A few years ago, I forget why now, I had to read round recent critical assessments of The Tempest. Many of them, especially ones written by women, were of the deconstructionalist variety. Take this play apart and underneath you see it’s a manifesto for patriarchal chauvinism, racism and colonialism. How can anybody, let alone professional critics, miss the extreme moral and poetic beauty of this play? I was deeply dismayed.
As always, I take as my starting point quantum physics’ discovery that there is a realm of reality beyond the logic and reason of common sense, as religion has always maintained. Many of Shakespeare’s comedies are initiatory in structure, using initiation in the ancient sense of entry into just such a realm beyond reason and ordinary logic. The word comes from the Greek komos, the riotous procession celebrating renewal of life through intercourse with the god. Van Gennep has taught us about the threefold nature of this kind of initiation, and we find it in many of Shakespeare’s comedies: an initial problematic situation in the everyday world, a transcendental learning experience in a wild natural place, followed by a return to the everyday world transfigured by love and beauty. The wild place is the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, the Welsh mountains in Cymbeline, Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale, the moonlit wood in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Often the agents of transformation are elves and fairies but supernatural would be the wrong word to use for Shakespeare’s magic. His fairies are always earthy, the magic, especially in The Tempest, learnt from John Dee who regarded himself not as a fantastical wizard but a practical scientist – how he would have been into quantum physics. It is an aesthetic that reaches its culminating form in The Tempest. How Ariel’s putting a girdle round the earth in a flash of lightning chimes with electrons communicating instantaneously with each other, even though they are separated by the whole universe, as experiments in nonlocality have shown to be the case.
Here the action has been reduced almost entirely to the second transfiguring phase, and it is this theme of deep transformation of the heart by nature that gives the poetry its extraordinary shimmering and translucent beauty. A manifesto for patriarchal chauvinism, racism and colonialism is precisely what this play is not. On the exact contrary, Prospero as we first find him is all these things, and through exposure to the deeper forces of reality in the play he learns about himself and moves beyond them. ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’.
Deconstructionalist criticism of the kind that so distressed me is the voice of a society that has lost all sense of the transformation through exposure to the transfiguring depths of nature that the ancient world had. As in every age, the artists of our time are telling us through symbols what is going on deep in our minds and hearts: a dead shark, a dirty unmade bed, a screwed up ball of paper, an inner space filled with concrete, a mother and calf chopped in half, a skull encrusted with jewels. The Turner prize tells you everything you need to know. Needless to say, most of the critics with their glib talk of ‘a new way of seeing’ and ‘crossing new frontiers of experience’ have totally missed the significance of these great and terrible admonitory works. Surely a society that has lost contact with the deeper realities to this extent, as the artists are telling us, will destroy itself. That is exactly what the climate scientists are telling us too. None so deaf as those who do not wish to hear.