It’s also a kind of magic that brings you back for the third round!
Featured plays: Coriolanus; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Titus Andronicus; Romeo & Juliet; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Othello; Richard II; Hamlet; Two Gentlemen of Verona; Macbeth; King John; The Tempest
What You Need to Know: Coriolanus beats Rome’s Volsci nemesis, led by Aufidius, and he is offered the position of Consul. He must appeal to the people, who don’t like him. On top of that, there is a major economic crisis, and inflation of the price of corn. Coriolanus as a “let them eat corn fritters” type of attitude toward the plebians. It doesn’t go over well, and with a couple of senators who also hate Coriolanus, the crowd prods him into a reaction that gets him banished. His mother and wife are unhappy about this. But things get wacky when he teams up with Aufidius, his old enemy, to attack Rome. He’ll sure show them!
Queen says: “Mama’s gotta problem/She don’t know what to say/Her little baby boy just left home today/She’s got to be the loser in the end/She’s got to be the loser in the end/Misuse her and you’ll lose her as a friend/She’s ma on whom you can always depend.”
Coriolanus is the most kickass Shakespearean warrior and an atrociously bad public speaker. Othello, by comparison, is a kickass warrior (if we’re ranking, he completes the trifecta with Macbeth) and claims to be not good at giving speeches, while he phrases it like, “Rude am I in my speech, and little blest with the soft phrase of peace; for since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith, till now some nine moons wasted, they have used their dearest action in the tented field” (I.iii., 81-85) and you can almost hear him flexing his beefy arms while delivering a speech that would make Ted Sorensen misty eyed. (During the same speech in which he claims to be terrible at speaking, Othello relates how he made his wife fall in love with him and her father really like him because of his speeches.) Meanwhile, we have Coriolanus, great warrior who could be named Consul by the Senate as long as he can win over the Plebs, who already don’t like him and know he doesn’t like the lower classes. The first time we hear him speak, it’s to citizens complaining about the ridiculous inflation of the price of corn, and how the 1% gets everything; Coriolanus’s reply is to call them dissentious rogues and scabs, then curs, then hares and geese, and continues for a substantial number of lines on his insult. Then later, when he asks for their favor, he pretty much does the same thing. How does a man become this way? Usually, the mother is to blame. That would be the case here. Game of Thrones fans, imagine Robin and Lysa Arryn, if Robin could actually kick people’s asses instead of having someone else throw them out the moon door. Volumnia probably followed Coriolanus into his first battle so she could nurse him. Basically, Coriolanus is, as the name implies, a giant anus (although not quite at the level of Titus Andronicus) who gets himself banished from Rome. This really pisses off Mommy. Actually, she really wants to be Cersei Lannister but lacks the same acuity in actually wielding power.
She’s a ma on whom you can depend indeed. In Act IV, Scene ii, when Volumnia runs into the men who worked the crowd of Romans against her son before his banishment, she gives them a tongue lashing, telling them her son would wipe out their progeny, bastards and all. After the incident in the street, Coriolanus’s friend (he does manage to have one) asks Volumnia if she’ll come with him to get something to eat, to which she replies in one of my favorite lines in Shakespeare, “Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding. –Come, let’s go: leave this faint puling, and lament as I do, in anger, Juno-like.” Rawr. Too bad in his banishment he found a friend in his former enemy, Aufidius, and now he won’t listen to Mommy anymore, even when she yells at him in his war tent.
What You Need to Know: Two similarly-named female friends wind up in the forest with the men they love (although both men love only one of the women), and they cross paths with the fairy king, Oberon, and queen, Titania, in the middle of a dispute over a changeling boy but also about prior dalliances with the King of Athens and the Queen of the Amazons, who are now getting married to each other. To get back at the fairy queen because of sexual jealousy, Oberon makes her fall in love with a donkey (a transformed weaver rehearsing a Greek tragedy in the forest) and Titania and the donkey have lots of sex until the Oberon feels guilty. Meanwhile, the Oberon also tries to help the sad human female neither of the men loves by making the one she loves fall in love back with her, except his henchman Puck puts the spell on the wrong guy, and long story short, both men who loved the one women end up both loving the other women instead. All clear?
It’s almost as if the song were written for this play: “The fairy folk have gathered round the new moon shine/To see the feller crack a nut at nights noon time/To swing his ace he swears, as it climbs he dares/To deliver…The master-stroke.” More fun with puns. Just like the original.
This play is all about sex and power dynamics between men and women, kings, queens, and everyone else. In the opening scene, King Theseus is about to wed Queen Hippolyta, whom he has defeated in battle, and is eager for the four days to pass when he can finally possess her. Hippolyta, let’s just say, is somewhat reluctant, especially when she hears his management of the case of Egeus and his daughter Hermia, whom he has told should marry Demetrius but she is in love with Lysander. Theseus tells Hermia, “to you your father should be as a god” (I.i, 47), and there is much discussion of ownership and female agency. Theseus then tells Hermia her options for her disobedience are either to die or to become a nun “in a shady cloister mewed to live a barren sister all your life, chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon. Thrice-blessed they that master so their blood to undergo such maiden pilgrimage, but earthlier happy is the rose distilled than that which, withering on the virgin thorn, grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness” (I.i, 71-78). Basically, good for them who become nuns, but man is it a joyless life—at least if you get married, you may have some earthly satisfaction, even if it’s not exactly what you wanted. This piece of mansplaining is brought to you by Theseus’ own desire to believe his future wife is grateful for him. This play would have the makings of a problem play or late romance if it weren’t for the sexual punnery of the fairies, especially our Robin Goodfellow, alias Puck. Which yes, is a fairy sprite, but also rhymes with your favorite four-letter word for fornication.
Queen [the band] say: “…a satyr peers under lady’s gown, dirty fellow/What a dirty laddio/Tatterdemalion and a junketer/There’s a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter – he’s my hero/Fairy dandy tickling the fancy of his lady friend/The nymph in yellow ‘can we see the master-stroke.’” Puck is a dirty laddio and likes to shrink into a lady’s cup and play on her lip. Shakespeare’s all about the double-meanings. Freddie and gang get that.
