens to be one of my favourite Shakespearian plays. It is also quite apt that they chose this play because my understanding is that John Bell, the guy behind the Bell Shakespeare Company, is also retiring (this is said to be Shakespeare's final play, though he did return to assist John Fletcher in producing another play – Henry VIII, which as it turns out is the only play that anybody remembers John Fletcher for, and as far as a Shakespearian play goes it is pretty poor, which is why I ignore it when it comes to Shakespeare's canon).

The Tempest - Bell ShakespeareDespite this being a play that I studied at University, it is still one of my favourites, though I suspect that when one gets to university the fact that we chose to study English literature has a different effect upon us than when we are in High School where we are forced to study the subject, and as such have a violent reaction against any of the books that happen to be on the syllabus. Anyway, many of the commentators consider The Tempest to be one of those 'problem plays', a category which I reject because we simply cannot categorise Shakespeare. Okay, we have this habit of dumping his plays into one of three categories – comedy, tragedy, and history – but to be honest with you this is something that has come about in later years. It was not as if Shakespeare categorised his plays – he was not bound by any convention that later scholars have forced upon him. It is these conventions that have caused modern scholars to scratch their heads when it comes to plays such as The Tempest and Troilus and Cresida.

Anyway, before I begin to write about The Tempest, I'll do what I have done in the past and give a brief synopsis, and then write a few thoughts on the production itself before exploring some of the themes that come out of this play (though since this production is one of the interpretations, this time offered by director John Bell, I should at least explore some of the ideas that he has proffered).

A Storm


The Tempest is set on an island somewhere in the Mediterranean. While numerous directors have placed this island on the outer reaches of the world in more recent times (at one point being somewhere in the Bering Straight, and even on an alien planet) the action occurs somewhere between Italy and North Africa (namely because a number of the characters are on route from Naples to Tunis for a wedding). The protagonist of the play, the sorcerer Prospero, used to be the Duke of Milan, but being an academic he handed the day to day running of the state to his brother Alonso while he retreated into his rooms to pursue a life of academic study. This turned out to be a mistake because Alonso, with the help of the King of Naples, ousted Prospero and declared himself duke. Prospero then took his daughter Miranda and fled to a deserted island to plot his revenge.

It turns out that this island wasn't uninhabited. It was ruled by the witch Sycorax through her servants Ariel and Caliban. Prospero engaged in a battle with Sycorax and defeated her – casting her out in the same way that Alonso cast him out of his own dukedom. He then enslaved Caliban and Ariel to his will and became the ruler of this empty island for the next twenty five years. In one way he is a king without a country, but in another way he is a king but he isn't because his kingdom is a world of spirits (as I will explain shortly).

Propero's desire for revenge comes about in due course as a ship carrying his enemies soon sails into his waters. Prospero then conjures a tempest (much to his daughter Miranda's horror), wrecks the ship and brings the passengers onto his island and subsequently under his control. Thus begins a series of power games where Prospero, from the background, torments and haunts the survivors of the shipwreck through the spirits of the island and his own magical powers.

However Prospero soon begins to tire of these games, and in the end he brings the castaways all together, reveals himself to his prisoners, and offers them forgiveness for their crimes against him and seeks repentance for his power games. In the end everybody lives happily ever after (with the exception of Alonso - in Bell's production as he ends up storming off in a sulk).

John Bell's Tempest

In the booklet that I picked up at the play John Bell explains that he has had a lot of experience with this play. He has performed in it three times (twice through his own company where he took the role of Prospero – both productions which I have had the pleasure of seeing) and he has directed this version – which happens to be his final production as he retires from the organisation that he has founded (and it is probably appropriate that he finishes his career with a play that has traditionally been considered Shakespeare's last). I have to admit that a friend of mine is not a particularly big fan of Bell Shakespeare, though with my limited funds, and the lack of offerings among the Australian theatre scene of quality productions, I am unfortunately limited in what I am able to see (though fortunately the British Theatre Company does film their plays for cinema's around the world – and I have been fortunate enough to see some excellent productions this way – especially King Lear).

