The Tempest

I see Shakespeare everywhere in modern life, and  modern life everywhere in Shakespeare. In many ways, that’s the essence of his appeal. As I reread The Tempest, I kept fuzzily thinking, “this reminds me of something,” and then it came into focus: The Wizard of Oz! While the two do not parallel each other as closely as West Side Story does Romeo and Juliet, the similarities are striking. It’s as if the seeds that Shakespeare sowed in The Tempest germinated and sprouted in L. Frank Baum’s mind to give us another flight of fancy that emphasizes similar universalities: The allure of home, the destructive nature of power, and the magic within.

Storms literally and figuratively set both stories in motion. Shakespeare certainly didn’t invent this literary device, but the tempest and tornado are two of the most iconic uses of tumultuous weather as a metaphor for internal and external struggle and angst.

Prospero and Miranda are forbears of the Wizard and Dorothy, involuntarily exiled and yearning for the familiarity and comforts of home. Prospero and the Wizard become reluctant rulers of strange new lands. In some cases out of fear and exigency, not always benevolently.

Prospero and the Wizard both have their “subjects” complete tasks as tests of their dedication and worth, that also serve as artful delay tactics. Prospero has Ferdinand move logs (in Julie Taymor’s beautifully rendered 2010 film featuring Helen Mirren as Prospera, they are boulders). The Wizard asks for the witch’s broom.

In both, supernatural forces lull the vulnerable to sleep in the wild –A forest in The Tempest, a poppy field in The Wizard of Oz — until a benevolent force wakens them and saves them from danger.

In both, the land to which they’ve been temporarily exiled is described as vividly colorful. The contrast between the black and white and the technicolor in The Wizard of Oz makes the colors even brighter. In The Tempest, Prospero paints the picture for us:  “green sea,” “azur’d vault,” “green sour ringlets,” and “pine and cedar.” (V,i,42,42,37, and 48) The blue sea and green island are as much of a character as the vibrant land of Oz.

In The Tempest, Juno, the goddess protector of womankind descends from the heavens like Glenda the Good Witch in her bubble to deliver benedictions to both young women:  “Go with me/To bless this twain, that they may prosperous be,/And honor’d in their issue.” (IV,i,103-5)

And, both Prospero and the Wizard doff their mystical accoutrements, and their magical powers along with them, once they have achieved their goals and know they’re homeward bound. Prospero proclaims: “But this rough magic/I here abjure; and when I have requir’d/Some heavenly music (which even now I do)/To work mine end upon their senses that/This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,/Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,/And deeper than did ever plummet sound/I’ll drown my book.” (V,i,50-7)

Yet it’s not only the plot lines that converge at points in these two tales. They both emphasize similar common, age-old themes as well.

Both sets of protagonists are unwilling nomadic pilgrims whose drive to get home drives the plot. Dorothy’s famous “There’s no place like home” mantra could as easily come from Prospero’s lips. This makes them notable departures from the typical road trip literature or movies (eg, On The Road,Kerouac, 1957; Crosby/Hope Road to… movies; Thelma and Louise, Easy Rider), where either the trip is the point, and/or a happy ending does not always await the travelers. Miranda cannot wait to meet the “brave new world” (V,i,182) that has been so long a secret to her.

In both stories, the ruthless quest for power has detrimental fallout. As Lord Acton presciently predicted, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Antonio and the Wicked Witch of the West – so deliciously portrayed in green by Margaret Hamilton – are hellbent on mastering and maintaining their power at any cost. Prospero tells Miranda that, in his brother Antonio, power “Awak’d an evil nature” (I,ii,93). This maleficence evokes a karma which haunts him when his own men plot to kill him,  when he believes his son Ferdinand drowned in the shipwreck, and when the ‘ghost’ of the brother he exiled and believed dead reappears to claim what’s rightfully his. We know the terror that the Wicked Witch of the West wreaks. When she melts, the guards and the flying monkeys rejoice. Ding, dong, the witch is, indeed, dead.

Finally, both tales support and promote the notion that magic is as real as we believe it to be, and that we all have the potential for it within, ready to activate, well… at the click of our heels. Prospero studied to cultivate his art. Gonzalo outfits the small boat that ferries Prospero and Miranda away from home with some food and clothing, and books “From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom.” (I,ii,167-8) Caliban, when instructing Trinculo and Stephano on how to ruin Prospero, advises: “Remember/First to possess his books; for without them/He’s but a sot.” (III,ii,91-3) Nowhere does Shakespeare imply that Prospero possessed the craft from birth or in Milan as Duke.  The Wizard may not have gained as much knowledge as Prospero; he just got busted. So he returns to Kansas, still full of hot air, in his balloon. Dorothy needs no such artificial inflation because the adventures and travails of her journey have revealed a wellspring of strength and courage. Glenda only needs to suggest that she dig deep inside to discover her own internal source of power. Oh, and then to click those ruby slippers together.

 

 

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