Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Review Contest: Shakespeare & the Tempest (Reviewed by Hema Madhavan)

True theatre and scholarly study of literature is rediscovered in Francis Neilson’s Shakespeare and The Tempest as it is one of the greatest exemplar of an interpretation and practical application in performance of a play. Neilson not only presents a comprehensive, coherent and cohesive study about all of William Shakespeare’s experience of life, philosophy and his art but also the thought and work of Shakespeare, which are culminated in these words spoken by Prospero: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is recorded with a sleep.” From this pastoral romance, “summing up the distressing conflicts and turbulence that racked Shakespeare’s mind and spirit” (17) Neilson tells us, burgeons “the hope of a new age – such, perhaps, as the golden age – such, perhaps, as the golden one of which they had memory in his father’s time (176).

Interwoven in Neilson’s study, Shakespeare and The Tempest and in the Elizabethan tapestry are the influences of the age that moulded the mind of Shakespeare and dictated the content of the works ascribed to him, the circumstances of his careers that tend to confirm his authorship, and the ways and means employed in presenting his masterpiece in the theatre of his time. Neilson has at his fingertips the diagnostic and social history of England as the English-speaking theatre, especially at its apex in Shakespeare. Thus, with Neilson’s knowledge on performing arts and scholarly research about Shakespeare, his reason for Shakespeare and The Tempest is two-fold as stated in the first chapter of his book: (i) a review of the social and constitutional changes that took place under the Tudors and how it shaped the mind of the man who wrote The Tempest; and (ii) an analysis of the play itself by taking into account the technical problems of staging the play in the theatre.

The first reason for the study reviews the revulsion against the hardships imposed upon the English people began with the misrule of the Tudors and endured through the long line of monarchs from chapter two to chapter seven of the book. Neilson takes on the role of a historian with an investigator’s eyes of the events and a literary scholar when he combines both history and works of Shakespeare to illustrate how the plays of Shakespeare reveal a knowledge of men and their iniquities like “war, religious strife, depopulation, the severities of the acts against vagabondage, harlotry, the gossip of the inns, the troubles of carters” (28) that goes much farther back than the reign of Elizabeth, in which Shakespeare must have knew the life of them all, inside and out. The author’s attempt to discover the ingenuity of Shakespeare’s mind is a journey that Neilson brings his readers on from grave periods of the Tudors to the
rule of the monarchs which Neilson sums up drawing on Thomas More’s Utopia (1904, 4th Ed.) which is “life at that time was nothing but a conspiracy of the rich against the poor.” (19)

Readers unfamiliar with Shakespeare will find Neilson an informed guide to the dramatist’s life and the full range of his writing, and will indeed see more facets of the poet rarely offered in one book. This is because Neilson provides a virtual map of Shakespeare’s life during the rule of 4 monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, is described and substantiated in detailed using documents found in the Acts of Parliaments, petitions to London from provincial towns, ballads and pamphlets, essays and printed materials of literary critics and historians, and contents from plays that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights of his time wrote. Neilson uses Dr. Margaret Murray’s chronicle of The Divine King in England (1954), to capture the grave distress of the common people and how they revolted against monarchs who violated their sense of what was right, which is reflected in the Shakespeare’s play, Henry VI. Neilson is particularly fascinated with a story by Alan Keen and Roger Lubbork in The Annotator (1954) about the discovery of the Chonicles of Halle and Holinshed, thickly annotated in the margin by a hand of Shakespeare’s time, because it suggests what might have happened during the “lost years” of Shakespeare in two identified periods: (i) From year 1578 to 1589; and (ii) From year 1582 to 1592. Although Neilson is speculative in the chapter of the “lost years,” his assumptions are plausible and sound as he draws upon events occurred and the places Shakespeare might have visited based on his knowledge of the law, customs, nature and culture of different groups of people (as in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Henry V); the road system and the social and constitutional state in those years. Thus, Neilson not only provides valuable insight into the political (the execution of wrongly accused queens – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (of Henry VIII) and economic happenings (in sheep farming) in England but it also reveals how Shakespeare’s insatiable appetite for knowledge might have been fostered during his childhood from listening his father’s stories to his “lost years” of apprenticeship.

In Neilson’s view, there is an extremity in the shift of genre from Shakespeare’s earlier plays of the tragedies to The Tempest, came amelioration with the vision of a happier day. This transition, unfold the “recorded-and deduced lifetime” background of the dramatist, revealed his mind of his contemplation about mankind and his creation of characters as far apart as Hamlet and Prospero. The plan for Neilson’s first half of his study, which looked into the moulding of Shakespeare’s mind by explaining the period that he lived in, is acceptable because history impacts and forms one’s mind, soul, intent and function, consummated in The Tempest, explored in the second part of Neilson’s study. Therefore, the exploration of the history of England was the beginning of what lay behind the creation of such a figure as Prospero.

