Today I have been writing a lecture on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I should confess that this is not one of my all-time favourite play texts. It would come about eighth in my list of all-time favourite Shakespeare texts (yes, academics do have all-time favourite lists of all sorts of things: plays, novels, poems – which is a really tricky one – and even authors, although I am quite fickle about that category). Working on the lecture I have reminded myself of a piece of advice I often give to students: you don’t have to love something to write about it, or present on it, or discuss it.
It is often the case that students will choose an all-time favourite piece of literature for an assessed essay, for example, and then are confused to find that they don’t have very much to say about it. It is as if the elusive quality which draws you to the work is difficult to capture, as if your love of the piece gets in the way of your critical faculty. When they do manage to analyse it, they can end up disappointed: in analysing it effectively, they have somehow wrecked it. Grasping the mechanics of its composition can mean the essence of its beauty sliding away. Luckily this is only temporary and I can always assure these students (who are sometimes very upset by this) that, in a year or so, they will return to the piece with a new pleasure, made even greater by their more profound understanding.
Working through The Tempest I think I know what our second year students will want. I will offer them some background to the play to help contextualise it, then I will walk them through the plot and the characters (this lecture is in the last week of term, so there is a chance that some may have read it over Christmas and will have forgotten some of it by now). Once we are squarely in the midst of the play together I will take them across a series of stepping stones. Each stepping stone will be an interesting point in the play, either thematically, critically or linguistically.
This last is, in my view, the most important aspect of the play for them to grasp. Of course the characters and their motivation are important, and the themes will help to link this work to other literature they have experienced, and knowing some context will settle them in the work, but the language, for me, is the crux of the experience.
Just one of Caliban’s speeches is enough to prove the point:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
I may never place The Tempest higher than eighth in my all-time favourites list, but a speech like this? It’s right up there.