- Possibly written: 1610 or 1611, probably his 36th play and the final one he wrote without a co-writer. When Prospero says “Our revels are now ended” this seems to be Shakespeare saying good-bye
- What’s it about? Wizard Prospero lives exiled on an island with his teenage daughter Miranda, but when his old political enemies happen to pass by on a boat, he summons a storm to wreck their ship, then has his two slaves, magical Ariel and bestial Caliban, mess with them for a while. He sets his daughter up to marry the son of the king, then confronts everyone, settles all scores, and agrees to return home with them.
- Most famous dialogue: Many to choose from:
- Hell is empty and all the devils are here
- Our revels now are ended.
- We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
- O brave new world that has such people in’t.
- Sources: Is it possible—A play where Shakespeare actually just made up the plot? Quoth Wikipedia: “There is no obvious single origin for the plot of The Tempest; it appears to have been created with several sources contributing, chiefly William Strachey’s “Letter to an Excellent Lady”. Since source scholarship began in the eighteenth century, researchers have suggested passages from “Naufragium” (“The Shipwreck”), one of the colloquies in Erasmus’s Colloquia Familiaria (1518), and Richard Eden's 1555 translation of Peter Martyr’s De orbo novo (1530).”
- Interesting fact about the play: Shakespeare seems to be giving a cheeky shout-out to the audience at his Globe theater when he has Prospero say “The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,” but was he? Of all the plays in the First Folio, this has the most stage directions, seemingly from Shakespeare himself, and the stage directions indicate it was staged at Blackfriars, not the Globe.
- Best insult:
- A pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!
- Though deboshed fish thou
- Most wicked sir, whom to call brother would infect my mouth
- Best word: chirurgeonly
- Best production of this play I’ve seen: I saw an excellent production at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, about which I’ll say more below. Peter Greenaway’s bizarre Prospero’s Books is excellent. I’ve never seen the other film versions, though I love Paul Mazursky and am very interested in seeing his version (with young Molly Ringwald as Miranda!)
- Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Nigel Hawthorne plays Stephano. John Gielgud was supposed to play Prospero but they couldn’t work it out. He went on to play the part in Prospero’s Books.
- Michael Horden is excellent as a cruel-but-tired Prospero. Pippa Guard as Miranda doesn’t look 15, but she’s fine as a naïve romantic lead. Warren Clarke wears an ape-like (furry, naked) costume as Caliban (which is common, though the dialogue describes him as more fish-like) and doesn’t do much to imbue the character with the righteous dignity that other productions grant him. David Dixon is nicely odd as Ariel (very golden and homoerotic.)
- Again, it would have been wonderful to shoot this on real beaches, but the bleak and expressionistic sets are excellent. For the first time in this series, we have a ton of special effects, which, of course, have not aged exceptionally well, but they do make for a lively production. As with Twelfth Night, there’s lots of music, but this one also has lots of dance, well choreographed.
As Shakespeare was writing this play, the greatest crime in human history, the transatlantic slave trade, was well underway, and Shakespeare had had little to say about it. The only play where he mentions America, bizarrely, is Comedy of Errors, which is set in Roman times. Of course, he had written Othello which dealt with racism, but this is the only play where he (finally) reckons with slavery.
As with so many other political subjects, the surface reading of the play implies that Shakespeare was a man of his time, with views on the subject that have not aged well. Ariel is the good slave, persistently asking for his freedom, but determined to win it by being a perfect servant. He proves the value of this approach and is freed. Caliban (a near anagram of Cannibal) is the bad slave, rebellious, given to drink, attempting to rape his master’s daughter, and desirous of armed rebellion. (Miranda regrets teaching him to read, which only made him worse) He is last seen being led away, seemingly still enslaved.
But, as with all of his plays, the subtext is so rich and the characters so thoroughly humanized that each age can find fertile ground to bring entirely new interpretations. In the Marcus Garvey Park production I saw, Caliban was clearly the long-suffering anti-hero of the play. When all the Europeans leave at the end, Caliban put on Prospero’s cloak, took up his staff, and finally got to rule, to much applause.
Shakespeare remains the world’s greatest playwright, all these years later, because his plays contain so many multitudes. He had a lot to say about good and evil, men and women, master and slave, and every other dichotomy, but he’s always ambiguous in how he says it. There’s a wonderful text and even more wonderful subtext that gives director and cast endless space to play.
Rulebook Casefile: All Stories Must Climax
The big problem with “The Tempest” is that it’s so anticlimactic. Prospero has a genuine beef and has desired nothing but revenge for years, but when he finally gets a chance to confront everyone in Act V, he instantly forgives everyone and they make buddy-buddy with him.
If something unexpected had happened to Prospero to have melted his heart sometime in the first four Acts, then his final Act fizzle might have seemed like growth as a character, but everything so far seems to have gone exactly according to his plan. Since his expectations have not been upset by events, what has changed him? I think it would be a stronger play if Miranda and Francisco got together against Prospero’s wishes and their love unexpectedly softened and transformed him. As it is, he plots to bring them together, so that clearly does not upset his initial plans for revenge.