Monday, November 24, 2014

Freedom in The Tempest

The Tempest

How now? Moody?
What is’t thou canst demand?

My liberty

                      “My liberty.” My liberty.  Strong words.  Words that resound throughout so much of human history. They are the words that stay with me with every reading of The Tempest.  And these are words that Ariel says again and again throughout the play. Ariel wants to be free.
                      In Act 1:2 he has just told Prospero that he has performed the task he had been “bade” (ordered? asked? requested) to do – create the storm.  He reports that he has “flamed amazement”, “created Jove’s lightning” with “dreadful thunderclaps” and “roaring...bold waves” and “a fever of the mad” to the crew and passengers of the ship, all without harming anyone.  He has “dispersed” the king and his companions, he has put the crew to sleep and sent the rest of the fleet back to Naples.
                      No small task, this. Why doesn’t Prospero do it himself? He’s the one who is supposed to have magic. But it’s Ariel who has the magic, and Prospero has power over Ariel.  Why?  Interesting question.
                      Prospero is pleased enough with Ariel’s report but says there is more to be done. Ariel replies:

Is there more toil? Since thou dost give me pains,
Let me remember thee what thou hast promised
Which is not yet performed me.

Then comes the exchange quoted above.

How now? Moody?
What is’t thou canst demand?

My liberty

                      Prospero is harsh. “Before the time be out? No more!” Ariel politely reminds him, “I have done thee worthy service.” Prospero demands:

Dost thou forget
From what a torment I did free thee?

Ariel says simply, “No.”
                      Of course he hasn’t forgotten.
We learn his story from Prospero. Ariel was a free spirit on the island when the evil Algerian witch Sycorax was banished to the island with her son Caliban.   For refusing to obey her commands Sycorax confined Ariel to a “cloven pine” where he remained imprisoned and in pain, groaning and in torment until released by Prospero.
                      Of course he hasn’t forgotten but Prospero mocks him by reminding him of the details of his painful captivity and asking him if the suffering he goes through for Prospero is anything to complain about:

Thou...think’st it much to tread the ooze
Of the salt deep,
To run upon the sharp wind of the north,
To do me business in the veins o’th’ earth
When it’s baked with frost.

                      Though this in fact sounds very unpleasant, if not sadistic, Ariel denies thinking it too much, he denies forgetting the torments of Sycorax’s imprisonment and he thanks Prospero for releasing him from the tree, but Prospero scoffs at him, refuses to listen to him – “thou liest, malignant thing” – calls him “dull thing” and threatens him:

If thou more murmur’st, I will render oak,
And peg thee in his knotty entrails till
Thou hast howled away twelve winters.

                      Ariel begs his pardon and promises to obey.
                      Why is Prospero so hateful?  Why does he gloat over Ariel’s anguish?  He demands that Ariel be beholden to him, he demands subordination from Ariel. And in the next breath he promises, “after two days / I will discharge thee.” This must be confusing for poor Ariel.
                      But Ariel does as he is bid.  He sings to Ferdinand and brings the young prince to Miranda. For this Prospero says, “Delicate Ariel / I’ll set thee free for this” (Act1.2). So Ariel is spurred on to obey Prospero further. His freedom is, perhaps, within reach.
                      He goes on to enchant Gonzalo and Alonso to sleep with his music, then to save their lives by waking them when they are threatened by Sebastian and Antonio. He causes (probably) the storm that brings Caliban, Trinculo and Stefano together. He overhears their plot to murder Prospero, he scares Trinculo and Stefano with his music. Caliban is not frightened. He is used to Ariel’s invisibility and his music and in one of Shakespeare’s most moving moments Caliban marvels at the depth of feeling to which Ariel’s music moves him. The relationship between Ariel and Caliban would be worth a book itself: Ariel is born (or whatever) in freedom, imprisoned by Sycorax. Caliban is born free, then enslaved by Prospero. Ariel is bound to perform magic of the elements for Prospero. What magic did Prospero require of him in the twelve years since Prospero and Miranda came to the island? Caliban is bound to perform hard physical domestic labour. Why doesn’t Caliban have magic?  His mother was a witch, after all.  Do Caliban and Ariel actually have any contact with each other? Caliban tells Trinculo and Stefano that the other spirits hate Prospero – does he include Ariel?
                      Does Ariel hate Prospero? No, not at all. It’s not in him to hate. He harms no one.  He frightens them, he sends them into temporary madness, he rages at the villains for their villainy and describes their crimes to them in detail. But when they are captured and Prospero could – would? – wreak his violent vengeance upon them Ariel says:

Your charm so strongly works ‘em
That if you now beheld them your affections
Would become tender.

                      Prospero asks, “Dost thou think so, spirit?”
                      And Ariel replies, in one of Shakespeare’s sweetest, most poignant and,  perhaps, most wistful lines, “Mine would, sir, were I human” (Act 5.1).
                      And Prospero does as Ariel says:

The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance....
....Go release them, Ariel. (Act 5.1 as are all following quotes)

                      Exit Ariel. Thereupon follows Prospero’s soliloquy in which he describes all the magic he can do (but never showed us himself), ending with, “This rough magic / I here abjure.”
                      Ariel rounds up the miscreants. Prospero praises him and for the nth time promises him his freedom: “Ariel! I shall miss thee, / But yet thou shalt have freedom.”
                      Ariel brings in the ship’s master and boatswain and asks, “Was’t well done?”’
                      Prospero: “Bravely, my diligence. Thou shalt be free.”
                      Ariel fetches Caliban, Trinculo and Stefano to be chastised and sent away.
                      And with that, all is resolved and finally Prospero says, in an aside since Ariel is invisible to all others:

My Ariel, chick,
That is thy charge. Then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well.

