The Tempest An Ohio Shakespeare Festival Production Guide
"If by your art, my dearest father, you have put the wild waters in this roar, allay them!"
In 1609, 500 colonists set sail from Plymouth in search of freedom, wealth, and adventure in the New World of Virginia. Tragically, the fleet met with a dreadful tempest somewhere near the Bermudas. Their leader, Sir Thomas Gates, was separated from his fleet, and many ships presumably crashed along "Devil's Islands" rocks. Only when the survivors landed in Virginia were they able to send word back to England that many vessels were still lost. It's not hard to imagine that this topical event inspired Shakespeare's tale, written only a year or so later. It would be comforting to think that some of the colonists were still surviving on the magical islands of the "Bermoothes."
When The Tempest was written (1610-11), The British Empire was beginning to take shape. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain and Portugal lead the way in exploration and colonization. The discovery of “The New World” in 1492 opened up vast economic and political opportunities for Spain and Portugal; England wanted its share. In 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh landed on the coast of present day North Carolina and there established the colony of Roanoke.
As we know from our own American history, 13 other colonies followed, along with several lucrative islands in the Caribbean. This period, from the early 1600’s until the loss of the American colonies in the 1770’s has been called by historians “The First British Empire”.
When Shakespeare was writing The Tempest, stories of explorer’s adventures were thrilling London’s citizens, and a wave of interest in all things exotic swept the country. Voyagers would return with captured natives to put on display for the benefit of curious London on-lookers. Shakespeare makes reference to this fever in the play when Stephano first sees Caliban:
“If I can recover him and keep him tame and get to Naples with him, he’s a present for any Emperor who ever trod on neat’s leather.” – Act II, Scene II
Stephano’s first impulse upon seeing a monster is to return him to London so he can make a quick buck.
It is difficult to view The Tempest with modern eyes and not see an allegory for European imperialism. Audiences certainly responded to the themes differently in 1610 than we do now, but that is what makes Shakespeare so alive and compelling. Every generation brings new exploration into these themes, making them deeper and more rich with the passing of time. What better way to celebrate Shakespeare than to roll up our sleeves and wrestle with 400-year-old ideas and present them to a fresh, new audience.
How the Characters rule the island
The Tempest certainly capitalizes on the public's colonial fascination. In keeping with the excitement of a New World and its infinite possibilities, many Tempest characters also fantasize about how they might rule their new island.
We get the sense that the witch Sycorax was the initial, evil ruler of the island. The "blue-eyed hag" had been banished from Argier for some unnamed but presumably horrible crime. Before the play begins, she cruelly imprisons Ariel within a pine tree for being "too delicate to act her earthly and abhorred commands." She dies before releasing him.
Enter the European Prospero, a more kind and just ruler by far. Prospero appears as the benevolent European who has the power to tame a foreign, savage land. He does this by way of his powerful magic, a power he derives from a book. Postcolonial scholars see this as potentially representational of European missionaries, who also sought to tame “savage lands” through their powerful book (The Bible).
How might it be significant that the island was first ruled by a cruel, unsophisticated, and distinctly foreign criminal, then secondly by a wise, powerful, and European Duke?
Curiously, Ariel seems entirely uninterested in ruling, though he is a powerfully potent spirit; he is solely concerned with gaining his freedom. Perhaps this is because Ariel is wholly "other," completely inhuman in this way. To some, he also represents the “noble savage.” Ariel is a powerful spirit, subordinate to Prospero as his servant, but, unlike Caliban, Ariel is more or less happy to serve his master. In this way, Ariel invokes the idea of a native who can be “saved”.
Caliban, a half-human mutant, absolutely desires power. Had Prospero not prevented his raping Miranda, the monster "had peopled else this isle with Calibans." He constantly curses Prospero, wishes him ill fortune, and seeks help from Stephano and Trinculo in supplanting him. Caliban, for some, represents a stereotypical “ignorant savage”; a monster who is beyond salvation, and who has nothing but distaste for Prospero’s magic (Christianity, if we are to draw that parallel).
Stephano quickly declares himself supreme ruler of the isle; as soon as Caliban promises food, drink, and a pretty girl, Stephano is all in: "Monster, I will kill this man. His daughter and I will be king and queen—’save our Graces! And Trinculo and thyself shall be viceroys."
And with a more utopian agenda, the good Gonzalo imagines how he might reinvent society on the deserted isle. "I' th' commonwealth I would by contraries execute all things, for no kind of traffic would I admit; no name of magistrate; letters should not be known; riches, poverty, and use of service, none; contract, succession, bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; no use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil; no occupation; all men idle, all; and women too, but innocent and pure..."
