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From The Tempest
Adapted from the play by William Shakespeare
Introduction by Julie Taymor
Foreword by Jonathan Bate
Published by Abrams

Excerpt from the foreword by highly respected Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate

…It is neither new nor in any sense shocking for Julie Taymor to have casted Helen Mirren as Prospero. She is following in the venerable tradition of Dryden and Davenant by giving the role to a great actor who happens to be female. In 2000, another great female actor, Vanessa Redgrave, was cast as Prospero at Shakespeare's restored Globe Theatre in London. She played him as a man. Taymor has made the more interesting, more Davenantesque choice of turning Prospero into Prospera. This necessitated a little bit of rewriting of the backstory, achieved by means of some invented lines that imitate Shakespearean language and rhythms quite as effectively as Dryden and Davenant did in their reworking for The Enchanted Island. Even people who know the original text well will struggle to pick out exactly which lines are the invented ones in the retrospective narrative early in the movie.

The effect of turning Prospero the father into Prospera the mother is striking. Some modern critics detect a disturbing sexual possessiveness in Prospero's admonitions about Ferdinand and Miranda not sleeping together before they are married. Shakespeare's main purpose was to stress the importance of legitimacy and respect in the marital union, not least because it is the basis for a political union of Milan and Naples. With Taymor's gender reassignment, Prospera's solicitude for Miranda becomes maternal in a wholly natural way. The somewhat anachronistic quasi-Freudian reading of father and daughter is stripped away. Mirren's Prospera can be irascible and forceful, but she becomes truly herself when she is being tender—with Miranda, with Ariel, and even (in certain looks of pity and wonder) with Caliban.

The casting as Caliban of Djimon Hounsou, born in Benin, West Africa, might suggest that this movie will offer a reading of The Tempest that emphasizes racial oppression and colonial dispossession. The play was written at the dawn of the British Empire…

…but Taymor has absolutely resisted the temptation to foreground them in a polemical or didactic way. She is too interested in the dynamics of the relation¬ships between the characters, in the poetry and its supporting music, in the colors and textures of the environment, above all in the transformational magic of art itself, to be distracted by "politically correct” reading.

Where Hounsou's African inheritance genuinely is relevant is in the area of magic. In Benin, witchcraft is still real. In the movement of his body, the play of his words, the darkness of his imagined fears, he taps into a dimension that cannot be contained by the constraints of western rationalism.

And this becomes another respect in which the feminization of Prospero into Prospera becomes inspired. Caliban is the son of Sycorax, who is accused of witchcraft. Prospera recognizes a resem¬blance between her own dark arts and those of Sycorax. They both have power to bedim the noonday sun, to raise a storm, even to open graves and make the dead walk. The more Prospera protests that her magic is white whereas that of Sycorax was black, the less convinced we become that black and white magic can be kept neatly apart in separate boxes.

Shakespeare knew this and subtly intimated it to his more educated audience members. When he came to write the great speech in which Prospero abjures "this rough magic,” Shakespeare went back to the book in which he had learned about magic, about those ancient stories we call "myths,” about poetry, about transformation, about strong passions, about the symbiosis of humankind and nature: Ovid's Metamorphoses. He turned to the incantation of the witch Medea. "Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves” is a direct quotation from Ovid's "auraeque et venti montesque amnesque lacusque, / dique omnes nemorum, dique omnes noctis adeste” (assisted by Arthur Golding's English translation of Ovid, which Shakespeare must have had open on his desk as he wrote: "Ye airs and winds: ye elves of hills, of brooks, of woods alone, / Of standing lakes, and of the night, approach ye everyone”).

That the black arts of the female witch Medea are the source for Prospero's seemingly white magic is justification in itself for the switch to Prospera and the casting of Mirren. But the connection also reminds us of the complexity of the Shakespearean vision, the difficulty of assuming easy distinctions between good and evil in the world of his plays. Like Ovid, Shakespeare is interested in the mingled yarn of our human fabric. Both are writers who probe our humanity with great rigor, but ultimately they do so in a spirit of sympathy for our frailties and indulgences, rather than stern judgment upon our faults.

And with a great deal of comedy along the way: Shakespeare had the best comedians of his age at his command, so he nearly always made sure there was a role for the company clown. One of the inciden¬tal triumphs of Taymor's movie is that she has found in Russell Brand a true successor to Robert Armin, the master of witty and irreverent words for whom Shakespeare wrote the delicious part of Trinculo.

When Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, he was able to call on a rich mix of old and new talent…

…So too with Taymor's casting. Having long since played Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and Ophelia for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Helen Mirren has the rhythms of Shakespearean verse in her blood. Tom Conti, who plays Gonzalo, is one of Britain's most seasoned character actors. Alan Cumming, who did brilliant work for Taymor as the villainous Saturninus in Titus, brings animation to the difficult role of cynical Sebastian. Chris Cooper and David Strathairn capture the sharp difference between the sullenly unrepentant Antonio and the penitent Alonso. The versatile Alfred Molina makes Stephano very funny, but also tender. As for the new generation, Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney capture all the freshness and wonder of Miranda and Ferdinand's young love, while Ben Whishaw's Ariel is a performance of astonishing emotional range delivered with quickness of motion and ravishing beauty of voice in both speech and song.

Music, so essential to Shakespeare's Blackfriars style, is at the heart of the movie… It is fitting that The Tempest draws on the proto-operatic genre of the masque and that in its later stage history the play was converted into an opera, since this is the play in which Shakespeare was reaching toward what Richard Wagner would one day call the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, the integration of poetry, music, and stage-design. In the two centuries between Davenant and Wagner, opera was the total art form, but in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries its place has been taken by film.

The closing credit roll of Julie Taymor's Tempest is perhaps the most beautiful such sequence of film ever made. No other medium could so ravishingly bring together the poetry of Shakespeare's epilogue, a hauntingly sung musical setting, and the visual image of Prospera's drowned books. In the hands of a master director at the height of her magical powers, this is a total work of art.

*Permission to use this excerpt was granted by publisher and author. This excerpt, or any part thereof, may not be reprinted without written permission from the publisher.

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