Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Thoughts on the Shakespearean Easter Egg

In the digital age, "Easter egg" has assumed a double meaning: today we use it to refer to a little lagniappe tucked away in an app, or nestled in a file, which can only be unlocked by a code of keystrokes or commands.

The discovery of an Easter egg yields a reliable jolt of excitement - one that echoes, for me, the pleasure of discovering the buried tropes and symbols the Bard embedded in his texts. No, there's no particular command, no "Open Sesame!," which triggers the frisson of Shakespearean revelation; one stumbles on such insights unconsciously, usually after hearing the the same stretch of dialogue a dozen times before.  But I like to think of these textual nuggets as "Easter eggs" all the same - suddenly they seem to unlock themselves before your eyes and presto!  The entire play is something new.

Everyone probably has their own examples of the type; my first discovery of a Shakespearean Easter egg came at about my sixth performance of The Merchant of Venice, when I suddenly realized that the ring that Jessica steals from Shylock ("I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor," he weeps) paralleled the wedding rings that Bassanio and Gratiano blithely give away in the play's fourth act. And as this resonance sank in, I realized that in one tiny stroke, the Bard had all but obliterated the moral superiority of his "heroes" to the play's supposed "villain." (And for me, his script's supposed anti-Semitic cast was utterly undermined.)

But Shakespearean Easter eggs can be like that - sometimes they overturn the perspective of the rest of the play, or the perspective we've been taught to bring to the play.  But other times they ratify and extend those perspectives - as happened in the case of a few fresh eggs I discovered in the text of The Tempest last weekend.

Now The Tempest is a play I've seen at least two dozen times - I've even directed it myself!  But I found myself at a friendly community theatre version last weekend anyway (a friend of mine was in it).  The production certainly had its moments, but was too uneven for consideration here. Still, it yielded me a handful of new insights into the play itself.

Henry Fuseli's Caliban, 1797.
The first of these gave me a fresh sense of just how intricately woven together Shakespeare's symbologies can be, while the second offered a surprising hint of personal emotion sounding just beneath the surface of the text (a true Shakespearean rarity).

Now as a pure symbolic tapestry, The Tempest has few rivals (outside the Bard's own canon, that is). Indeed, it's a pity there's a literal tempest blowing over its opening lines, for they lay out with amazing economy much of the deep moral argument of the play. When faced with the sea-storm conjured by Prospero, the sailors bearing the King of Naples to Italy initially take to the decks with high spirits and camaraderie:

Heigh, my hearts! cheerly, cheerly, my hearts! yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to the master's whistle. Blow, till thou burst thy wind, if room enough! 

But their overlords climb from their cabins and immediately assert the claims of hierarchy, even in the face of mortality: "Where's the master?" they demand of the boatswain, who wittily replies, nodding toward heaven:

Do not you hear him? . . . You are a counsellor; if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more; use your authority: if you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long, and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap. Cheerly, good hearts! Out of our way, I say.

To the Boatswain, the only natural hierarchy is the divine one (and what is "natural" is always of keen interest to Shakespeare). But of course his aristocratic betters remain unconvinced - and the persistent idea that humanity should, or even must, be organized into upper and lower orders becomes a constant trope in the play. Indeed, the line between servant (Trinculo, Stefano) and actual slave (Ariel?  Caliban?) becomes key as the action progresses; elsewhere in the canon Shakespeare tends to elide or at least soften differences in social class, but here he punches up their contrasts.  And he pushes on us the endgame of all such subjugation; at what could count as the play's thematic climax, Caliban debases himself by licking Stefano's shoe.

George Romney's "Emma Hart as Miranda," 1786
Of course this desire for servitude is tied inextricably to another deep Shakespearean theme, the question of freedom, which ramifies in countless ways throughout the action. Tellingly, when Caliban plots to free himself from Prospero, he can only do so in the context of allegiance to a second master. He instinctively trades slavery for slavery; the idea of true freedom is beyond him.

This offers a stark contrast to Prospero's own efforts to transcend his desire for vengeance, and somehow make a bid for true personal liberty. But it's in utter consonance with the coups and plots that dot the play: Antonio usurped Prospero in Milan, who in turn usurped Caliban on his island, who now schemes to usurp Prospero in return; meanwhile Antonio plots to assassinate Alonso even when they're hopelessly shipwrecked on a desert island. Indeed, almost every scene in the play revolves around a coup - except for the scenes involving Miranda and Ferdinand.

But can this romantic couple really embody the kind of utopian hopes expressed by the aging Gonzalo, the world-weary counselor who dreams of a land of "no sovereignty," in which nature brings forth "of its own kind, all foison, all abundance/ To feed my innocent people"?

This is where that unexpected Easter egg comes in. For last weekend an exchange in the first act suddenly resonated with me terribly. 

The lines in question where these: when Prospero first asks Miranda if she remembers aught of their life  in Milan, she sweetly replies:

 'Tis far off 
And rather like a dream than an assurance 
That my remembrance warrants. Had I not 
Four or five women once that tended me? 