Painting: Miranda, John William Waterhouse 1916
The Tempest is often thought to be one of only two plays (the other: Love's Labours Lost) that was entirely original to Shakespeare. While most of his works are retellings of other stories, there seems to be no direct (or at least, no obvious) source material for The Tempest. It does stand out as a work that deviates from his normal formulas.
The Tempest is also famously thought to be Shakespeare's last play. Aiding this theory is his seemingly personal goodbye in Prospero's epilogue:
"Now my charms are all o'erthrown / And what strength I have’s mine own, / Which is most faint...As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free."
Also, Prospero seems overly contemplative about his own mortality throughout the play:
"Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits, and / Are melted into air, into thin air...We are such stuff / as dreams are made on, and out little life / Is rounded with a sleep."
He even takes death into account when planning his return to Naples.
"...And thence retire me to my Milan, where / Every third thought shall be my grave."
He seems ready for--or at least curious about--the end of his magical life.
Shakespeare did die in 1616, perhaps as few as 5 years after he wrote Tempest. It's certainly tempting to label it as his last work. However, many scholars believe that Shakespeare collaborated on The Two Noble Kinsmen and King Henry VIII around 1613. (Remember, Tempest was probably written around 1610.)
Comedy or Tragedy?
Tempest is one of the few Shakespearean plays that doesn't nicely fit into either genre. Scholars use another genre to classify these in-betweeners: romance. A Shakespearean romance subscribes most closely to comedy, yet it has elements of tragedy that tinge its comedic tone. And usually, there is some magic--Cymbeline and Winter's Tale are two of Shakespeare's other romances. Tempest is even more set apart in its genre, however. While in some ways it subscribes to the timelessness of a more traditional romance, it is also very time-specific as a colonialist piece, written during the very beginnings of the New World.
Another defining quality of The Tempest is its sense of time. This is one of Will's only plays that adheres to the Neoclassical Unities of Time & Place. Basically--and with a few cheats--the action is all happening in the same place and in real time.
By all accounts, Tempest is an unusual play for Will--and that's part of what makes it so refreshing to us.
Painting: An Ideal Portrait of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) George Henry Hall (1825–1913)
Prospero- Rightful Duke of Milan, now lives on the island with his daughter.
Miranda- Prospero’s daughter, who was exiled with him when she was a child. She cannot remember seeing another human being except her father.
Ariel- A powerful air spirit whom Prospero saved from an enchantment that had trapped him within a tree. He works for Prospero in exchange for his freedom.
Caliban- Prospero’s mutant slave on the island. His mother was the witch Sycorax, previous ruler of the island. (It is interesting to note that his name is possibly a derivative of "cannibal.")
Alonso- King of Naples, Ferdinand’s father.
Gonzalo- Counselor, who aided Propsero & Miranda.
Antonio- Prospero’s brother, who seized his dukedom.
Sebastian- Alonso’s brother, who plots with Antonio.
Ferdinand- Alonso’s son and therefore Prince of Naples.
Stephano- Alonso’s butler, a drunkard who plots with Caliban.
Trinculo- Alonso’s jester, who plots with Stephano & Caliban.
A quick list of some interesting facts for those who don't have time to dig deeply into this guide.
- Believed to be written around 1610-11, and first published in the First Folio in 1623.
- At nine total scenes, it is one of Shakespeare's shortest works.
- Will possibly used eyewitness accounts of the wreck of the Sea Venture as inspiration.
- It is notable for being one of Shakespeare’s few plays that adhere to the Neoclassical Unities of Time & Place--meaning that the action is confined to one central location, and the events take place in (relatively) real time.
- Sci-fi Shakespeare? The 1956 film Forbidden Planet draws heavily from The Tempest…but in space!
- We believe that The Tempest is the first time anyone coined the phrase "in a pickle."
Background photo: Djimon Hounsou as Caliban in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film version.
Special effects aren’t a purely modern phenomenon-- there are many instances in the stage directions of The Tempest that directly call for magic. 16th and 17th century audiences loved to see a spectacle. They often attended elaborate "masques" (yes--the same kind of masque that takes place in Act IV of Tempest) that were meant to wow the audiences with pageantry and glorify the monarchy. What theatre wouldn't want to make their richest donors feel special?
