Monday 27 January 2020

The Tempest | William Shakespeare #Play

I wanted to read The Tempest at some point for two reasons. 
  1. I would like to read Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed one day. But I have never seen any productions of The Tempest and don't really know the story very well.
  2. I have never read a play before that I had not already seen a theatre, movie or TV production of (I don't count seeing Return to the Forbidden Planet in 1991 at the Cambridge theatre, London, as I remember absolutely nothing about it!)

So I added it to my Classics Club List #2 and it came up during the last CC Spin.
I was curious to know how easy it would be to read an unknown play.
It was not.

Easy, that is.

I struggled to gather any information about the characters. I couldn't pick up any inflections, tone or tempo from the bare words on the page. I didn't know if the various speeches were meant to funny, sad or ironic. There were simply not enough clues for me to work it out on my own.

In the end I let the words just wash over me. I gave up trying to remember who was speaking to whom, except for Prospero, Miranda and Ariel.

Early on I picked up on the hag-seed reference to Caliban though,

Save for the son that she did litter here,
A feckled whelp hag-born.

and realised this must be the point of entry for Atwood's version of the story. But again, who was Caliban? I couldn't work it out from the text in from of me. 
Was he a hero or anti-hero, a bad guy or just misunderstood? Was he an 'other', a victim or villain, foolish, naive or tragic? 
Does he represent the natural world as being uncivilised? Or does he show up the civilised world as being cruel and domineering? Is he inhuman or beast, untamed or rebel, monster or noble savage? 

Perhaps, though, it is this very doubt and openness to interpretation that makes Shakepeare's plays so great. Caliban can be any or all or none of these things, depending on the reader, the director, the times or the lens.

This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, 
Which thou takest from me. 
When thou camest first, 
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me 
Water with berries in't, and teach me how 
To name the bigger light, and how the less, 
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee 
And show'd thee all the qualities o' the isle, 
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:Cursed be I that did so! 
All the charms Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! 
For I am all the subjects that you have, 
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me 
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me 
The rest o' the island.

The only thing I really gleaned about Caliban is that his mother was called Sycorax and she was banished to the island pregnant and unmarried. I'm not sure who the father was, but Caliban is certainly the quintessential bastard son. He was living on the island alone, when Prospero and Miranda arrived. They took him in, cared for him, used his knowledge of the island, then took offence when he wanted to make babies with Miranda ['Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else this isle with Calibans.'] It would be very easy to view this play through a post-colonialism lens.

There is much speculation about the name Caliban. The predominate one being that it is an anagram of canibal (Spanish spelling) with more than a passing nod to Montaigne's essay Of Cannibal.

One of Caliban's most famous speeches (below) was the inspiration behind Caliban's Dream as performed by Sir Kenneth Branagh at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. 
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices 
That, if I then had waked after long sleep, 
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming, 
The clouds methought would open, and show riches 
Ready to drop upon me, that when I awaked, 
I cried to dream again!

Literary references also abound, with the most well-known one coming from Oscar Wilde, 'The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.'

The Tempest was first performed at Court in 1611 and was probably the last play written by Shakespeare.

My version of the play was an EMCP access edition PDF.

I'm not sure I will ever read an unknown play again. I'm obviously one of those people who needs to see a play to make sense of it. There is an art to reading a play that I do not have the skill to unpack.
The only real satisfaction I got from this one (besides spotting the famous quotes and making the Caliban/Hag-Seed connection) was the post-reading research.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and 
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, 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 a sleep.

Since writing this post, I've been thinking about and talking about which Shakespeare play is my favourite. Turns out it's harder to answer this question than I initially thought. Mr Books comes down on the side of A Merchant of Venice, which I do like a lot. But I tend to be a little more frivolous and romantic when it comes to Shakespeare and I'm leaning towards Much Ado About Nothing or Taming of the Shrew. But then again, I've seen so many different versions of Romeo and Juliet over the years, it feels like the play I know best of all.

But if I really had to pick a favourite, it might just be Macbeth.

Out damn spot and double, double, toil, and trouble.
Witches, the conniving Lady Macbeth and the guilty, tormented Macbeth.
Political intrigue, psychological angst and power struggles.
It all makes for great drama and tension.
The original why-dunnit.

What about you?
What's your favourite Shakespeare?


