The Tempest | 2014, 2009
About the Play by John Dunlap
“Ariel is like a real spirit.”
– Note from our The Tempest 2009 Guestbook
If we discount Henry VIII (which may have been a joint effort with another playwright), The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last play, first produced in 1611, when the 49-year-old bard was at the summit of his poetic powers. Coleridge, in his literary lectures, used The Tempest as his chief point of reference for a lengthy general discussion of Shakespeare’s genius, and every era of Shakespearean scholarship over the past four centuries, whatever the dominant contemporary literary taste, has made room for productions, adaptations, and appreciative studies of this stupendous fantasy and its deep wisdom delivered through comic incongruities.
The setting for The Tempest–inspired by reports that had reached England in 1610 of rescued castaways who had survived a storm off the Bermudas–is a mysterious, uncharted island inhabited only by the elderly magician Prospero, his daughter Miranda, the monster-slave Caliban, and invisible “airy spirits” headed by Ariel, who serves Prospero. The plot is distinctive for being entirely of Shakespeare’s invention (and not, as in the other plays, based on an easily identifiable source)–but also for being of such a structure that the plot itself is almost over at the beginning of the play. In other words, much of the storyline, rather than being acted out, is given in retrospect through the musings and recollections of the characters.
Prospero, as we learn from his own account to his daughter in the first act, is the rightful Duke of Milan. Uninterested in politics, Prospero had withdrawn to his study while his brother Antonio gradually assumed the business of governing and then usurped the dukedom. The wicked Antonio–with the connivance of Alonso, King of Naples–arranged for Alonso’s advisor Gonzalo to take Prospero and his toddler daughter Miranda out to sea and cast them adrift. But the faithful Gonzalo had packed food, water, and books into the small boat, so that Prospero and Miranda could survive as the boat drifted on a fortunate current to the uncharted island.
It is now twelve years later. Miranda has grown into a beautiful young woman, and Prospero’s vast learning has given him access to magical powers which he has used to free the wood-spirit Ariel from entrapment in a tree–the result of the black magic of Sycorax, a wicked witch who had been banished from Algiers to the island where, before dying, she had given birth to the ape-like monster Caliban. The light-hearted Ariel is, in effect, indentured to Prospero as repayment for being liberated from Sycorax’s spell, and the hateful Caliban, though at first cared for and educated by Prospero, has been enslaved as punishment for his attempted rape of Miranda.
The play opens on a ship amid a tempest at sea. Prospero has conjured the storm from his island after divining that the ship carries his treacherous brother Antonio and, as well, King Alonso and his retinue, including his brother Sebastian, his son Ferdinand, and his advisor Gonzalo. With Ariel’s help, when the ship runs aground, Prospero magically separates the survivors so that Ferdinand is left alone (to fall in love with Miranda) and the rest are divided into two groups: (1) Alonso’s drunken servants Trinculo and Stephano, who conspire with Caliban to rebel against Prospero; and (2) Alonso and Gonzalo, whom Antonio and Sebastian conspire to murder so that Sebastian can seize the throne of Naples.
But these are mere subplots arranged by Prospero as he directs his magic powers toward the just resolution of the master plot. Amid dazzling complexities and comic twists, we are left to mull over Hamlet’s utterance in an earlier play: “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends.”
Here is a well written synopsis of the play written by Charles and Mary Lamb in 1807 in their children’s book, “Tales from Shakespeare”.