Monday, 25 November 2013

"sleepers [...] let 'em forth By my so potent art."

After rising lark-like on Friday morning in order to rush off to a meeting in a dark and secret corner of the university, I had thought my day might be just "one of those days"; as it turned out, it proved one of the most intellectually stimulating I've had so far since arriving in York (and that's saying something at a place where every day someone is saying something fascinating about something, or something...). After the meeting - which was important and interesting but hardly "such stuff as dreams are made on" - I run over to the HRC (spilling my coffee as I weaved between casual strollers across Alcuin Bridge) for a seminar I have been looking forward to all term: on Shakespeare's The Tempest

The aim of the seminar was to explore issues of adaptation and cultural change across history, and we were doing this by looking at Shakespeare's text alongside two film adaptations: one, a lovely, one-reel silent film from 1908, and Greenaway's well-known, off-the-wall and highly conceptualized, Prospero's Books

I'd like here to discuss what were (for me) some of the most interesting ideas and questions that came out of the seminar, starting with the issue of Prospero's power, both political and magical.

"That's my noble master."

Halfway through 1.2 of The Tempest Prospero tells Miranda, his daughter, that they must "visit Caliban, my slave, who never | Yields us kind answer" (308-09); but why they must see him is unclear. From "within" Caliban calls out to Prospero that "there's wood enough", so it can't be that Prospero wants him to build up the stock of firewood. Indeed, it seems, at least for a time, that "there's other business" (315) for Caliban. And yet. Skip the intervening exchange between master and slave (to which I will return later) to the end of the conversation, and we discover that this is precisely what Prospero wants: "Hag-seed hence! | Fetch us in fuel, and be quick" (365). So what exactly is going on? Why does Prospero want Caliban to get more wood when clearly there is no need for it? And what is this "other business" that is never actually discussed?

I've always thought that Prospero was a little less potent than he'd like us to believe. In truth, his magical power is at no point in the play demonstrated to us. Ariel produces the storm that causes the Italian ship to be wrecked on the island; Ariel produces the banquet and masque that form the spectacular centre pieces of the play; Prospero threatens magical violence (to both Caliban and Ariel) but never - at least in front of us - does he do so. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Prospero is in fact a fraud - the text doesn't permit such a reading - because it is clear that Ariel and Caliban have experienced liberation and enslavement (respectively) at the hands, or rather the staff, of the Milanese sometime Duke. What we can say is that Prospero can't do the big stuff: like Sycorax before him, he needs the "help of [his] more potent ministers" (275) to exorcise his control over his not-quite-so-minions.

What Prospero does have, however, is language. He can threaten violence, and the rhetorical picture he paints of it with words is - for the moment at least - enough to ensure that Caliban and Ariel do his bidding: "I must | Once in a month recount what thou [Ariel] hast been, | Which thou forget'st." (1.2.262-63) His authority is bound up in his ability to (re)narrate the past - though a past that is heavily skewed to his advantage. Indeed, at the beginning of the act, when Miranda appears to remember the events that Prospero is attempting to describe about the circumstances surrounding his usurpation and escape to the island, he gets excited (or anxious?) at the prospect of her knowing the details first hand: "If thou rememb'rest aught ere thou cam'st here, | How thou cam'st here thou mayst" (51-52). After this he keeps checking that she's paying attention to his narrative, as though he's frightened her memory might be triggered by his speech, but offer up a memory that contradicts his view of events - "I pray you mark me" (88) is both an imperative to listen and a plea to believe his story.

The play is constantly antagonizing the process of memory and historical reconstruction. Memory (real and edited) is always mediated - at least, expressed - through language, people are bias, and thus historical fact is always at two removes from knowledge. Miranda learned to speak from Prospero, who teaches her how she came to be on the island; Caliban - at least in most editions of the text - learns language from Miranda rather than from Prospero (1.2.350-64), so his engagement with history and memory, as mediated through speech, is at an even greater remove than Miranda's. All this is complicated (in ways I won't go into here in the interests of space) by the fact that Prospero's own language is informed by allusions to and, as in 5.1.33-57, by direct use of Ovid, Montaigne, Virgil and others.

"I'll drown my book."

In one of the key moments of Prospero's Books, Prospero (Gielgud) takes up a book in which the three Ariels have been scribbling. In it they write: 

Your charm so strongly works 'em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections 
Would become tender.

The film makes this moment - an interpretive crux in any performance or reading of the play - to mean that Ariel's words have prevailed on Prospero, and persuaded him to show mercy to those upon whom he would otherwise be revenged. "And mine shall" he says, falling into his chair. His entire plan has altered because of this scene: he breaks his quill as a symbolic act that he is no longer the author of the narrative (while previously it has been clear that was in control) and steps down from his desk to join the other participants in the drama, as actor only. The film ends with Prospero not dictating the action but as participating in it; he becomes relational, reacting to the narrative of the final act as it occurs rather than as he designed it. 

This is an interesting view, and one that works, but it is conspicuous in its modernity. I don't think Shakespeare's Prospero really renounces his authority like this - just look at the epilogue. 

Having said that, Shakespeare's Prospero is a character who realizes the importance of relationships rather than solitude by the end of the play: he returns to Milan to take up his dukedom, rather than closet himself away with his books; he moves out into the world rather than creating one in which he is more or less alone. His "Every third thought shall be my grave" (5.1.311), presumably his first and second will be his children and his political responsibilities, not his books.

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