Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Saturday reprise -- Then to the elements be free

This year marking the 400th anniversary of the first production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, I reprise a post from several years ago.

Many years ago, in my sprightly and more foolish youth, I played Ariel in a faculty production of The Tempest. It's hard to imagine now that I was ever young enough or foolish enough to don white tights and tunic and flit about the stage at Prospero's bidding, singing "Where the bee sucks, there suck I." But such was the case. For three nights, on a spot-lit stage, I joined the elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves, whose pastime is to make midnight mushrumps. And on the third night, when Prospero, as promised, spoke the liberating words -- "My Ariel, chick, to the elements be free, and fare thou well!" -- I leapt into the wings, rolled up my tights, and spent the next forty years, charms o'erthrown, with what faint strength I had my own.

Whenever, during those post-sprite years, I required some heavenly music -- as even now I do -- to work my ends, I harken back to my brief fling as Prospero's tricksy spirit, and wonder what became of Ariel when his master set him free. I've even thought of writing a novel on the theme.

I suspect that Ariel relished his freedom -- for a week or two. Then I wonder if he might have pined for his former servitude to a stern but fair master, freedom being a burden he found oppressive. It would seem, from the almost universal popularity of institutional religion, that servitude to the precepts of a divine Prospero and his holy book are -- for the great majority of people -- preferred to taking on responsibility for one's own life.

Would Ariel have been up to the burden of freedom? Would he have been resourceful enough to fill his life with useful activity, without Prospero's assigned tasks to fulfill?

As you may recall, Ariel came into Prospero's service when the great magician freed him from a cloven pine in which he had been imprisoned by the hag-witch Sycorax -- imprisoned because his airy spirit was too good and delicate to do the witch's foul bidding. After Sycorax, Prospero must have seemed a better master -- just, reasonably benevolent, modest in his requests, in other words rather like the father God so many people choose for voluntary servitude.

And so, dear Ariel, where are you now? Napping happily in some cowslip's bell, free as a bird and content with your freedom? Or are you darting disconsolately about that enchanted isle, alone and uncommanded in a world of daunting possibilities, looking vainly for Prospero (who is long gone) to volunteer your tricksy spirit?