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The Tempest that restores?

I recently saw a unique production of Shakespeare's %The Tempest%. While I was entranced by the amazing performances that fused dance, martial arts, and other kinds of movement to convey the characters' meaning entirely without words, at the end I was frustrated by the way magic - which had been such a pivotal feature throughout - was not just neglected, but deliberately rejected. Since this is a comedy, it ends with a wedding, but more importantly, with the restoration of all the characters to their rightful place in life: the dispossessed aristocrats take up their honors, while the servants who have been playing around are put back to work. At that point, the magician can abandon his book, and with it, his power. But every instinct in my Witch's soul rose up in rebellion, insisting that the role of magic was not to maintain the status quo.

This is not the first time this theater and this director have made me reflect on my ideas of magic. Shakespeare's plays feature plenty of magic, its different forms wielded by a diverse cast of characters. Let me admit now that I am not a Shakespeare scholar; in fact, if anyone wants to suggest some good reading on the topic of Shakespeare's uses of magic, I would be very glad. My thoughts here are entirely in response to the particular staging of The Tempest and an earlier production of Macbeth their unique style of "silent Shakespeare."

Synetic Theater's stock-in-trade is an intensely physical form of theater that fuses kinetic, body-based work with the acting and stagecraft of typical plays. Their silent Shakespeare is particularly fascinating because, as the name implies, there is no dialogue. But "silent" is a misnomer - there was a marvelous musical score that was an integral part of the staging. Synetic's Shakespeare uses every sense and every means except words to bring the audience into their imaginary world. It is nothing short of magical.

In fact, I was struck over and over again by how much the characters could convey without words, and although I've heard many people express the idea that ritual relies on the tools of theater - and that theater can be a kind of ritual - I was overwhelmed by how much most of us, especially myself, could learn from this example. I personally am no dancer, but it suffices to say that I am much more convinced of the importance of gesture in ritual, and not just in terms of its magical meaning. Onstage, Prospero put down the tip of his staff and turned in a circle, first slowly, then faster, and the meaning of raising a storm - a hurricane! - was instantly apparent.

But not all Synetic's magic-wielders have been as appealing to the audience. When they put on Macbeth last year, their three witches were dressed in ways reminiscent of a rabbi, a priest, and an Orthodox monk or priest. Their movements confirmed these attributions, mimicking davening, prayer, and even the whirling of Sufi devotees, but both costumes and movement were sinister and scandalous. In an audience forum after the show, Paata Tsikurishvili, the artistic director, confirmed that those implications were exactly what the roles were meant to convey because he saw the witches as "the perversion of true religion."

In The Tempest, though, magic plays a much more ambivalent role; it is Prospero's power and the means to his ends, which the audience is supposed to support. This magic, the "good" magic, is much more nature-oriented; he meets his helper, Ariel, when he is trapped in a tree, and once this "airy" spirit is freed, together he and Prospero can affect a great deal of the natural world around them, even summoning up the titular storm. This production created Ariel as the essence of the word "mercurial," with costuming and makeup rendering him a quicksilver figure who moved in ways unpredictable and changeable, with playfulness his greatest motivation. He was the very personification of a Mercury spirit.

By contrast, it is Caliban and his mother Sycorax who represent "bad" magic in the world of The Tempest. Here the director's opinion of dark magic was let loose again: both Caliban and Sycorax are entirely in red and black, with horns, and while the plot makes Caliban sometimes a figure of mischief, sometimes of pity, and sometimes of humor, the demonic associations are always visible. The contrast - especially given that Caliban knows or does little to no magic - was striking.

I am not arguing that Caliban should be rehabilitated; Shakespeare wrote him as an ambiguous character who performs plenty of reprehensible actions; but I think this production's portrayal was heavy-handed with the demonic association and reflects a deep discomfort with the idea of magic that made me think again about my own relationship with magic's uses.

At the conclusion, Prospero drowns his book of magic, thus giving up his power before he and his daughter return to the mainland, the world of everyday life. This was a relatively small part of the play, but it struck me as highly significant. It conveys the message that magic is inherently disruptive, and the only "good" uses of magic are to restore things to the way they should be. But for Prospero and Miranda to take up their proper roles again, he cannot keep his power. So he sets the book adrift on the waves, returning the magic to the natural world he once commanded.

In Synetic's production, as the theater darkens, another figure comes across the magic book, still glowing from within: Caliban's face is lit from below as he discovers the volume, lifts it and examines it wonderingly, then blows across its pages, both sending its magic out to the audience and extinguishing its light.

This ambiguous gesture struck me deeply. At first my instinct was that it should have been Ariel who blew out the book to emphasize the idea of sharing magic with them by adding the possibility that he was offering it through his assistance as well. And I was discomfited by the image of magic being returned to the devil-figure with the possible message that this is where it belongs. But after considering it again, I wonder if another, more hopeful, reading is possible. The synopsis clearly says that Caliban is "abandoned" on the island; perhaps, I thought, if he gains magical powers, he will be able to free himself from his implied imprisonment, or at least grow into a better role as a more empowered, more adult figure.

What do you think? Do you share my gut reaction that magic is not meant to restore the status quo? We can't change the way Shakespeare wrote his work; but if we, unlike Prospero, do not relinquish our powers, how does that change the story, our stories? What do we do when we take up the book?

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Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the history of magic with the support of her husband and four cats.

Please note that all opinions expressed here are Literata's alone and do not reflect the positions of any organization with which she is affiliated.

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