Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Does The Tempest Tell Us?

When I was a child, my parents had a few beautiful books in their otherwise ordinary library. Among these was a three-volume leather-bound edition of Shakespeare: Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories. From earliest memory, I was drawn to these books and when I finally pulled one off the shelf, at the age of reading, I grabbed the Comedies hopefully and opened to the first. Why The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s last plays, appeared first in this edition (as it does in others) I have no idea, but there it was, and so I launched my mind into its turbulent waters. By the time the shipwreck of Act I, scene i, was concluded and Prospero, the magician exiled to a Mediterranean island with his daughter, had made his first entrance, I had closed the book. What kind of comedy was that?! Very likely, I went to my room and picked another Hardy Boys mystery off the shelf beside my bed.

I never read or saw The Tempest until this month, and now I have both read it and seen it in the new film version starring Helen Mirren as Prospero in skirts, renamed Prospera. First I saw the film, then I rushed for the text. I invariably miss three-quarters of the language the first time I see Shakespeare. I am processing one couplet while three more pass me by.

As directed by Julie Taymor (creator of The Lion King on Broadway), The Tempest was entertaining, all gussied up with the latest FX, especially with the spirit Ariel sometimes making like a water-ballet in a Busby Berkeley musical, all by himself. The acting was first-rate, and Djimon Hounsou, as the “moon-calf” Caliban, was out of this world.

But I kept wondering, especially afterward, what changing the sex of the lead character had done to the play. I don’t think it’s too great a leap of the imagination to ask what a female priesthood does to a church.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally dig Helen Mirren, ever since I saw her 30 years ago in Excalibur, in which her gender was completely appropriate to the story. (You’ll have to see the film.) And I’m sure the answer to, why Helen Mirren played Prospera is, the lady has clout.

But can we all agree that there are differences between men and women? Can we agree that God made us different and that men bring a different sort of energy to an encounter than women do? I would say that changing Prospero into Prospera completely changed the dynamics of the comedy (it is a comedy, I finally figured that out)—if only I had ever seen another version of The Tempest. I have nothing to compare this one with.

But a father-daughter relationship central to the plot is shifted to a mother-daughter one. And all of the shipwrecked men (they are all men) are confronted not with a mage but a sorceress, not a male counterforce but a female one. If The Tempest were a tarot reading, it would contain different cards than Shakespeare intended, and it would point to a different destiny.

To Mirren’s credit, she underplays Prospera in many scenes as a knowing sly boots, especially when she watches daughter Miranda and Ferdinand, son of the shipwrecked King of Naples, get caught in the snares set for them by Ariel and fall in love. As Prospera, Mirren casts a powerful screen presence that perhaps only Meryl Streep could match.

I am still thinking about The Tempest, and of its similarity to C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, another tale of shipwrecked (space) sailors in an alien world wiser than their own. But that is another story.

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