Logging in The Tempest

December 28, 2010

Last Christmas day – 2009 – our boiler broke and we had to fill several Holy sacks, to keep the house warm while it was snowing outside.

Caliban has other uses for a log, suggesting some ways for Stephano to murder Prospero, including ‘with a log / Batter his skull’.

In the precedent scene, Ferdinand has the same weapon for an unusual prop, when he enters ‘bearing a log’. Prospero has given him an impossible commission But rather than roll a massive rock up a hill or find the golden fleece, defeat a giant or locate treasure, Prospero has a task that is more appropriate to his location, and would be recognisable to many seventeenth-century theatregoers – Ferdinand has to fetch in the logs:

I must remove
Some thousands of these logs and pile them up,
Upon a sore injunction

It’s an endless task on a mythic scale, but it is also a humble job, and not appropriate to Ferdinand’s estate:

I am in my condition
A prince, Miranda; I do think, a king;
I would, not so!–and would no more endure
This wooden slavery than to suffer
The flesh-fly blow my mouth.

Only for Miranda’s sake, he says,  ‘Am I this patient log-man’. She for her part wishes the climate would intervene in sympathy with her pity…

I would the lightning had
Burnt up those logs that you are enjoin’d to pile!

…and predicts that the logs will join her by weeping tears of resin:

Pray, set it down and rest you: when this burns,
‘Twill weep for having wearied you.

She even, after watching him for a time, offers to replace him:

If you’ll sit down,
I’ll bear your logs the while: pray, give me that;
I’ll carry it to the pile.

Ferdinand refuses her offer – his job’s not appropriate for her, either:

I had rather crack my sinews, break my back,
Than you should such dishonour undergo,
While I sit lazy by.

The scene ends with their marriage-pledge to one another.

I wonder why carrying logs was the right task, and whether Prospero used them for heating or for something else, and if this scene has anything to say about seventeenth-century timber – whether it belongs in a fairy-tale prince-disguised-as-a-woodcutter tradition, or if knowledge about the collection, transport, trade, regulation and use of wood can be useful or interesting when we read it.

Rereading The Tempest, I’ve been struck by the detail in Shakespeare’s descriptions of the nature of the island – its trees, nuts and berries;  birds and bird’s nests; fish and crustacea; cave, rock and shore; freshets and pools; as well as the human and non-human personae, and the character who is neither one nor another, but an indistinguishable ‘thing’ in between.


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