As I prep for Witch Week 2021, for which my co-host (Calmgrove) and I have chosen The Tempest as our Read-Along, I’ve been working my way through some of the modern works that are either inspired by or adaptations of Shakespeare’s late play. These include an episode from the third season of Star Trek, a short story by Isak Dinesen, Julie Taymor’s 2010 film of the play, and the two modern novels discussed here. I’ve sampled but a small number of the works available, each focusing on one or two themes or elements from the play. Yet the little I’ve read and watched has given me insight into Shakespeare’s work.
First up is Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a 2016 addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series of modern adaptations. Atwood’s lonely island is a small town in Ontario where the hero, Felix Phillips, teaches a theater class to inmates at the local prison. He decides to direct his students in a production of The Tempest. Of course, Felix himself, ousted from the directorship of a Shakespeare festival by a conniving assistant, plays Prospero in his students’ production — while offstage Felix’s own life mirrors Prospero’s as he seeks revenge on those who ousted him.
In the discussions Felix has with his students, as well as with the professional actress who takes on the role of Miranda, Atwood gives us her take on some of the critical scenes in The Tempest — Prospero’s revenge, Miranda’s and Ferdinand’s love affair, Ariel’s scurrying about to win his freedom, and so on. One interesting idea that Atwood-as-Felix presents is the high number of prisons to be found in the play. For one assignment, the students create a list, and some surprising entries appear: the muddy pond that Trinculo and Stefano get stuck in; the madness that overtakes Alonso and the others; even the leaky boat that Prospero and Miranda are forced to sail in. But one prison Felix doesn’t reveal until the students have performed their play — the play itself. Prospero is trapped in his own creation, i.e., his own enchantment. As Felix explains, “He’ll be forced to re-enact his feelings of revenge, over and over. It would be like hell.” Perhaps even just once is a form of hell. Felix understands this well, since his need for revenge created the hell he needed to escape.
The eponymous Caliban, rather than being the hero, gets little attention until the end, when the students, as their final assignment, must explain the afterlives of the characters they played. Caliban’s group posit some options for their character’s future: Life as king of an island with no other inhabitants (rejected). Life as Stefano’s and Trinculo’s show-piece in a cage (rejected). They settle on the somewhat happier ending suggested by Prospero’s line, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”
Caliban’s group read this line literally — Prospero is Caliban’s father. As the students explain,
Prospero’s learning that maybe not everything is somebody else’s fault. Plus, he sees that the bad in Caliban is pretty much the same as the bad in him, Prospero. They’re both angry, both name-callers, both full of revenge: they’re joined at the hip. So Prospero [cleans up Caliban and] sets him up as a musician, back in Milan.
This point about Prospero taking responsibility for Caliban ties in with something Mary Stewart brings up in her 1964 novel set in Corfu, This Rough Magic. The title comes from Prospero’s speech, when he closes his career as a magician: “But this rough magic/I here abjure” (V, i, 50-51). The “rough magic” in Stewart’s novel seems to be the theater, so we have another instance of a theatrical theme (if not setting).
The Prospero in Stewart’s novel, Sir Julian Gale, is in self-exile on Corfu with his son and a couple of local men to help with errands and chores. Sir Julian is a retired actor, whose final role before he abandoned the stage was Prospero. So, as with Atwood’s novel, there are opportunities for the-play-within-the-play trope, doubled over. Yet Stewart avoids that. The overlaps with The Tempest are occasional (a spy provides the treasonous MacGuffin, a cave hides an important clue, chapters are headed with quotes from the play), but the plot is typical Stewart: a young woman away from home runs across trouble and falls in love. Lucy Waring, visiting her sister in Corfu, gets caught up in espionage (with a villain who could rival Eric Ambler’s master spy, Dimitrios Makropoulos), and it all starts innocently with a friendly dolphin.
“Wait, what?” you say. “What’s a dolphin got to do with espionage or treason?” Well, actually nothing, except that its presence might attract curious crowds, which the villain doesn’t want. So he tries to shoot the innocent ocean-going mammal, Lucy gets outraged, and it all escalates from there.
But back to the point I wanted to make earlier. Early in the story, Sir Julian explains why he thinks Corfu is Prospero’s isle. It’s position, geography, and weather all support this idea. When challenged, Sir Julian digs deeper:
“I started at the wrong end. I should have begun not with the ‘facts,’ but with the play–the play’s kingpin, Prospero. To my mind, the conception of his character is the most remarkable thing about the play; his use as a sort of summing up of Shakespeare’s essay on human power. Look at the way he’s presented: a father figure, a magician in control of natural forces like the winds and the sea, a sort of benevolent and supernatural Machiavelli who controls the island and all who are in it.”
Nevermind that Sir Julian is noting a semblance between Prospero and St. Spyridon (“Spridion” in Stewart’s version), Corfu’s patron saint. What struck me here is the idea of “human power”. How do we get it? How do we use it? A director in the theater — whether fictional (like Felix) or real — has power over the world of the play. Costumes, setting, lighting, music, movement of actors, even the shape of the play itself (which lines are cut, for instance). It’s a tremendous amount of power, even if only in a small, limited world. But the question still stands — how do we use the power we’re given?
Felix uses his power to build a hell for himself. Not a wise choice, but at least he finds a way out. Sir Julian eventually returns to acting — but never to play Prospero again. Trinculo is more appropriate, he decides. Lucy, of course, wins her love, and the spy is suitably punished.
Prospero, however, still leaves me suspicious of his intentions. Sure, he gives his daughter a man to love, but isn’t it a bit too much of a coincidence that this man is the son of the king of Naples? What better revenge on your enemy than to make his son fall in love with your daughter?
BTW, I hadn’t planned on participating, but I’ve realized that This Rough Magic is a suspense novel, which means I can include myself in the RIP [Readers Imbibing Peril] XVI challenge. Hooray!