Sunday, February 19, 2012

"The Tempest" - Banned!?!?

  I recently read an article that some group in Arizona - either the legislature or the state school board (it happened a while ago and I could find no articles which actually stated who imposed this ban) - has banned the "Tempest" by Shakespeare.  Apparently this is a part of some overall ban of some nebulous category they are calling "ethnic studies."  The whole thing seems ludicrous to me.  I completely and thoroughly reject banning books - every and any books.  As a society we need to be constantly considering ideas, we need to learn to consider and debate and reject ideas.  If those ideas are never allowed to enter public discourse then we do not learn, we do not grow and we as a society looses and are poorer as a result.  Banning books is done out of fear and ignorance - those who would advocate banning have allowed their fear of ideas and their arrogance to take over. This is a bad thing.  But back to Shakespeare.  I am trying to understand why in the world "The Tempest" of all of Shakespeare's plays would be the one chosen to be banned.
  Let's see.  It can't be sex - Miranda and Ferdinand are perhaps one of the most virtuous couples in all of Shakespeare.  In fact Prospero gives a speech mid-play which would make those who advocate abstinence proud.  And there is more sex in "Romeo and Juliet" and in "Troilus and Cressida."  How about violence?  Hmm - no one dies.  Unlike "Hamlet," Richard III," "Othello," "Lear," "Julius Caesar," and I could go on and on (not to even mention the bear eating the human scene from "Winter's Tale" or Shakespeare orgy of violence "Titus Andonicus.")  All of these plays remain unbanned.  Perhaps it is the magic.  There is the spirit Ariel, there is lots of magic.  But surely there is more magic in "Midsummer Night's Dream" (not to mention "Harry Potter" or "Lord of the Rings").  Then what else. Gary Panetta in his usual astute way suggests that the reason has to do with the character of Caliban, and Caliban's relationship with Prospero.
   Ok. Caliban is often seen as a symbol of the peoples of the places that were just beginning to be colonized in the early 17th century.  Places like Africa and North America had human populations with darker skin and different cultural traditions.  They were seen as beastly, and novelties by white Europeans.  They were also enslaved, and England at the time of Shakespeare had slavery.  It has been argued that Caliban represents these peoples and Prospero in his relationship with Caliban represents the brutal and cruel white Europeans.  Perhaps.  It is true.  Prospero does not treat Caliban well.  And Caliban hates Prospero.  But Caliban also joins up with Stephano and Triculo who are not admirable white Europeans by any account.  Next to these fools Caliban looks downright wise.  So, is is always the case in Shakespeare, it is mixed.  There is no propaganda here.  Shakespeare didn't (I think) understand Caliban himself.  And one could argue that Caliban is one of the nobler characters in the Tempest.  And in the end Prospero renounces his magic and so Caliban is set free.
   If this is the reason for the ban - I still don't understand it. Colonization happened.  Many native peoples and cultures were destroyed in the process.  We need to be honest about this.  We need to look at this fact and teach and discuss it.  Are they trying to pretend it didn't happen in Arizona?  What good will that do?  That is idiotic- as is this ban.
   But ultimately what is The Tempest about?  In my view, it is about the high cost of vengeance.  Prospero seeks to be revenged upon the usurping Duke of Milan and the King of Naples.  And this desire consumes him, and ultimately it devours him.  He is able to confront his enemies and they too are changed, but it seems to me that it is Prospero who looses the most in this.  It is as though the evil done then continues to weave its spell until all of the actors are bound and destroyed by it.  The only hope is for the next generation - the lovers who are untouched by this hated.  Miranda and Ferdinand emerge unscathed and we hope for the future because of them.  Ariel and Caliban are also free.  Now, why is this play banned?
   I suppose we can't have our impressionable youth reading about adults who are flawed, and have done wicked things in order to advance in society, or who have appropriated wealth and title though deception and character assassination.  We don't want to pervert our young people with the issues surrounding colonization and justice.  Heavens who knows these young people might actually grow up to be thinking, mature adults for whom issues of justice are important.  We can;t have that - can we Arizona?
   In short - this ban is simply moronic - like all book bans.  Certainly The Tempest does not represent a danger to civil society.  In fact, studying The Tempest might actually help our young people to be thoughtful and insightful.  But don't let them read "Measure for Measure," that one is about the abuse of power and sexual abuse!
   I read about this idiotic ban just about the same time I received my DVD of the Julie Taymor/Helen Mirren "The Tempest."  If you want to brush up on your Tempest, get this film.  It is terrific.  The film is shot on location in Hawaii and certainly they found the island of the Tempest in this location.  All of the acting is terrific.  But the casting of Helen Mirren as Prospera is particularly noteworthy.  This character is Prospero in Shakespeare and is usually played by a man.  But you come away from this production thinking it is better with a woman in the lead role.  Certainly all kinds of dynamics are changed - the relationship with Miranda and then Miranda/Ferdinand now becomes a mother/daughter relationship which has all kinds of different dynamics than the usual father/daughter relationship (which was so important to Shakespeare).  There is heightened sexual tension with Ariel, and there is a different dynamic with the relationship with Caliban.  But mostly the issue of revenge, which is so central to this play, is really altered.  In other productions I have seen I have come away thinking that Prospero was just interested in getting even and regaining what he has lost.  But Julie Taymor pushes it all towards the issue of justice.  In fact, it is clear that Prospera will not be satisfied with getting even or getting back - she wants justice and hopes that her daughter and Ferdinand will bask in its glow so that their lives and the lives of those who are impacted by them will be better.  It is a hopeful note.  Surely this is not all Taymor - it is in the Shakespeare - but at the same time the sex change of the leading character but the acting skill of Helen Mirren herself bring a depth to this role that I have never ever before experienced.
   The remainder of the cast is terrific. I would make special note of Ben Wishaw as Ariel and Djimon Hounsou as Caliban.  Both of the actors were magnificent.  Ariel was the only member of the cast whose presence was not required for filming on location.  He did most of his work in a studio in London in front of a green screen and the rendering of his character in this film is one of the great wonders of this film.  In short - buy this DVD.  Enjoy this production of the Tempest which is like none you have ever seen before.  And while you are at it - buy an extra copy and send it to someone you know in Arizona.