I am probably going to have to agree with my friend that the standards that are offered in Australian theatre have a lot to be desired. While the earlier productions of the Bell Shakespeare Company I have seen were actually really good, having now seen a number of their productions in the last couple of years I have come to see a lot of them as being very hit or miss. Their production of Henry V (and to a lesser extent Henry IV) were brilliant, however some of their other performances really didn't impress me. With this version of the Tempest I have to be honest and say that at the beginning I really wasn't enjoying it, however when the play continued after the intermission I began to warm to it quite a lot. At the end it was one of those very few plays that I felt that I should stand and applause at the end (I didn't do that with Hamlet, despite the rest of the theatre doing so).

The Ship in the Storm
The thing with this performance is that the entire action seemed to take place within the mind. Bell had returned to a very minimalist performance. In fact there were very few props on stage (with the exception of the bowls of fruit during the feast scene, and the chest of clothes offered to the two clowns). The stage was surrounded by an off-white scene, the director suggesting it to be a realm of torn paper. However my perspective saw it as a realm of the mind, where Prospero have taken the characters out of the real world and placed them into a world of his own imagination. This is particularly clear with the scenes where swords were drawn – none of the characters held swords, despite them making such movements as if they were. This was a realm in which Prospero was in complete control, and the only place where this can occur is within his mind.

Of course, taking the play out of the real world and placing it into the realm of the imagination – or Prospero's mind, goes to demonstrate the magical qualities of many of Shakespeare's plays. For a director and actor who has been performing Shakespeare for many years, John Bell clearly understands the timeless nature of the Bard. In fact it was the biographer Ben Johnson who claimed that Shakespeare was not a writer of his age but a writer for all time. However, to be able to see Shakespeare in that context one needs to be willing to inject their own thoughts and interpretations into a production. No two productions are similar – each of them are crafted by the director and the actors – it is like a melting pot where the words of the original author are cast out for all who wish to grab them and transform them into their own interpretation and their own understanding. This is probably why Shakespeare was so sparse in his stage directions and his descriptions – he was not writing for his time but for all time.

Prospero as God

I know that there are probably many Christians who will consider such a statement to be little more than heresy. However the truth is that in his own domain Prospero is god. He is in complete control of the island. Nothing happens without his knowledge and his say so. In Bell's earlier productions, Prospero would be present in every scene, even if he had not originally been written into that scene. This was to impress the point that nothing happened on his island without his knowledge. He was a dictator and a tyrant. He had to know what was going on to be able to maintain control. This is not surprising considering that he is a deposed ruler. He had lost his principality, and he was not going to make the same mistake twice. This time he had bound both Ariel and Caliban to do his will, and in this production is it quite evident – Ariel has a bracelet on his wrist and Caliban has a rope tied to his back. These two things show that they are always under Prospero's control. In fact even Ferdinand at one stage has his legs bound by chains. 

Prospero's Power

If we consider that the play occurs entirely within Prosperos' mind, within a world conjured up entirely by him, our understanding of his control becomes even more evident. In a way everybody is in control of their own mind – but then again are they? The idea of mental illness says otherwise as people fight thoughts that regularly intrude, or whether they live in some dream world that they have created. Yet this is a realm that Prospero has created for himself. He is a deposed prince, yet he has learnt his lesson. He was deposed as prince of Milan, but then retreats to this island at the edge of the known world and overthrows another ruler – Sycorax.

CalibanWe are led to believe through the play that Sycorax is evil and deserved to be overthrown, but is that really the case? Was Sycorax truly evil? We are led to believe that because of the base nature of her child Caliban. Caliban is a creature that is seen as being uncivilised and crude – which is why he ends up joining with Tricolo and Stephano. Both of them are painted as being the basest of society – both of them are clowns, servants of the dukes and princes that are trapped on the island. Bell goes further here to dress them in the costumes of clowns to show are lowly they are. This is something that we see regularly with Shakespeare – the servants are considered to be spiteful, crude, and untrustworthy. They are not fools, as some of the fools have been painted, because the fool in Shakespeare takes a completely different role. These guys are clowns – to be mocked and ridiculed, to be shown how they are not fit to live in civilised society and must be kept under control.

The Isolated Island

It is interesting how Aldous Huxley, in A Brave New World, borrows this idea from Shakespeare. The line "Oh Brave new world, That has such people in 't" is moved to the title of his book exploring a dystopian future. In many ways we see the tempest coming out in that particular book. Here is a boy, who grew up isolated in an Indian reserve who only ever had a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare to read, who is introduced to modern society. In a way Huxley is painting a similar picture to Miranda, who has grown up knowing only one human – her father Prospero. She is innocent and has no idea of the Machiavellian nature of human politics. The only world that she knows is a world that is under the complete control of her father.

