Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review: The Tempest

Title: The Tempest
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play, Comedy, Fantasy, Classics


Once upon a time, Prospero was the Duke of Milan, a man of peace and learning. But he neglected the duties of government, turning them over to his greedy brother Antonio, who desired to be ruler in name as well as action. Conspiring with the King of Naples, Antonio stripped Prospero of his dukedom and set him afloat on a rickety boat with his baby daughter Miranda, hoping they'd sink into the ocean and die.

Twelve years later, Antonio and the King of Naples find themselves on an unhappy sea voyage of their own. Returning from the wedding of the king's daughter, they encounter a tempest of such ferocity it threatens to tear the ship in half. But this storm is not what it seems. In his exile on a strange magical isle, Prospero has mastered sorcery, ensnaring powerful spirits to do his bidding. It is he who has created the tempest. But now that he has his enemies in his power, will he exact his revenge? Or are there other schemes he has in mind?


Shakespeare delivers the storm all right.

The tempest springs at us from the very first page of the play. The wind howls, the ship cracks, the crew screams, and one beleaguered boatswain tries to hold everything together. It is a scene of high action and drama. Yet Shakespeare still has time for comedy. The nobles chose this particular moment to traipse on deck and demand to see the captain. When the boatswain indelicately tells them to get out of the way and let him work, some of the nobles (Antonio, hint, hint) start cussing him out like... well, a sailor. Gorgeously lewd insults go flying right up until the ship seemingly breaks and everyone flies into a panic.

Miranda watches the storm
In the space of about three pages, Shakespeare shows why he's a master writer, combining action, drama, and comedy in an opening scene that hypnotizes the audiences. It's just too bad he couldn't maintain that level of skill. The tempest is actually the highest point of action in the entire play. It could almost be considered the climax--except it happens on page 1.

It didn't have to be this way. In the calm that follows the storm, Shakespeare sets up three different plot-lines. Ferdinand, the king's son, has gotten separated from the rest of the nobles. He sees Miranda and falls in love. But Prospero is determined to challenge that. Meanwhile, the King of Naples is stricken with grief, thinking his son dead. While he makes search of the isle, Antonio calculates that if king and son are dead, there may be an opening on Naples' throne. At the same time, Caliban, the disgruntled slave of Prospero, wants to murder his master and seizes the first opportunity he gets.
Prospero does not approve of Ferdinand
All these plot-lines should have twisted into a perfect pretzel of warm, delicious conflict. Instead, they fizzle and fall flat, like a weary, half-filled two-liter soda bottle three days after a party.

I blame Prospero. The magician is too powerful. His spirits overrun the island, and very little escape their eyes. Still, this wouldn't have been a problem if his character, which started off so dominating, had retained just a little bit of that backbone.

There must have been a deleted scene, halfway through the play, where Prospero hears from one of the spirits that he's only got 24 hours to live. Suddenly, he starts making nice with everyone, forgiving characters that don't need forgiving, and wrapping everything up. By the end of the play, a character who started off chastised powerful spirits is reduced to begging the audience for the applause.
Ariel, one of the many spirits Prospero captures
That's not to say there's nothing to like about The Tempest. The setting is fantastic. The island is a place of wild and strange beauty, where spirits roam free and visions appear. It sparks the imagination. The characters also have potential. Prospero, brought down for being too negligent, reinvents himself as a controlling, powerful wizard. His daughter Miranda, who has grown up with no memory of the world outside the island, has her first encounter with humanity. Caliban--well, I could do a whole rant about him. (And I will.)

The potential was there. Shakespeare just wasted it. Sigh. This is the kind of story that makes me want to write torrents of fanfiction, just to plug up the plot holes and come up with my own, more satisfying conclusion.


The first fanfiction I'd write would center on Caliban. No question about it.

Who is Caliban?
Caliban is the illegitimate son of a deceased witch. That much is clear. What happened next is a matter of opinion. According to Caliban, he was meant to be the rightful ruler of the island until
Prospero tricked him, made him his servant, and confined him to one lonely cave. Prospero claims he raised the orphan Caliban as a son and tried to educate him.

Whichever side you take, the relationship went south when Prospero caught Caliban attempting to "violate the honor" of his beloved daughter, which, according to a modern day translation, means he tried to rape her. Now, watched night and day by Prospero's spirits, Caliban is forced to carry firewood and do other menial tasks. Should he work too slow or complain too bitterly, Prospero will call upon those spirits to deal him a thousand torturous ailments.

As a writer, I can't help but think that Shakespeare created Caliban to fulfill one specific purpose: to make damn sure that the former Duke of Milan and his beautiful daughter didn't have to do one lick of housework. After all, how could we maintain the illusion of the nobles being noble if they had to do chores like the rest of us? (At one point, Ferdinand, the King of Naples' son, is made to carry firewood for half a day and the ways he moans and complains, you'd think he'd been tasked with the Seven Labors of Hercules.) Prospero can ensnare spirits, but, being spirits, they can't interact with the physical world. And thus Caliban is needed.

Is Caliban a monster?

But Shakespeare couldn't have the audience actually feeling sorry for the guy, so he threw at Caliban as many horrible characteristics as would stick. His mother is an evil witch. He's a bastard. He's presumably deformed and smells like a fish. And just in case all these things don't show him to be the bad guy, Shakespeare had him do the one thing that cannot be forgiven: try to rape Miranda.

But now he's gone too far, because there's no way a loving father would allow a rapist to live in the same house his virginal daughter. Still.... someone has to bring in the bloody firewood! Fortunately, Prospero controls powerful magic spirits and orders them to watch Caliban every moment of the day. If Caliban should be lazy or utter an unkind word, the spirits will wrack his body with all sorts of hell-pains. And since Caliban is the bad guy, no one can complain.
Is Caliban evil?

As a modern reader, I find this oddly reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984. Caliban is monitored day and night by an oppressive authority figure; the slightest sign of insolence will get him hooked up to the pain machine, so to speak. Yet unlike Winston, he shows considerable spirit, staring his master in the eye and insulting him to his face. Even Caliban's desire to murder Prospero can be seen as an act of rebellion.

But however sympathetic I am to Caliban's current situation, you can't say he's a good guy; he tried to rape Miranda, after all. The thing is, we don't know anything about the attempted assault. Kindly remember that Miranda's the only female on the island. Maybe Caliban expected her to be his wife; when Prospero refused the union, Caliban took matters into his own hands.

Or maybe it wasn't rape at all. Maybe they genuinely fell in love. Yes, Caliban is described as a monster, but what if the Italians who described him were racist and deciphered his weirdness to be ugly? Of course, Miranda says she hates Caliban, but what if she's just saying that to please her father? What if he's shamed her into thinking that loving this man is wrong? Or, taken a step further, what if the spirits her father employed altered her memory?

Is Caliban misunderstood?
And now you begin to see what I mean about fanfiction? I could easily come up with 4 or 5 scenarios that makes Caliban, if not the good guy, at the very least a Byronic hero. And that's just the backstory. What happens to him after the play, when Prospero releases the spirits and Caliban is finally free? We're left to wonder...

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