Imprisonment & Liberation through Performance: Tempest Versus Hag-seed
The textual conversations between playwright William Shakespeare’s piece of theatrical work The Tempest and composer Margaret Atwood’s analogous novel Hagseed has compelled myself as a reader to undergo a cathartic experience pertaining self-reflection, not only on myself but towards the two texts. The concept that the production of human life is a piece of performance art itself is universal; this timeless value has the ability to endure the test of both time and place, by which I was induced to reconsider my perspective on life as a whole; to perceive it as the “world stage”.
William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest is an exemplary piece of theatre built upon the processes of self-reflection. It is a play of which is highly reflective of itself as a piece of literature, and is considered to be a personal allegory to the life of Shakespeare as a playwright.
In both The Tempest and Hagseed, theatre is presented as the principal device in exploring concepts and values of human morality through the act of self-reflection, thus enabling the audience to coherently view the relationship between theatre and reality.
Both texts, in particular The Tempest explores theatrum mundi; the concept that life itself is a piece of theatre, of which is scripted and directed by the greater producer, God fortune, fate etc, particularly when it draws near to its dénouement.
This is accomplished through the use of mise en abyme, by both composers. There are multiple layers of theatricality occurring, which in turn enables the audience to become aware of the the true nature of the play itself
Shakespeare projects himself through the characterisation of Prospero in his elegiac soliloquy; “our revels now are ended…. To still my beating mind”, found during act 4 scene 1. The speech is a metatheatrical infused metaphor for the impermanence of human life. Certain images are evoked, with purpose to remind the audience of the elusive nature of theatre, thus disclosing the deep meta theatricality of the play.
Connotations to theatre are shown throughout the soliloquy, which refer to theatrum mundi; the greater theatre of the world, the world stage. Terms such as “actors” and “pageant” are examples of such. Aligned with vivid metaphors “melted into air, into thin air” and “like the baseless fabric of this vision”, Shakespeare is able to evoke a sense of emptiness, thus alluding to the ephemerality of theatre.
This is explicitly mirrored in the work of Margaret Atwood’s Hagseed, through the interior monologue of Felix’s, whereby he states “For this talent I clear a time and a space; I allow it to have a local habitation and a name, ephemeral though these may be; but then, all theatre is ephemeral.” – page 80. Moreover, Atwood uses “theatre is the art of true illusions” – page 79 to implement an oxymoron, which effectively forms a paradox between the illusory and reality, in which theatre creates a blur between, obscuring the audience’s perception of reality; it alters our perspective on life as human beings.
Double entendre further alludes to theatrum mundi through “the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself”, where the “great globe” not only represents Shakespeare’s globe theatre, but the globe itself; the world.
Composers William Shakespeare and Margaret Atwood both focus on the metaphorical concept of theatrum mundi; pivoting around the focal idea of a production of human life itself as a theatrical performance.
Atwood further advances on this concept by composing a novel of which is centered around the production of The Tempest itself. So while four hundred years prior to this, Shakespeare has used mise en abyme to create a metaphorical play of theatrum mundi within a literal, theatrical play, Atwood plays upon this notion of meta theatricality by forging a play within her novel.
Atwood reacknowledges the role of theatre, particularly that of Shakespeare’s, in enabling humanity as whole to grasp a more profound understanding of performance as a reflection of human existence. She does so by transforming the representation of pertinence of theatre in order to better suit the contemporary audience of the 21st century.
These resonances pertaining the instilled meta theatricality between the two texts The Tempest and Hagseed enables the audience to consider life through the lens of performance, moreover underpinning the power of theatre to provide a cathartic release from one’s own tangible reality.
By observing this paradigm between the two texts, we as the audience are able to grasp an understanding on one of the key concepts and focal motivations behind Shakespeare’s construction of The Tempest; Whereby human life itself is a piece of performance art, a play.
Imprisonment is a source of human suffering whether it be physical, intellectual or emotional. Yet the capacity of the human imagination, the psyche, can allow us to free ourselves from this condition. Atwood uses this concept to explore the value of literature and theatre to both challenge and liberate.
