Our 'Tempest' a robust play about politics

By James Carroll, 12/12/2000

''OUR REVELS NOW are ended,'' Prospero says as ''The Tempest'' draws to a close. The play is usually rendered as a rollicking comedy, but beneath the antics of the drunken sailors and the sprites is a serious meditation on issues raised by a deadly rivalry for control of the dukedom of Milan.

Prospero, in fact, had been wrongfully overthrown by his brother Antonio a dozen years before the action of the play. Now, using magic, Prospero sets the matter right, and ''The Tempest'' ends with his restoration.

Indeed, such questions of a ruler's legitimacy preoccupied Shakespeare, and it drives many of his plays, from Richard III to Macbeth to Hamlet. This isn't surprising, perhaps, for though the playwright lived most of his life (1564-1616) in an England firmly ruled by Elizabeth I (1558-1603), her legitimacy was constantly questioned by Stuarts, Catholics, Puritans, Unitarians - and all of Catholic Europe.

Shakespeare tells us that ''The Tempest'' is set on ''an island in the sea,'' but scholars suggest that the writer was taking off from reports of a 1609 wreck of ships bound for the Virginia colony in America. Perhaps it is not inappropriate, therefore, to take Prospero's tale as a prophecy of the tempest that is blowing through the United States this electoral season.

We are enacting a peculiarly democratic form of the story, with the initiative belonging to courts and ballot counters, instead of to royalty, but there has been nothing really new about the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Indeed, part of why this drama continues to transfix us is the way it is moving through the narrative arc of the foundational patriarchal archetype of sibling rivalry - brothers (as it always is) in combat for the right to succeed the father in power. (Not even the reign of Elizabeth could prompt Shakespeare to tell the story as if the ultimate claim could properly belong to a woman.)

The shadows of the human unconscious that have fallen forward on Bush and Gore belong to Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Reuben and Judah, Jacob and Esau, Prometheus and Oceanus, Poseidon and Odysseus, Oedipus and Creon, Arthur and Lancelot, Hamilton and Jefferson, Lincoln and Douglas - even Dewey and Truman, and Nixon and Kennedy.

As that litany of sagas suggests, there is something thrilling in a contest like this, and our ongoing fascination only shows how like our forebears we are. As a Gore partisan, I am aware of admiring my champion far more now than I did on Election Day precisely because in this conflict, as opposed to the pre-election campaign, he has acknowledge it as a conflict,with the difference between himself and his opponent sharply drawn at last.

What pundits have denounced as partisanship has been a robust demonstration of politics at its best, and by daring to defy the premature conciliators in his own party, Al Gore has shown us what faith in the American system really looks like. Gore's readiness to live with an outcome he does not want, as long as properly defined by institutions of law such as they are, has been matched in no way by George W. Bush. If that continues to be the case, it will define the difference between them for good.

Whatever its resolution, this contest is already Gore's finest moment, and his supporters can take a pride in him we never imagined a month ago.

But that litany of paradigmatic rivalries also suggests why soon a certain letdown is inevitable, and I am not talking only about the letdown of defeat for those who finally lose. As those stories remind us, there is something tragic in the way we humans perennially define such contests as if their outcome is a matter of ultimate importance. Their inevitably imperfect resolution - and when it comes we will all agree on the imperfection of this one - always reveals that ultimacy resides in nothing this side of death, which alone is ultimate.

''Our revels are now ended,'' Prospero says, and recall that he is the victor over his brother Antonio. Yet it is he who, summing up the meaning of what are going through, then speaks what the playwright William Gibson calls the saddest words Shakespeare ever wrote:

''We were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air. And like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.''

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.