The Season



























































































The Tempest, Island Shakespeare Festival, summer 2015

Prospero’s account of the magical powers he is about to renounce, in act 5 of The Tempest (1611), is rightly famous as one of the master-playwright Shakespeare’s most resonant and magisterial visions of patriarchal authority.

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art...


Except that these words aren’t entirely either Prospero’s or Shakespeare’s, and they didn’t originally belong to a man at all. For those in Shakespeare’s first audiences who knew Arthur Golding’s popular and much-reprinted translation of the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (first published in 1567), Prospero’s speech would surely have sounded oddly familiar:

Ye airs and winds: ye elves of hills, of brooks, of woods alone,
Of standing lakes, and of the night, approach ye every one.
Through help of whom (the crooked banks much wond’ring at the thing)
I have compellèd streams to run clean backward to their spring.
By charms I make the calm seas rough, and make the rough seas plain,
And cover all the sky with clouds, and chase them thence again.
By charms I raise and lay the winds, and burst the viper’s jaw,
And from the bowels of the earth both stones and trees do draw.
Whole woods and forests I remove: I make the mountains shake,
And even the earth itself to groan and fearfully to quake.
I call up dead men from their graves: and thee, O lightsome moon,
I darken oft, though beaten brass abate thy peril soon.
Our sorcery dims the morning fair, and darks the sun at noon.

Shakespeare’s blank verse sounds a good deal nimbler than do Golding’s rhyming fourteeners, but there is no camouflaging the fact that Prospero bids farewell to his magic in what are substantially borrowed words. They are words, moreover, which in their original context belong not to a Western magus but to an Eastern sorceress: Medea. In the Metamorphoses Medea is not even giving up her magic when she utters these words, but is nerving herself to carry out her greatest feat yet, that of restoring Jason’s dead father Aeson to his youth and strength. In this important source-text it is not men but women who command the doors of life and death: as Golding’s preface explains, the whole story of Medea demonstrates ‘That women both in helping and in hurting have no match / When they to either bend their wits.’

The definite secondariness of men when it comes either to helping or to hurting is something of which Prospero seems uneasily conscious throughout the script of The Tempest as Shakespeare left it. His narrative in the play’s second scene of how he and Miranda came to be washed up on their island describes his sufferings as a single parent adrift in terms which strain to make their stranding sound like childbirth (by his own account Prospero ‘decked the sea with drops full salt,’ ‘under his burden groaned’), while his bitterest speeches in the play are reserved for the rival parent-magician he has displaced, Caliban’s single mother, the banished witch Sycorax. Prospero’s treatment of the enemies he has managed to trap on the island also has a definitely would-be maternal air to it: as with Miranda, he exerts the ability to lull them to sleep at will, and later he appears to lay on a nourishing meal for them but then withholds it, giving them a good scolding instead.

As if the precarious and finite authority over the daughter he is arranging to give away isn’t sufficient for him, Prospero makes his servant-spirit Ariel dress up as a mermaid even though nobody else in the play can see him, thereby producing a sort of pretend effigy of a woman whom he can order about and send away at will -- much as the magical opera he has his spirits stage to celebrate the betrothal of Miranda to Ferdinand enacts the simulated banishment of the goddess Venus. It isn’t surprising, then, that the performance history of The Tempest should have been so consistently interested in matters of gender and sexual identity, and of the theatre’s power to transform them. Originally written for an all-male company, The Tempest was extensively adapted after the English stage welcomed actresses, and for a century and a half it became a titillating feast of tight female breeches and outrageous male transvestism. In the enduringly popular, semi-operatic The Tempest, or, The Enchanted Island (by William Davenant and John Dryden, 1667), Miranda has a sister, Dorinda, who has also never seen any men other than Prospero and Caliban, while in a strictly-segregated compound elsewhere on the island Prospero is bringing up one Hippolito (‘the infant duke of Mantua’), who has never seen a woman. Ariel has a girlfriend, Milcha, and Caliban has a sister, Sycorax, with whom he occasionally commits incest, though this doesn’t prevent him trying to marry her off to Stephano. To make all this even more interesting, Hippolito and Ariel were played by women and Sycorax was played by a man: the scene in which the woman who has never seen a man finds herself alone with the man who has never seen a woman, both of them played by actresses, remains a defining masterpiece of coy seventeenth-century soft porn. (It was this version of the play, incidentally, which George Washington went to see in Philadelphia in 1784 in between helping to draft the US constitution). Even after Shakespeare’s version of the script finally displaced the Davenant and Dryden additions in the nineteenth century, Ariel was regularly played by women (from Priscilla Horton through to Margaret Leighton), and indeed he/she sometimes still is. Peter Greenaway’s version Prospero’s Books (1991) goes one or even three better: in this film Ariel is played by four boys, but the spirit’s singing is dubbed by four women, much as Miranda is played by a woman but voiced (as are all the other characters) by the film’s Prospero, John Gielgud.

