Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest 2011

We live in an age dominated by science and technology. The boundary of knowledge is constantly expanding in fields like astronomy, biology, chemistry, medicine and physics. We’re surrounded by gadgets that were only science fiction just a generation ago: hand-held computers, flat-screen televisions, cell phones, digital displays… the list goes on. And yet today many of the most popular films adopt an age-old theme: magic. Movies like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia all revolve around the concept of magical or supernatural events. Shakespeare’s play about The Tempest falls into this tradition. Prospero is one of our earliest images of the wise old magician/wizard buried in books of arcane knowledge. Prospero is the Elizabethan version of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings or Dumbledore in Harry Potter. The island/paradise of The Tempest is as exotic as Middle-Earth or Hogwarts or Narnia. Early in the play Prospero sets the tone when he says that my library was dukedom large enough. Prospero had in fact been Duke of Milan but spent too much time with his books. So his evil brother Antonio had little trouble cheating Prospero out of the dukedom and gathering power into his own hands. This would have made Machiavelli proud. But in Middle-Earth, Hogwarts and Narnia the battle isn’t just about who will gain power; the real battle is good against evil, right against wrong. Prospero had been wronged. He spent too much time studying when he should have been governing. That doesn’t mean that Antonio should be the rightful ruler. And Antonio subtly acknowledges that it’s wrong to usurp power, especially from an older brother. Antonio ships off Prospero and his infant daughter (Miranda) out to sea where he hopes they’ll both drown and be done with it. Years pass and Prospero is not dead. He’s been biding his time on a deserted island except for him, his daughter, a monster named Caliban, and some spirits. When Antonio’s ship is wrecked off shore of the island the stage is set for a fateful reunion of the two brothers. Antonio has power on his side; Prospero has special knowledge of the black and white arts of magic. Prospero can call spirits into being and then dismiss them whenever he wants: These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air, And, like the baseless fabric of vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with sleep. Prospero inhabits a world midway between heaven and earth, halfway between the spiritual and physical. The lines that are so clearly defined for most of us become blurred by Prospero’s wizardry. Are we really such stuff as dreams are made of? Ariel is a spirit who can see you but you can’t see him. He can sing soft music and ordinary human beings have no idea where the sound is coming from. But real people are solid flesh-and-blood creatures. Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love because they have eyes to see with and lips to kiss with. They don’t fall in love with shadows of themselves. They throw their whole bodies into it; Prospero lives somewhere between the spirit-world of Ariel and the physical world of the two lovers. Ariel wants to return to his own spirit-world. He constantly asks Prospero to set him free. Miranda has grown up without seeing any other human being except for her father. When she finally does encounter other flesh-and-blood human beings she exclaims: O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world That has such people in't! It takes a writer like Shakespeare to remind us how wonderful and beauteous the world really is. Middle-Earth, Hogwarts and Narnia are marvelous places in the old sense of the word: they’re full of marvels. We stand in wonderment at the creatures and events that take place in those fictitious worlds. Miranda reminds us that there is wonder and beauty right here in this world too; just as it is. Science and technology can be useful tools. But magic is more fun.


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