The Tempest

The Tempest

These days, with a pandemic wreaking havoc around the world, storms naturally come to mind.

And especially The Tempest, by William Shakespeare – the only one of his plays to be based in the Americas (“the still-vex’d Bermoothes” – that is, Bermuda).

The ocean – with its moods and murmurs, turbulence and torments, howling and terrors – is a mirror of the soul. The ocean from one day to the next – from one hour to the next – is never the same. It stands as a wonderful metaphor for our ever-changing emotional states. I remember one night, leaning on the rail of a cargo-ship on the Lower St. Lawrence, bound for the Arctic: it suddenly occurred to me that lobs of water thrown up to the surface by the propellers were like all the secrets lurking in our subconscious, in the psychological places that defied literal descriptions … and explanations. By the way, water is everywhere in my novel Mind the Gap.

I took this photo on the Southern Ocean, while sailing between Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic Peninsula

Another time – well actually, it was while shooting The Blinding Sea – I photographed waves on the Southern Ocean through a window I had opened on the three-masted bark Europa, bound for Antarctica. The waves were like riotous mountains of water, looming over me. The captain warned I was taking a big risk doing this – not so much for the ship or my own safety, as for my camera!

Anyway, back to The Tempest. In the opening scene, a ship is caught in a furious storm at sea, gets tossed around by the waves, and then splits apart. Gonzalo cries out: “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground: long heath, brown furze, anything. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death.”

Without understanding how, the castaways eventually find themselves safe and sound on land. But wait – it’s not so simple! There is a constant back-and-forth between the real world and the whispering, murmuring, stirring, warbling song of untamable Nature. The wilderness is presented as a spirit world full of charm and magic. As Caliban says to Trinculo and Stephano, “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”

The castaways are on an enchanted isle dominated by Prospero, the overthrown Duke of Milan, who lives with his daughter Miranda, spirit-servant Ariel and monster-like slave Caliban. Prospero has waited twelve long years for redemption. He wants above all to become Duke of Milan once again…. But I won’t tell the story all over….

After a few literary critics pointed out my novel Mind the Gap was a work of magical realism, I read a 500-page anthology of criticism about the genre. There were so many arcane definitions, rules, exceptions, qualifications, nuances, asides and scholarly footnotes, I quickly came to the conclusion I couldn’t actually understand what all the critics were saying! I was better off going straight for my favourite “magical” authors: Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka, Alejo Carpentier, Ernesto Sábato and Robertson Davies.

Creating a work of fiction means you as author start with problems and look for solutions. Critiquing a work of fiction means you start with the author’s solutions and then look for problems.

Is magical realism really a post-modern, post-colonial genre of writing? Is it a way of fleeing political or racial oppression? Is it a way for urban authors to recover the magical pre-scientific world-view of indigenous people?

I wonder if The Tempest, weaving between the real and the magical, would ever qualify as magical realism. Or The Bible for that matter.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare creates a microcosm-in-words – this photo was taken by G. Cardinal of Norway

One thing I really like about The Tempest is the way Shakespeare creates a world – a make-believe microcosm-in-words. He creates this world out of nothing.

How can we forget Miranda’s stirring words, when she meets the castaways? “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t.”

This is an enchanted isle.

Shakespeare forms this microcosm, building it up into a theatre where he works out dramatic tensions – between Prospero and Miranda, Prospero and Ariel, Prospero and Caliban, youth and maturity, innocence and depravity, liberty and slavery.

The Tempest does not have that much to do with the “real” Bermuda

The play contains a mock-Utopia, an accurate depiction of racism, a graphic scene where European colonizers subjugate the aboriginal Caliban with alcohol the better to exploit him, and social commentary on power-hungry schemers who usurp legitimate power.

There is also a constant teasing tension between real life, and life as it is represented (by Shakespeare and his actors) on the stage. Think of Prospero’s speech in Act IV, Scene I:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on: and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

On this enchanted isle, Shakespeare brings about poetic justice – which comes as a balm to theatre-goers, as catharsis. The usurpers are themselves overthrown, and Prospero, in regaining his duchy of Milan, renounces his magical power, in Act V, Scene I:

“But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.”

The Tempest brings diverse people together – some good, many bad. Catharsis comes as a kind of magic, an enchanted painting-in-words that relieves viewers, for the space of a moment, from their own dread, drudgery and tears, offering them instead justice, forgiveness, harmony and most of all the dawn of young love.

For the space of a moment? Actually, great works of art leave us with a memory of catharsis that lasts for decades….

The ocean can sweep us away, to oblivion – or it can serve as a metaphor of our emotional life

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April 3, 2020

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