Monday, September 7, 2015


It is difficult to categorise The Tempest. There are too many dark elements to call it a Romantic Comedy, rather it is categorised as a romance.

With The Tempest, Shakespeare turns to fantasy and magic as a way to explore themes of romantic love (Miranda and Ferdinand), sibling hatred (Prospero and Antonio), and the love of a father for his child (Prospero and Miranda). In addition, The Tempest examines many of the topics that Shakespeare had focused on in his earlier plays, topics such as the attempts to overthrow a king (Macbeth,Richard II, and Julius Caesar), nature versus nurture (The Winter's Tale and King Lear), and innocence (Twelfth Night).

Historical and Cultural Context

Image result for black deathBy the beginning of the seventeenth century, the threat of the Black Death (the plague) was diminishing, but it still continued to be a seasonal problem in London, which was overcrowded and suffered from poor sanitation and too much poverty. Plays were not performed during outbreaks for fear of spreading the disease.

There was more wealth, and the newly rich could now afford to escape the congestion of the city. There was a need for large country estates, and so more and more farm land was enclosed.
Early in the seventeenth century, the masque that comprises much of the fourth act of The Tempest was becoming a regular form of court entertainment. Masques were elaborate spectacles, designed to appeal to the audience's senses and glorify the monarch and attempt to recapture the past. Furthermore, their sheer richness suggested the magnificence of the king's court; thus they served a political purpose as well as entertained.
Structure of The Tempest
There is really very little plot in The Tempest. There is the love story, and then there is the story of two younger brothers who covet their older brothers' titles and possessions. And finally, there is the story of Caliban's plot to murder Prospero. But none of these plots are given much attention or substance; instead, the play is about the complexities of human nature and about reminding the audience that the division between happiness and tragedy is always fragile and must be carefully maintained.
Although The Tempest ends with the promise of a wedding, it could just as easily have ended with tragedy. In this play, there are two murder plots and a betrayal to resolve. In a tragedy, these might have ended with the stage awash in blood, as in Hamlet, but in The Tempest, Prospero's careful manipulation of all the characters and their plans also controls the direction of the action. Prospero's avoidance of tragedy reveals his character's decency and contradicts some critics' arguments that he is an amoral demigod exploiting the natural inhabitants of this island.
The Tempest is unique in its adherence to the three unities. In hisPoetics, Aristotle argued that unity of action was essential for dramatic structure. This meant that a dramatic work should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The unity of time is derived from Aristotle's argument that all the action should occur within one revolution of the sun — one day. The unity of place developed later and is a Renaissance idea, which held that the location of the play should be limited to one place. These unities added verisimilitude to the work and made it easier for the audience to believe the events unfolding on stage.
Shakespeare rarely used the three unities, but he uses them in this play, something he has only done in one other play, The Comedy of Errors. All the events occur on the island and within one brief three-hour period. Shakespeare needed the three unities, especially that of time, to counter the incredulity of the magic and to add coherence to the plot.
The Tempest, although it is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays, still maintains the integrity of the five-act structure. In fact, most Elizabethan theatre adheres to the five-act structure, which corresponds to divisions in the action. The first act is the Exposition, in which the playwright sets forth the problem and introduces the main characters. In The Tempest, the first act establishes the nature of Antonio's betrayal of Prospero, and it explains how Prospero and Miranda came to live on the island. This first act also opens with a violent storm, which establishes the extent of Prospero's power. Most of the play's remaining characters also make an appearance in this act.
The second act is the Complication, in which the entanglement or conflict is developed. In The Tempest, the conspiracy to murder Alonso is developed, which establishes that Antonio is still an unsavory character. In addition, the audience learns more about Caliban, and Stefano and Trinculo appear, allowing the groundwork for a second conspiracy to be formed.
The third act is the Climax; and as the name suggests, this is when the action takes a turning point and the crisis occurs. In a romance, this is the point at which the young lovers assert their love, although there may be complications. It is important that the way to love not be too easy, and so in The Tempest, Prospero has forbidden contact between Miranda and Ferdinand, although the audience knows this is only a pretense. In this act, the conspiracy to murder Prospero is developed, although the audience knows that Ariel is listening, and so there is no real danger. And finally, the essential climactic moment occurs in this act when Prospero confronts his enemies at the ghostly banquet.
