Prospero and Shakespeare

July 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

‘Prospero and Shakespeare’

(Indira Parthasarathy)

23rd April 1564 is said to be the birthdate of the world’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare. A surprising coincidence was that he died 52 years later in the same month and date.

My love for Shakespeare began, when I was in the school, studying, what was then known as III Form( VIII class now). I was weak in Mathematics and my father engaged a special coaching master, a middle-aged man, who was unemployed but who was determined not to serve the colonial masters. He taught me literature, which was his first love, more  than Mathematics, which was, he had to reluctantly accept was his bread winner..

He introduced me to Shakespeare through ‘Tales from Shakespeare’ written by Charles and Mary Lamb. The play I liked most at that point of time was ‘The Tempest’. It was like a fairy tale with characters like the ‘blithe spirit’ sweet Ariel, the scary Caliban and the magic master Prospero. My teacher was also a painter and he drew a beautiful sketch of the garden isle to which Prospero was exiled along with his child Miranda by his treacherous brother Antonio, who usurped power. My master asked me to colour what he had drawn, which made me love the play more.

Is the play really a fairy tale? The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries staged this play as a romantic comedy because the play ends well, Prospero forgives his brother and also the co-conspirator Alonso, the King of Naples and agrees to give away his daughter Miranda in marriage to Ferdinand ,  the son of Alonso. After his shelter in that island, Prospero has enslaved the then only two inhabitants of that place, loveable Ariel and monster-looking Caliban, both he sets free at the end of the play. ‘ ‘All’s well that ends well’ and as such, this play cannot but be a light-hearted romance ‘ is an argument that ,perhaps, cannot be dismissed easily but the 20th century Shakespearean  scholars consider ‘The Tempest’ as an intellectually loaded play with multiple layers of meaning. Caliban stands for anti-colonialism and is the spirit of freedom representing an African slave! Ariel stands for freedom in the abstract sense.

The striking point of the play is the whole action taking place in the drama is

slightly less than four hours, not much longer than it takes to perform it on the stage.  In the last scene, Prospero invites all his former foes now turned friends, as he has forgiven them, to supper. In  Shakespeare’s day, a play used to start at 3p.m and close at 7p.m. which was also the supper time for the audience. It is the only play of Shakespeare where the time taken for the sequence of events in a play agrees with the real time experienced by the audience i.e when illusion and reality have one running identity. Shakespeare, who is known for his utter disregard for the unity of time and space-in fact, in ‘Winter’s Tale’ sixteen years pass within two acts- why has he shown so much concern for the unity of time and for breaking the barriers between the illusion and reality?

The play is all about power games in politics. Prospero himself was overthrown by his brother Antonio in active collaboration with Alonso he King of Naples .Prospero, for his part captures power from Caliban, the former ruler of the island. He enslaves both Ariel and Caliban, the original inhabitants of the island through his magical prowess. After the  shipwreck, an illusion created by Prospero,  the King of Naples and his brother Sebastian wander in the island, when the latter makes a futile attempt to kill the king to capture power. Not to lag behind the pranks of the high and mighty, the stupid Stephano, the drunken butler, Trinculo, the jester, as bidden by the freedom-loving Caliban,  make ridiculous move towards killing Prospero to deprive him of his island sovereignty.

Prospero, a scholar extraordinaire,  like Dr.Faust, gets fed up with knowledge  but unlike him does not sell his soul to the Devil, but takes exactly an opposite decision, to live like an ordinary human being sans power and unique identity. After his bitter experiences and enjoyment of power dressed in brief authority, Prospero, has come to the conclusion that

‘We are such stuff

As dreams are made on and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep’.

Leonardo de Vinci writes about a stone which has rolled down from the mountain top.. People tread over it, animal hooves trample on it .Leonardo says:’ This is the fate of those who abandon life is solitude, life devoted to

reflextion and contemplation, in order to live in cities among people full of sin,’

We find Prospero in the same mood as Leonardo at the end of the play. In the ‘Epilogue’ he says:

‘And thence retire me to my Milan, where

Every third thought will be my grave!’

‘But this rough magic,

I here abjure ,and when I have required

Some heavenly music…..

I ‘ll break my staff

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth’

‘The Tempest’ is Shakespeare’s  last play. Prospero’s  last words are interpreted as Shakespeare’s  bidding adieu to theatre, his renouncement of his ‘magical wand’ , the world of music and language. It is said he lived for seven years after retiring to Stratford-upon-Avon as a country gentleman without uttering or writing even a single word of literary and dramatic import!



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