The Tempest (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2017) [Blu-ray]
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On a distant island, a man waits. Robbed of his position, power and wealth, his enemies have left him in isolation. But this is no ordinary man, and this no ordinary island. Prospero is a magician, able to control the very elements and bend nature to his will. When a sail appears on the horizon, he reaches out across the ocean to the ship that carries the men who wronged him. Creating a vast magical storm, he wrecks the ship and washes his enemies up on the shore. When they wake, they find themselves lost on a fantastical island where nothing is as it seems
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Like all Shakespeare’s plays, “The Tempest” is an illustration of the fact that the invisible world is interpenetrating ordinary life. Some scenes and events described in the play, which seem to be inexplicable, are in fact due to this sort of intervention. This is why in Shakespeare’s plays there are always two parallel storylines. One storyline consists of ordinary events which can be explained by rational intellect and the psychology of emotions. This story is always inconsistent and it may be interpreted in many ways. Each of such interpretations requires some changes to the original text. The second storyline is augmented by a series of events describing the operation of higher states of the human mind. This storyline is perceptible by the audiences whose minds allow the possibility of something from the invisible world impinging upon their ordinary experiences. This storyline links all Shakespeare’s plays into a coherent narrative.
Presenting Ariel as an avatar is an effective way to represent the nature of the intervention of the invisible world into ordinary reality. Let’s recall that Prospero, the main character of the play, was delivered to the island in order to go through a series of specific experiences. In this way he could master his skills so he would be able to discharge properly his function after returning to Milan. Prospero was given access to extraordinary powers. His main challenge was to use his powers in the right way. These powers should not be used for personal advantages or egotistic purposes. However, he abused his mandate by ordering Ariel to stage a masque with Juno, Ceres, and Iris. The masque was not part of his mandate. Prospero arranged the masque simply to show off his powers in front of Ferdinand and Miranda. The masque marked Prospero’s weakness. We should keep in mind that all the spirits, including Juno, hate Prospero. They all were put under Prospero’s control. Therefore, they would use any opportunity to free themselves from his commands. This is why Juno takes advantage of Prospero’s weakness and attempts to get rid of him. Juno manages to take control over the masque. She sends Iris to call upon the spirits called Naiads. The appearance of the Naiads was not in Prospero’s plan. Juno uses them because they are very dangerous; they can distract one’s attention by their mystifying beauty. The Naiads arrive and dance together with some harvesters. While watching the Naiads, Prospero is even more pleased with his own achievements. At this very moment, Prospero is entirely driven by “some vanity” and “fancies”. Despite his relatively high developmental state, Prospero is not free from egotistic motives. Because of this, he nearly loses his entire enterprise. Caliban is just about to destroy him. As indicated in the stage direction, at this very moment Prospero receives a warning in the form of “a strange, hollow, and confused noise”. Prospero awakes from his fancies and manages to avoid making an error that could turn his project into a complete fiasco. Ferdinand and Miranda are surprised by Prospero’s aggravation caused by the fact that he realizes that he allowed himself to be outmaneuvered by Juno. He failed the test; his future function in Milan will be downgraded.
This seemingly insignificant episode is a key element of the entire play. It indicates that Prospero’s journey and his experiences are directed by “a most auspicious star”; his dealing and interaction with supernatural forces are carefully monitored. In other words, Prospero is guided. The main function of the masque is to make the audience aware of the presence of this invisible guide. The audience is expected to leave the theatre wondering who this guide is, how he may be identified, and what will happen to Prospero when he returns to Milan. (All these questions are answered in the remaining plays of Shakespeare’s narrative.)
The appearance of the avatar could greatly help to grasp the inner meaning of the play. However, the director of the RSC’s production chose to stay within the rational world. According to Gregory Doran, Prospero’s outburst of anger was not caused by his failing of the test but by … his abhorrence of sexuality [sic]. Apparently, Prospero could not face the manifestation of Miranda’s sexuality while she was dancing during the masque. (It looks that Doran forgot that Cupid, i.e., “the General of hot desire”, gave up on trying to interfere into Ferdinand’s and Miranda’ relationship.) Of course, he had to make changes to the original text in order to justify his interpretation. He reversed the sequence of several scenes, introduced a few unwarranted assumptions, added several invented elements to the dancing scene and completely ignored the above mentioned stage direction. In other words, he trivialized the play by attempting to explain rationally the scenes and events that are associated with the operation of the higher states of the mind. By trivializing the original plot, the RSC’s production robbed the audience from the intended impact of the play. Shakespeare’s plays are like a very precise and delicate instrument. Even small changes to the original text destroy the plays’ inner structure. Instead of enhancing the inner meaning of the play, this production erased it. It is quite ironic that the great potential offered by digital technology on the stage was practically nullified by the director’s tendency to flout with Shakespeare’s texts.