The fourth act is called the Falling Action, which signals the beginning of the play's resolution. In this act, the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda is acknowledged and celebrated with a masque, and Prospero deals with the conspiracy to murder him by punishing Caliban, Stefano, and Trinculo.
The fifth act is called the Catastrophe, wherein the conclusion occurs. As the name suggests, this act brings closure to the play, a resolution to the conflict, and the plans for a wedding. As the play draws to a close, Prospero is victorious over his enemies, Ferdinand is reunited with his father, Antonio and Sebastian are vanquished, and Caliban regrets his plotting.
Literary Devices in The Tempest
Students of Shakespeare's plays quickly come to appreciate the literary devices that the playwright employs in constructing his plays. For example, most Shakespearean plays contain soliloquies,which offer a way for the playwright to divulge a character's inner thoughts. The soliloquy requires that the character must think that he is alone on stage, as he reveals to the audience what he is really thinking. In The Tempest, the soliloquy is not used as often as it would be in a tragedy, because the dramatic moments are not as intense. However, Prospero still uses this device, most notably in Act V, when he tells the audience what he has accomplished with the help of magic and that soon he will no longer have need for such devices.
A soliloquy is different from a monologue, in which a character speaks aloud his thoughts, but with other characters present. Shakespeare also frequently employs the aside, in which the character addresses the audience, but other characters do not hear these words. There is a suggestion of conspiracy in the aside, which allows the audience to learn details that most of the characters on stage do not know. For example, Miranda uses an aside in Act I, Scene 2, when she confides to the audience her concern for her father. The aside is usually assumed to be truthful.
Shakespeare's Language
Shakespeare's Elizabethan language can sometimes intimidate his audience. Shakespeare wrote most of The Tempest in verse, using iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a literary term that defines the play's meter and the stresses placed on each syllable. In iambic pentameter, each complete line contains ten syllables, with each pair of syllables containing both an accented syllable and an unaccented syllable. Many Renaissance poets used iambic pentameter because the alternating stresses create a rhythm that contributes to the beauty of the play's language.
Shakespeare also included prose passages in his plays, with prose lines being spoken by characters of lower social rank. Shakespeare uses this device to reveal the complexity of Caliban. In The Tempest, Caliban speaks prose when he is conspiring with Stefano and Trinculo, but when Caliban speaks of the beauty of the island, he speaks in verse.
Shakespeare's Elizabethan language can be difficult to understand at first. Use of a Shakespearean glossary and the Oxford English Dictionary are two sources that can help in understanding the language, but the biggest assist comes with practice. Reading and listening to Shakespeare's words becomes easier with practice. Reading aloud also helps in becoming familiar with early modern English. With time, the unfamiliar language and the rhetorical devices that Shakespeare employed in writing his texts cease to be strange, and the language assumes the beauty that is hidden within it.
Tempests within The Tempest
There are many tempests to be explored during the course of The Tempest. In addition to class conflict, there are also explorations into colonialism (English explorers had been colonizing the Americas) and a desire to find or create a utopian society. 
The storm scene that opens The Tempest establishes nature as an important element of the play and emphasizes the role of nature in society. Other tempests will be revealed in subsequent scenes, such as the emotional tempests that familial conflict creates (consider the conflict between Antonio and Prospero, and the coming conflict between Sebastian and Alonso); the tempests of discord (consider Caliban's dissatisfaction and desire for revenge) and of forbidden love (consider the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand). Finally, there are the tempests caused by the inherent conflict between generations. So, although The Tempest might correctly be called a romantic comedy, the title and the opening scene portend an exploration of conflicts more complex than romantic.



  1. My favourite Shakespeare play has to be Macbeth, for the atmosphere of pure evil it conjures up on the eve of Duncan's assassination. That takes some skill. Of course, one doesn't enjoy an atmosphere of evil, but one feels in awe of the writer who has created it.

  2. I 'did' The Tempest when I was at school but I could not remember any of it until I read this! The one I always remember is Macbeth because I was given the part of one of the witches in the play LOL. Have a good week Diane

  3. I keep saying I should see more Shakespeare. I really should do something about it and not just talk the talk.


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