Themes from The Tempest

15 June 2009

Monday


Forbiddenplanetposter

Variations on the Theme of a Shakespearean Rag

Last night I re-watched Forbidden Planet (1956). It is a film that I have watched many times, and I consider it, along with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and This Island Earth (1955), to be a locus classicus of science fiction cinema.

The_Tempest_title

It is well known that Forbidden Planet is loosely (very loosely) based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Tempest is one of the Shakespeare’s plays that I know quite well (like Hamlet and Julius Caesar, which I have been through many times, and unlike, say, A Winter’s Tale, which I’ve never read at all), and which has influenced my thought in certain ways.

A macabre tempest from Hans Holbein the Younger's design for a Totentanz series of woodcuts (1523–26)

A macabre tempest from Hans Holbein the Younger's design for a Totentanz series of woodcuts (1523–26)

Though I didn’t consciously think of it when I sat down to watch Forbidden Planet last night, it was particularly appropriate for me to do so yesterday, as the same day I had gone to Powell’s bookstore and found a copy of a book I’ve been looking for, Ariel by José Enrique Rodó. Ariel is a philosophical essay from 1900 on South American culture that draws upon The Tempest for its archetypes and conceits. Ariel, Prospero’s familiar spirit, is used to represent all this is best in classical (read: European, and especially ancient Greek) culture, while Caliban, the son of the witch Sycorax, represents vulgar utilitarianism and positivism.

Ariel rodo front

Thus themes of The Tempest echoed through my Sunday, and I recalled an aphorism from my Variations on the Theme of Life that invoked Shakespeare’s characters from that play:

Faustus and Prospero.–Consider Doctor Faustus with his Mephistopheles and Prospero with his Ariel: two conjurors and their familiar spirits could scarcely be conceived more at odds. Doctor Faustus in his last desperate moments offers to burn his books, while in the Bard’s tale of sorcery only the crude and primitive Caliban wants to burn Prospero’s library; instead, our gentle wizard drowns his books of magic. Not fire and scattered ashes, but water and slow decay is to be their fate.

There are two footnotes to this, one on Marlowe:

Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, act V, scene ii, line 197: “I’ll burn my books!—O Mephostophilis!”  This is the last, anguished cry of Faustus before being dragged down to Hell by devils.

And the other on Shakespeare:

Shakespeare, The Tempest, act V, scene i, lines 56-57: “…deeper than did ever plummet sound, I’ll drown my book.”  Let the anti-Stratfordians who attribute the Shakespearean corpus to Marlowe contemplate this. The worlds of Faustus and Prospero, while equally magical, could not be more different: it is not merely a difference of expression or a difference in tone—there is a fundamental intellectual difference between Faustus and Prospero. Also note that both of these passages, the Shakespeare cited herein and the Marlowe cited in the immediately previous footnote, constitute the climax of the respective dramas.

Elsewhere in the same book I make some remarks on anti-Stratfordianism, and the contrast above between Marlowe and Shakespeare seems to me irrefutable proof that Marlowe did not write Shakespeare. So if you are an anti-Stratfordian, pick the seventeenth Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon or anyone else as your pet favorite author of Shakespeare (not that I think these any more plausible), but please don’t tell me that Kit Marlowe wrote Shakespeare. The two could not be more temperamentally diverse.

Yes, it's true: The Bard was the son of a glove maker, never attended a university, and wrote the greatest works of literature in the English language. Deal with it.

Yes, it's true: The Bard was the son of a glove maker, never attended a university, and wrote the greatest works of literature in the English language. Deal with it.

So utterly distinct are Shakespeare and Marlowe that it makes an amusing intellectual exercise to imagine a Marlowe play written by Shakespeare or a Shakespeare play written by Marlowe. Imagine, if you will for a moment, a Shakespearean version of Doctor Faustus… it certainly wouldn’t have ended as Marlowe ended it, and Shakespeare’s handling of the low comedy scenes would have been rather funnier. (Shakespeare was good at comedy.) On the other hand, imagine a Marlovian treatment of, say, The Tempest. Marlowe’s Miranda would have been a different woman, must have been another woman entirely. Miranda is sweetly curious and endearing — qualities we do not find in Marlowe’s plays (the curiosity of Doctor Faustus is driven and demoniacal). One can imagine, if only for a moment, Marlowe writing the part of Lady Macbeth, but never the part of Miranda.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is one of my personal favorites that I have read many times. I love it for its uniquely Morlovian character as I love Shakespeare's plays for their uniquely Shakespearean character.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is one of my personal favorites that I have read many times. I love it for its uniquely Morlovian character as I love Shakespeare's plays for their uniquely Shakespearean character.

The idea of a Marlovian Shakespeare or a Shakespearean Marlowe is so much fun it makes me want to go over the texts of these authors again with this in mind and produce my own rewrite of Shakespeare on Marlovian principles or Marlowe on Shakespearean principles, and I could go on about the comparison of the two without getting tired of the subject. But whether or not anyone has contemplated classic remakes of classic works, nothing is more timely that the topic of contemporary remakes of classic works.

While Marlowe was not Shakespeare, he was a great writer in his own right and a Faustian if not Mephistophelean character, lovable even if damned.

While Marlowe was not Shakespeare, he was a great writer in his own right and a Faustian if not Mephistophelean character, lovable even if damned.

The Day the Earth Stood Still has recently been remade, and I discussed this earlier in Earth Day. I have read that a re-make of Forbidden Planet is under consideration. Science fiction films, even more than other classics, are vulnerable to the desire for a remake. Special effects technology has evolved so rapidly and so dramatically that the viewer’s expectations are easily disappointed. The most advanced special effects of the past look awkward even to the point of shattering the illusion that fiction demands, posing a challenge for the willing suspension of disbelief. Today, even relatively inexpensive-to-produce television series like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica have special effects that were unobtainable in large budget films ten or more years ago.

José Enrique Rodó, author of Ariel

José Enrique Rodó, author of Ariel

Because of its nature, science fiction often demands special effects, and the special effects of the past — even those of classics — are now seen as woefully inadequate. One response to this has been ex post facto updating. The first three Star Wars films were re-edited with more elaborate effects, and the original Star Trek television series is in the midst of a similar updating. Other than a remake, there is also the possibility of a sequel. I would rather see a sequel to Forbidden Planet than an attempt remake, which latter would almost certainly fail to surpass the original, however awkward, hokey, and campy the original now appears.

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One Response to “Themes from The Tempest”

  1. Whitney said

    Very interesting… some of your thoughts really helped me in writing an essay on Dr. Faustus vs. Prospero. Really gave me a rejuvenated sense of new ideas. Thanks!

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