Both texts The Tempest and Hagseed revolve around the centerpoint of imprisonment, whether it may be allegorical or material. Every character of The Tempest has been manipulated and developed by the hand of Shakespeare to be confined in an imprisonment of some form. Margaret Atwood has played upon the prismatic intertwinement of incarceration and captivity throughout The Tempest by amplifying those values within her own analogous novel, Hagseed.
Akin to The Tempest, Theatrum mundi is further intertwined throughout Atwood’s novelistic adaptation, whereby it is through the representation of imprisonment, the audience handed a shift in perspective, to view human life from a divergent point of view; ‘all the world’s a stage’ – William Shakespeare, As You Like It.
Atwood has developed the character Felix as an inmate in the prison of his own mental disarray; he is drowning in his own guilt and sorrow. He lives in his own world of false hope, where he is so enthralled by his own imagination that he trusts that his Miranda will be set free by the production of the tempest, yet ironically she is trapped in his imagination
The characters of The Tempest are no less at liberty of those in Hagseed. Prospero and his daughter Miranda are confined to a “poor cell”, while the “abhorrèd slave” Caliban and merciful Ariel have had their liberty stripped of them by Prospero, thus are confined to slavery under the hand of their master.
Figurative imprisonment is portrayed through the character of Prospero, whereby he is consumed by his own yearning for vengeance. His capability for sympathy and compassion is restricted by his own sentiment of resentment and exasperation. Yet, attaining the ability to empathise and to forgive is what will set him free from the prison of his own consciousness.
This is reflected through Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony, as his character of Prospero is so enthralled in his magic. His spell books are the symbol of his knowledge and thus power, however they are to blame for imprisoning him further from the reality of his own humanity.
“Let your indulgence set me free”. Prospero’s soliloquy during the epilogue of The Tempest refers back to the concept of theatrum mundi. In this poignant plea for freedom, Shakespeare breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience through the character of Prospero, whom he has developed in his own image. Through this act of self-reflection and forgiveness, Prospero is able to be freed from his own state of resentment.
An actor stepping out of a role at the denouement of a play to ask for an applause from the audience was a convention of many Jacobean and Elizabethan theatrical performances. This particular epilogue is distinctly sentimental as the figure on stage is both the character of Prospero and the actor playing the part.
This synchronised duality between liberty and forgiveness is duplicated by Margaret Atwood in her novel Hagseed by resonating the motif of a prison, and refashioning the setting to a real, material prison as opposed to the metaphorical prisons explored in The Tempest, thus examining the concept of imprisonment under a new light. Nonetheless, allegorical confinement is yet reverberated through her work as she characterises Felix to reside in spiritual imprisonment.
Atwood transcends this concept of spiritual confinement by imprisoning the character of Felix within his own thoughts of grief and despair. By setting Miranda free, he may only be set free from his mind. ‘“To the elements be free” he says to her, and finally she is’ – page 283
This textual conversation between the two texts enables the audience to align Ariel of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with the outcome of Felix’s state of despondency and imprisonment within his consciousness; Atwood’s nebulous spirit of Miranda.
“Snap out of it, Felix. Pull yourself together. Break out of your cell. You need a real-world connection” – page 47.
The mental state of imprisonment is portrayed through the language tropes depicting Felix’s emotional collapse. Felix’s emotional confinement is represented by the metaphorical cell referenced. Imprisonment is instantaneously established as a focal aspect of his character. Connotations to the motif of prison are exhibited through the “cell” as a metaphor for Felix being bound to his own imagination
Atwood further writes in the limited third person narrative in order to mimic a Shakespearean soliloquy, again tying back to the intertextuality between the two texts. As a result of such, the audience is able to access the emotional turmoil occurring in Felix’s mind, a lucid illustration of how his mental health is suffering under the hand of his confinement to his own thoughts.
Hence, the textual conversations between the two texts The Tempest and Hagseed regarding the notion of imprisonment, whether it may be elusive or literal,
The idea of considering human life through the lens of theatrical performance is a universal and timeless concept of which it will stand strong in the face of time and place, really from one generation of literature to the next. By virtue of this, myself as the audience underwent a purgative experience of self-reflection, whereby I was able to shift my perspective in the way I view humanity and the great globe itself.
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