As soon as we meet the fairies, we get that everything is loaded with sexual content. When Robin asks where she’s been and what’s she’s been up to, the fairy replies, “I serve the Fairy Queen to dew her orbs upon the green” (II.1, 8-9), which refers to the fairy rings—circles of matted down grass Elizabethans attributed to fairies dancing. Now if you know that grass refers to our lower anatomical hedges, and it’s matted down with dew…extrapolate that’s what the fairy has been producing while servicing the Queen. The fairy then recognizes Puck and describes his highly-reported antics, which all seem rustic and bucolic and innocent: “Are you not he that frights the maidens of the villager, skim milk, and sometimes labor in the quern, and bootless make the breathless housewife churn, and sometimes make the drink to bear no barm, mislead night-wanterers, laughing at their harm?” (II.i., 34-39). Aside from giving us a bit of plot-foreshadowing, we learn that Puck…steals the best of the milk and messes with the grinder used for flour? Is that really the best he can do? And makes drink bear no barm…ah, he makes beer go flat, or to translate, not form a head. Hmm, that could be a loaded statement. And he makes the poor flour grinder worn out…or as the fairy says, makes the breathless housewife churn…interesting phrasing. If this were a kid’s play or a religious parable, maybe we could take these phrases at innocent face value. But we already know to expect more from Shakespeare, and with what the fairy has already told Puck about services rendered to Titania, Queen of the Fairies, we know no one’s shying away from sexual undertones. Puck takes the challenge, and responds that yes, he is THAT Puck, and “sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl in very likeness of a roasted crab [apple], and when she drinks, against her lips I bob and on her withered dewlap pour the ale…” (II.i., 47-50). Would that be the ale with our without the bram, Puck? But I guess even withered dewlaps need love. (Oh, and crab apples are puns for testicles.)
What You Need to Know:
Titus is a rigid traditionalist. When he returns to Rome, victorious after his defeat of the Goths led by Queen Tamora, he demands a sacrifice to the gods to memorialize the death of a couple of his sons in battle. He chooses as his sacrifice the oldest of Tamora’s sons. She begs Titus for mercy, asking if the gods haven’t been sated by enough blood already. Nope, woman, Titus basically says. He’s smug, too. Unfortunately, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, ends up marrying Saturninus, Emperor of Rome. And now, she can do what she wants—to Titus and his family. This is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and his first revenge tragedy. Dismemberment abounds, and there is a fantastic scene of refined cannibalism to make Martha Steward proud. When Titus sinks to his lowest point, he appeals to the gods, sending letters to them by shooting arrows up to the stars (which may or may not be a clever way to get desperate appeals and angry calls for vengeance into the palace while seeming a doddering old man and not an aggressor). In response, Tamora and her two remaining sons dress up as the gods of Revenge, Rape, and Murder, and pay Titus a midnight visit, claiming to have heard him, faithful warrior that he is. Hijinks can only ensue from this point.
Queen says: “I live my life for you/Think all my thoughts with you,/Anything you ask I do, for you/and only you/I touch your lips with mine/But in the end/I leave it to the lords/Leave it in the lap of the Gods/What more can I do/Leave it in the lap of the Gods/I leave it to you.”
What more can Titus do when he shoots those arrows up to the stars, and then gets his visit from Tamora, I mean, Revenge?
As Tamora tells her sons and us, “Thus, in this strange and sad habiliment, I will encounter with Andronicus, And say I am Revenge, sent from below to join with him and right his heinous wrongs. Knock at his study, where, they say, he keeps, to ruminate strange plots of dire revenge; Tell him Revenge is come to join with him, And work confusion on his enemies.” She brings along Chiron and Demitrius dressed as Rapine and Murder. At first, Titus doesn’t seem convinced, but the costumed Tamora offers many consolations, until Titus reflects, “Good Lord, how like the empress’ sons they are! And you, the empress! but we worldly men have miserable, mad, mistaking eyes. O sweet Revenge, now do I come to thee; and, if one arm’s embracement will content thee, I will embrace thee in it by and by.
The disguised Tamora then tells Titus to call home his oldest son (who is raising an army against her) to have a banquet, and she’ll produce the guilty people for Titus’ vengeance. She concludes, “Now will I hence about thy business, And take my ministers along with me.” But not so fast, says Titus, “Nay, nay, let Rape and Murder stay with me; Or else I’ll call my brother back again…”
So the question is: Will Titus actually leave all to the lap of the gods?
Tamora: [Aside to her sons] What say you, boys? will you bide with him, Whiles I go tell my lord the emperor How I have govern’d our determined jest? Yield to his humour, smooth and speak him fair, And tarry with him till I turn again.
Titus Andronicus: [Aside] I know them all, though they suppose me mad, And will o’erreach them in their own devices: A pair of cursed hell-hounds and their dam!
Demetrius: Madam, depart at pleasure; leave us here.
Tamora: Farewell, Andronicus: Revenge now goes to lay a complot to betray thy foes.
Or do the gods help those who help themselves?
What You Need to Know: The Montagues (Romeo’s family) and the Capulets (Juliet’s family) hate each other, but the Capulets are throwing a party, and Rosalind, the young woman Romeo has been kind of seeing (but she seems to have broken things off) is attending. But love and destiny (and hormones) collide when Romeo sees Juliet on the dance floor.
This is Romeo’s song, getting ready for the Capulet’s party. “Get your party gown/Get your pigtail down/Get your heart beatin’ baby/Got my timin’ right/Got my act all tight/It’s gotta be tonight.”
And yes, Lady Capulet likes to incite uncivil disobedience with her nephew, Tybalt, to the dismay of Lord Capulet, who thinks Romeo’s fine and has no interest in disrespecting the Capulets or their party. So we can see why Romeo would say to tie her down. Even the nurse, who keeps Romeo and Juliet apart and is a maternal figure to Juliet, needs to be out of the way because of her interference/anatomical blocking action.
More from Queen: “You’re such a dirty louse/Go get outta my house/That’s all I ever get from your/Family ties, in fact I don’t think I ever heard/A single little civil word/from those guys/But you know I don’t give a light.” That’s right, because Romeo is going to hop right over their walls and find you anyway.
You’ll never hear the rest of the Queen song the same way again: “Your momma and your Daddy gonna/Plague me til I die/Why can’t they understand I’m just a/Peace lovin’ guy.” You’re right, Romeo. You’re all too right.
What You Need to Know: This is Shakespeare’s blue balls play. Ferdinand, King of Navarre, wants to lock himself up for three years with his friends, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine, to swear off women in favor of studying. Then the Princess of France arrives with her three ladies, Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine, and the King is required to see her, and then hijinks ensue when they all take turns sneaking away to pair up. The sexual tension is high from the get-go, Berowne and Rosaline especially loaded with not-so-thinly-veiled explicit punning. But alas—things cannot stay jovial, as the King of France dies and the Princess must return home to reign and everyone says goodbye (whoops, spoiler alert). As Berowne says, “Our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill: these ladies’ courtesy might well have made our sport a comedy.”
