The Tempest

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The Tempest

RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES.  A common device used today by many writers where current events are taken and stories written that either are thinly veiled accounts of those events with names and places changed or sometimes the like story attempts to take into account an overriding theme inherent in the news story or something the author wishes to convey.  Such attempts at capturing today's news stories are fraught with difficulty as what was hot on Saturday becomes old hat by Sunday.  Many performers avoid trying to be too topical in hopes of avoiding their work becoming stale over time.  Elizabethan writers were no different in wanting to latch on to a story that currently gripped the public interest.  Even in a time of no newspapers and a good portion of the population was illiterate, sometimes a juicy story came along that was too good to pass up. 

During Shakespeare's lifetime, one of England's great successes was becoming a naval power and beginning of their age of exploration and colonization.  In 1609, on the cusp of setting up the first permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia a ship called the Sea Venture, was part of floatila of ships carrying settlers and supplies to the new colony.  Just off the coast of North America, the fleet came upon what was believed to be a hurricane and was the Bonaventure became separated and thought lost with all hands.  However, the ship instead was wrecked on an island in the Bermudas.  Several months later the survivors rebuilt their ship and sailed on to Virginia.  William Strachey and Sylvester Jourdain, two survivors of the wreck, returned to England a year later and wrote two separate accounts of their experience.  The news of the miraculous return of the lost ship and crew swept the country and influenced Shakespeare to write his last solo play for the theater.     

The play's first appearance in print in the First Folio of 1623.

Prospero, the true Duke of Milan, was exiled by with his daughter Miranda to a remote island by his ambitious brother Antonio and with the help of the Alonzo, King of Naples captures the court.  Prospero, always one more for books than matters of state, has over the years become quite the adept magician, controlling storms and commanding magical creatures such the spirit Ariel his messenger and the half sea monster Caliban.  In an attempt to put the past wrongs to rest and help Miranda to a future, Prospero raises a storm to shipwreck the King of Naples and his party which includes Prospero's brother Antonio.  While none die in the shipwreck parties are separated.  The sailors, the truly competent people who could survive the wreck are safely stowed in the wreck asleep, while the incompetent royals are left to fend for themselves.  Ferdinand, the king's son is washed up alone and taken prisoner by Prospero and is marveled after by Miranda who has never seen another man.  Rounding out the castaways, the clowns Stephano and Trinculo encounter the disgruntled Caliban who wants to take over the island from Prospero.  Caliban is the true heir of the island and wants desperately to get out from under the boot of his master.

As their situation looks hopeless, Antonio gets back to his old tricks and convinces Sebastian, Alonzo's brother that he should kill his old and inept brother and assume the throne for himself, though their plan is thwarted time and again by the ever watchful Ariel.  Meanwhile, Miranda and Ferdinand spend time discovering each other and fall in love and the would be conspirators try to overthrow Prospero.  All the time the entire group is under the watchful eye of the man behind the curtain Prospero.  Instead of bringing together the group to have his revenge, Prospero, has the truth come out about Antonio, but only seeks to have his Dukedom restored to him and nothing more.  Interested more in new beginnings, Prospero relishes an impending marriage for Miranda and Ferdinand and setting free of his loyal servant Ariel.

Once again the image of reunion and reconciliation permeates this Romance play.  The Tempest marks a unique position in Shakespeare' canon for several reasons.  It is one of the only plays that take place in a single day.  A principle of drama that was set forward by Aristotle held that all action in a play should be continuous and not jump around.  This was a belief long held by Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's friend and rival, who often railed against playwrights who broke this and other classical rules of writing.  Secondly, it in grabbing the headline of "Ship returns from the dead", Shakespeare may have given his own spin on native peoples of the Americas through Caliban whose name may be an approximation of cannibal.  Through his brutish yet eloquent prose, he evokes not a mythical creature but a member of an outlying world corrupted by Prospero's language and drink, who feels cheated of his land and birthright by his arrival.  Like Shylock and Malvolio before him, Caliban is sufficiently human to expound deeper feelings to make the audience think but still maintains his comic villain status in the story.

Finally, the play marks what is believed by many to be Shakespeare's apparent farewell to the theater.  Though he would go on to co-write three other plays, The Tempest was the last one that he wrote alone an seems to strongly identify with Prospero, the man pulling the strings of the story behind the scenes.  His epilogue is often delivered as Shakespeare's final goodbye to the stage.  After the writing of the Tempest, Shakespeare did relocate part time to his native Stratford and returned to London occasionally, so it mark an end to a some twenty year career of living and working full time in the theater.  The Tempest from the outset has been one of the Bard's most popular plays, having the same effect as mystical A Mid Summer Night's Dream with its mix of comedy, magic, and horror.  It has been a favorite for any all ages and is one of the most often produced shows.    

To view other The Tempest sections:

Main Play Page      Play Text     Scene by Scene Synopsis     Character Directory     Commentary  


To view the other Plays click below:

By  Comedies    Histories    Romances    Tragedies

All's Well the Ends Well Antony & Cleopatra As You Like It Cardenio Comedy of Errors Coriolanus
Cymbeline Edward III Hamlet Henry IV, Part 1 Henry IV, Part 2 Henry V
Henry VI, Part 1 Henry VI, Part 2 Henry VI, Part 3 Henry VIII Julius Caesar King John
King Lear Love's Labours Lost Love's Labours Wonne Macbeth Measure for Measure Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor A Mid Summer Night's Dream  Much Ado About Nothing Othello Pericles Richard II
Richard III Romeo & Juliet Sir Thomas More Taming of the Shrew The Tempest Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus Troilus & Cressida Twelfth Night Two Gentlemen of Verona The Two Noble Kinsman The Winter's Tale


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