Interpreting 'The Tempest' Every Which Way

Extension's Analytical Weekend Answers Most Questions You've Had About the Bard's Play and Raises a Few More

by Alice Boatwright

Shakespeare's "The Tempest," the story of a magician and his beautiful daughter who are shipwrecked on an island, encounter strange other worldly inhabitants, and undergo a transformation, has long been one of his most popular.

Like other great works, "The Tempest" offers rich opportunities for study and interpretation. Is it a story of empire and island adventure? Or is it about imperial domination and antiauthoritarian rebellion?

These and many other questions will be debated on campus throughout a weekend of lecture, performance, dialogue and film at "Shakespeare's Tempest and Other Brave New Worlds," on Saturday and Sunday, March 18-19, in 145 Dwinelle Hall.

Sponsored by UC Berkeley Extension, the program will bring together professors from the departments of English, history, law, Native American Studies and other disciplines to explore historical perspectives, as well as literary and artistic interpretations. Hugh Richmond, professor of English and director of UC Berkeley's Shakespeare Program, will lead the course.

"The Tempest," he says, has always been popular, but it has attracted new attention today.

"The New Historicists, for example, are looking at the play from an American point of view. Although it is generally believed to be set in the Mediterranean, there is evidence that the story could have been derived from the Virginia exploration.

"The name 'Caliban' is an anagram for 'cannibal,' but it is also a variant of 'cariban,' which meant an islander from the New World."

With its theme of colonialization, its attempt to domesticate the indigenous population and ultimate retreat, the play also parallels early British experiences in what they called the New World.

"One of the interesting things about this program is that we will be including so many different perspectives," says Richmond.

Gerald Vizenor, professor of Native American Studies, will be speaking on the themes of dominance and survival in Native American literature and will cast a new light on the roles of Caliban and Ariel in the play.

Thomas Barnes, professor of history and law, will describe that period of exploration--not from the romantic view of El Dorado--but from the point of view of the Vikings and fishermen who undertook those dangerous journeys.

Other speakers will include Jeffrey Knapp, associate professor of English; Stephen Orgel, professor of English at Stanford; and Jill Steiner, who teaches Shakespeare for UC Berkeley Extension.

Highlights of the weekend will be the performance of scenes from the play by members of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival company; a screening of Peter Greenaway's film, "Prospero's Books" and a closing reception for participants at the Men's Faculty Club.

Richmond says he enjoys being involved in this type of public program because "it's very important to mediate between the scholarly experts and the public. This is where our research finds a broader role."

He also points out that this is one in a long series of cultural history programs sponsored through UC Berkeley Extension.

"We've been doing this for 30 years, so we have a recognizable clientele."

Michael Lesser, humanities program director for UC Berkeley Extension, adds that this program also represents a departure from the past.

"The focus is new," he says, "and reflects our desire to enlarge the conversation about the great literature of Western civilization to include diverse perspectives."

The Tempest program is part of a new curriculum, "The New Berkeley Seminar: Perspectives in Human Culture and Experience," that will explore the provocative question of what it means to be human from a global perspective.


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