Shakespeare’s Final Play
It is believed that Shakespeare’s The Tempest was written between 1610 and 1611. However, there are researchers who argue that the play may have been composed earlier than this. Unlike other Shakespeare plays, The Tempest does not have a known source material, which leads some to state that it is the only Shakespeare play with a completely original plot. That said, the play does contain themes found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the work of Michel de Montaigne.
History of the Play’s Performance
Despite containing many aspects that would seem to appeal to an early 17th-century audience, such as colonialism, shipwrecks, and commedia dell’arte, history suggests that The Tempest did no make much of an impact in its day. After the reopening of the theatres, during the Restoration, adapted versions of the play were performed, but not the original. In fact, it was not until the mid-1800s that theatre companies began to stage Shakespeare’s version of the play.
In more recent years, The Tempest has been re-evaluated by critics and scholars. Consequently, the play is now rated among Shakespeare’s best.
Synopsis of The Tempest
The play opens aboard a ship that is being ravaged by a huge storm. Soon, the passengers and crew are shipwrecked and find themselves on a remote island. The audience learns that Prospero, a powerful sorcerer, has caused the wreck to exact revenge upon his brother who usurped his position as Duke of Milan.
The action of the play takes place on the island, which Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, were banished to twelve years previously. The only native inhabitants of the island are Caliban, a deformed and allegedly monstrous creature, who hates Prospero for claiming the island as his own, and Ariel, a spirit who has agreed to serve Prospero in exchange for eventual freedom.
Lack of Action in The Tempest
One of the most intriguing aspects of The Tempest is that it does not contain any real action and there is no sense of forwarding motion in the plot. Much of the ‘action’ of the play is conducted off stage, for example, the usurpation of the Dukedom, the attempted rape of Miranda and the shipwreck. In addition, the vain attempts to kill the King of Naples and the drunken efforts of the sailors and Caliban to disable Prospero are all doomed to fail.
Moreover, the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand is established at an early point of the play. Therefore, the audience is treated to the comedic bungling of the drunken Trinculo and Stephano, and the exaction of revenge upon Sebastian and Antonio.
Theatrical Devices Used by Shakespeare
The Tempest is one of only two Shakespeare plays that conform to Aristotle’s three unities. Interestingly, the other is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors.
Intriguingly, The Tempest does not shy away from addressing the subjects of theatre and acting. In this way, it could be said that The Tempest has a post-modern slant, (although the theory of postmodernism was not coined until nearly 400 years after Shakespeare’s death) because Shakespeare frequently draws similarities between Prospero’s magic and the art of theatre. This, of course, is not unusual for Shakespeare, as he makes many references to theatre and the art of acting throughout his works.
Shakespeare also courts a controversial subject with the inclusion of magic within the play. Again, this is not unique; there are elements of magic in many plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. However, in The Tempest, Shakespeare is portraying a rational human practitioner of magic, which is extremely unusual and accounts for play’s initial unpopularity.