Julie Taymor’s _Tempest_

doesn’t match up with Titus. I don’t want to be too grumpy about it, however, so shall simply focus on the parts that made me rethink Shakespeare’s play in productive ways. The film guided me to consider Miranda’s role in the play more carefully. Critical material tends to talk about The Tempest as though it were Prospero’s play — the titular storm is, after all, his scheme, and the beginnings of his revenge for the usurpation plot that cast him on the island twelve years before the events of the play. Prospero is also the traditional “final” role for celebrated Shakespearean actors: little wonder productions tend to direct audience attention towards The Tempest‘s magician.

But if Prospero is at the centre of the play, so too is his daughter. Miranda’s is the body through which the happy resolution of the drama works itself. Miranda’s presence, her ability to fall in love (and invite love) transforms a tragic revenge plot into a comedic familial restoration. Without Miranda, Prospero can punish his usurpers, but he cannot achieve the magical marriage between Milan and Naples that will give both courts an interest in preserving a lasting peace. But Taymor’s version captures Miranda’s importance not just as a body through which Prospero can work his plot, but also as a daughter: the daughter who “did preserve [Prospero] … didst smile, / Infused with a fortitude from heaven (1.2.153-154). Helen Mirren and Felcity Jones portrayed this aspect of the relationship beautifully, with the closeness of the parent and child indicated in a number of scenes by their physical closeness and their communication based on subtle facial expressions and vocal intonations. A number of scenes also play out with “Prospera” in a position of physically distant but concerned watchfulness over Miranda ad Ferdinand. These scenes are also the ones where Prospera was the most somberly reflective, and the farthest from thoughts of revenge, and the furious power she displays when deploying her magic against the three men of sin. Emphasising the love between parent and child reveals what really drives Prospera: Miranda may be a pawn in her parent’s plan, but she is also the reason that Prospera’s plan must work. When Mirren delivers the famous lines “I have hope to see the nuptial / Of these our dear-belov’d, solemnized; / And thence retire me to my Milan, where / Every third thought shall be my grave (5.1.308-311), she does so in a similarly sombre mood (and with the last two lines delivered in soliloquy fashion) that echoes her earlier reflections, suggesting that both death, and the need to secure a happy future for Miranda that will last after Prospera is gone, are on her mind throughout those earlier moments.

The Miranda-Ferdinand relationship in Taymor’s film is not quite as successful, and I suspect the problem lies with Ferdinand. Reeve Carney plays the prince with a uniform broodiness that, for me, fails to capture either Ferdinand’s devastation at the supposed loss of his father or his passionate admiration of Miranda. The love between the pair seems, consequently, a narrative imposition, and Miranda’s proposal of marriage sudden and forced. Seeing the relationship fall flat, however, recalled to me how difficult it must be to pull off the Miranda-Ferdinand plot successfully. While s/he uses magic to arrange the meeting of the two, the love that occurs between the two is the one aspect of the play that Miranda’s parent will not control: and so the audience must be led to believe that without any supernatural interference, and in the space of three hours, Miranda and Ferdinand fall entirely and sincerely in love. Many productions opt to make sense of the love by playing up Miranda’s innocence and the fact that she has never seen a man other than her father, and so is easily impressed by Ferdinand’s youthful looks. While Taymor’s version could have done likewise (especially as the conversion of Prospero to Prospera means Miranda has never seen any man), it doesn’t: Miranda’s enthusiastic “brave new world” (5.1.181-184) lines at her first sight of a group of men at the end of the play are funny in Taymor’s Tempest, but the private scenes with Ferdinand that precede the moment are played in earnest. I think the text of the play invites the love to be played earnestly: a Miranda performed with too much comic innocence (or worse, outright naivety), risks becoming the subject of a laughter that is cruel in its recognition that Miranda can be easily manipulated, emotionally, and will become easy prey to the court’s political schemers. We have to believe that despite her youth and innocence — or perhaps because of it — Miranda and Ferdinand’s love is real and sustainable. The relationship seems a difficult one to perform. Even though The Tempest is commonly read as the play that honours celebrated Shakespeareans at the ends of their careers, we might also want to think of it as a play which can mark the arrival of new Shakespearean talent.

30 December 2010 ~ Hamilton

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Frank Kermode. London: Methuen, 1968. Print.


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