  1. I read it to the girls but I admit that much of it went over my head.

    1. I think reading or watching Shakespeare is best when you just go with the flow & not worry too much about understanding it!! If you tried to make sense of every speech or every sentence you could take years 😁

    2. True. We saw a version of it that we liked. There were parts that we found funny, or interesting to read anyway. Together, we enjoyed several Shakespeare plays.

    3. Sounds like a lovely way to introduced your girls to Shakespeare. Which plays have they enjoyed the most so far?

  2. The Tempest was the last one that Shakespeare wrote alone near the end of his career and though short and simply structured, one of the most complex. You really picked a doozy to read!
    This one was never on my to read list. Bravo for reading it!

    1. I also have The Nutshell which I always thought was from the same Hogarth Shakespeare series as Hag-Seed, but I've just discovered it's not (however the Hogarth people do have a Hamlet version coming out this month by Gillian Flynn). Anyway, I've seen Hamlet multiple times, so don't feel the need to read the play as well.

      Shakespeare plays I have read (at school) are Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear. All plays I have seen multiple times since.

      I've also seen A Winter's Tale (I have The Gap in Time on on my TBR somewhere too I think), Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V and one of the Henry IV's. I've only ever seen modern interpretations of the Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It.

      Do you have a favourite Shakespeare Nancy?

    2. Richard II
      Probably not everyone's first choice of 37 plays written by Shakespeare....but it is a gem.
      In order to completely understand what was going on...I had to read the summary notes per act, scene to help me along. But the BEST is....after you read the play watch the DVD The Hollow Crown (BBC series) ...the episode Richard II. In my review you can see photo of the BAFTA award winning actor Ben Whishaw Best actor 2012 for his electrifying role as Richard II!

    3. I haven't spent much time with Shakespeare's histories, which is a surprise given my love of history and historical fiction. I'd like to watch the entire Hollow Crown series as I think this was one of the versions of Henry IV that I enjoyed.

    4. I like the Richard II, too! And it really isn't one of the most popular. I saw a simulcast production a couple of years ago (done at the Globe, I think?) and it was very good.

  3. Same as you, I'm not one for reading plays, especially if I haven't seen them before. There aren't many Shakespeare plays around here, though, so I have read a few.

    I have read and revewied "Hag Seed" thought and enjoyed it. Maybe you still should give it a try.

    1. Reading the play was hard, but I enjoyed the story. Shakespeare's ability to weave together a cast of diverse characters and several implausible plots into a glorious whole is always impressive and worth repeat viewings :-)

  4. Well, I've not read a lot of Shakespeare. I'm really not a fan. But of the handful of plays I've read, mostly all the traditional ones like Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream.... Twelfth Night is probably my favorite. I have read most of Nesbit's Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare which is a collection of retellings of Shakepeare's plays for children. :)

    1. I've seen some wonderful Twelfth Night productions over the years.
      I think, when it comes to plays, it's best for me to view them, not read them :-)

  5. Plays are harder to read, aren't they? I've seen the Tempest a couple of times, in the park, and it can be a great show.

    1. I'd love to see a production of The Tempest now that I know the story better, but yes, it's much easier to read a play AFTER you've seen the show.

  6. I don't understand or enjoy Shakespeare as well as my husband and son, but I do have Much Ado About Nothing on my classics list to read. I have seen several film versions, and I am hoping that will help. But I still put it off, thinking it may be beyond me. So silly. If I read a play I had not seen, I probably would have to have some annotations to help (which I don't like to do).

    1. I love a good annotation, but my copy of The Tempest did not have one and all the on-line ones required payment, so I muddled through on my own.
      Much Ado is a lot of fun and I can certainly recommend the Brannagh/Thompson movie from the 90's as a good place to start.

  7. I have always found it difficult to figure out how an actor might be saying lines in almost any play. What's sarcastic, for example. But I think that if you read enough Shakespeare understanding it becomes a lot easier. It's better in some ways to see the play, at least for me, because I have difficulty imagining it.

    1. I think the main thing I learnt from this experience, is that I really have to see the play first, then read the play.

  8. I agree with you. If one has seen a Shakespeare play, it is easier to read it. I have not seen many I must admit. I have difficulties reading Shakespeare. Sometimes, I think, one has to study him to be able to fully appreciate him. I just finished The Merchant of Venice for the Classic Club Spin. It was ok to read actually. The problem I find with his plays are, that there are so many people involved, and I am not able to separate them easily. Anyway, I will probably go for watching rather than reading!


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