Monday, March 23, 2009

Shakespeare: 444 and Ever in The News

by Julia Buckley

Why has Shakespeare remained so powerful, so relevant, after 444 years? Why is it that his words, written in a long-ago era, still prove so prescient and true? Why is it that every time I read one of his plays I actually fall in love with his language--and more deeply as I grow older?

My crush on Shakespeare used to be based on his work alone, but it has intensified since the Sanders Portrait has come back into the news. This portrait, thought to be the only one done of Shakespeare while he was living, depicts him in his thirties as a far more attractive fellow than his other famous paintings do.

Today I learned what many people probably already knew--that Helen Mirren has been cast as the lead in THE TEMPEST, a film which might come out in 2009.

I teach THE TEMPEST twice a year, so this is very important news. The play, as all of Will's fans know, is about Prospero, The Duke of Milan, who is supplanted from his throne by his evil brother Antonio. Prospero is cast adrift with his nearly three-year-old daughter Miranda in the Mediterranean Sea. Antonio expects his brother to die, but instead Prospero and his daughter land on a magical island inhabited only by a monstrous creature (Caliban) and a creature of air (Ariel).

Prospero, a genius of the Humanities, had been immersed in his studies in Italy, but on this magical island he finds that he can tap into magical power with his intellectual power and become a great sorcerer--something he achieves over a period of twelve years.

By the end of the play, Prospero must decide whether or not he will use his power to get revenge against his perfidious brother and his two co-conspirators, who in a twist of fate are shipwrecked on the very island on which they marooned Prospero.

For Mirren, the new film has been changed so that the main character is named Prospera. She too has a daughter named Miranda, and she too will encounter the same creatures on the island.

I am intrigued by the idea of a female Prospero. The original Tempest is very patriarchal, and Miranda's virtue is discussed by the male characters almost as a piece of property to be protected. She is "given" to her fiancee as a gift, but of course Prospero's behavior is reflective of his culture.

This new film, as I see it, is a chance to discuss Prospero's dilemma in a more universal sense. By making Prospero female, the director can remove the oppressive dynamic of a father and fiancee dominating Miranda's life and future, and enrich the discussion of human power and its limits. Mirren can become a Gaia of the island--a woman who creates herself through the power of art, and then must face the limitations of humanity.

The Tempest may be one of my favorite Shakespearean plays. It contains so much beautiful language, perhaps most famously Prospero's line "We are the stuff that dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."

Dreaming is a theme of The Tempest--the notion that much of our experience is illusion. I look forward to the newest interpretation of this play and what beautiful visuals can be created in homage to a genius that never died.

What's your favorite Shakespearean play?

art link here


Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, I'm far from being the scholar you are, so I can't really say I have a favorite Shakespeare play. I don't think I've ever seen one on the stage -- just movies.

I have a question for you: Do you teach Othello? How do you feel about teaching a play in which a man murders a woman out of jealousy? I've read that some teachers feel it sends the wrong message to impressionable teenagers, many of whom already believe that if a boy/man hits a girl/woman, she must have done something to provoke him, therefore it's her fault.

Julia Buckley said...


I've never taught Othello, but I do of course run into surprising attitudes about what is basically oppression in a relationship. When I taught A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, in which one of the characters is raped, some of the female students suggested that it wasn't "really" rape, because there had seemed to be an attraction between the two people.

I've also taught THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET, in which many of the female characters are either oppressed or abused. These seem to elicit more sympathy, perhaps because they are closer to the girls' ages.

But I would think Othello, like any work, would provide great opportunities to explain why Othello's behavior is evil and not heroic. (Shakespeare's women, though, are so often weighed down by their time and culture--it makes me sad).

caryn said...

I like his tragedies so my favorite would be a toss up between King Lear and Macbeth. I love the witches, but I think Cordelia my trump witches.
How do you feel about productions that "update" Shakespeare to modern times and/or different settings? I've seen The Tempset twice that way-once was an NBC miniseries I believe that put the play in New Orleans and the other was a live production set in the civil war. Or maybe it was the other way around-my memory is getting foggy on many points these days. This year's Shakespeare in the Park in St. Louis is going to be The Merry Wives of Windsor set in some different time period. I've read the where and when but of coarse have forgotten.

Julia Buckley said...

HI, Caryn.
I'm sort of a traditionalist, but on the other hand, one of the reasons Shakespeare stays alive is that people keep viewing him through different lenses and keeping his words fresh by trying them out in different contexts.

I'm with you on Macbeth--but I've never read Lear. I need to remedy that this year.

Jerry House said...

King Lear, hands down.

Julia Buckley said...

I really have to read this play. Spring break, I say.

Sheila Connolly said...

I don't think I have a favorite, although I've seen quite a few. Many years ago I worked in London for a summer, and saw as many plays as I could squeeze in (much easier in those days of cheap seats in the "gods"). Of course there were many Shakespeare productions in there--I saw Othello in 19th-century military dress, Midsummer Night's Dream in weird modern trappings, Twelfth Night (with Vanessa Redgrave) in a scruffy "people's" theater in an iffy part of town. They were all wonderful. On my last trip to London, my family and I went to the "new" Globe, which was a treat.

What I think makes Shakespeare's plays timeless is the language, particularly when spoken. On the page it may look stiff and quaint, but when presented by actors (or at least, good ones) it flows wonderfully.

Julia Buckley said...

And it has a way of imprinting itself in the mind. The more I read a play, the more likely I am to NEVER forget the lines.