Is it possible to be a writer, or someone who likes to think of himself as a writer, or just a plain old bookworm, and not love The Tempest? Has there ever been a more indulgent, a more self-aggrandising fantasy for the literati? Which of us has sat through the first act without nodding along to "my library was dukedom large enough"? Betrayed by the crafty and self-seeking politicians who rule our world inspite of our superior wisdom, abandoned by the Caliban masses, who, unheedful of the grace we offer them, have chosen to worship some drunken carouser, turning their ingrate backs on our so potent art, socially shipwrecked, marooned on the island of ourself with only our own intelligence (and that, perhaps, of some doting but heedless child) to admire what wonders we have wrought herein, which of us has not longed for the power that Prospero wields? How wonderful it would be if we had a muse as obedient and nimble as Ariel, if poetry would flow so trippingly of our tongues. How marvellous it would be if by mere shake of pen and study of book we could command the world's attention, bring the lost to knowledge, the innocent to love and (this is the best part) so reduce those who wrong us or are rude to us to subservience, that it may be in our strength to forgive them.
It is in the impossibility of this dream that the true comic potential of Shakespeare's play lies. It is a tribute to the Bard's incredible gift that he makes something so blatantly improbable seem so breathlessly real, making it possible to take the play, and therefore ourselves, seriously. To swell with almost Shelley-ian pride and exult in the notion of the poet as statesman, the philosopher as a man of action. This is the same fantasy that sustains academics in the illusion that their work makes a difference to the 'real' world. We believe it because we want to, because we need to. But you have only to step back for a minute to see how hilarious the whole thing really is, what an orgy of wish-fulfillment. Great comedy works by taking something small and hidden within us and blowing it up like a balloon and letting it float lightly in the hushed air of the theatre. And that is exactly what The Tempest does.
Except that Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the truth is subtler and more desperate than it seems at first, as it often is in life. Prospero, it turns out, will betray us. Will throw away his book, break his staff, abjure his now 'rough' magic. He will abandon this fiefdom of the imagination, that he is established lord of, returning to reclaim his place in the world even though it cost him dearly to do so ("every third thought shall be my grave"). It is an act of treachery against his fellow-magicians, an act that should make us cry out, with Browning "Just for a handful of silver he left us / just for a riband to stick in his coat". Why does Prospero do this? How would it have been if he, beguiled by this world of ideas he had created, had chosen to have nothing more to do with his enemies, and remain, Selkirk-like, on his island, possibly stifling even his beloved daughter, when her need for other company proved too importunate?
How are we to take this return of Prospero's? Is Shakespeare perhaps issuing us a warning, reminding us that the world exists and must be faced, sweet as the play may be to linger in. That we must use poetry as an asylum, retreating to it when we are lost and without hope, and leaving it behind when we have found "all of us ourselves"? Or is this self-inflicted exile merely Shakespeare's way of distancing himself (and us) from all that is unattractive about Prospero - his overbearing pride, his manipulativeness, the evident supremacism that he brings to his relationship with Caliban? By having Prospero leave the island, is Shakespeare seperating the wheat from the chaff, the mortal from the spirit, and giving us leave, in doing so, to keep what we love about Prospero in the island of our hearts, and banish the rest from our memories, as being unworthy of our creed? Could the true salvation of man lie in reclaiming paradise and then leaving it of his own free will?
And is the choice really Prospero's to make? Or is it rather Ariel's, without whose power Prospero, for all his bluster, can do little, and whose impatience he has bought for the few hours he needs to finish his final opus, only by promising him his freedom. Who is the master here, who is the slave? If you have ever had the experience of writing something, then going back and reading it and not being able to believe that it came from your pen, you know (as Shakespeare, more than anyone else, doubtless did) that the muse is not so easily tamed, nor art so easily turned to our purposes. Ours is a pretend mastery - what little control we are granted is purchased through great study and enormous application, and even so we are more like to follow the spirit than to command it, shaping the garment of our commands to whatever motions its pleasure leads us to. Is all this playacting, the breaking of the staff, the repeatedly promised and finally given leave, merely the final gesture of an aging artist who knows his talents will no longer obey him?
Every time I read The Tempest, or watch it performed (as I did last night), I am struck by how much, even by his own standards, Shakespeare manages to pack into the play. How can one single play be about colonialism and government, about nature vs. reason and reason vs. art, about magic and innocence, about disposession and betrayal and vengeance and the virtue of forgiveness and, most of all, about music, about poetry? How can one play be about all of those things and still be a compelling, human drama, filled with unforgettable characters, moving speeches, and some of the finest verse ever written?
And yet for all that, there is a sense in which The Tempest is one long epilogue, a last Hurrah, a work that both celebrates the power of the imagination, and faces up to the reality that lies beyond. There is a deep sadness in the play, it shines like a lonely spotlight on the stage when Prospero steps forward to speak his last lines, to declare his charms o'erthrown. A great play is ending, the time of our release grows nigh. If the play is a simulacrum of life, then surely the short sleep of its ending is death, and we, its audience, must be released of it no less reluctantly than we would be of our own existence. Spells must be broken gently, if they are not to hurt.
Parting has never been a sweeter sorrow.
Categories: Arts, Poetry