Shakespearing #37 by David Foley
Sometimes it takes a production that doesn’t work to make you understand how a play does. As I re-read The Tempest, I wondered guiltily if I’d ever much liked it. Coming after Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, it felt tepid. Where was the drama, the deep emotion? The next night I went to see the new Shakespeare in the Park production, directed by Michael Greif, and irritably doubted if the play works at all.
Part of the problem was language. Nobody in the production—including, weirdly, New York Shakespeare Festival stalwart Sam Waterston—has been encouraged to think about it, and a good deal of Prospero’s magic is a magic of words. If anything makes him seem like a self-portrait of the playwright, it’s the way he builds a world of words and makes everyone play a part in it.
So the island is a created world, and it’s created through language, and you need to pay attention to that. On the other hand, with a lot of Shakespeare you can get away with short-shrifting the language. Even if you mess it up, Shakespeare the dramatist will pull you through.
But, as I say, there isn’t much drama here. Greif tries to deal with that by pumping up what he can find. Pitched intensities of speech keep burying the language, and the dialogue is underscored with kettle drums and flashes of light in an understandable but misguided hope that drama will happen if he just keeps hitting it hard enough.
It occurs to me that pretty much the opposite tack is needed for The Tempest. You should take your cue from its most famous line: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” This is not Midsummer, though; it’s a daylight dream. Prospero is insistent that everything needs to be concluded by “the sixt hour.” The play makes a dream of the drama of our waking life. Even the drama of grief is transformed in Ariel’s lovely song: “Those are pearls that were his eyes.”
The play is built on such dream-like images. Greif leaves out an important one. In the final scene, Miranda and Ferdinand are revealed playing chess. Chess is a game of rank and stratagems. It’s the world in small, if you understand the world and all our experiences of it (even love) as inextricably bound to skirmishes for power and advantage. The island, too, writes that world small. Far from civilization, it helplessly recreates structures of obeisance and aggression. Caliban, the least civilized character in the play, only needs to see a pair of drunks on the beach to create a little principality of them.
And yet The Tempest longs for a world innocent of all that. Gonzalo conjures this world in his vision of a “golden age” without “treason, felony,/Sword, pike, knife, gun” where “nature should bring forth” in “all abundance,/To feed my innocent people.” And Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding pageant is an idyll of peace and plenty, of “turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep,/And flat meads thatched with stover.” Miranda is radically innocent, always encountering the world as if for the first time. What loss of innocence does that chess game represent?
Caliban represents another kind of innocence. From a position beyond the reach of civilization, he calls into question its most cherished structures. As does the play. Perhaps The Tempest is less a drama than a diorama, framing all our structures and stratagems as a dream and hinting at the dream’s dark irrationality. As Prospero says of Caliban at the end of the play, “This thing of darkness/I acknowledge mine.”
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.