January 8 – April 2, 2016

Shakespeare’s final solo play is a moving fairy tale, a wondrous magic show, and a farewell to the stage that still defines our humanity. From the spectacular storm that opens the play, to the island creatures Ariel and Caliban, to the glistering masque of the spirits, and, finally, to Prospero’s last acts of reconciliation and forgiveness, The Tempest  is a beguiling theatrical miracle.

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens before the play
  • Twelve years ago, Prospero is “the Duke of Milan and a prince of power.”
  • More interested in books than governing, Prospero gives Antonio, his beloved and trusted brother, control of Milan.
  • Antonio’s “evil nature” awakes and with the help of Alonso, King of Naples, Antonio takes the crown from Prospero.
  • Instead of executing Prospero, the usurpers cast him and his baby daughter, Miranda, adrift at sea in a rotten, tiny boat.
  • Gonzalo, a kind Neapolitan, provides the castaways with food, water, clothes, and books. Father and daughter survive the voyage and land on an island, where, by use of magic, Prospero rules over the “man-monster” Caliban and the spirit Ariel.
  • Twelve years pass. Prospero discovers that his old enemies are at sea and orders Ariel to raise a storm that will shipwreck them on the island and allow Prospero to work his revenge.
Stuff that happens during the play
  • Ariel reports that “not a hair perish’d” in the tempest and reminds Prospero of his promise to set Ariel free. Prospero tells him that if he follows orders, “after two days I will discharge thee.”
  • Prospero, furious at Caliban for trying to “violate the honor of my child,” orders him to fetch wood.
  • Ariel brings Ferdinand, King Alonso’s son, to Prospero and Miranda. Miranda says, “I might call him a thing divine, for nothing natural I ever saw so noble.”
  • King Alonso searches for Ferdinand, whom he fears has drowned; Sebastian plots to kill Alonso and usurp the crown of Naples.
  • On another part of the island, Caliban discovers the drunken butler, Stephano, and the jester, Trinculo. Stephano introduces Caliban to wine.
  • Miranda and Ferdinand declare their love for each other, while carrying logs.
  • Caliban persuades Stephano and Trinculo to murder Prospero.
  • Prospero presents the young couple with a betrothal masque celebrating chastity and the blessings of marriage.
  • Forgiveness, freedom, and a brave new world ensue.
Dr. Ralph's Brief

1. When was the play first performed?

2. Where was the play first performed?
The first recorded performance was a court performance for King James I at Whitehall Palace, but the play probably had public performances at the Blackfriars; and may have had some at the Globe as well.

3. How does this play fit into Shakespeare’s career?
The Tempest is the last play he wrote on his own.

4. How is this play like Shakespeare’s other plays?
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s late “Romances” – with Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale – in which Shakespeare puts his main characters through harrowing trials before bringing them to a happy ending forged from forgiveness.

5. How is this play unlike other Shakespeare plays?
More than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest is a sort of one-man show, in which Prospero, the magical master of ceremonies tells us his story and brings it to a happy conclusion. In that regard, the closest parallel is Henry V, where the Chorus presides over a pageant whose outcome is never in doubt.

6. What do scholars think about this play?
They pretty universally admire it, especially Shakespeare’s two imaginative creations, Prospero’s otherworldly slaves: Caliban, the servant monster who does his menial chores, and Ariel, the ethereal spirit who assists Prospero in his magic. While other of Shakespeare’s plays go in and out of fashion at the box office, The Tempest seems to be popular in every age. It’s popularity in performance translates to other art forms, especially painting, where only Hamlet has been as popular a subject with artists. Since this is Shakespeare’s last play before he returns to Stratford, scholars also draw parallels between the playwright’s leaving the theatre – “our revels now are over” – and Prospero’s abjuring his magic powers and returning to Milan. No harm in that.

7. Does any controversy surround the work?
Contemporary critics see the play as an expression of European colonialism and xenophobia in which the white man invades a foreign land and subjugates its natives.

8. What scene should I especially look for?
The meeting of Miranda with Ferdinand is so dear that it almost makes us forget that Prospero is spying on the whole thing.

9. What characters should I especially look for?
The Boatswain in the first scene has a healthy disregard for royalty. Don’t blink or you’ll miss him.

10. What is the language like?
Somewhat exotic, echoing the sounds of the island; and somewhat ruminative, echoing the themes of the play.