“Now, Ariel, I am that I am, your late and lonely master,
Who knows what magic is;—the power to enchant“
– The Sea and the Mirror, W. H. Auden
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s classic comedies; it appears first in the 1623 First Folio selection and is considered by many scholars to be the final play Shakespeare wrote on his own. It also has one of my favourite quotes in it, ‘Thought is free”.
Date Written: 1610 or 1611
First performed: There are records indicating that The Tempest was performed before James I on November 1 1611 but it’s likely there were performances before this.
Setting: an unnamed, uninhabited island
The magician, Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, have been stranded for twelve years on an island after Prospero’s jealous brother Antonio deposed him. Prospero is reluctantly served by a spirit, Ariel, whom Prospero had rescued from a tree in which he had been trapped by the cruel witch, Sycorax. Her son, Caliban, a deformed monster and the only non-spiritual inhabitant before the arrival of Prospero, was initially adopted and raised by him. He taught Prospero how to survive on the island, while Prospero and Miranda taught Caliban religion and their own language.
Three plots alternate through the play. In one, Caliban falls in with Stephano and Trinculo, two drunkards. They attempt to raise a coup against Prospero, which ultimately fails. In another, Prospero works to encourage a romantic relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda. In the third subplot, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso and Gonzalo so that Sebastian can become King.
Themes: Theatre, the soul, and magic
Prospero: the main character. The overthrown Duke of Milan. He now lives on an island and is a great sorcerer.
Miranda: Prospero’s daughter
Ariel: a spirit who does Prospero’s bidding and is, at times, visible only to him.
Caliban: a villainous island native, who ruled the island before Prospero arrived. Sycorax (unseen), a deceased Algerian sorceress who was banished to the island before Prospero arrived and enslaved the spirits on the island.
Iris, Ceres, and Juno: spirits who perform the roles of goddesses in a masque presented to the young lovers.
Alonso: King of Naples
Sebastian: Alonso’s treacherous brother.
Antonio: Prospero’s brother, who usurped his position as Duke of Milan.
Ferdinand: Alonso’s son.
Gonzalo: a kindly Neapolitan courtier
Trinculo: the King’s jester
Stephano: the King’s drunken butler
Master of the ship
“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!” (Act I, Scene II)
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” (Act II, Scene II)
“Thought is free.” (Act III, Scene II)
“He that dies pays all debts.” (Act III, Scene II)
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life, is rounded with a sleep.” (Act IV, Scene I)
“O, brave new world that has such people in’t!” (Act V, Scene I)
1. Adaptations of the play, different from Shakespeare’s original, dominated theatre performances from the English Restoration in 1660 until the mid-19th century.
2. The Tempest has more music than any other Shakespeare play, and has proved more popular with composers than most of his other plays with 46 operatic performances throughout history, the first in 1695 by Henry Purcell. Two arrangements that might have been used in Shakespeare’s time still exist – one for “Full Fathom Five” and another for “Where The Bee Sucks There Suck I”, both printed in the 1659 publication Cheerful Ayres or Ballads’.
3. There is no single origin for the plot in The Tempest and many scholars believe it is an amalgamation of many. A strong contender being a document from William Strachey, titled A True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight.
4. Many well known phrases came from The Tempest including “Brave new world”, “In a pickle”, “Melted into thin air”, “sea change” and “Such stuff as dreams are made on”.
5. The play also demonstrates Shakespeare’s knack for creating new words with word such as abstemious (from the Latin absetmius meaning to indulge slightly in an alcoholic drink), baseless, eyeball, leaky, and watchdog.
6. With only one female speaking role The Tempest has the fewest female characters compared with the other plays.
7. The 1948 western Yellow Sky is a subtle yet clear adaptation of the play, as is the 1956 film Forbidden Planet.
8. One of the shortest Shakespeare play with 17 233 words; outdone only by A Midsummer Night’s Dream (16 511) and A Comedy of Errors (14 701).
9. It is the most performed Shakespeare play on BBC Radio with 21 productions.
10. Thanks to a precedent set by John Herschel, son of astronomer William Herschel who discovered Uranus, two regular moons and seven of the outermost moons of Uranus are named after characters from The Tempest. These are Ariel, Miranda, Caliban, Sycorax, Prospero, Setebos, Stephano, Trinculo, Francisco, and Ferdinand.
11. Unlike most of his plays, The Tempest conforms to Aristotle’s unities – the neoclassical notion that drama should follow three rules: unity of action (a play should have one main plot line with few distractions), unity of place (it should take place in one physical space) and the unity of time (the action fit within 24 hours).
12. Characters from The Tempest have gone further into space than even Uranus with numerous satellites being launched with their namesakes. Ariel 1 was the first British satellite in space, launched in 1962, in addition to six other Ariel satellites developed between 1962 and 1979. In 1971, the Black Arrow R3 rocket launched “Prospero X-3.
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