A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

So Foul and Fair a Day I Have Not Seen


Pro: "…Hast thou, spirit,
Performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?"

Ari: "To every article.
I boarded the king's ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement; Sometimes I'd divide,
And burn in many places; on the top-mast,
The yards, and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join; Jove's lightnings, the precursors
O' the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sight-out-running were not: The fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring, the most mighty Neptune
Seem'd to besiege, and make his bold waves tremble
Yea, his dread trident shake."

Prospero has ordered Ariel, a mildly supernatural sprite, to conjure up a tempest that will shipwreck a boatload of people with whom Prospero has, in Uma Thurman's Kill Bill phrase, unfinished business. Ariel describes transforming himself into lightning ("I flamed amazement"). Not even Jove's lightnings – precursors of Jove's thunderclaps, Shakespeare doesn't forget to precisely add – are quicker or more sight-out-running than Ariel's, Ariel boasts to his master. Ariel even brags that the conflagration he started besieged Neptune, making his bold waves tremble and his dread trident shake.

As if.

Shakespeare's ultimately harmless tempest is particularly soothing to retreat to in a season of real storms and conflagrations, far preferable to Katrina and to Wilma, Fred Flintstone's wife, who is currently aiming toward Florida with uncharacteristic temper.

Prospero arrived on the island twelve years before with his then three-year-old daughter Miranda, dispossessed from his dukedom. He had freed Ariel from a pine tree Ariel had been trapped into under a spell cast by Sycorax, Caliban's witch of a mother. With Ariel's magical help, and aided by some of his own, Prospero takes control of the island, subjugating the beastly Caliban and exacting a rather long spell of mandatory service from the innocent Ariel as well. Here's what Prospero tells Ariel whenever he complains:

"If thou more murmur'st I will rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails, till
Thou has howled away twelve winters."

Oak of course is harder than pine.

If fact everyone seems to be under one form of compulsion or another, imposed by someone else. Ferdinand, a young, noble member of the shipwrecked party, is effectively pressed into Miranda's service, as he assumes the burden of proving his love by performing an endless series of chores, (something bachelors falsely think will end upon marriage).

And so the weather, too, is compelled. Nature's fury is displayed, but its effects, unlike the effects of Katrina or of the recent and far more deadly Pakistan earthquake, are muted. We gain a false but helpful sense of control over what actually controls us. It may be just the cable news cycle and the lazy preference of news producers for easy video content that has elevated the weather to a constant crisis. But the appetite for the constant story of our overthrow by nature, here in Kobe, there in San Francisco, then in New Orleans, now in Pakistan, has always been there, waiting for the weather channel to appease it. Nature's revolt is the reality version of a horror show. By contrast, Prospero and Ariel perform pagan magic:

Pro: "But are they, Ariel, safe?"

Ari: "Not a hair perish'd;
On their sustaining garments not a blemish,
But fresher than before; and, as thou bad'st me,
In troops I have dispersed them 'bout the isle;"

In what vision do we see ourselves reconstituted, whole and in our prime, in ever-laundered fashion at the height of our personal style (on our sustaining garments not a blemish)? Shakespeare's taste of heaven offers a cool retreat from what we know to be the truth, the ruined districts of New Orleans, and the far graver loss of life among the motley riot of collapsed mud and unreinforced cement that skirts our imaginations in the remote mountain villages of Pakistan.

If only.

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