Perhaps the most notable call for theatre magic is a stage direction in the script (presumably put in after Shakespeare's death by a friend who had seen--or been in--the production). "Thunder and lightning. Enter ARIEL, like a harpy; claps his wings upon the table; and, with a quaint device, the banquet vanishes."
Today, quaint often means "cute" or "old-fashioned" or "simple." It is much more likely that whoever wrote the direction meant "clever." Perhaps they had a flip-top table or made sophisticated use of the trap door combined with the misdirection provided by Ariel's harpy. Practical effects--as opposed to modern technical effects--can often feel more real and therefore more surprising and engaging than even the most technically sophisticated modern "magic."
- Identify a few of the moments in the script that call for a little theatre magic. How would you stage these moments today?
- How might you stage them if you could only use the technology available during Shakespeare's time? What benefits and drawbacks are there when using these "practical" effects?
Use these in classroom seminars, as essay prompts, or simply as inspiration for your critical mind.
- Parallels are often drawn between Pospero’s magic and “theatre magic.” What elements of the story remind you of the theatre-making process? Are there any images or quotes that remind you of theatre?
- In contemporary study, this work is often read through a post-colonial lens. What was life on the island like before Prospero arrived? How do Ariel and Caliban respond differently to Prospero’s rule?
- Like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both men and women have historically played the role of Ariel. How, if at all, does the gender of the actor shape your understanding of the character? Is there anything in the text that makes you feel the character must be one or the other?
- Would you consider Miranda to be a feminist character? Why or why not? In what ways does she show (or not show) agency?
- If you were to diagram the plot, where would you place the climax? Why? What do you consider the rising action, denouement, etc.?
Who Said It? Identify the character who said the quotes below. What do these quotes tell us about the character who said them?
1. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
2. “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!”
3. “You taught me language; and my profit on't is, I know how to curse.”
4. “Might I but through my prison once a day, Behold this maid: all corners else o' the earth, Let liberty make use of; space enough Have I in such a prison.”
5. "All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come to answer thy best pleasure, be ’t to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire, to ride on the curled clouds."
6. "The isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not."
7. "Is there more toil? Since thou dost give me pains, let me remember thee what thou hast promised, which is not yet performed me."
8. "Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man. Any strange beast there makes a man."
9. "There be that can rule Naples as well as he that sleeps...Oh, that you bore the mind that I do, what a sleep were this for your advancement! Do you understand me?"
10. "O good Gonzalo, my true preserver and a loyal sir to him you follow’st, I will pay thy graces home both in word and deed."
Glossary of Terms
- Bermoothes--meaning Bermudas, or more precisely, the inclement weather and enchantments of the place.
- Long spoon--refers to a parable; those in heaven and hell have only very long spoons with which to eat. Those in hell starve because they cannot feed themselves with the unwieldy spoon; those in heaven feed one another across the table and prosper. Also from a common saying: "He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon."
- Harpy--mythological beast with body of a giant bird and head of a woman; known for stealing food from victims and punishing those who have done evil to a family member.
- Swabber--the sailor who washes the deck.
- Br'r Lakin--an exclaimation; literally "by your ladykin," refering to the Virgin Mary.
- Hest--a behest, an order.
- Foil--to keep from being successful.
- Frippery--clothing shop.
- Yare--a nautical term meaning brisk, smart, tip-top shape.
- Patch--a jester, clown, fool.
- Surety--a person who takes responsibility for another.
- Roarers--especially terrible waves.
- Bombard--large leather pouch that holds wine.
- Viands--food and drink.
- Troll--to sing.
- Knell--bell tolled for the dead.
Photo of Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens; the setting for OSF's Tempest
Character insight from the OSF actors.
Miranda is one of the only female characters in The Tempest. Her father, Prospero, is the only human she ever remembers seeing. Thus, being raised by him on an island has shaped her into a unique individual. It would be easy to play her as helpless and ignorant. Although she is ignorant of certain qualities of “civilized life”, she is by no means helpless. As I worked on her “arc” I found that she has more gumption than I first imagined. Hard work and study have been a part of her life from an early age, and her father has taught her everything she knows. Yet, there is still so much that she is curious about, and at the beginning of the play, spurred by the shipwreck she has just witnessed, her deepest questions are finally being answered.
PROSPERO: Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since, / Thy father was the Duke of Milan and / A prince of power.
MIRANDA: Sir, are not you my father?
PROSPERO: Thy mother was a piece of virtue and / She said thou wast my daughter. And thy father / Was Duke of Milan, and thou his only heir / And princess no worse issued.