What Queen says: “Get down, make love/You take my body/I give you heat/You say you hungry/I give you meat/I suck your mind/You blow my head/Everytime I get hot/You wanna cool down/Everytime I get high/You say you wanna come down/You say it’s enough/In fact it’s too much/Everytime I get a – get down, get down.” Yep, things are getting blue here.
The men of the play are desperate, having sworn an oath of celibacy when the women they are into are in tents outside the castle gate. As Berowne says in Act IV, “Have at you, then, affection’s men-at-arms. Consider what you first did swear unto, to fast, to study, and to see no woman; flat treason ’gainst the kingly state of youth. Say, can you fast? Your stomachs are too young; and abstinence engenders maladies” (287-292). Indeed, they are suffering for it with lots of subtext under the lines. And the women are clearly aware of the fact that the men have to go off by themselves in the woods to deal with the maladies:
Princess: Was that the king, that spurr’d his horse so hard up the steep uprising of the hill?
Boyet: I know not; but I think it was he.
Princess: Whoe’er [he] was show’d a mounting mind. Well, lords, today we shall have our dispatch… (Act IV, scene i).
The play is completely obvious, as the puns don’t seem to hide much. And puns there are, almost non-stop. It may not have the moral complexity of Hamlet, but reading this play will sharpen your wit.
If you’re interested, Kenneth Branagh has perhaps the most bizarre adaptation of Shakespeare I have ever seen—ambitiously, it’s cast as a 1930s musical, light and fluffy like the play. But…Branagh did not hire singers, except for the two black actors, Carmen Ejogo and Adrian Lester, who are the only ones who do not embarrass themselves. But beyond comprehension is the casting of Mathew Lillard as Longaville and, wait for it, Alicia Silverstone as the singing Princess of France. The whole thing is mystifying and is an experiment I hoped would work. It doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely unwatchable. (Recall the Mamma Mia film’s casting, and replace Abba with Gershwin and Porter, and Greece with a set from Faerie Tale Theater, for an idea of what you’re in for. Harry Potter fans may delight in seeing Timothy Spall finally get some action. Or maybe not.)
What You Need to Know: Othello is called a Moor, but for Elizabethan England, that can mean many things; is he an Arab or North African or originally central coast African? Shakespeare leaves that ambiguous; but we do know that he is an outsider who has converted to Christianity, though not from Islam, as his mother believed in magic, and he is fighting for Venice against the Turks.
What Queen says: “Mustapha Ibrahim, Mustapha Ibrahim/Allah, Allah, Allah will pray for you./Mustapha Ibrahim, al havra kris vanin/Allah, Allah, Allah will pray for you/Mustapha, hey! Mustapha/Mustapha Ibrahim, Mustapha Ibrahim, hey!”
The song, a nod to Freddie’s Zoarastrian roots, seems to be a corruption of Arabic, English, and Hebrew, all somewhat out of order, but according to the great and powerful internet, the obvious references include Allah, Abraham, Mohammed, and prayers and folk songs that say, “all friends gather and shout,” “now is the time,” a smart man will understand.” Thanks, Freddie—especially after you said in an interview that it was gibberish. It’s on the Jazz album, so it’s like an incantation with Arabic and Hebrew scatting.
The Turks fighting the Venetians in Cyprus were Muslims. That’s about the only connection I can make here.
What You Need to Know: This is the first of the Henriad Tetralogy (known to BBC fans as the Hollow Crown series). So why is “Richard” included in the Henry series? From whom do you think the Henries took the crown?
Richard II is the rightful king, but he’s young and a bit of a spendthrift, and makes the bad decision to banish Henry Bolingbroke (first for ten years, then six, then when he realizes how popular Henry is among the people of England, he decides the banishment should be permanent). The news kills Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, and many people aren’t too happy with Richard’s decision to go invade Ireland, and even unhappier when he claims John of Gaunt’s lands, even though they’re due to pass to Henry upon his return from banishment. But Richard wants the lands in order to get more money for his wars and his Italian fashions (no joke), and other nobles start to get nervous as well. So they decide to help Henry overthrow Richard in a nearly bloodless revolution. Nearly, except for the maybe-not-so-accidental-murder of an imprisoned Richard.
(Again, this album is so much more suited to Shakespeare than to Highlander.)
Queen says: “Here we are, born to be kings/We’re the princes of the universe/Here we belong, fighting to survive/In a world with the darkest powers/
And here we are, we’re the princes of the universe/Here we belong, fighting for survival/We’ve come to be the rulers of you all/I am immortal, I have inside me blood of kings, yeah, yeah/I have no rival, no man can be my equal.”
Richard is so upset he won’t be king for long. Apparently, none of this hogwash matters to Henry Bolingbroke. The “Heh” in the song is from him.
What You Need to Know: Everybody dies. But the most damning death for Hamlet is Ophelia’s.
Briefly, King Hamlet dies, his brother Claudius takes the throne, marries the Queen, and names young Hamlet his heir. So far, no problems, except Hamlet thinks the marriage a little insensitive. Then King Hamlet’s ghost shows up to wreak havoc on Hamlet’s self-esteem and asks him to commit regicide and, technically, patricide (since his uncle is now is father). Hamlet is smart…but he’s also 30 years old and still a student at university with no interest in imminently ruling Denmark himself. He spends the whole time wondering if he should avenge his father’s “murder most foul” by committing another murder, and his main subterfuge is getting the court of Elsinore to think he’s gone mad. Meanwhile, he betrays the intimate relationship he has had with Ophelia, the daughter of the king’s advisor, driving her mad and to her death (right after he accidentally kills her father). Then all hell really breaks loose.
Queen says: “Memories, my memories/How long can you stay/To haunt my days/She came without a farthing/A babe without a name,” which clearly seems to be about Ophelia. Her father, Polonius, gives his son the advice “to thine own self be true” after telling him to be nothing like himself. So when he tells Ophelia that she stands no chance of marrying Hamlet because she’s too far beneath him in stature, she starts to believe him even though we know not to trust Polonius’ advice (just like Hamlet shouldn’t trust his own father’s advice). Which makes the tragic irony all the more tragic (or ironic) when, at Ophelia’s funeral (Act V, scene i), Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, says, “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife; I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid, And not have strew’d thy grave.” She had plenty of farthings, which solidifies Polonius’ foolishness OR makes him one of the greatest villains of the play, on the level of Dead King Hamlet.