To cast a woman as Prospero, then – whether one regards this as belatedly fulfilling one of the magician’s own secret desires, or as transforming him back into his avatar Medea by way of repairing Shakespeare’s former usurpation – is to go with the grain of this transformative play as much as against it, to take up the questions its crystalline dramatic poetry raises and to turn them a little further in the changing light. (Given that Vanessa Redgrave’s father Sir Michael had been a famous Prospero in his time, for instance, her performance in the role at the Globe in London in 2000 seemed to represent something like Miranda talking back). And if ever there were a magical island and a theatrical sorceress just waiting to combine so as to restore the youth and strength of The Tempest, it was surely Whidbey Island and Rosie Woods.

Michael Dobson
Director of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Birmingham (link)












The Tempest, Island Shakespeare Festival, summer 2015

Prospero’s account of the magical powers he is about to renounce, in act 5 of The Tempest (1611), is rightly famous as one of the master-playwright Shakespeare’s most resonant and magisterial visions of patriarchal authority.

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art...


Except that these words aren’t entirely either Prospero’s or Shakespeare’s, and they didn’t originally belong to a man at all. For those in Shakespeare’s first audiences who knew Arthur Golding’s popular and much-reprinted translation of the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (first published in 1567), Prospero’s speech would surely have sounded oddly familiar:

Ye airs and winds: ye elves of hills, of brooks, of woods alone,
Of standing lakes, and of the night, approach ye every one.
Through help of whom (the crooked banks much wond’ring at the thing)
I have compellèd streams to run clean backward to their spring.
By charms I make the calm seas rough, and make the rough seas plain,
And cover all the sky with clouds, and chase them thence again.
By charms I raise and lay the winds, and burst the viper’s jaw,
And from the bowels of the earth both stones and trees do draw.
Whole woods and forests I remove: I make the mountains shake,
And even the earth itself to groan and fearfully to quake.
I call up dead men from their graves: and thee, O lightsome moon,
I darken oft, though beaten brass abate thy peril soon.
Our sorcery dims the morning fair, and darks the sun at noon.

Shakespeare’s blank verse sounds a good deal nimbler than do Golding’s rhyming fourteeners, but there is no camouflaging the fact that Prospero bids farewell to his magic in what are substantially borrowed words. They are words, moreover, which in their original context belong not to a Western magus but to an Eastern sorceress: Medea. In the Metamorphoses Medea is not even giving up her magic when she utters these words, but is nerving herself to carry out her greatest feat yet, that of restoring Jason’s dead father Aeson to his youth and strength. In this important source-text it is not men but women who command the doors of life and death: as Golding’s preface explains, the whole story of Medea demonstrates ‘That women both in helping and in hurting have no match / When they to either bend their wits.’

