Wednesday 29 May 2013

Noble Savage

In London over the long weekend I saw the Tempest at the Globe Theatre with Roger Allam as Prospero.

I wasn't impressed because I couldn't hear a lot of what the actors were saying in spite of having an averagely good seat - it must be because they are used to telly acting (that or I'm going deaf). Knowing the play I could follow the action well enough but I found my mind wandering a bit onto some of the themes and puzzles which the play throws up...

Is this play a swan song (nice Shakespearean pun there) for Shakespeare, giving up his own "sorcery" (creating drama) as Prospero does when he has achieved his ends? Still not sure about this one. It was probably his last play (1610/11) but that doesn't mean you can draw a whole lot of personal detail about his retirement out of the text. WS's previous form would suggest that he was unlikely to have done something so solipsistic as write a play based on a stage in his own life (another Shakespearean pun).

And the other puzzle is whether Shakespeare had read Montaigne's Essays and based the monstrous Caliban (left in the picture above) satirically on the French writer's stuff about the "noble savage"? There is a growing consensus among scholars that he must have read Montaigne and indeed the programme blurb for this production assumes that he had.

But I doubt it. The noble savage thing was a matter for general discussion among Renaissance types across Europe and (here's the clincher) Shakespeare seems to have been a highly economical or even lazy reader. Having had the classics beaten (literally no doubt) into him at his grammar school in Stratford it appears that he confined his reading to whatever he needed to develop plots for his plays. I can't picture him wasting valuable money-earning time wading through Montaigne's musings, excellent though they undoubtedly are.

More originally it struck me that Caliban and his mum Sycorax might represent the universal folkloristic motif of the mysterious original inhabitants subordinated to more recent arrivals. Since Shakespeare was aware of the original inhabitants of Britain (and indeed his grandmother may have been one of them - see this post) is it too much of a stretch to see Caliban as Welsh? Probably, but it's as strong a case as the Montaigne connection....


Also found time to read my Mum's copy of Artemis Cooper's biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor - An Adventure.

This classicist, writer, soldier, and serial womaniser comes across as a selfish social climber. But he is easily forgiven for all that having kidnapped a German general in occupied Crete and then capped his captive's quotation from Horace as they rested on top of a frosty mountain on the way to catch a submarine. Never mind two world wars and one world cup: the real competition with the Germans is about who is top dog in classics.

For the record the exhausted General Kreipe muttered "Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte" ("You see how (Mount) Soracte stands glistening with deep snow"). Major Leigh Fermor recited the rest of this beautiful and evocative poem in response (original Latin plus quite a decent translation here).

General Kreipe and Patrick Leigh Fermor on the run in Crete