Death hangs everywhere in the play, and the very setup, a funeral and a wedding, shows the precarious balance the court is in—we could either have a tragic play or a comedy, and it’s up to Hamlet to set the course for either direction. But once on that course, he never allows himself to turn back.
More from Queen: “So much ado about nothing/Is what she’d try to say/So much ado my lover/So many games we played/Through every fleeted summer/Through every precious day.” Well, few have played as many games as Hamlet—probably not even Iago. And even though Queen makes the reference to Shakespeare’s comedy, and we can imagine Claudio singing these lines at Hero’s tomb when he finally feels some remorse for kicking her to the curb on their wedding day, the impact of the sorrow and the consequences of the actions are much more potent when coming from Hamlet. Much Ado About Nothing is a mock tragedy, bridging the gap between Romeo & Juliet and the high tragedies such as Hamlet, and even Othello, another play in which the woman’s death is at the hands of her beloved, directly or indirectly.
“All dead all dead/All the dreams we had/And I wonder why I still live on/All dead all dead/And alone I’m spared,” (well, that would be Horatio and Fortinbras), “My sweeter half instead/All dead/And gone/All dead…” This is best suited for Ophelia’s funeral scene, during which Hamlet has sat next to an empty grave holding Yorick’s skull while once again questioning his own mortality. And if we’ve questioned the sincerity of Hamlet’s love up until now, his outburst at the funeral should settle that debate:
“What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I, Hamlet the Dane.” (This is his answer to Laertes leaping into Ophelia’s grave.) Hamlet then continues, “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her? […] ‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do: Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself? Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile? I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine? To outface me with leaping in her grave? Be buried quick with her, and so will I: And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw millions of acres on us, till our ground, singeing his pate against the burning zone, make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt mouth, I’ll rant as well as thou.”
There may be a few cynics who think this is Hamlet trying to “Out Herod Herod” or out-grieve Laertes, but if that’s the case, then this play loses its potency as a tragedy. The tragedy is that, by supporting his awful father whom Hamlet is actually nothing like, he ruins his own happiness and life, not to mention that of everyone around him, and is ultimately not true to himself.
“All Dead All Dead/At the rainbow’s end/And still I hear her own sweet song/All Dead All Dead/Take me back again/You know my little friend’s/All Dead/And gone/All Dead and gone…Her ways are always with me/I wander all the while/But please you must forgive me,” and the my personal favorite line that proves this is about Hamlet, “I am old but still a child.”
Hamlet’s man-child quality prevents him from stepping outside his father’s reach, from standing as an autonomous future king. What good is all the genius in the world if you can’t reject the influence of a father you understand is a bad guy? In this play, “to thine own self be true” really asks the question what it means when you feel obligated to family and country but know that to not be your true self.
What You Need to Know: This is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays. Harold Bloom, in fact, calls the dog (named Crab) the most interesting character of the play. Whether or not it was his first play or a very early play with a rush job, it’s easily forgotten and passable, its main contributions being to serve the Shakespeare fans who like to see the growth of an artist and the precursors to the much better plays As You Like It and Twelfth Night and even A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the attempted rape and friendly reunification at the end, after all is said and done, just doesn’t sit well in our age (nor should it).
Valentine is the first gentleman of Verona, who leaves for Milan and falls in love with the Duke’s daughter, Silvia. Proteus is the second gentleman of Verona and best friend of Valentine, who stays behind to court Julia, the woman he loves. But Proteus’ father sends him to Milan to be courtly and civilized, so he and Julia make a love vow and exchange rings, and then Proteus takes off. When he gets to Milan, he decides that Silvia is prettier than Julia and so he too falls in love with Silvia, unbeknown to Valentine, who tells his friend he and Silvia plan to elope. Hoping to impress Silvia’s father, Proteus rats them out and gets Valentine banished to the forest, where he manages to be made king of the outlaws. Meanwhile, Julia thinks it would be a great idea to dress like a young page named Sebastian and go find Proteus as a surprise. The surprise is on her when she sees him courting Silvia. She ends up serving Proteus, who sends her (disguised as Sebastian) to Silvia WITH THE GIFT OF THE RING JULIA GAVE TO HIM. Silvia, who is sad about Valentine’s banishment, is not happy with the new suit, pretty much calls out Proteus as a bad friend and terrible lover after what he’s now done to Julia, and decides she will flee to the forest. Silvia is pretty savvy. Meanwhile, Julia is annoyed because she says she’s prettier than Silvia. When Silvia goes into the forest (with a celibate companion), they run across Valentine’s outlaws, who capture her (while the companion abandons her), but before she is brought to Valentine, Proteus (in the company of the disguised Julia) “rescues” Silvia. Proteus wants a reward, but Silvia thinks he’s scum, and so Proteus tries to rape Silvia then and there. At this point, Valentine, who’s been secretly watching, jumps out to save Silvia and chastise his friend. Proteus apologizes, and Valentine says, “Oh, okay, as long as you’re sorry, then you must be a good friend, so you can have Silvia if you want.” Somehow, I don’t think this is the answer Silvia hoped for. But when Valentine says this, disguised Julia faints, and her identity is revealed. Seeing them side-by-side, Proteus decides that, actually, Julia is prettier, so he’ll just go ahead and marry her, and Valentine can have Silvia after all. At this point, Silvia’s father shows up, and after some blah blah blah, he decides that Valentine is noble after all and he can marry Silvia. And that the couples will have a double wedding. Below, I’ll explain how this play ALMOST could have been good.
Queen says: “Oh I used to be your baby/Used to be your pride and joy/You used to take me dancing/Just like any other boy/But now you’ve found another partner/You’ve left me like a broken toy/Oh it’s someone else you’re taking/Someone else you’re playing to” (technically, Julia dresses up as a boy when she learns Proteus is in love with Silvia, so the lyrics hold). This is Julia’s song to Proteus when she discovers his unfaithfulness. The song is typical for pop songs (the lyrics are absolutely more like a pop song than a rock song) throughout the ’50s and into the ’80s: I got ditched and now I’m whining and broken. Mah baby left me and now Ahm so blue and broken and unlovable, but Ahd take this person back in a heartbeat. Very Leslie Gore.
