Thursday, July 21, 2011

Harry Potter and "The Tempest": J.K. Rowling Says Good-Bye with a Nod to the Bard at the End of "Deathly Hallows"

[SPOILER ALERT:  This article reports on a brief moment near the  conclusion of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," currently in wide release.  It does not reveal any significant plot points along the way, but those who want to avoid any information about how the film ends should stop reading here.]

This is cool.

Here's an observation I haven't seen anywhere else -- I looked -- so I'm going to claim originality.  However, it is almost certainly not original, since I'll bet there are lots of others who noticed it.   If you know of anyone else who has published on this, please keep it to yourself.

I am not a profound scholar of Shakespeare, much less of the Harry Potter books or films.  However, I was struck by a moment at the end of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," that the Memsahib and I saw in a nearly-empty theater in downtown Fort Worth last Saturday night.  I throw it out there for you fans of either Shakespeare or Rowling to see what you think.  If you find it of merit, please pass it along to any Shakespearean scholars, Potter scholars, major film critics of your acquaintance, or J.K. Rowling.

[Capsule review:  The Mem and I both liked it.  We had both disliked "Deathly Hallows Part 1," which we found dreary, angst-filled, slow, and incomprehensible.    We were able to figure out what was going on in Part 2, and there was plenty of action, good monsters, and some surprises that wound up a coherent plot.   The 3D was good -- these movies are kind of dark and murky to begin with, so the marginal murk you get with 3D didn't get in the way.]


Why did Harry break the Elder Wand?  Did this act have some special significance to the story?   Harry Potter fans probably have many better answers to these questions, but here's mine:

Near the end of the movie, after Lord Voldemort has been vanquished (who made him a lord, exactly?), Harry succeeds to physical possession of the Elder Wand.   He is standing facing Ron and Hermione on a bridge outside Hogwarts.  He is holding the wand.  I wish I had written down the exact dialogue, but it isn't terribly important -- no big speeches.  Ron makes the observation that Harry's possession of the wand makes him the most powerful wizard in the world.   Harry holds the wand as if to snap it in two, and as Ron and Hermione start to object, Harry says something like it's been more trouble than it's worth, or we don't need it anymore.  He breaks the wand in two pieces and throws it into the bottomless chasm beneath the bridge.

What All the Fuss Is About:  The Elder Wand
Now consider a scene in Shakespeare's The Tempest. The play is set on an island ruled by Prospero, a powerful magician.   After he has used his magic to bring things to a suitable conclusion, he makes this speech in the final scene of the play, which gives our language the phrase "this rough magic":

     .  .  .  I have bedimm'd
     The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
     And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
     Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
     Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
     With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
     Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
     The pine and cedar: graves at my command
     Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
     By my so potent art. But this rough magic
     I here abjure, and, when I have required
     Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
     To work mine end upon their senses that
     This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
     Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
     And deeper than did ever plummet sound
     I'll drown my book.

            -- Act V, Scene 1, ll. 41-57

Prospero breaks his own wand ("staff") and buries it, and also destroys ("drown") his book of spells.

Christopher Plummer as Prospero in The Tempest
That may not seem like much of a reference by Harry/Rowling to Prospero, but consider:  It is the consensus of scholars that The Tempest is Shakespeare's final play; he may have written parts of Henry VIII but "The Tempest" is considered to be his last fully-realized work.  Prospero's staff-breaking is widely regarded as Shakespeare saying farewell to his audience and his art.  Announcing his retirement, as it were.  (By the way, for you "Maltese Falcon" fans:  In the previous act, Prospero says:  "We are such stuff as dreams are made of.")

Deathly Hallows is the last of the Harry Potter movies and J.K. Rowling has said there will be no more Harry Potter books.

Both scenes are at the end of the story; both involve the breaking of a magic stick; both involve casting or burying the pieces deep within the earth; both involve a wizard voluntarily giving up magical powers.   Prospero destroys his magic book; Rowling has ended the Harry Potter series of magic-impacted books. 

Ms. Rowling did not write the screenplay but I understand something like this scene is in the book.  I think it is at least possible, perhaps even likely, that Ms. Rowling is borrowing this powerful scene from The Tempest to say:  This is the end and I really, really mean it.

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Finally:  In what I concede is only oblique support of this thesis:   Prospero performs some of his magic through the spirit Ariel who serves him, and to whom Prospero has promised freedom if Ariel performs certain final magical tasks; in the end he does free Ariel.  Ariel frequently acts by creating deceptive images for mortals to react to.  This power was also practiced on Muggles by Dobby the house-elf -- who Harry freed from the Malfoys, and who thereafter faithfully served Harry until his death.  OK, it's a stretch, but it suggests that perhaps serious Potter scholars may want to have a closer look at The Tempest.

Dobby the Magical House-Elf (as Himself)

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  1. I totally agree. I found your site while searching for someone who had come to the same conclusion I had come to. One of the greatest works (and authors) from around 1500 and one of the greatest works from around 2000. Why don't English teachers or Shakespearian scholars pick up on this? It seeems obvious. And an important history lesson. King James wasn't as hip to magic as Queen Elizabeth. Times change. To understand Harry, understand Prospero (who was most likely based on John Dee).

  2. Thank you, Jim. I looked around pretty thoroughly (i.e., a variety of Google searches) back in 2011 and I couldn't find a soul who'd put that together. Well, if you know any Potter/Bard scholars, feel free to pass it along. Thanks again for checking in.