Rough Magic: Isak Dinesen's Re-Visions of The Tempest

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Author: Judith Lee
Editor: Kathy D. Darrow
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,185 words

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[(essay date 1993) In the following essay, Lee reads Dinesen's last collection of stories, Anecdotes of Destiny, as a "re-vision" of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, maintaining that, like the drama, the work stresses "the relationships between art, exile, and power" but embraces exile as a source of "redemptive" art and "displaces" Prospero in favor of the artist-prophet-trickster figure of Ariel.]

I live ... halfway between that island in The Tempest and wherever I am.--Isak Dinesen, interview with Eugene Walter (1957)Ariel was in fact rather heartless ... but so pure, compared with earthly beings on the island, clear, honest, without reservations, transparent--in short, like air.--Isak Dinesen, letter to Ellen Dahl (1930)

Isak Dinesen's last volume of tales, Anecdotes of Destiny, constitutes a dialogue with Shakespeare's The Tempest. In her transformations of its characters and in her treatment of its representations of power and dislocation, we discover a dialectic between gender and authority that informs all her writing.1 Here Dinesen plays out her relationship not only with Shakespeare but with the canonical figures and texts that appear frequently in her earlier tales and letters and represent a literary authority she both reveres and resists. She claims a different but equivalent, female and metahistorical, authority when she describes herself as woman who is "three thousand years old and [who] dined with Socrates,"2 and as a storyteller who "belongs to an ancient, idle, wild and useless tribe."3 When she wrote these tales, moreover, she had achieved an international status that in some ways depended upon her being an outsider to the British tradition her tales repeatedly evoked, an ex-colonialist who disavowed expansionist politics, and a woman writer who rejected the social realism espoused by her Danish male contemporaries.4 Her allusions to Shakespeare's play in her final volume of tales trace her own ambivalence toward the cultural politics this position entailed: although they authorize her own "rough magic," they also register changes that counter the cultural authority she invokes.

Shakespeare is a continuing presence in Dinesen's writings, not as the "bogey" that Milton was for other women writers, but as a paternal figure and friendly adversary.5 She once said that when at the age of fifteen she read Shakespeare for the first time it was "one of the really great events of my life."6 She called Viola her "favourite female character in all of literature,"7 and she often referred to the fact that her home, Rungstedlund, was not far from Elsinore. Her letters express her familiarity with Shakespeare's plays. She does not discuss them to the extent that she discusses some contemporary fiction, but her informal references to Shakespeare suggest that his plays were a staple of her reading. She attributes the pleasure of her friendship with a government official, for example, to their shared enthusiasm for Shakespeare: "He is such a great devotee of Shakespeare, so we always talk very enthusiastically about him."8 Elsewhere, she remarks that Shakespeare's enduring popularity rests in the fact that...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420105671