When the reader begins to read chapter 8 to chapter 15 about The Tempest, one has to remember that Neilson’s intention for the analysis is for the of staging the play and conveying the message of the play. The author begins with an introduction of some philosophical concepts of The Tempest are expounded on by making close connections to Montaigne’s Essays – “Of the Canniballes” and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The key concepts are: (i) Vengeance, considered the “dominant one”; and (ii) Proprietorship in which Neilson analyses the varied portrayals of Caliban, especially Robert Speaight’s description of Caliban as having a “natural” status of slavery in Nature of Shakespearian Tragedy (which Neilson refutes the notion of slavery being “natural” position). Then, the reader arrives at the climax of the study the theme of foul play evident in the history of England that Neilson had provided. Earlier on, Neilson questioned “What is the basic theme running through all the histories? Foul play! What is the theme of The Tempest? Foul Play!” The foul play of usurpation, of regicide, of sedition, seems to be imprinted in Shakespeare’s especially in his tragedies, which Neilson crisply shows in Macbeth and Hamlet. Shakespeare’s disgust of the social declination, poverty, wars and power play are translated into performance through his plays.

The discussion of the relationship between “Art and Nature” is argued mildly against Frank Kermode’s idea raised in his introduction of the Arden edition of The Tempest. Neilson attempts to correct Kermode by stating that “art and nature” brings to the fore the problem of explaining the mystery of the creative faculties of the human mind and not much as to make the ideas of the play plausible. Thus, Neilson provides a chapter on the practice of magic, wizardry and witchcraft to supply accounts of the Dianic cult in Dr. Margaret Murray’s The Divine King in England (1954) and other forms of “magic” including the occult and divination in Professor Lynn Thorndike’s Cambridge Medieval History. Neilson exposes the different opinions voiced about the play, its author, the significance of the character of Prospero, his power as a magician, and the utility of Ariel, that gives an “all-too-brief” (which is not-too-brief in my opinion) sketch of the man who, never forgave foul play until one of his last plays – The Tempest.

Neilson, then, shifts to a rather ambiguous subject as to whether The Tempest is an autobiography of Shakespeare to look even farther in the mind and life of Shakespeare. The polite manner of first understanding how some Shakespearean essayist or critics the notion will be a clear indication that Neilson wishes to refute this notion. The history of England is explained and Prospero is compared to his maker. Shakespeare’s experience of men and their affairs is different from that of Prospero’s as he lived in the reigns of four monarchs in which they rule powerfully, where as for Prospero who abdicated his dukedom but governed justly and contented as “so dear the love my people bore me” (Act 1, Scene 2). After this chapter, only then, does Neilson leave the literary and philosophical analysis for the more practical matter of staging the play.

The idea of a play in any century is wholly for the purpose for performance and since Neilson has been produced more than 17 plays in his lifetime, his experience in staging plays is undeniable. He discusses the roles and skills required of different members in the play: the director, the stage director and the players or actors. The problems that Neilson identifies in performing The Tempest fall heavily on the actors as it demands the actor’s fullest capability of his art, especially for the character of Prospero as in the last act, the actor has to play two conflicting roles: (i) to assume an anger not outwardly shown; and (ii) to act the part of a parent delighted with the match Miranda has made. There are also intricate scenes in the play that Neilson thinks pose a difficulty in performing which Neilson proves to the readers, he is able to deal with drawing from his repertoire of works that he has accomplished. In the four subsequent chapters, Neilson analyses specific issues in Acts 2 (The Plotters), Act 3 (Idyllic love and courtship), Act 4 (The masque) and Act 5 (Reconciliation) in order to further understand the play and how each act should be conveyed in performance. It also provides an in-depth study of the characters in those acts, which actors and directors of the play will benefit from. Having examined the play and the staging of the play, Neilson concludes Shakespeare and The Tempest with a summary about the message of the play in a cryptic manner of Shakespeare’s intention in writing the play. It is a play of redemption and hope in the midst of turmoil with a something new and fresh in idea and artistry – Prospero, the magician, “to turn our minds to higher values that the states know not of, to forsake the beaten path of man’s inhumanity to man, and to seek the essentials of life” (181) through the mind, life and works of Shakespeare.

Despite the author’s efforts to broaden the contexts of the The Tempest, the fluidity of the study may cause the some reader to be frustrated at times because the study consists of “repetitions and digression” (3) that Neilson warned his readers in the very first chapter of his study. For readers new literary criticisms, essays or studies, reading this book will be challenging because the endnotes provided are very minimal without much useful information and a bibliography as well as glossary of literary terms are not provided. However, this study may prove to be sufficiently detailed for certain group of readers like teachers, performers and directors as it provides a formidable range of materials or information that contextualise the play in Shakespeare’s history, in addition to the problems of performing the play and conveying the message of the play, which Neilson is an authoritative figure in the field of the performing arts.

In conclusion, Francis Neilson’s purpose of the study to show the spiritual effect upon Shakespeare of the great changes in the law and custom of the land, which had taken place in the lives of his grandfather, his father and himself, is organised chronologically from the reign of the Tudors to Elizabeth. The illustration of how these were indelibly imprinted upon his mind when he was a pupil grammar school in Stratford and when he became an apprentice in his “lost years” are substantiated with evidence from texts written before Shakespeare was born to text produced in the 20th century. The contextualisation of the The Tempest in this book not only provides the reader with an understanding of the history of England but with a practical matter of how to stage the play based on Neilson’s years of experience as a playwright, a director and producer.

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