The Tempest

We saw a wonderful performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at American Players Theatre last night. The play’s an old favorite of mine and we used it regularly back when I was teaching in interdisciplinary humanities programs at Sewanee and Furman. It works well in that interdisciplinary context because it touches on so many themes that are important for developments in Early Modern Europe. It also touches on themes I often highlight on this blog, particularly questions of human nature. A review of APT’s production by Terry Teachout is here. He was particularly taken with the musical score by Joshua Schmidt.

I’m intrigued by the different ways I encounter the same work of art over the years. With a play as rich as The Tempest, it’s not surprising that we hear and see new things with each new reading or production. Last night, however, what affected me most was this exchange between Ariel and Prospero (Act V, scene i):

PROSPERO

I did say so,
When first I raised the tempest. Say, my spirit,
How fares the king and’s followers?

ARIEL

Confined together
In the same fashion as you gave in charge,
Just as you left them; all prisoners, sir,
In the line-grove which weather-fends your cell;
They cannot budge till your release. The king,
His brother and yours, abide all three distracted
And the remainder mourning over them,
Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly
Him that you term’d, sir, ‘The good old lord Gonzalo;’
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

PROSPERO

Dost thou think so, spirit?

ARIEL

Mine would, sir, were I human.

PROSPERO

And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gaitist my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel:
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

It touches on vengeance and humanity, especially as Ariel wonders why Prospero cannot be compassionate toward those he has imprisoned when Ariel says that their plight would move him to pity, if he had the feelings of a human.

As we think about 9-11, Shakespeare challenges us to think about how our human nature requires more of us than demands for revenge.

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