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Ian Myles Slater on: Not the New Pelican
on November 17, 2012
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 parallels to the plot which have been identified 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, are commonplaces of traditional fairytales and medieval and renaissance romances. (Not to mention a lot of modern genre fantasy, and older 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 the 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 on an enchanted. 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, and 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.)
Anyone considering ordering THIS particular edition should be aware that it is part of the OLD "Pelican Shakespeare" series issued 1956-1967, under the General Editorship of Alfred Harbage. It was published by Penguin Books, which then used the Pelican imprint for various types of non-fiction books and editions of literature. Each volume had "Shakespeare and His Stage," a brief essay by Harbage, and an introduction by the editor of the play. The early editions were instantly recognizable as mass-market (small) paperbacks with spines and covers mainly in pale blue. A compendium, "The Complete Pelican Shakespeare," with revised texts, was eventually issued as a fat hardcover, and the whole series was then re-issued in individual paperbacks. In either edition, they were bare-bones packages, with a brief "Note on the Text" and unfamiliar vocabulary glossed at the foot of the page. The short introductions by the volume editors were often quite good; in the case of "The Tempest" (1959, revised 1970), it consists of eleven pages by the distinguished critic Northrop Frye, still valuable as a summary of his ideas on literary modes and genres.
There is now a "Second Series" or NEW "Pelican Shakespeare," under the Penguin imprint, with Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller as General Editiors, issued in the early years of the present century. It is in the larger trade paperback format now commonly used by Penguin. They otherwise retain the basic structure of Publisher's Note, the General Editors on "The Theatrical World" and "The Texts of Shakespeare," an introduction by the volume editor, a Note on the Text," and the text with vocabulary footnotes (embracing slightly more complicated issues, such as puns).
There is yet another possible source of confusion, a completely independent "Penguin Shakespeare" series, apparently issued mainly in the U.K., and much more elaborate (closer in format to the American Signet Shakespeare and recent Folger Library editions).
Although standard practices in editing Shakespeare changed over the almost fifty years separating the initiations of the two Pelican series, these changes are of remarkably little relevance to "The Tempest," which appeared in the First Folio, and only the First Folio, and in a fairly clean text to boot. Major issues (outside speculations that we have a heavily revised or cut version of the play) are problems in assigning prose passages to the intended speakers, and occasional metrical passages embedded in prose passages. (These theories are in part related to whether information on the performance of the play in 1611 indicates its first production.)
Such problems are most acute in the actual storm of the title, Act One, Scene One, in which the Master of a ship, the Boatswain, assorted members of the crew, and some fairly useless courtiers are all talking at once. As a stage direction in the Folio describes offstage cries for help, "a confused noise." Only one personality stands out, the wise old councillor, Gonzalo, mostly for his remarkably calm preaching at fellow-courtiers and seamen alike (and so continues throughout the play).
Here and elsewhere, Frye's text occasionally "corrects" some of the Folio's stage directions -- which are insufficient by modern standards, and often confusingly placed -- and normalizes the spelling (the Pelican practice), but is otherwise comfortingly unremarkable, with no effort to make Shakespeare say what he ought to have said, instead of what the sixteenth and seventeenth-century texts in fact say. It remains readable, and useful -- but don't think that you are getting the benefit of more recent scholarship on the play, or of, for example, a better knowledge of theatrical conditions around 1611.