on May 16, 2005
The Folger Shakespeare Library presents the optimal format for reading Shakespeare's single plays. Each book provides the background and context of the play, a brief description of the theater as Shakespeare would have known it, and a brief bio of the writer himself. But the most useful feature is the notation on the page facing the text, explaining Shakespeare's usage of words and phrases. There is a wealth of scholarship embedded in these brief notes. An experienced reader of Shakespeare may skip them, to maintain the momentum of the play, but even we may tarry to ascertain his ken.
The Tempest is the birthplace of "there's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple," "he receives comfort like cold porridge," "what's past is prologue," "misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows," "Oh, brave new world*," and "his complexion is perfect gallows." It is Shakespeare's farewell to London, and it is imaginative and enlightening. It is also timeless, often giving rise to contemporary settings in its production.
Prospero's supernatural powers, permeating the action of the play, will take an additional effort at the "willing suspension of disbelief" which we always take to the theater. Yet we are not at all reluctant when, in his epilogue, he boldly asks us to applaud his players.
* This phrase, "...brave new world..." was penned in 1611, and should not seem so "new" to our modern ears as it does.
on November 18, 2012
Guide for the Perplexed time (since Amazon's listing of Formats seems designed to generate confusion):
This is a review of the Mass-Market Paperback edition of "The Tempest" under the label of "Folger Shakespeare Library," published by Washington Square Press, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. It was first issued under the present label, with the yellow-and-mottled cover depicted on the page, in 2004. With its rich set of aides to the reader, it is a good introductory text, and contains much that will be useful to the more advanced student (although not intended to rival, say, the Arden and Norton Critical editions), and at this writing it is still attractively priced. It is part of a series of similar editions covering the complete canon of the plays.
The OTHER formats (paperback, Kindle, Audio) currently listed by Amazon are of completely different editions of the same text, without the facing-page notes, period illustrations, and other features of the Folger/WSP editions; some of them without even line-numbers, to judge from previous reviews.
Calling the newest version of the series just "Folger Shakespeare Library" somewhat confuses matters, since that is also the name of the actual sponsoring institution in Washington, D.C., which houses a major collection of Shakespeare editions, and related and period works of all kinds. Earlier printings of this text and notes, etc. (1994 and following) were under the label of "The New Folger Library Shakespeare," and differed only in having a pictorial cover by Kinuko Y. Croft. This edition is listed on Amazon, too, but its reviews are lumped together with those of numerous other editions. In addition, Amazon also lists a hardcover edition as being edited by Mowat and Werstine (not seen).
In any format, the Mowat and Werstine edition is also to be distinguished from its predecessor in "The Folger Library General Reader's Shakespeare" series, edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia A, LaMar (1961; also from Washington Square Press, and possibly also under its Pocket imprint), with the same basic facing-page design, but different notes and illustrations, and without the concluding essay and annotated bibliography ("Further Reading.) Copies appeared in both an older, smaller, mass-market format, and in the current, slightly larger one. In this instance, the texts are not drastically different; editorial practices and standards have changed, but the text, not published before the First Folio, is relatively clear and unproblematic.
Those interested in a text edition of the play with notes restricted to the vocabulary, and without introductions on Shakespeare's stage and use of language, may want to take a look at Burton Raffel's "Annotated" edition, either in its paperback format, with the notes at the foot of the page, or its Kindle edition, with the notes hyper-linked to the text. The latter works well, but constant switching back and forth can produce a discontinuous reading of the play.
To turn to the text being edited: "The Tempest" was probably the last play written entirely by William Shakespeare, sometime in 1610-1611. It was performed at court during the celebrations for the betrothal and marriage of King James I's daughter Elizabeth to Frederick, Prince of the Rhine Palatinate, and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, an event momentous in English literature for the sheer quantity and, frequently enough, the quality of verse it inspired. Whether it was written FOR the occasion is debatable; topical references seem instead to center on then-recent colonization efforts in the New World (Jamestown, and, accidentally, Bermuda); and the locales are all Mediterranean instead of Central European.
Of course, given Shakespeare's "Sea Coast of Bohemia" (i.e., roughly, the modern Czech Republic) in another play, the argument from geography is not the firmest in the world. And, despite repeated arguments that the play is about European conquests and colonies in the New World, the repeated allusions seem to me more topical than thematic.
The compactly-told story is set on a single island, during part of a single day, and is the only Shakespeare play since "Comedy of the Errors," at the very beginning of his career, to observe so strictly the "Classical Unities" of time and space. (Although "A Midsummer Night's Dream came close.) Shakespeare could have spread the story over fifteen or so years, and three or four distant places, as in other plays, but in this case chose not to do so. This requires some exposition of the "back story," which is handled well, as one would expect from Shakespeare at the height of his creative powers.
Of course, there is a school of thought (or several) which insists on seeing in the tempest-raising magician Prospero an image of a tired Shakespeare on the verge of retiring from the theater. I admit that the notion is tempting, but Prospero himself, a testy old man, seems a poor image of Shakespeare, who, on the basis of the scanty evidence, seems to have been regarded as even-tempered and well-mannered (at least compared to most other theater-folk, or arrogant aristocrats).
Then too, Prospero's insistence on stage-managing the events of the play is not a new idea in Shakespeare's work - compare the behind-the-scenes efforts of the incognito Duke in "Measure for Measure," and of Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
For those not already familiar with the play, it is the only one of Shakespeare plays without a recognizable source for the main plot, although there is documentation for many details in the voyage literature of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, especially the earlier years of the Virginia colony. A few hints may have come from histories of Italy, but the names don't match up with any specific events. Most of the other suggested parallels to the plot are too general to tie directly to the play, although they may be helpful in understanding it.
The grumpy magician, his beautiful daughter, the handsome young hero, and the magician's attendant creatures (of varying appearances, and moral and intellectual characteristics), are commonplaces of traditional fairytales and medieval and renaissance romances. (Not to mention a lot of modern genre fantasy, and older or popularized science fiction.) So, too, are wicked brothers and scheming courtiers.
In other hands, these elements could have made a rambling crowd-pleaser like the then-popular "Mucedorus." Shakespeare, who was at home with plots spread widely through time and space, here makes them the subject of a tightly constructed play. As has long been noted, "The Tempest" is one of the few Shakespeare plays to observe the so-called "classical unities" of (elapsed) time and a single place, in this case, a few hours nearby and on an enchanted island. In this is its unlike most other Elizabethan and Jacobean "romance" plays, very much including his own earlier ventures, such as "Twelfth Night" and "A Winter's Tale."
"The Tempest" is one of my personal favorites in the Shakespeare canon. I'm not alone. It has inspired a long series of pastiches, retellings, parodies and satires, adaptations, operatic adaptations, and just plain productions. (My personal pick -- a purely sentimental one -- is "Forbidden Planet," the 1956 movie starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen, all upstaged by Robbie the Robot, in a double role emulating both the helpful spirit Ariel and the bumbling Caliban; and with an entirely different backstory.)