Sunday, June 18, 2023

"Now my charms are all o'erthrown"

 From Dr. Esolen at Word and Song:

The greatest poet and playwright who ever lived has been working on the stage for many years, as a writer, an actor, a director, and the all-purpose manager of his theater company at The Globe, in London. Time for a rest! And so he, William Shakespeare, comes out to the edge of the stage for his final appearance, to beg a gracious farewell and a bon voyage from his audience. Oh, he’ll keep his hand in for a while, helping to write a couple of later plays for his friend John Fletcher, and maybe he’ll show up on the boards for a bit of comedy in a play by another one of his friends, the great Ben Jonson. But his really charming leave-taking is our Poem of the Week, below — at least, many critics have imagined it so.

It was common, at the end of a comedy, for one of the characters to step out and address the audience directly, in an epilogue, asking for their pardon if the actors have been clumsy or the play’s been not that great, but in reality giving them encouragement to clap their hands and cheer. That’s what Puck does at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Give me your hands, if we be friends,” he cries, “and Robin shall restore amends.” But The Tempest is a play that is about forgiveness — really, about resurrection from the dead, and being born anew, as are all four of Shakespeare’s final plays; somehow or other, they’ve all got Easter and Christmas in them together. And if our guess is right, and Shakespeare himself played his main character, Prospero, the wise old man with the magic charms, the architect of all the action in the play, as if he were author and actor and director all at once, and if he, Shakespeare, is the one who is bidding farewell, and if some of the people in the audience know it, then what a dramatic moment it must have been!

But I should explain a little about the play. Prospero was the duke of Milan, but he wasn’t interested in governing; he liked to retire to his books, and he let his brother Antonio do the main work instead. That awaked an evil nature in Antonio, who conspired with Alonso the king of Naples, and Alonso’s brother Sebastian, to supplant Prospero. They smuggled him and his infant daughter Miranda aboard a rotten ship, and trusted that they would die at sea, and the people of Milan, who loved Prospero, would never know about it. But God preserved them. A good friend of Prospero, an old Neapolitan named Gonzalo, made sure they had plenty of food and drink, and that Prospero had his books, too. So Prospero and Miranda were marooned on an island, where the only living creatures were spirits of the air, like the noble Ariel, and a hag-born half-human monster, Caliban. (Read more.)

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