I have three hardback editions of the Complete Works Of Shakespeare – two identical (aside from the dust cover) from my teenage years (one was a present for my 14th birthday, and one was an academic prize at the end of year 10), and a nice leather-bound one I was given more recently for my 50th. All three have sentimental value, and have pride of place in the bookcase where I keep my books by and about the Bard.
But the fonts in those are rather small, so they are more for show than for reading. When, as I still do from time to time, I read Shakespeare, I prefer to reach for one of the paperbacks I have for each individual play.
However, at age 14, with all the hubris and naivety of a teenager, I did set out briefly to try and read all the plays, and to do so from my Complete Works volume. I was twice that age, when, with access to individual paperback editions and a much better appreciation for the beauty of the language, I finally did read all the plays.
Being methodical, I decided to start at the beginning of the volume. The Tempest being the first play in that version of the Complete Works, I read it, then skipped to Romeo and Juliet, and then gave up on the rest. Hence, The Tempest is one of the plays, being the first one that I ever read, to which I have a sentimental attachment (the others being: Macbeth, which we studied in Year 11 English; Henry V, which I saw in the cinemas at age 20, The Taming of the Shrew which is the first I saw performed live, and King Lear, which, when I saw it at age 36, taught me with its tragic pathos that live theatre done well has something more to it than words on a page).
Age 14 is also when, coincidentally, I read Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, which takes its name from a quote in The Tempest, the moment when the heroine, Miranda, exclaims: ‘O Brave New World that hath such creatures in it’.
Sadly, 14 year olds are rarely able, except literally, to put two and two together, and I did not really get the subtext of Aldous Huxley’s novel until much much later. [Nor did I understand then, despite being bilingual, that the word ‘brave’ in Shakespeare has a meaning closer to that of ‘bravo’ in Italian, meaning good or great or generally awesome, rather than courageous.]
The recently streamed and now cancelled TV series Brave New World, based loosely on Huxley’s novel, has provoked my thoughts to turn back to Huxley and his defining work for the first time in years.
There is much more that Brave New World and The Tempest have in common than just a quote, and that is what I feel like unpacking tonight.
The Tempest is set on an island off the coast of Italy, where the exiled sorcerer Prospero lives with his daughter Miranda, his enslaved monster Calliban, and the ethereal spirit Ariel. Miranda, having been brought to the island as an infant, has no knowledge of other people and the world outside the island. So imagine her delight when she meets the dashing Ferdinand and has the prospect of leaving the Island for the whole wide world.
So imagine what if Miranda lived happily never after? That is the retelling which Huxley offers us in Brave New World.
Instead of Miranda, the protagonist is John the Savage, born and raised on a reservation outside of the confines of the dominant civilisation in the novel. The world outside the reservation is totalitarian, where sexual promiscuity and recreational drug use are mandatory, monogamy is forbidden, and families are non-existent. Everyone is artificially conceived and raised, genetically altered and socially conditioned to fit within the various social classes.
John, as the inadvertent offspring of a woman abandoned in the savage lands by her lover, does not know what this world is like. All he knows is from reading Shakespeare. When he is discovered and brought back to civilisation, he is at first delighted. But his delight soon fades into horror as he realises that the outside world, with its twisted mores and social controls, is very different from the freedom to which he is accustomed, and bereft of the emotional ties he values.
This epilogue to The Tempest gives us a much better insight into what the world might offer. People and societies are not always quite as good, or as promising, as they seem. Sometimes it is safer to stay on the island than to go and live amongst the land sharks.