My husband/life-ninja gave me the illustrated Midpoint Press edition for my birthday, and it's about the most heavenly book I've ever seen: a full 11 pounds of Shakespeare flesh. I'm going to rotate between the comedies, tragedies, and histories to keep it fresh. First up to bat: The Tempest.
I've had a soft spot for this one since I played Antonio in a high school production. The first scene is just off-the-charts incredible. Shakespeare loves to chuck his characters right into the action of each world, and The Tempest is the ultimate example. Lights up: you're in a shipwreck. Deal with it. Rank and title no longer matter — the sea doesn't distinguish between commoners and kings. When Gonzalo advises the Boatswain to "remember whom thou hast aboard," the dude says, "None that I love more than myself," and then completely eviscerates Gonzalo for getting in the mariners' way. "Use you authority" to calm the wind, he says, "if you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long." I want to befriend that Boatswain. He seems like he has life pretty figured out.
It's neat to think that Prospero is already in the play during the first scene, in the form of the tempest itself. Classic Prospero, always gotta make a big entrance. The shipwreck opening also deftly sets up Antonio and Sebastian as veteran douchebags. But you know what? They are hilarious bad guys, and I enjoyed their incessant bullying of Gonzalo. They will not give him a break, and that's fun, because screw Gonzalo. He brings it on himself.
The play moves from the shipwreck that maroons the cast to the train-wreck that is Prospero and Miranda's relationship. Oh my God, I hope Miranda gets a therapist immediately upon returning to Italy. Ferdinand, I feel for you, bro. Once the honeymoon is over, you are going to have a real Zelda Fitzgerald on your hands. Miranda is a sheltered empath with Stockholm Syndrome and Prospero is a total narcissistic maniac. But the high level of WTF in this relationship is exactly what makes it so powerful. It's a bizarre bond between a psycho and his daughter who behaves, well, like a girl whose whole conception of humanity is based on her slaveowner Dad, a shapeshifting sprite, and some kind of fish-monster that tried to rape her one time. It's a mess.
And speaking of horny fish-monsters, I have to say my favorite character in The Tempest is Caliban. Certainly the Stephano/Trinculo/Caliban scenes are the most entertaining of the play (especially compared to the Miranda/Ferdinand arc...what a snoozefest). Anyway, Caliban is the only would-be in rapist in literature where I'm just "meh" about his attempted crime. Who cares? The dude didn't ask for a witch to give birth to him on some godforsaken island only to be enslaved by a deposed castaway. He's just a poor orphaned moon-calf (which, by the way, means "cow abortion" — way harsh). He has endured Prospero's constant "yo mama" jokes so long, he's sort of internalized them. Prospero's all, "yo mama was so bent out of shape, Michael Jordan used her as a basketball hoop." And Caliban owns it. He's like, "yeah, my mama was an ugly hag, and that makes me an ugly hag-seed. Up yours, you big dumb wizard."
I also love Caliban's experience with false idols. It's a cute little commentary on institutionalized religion in general. He worships Prospero, only to be enslaved and insulted by him. He worships Stephano, only to be let down by him in his time of need. That seems like a great send-up of most archetypal gods. If the universe really is controlled by a conscious entity, it makes sense that it would be either an abusive navel-gazer or a drunken idiot. Theology 101.
Obviously, The Tempest is a spectacular achievement -- it is known. But I'm grading each play on a curve here, and I did have a major problem with it. A lot of the play feels sort of like The Count of Monte Cristo, what with both Dantes and Prospero weaving the labyrinthine web of their revenge. Except there's actual payoff in Monte Cristo. Dantes has obstacles to deal with, but more or less, the reader gets the satisfaction of watching his enemies be ingeniously toppled from their ill-won pedestals. Yet after a play-length tempest tantrum -- after witnessing Antonio and Sebastian back to their old murderous, usurping tricks -- somehow Prospero decides that "the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance."
What the hell is that? He forgives them at the end? I didn't expect him to throw them on the rack or burn them at the stake or anything. But just saying "hey bro, it upset me when you usurped me and I've spent this whole play talking about what bastards you all are but anyway: we coo." Why would Prospero of all people do such a thing? The guy couldn't get over that shit for 12 years, and now it's water under the bridge? Why would Shakespeare build such momentum only to smother it with a pillow at the end? Epic blue balls, Shakespeare.
The play recovers somewhat with a joke, when Prospero announces to everyone that he is going to entertain them by telling his life story. What a self-absorbed goober. You know from the beginning that his stories are excruciatingly tedious because they keep putting Miranda to sleep. The cast of The Tempest probably never even made it back to Milan because everybody died of boredom that night.
Grade: B+ due to blue balls.
Most Awkward Moment: Prospero making Ferdinand promise not to nail Miranda before the wedding; Ferdinand saying, "K."
Best Line: "Well demanded, wench."