With the kids still at camp (we pick up Ella the day after tomorrow), James and I made our getaway. In forty-five minutes, we landed at Ann Hatheway’s Cottage, a quaint and quirky bed and breakfast built as a replica of the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife, thatched roof and all. Staunton, Virginia has sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, proximity to first-rate hiking, a downtown full of chic independent cafes and bookstores, the Woodrow Wilson Library, and Mary Baldwin College. But the main tourist attraction for us is Blackfriars Playhouse, a small variation on The Globe in London.
We saw The Tempest. As I described it to Ella, in the e-mail I sent her at camp, it is about a magician, like Harry Potter. As James explained to me, it’s a metaphor for the destructiveness of colonialism. As the director said in the program, it is Shakespeare’s good-bye to his audience, as he retires from writing and casting plays the way Prospero retires from writing and casting spells. As I felt, on a visceral level, The Tempest is about the evils of slavery.
Twelve years before the start of the action, Prospero’s brother stole his title, became Duke of Milan, and put Prospero and his three-year-old daughter Miranda on a leaky boat in wild seas to die. Miraculously, they shipwrecked alive on an island inhabited by one man—Caliban—a bastard whose mother was a witch. At the start of the play, Prospero uses his magic to enslave the flesh-and-blood Caliban and the invisible sprite Ariel.
Caliban remembers how Prospero tricked him with kindness, then used his trust to enslave him: “When thou cam’st first,/Thou strok’st me and made much of me. . . and then I loved thee/And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle. . .” Caliban, who had been master of the whole island, was now not even master of himself: “Cursed be I that did so! . . . For I am all the subjects that you have,/Which first was mine own king.”
Prospero responds: “Thou most lying slave,/Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee/(Filth as thou art) with humane care.” Miranda taught Caliban her language and European manners, at first treating him like a peer and then like a dog.
When Caliban schemes to kill his master in his sleep, I rooted for the death plot to succeed. Shakespeare could not have foreseen such a reaction four hundred years ago. Nor could he have imagined the production I saw, with women playing men and the three goddesses whom Prospero conjures to bless his daughter’s betrothal played by men dressed as drag queens, belting out Motown rhythms. Shakespeare certainly could not have known that I would be watching his play next to The Stonewall Jackson Hotel, in an area in the South where street names and monuments won’t let us forget, as we walk past them every day, the horror of slavery in our country’s past.