I bring up this idea of Huxley namely because of my previous comment about Tricolo and Stephano. One idea that I picked up from A Brave New World was the idea of the working class. The state does not necessarily see the working class as dangerous – they aren't - rather they are wasteful. To give the working class too much freedom does not mean that their positions are in danger, but rather because if they had too much money or too much free time then they would spend it all at the pub getting drunk. We are not talking about an educated population that can see through the lies of the government, but rather a population that unless they are being productive, will only end up being a drain on society.

This is the case with Stephano and Trincolo – they are drunkards – or at least they were in Bell's production. They have become separated from the main party (in fact we have three separate groups in the play: the servants, the nobles, and the exiles) and have become left to their own devices. Thus they are influenced by Caliban, who is not that intelligent either, to assist him in fermenting a revolt against Prospero. However, like members of the said class, they are easily distracted. Caliban attempts to persuade them to help with his revolution but they become distracted, first by the wine, and then by the clothes (that are put before them by Ariel).

The Clowns

This seems to suggest that Shakespeare has some contempt towards the lower classes. In fact in most of his plays where there are representatives of the lower classes, they are always crude, base, and easily manipulated. Sure, Shakespeare would write his plays to appeal to them to an extent, particularly since he could be very crude in his own right, but there is also some contempt towards them as well. Okay, most, if not all, plays of the era tended to focus on the upper classes and it was rare, if ever, that there would be a piece of literature where the lower classes played leading roles – we are always dealing with kings and princes here – yet we still get a glimpse of the lower classes coming through, even if they were painted as being untrustworthy. Take Johnson's The Alchemist for instance – here we have a group of servants who are given the run of their master's house while he is away and they end up running a rather dubious scheme where they pretend to be magicians.

Despite them being painted a crude and untrustworthy, they are also painted as being comical in their own right. Once again I am not speaking about the fools, who played very important roles in a number of Shakespearian plays, I am speaking of the servants. Take Twelfth Night for instance – along with the romantic comedy we also have the farcical comedy that takes place in the lower reaches of the castle where the servants goad the butler into making a complete fool of himself in front of the lady.

The Primal Forces

I have written elsewhere on the Tempest about how the island is portrayed as a form of garden of Eden. However this isn't something that John Bell explores in this particular production. What we do have is what could be considered the primal forces. I have suggested that the world in which the characters are drawn into is a spiritual realm within Prospero's mind. It is a realm that has no form or substance – in effect it is a world that has yet to be created, yet is being created by Prospero. It appears to exist within the clouds and within the minds of the actors.

Prospero & ArielYet despite this the primal forces seem to be at play. We have Ariel who represents the air and Caliban who represents the Earth. The air is the source of life – without it we die – however the Earth is muddy and dirty, forever trodden upon beneath our feet. This is why Caliban connects with the base servants of the nobility. Like the Earth, they are base and dirty, and exist only to support society. We see this as Caliban is dressed in brown, while Ariel is dressed in light blue. Ariel is the air, and as such he is everywhere, and unlike the other productions that I have seen where Prospero is in every scene, here we have Ariel floating around, never out of sight for too long. While he may be on stage, and while we may see him, the characters in many cases are oblivious of his existence. Even though he may not be seen, or is acknowledged, he is still floating around, never far out of sight.

Yet another element is brought forth in this interpretation – the fire. Miranda is dressed in orange and red clothing, suggesting that she is the fire – the spark that warms us, yet is uncontrollable. When we watch fire burn we are enchanted by its beauty, yet in another way it can be destructive. Miranda is not painted as destructive though – instead she is beautiful, dancing about, uncontrollable, yet she submits to the will of her father.

The water is also present, though not represented by any of the characters. Maybe it is Sycorax who was the water, the original ruler of the island that was defeated. Certainly ancient philosophies saw water as being the primal substance that from which all other substances arose. The island is surrounded by water, and it is the violent and untamed aspect of the ocean that brings the nobles onto the island. Yet despite that it is Prospero who is in control of the water, who conjures up the tempest to torment the sailors and to bring them under his control. They have drifted into his waters, waters that he has complete control over, and he raises up the tempest so as to frighten and imprison them.

