There’s something appropriate in the circularity of the fact that Shakespeare’s first play is his last: that when you open the Collected Works, the first play to meet your eye is The Tempest, traditionally and critically regarded as his final independently authored play. Whether this was a conscious artistic decision by the compilers of the First Folio, or whether they simply decided to set it first because they had a legible manuscript to hand, remains anyone’s guess. But like I say, appropriate.
Appropriately enough, it’s also the first Shakespeare play to really make an impression on me. I have vague memories of looking at Romeo and Juliet in Primary School, and perhaps Othello, long before I really understood the language or was fully capable of being moved by it. But I can remember the some of the kids from secondary school putting on The Tempest for us in a class assembly, (they seemed like adults, back then, huge and unknowable) and I have a vivid memory of one of them playing Caliban as Freddy Krueger in green face paint. I think they’d had one of those horrible knife-hand props lying around, and decided to throw it in to the costume mix. Less scarringly, I can remember trying out tunes for the songs under my breath in English class during my first year at Henry Beaufort, when I was well on the way to becoming one of those giants myself. So it’s a good place for me to start too.
My project for this year is to read all 38 of Shakespeare’s canonical plays, which works out roughly as reading and posting about a play every 9 days. To make things interesting, I’m going to read each play in a different edition, ranging from Renaissance quartos (or, more likely, their facsimiles) to ornate private press editions to modern critical texts. If you’d like to recommend an edition for a particular play – or still more generously, to send me one – get in touch in the comments section below.
One goal is to be able to tick off the Complete Works of Shakespeare when it makes its inevitable appearance in the list of 100 books to read before you die, instead of mumbling caveats about how I only got halfway through Richard III, and never bothered with Timon of Athens. Another is to find some pleasure in writing about great literature in an easy and relaxed manner, while I’m labouring over the stiff and formal pages of my doctoral thesis. Another is to read some unique editions in a series of unique places, and get a few good stories of my own from it.
For the first session though, I’ve made it easier on myself. I’m plonked down in my living room, in a rocking chair that used to belong to my grandfather, and reading The Tempest in my RSC First Folio edition. It follows the arrangement and print composition of the First Folio, the very first collected edition of Shakespeare’s work, while correcting obvious misreadings, modernising the spelling, and throwing in marginal glosses for the aid of the confused reader. It’s a student text, bought for a university course (well, strictly speaking, we were supposed to buy the Norton Edition, but I was irritated by the patronising footnotes and sans-serif font, and went my own way.) Even so, it doesn’t do much to defuse the strangeness of the opening scene. The prize for the most baffling opening speech in Renaissance Drama still goes to ‘Not marching now in fields of Thrasymene, Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens’ from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, but for the reader at least, the first scene is a confusion of minor characters shouting things like ‘Fall to’t yarely! Yare, yare! Tend to th’master’s whistle. Blow till thou burst thy wind, if room enough.’
On stage, it’s exciting and thrilling – a heavy storm, a ship in danger and about to be wrecked, a confusion of orders and oaths amid ‘a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning’. On the page, it’s just a bit confusing.
This is one thing about The Tempest that marks it out as a late play – in the earlier plays, Shakespeare’s linguistic inventiveness was used to cloak a stage bare of most effects and engines. Here his stagecraft has reached its peak, and the plot progresses through a series of masques and dances, feasts and bogs for which you really need a stage, or an exceptional imagination, to bring to life. I saw it last in The Globe, standing in the yard with my father, who’d printed out a plot summary and brought it with him to make sure he knew what was going on. The plot summary was even more confusing than the play. It made it sound worse than opera. Sure, the nuances take a little sorting out, but the basic march of the plot is fairly simple.
Before the play begins, Prospero, the Duke of Milan and a formidable magician, was deposed by his brother Antonio, with the aid of Adrian, King of Naples, and set adrift with his daughter Miranda in a boat to die. They washed up on the island where the play takes place, and found two creatures to serve them – the etherial spirit Ariel, and the monstrous yet pitiable Caliban. The play begins when Prospero magics up a storm, which seems to cause the ship in which Antonio and Adrian are travelling back from a wedding to sink, and it’s passengers to be cast ashore onto the island. There are three plots to be reckoned with: a love story between Prince Ferdinand of Naples and Prospero’s daughter Miranda; a story of usurpation to mirror Prospero’s own, wherein Antonio and Sebastian, Adrian’s brother, plot to kill the King of Naples and take his crown; and finally Caliban’s doomed alliance with two drunkards, Stephano and Trinculo, in an attempt to depose Prospero and take control of the island. In the end Ferdinand is married to Miranda, all the plots against authority are foiled, and Prospero leaves the island in control of Ariel and Caliban.
It’s whose examination of the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, the coloniser and the colonised, anticipate a vast swathe of post-colonial literature, while the variety and inventiveness of the staging anticipate the capabilities of the modern theatre. Yet even after the greatest spectacles and triumphs of stagecraft, there comes a reminder from Prospero, the stage master, that life, like all great fictions, is transitory.
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-capped towers, 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.
Such wistful notes lend emotional force to the reading that identifies Prospero with Shakespeare, and reads the play as Shakespeare’s farewell to his dramatic art.
But I’m talking like an academic again, hedging around the most important points. I knew it was a bad sign when, after a seminar laying out opposing critical points of view on Paradise Lost, one of my students asked me ‘What do you think?’ and I floundered. Academic reading – keeping critical arguments in mind, adducing this point or that from the text – is a very different thing to the way I’m trying to read The Tempest. I’m sitting in a rocking chair with a cup of tea at hand, running an eye across the page and allowing myself to be caught up in the interaction of the characters and the music of the verse, only pausing to read some particularly choice passage aloud and savour its feeling on the tongue. Reading this way, you sense the mood and the emotions of the play rather than deconstruct them analytically – and it’s true that I can feel, amid Shakespeare’s constant delight in language and enthusiasm for the possibilities of the staging, a wistfulness and sense of ending that creeps beneath, and gives the play a not-unpleasant bittersweetness. It’s a fine place to end, and a fine place to begin again.