The lines seem innocent enough; indeed, I'd never considered them deeply before.  But suddenly I was struck by something odd about them: the one thing Miranda remembers from her infancy (she left Milan while still only two) is the fact that she had servants.

She doesn't recall the beautiful palace in which she lived, nor the lovely gowns in which she was dressed. Indeed, Miranda remembers nothing of her early life (not even her mother!) save the singular fact that she was waited on, that she was at the top of a tiny hierarchy. It's a small detail, but a telling one - perhaps a devastating one; it's a memory worthy of an infant Antonio - and so cleverly embedded in the text by its author that it hadn't struck me in more than a dozen re-tellings.

But suddenly, as I heard this production's Miranda innocently repeat those lines, I realized that perhaps Shakespeare didn't expect her future reign with Ferdinand to map to Gonzalo's hopes at all. Indeed, note the double irony of her phrase "And rather like a dream than an assurance": every utopian dream is matched by its opposite in the human psyche, Shakespeare seems to be suggesting.

John Everett Millais' "Ferdinand Led by Ariel," 1850.
But if that particular Easter egg sent a chill through my perception of the play, another unexpectedly warmed my heart.  This discovery came during Ariel's lines at the top of the last act, when he is finally convinced that his freedom is nigh, and so bursts out into a famously joyful song:

Where the bee sucks. there suck I: 
In a cowslip's bell I lie; 
There I couch when owls do cry. 
On the bat's back I do fly 
After summer merrily. 
Merrily, merrily shall I live now 
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

Again, I've heard this passage more than a dozen times, and have listened to songs derived from it a dozen more (Mark Morris even choreographed a charming dance to it).

But suddenly as I heard it last weekend, I realized it was a Shakespearean Easter egg.

The reason is a gently touching one.  We've become accustomed to thinking of Ariel in abstract terms. He is Shakespeare's own genius, the lyrical talent underpinning all his many imaginings.  Or he is a cooler embodiment of art; or even the personification of absolute freedom.

But when Ariel contemplates his own liberty - when of his own accord he unconsciously answers the question that haunts the play - "What is freedom?" - what does he say?  He doesn't speak of life among the viewless winds, or expound on existential abstractions; he instead sings of flowers, and summer evenings, of owls and bats; he sings of the English countryside, of the fairyland of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In short, he dreams of home. I can't tell you how much this affected me. Shakespeare himself was on the verge of retirement - like Prospero, he was soon to leave the magical island of the stage for a place where "every third thought shall be my grave."

But Ariel and his author don't see it that way. For them, "freedom" means going home.

And home is Stratford.


  1. There is, perhaps, a slightly less sinister way of looking at your first Easter Egg (Miranda remembering her servants). Psychologically, all children (esp. infants) see themselves as the literal "center of the universe" and, over the course of their development, come to learn of the Other. And once that concept of Self vs. Other is internalized, then you are on the road to learning empathy and compassion.

    The fact that our first glimpse of Miranda is her distress over the fate of the ship and its mariners would indicate that she has indeed learned these lessons (as well as any of us can learn them). So while the future rule of Ferdinand and Miranda will not approach Gonzalo's utopian ideal, it may yet prove to be enlightened & compassionate.

  2. Fair enough. Comparing Miranda to Antonio is going a bit far, I admit. Still, the detail haunts. Miranda may have learned better, but the universal inclination to dominance is still her earliest memory . . .

  3. Of course, if Miranda and Antonio start from the same place, maybe there's hope for Antonio too!

  4. ‘And ye that on the sands with printless foot
    Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
    When he comes back’
    The mixture of playful and dark imagery in Prospero's speech is mirrored throughout the play.

    I, too, have always been struck by Ariel’s song in the last scene; it is so singular, so strange in relation to the other action on the stage. The nobles, imprisoned in their madness, are arrayed on stage before Prospero. Shakespeare chooses this moment for Ariel’s to express his own feelings and the simplicity of his imagined freedom is striking. I am reminded of Act 1 scene 2, as Prospero is telling Miranda of the ‘rotten carcass of a boat’ they were put in and the tempest they had to endure, Miranda cries out:
    ‘Alack, what trouble was I then to you!’
    Prospero: ‘O what a cherubim thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile.’
    I have always thought that smile, which ‘infused’ in Prospero ‘an undergoing stomach, to bear up against what should ensue’ was the most potent act of magic that Prospero had ever experienced - despite all his ‘book’ learning in the dark arts. This becomes one of the most important strands from which Prospero develops his powers.
    And this interjection, coming suddenly from Miranda, has the same kind of surprise as Ariel’s song, bringing us back to the forgotten character’s experience. And the infant smile of Miranda mirrors the innocence of Ariel’s imaginings, so that when Propsero says, ‘Why that’s my dainty Ariel, I shall miss thee, but yet thou shalt have freedom’ It expresses a kind of wonder (as does Miranda’s smile) that Prospero feels at these simple pleasures and the creatures that experience them. I will always associate these images with the development of Prospero’s magic.