O Brave New World: Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' turns 400 tomorrow

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

The four words first spoken on Nov. 1, 1611, by Miranda in "The Tempest" have resounded in countless American theaters and classrooms in the intervening 400 years. "O Brave New World": four single syllable words, 400 years ago, were unleashed as part of Shakespeare's new whirlwind of a play.

As Americans, we've had a tempestuous relationship with "The Tempest's" Brave New World. The Jamestown Colony in Virginia, named after England's King James I and his "virgin" predecessor, Queen Elizabeth, had been founded in 1607. Reports reached London in plenty of time for Shakespeare to make a play out of them.

So, while "The Tempest" is hardly Americans' alone, hearing the phrase "brave new world" these 400 years later, many of us still wonder breathlessly, like so many lovelorn Romeos and Juliets: Was Shakespeare writing about us?

Truthfully, "The Tempest's" history is our history regardless, and the simple fact that we ask the question -- anxiously, exuberantly, hopefully -- illustrates most of what's important.

Shakespeare, we say, is Old World. We are the New. His was the stifling Europe of irrational dynasties, strict class hierarchies and palace intrigue, ours the enchanted new world of possibility.

OK, the new film "Anonymous" suggests that Shakespeare couldn't have written "The Tempest" -- essentially on the grounds that he wasn't born rich. And some Americans believe it, too. What's remarkable, though, is that such are the themes of "The Tempest," in which a Milanese Duke named Prospero, forced into exile on a remote island with his daughter Miranda by his usurping brother, enjoys the lush abundance of the sparsely inhabited land. Freed of Old World dynastic fetters, Prospero and Miranda delight in an exceptional New World of liberty where the best things go to those who go looking for them, birthright be darned.

"The Tempest" makes Benjamin Wiker's list of the "10 Books Every Conservative Must Read." Andrew Carnegie was so devoted to the play that he chose his wife based on some of its lines. Steve Jobs, according to Maureen Dowd, was the "Prospero of Palo Alto." Americans recognize ourselves in "The Tempest" immediately.

But in truth, neither our story nor Shakespeare's is so simple.

Our relationship with family dynasties is more like love-hate. We say we value individualism, merit and up-from-the-bootstraps pluck (how different are Shakespeare and Barack Obama in this respect?), but we also lavish affection on anyone with the last name of Roosevelt, Kennedy or Bush.

Consider presidential candidate and former governor Mitt Romney, son of former presidential candidate and former governor George Romney.

Dynasties repel us, but they enchant us, too. For every Shakespeare, an Earl of Oxford. For every Obama, a Bush or Romney.

Shakespeare's Prospero, far from renouncing dynasties, grasps unswervingly to regain his stolen Dukedom. Utopian New World possibilities notwithstanding, Miranda ultimately marries still another gorgeous, European heir. Today, such fantasies are not dead.

Nor can it be forgotten that Prospero and Miranda also have company in their idyll. Their bliss comes at the expense of the dark-skinned native Caliban, for whom the chance to learn English is cold comfort when compared to the dispossession and forced labor to which he's subjected by the European newcomers.

"This island's mine" he poignantly insists -- as if to suggest Shakespeare himself foresaw the cruel exclusions America would exact on Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos and others, as well as the violent struggles that would result.

A troubling Civil War cartoon published in Punch shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation pictures a freed slave identified as "Caliban" receiving the proclamation from Lincoln. From the language, you'd hardly know its "Scene from the American 'Tempest' " was pro-emancipation. Pointing to his former slave-owner, the freed-slave tells Lincoln in stereotyped language, "You beat him 'nough, Massa. Berry little time, I'll beat him too." The words are attributed to "Shakespeare ([N-word] translation)."

Like racism and emancipation both, "The Tempest's" history is our history, too.

The dreams and dispossessions that make up "The Tempest" resonate with us as Americans 400 years later just as they have throughout our history. If only we could be sure Shakespeare cared about us.

Some experts now think Shakespeare's model for Prospero was a moody Emperor named Rudolf II, who headed the powerful Holy Roman Empire, which spanned much of modern day Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Rudolf had spent more than a decade confined in Vienna and Prague practicing alchemy while his vast empire crumbled under the weight of Reformation conflicts between Protestants and Catholics.

According to his rival brother and others plotting his removal, Rudolf was "interested only in wizards, alchemists, cabbalists and the like, sparing no expense to find all kinds of treasures, learn secrets and use scandalous ways of harming his enemies." This is an excellent description, also, of Prospero, who like Rudolf, cherishes above all his "magic books."

On Nov. 1, 1611, at Whitehall, the very time and place where Shakespeare's troupe first played "The Tempest," Rudolf's diplomats were also there. At stake when they likely saw the play alongside James 400 years ago probably wasn't the New World, but the Old.

Sigh. "Dimly remembered European politics?" we mutter. Our incredulity masks our disappointment, our disappointment an uncomfortable historical amnesia.

O, but can't we still be comforted by the fact that "The Tempest's" history is our history? In how desperately we want it to be about us?

Christopher Warren is an assistant professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University ( cnwarren@andrew.cmu.edu ).


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?