The definite secondariness of men when it comes either to helping or to hurting is something of which Prospero seems uneasily conscious throughout the script of The Tempest as Shakespeare left it. His narrative in the play’s second scene of how he and Miranda came to be washed up on their island describes his sufferings as a single parent adrift in terms which strain to make their stranding sound like childbirth (by his own account Prospero ‘decked the sea with drops full salt,’ ‘under his burden groaned’), while his bitterest speeches in the play are reserved for the rival parent-magician he has displaced, Caliban’s single mother, the banished witch Sycorax. Prospero’s treatment of the enemies he has managed to trap on the island also has a definitely would-be maternal air to it: as with Miranda, he exerts the ability to lull them to sleep at will, and later he appears to lay on a nourishing meal for them but then withholds it, giving them a good scolding instead.

As if the precarious and finite authority over the daughter he is arranging to give away isn’t sufficient for him, Prospero makes his servant-spirit Ariel dress up as a mermaid even though nobody else in the play can see him, thereby producing a sort of pretend effigy of a woman whom he can order about and send away at will -- much as the magical opera he has his spirits stage to celebrate the betrothal of Miranda to Ferdinand enacts the simulated banishment of the goddess Venus. It isn’t surprising, then, that the performance history of The Tempest should have been so consistently interested in matters of gender and sexual identity, and of the theatre’s power to transform them. Originally written for an all-male company, The Tempest was extensively adapted after the English stage welcomed actresses, and for a century and a half it became a titillating feast of tight female breeches and outrageous male transvestism. In the enduringly popular, semi-operatic The Tempest, or, The Enchanted Island (by William Davenant and John Dryden, 1667), Miranda has a sister, Dorinda, who has also never seen any men other than Prospero and Caliban, while in a strictly-segregated compound elsewhere on the island Prospero is bringing up one Hippolito (‘the infant duke of Mantua’), who has never seen a woman. Ariel has a girlfriend, Milcha, and Caliban has a sister, Sycorax, with whom he occasionally commits incest, though this doesn’t prevent him trying to marry her off to Stephano. To make all this even more interesting, Hippolito and Ariel were played by women and Sycorax was played by a man: the scene in which the woman who has never seen a man finds herself alone with the man who has never seen a woman, both of them played by actresses, remains a defining masterpiece of coy seventeenth-century soft porn. (It was this version of the play, incidentally, which George Washington went to see in Philadelphia in 1784 in between helping to draft the US constitution). Even after Shakespeare’s version of the script finally displaced the Davenant and Dryden additions in the nineteenth century, Ariel was regularly played by women (from Priscilla Horton through to Margaret Leighton), and indeed he/she sometimes still is. Peter Greenaway’s version Prospero’s Books (1991) goes one or even three better: in this film Ariel is played by four boys, but the spirit’s singing is dubbed by four women, much as Miranda is played by a woman but voiced (as are all the other characters) by the film’s Prospero, John Gielgud.

To cast a woman as Prospero, then – whether one regards this as belatedly fulfilling one of the magician’s own secret desires, or as transforming him back into his avatar Medea by way of repairing Shakespeare’s former usurpation – is to go with the grain of this transformative play as much as against it, to take up the questions its crystalline dramatic poetry raises and to turn them a little further in the changing light. (Given that Vanessa Redgrave’s father Sir Michael had been a famous Prospero in his time, for instance, her performance in the role at the Globe in London in 2000 seemed to represent something like Miranda talking back). And if ever there were a magical island and a theatrical sorceress just waiting to combine so as to restore the youth and strength of The Tempest, it was surely Whidbey Island and Rosie Woods.

Michael Dobson
Director of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Birmingham (link)

 

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION CALL: 360-331-2939 or email
July 14-September 3,
Shows Thursday through Sunday at 6:00,
(matinees at 1:00 Saturdays in August).
Island Shakespeare Festival is located at 5476 Maxwelton Road, Langley, WA 98260 (MAP)
Mailing address:
PO Box 1262
Langley, WA, 98260
Click HERE for the performance schedule.