MIRANDA: Oh, the heavens! / What foul play had we that we came from thence? / Or blest was ’t we did?
PROSPERO: Both, both, my girl. / By foul play, as thou sayst, were we heaved thence, / But blessedly holp hither...Sit still, and hear the last of our sea-sorrow. / Here in this island we arrived, and here / Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit / Than other princesses can that have more time / For vainer hours and tutors not so careful.
MIRANDA: Heavens thank you for ’t! And now, I pray you, sir—/ For still ’tis beating in my mind—your reason / For raising this sea storm?
PROSPERO: Know thus far forth: / By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune / (Now my dear lady) hath mine enemies / Brought to this shore. And by my prescience / I find my zenith doth depend upon / A most auspicious star, whose influence / If now I court not but omit, my fortunes / Will ever after droop. Here cease more questions.
Though she is surrounded by mostly male presences, she is still very feminine, and meeting Ferdinand only confirms that for her. Is she being too rash? Falling in love with the first man, besides her father, that she’s ever seen? She doesn’t seem to think so when she says:
“My affections / Are then most humble. I have no ambition / To see a goodlier man”.
She cannot be convinced that there could possibly be anyone better than Ferdinand. At first I thought that this was a bit silly, and then upon more thought I realized something that gave me a new insight into who she is.
Her father does magic, and she knows this; she has been exposed to it for as long as she can remember. It is not hard to imagine that she has also been exposed to spirits etc. throughout her life. This awareness of “other-worldly” things has created in her a “sixth sense” if you will, and from this, I get the impression that she can probably read people very well.
So while she is distracted by her feelings for Ferdinand, I also believe that she reads him as a good man immediately.
She also has a slightly rebellious side, which, though she does exercise when sneaking off to visit Ferdinand, she is aware that if she disobeyed Prospero openly, it would be hurtful to his father’s heart. This whole play, I see her moving from curious little girl to brave young woman, ready to step into her own. And I think in his own way, Prospero let’s her do that.
Oh, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in ’t!
Let me begin by saying that I was both thrilled and truly surprised to be cast as Ariel. I knew Terry [the director] usually preferred to see Ariel played by a man, both because that is indicated in the script ("To thy strong bidding, task Ariel and all his quality.") but also because of Ariel’s powerful and sometimes ferocious nature. Like Terry, I agree that Ariel isn’t a nymph or fairy, he doesn’t move like a ballerina. And I feel that when a woman plays him, it can easily fall into that world. Ariel is both delicate and terrible—just like the wind to which he belongs. He can’t fall solely into the masculine or feminine worlds. When Terry cast me in the role, I felt like I had the opportunity—maybe the responsibility—to show that being a powerful and potent character has nothing to do with gender.
Ariel was one of the most challenging parts I've ever played. It's a lot of pressure to try to convince an audience that you are powerful enough to control the elements. At first, I tried (somewhat desperately) to evoke that "airy" quality. I did my best yogi impression, which was not greatly successful. I tried to be light, to perch, to balance, to bend. Those are all things that do not come naturally to me, and it should come as no surprise that I was not successful in forcing those qualities upon myself. I was fighting against my own abilities--never a great acting choice. But those aren't all the things that "wind" is, right? Sure, wind is light, delicate, balanced. But it is also fast, strong, focused. Once I started to bring him into that world, I knew I had found my Ariel. After all, I'm a runner, not a yogi. Let's work with what we've got.
I was also determined to not let Ariel get "weird." By that, I mean that I didn't want to be jumping around the stage and making strange poses with no purpose. Sure, Ariel cannot be human; he doesn't share the same emotion or intellect, and therefore he doesn't interact with his world as humans would. But he's still a distinct being. Deciding how to be "other" without being just random was an exciting challenge that Terry helped me with. We ended up with strong stances, quick and sharp movements, and lots of stillness in between. I also felt it was important to be distinctly different than the other fantastical character, Caliban. Because Caliban is a mutant monster, it makes good sense that he is a hunched and crooked being. To contrast, Ariel needed to be upright, using straight lines whenever possible.
I will close by saying that I ended up loving Ariel, and when I had to released him back the elements--just as Prospero does--at the end of our play, my heart broke a little. Not often do women get to play such strong, physical, present characters with as much agency as Ariel has. They just aren't written for us. I knew I wouldn't get the chance to do so again soon. I deeply appreciated my time in that world.
Check back soon for rehearsal room insight, performance anecdotes, and more, from:
Painting: "Miranda" John William Waterhouse, 1849-1917