But it is often thought this play was a rush job (supporting this is the fact that at one point, the characters are meeting at Friar Patrick’s house, but Friar Patrick becomes Friar Lawrence suddenly), and that would explain the laziness of the ending. Sure, some people might cite this play as evidence that Shakespeare hated women. But in many ways, he seems to be castigating the men, all up until the happy ending wedding for everyone.
Valentine values friendship above all else, even what should be true love. Proteus claims to value love above all else, even friendship (clearly), first when he stays behind to woo Julia instead of going with Valentine to Milan, and then by trying to steal his friend’s (reciprocated) love interest, and then getting him banished. There’s the subset of the value of love that pits Proteus’ passionate love against rational love, which is what Julia’s maid tells her she should employ. (Julia’s maid Lucetta would get along well with Iago’s wife Emilia.) But Julia is not rational, although she tries to be when she sticks around Proteus to help him woo Silvia. It’s just that she has terrible skills of rationality.
But there is true devotion in this play. The only person who shows that is Proteus’ servant, Launce. He doesn’t have this for Proteus (whom he thinks kind of sucks for betraying his friend)…but for his dog, Crab. He goes so far as to take a beating for Crab, who has urinated on the Duke’s floor—as the Duke winds up, Launce says he’s the one who peed, not the dog, and so he should be beaten. And Launce is only in the presence of the Duke because Proteus wanted Launce to give up Crab to Silvia as a gift (really, Proteus is deplorable on all levels). Launce is funny and his speech is mean and unsophisticated, in contrast to Proteus’ flowery and elegant lines, often delivered in couplets. The whole play sets up this contrast, that Proteus makes a beautiful but false and poisonous show, while the rustic Launce is the real moral center. The second half of the play is even set in the forest, which Shakespeare often employs to overturn the strict social orders of court and civil society. In Shakespeare’s forests, the Carnivalesque takes over, rules are suspended, and human nature is better revealed. We’re almost there in Two Gentlemen of Verona (especially when the Duke promotes Valentine to “Sir” and casts out Silvia’s third suitor, a wealthy and titled man whom the Duke originally wanted to marry Silvia). Julia’s forgiveness of Proteus is not Hero’s forgiveness of Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing; with more time, Shakespeare would have better fleshed out her character, which is hard to swallow in its current form. And in a later play, Shakespeare at least would have made her more ridiculous, even if she took back Proteus, and would have used her as a model for what not to do. There’s a lot that could have been done with this play—again, in Shakespeare’s later years, he would have better used Proteus to predict the kind of entitlement that turns selfish, inwardly-focused boys into college rapists whose friends and parents try to make excuses for them. But it seems as though he had to wedge in a happy ending to a comedy that is much better suited to a “Problem Play” in the style of Measure for Measure. We get the inklings here, but not the master.
What You Need to Know: Once Macbeth receives a prophecy that he will be king, he does whatever that takes to make it happen (murdering the current king and blaming the king’s guards). Once he becomes king, he becomes paranoid that everyone is out to get him, and so he starts having people killed, which then makes everyone suspect that he’s a murderer. So he goes back for another prophecy that tells him to both beware Macduff but also that no man of woman born can defeat him, but also to worry when Burnham wood comes to Dunsinane. Somehow, this makes Macbeth forget the part about “beware of Macduff.” Macbeth is very sure that a forest cannot move. He’s clearly never heard of logging, or been to Brazil.
Queen says: “If you make it to the top and you wanna stay alive/Don’t lose your head.” Oops.
What you need to know (a lot):
This is a history play, so you need the backstory. Many people shy away from the histories because the list of characters and their grievances make the plot nearly inaccessible. But all you need is a little context, so bear with me, because here is the context that can make this play a breeze.
King Henry II is married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Duchess of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful and wealthy woman in Europe, who had her marriage annulled to King Louis VII of France because she didn’t like him and they used the excuse that she only produced daughters after 15 years of marriage. The daughters were legitimized and stayed with Louis, and eight months later, she married Henry. Their son William died young, leaving Henry (the Young King), Matilda, Duchess of Saxony, Richard I (future king, known as The Lionheart, and Eleanor’s favorite), Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany, Eleanor, Queen of Castile, Joan, Queen of Sicily, and John, future King of England. It would seem they were effective at dividing and conquering.
Henry II falls ill and names fifteen-year-old Henry the king; he is called Henry the Young King and isn’t given a number because his father is still alive. (This was done more often in France, but Henry and King Stephen (son of William the Conqueror) thought it was a good idea. Heh.) Geoffrey marries Constance of Brittany and becomes ruler there, and Richard takes on Aquitaine and Normandy. But actually Henry II doesn’t want to give his son full powers and so doesn’t delegate anything, and that makes his sons angry (does this remind you of King Lear yet?) But then again, Young Henry is famous for NOT being like his father and brothers, no interest in reigning or politics, and is actually a celebrity on the tournament circuit. Apparently, he was a great warrior as long as there wasn’t a war. (Insert mental image of Loras Tyrell here.)
Young Henry marries King Philip II’s sister Marguerite, his mother’s ex-husband’s daughter. Let that sink in. But he still doesn’t have a realm. Eleanor (probably) encourages him to revolt against his father, and many people are annoyed at the way Henry II is running things anyway.
Unfortunately, the revolt fails and Eleanor is captured, so Young Henry makes peace (sort of) with his father, but then fights him and Richard again, but dies at the age of 28 from dysentery. His only child was born prematurely and died three days later. Henry is not actually a character in King John.
(If this sounds vaguely familiar, maybe it’s because you’re a film fan. This part is depicted in The Lion in Winter starring Katherine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton. Or it could be inspiration for the Baratheon brothers et. al. fighting for the Iron Throne in Westeros.)
Richard is away in western France, the part owned by England as part of the Angevin Empire (Normandy, Brittany, Aquitaine, Anjou, Gascony, Flanders, and Toulouse), putting down a rebellion against his father. At some point, he decides that Young Henry isn’t as fit to be king as he is, since Young Henry is spending loads of money bringing his retinue to tournaments and living an eternal party, while Richard is considered a brilliant (and brutal) military campaigner. Richard refuses to pay homage to Young Henry, even at Henry II’s insistence.
So then Young Henry and Geoffrey invade Aquitaine to defeat Richard, and succeeded in turning some of Richard’s barons against him. But Richard wins, and then Young Henry dies, and Old Henry II tells Richard to give up Aquitaine, because he wants youngest son John to have it. Richard refuses, and this finally gets Eleanor out of her imprisonment—she gets to rule Aquitaine, and then it’s a non-issue of Richard taking it. (For now.)
