‘Prospero’s Cell’

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Island of Corfu, Ionian Sea, Greece.

I’m back to an old hobby lately: reading and thinking about the Greek island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea, and in general all things Corfiot. A great little book I return to periodically is Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Prospero’s Cell’, first published in 1945 and reprinted several times since. It’s a little masterpiece of travel, history, culture and reflection all on its own. And it takes its name from one of the non-fictional characters who appears in it, a reclusive nobleman who lives in a dilapidated villa among vineyards and olive groves, and whose theory is that Corfu is actually Prospero’s island, that Shakespeare was inspired to use it as the setting for his play, ‘The Tempest’, and may even have visited it himself. Here’s a short quote from the book, typical of the kind of thing I like about it, and of Durrell’s style as travel writer and essayist:

‘The Count smokes his home-made cigarettes in a short bone holder, stained with nicotine. Relaxing and spreading out his hands against the moonlight as if to warm them at its white fire, he begins to talk. I have wasted all these words on describing the Count in the hope of isolating that quality in him which is so admirable and original, and when he begins to talk I grasp at once what it is. He is the possessor of a literary mind completely uncontaminated by the struggle to achieve a technique; he lacks the artifice of presentation, the corrupting demon of form. It is a mind with the pollen still fresh upon it.’

I don’t know about the Shakespeare theory. One thing in its favor, as Durrell points out in the book, is that the name of Caliban’s mother, the witch Sycorax, could well be an anagram for the ancient Greek name of the island which we call Corfu: Corcyra. But there are several other peculiarities of Corfiot life and manners which may find their reflections in Shakespeare’s play. I won’t spoil your own experience of reading Durrell’s book by enumerating them here, but his discussion of them is very entertaining. And perhaps the theory is not at all far-fetched. Elizabethan England may appear to have been very far removed from anything Ionian, but the island group of which Corfu is a part was at the center of a major trade route between Venice and points East in Shakespeare’s time. Like his fellow English contemporaries, he would have been used to Greek currants from the island of Zante, a staple in British holiday baking, for example.  And Shakespeare is rumored to have been out of the country in 1611, when ‘The Tempest’ was written. I like to think of him sojourning on Corfu, pen in hand, and conjuring up his character Ariel, mysterious sprite of the air, while gazing upon the mists and storms which occasionally obscure the Corfiot coast. It’s all interesting to consider.

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2 comments on “‘Prospero’s Cell’

  1. Funnily enough I was discussing Corfu just a few days ago with my parents, when they were visiting me – they stopped there on a Mediterranean cruise not long ago and found it beautiful.

    I haven’t read much by Lawrence Durrell (yet) but one of my favourite books when I was younger was My Family and Other Animals by his brother Gerald Durrell, about his childhood and their mad family living in Corfu. I am almost afraid to ever visit the island because of that book – because it sounded like pure, idyllic paradise, and it really was a time before many foreign visitors went. I love The Tempest, so it’s a lovely idea that those islands could be the same or somehow related.

    • leifhendrik says:

      That’s all fascinating. Gerald appears prominently in ‘Prospero’s Cell’, and I believe that Lawrence wrote a memoir or memoirs which I’d like to get to sooner than later, and in which he reflects on his years on the island. I have the same idea you do about the pre-touristy Corfu, and perhaps it’s the best approach, I don’t know. Other islands I’m interested in are Ithaca and Lefkada, not far away. I read recently that, though he owned his own splendid island, Aristotle Onassis’ favorite was actually Ithaca. ‘The Tempest’ is a kind of wondrous refuge for me. I find it truly glorious.

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