Contracts in Shakespeare – an occasional series


(Alex Kingston, above left, as Prospero in the Tempest, by William Shakespeare)

Regular readers of this blog may recall that it occasionally mentions plays that have a contract theme.

The current Royal Shakespeare Company production of the Tempest, starring Alex Kingston, is set in the 21st century. It is funny and entertaining, while being mostly true to the text. An obvious adaptation is that the central character is female rather than male. Kingston conveys all the icy, intellectual grandeur of Prospero, self-taught magician and usurped Duke of Milan, who has been stranded on an island for over a decade with her now teenage daughter. But she also brings a new perspective. The power struggles of the court of the King of Naples are seen differently when a bookish, trusting woman is deposed from her dukedom in favour of her younger brother, a scheming lightweight.

The relationship between Prospero and Miranda, his/her daughter, has a modern feel. At times, IP Draughts was reminded of the mother/daughter relationship in the film of Mamma Mia, and he wondered how Meryl Streep would have played Kingston’s role. With all of Kingston’s prior experience of Shakespearian roles, she is probably better cast than Streep would have been. Another comparison is with Kingston’s role as River Song in Doctor Who. In both roles, she conveys authority and wisdom, though Prospero has a vengeful side that would be unexpected in a benevolent Time Lord*. IP Draughts was interested to see many children in the audience at yesterday’s matinee performance, more than he usually sees at that venue. He hadn’t previously thought of the Tempest as a child-friendly play.

And so, on to the contracts. As with several other Shakespeare plays, there were references to a (future) marriage contract, in this case between Miranda and Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples. The play has a happy ending, so by one definition is a comedy rather than a tragedy.

The only other contracts mentioned are those that will be abolished in an ideal future. Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Gonzalo, a counsellor to the King of Naples, words very similar to those previously written by the philosopher Montaigne in an essay, Les Cannibales.

I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none…

Mmm… No contracts, no judges, no ownership of property, no employment, no commercial activities, no literacy. No IP lawyers either, presumably.

Gonzalo’s utopia is ridiculed by the other characters in the play. The King of Naples remains in charge of his kingdom. Once her younger brother has been forced to give his ill-gotten dukedom back to Prospero, the Duke of Milan is content to remain in charge of Milan. The traditional social hierarchies remain.


*A reader has corrected me: River Song is not a Time Lord, and not entirely benevolent. See comments.


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2 responses to “Contracts in Shakespeare – an occasional series

  1. vrkoven

    Ahem. River Song is not a Time Lord (though she may be the wife of one). And not quite so benevolent, either: she’s the one who packs. And who committed a murder (at least she thought she did).

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