Meanwhile, Richard has made friends with 22-year-old King Philip of France, who agrees to help Richard in his revolt against his father. This Philip is important, as he later wages war against King John. Keep in mind, too, that Philip’s father was the original husband of Eleanor. And Philip’s sister Alys was betrothed to Richard when they were small children. This is very complex and confusing.
Because much of the lands of Western France were given to England when Young Henry married Marguerite, upon Young Henry’s death, King Philip demands the lands be returned to France, since the marriage produced no issue. So he has added incentive to fight against England, and Richard promises him Normandy and Anjou if they work together. Eventually, they defeat Henry II’s army, and Henry and his son John agree that it’s probably for the best if they name Richard the heir. Henry II dies two days later of a bloody nose. And we still aren’t to the beginning of King John yet.
Richard I becomes King of England. He and Philip decide to go together on the Third Crusade after Saladin, first sultan of Egypt and Syria, captures Jerusalem, because they’re besties if they both go, neither one has to worry about the other trying to take over his lands. Then Richard makes the always great decision to pay for this war with higher taxes, and offered people to bid for official positions (or to keep the positions they already held, including the chancellor). He and Philip then have either an Odyssean journey to the Crusade or something akin to the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road films, which includes a stopover in Sicily to rescue Richard’s sister from imprisonment. There, Richard names his nephew, Arthur, as his heir and makes the new king of Sicily promise to marry his daughter to Arthur. This is an important detail to keep in mind because Richard doesn’t seem to keep it in mind. Richard doesn’t have any legitimate children (because he was always off fighting against uprisings and crusading, but also he may have been like Shakespeare and swung both ways, but also his father, Henry II, had made Philip’s sister Alys his mistress—the same Philip’s sister Alys who was betrothed to Richard).
Then there’s a shipwreck and capture and negotiations on Cyprus, and then an overthrow of the ruler and then the sale of the island to the Knights Templar. This would all be ridiculous if it was a Dan Brown novel.
While on Cyprus, he gets married and crowns himself King of Cyprus, his wife the Queen, even though Philip wanted half the island and even though Richard’s still technically engaged to his father’s former mistress, the daughter of his mother’s ex-husband. (Fortunately, she wasn’t the daughter of Walder Frey.) Richard’s wife goes with him on the crusades, but they get separated on the way home (different ships and imprisonments) and it doesn’t seem as though they see each other again. While at the crusades, Richard gets into a scuff with Leopold V of Austria, which probably leads to his capture and imprisonment on his return. Philip is still upset over Cyprus, he and Richard have a spat, and then he leaves the Crusade, while Richard stays, makes ground on Jerusalem, gets beaten back, kills a bunch of captives (seriously, thousands), but is lauded by the other side for his great prowess. But ego among the Crusaders seems to divide them, and no one can really keep fighting at this point, so Richard and the other Crusaders beat a retreat.
Now Richard is on his way back from the Crusades, at one point disguising himself as a Knight Templar to avoid capture in Corfu, but winds up captured by Leopold V of Austria and then sold off to the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany, and meanwhile, his youngest brother John, who has been striking up plots with Philip, takes the opportunity to try to overthrow Richard and become king. The Emperor wants to ransom Richard, and so Eleanor raises taxes and takes money from the churches to do so; meanwhile, John and King Philip of France (yep, same Philip) offer three quarters of that ransom to the Emperor if he’ll keep Richard there. He doesn’t take the offer. Philip conquers Normandy in Richard’s absence, with the help of John. Once Richard is released and comes home, he makes peace with John and names him heir.What happened to Arthur?
Remember Richard has no legitimate children. One of Richard’s illegitimate sons becomes a prominent character in the play King John. The only problem is that following primogeniture, technically John’s older brother Geoffrey would be next in line; however, he died seven years earlier, so the line would pass down to his son Arthur. And then there’s that whole matter that Richard already named Arthur his heir in that little agreement with the king of Sicily. But Richard says no, John is the heir. He puts it in writing. Does the writing matter, if the earlier treaty was concluded in Sicily? This is why we have a United Nations, to keep this kind of shit in check. Doesn’t seem to bother Richard—he goes off to get back Normandy from Philip and prepare for an all-out war against his old friend/buddy/former-almost-brother-in-law. He puts all his efforts into building a spectacular and ahead-of-its-time castle fortress in Normandy and experts marvel at Richard’s genius in the design. Philip knows he can’t beat Richard and flees France, and Richard fights smaller battles against barons. He’s defeated a Viscount in Limousin, although there are still archers firing occasionally—one hits Richard in his shoulder (near his neck) while he’s walking around without his chain mail, he gets a botched removal that mangles his arm and gives him gangrene, and he gives up the ghost. Richard I does not appear in King John because he too is already dead.
So now we’re to the play. When John takes the throne, Constance of Brittany, widow of Geoffrey, says her son Arthur should be king, and King Phillip (same guy), supports the claim. Richard’s illegitimate son gets involved in the action in a play that shows the mess of “legitimacy” and the precariousness of alliances. Shakespeare knows what’s what, and England and France were a complete mess. The backstory is actually more important than the play, which is mostly about settling old grievances and telling the story of the end of the Angevin dynasty and how France got its lands back.
Initially when you hear “Father to Son,” you might think Hamlet, what with: “A word in your ear, from father to son/Hear the word that I say.” But then the song continues:
“I fought with you, fought on your side/Long before you were born/Joyful the sound, the word goes around/From father to son, to son…/And the voice is so clear, time after time it keeps on/Calling you, calling you on/Don’t destroy what you see, your country to be/Just keep building on the ground that’s been won/Kings will be crowned, and the word goes around/From father to son, to son.” Yeah, that’s spoken by a father who actually loves his son. That would not be King Hamlet, who is perfectly fine asking his son to commit cold-blooded murder even though Hamlet is still next in line for the throne and has technically lost nothing with his uncle Claudius as the king. Therefore, we must move to a father who cares about his son and the kingdom.
That leaves John of Gaunt, uncle to Richard II and father to Henry Bolingbroke (future Henry IV), King Lear’s Gloucester family, and King John’s Richard I and his illegitimate son, Philip (The Bastard) Faulconbridge, who becomes Richard Plantagenet when he’s officially recognized and given the family name. Philip Faulconbridge is Shakespeare’s happy bastard, and even the hard-to-please grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, likes him and says he’s clearly the son of The Lionheart. (A brief aside: If you ever want to feel like you’re an underachiever, Richard the Lionheart was 16 when he took command of his own army and defeated the rebellions against his father, Henry II. Either that or you can realize how much adolescence has been extended, both a social and a physical evolution.)
