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The Rarer Action is in Virtue than in Vengeance

In the final blog post for "The Tempest 400th Anniversary" series, Jo Wilding recounts impressions she experienced whilst watching The RSC's 2009 production of the play.

Jo Wilding

This is the final blog in our series celebrating the 400th anniversary of The Tempest. We hope you have enjoyed them.

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.

These lines, spoken by Prospero when he decides to forgive his brother, the usurping Duke of Milan, and the King of Naples for the wrongs done to him, spring off the page for me and are as true today as when Shakespeare wrote them – many of us must find ourselves in circumstances which put them to the test.

The RSC’s 2009 production of The Tempest was performed by a company from the Baxter Theatre Centre based in Cape Town, South Africa, with Antony Sher as Prospero, John Kani as Caliban and Atandwa Kani as Ariel. For me it was the most extraordinary, vibrant, and moving production of the play; placed in an African setting, drawing on African traditions and mythology to spectacular effect – “a riot of colour, music, ritual masks, stilts, puppets and tribal dancing, as the magical isle is filled with a wonderful team of shaman-like spirits” (Evening Standard). Atandwa Kani gave an astonishing first professional performance as Ariel – “Ariel is Africa, young and old, wise and naive, subdued and proud and desperate for freedom” (British Theatre Guide).

Atandwa Kani as Ariel, photographer Ellie Kurttz © RSC
Atandwa Kani as Ariel, photographer Ellie Kurttz © RSC

The Library and Archive put on a display of archive materials showing the stage history of The Tempest for the Baxter company while they were in Stratford. At the time we had an exhibition on at Nash’s House entitled 'The Web of Life', using items from the Collections to illustrate the strands of life captured in Shakespeare's works. As part of this, we wove an artwork on a loom to which visitors could add strips with their favourite quotation from Shakespeare. We therefore asked the Baxter company to contribute to this. The director Janice Honeyman chose the line “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance”, telling me that this line inspired her to direct the play. As anyone who saw this stunning production will know, it was one of some very moving moments in the play which were resonant of the “truth and reconciliation” process in South Africa. (Another of these is described by Liz Woledge in her own blog post.)

These moments demonstrate to great effect Shakespeare’s unfailing ability to observe, explore, and reflect on what it is to be a human being, and prove again that, in Ben Jonson’s prophetic line in the First Folio, Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time!”

Happy New Year!