THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for January 2015

The Tempest

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OBEY, AND BE ATTENTIVE. Featuring Steven Seagal as Prospero, Jean-Claude Van Damme as Caliban, Jason Statham as Antonio, and Frank Langella as Skeletor

OBEY, AND BE ATTENTIVE. Featuring Steven Seagal as Prospero, Jean-Claude Van Damme as Caliban, Jason Statham as Antonio, and Frank Langella as Skeletor

It’s fitting that The Tempest is a play about closure, because this is a blog post about closure.

When Anthony and I first started this blog back in 2011, reading and blogging on the complete works of Shakespeare within the space of a year seemed within the realm of possibility. After all, there are 37 Shakespeare plays and 365 days in a year. That averages to a play every 9.86 days. Easy, right? Well, for a good stretch we were blogging dynamos, but the slings and arrows of life threw our Slings and Arrows schedule off a little bit. And hey, I wrote a book, so it’s not like I’ve been lounging around deliberately not writing about a Shakespeare play every 9.86 days.

At present the blog is serving as a repository for dialogues about other things we’re digging, such as Superman, Batman, and most recently James Bond, and that’s a nice fit, mixing recreation with the business of blogging. But as someone with mildly OCD tendencies, the Shakespeare side of things has been a bit of unfinished business looming over me. And with one play left in the canon, it seemed silly not to officially close that book. So without further (much) ado, let’s talk The Tempest.

The Tempest is thoroughly enshrined and over-determined as Shakespeare’s parting work, and it makes sense. The play’s content matches this sentiment perfectly: Prospero the exiled patriarch wraps up his loose ends and unfinished business and reclaims his kingdom, and Shakespeare the playwright wraps up his loose ends and unfinished business and returns to Stratford to own property and leave second best beds to his wife. It’s neat and tidy and serves intertextually to put a cap on a magnificent career.

Having said that, if The Tempest was entirely victory lapping it would be tedious: thankfully it’s got some rough edges too. Stephano and Trinculo are a lot of fun, and Caliban is one of the best characters from Shakespeare’s post-major tragedy period, raw and unfiltered and memorable and capable of striking poetry. The character’s presence has made the play popular among postcolonial scholars, who examine the coloniser/colonised relationship between Prospero and Caliban and ponder whether Shakespeare was a progressive empowering the subjugated by voicing their oppression or an imperial stooge justifying that oppression by highlighting the savagery of that voice. I’m inclined to say Shakespeare’s pro-Caliban, but there are compelling arguments for both sides.

As faithful readers (all twelve of you) will know my big preoccupation with Shakespeare is seeing how his plays have been adapted to film and other mediums, and The Tempest has enjoyed one of the liveliest afterlives of all the plays. The play got the Western treatment with Yellow Sky (1948), the sci-fi treatment with Forbidden Planet (1956), and a modern update in the Paul Mazursky-directed, John Cassavetes-starring Tempest (1982). Much as they drew on Hamlet for The Lion King, Disney drew upon elements of The Tempest for The Little Mermaid (1989) and Pocahontas (1995). Given that The Tempest likely riffs on the Pocahontas/John Smith story, which preceded its first performance by a few years, there’s some interesting symmetry there.

The play’s also been a go-to for arthouse adaptations like Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979) and Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991). I’ve only seen Jarman’s film once, a long time ago before I saw any of his other films or understood his significance as a filmmaker, and must confess I didn’t take to it. I think a rewatch is definitely in order, especially as I’d now count myself a fan of his work. In contrast, I was very familiar with Greenaway when I first saw Prospero’s Books: I’d seen a number of his films (including The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover repeatedly) and had also seen an opera he directed at the Adelaide Festival in 2000 and heard him talk at my university around that time, so I was already disposed to liking it. Whether I’d like it as much on subsequent viewing remains to be seen – I’ve gone a bit cold on the director in recent years – but I appreciate the ambition and lunacy of the film and Greenaway’s use of John Gielgud as Prospero. I didn’t care much for Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010), though I liked her use of Helen Mirren as Prospera, investing Prospero’s betrayal with a gendered dimension.

As I type these words and wing my way towards the end of this post I feel a sense of closure at having wrapped up this trek (a little over four years in the making) through Shakespeare’s body of work. I also write this from a new home in a new city that I’ve moved to for a new job, so there’s an added charge and resonance to officially clearing the slate (you can expect a final issue of Hamlet vs Faustus in the next few weeks too). Thanks for reading…




January 23, 2015 at 9:40 pm

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