Act I, scene i:
Eleanor: He hath a trick of Coeur-de-lion’s face; the accent of his tongue affecteth him. Do you not read some tokens of my son in the large composition of this man?
King John: Mine eye hath well examined his parts and finds them perfect Richard.
Eleanor has Philip, now Richard, knighted—and asks him to join her in battle against France. This could be a sentimental moment, or it could be a genius move on Eleanor’s part, using a “Lionheart” heir as propaganda in her war against France.
Philip/Richard then makes peace with his younger now-declared half-brother, who had challenged Philip’s birth because he wanted to inherit the Faulconbridge lands. He makes peace, but still gets in a few digs.
Richard: Brother, take you my land, I’ll take my chance. Your face hath got five hundred pound a year, yet sell your face for five pence and ’tis dear. Madam, I’ll follow you unto the death.
Eleanor: Nay, I would have you go before me thither.
Richard Plantagenet’s speech (that matches for wit with Eleanor) presages Shakespeare’s greater wit (for more on this, read Harold Bloom’s chapter on King John in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human). He continues:
Richard Plantagenet: Brother by the mother’s side, give me your hand: My father gave me honour, yours gave land. Now blessed by the hour, by night or day, when I was got, sir Robert was away!
Eleanor: The very spirit of Plantagenet! I am thy grandam, Richard; call me so.
The new Richard Plantagenet is left alone to give a delightful soliloquy, one that in later plays will provide the outline for villainy; instead, Richard, mystified at his new rank and discovery, runs through all the things he has the freedom to do as a knight, including being a total ass. However, he is crafty and wants to learn the ways of court, not do deceive but to avoid being deceived, and thus, manipulated:
“But this is worshipful society and fits the mounting spirit like myself, for he is but a bastard to the time that doth not smack of observation; and so am I, whether I smack or no; and not alone in habit and device, exterior form, outward accoutrement, but from the inward motion to deliver sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth: which, though I will not practise to deceive, yet, to avoid deceit, I mean to learn; for it shall strew the footsteps of my rising.”
Richard’s mother, Lady Faulconbridge, is upset that now she will be seen as wanton, having cheated on her husband (and it had made her upset when her younger son Robert had insisted his brother was not his father’s son). Not yet learning of Philip’s knighthood and recognition by the court, she and Philip/Richard have this exchange, horrified that Robert has brought his suit up to the king:
Lady Faulconbridge: Where is that slave, thy brother? where is he, that holds in chase mine honour up and down?
Richard: My brother Robert? old sir Robert’s son? Colbrand the giant, that same mighty man? Is it sir Robert’s son that you seek so?
Lady Faulconbridge: Sir Robert’s son! Ay, thou unreverend boy, Sir Robert’s son: why scorn’st thou at sir Robert? He is Sir Robert’s son, and so art thou.
Richard: Madam, I was not old sir Robert’s son: Sir Robert might have eat his part in me upon Good-Friday and ne’er broke his fast: Sir Robert could do well: marry, to confess, could he get me? Sir Robert could not do it: we know his handiwork: therefore, good mother, to whom am I beholding for these limbs? Sir Robert never holp to make this leg.
Lady Faulconbridge: Hast thou conspired with thy brother too, that for thine own gain shouldst defend mine honour? What means this scorn, thou most untoward knave?
Richard: Knight, knight, good mother, Basilisco-like. What! I am dubb’d! I have it on my shoulder. But, mother, I am not sir Robert’s son; I have disclaim’d sir Robert and my land; legitimation, name and all is gone: then, good my mother, let me know my father; some proper man, I hope: who was it, mother?
Lady Faulconbridge: King Richard Coeur-de-lion was thy father: by long and vehement suit I was seduced to make room for him in my husband’s bed: Heaven lay not my transgression to my charge! Thou art the issue of my dear offence, which was so strongly urged past my defence.
Richard: Now, by this light, were I to get again, Madam, I would not wish a better father./ ome sins do bear their privilege on earth, and so doth yours; your fault was not your folly […] Ay, my mother, with all my heart I thank thee for my father! Who lives and dares but say thou didst not well when I was got, I’ll send his soul to hell. Come, lady, I will show thee to my kin; and they shall say, when Richard me begot, if thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin: who says it was, he lies; I say ’twas not.
Richard has a lot to live up to in this play and is entering into a wasps’ nest between the nobles of England and France. He is the almost-insider, who, when all is said and done in this play–King John killed by a monk who poisons him, peace is made with France, and England swears allegiance to his son Henry–uses his observation of the ways of the nobles to assess that England fighting among itself is as dangerous as a foreign invasion.
Queen’s lyrics, therefore, are the voice of Richard through osmosis and legacy. Kings come and go, and so do their boundaries, but keep building on the idea of a country. The end.
What You Need to Know: Okay, this one is obvious. But the comparisons go deeper.
Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has been overthrown by his brother, Antonio, with the help of King Alonso of Naples—it turns out for being more interested in his magic books than in ruling—and banished to sea with his young daughter. A nice man named Gonzalo secrets Prospero’s magic books and food and water onto the boat so they won’t die, and this helps Prospero and Miranda land on an island where they stay for twelve years. They aren’t the only creatures on this island, which has been populated by enslaved spirits since the Algerian witch Sycorax arrived, after having been exiled from Algiers for creating havoc there with her magic. She dies on the island before Prospero’s arrival, having already trapped the spirit Ariel in a tree, leaving her son Caliban to rule in an Island of the Blue Dolphins-meets-Repulsion existence. Prospero adopts him and with Miranda’s help, gives him literacy and religion, like all good colonists do, until Caliban attempts to rape Miranda, admitting his desire to people the island with a race of Calibans. Prospero doesn’t take kindly to this, and so turns him into a slave. Meanwhile, Prospero has also freed the spirit Ariel, and as payment for his freedom, Prospero demands his service with the promise that he’ll eventually free him from servitude. The opportunity finally presents itself when Prospero’s old nemeses King Alonso and Antonio are sailing back from Tunisia, where Alfonso’s daughter was married to a prince there. Prospero has Ariel cause a tempest to shipwreck them on the island so he can wreak vengeance/make it right/get his daughter to be the future queen of Naples and will need Ariel’s powers to finish his plans. Hijinks ensue. Eventually, Prospero gets what he wants and is reinstated as Duke of Milan, handing over his magic staff, and leaving his powers behind.