A Shakespearian Prospero

There seems to be some debate as to whether Shakespeare is painting himself into the play through Prospero. One writer suggests that the two characters cannot be any different – Prospero is a loner, a failed ruler, an academic that shuts himself away from the world; while Shakespeare was a successful business man and said to have been fun to be around. This may be the case, yet both Shakespeare and Prospero are masters over their worlds. Prospero creates and dominates the island as a magician, while Shakespeare creates and dominates his productions. Shakespeare was an author, a playwright, a director – he created his plays and he had complete mastery over the production, just as Prospero has complete mastery over the island. Anybody who has ever been in a theatrical production knows that the director has the final say – the play belongs to the director and the director's decision is final.

Sure, Prospero was driven by revenge, by a bitterness at finding himself at the wrong end of a nasty political manoeuvre. However it is clear that Prospero is also an academic – a role that does not necessarily sit easily with that of a ruler. Politics is a nasty business where one has to regularly look behind their back to make sure that the ambitious person with the knife is not sitting there waiting to sink it in. This is where academia does not sit well with the profession as academics are after knowledge and wisdom, while politicians are after power. To take one's mind off the pursuit of power, even for a moment, can be one's downfall.

However Prospero still desires power, even though the power that he seeks comes through his books. He has been usurped and banished by his brother, but he takes his books with him to this secluded island where he once again conjures up his power. He binds Ariel and Caliban to his will, Ariel being the patient servant who does the will of his master believing that one day he will be rewarded with his freedom, while Caliban is the untrustworthy slave who needs to be constantly watched for fear that he will rebel. Miranda is also his subject, but she comes in under a different mantle altogether – she is Prospero's daughter, his flesh and blood, therefore her submission is that of the child to the parent. Unlike Ariel and Caliban, she does not yern for freedom because in her mind she is already free. She is her father's daughter and unlike the servant or the slave, she does not see any life beyond submission to the father or the husband.

Yet there is also a fourth – the prisoners – represented by the nobility who have become shipwrecked on the island. However while in part they are prisoners they do not realise that they are as such – they see themselves only as castaways, trapped on the island during a freak storm. They aren't approached by the servant or the slave, but are left to their own devices. It is not until they are lured in by the feast, and are then driven off by the harpy, that they realise that this is no ordinary island. In fact it is the scene of the feast when they come to realise that this place is not your typical island, and that there are more forces at play than meets the eye.


The play is also about transformation. Like the 'Murder of Gonzalo' in Hamlet, where he attempts to rewrite the past to turn Claudius from a rightful king into a brutal usurper, Prospero transforms the island into a stage, enacting a play in which he is the director.  In a way this is one of the roles of the playwright, and in many cases the academic and the historian. Shakespeare does this all too often, turning the Scots in Macbeth into barbaric savages who are unable to rule their kingdom, and Richard III into a hideous monster that will stoop so low as to murder two children. Our perspective of Richard has been forever tarnished by Shakespeare and these day when we think of him all we see is a hunchback shuffling along screaming "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse".

Prospero is an academic, and as an academic he is the one who provides a portal to history. We only understand and see history in the way he wants us to see history. He is not a failed ruler who cared more for his books than for his kingdom, he is a ruler that has been kicked out of his kingdom and his desire to punish those who were responsible is his right. However he is also the matchmaker, the one who brings Miranda and Ferdinand together, and the one who imprisons Ferdinand to force him to work for Miranda. By bringing Ferdinand under his control, through binding him with his daughter, he has created a loyal servant, in much the same way that he has bound Ariel through his promise of freedom.

Yet we also see a transformation within Prospero, and this transformation comes through his daughter Miranda. She is horrified when she learns that Prospero is responsible for the storm, and is subtly working him to drop his lust for revenge, despite him telling her that it is his right. At the first he is a deposed ruler seeking revenge against his enemies, and in the end he is the forgiving father, the one who forgives his enemies and lets them live, but also seeks their forgiveness for the wrong that he has done. We also see another transformation as he willingly gives up his power, frees not only Ariel but all his captives, and then renounces his sorcery to return to his rightful place on the throne of Milan.

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Power Games - Shakespeare's Tempest by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

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