Colonialists, Magicians, Christians and Fathers

As part of my pre-production prep, I listened to a lecture about “The Tempest” last night. It was from this TTC course:
(which is on sale!) The lecturer suggested four ways of looking at the play:

1. As a story about Colonialism.

This has become the most common way of reading and producing the play. Modern productions frequently turn Caliban into a native American or an African slave.

The TTC lecturer had some problems with this reading, as do I. He pointed out that Prospero isn’t an imperialist, at least not by design. He didn’t come to the Island intent on conquering it; he was shipwrecked there. His goals were to survive and to escape the island.

Which is not to say he doesn’t use and enslave some of its inhabitants. But you do have to fit the play’s square peg into a theoretical round hole to turn it into an analogy for Colonialism.

2. As a story about a career: that of Magician.

Shakespeare is very interested in trades. You can read many of his histories (and some of his tragedies) as plays about the trade of King: about what kings do right; about what kings do wrong.

Shakespeare sometimes uses a character’s job as window dressing (e.g. Snug the Weaver is never seen Weaving), but more often the character’s jobs are deeply explored. Shakespeare shows lawyers lawyering, politicians politicking, slaves toiling, soldiers fighting, actors acting, fools jesting, etc.

To the Elizabethans, “Magician” was a real occupation. It was related to modern occupations such as Scientist and Scholar.

3. As a story about Christian forgiveness and redemption. For many, the emotional crux of the play comes when Prospero chooses to forgive his brother and the other aristocrats who stole his dukedom and marooned him on the Island. Prospero has the power to murder or torture them. But he chooses to forgive instead.

I don’t think he wrecks his foes on the island, planning to forgive them. I’m not sure he plans to kill them, either. He doesn’t announce his plans. Perhaps he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. But if we decide that he doesn’t initially have a plan (or that his initial plan differs from his eventual course), then this moment between him and Ariel comes one of the key moments of the play:

…Say, my spirit,
How fares the King and ’s followers?

ARI. Confin’d together … all prisoners, sir,
…Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

PROS. Dost thou think so, spirit?

ARI. Mine would, sir, were I human.

PROS. And mine shall.

There are many other ways of looking at the play, but I’m surprised that the TTC lecturer left out a very specific one, because it’s a common and powerful reading:

4. It’s a play about one of Shakespeare’s main concerns: FAMILY.

This is the easiest and most natural way for me to approach the play, and I’m sure it will lead to the majority of my decisions.

“The Tempest” is a play about a father (Prospero) with three children (Miranda, Ariel and Caliban). As in “King Lear,” Shakespeare’s other great play about a father and three children, the parent/child relationships are complicated. The father is at times loving and at times tyrannical; the children are at times obedient and at times rebellious.

One of the reasons I dislike the seeing the play as a mediation on Colonialism is that, to my 20th-Century sensibilities, Colonialists are bad guys. So if I see Prospero as a Colonialist, I must also see him as a bad father. I would be just as uneasy seeing a production that portrayed him as a kindly, good father. To me, the play is only interesting if he’s a REAL father — one with good sides and bad sides.

My favorite moment in the play is this speech about Caliban, spoken by Prospero when he’s alone, upon learning that Caliban has plotted to murder him:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;
And as with age his body uglier grows,
So his mind cankers. I will plague them all,
Even to roaring.

This is a speech of a man who has tried — maybe in all the wrong ways, but in the only ways he knows — to raise a son. And who has failed.

all, all lost, quite lost;

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