                      Exit Ariel. To his freedom.
                      Let’s look again at the concept of freedom throughout the play. Ariel brings it up first but also Caliban, Stefano and Trinculo, and finally Prospero whose last words to the audience are the plea to “set me free.”  As we have noted both Ariel and Caliban came into being as free agents. Stefano and Trinculo as servants have never been free and never will be. Prospero, first as duke with state duties, then as an exile, has freedom of power over others but what is that power, on the island, without Ariel?  Ariel is the one with the magic.  His is the magic we see all through the play.  Prospero talks – boasts if you will – about his vast magical exploits but we don’t see them. It’s only Ariel’s magic that we witness on stage and when Ariel is finally released Prospero has no reason to stay on the island.  Again, one could ask what Prospero had ordered Ariel to do all those years before the ship arrived but that is somehow uninteresting. The play is in the now.  In this play Ariel is not free and that’s all he wants. Prospero, like many of Shakespeare’s fathers, is a cruel tyrant who becomes a loving parent. So too with Ariel. Prospero is a cruel father figure to Ariel and then as a loving father releases all of his children, Ariel, Caliban and Miranda.  But the relationship between Prospero and Ariel has a twist. As noted, Ariel is in servitude at the same time as he’s the one with the power.  It slowly emerges that he could probably have been free all along but has stayed with Prospero out of kindness and the gratitude that Prospero refused to acknowledge.  In the end Prospero does as Ariel says.  He sets the villains free. He sets Caliban free. And he sets Ariel free.
                      In the end they all go back to Milan and Naples. Except Caliban. Who is free and once more in command of his island.  And alone.
                      And except for Ariel. Where is Ariel? He’s out there somewhere. Free. I wish him well.

While I didn’t use quotes from any secondary sources the following were of great help in my analysis:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen.  “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespeare’s Freedom. The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary.  Norton, 1974.
Films seen:
  • The Tempest, BBC, 1980. Director: John Gorrie. Cast:  Prospero – Michael Hordern; Ariel – David Dixon; Caliban – Warren Clark; Miranda – Pippa Guard ; Ferdinand – Christopher Guard; Gonzalo – John Nettleton; Trinculo – Andrew Sachs; Stephano  – Nigel Hawthorne. A thoroughly lacklustre production!  What a shame for such a rich play.  Dixon as a dead-eyed, campy, nearly naked, lizardy strutting breathy Ariel is just so wrong. The only bright parts are when Trinculo and Stephano are on stage. Nigel Hawthorne is often very funny and it’s not strange that Stephano reminds me constantly of Manuel in Fawlty Towers because that’s who he is.
  • The Tempest 1979. Director: Derek Jarman. Cast:  Prospero –Heathcote Williams; Ariel – Karl Johnson; Caliban – Jack Birkett; Miranda – Toyah Willcox; Ferdinand – David Meyer. A bizarre and not terribly likeable interpretation.  You might think it’s worth seeing. I found it so but only just.
  • Prospero’s Books 1991. Director:  Peter Greenaway. Cast:  Prospero – John Gielgud. This is a dreadful film. Lavish to the point of nauseating, it makes one want to go on a cinematic diet of the equivalent of brown rice and raw carrots for a month.
  • The Tempest 2010. Director: Julie Taymor. Cast:  Prospera – Helen Mirren; Ariel – Ben Whishaw; Caliban – Djimon Hounsou; Miranda – Felicity Jones; Ferdinand – Reeve Carney; Gonzalo – Tom Conti; Trinculo – Russell Brand; Stephano  – Alan Cumming. By far the best film version.  Strong visual effects, strong acting (mostly) and powerfully set in Hawaii. After the not-so-great to really-bad films so far, this was a relief to see!
  • The Tempest 2014.  Director: Jeremy Herrin . Cast:  Prospero – Roger Allam; Ariel – Colin Morgan; Caliban – James Garnon; Miranda – Jessie Buckley; Ferdinand – Joshua James; Gonzalo – Pip Donaghy; Trinculo – Trevor Fox; Stefano  – Sam Cox. The overwhelming memory of having seen this at the Globe – our first! – is only heightened by the close-ups in the film.  The interpretation is more light-hearted than mine but I accept that utterly.  Roger Allam is just so good. He makes Prospero actually likable. Colin Morgan does a poignant, spritely, funny Ariel who leaps and flies around the stage and still projects with blinks and twitches a sensitive and magical character.  James Garnon as Caliban is a bit too much but Sam Cox balances that as a low key and very funny Stefano.  Jessie Buckley and Joshua James are perfect as the daft young lovers – finally a version in which they are not wimpy!  This is a production we are sure to watch many times just for the sheer pleasure of it.

Seen on stage:
  • On December 31, 2010 at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.  In my Ruby’s Reflection “Can You Do that to Shakespeare?” I asked, “Can Caliban really be played by a twitchy grunge Goth behaving like a speed freak?” and my answer was, absolutely.  Jonas Carlsson as Caliban was a genius. Sadly Örjan Ramberg as Prospero was dreadful. The rest of the production was quite good.
  • On June 16, 2013 at the Globe in London. See above.

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