that's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Shakespeare’s rich ambiguity

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Recently, I watched a DVD of Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest, in which Prospero is renamed Prospera and is played by Helen Mirren. I rather liked it. The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play, and I am always moved to tears by those great lines toward the end:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

The very last lines, in particular — “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” — have always seemed to me koan-like in their suggestiveness.

It is easy to think that “rounded with a sleep” is equivalent to Nabokov’s formulation in Speak, Memory, that “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” But Shakespeare doesn’t say “darkness.” He says “sleep.” One cannot sleep and dream unless one is alive.

Of course, there is no suggestion in Shakespeare’s line that it is we who are sleeping or dreaming. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is we who are the ingredients of the dreams being dreamed by some sleeper or other.

Or maybe not. The clue may lie in that word “rounded,” which is usually thought to mean surrounded, but that I think can just as easily be taken as “rounded off.” This would suggest — and I believe this is a common interpretation — that Shakespeare was saying much the same as his younger Spanish contemporary, Pedro Calderon, says in one of his most famous plays, that life is a dream:

What is life? A frenzy.

What is life? An illusion,

A shadow, a fiction,

And the greatest profit is small;

For all of life is a dream,

And dreams, are nothing but dreams.

I do not usually remember my dreams, and those I do remember tend to be pedestrian. But I have had enough experience of them to make what I think are a couple of sound observations. The most interesting thing about them is the way in which they recombine the details of everyday life in something new and strange, often terrifying. I also think it is interesting that, while we sometimes wake in the middle of one, as often as not the dream is rounded off by just plain sleep. It is this, perhaps, that Shakespeare had in mind.

But what are we to make of this? That our being is a sleep punctuated by dreams? Talk about evanescence.

Of course, Shakespeare wasn’t practicing philosophy. He was writing plays, and the thoughts his characters express can really only be attributed to them — the characters. Prospero (or Prospera) is a magician. Small wonder he (or she) would see reality in terms of illusion.

For those of us in the audience, the value of those lines I quoted at the start lies in the richness of their ambiguity, the way thinking about them causes one not only to find them puzzling, but also just as puzzling the life to which they refer. This is great poetry precisely because it does not offer any solutions or explanations. It doesn’t just prompt one to think on the mystery of things, but to feel that mystery as part and parcel of being alive.

Perhaps the essential note of being alive is never to be quite sure what is going on.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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3 Responses to “Shakespeare’s rich ambiguity”

  1. This is a wonderful article, thank you

  2. The subjects of sleep and dreams and their relationship are featured in each of of Sir Thomas Browne’s writings. I like the idea of those lines being Koan-like.

    The Peter Greenaway version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with John Gielgud and Toyah Wilcox, known as ‘Prospero’s Books’ (1991) is well worth viewing too; as ever Jarman has a twist on things though the film is faithful to the text.

    Another British avant-garde film director Derek Jarman also made a film version of ‘The Tempest’ but the new version you review with Helen Mirren sounds equally interesting.

  3. I was reading a piece of writing from Dogen recently. He writes, “Every crystal-clear manifestation of the entire world is a dream; this dream is none other than all things that are absolutely lucid. One’s doubt of this itself is a dream; life’s confusion is a dream as well. At this very moment, all this are a dream, are within a dream, and expound a dream…….Even though it is said ‘One is further deluded amid delusion’ you should correctly construe it as saying, ‘one is further deluded beyond delusion’. In such an understanding lies the path of progress of realization.”

    I don’t know what this means, but I think of it as him saying that the deconstruction of reality by seeing how nothing has a permanent unchanging essence is the easy part. Then your spiritual practice needs to continue by expounding a dream within a dream. When things are no longer real they have less power to sway your actions and that gives you the ability to reconstitute them in ways that lead to salvation.

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