Queen says: “No mortal soul can win this day…” Prospero renounces his magic, returning to mortality, as it were, leaving the island to Ariel and the other immortal spirits, and “this rage that lasts 1000 years/will soon be done.” The rage is from Ariel, at having been forced to be a slave, from Caliban–not at being born what he was but at those who point out his difference–and Prospero, who is bitter about losing twelve years of his life (although he doesn’t appear to have suffered too much—he just wants a little bit of revenge). Prospero forgives the world his banishment (or at least feels that everyone who deserves it has been adequately punished). He then asks the audience to forgive his own sins by applauding.
In Prospero’s epilogue: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, and what strength I have’s mine own, which is most faint: now, ’tis true, I must be here confined by you, or sent to Naples. Let me not, since I have my dukedom got and pardon’d the deceiver, dwell in this bare island by your spell; but release me from my bands with the help of your good hands: gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails, which was to please. Now I want spirits to enforce, art to enchant, and my ending is despair, unless I be relieved by prayer, which pierces so that it assaults mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon’d be, let your indulgence set me free.” Many critics have acknowledged that this is Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater, as this was the last play he wrote alone. When read through that lens, we have an added layer of emotional context that adds to this spell, and Shakespeare asks to be forgiven of anything he didn’t do well enough on the stage. But remove that context, and what we have is someone who took advantage of his powers for personal gain, acknowledging that he probably misused them, but since he forgave the people who wronged him, may he also be forgiven the wrongs he’s done. But now he’s powerless to go without the help of the audience. So who’s the winner here now? No mortal.
This epilogue is an interesting and potent moment, especially for modern readers with exposure to and an understanding of post-colonial criticism (which emerged in the late 1960s): Caliban is enslaved by colonial Prospero. This is partly true, but Shakespeare doesn’t let anyone off the hook, with the exception of Miranda and Ferdinand, King Alfonso’s son, who provide the do-over to Romeo and Juliet by uniting in love their families and burying the strife—but this is achieved because the fathers participate in this unification. At the end of Romeo & Juliet, the Prince says all are punished. Shakespeare is clever enough to make sure that everyone is held accountable for their actions. So it goes with The Tempest. At the end of his (Shakespeare’s, Prospero’s) career, the punishments have been doled out, and then all are forgiven.
As Prospero tells King Alfonso when it is discovered that Caliban and the clowns Trunculo and Stephano have plotted to murder Prospero and have the run of the island, Prospero, knowing he’s leaving, shames Caliban but the extent of the punishment is to clean up his room:
Prospero: He is as disproportion’d in his manners as in his shape. Go, sirrah, to my cell; take with you your companions; as you look to have my pardon, trim it handsomely.
Caliban: Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter and seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass was I, to take this drunkard for a god and worship this dull fool!
Caliban is referring to Stephano, whom he took to be a god or spirit, having seen so few people ever in his life and wanting to believe in a power that wasn’t Prospero’s. His shame is having been duped when he should have learned much more from Prospero. Also notable, Caliban’s speech is much more elevated than that of the drunkards Stephano and Trinculo. But if we shift the angle a bit on this image, we can also take Caliban’s speech as an aside to himself, foolish for having taken Prospero as a father-god who taught him so much when Caliban might have been much happier in his ignorant, bucolic state. Now he has language for his emotions and knows more of the world than he would have liked. His ignorance was his bliss. But the standard read of Caliban’s shame is enough—he is not dumb, but was always an outsider, not fully human and not a spirit (Trinculo refers to him as a “deboshed fish” in II. ii.), believing in magic but having none from Sycorax or Prospero, and considered deformed or misshapen, too ugly to wed Miranda. Did he love Miranda? It doesn’t seem so, especially when he asks for Stephano’s help in overthrowing Prospero—take his magic books and then kill him, Caliban tells him, and then you can be king of the island and have Miranda as queen. In the play, Caliban is as much an opportunist as the colonialists—it’s only in modern retellings such as Aimé Césaire’s 1969 play A Tempest, casting Caliban as a slave in Haiti to white slave master Prospero, that we have a very real view toward the impact of European (western) colonialism. And those are important works—but those are not a more “accurate” version of the play, just a necessary appropriation of the play for a story that needed to be told. What becomes problematic in performances of The Tempest is the portrayal of Caliban as the noble-savage-gone-native-again, as with Julie Taymor’s casting of Djimon Hounsou, a fine actor perpetually cast as the quintessential noble savage in almost every film he’s been in. It’s hard to see past the neocolonialism in this adaptation, even if Taymor has feminized Prospero into Prospera, played by the incomparable Helen Mirren (whose talents are slightly wasted in an adaptation that leans heavily on spectacle). But part of the magic of Shakespeare is that we are free to bring in these visions of our time, to make the play for all times. But to cast Caliban only as the slave revolutionary is to miss out on the complexity of this fascinating character, who is capable of moments of great beauty and sympathy while remaining astute:
Caliban: Art thou afeard?
Stephano: No, monster, not I.
Caliban: Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices that, if I then had waked after long sleep, will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming, the clouds methought would open and show riches ready to drop upon me that, when I waked, I cried to dream again.
Stephano: This will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing.
Caliban: When Prospero is destroyed.
Caliban sweetens the deal, luring in Stephano, pretending to serve him, but still holding power over Stephano. He makes promises but keeps the rewards secure until he gets what he wants.
So when Queen sings, “This flame that burns inside of me/I’m hearing secret harmonies/It’s a kind of magic/The bell that rings inside your mind/Is challenging the doors of time,” forget Highlander. It is the battle between types of power, between people who want power. Caliban wants to rule the island—he is not harmonious with the spirits (Ariel perpetually traumatizes Caliban, usually without the prompting of Prospero). And this desire for power proves how human Caliban actually is. Prospero is old and has had his power on the island and now is returning to Milan, for however long he lives, now that his powers are gone and he also no longer has his righteous anger to keep him going. The flame is going out in Prospero but stays alive in Caliban, as he’s left behind on the island to rule or to now be subject to the freed Ariel and his host of spirits.
While I have the links to the complete version of each play here, the plays have no notes or line numbers. For my money, the best editions of the plays are the Barnes & Noble editions, even better than Folger, whose editions are often watered-down. The notes of the B&N versions are comprehensive and easy to follow, leaving little out (or sanitized)!
I hope you’ve enjoyed Part 3; feel free to leave any comments or ask any questions.