Lessons from The Tempest

As we shuffled to exit the theatre, I turned my head over my shoulder to my dear friend and remarked “The older I get, the more I understand this play.”

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I read The Tempest, when I was seventeen or eighteen in college. It was wonderful. A shipwreck, true love, mischief and laughs- what’s not to love about this play? One of Shakespeare’s last plays (around 1610-1611) it is often described as his farewell to the stage. Being somewhat older now, more experienced in things good and bad, I was drawn in particular, not to the young lovers as perhaps I had been previously (though they were delightful) but to Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero. One of Shakespeare’s many tragic figures, Prospero in this production was portrayed remarkably humbly for a man of such power and wisdom. I liked this a lot. One interpretation of course is that Shakespeare is Prospero. Take this fantastic and famous passage for example:

“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.”

(Prospero, Act 4 Scene 1)

Speaking of actors, ‘the great globe’ in reference to Shakespeare’s theatre on the Thames and dreams, he knows these things are not to last. Shakespeare is articulating the end of his life. He died in his fifties in 1616. So here’s lesson one: life is short and full of wondrous things; we should enjoy and take advantage while we still can.

One short piece that hadn’t stood out to me before, also rang very true in my ears.

“…the rarer action is
In virtue than in
vengeance…”

Lesson number two: If even a figure as wronged and betrayed as Prospero can forgive and act in kindness, can’t we all?

The beauty and magic is not lost on me either, especially in Ariel. Although technology was heavily used to enhance the set and the character of Ariel, I in fact preferred it when Ariel was flesh and blood on stage. He was marvellous in every way but especially in his singing!

As well as a number of productions, the RSC has an exhibition going on called The Play’s the Thing (see what they did there?). It was absolutely spellbinding; not only does it have an array of amazing costumes (for example, one worn by Vivien Leigh!) but it has the only portrait of Shakespeare painted in his lifetime, as well as one of the last surviving original folios, which is so precious, it has to be guarded by an RSC employee at all times. I stared at this folio, opened at the start of The Tempest for a long time. An original copy of some of the words I hold so dear.

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Absolutely, 100% yes!

A screen near the folio asked questions about Shakespeare to famous actors of Shakespeare, members of the RSC, the public and children, about what Shakespeare means to them. One lady in particular said “I know who I am when I read his language.”

This is what I have always felt about Shakespeare. I know myself, I understand myself when I read or watch his plays. Even 400 years after his death, his words are just as poignant, his messages just as fresh as they were in Elizabethan England. It’s as if I have something of Shakespeare for every era of my life. And now, in amongst some struggles recently, I feel watching The Tempest has finally cast me upon the shore of my own island. I’m out of the storm, but need to choose my next actions carefully.

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