Saturday, August 20, 2016

Shakespeare and Me: The Tempest, and All the Rest

This was well done, my bird.
Thy shape invisible retain thou still:
The trumpery in my house, go bring it hither,
For stale to catch these thieves.
(The Tempest, Act 4)


Yesterday, I finished reading The Tempest. It's the first Shakespeare play I'd read since 2010, which is the longest I've ever gone without reading one except from birth until age 14. I've spent the intervening years doing a fair bit, including a lot of reading, so I don't feel like I've cheated myself. It was just a nice time to return.

It's pointless and unfair to review a Shakespeare play the way I would review a more current and less already discussed book. What am I supposed to say? That it's great, which would be stating the obvious? That it isn't, which would be impossible to defend?

What I can say are four things:

  1. Much like Twelfth Night, the first Shakespeare play I ever read, The Tempest is a great play to introduce to students reading Shakespeare for the first time. The story is simple, there's a good dose of humour (thinking of the zany Caliban/Stephano exchanges), and it's a comedy. As culturally impactful (which, yes, needs to be a word) as plays like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are, happiness sells. There's a reason people don't go see stand-up tragedy shows, although the concept would be interesting, and arguably political humour is tragic.
  2. The relatively few settings result in very few scenes per act. The Tempest only has eight scenes, with no more than three in any given act. Acts 4 and 5 take place in the same jail cell. The idealist in me says Shakespeare's ability to use language instead of adventure to move the plot is on display here, such as when Prospero and Ariel trick Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo into seeing dog and horse apparitions at the end of Act 4. I've cited some particularly moving language at the top of this blog entry. The cynic in me says this must have been an incredibly cheap production to release. 
  3. Open-source technology may be the most viable way to maintain the public's interest in Shakespeare. Although the MIT link I included at the start of this blog entry doesn't have hyperlinks, I'd love to see a noted-up Shakespeare play with hyperlinks to the relevant references that readers may not get. It'd be a fitting replacement for the books that have Shakespeare on one side and annotations on the other.
  4. I found The Tempest an easier read than any other Shakespeare play, even though I'd gone the longest since reading the last one. What that tells me is that reading of all kinds reinforces other reading. This is why I think it's so important for fiction authors to be well-educated: it's about transferable skills. In my case, all that industrial relations prepared me for some reading, and law helped too.

Semi-related, I have a plush tiger I've owned for the vast majority of my life (since I was 8 or so?) that I named Tempest. He doubles as a puppet. Here's a picture of the cute little guy:

I took it just now. Yes, he's posing with May's book. He's also posing with an elephant-shaped bookend, recalling last May's book. If I'm Calvin, he's my Hobbes.

A full list of Shakespeare plays I've read (13 in total, or 15 if you count the two I mention at the end):

Twelfth Night (2002)
Julius Caesar (2003)
Romeo and Juliet (2004)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (2004)
Hamlet (2005)
The Merchant of Venice (2005)
Titus Andronicus (2007)*
Henry IV, Part I (2007)*
Antony and Cleopatra (2007)*
King Lear (2007)
Macbeth (2010)**
Othello (2010)**
The Tempest (2016)

I also read some of his sonnets in 2009. I vaguely recall reading Coriolanius* in 2007 and Measure for Measure in 2009, but their contents elude me to the point that I wouldn't feel able to discuss them.

Fun fact about me: Titus Andronicus is my favourite Shakespeare play.

*This is what happens when you take a course entitled "Shakespeare's Tragedies and Histories". Bizarrely, none of King Lear, Macbeth or Othello were on the syllabus.
**I read these within a couple days at the start of August. Loyal readers of this blog know my birthday is August 3, so imagine this: every year, right before my birthday, I try to accomplish as much as I can while at my current age. When I was 22, that apparently meant reading as much Shakespeare as possible. It also means that even though my Shakespeare drought lasted barely more than six years, I read The Tempest at 29 but the ones before it at 22.

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