• Out and About alerts

Shakespeare's The Tempest takes place on a mysterious island. In the Old Globe's terrific production, after a mighty storm, a shipwreck, and strange beings lurking about, Charles Janasz comes on stage, as kindly Gonzalo, and talks out of this world.

After all the boffo effects, the speech sounds like just a breather from the action. But as so often in Shakespeare, minor characters often say major things.

Gonzalo, one of Prospero's few friends, has a colonizer's urge to rule. But if he became king of the island, he wouldn't rule at all.

There'd be no business, no leaders, not even education ("letters"), no rich or poor, inheritances or boundaries, "no use of metal, corn, or wine or oil." In fact, no one would work: "all men idle, all women too, but innocent and pure."

Nature would supply all needs. And without having to compete, Gonzalo's islanders would live in harmony.

But would they? Is human nature that pristine?

Gonzalo's "commonwealth," borrowed from Montaigne's essay "On Cannibals," sounds a lot like the Eloi in the Time Machine movie (the 1960, not the cliff-dwellers of 2002). The Eloi are so innocent they don't even understand fire.

But as The Tempest and the movie show, into every bucolic reverie a little Morlock must fall. No sooner has Gonzalo given his speech than Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill Alonso, King of Naples, Caliban wants to tear Prospero to bits, and Prospero has the means to murder all his betrayers.

Gonzalo even confesses he described his mythical commonwealth to "minister occasion" to Antonio and Sebastian - to evoke laughter.

In the play the speech acts as a high water mark to rival the Golden Age of antiquity or Eden: a basis for comparison to the present day.

It's what innocent Miranda sees when the shipwrecked strangers come near: "O, brave new world/That has such people in it."

To which sage old Prospero replies, "t'is new to thee."

  • Out and About alerts


Sign in to comment