Read The Tempest Online

Authors: William Shakespeare

The Tempest

The RSC Shakespeare
Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
Chief Associate Editor: Héloïse Sénéchal
Associate Editors: Trey Jansen, Eleanor Lowe, Lucy Munro, Dee Anna Phares, Jan Sewell

The Tempest
Textual editing: Eric Rasmussen
Introduction and “Shakespeare’s Career in the Theater”: Jonathan Bate
Commentary: Charlotte Scott and Héloïse Sénéchal
Scene-by-Scene Analysis: Jan Sewell
In Performance: Karin Brown (RSC stagings) and Jan Sewell (overview)
The Director’s Cut (interviews by Jonathan Bate and Kevin Wright):
Peter Brook, Sam Mendes, and Rupert Goold

Editorial Advisory Board
Gregory Doran, Chief Associate Artistic Director,
Royal Shakespeare Company
Jim Davis, Professor of Theatre Studies, University of Warwick, UK
Charles Edelman, Senior Lecturer, Edith Cowan University,
Western Australia
Lukas Erne, Professor of Modern English Literature,
Université de Genève, Switzerland
Maria Evans, Director of Education, Royal Shakespeare Company
Akiko Kusunoki, Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, Japan
Ron Rosenbaum, author and journalist, New York, USA
James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature,
Columbia University, USA
Tiffany Stern, Fellow and Tutor in English, University of Oxford, UK

2008 Modern Library Paperback Edition

Copyright © 2008 by The Royal Shakespeare Company

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Modern Library, an imprint of
The Random House Publishing Group, a division of
Random House, Inc., New York.

and the T
Design are registered trademarks
of Random House, Inc.

“Royal Shakespeare Company,” “RSC,” and the RSC logo are trademarks
or registered trademarks of The Royal Shakespeare Company.

eISBN: 978-1-58836-827-0




Mastery and Rule

Prospero’s “Potent Art”

Caliban and Sycorax

Plantation and the Brave New World

Court and Masque

Poetic Faith

About the Text

Key Facts

The Tempest

List of Parts

Act 1

Scene 1

Scene 2

Act 2

Scene 1

Scene 2

Act 3

Scene 1

Scene 2

Scene 3

Act 4

Scene 1

Act 5

Scene 1

Textual Notes

Scene-by-Scene Analysis

The Tempest
in Performance: The RSC and Beyond

Four Centuries of
The Tempest:
An Overview

At the RSC

The Director’s Cut: Interviews with Peter Brook, Sam Mendes, Rupert Goold

Shakespeare’s Career in the Theater



The Ensemble at Work

The King’s Man

Shakespeare’s Works: A Chronology

Further Reading and Viewing


Acknowledgments and Picture Credits


The Tempest
was almost certainly Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play. We do not, however, know whether he anticipated that this would be the case. It was also the first play to be printed in the First Folio of his collected works. Again, we do not know whether it was given pride of place because the editors of the Folio regarded it as a showpiece—the summation of the master’s art—or for the more mundane reason that they had a clean copy in the clear hand of the scribe Ralph Crane, which would have given the compositors a relatively easy start as they set to work on the mammoth task of typesetting nearly a million words of Shakespeare. Whether it found its position by chance or design,
The Tempest
’s place at the end of Shakespeare’s career and the beginning of his collected works has profoundly shaped responses to the play ever since the early nineteenth century. It has come to be regarded as the touchstone of Shakespearean interpretation.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays have twenty or more scenes, at least as many roles, several different plot lines and a variety of imaginary locations. In some, the action takes place across a wide gap of time. In comparison,
The Tempest
is extremely simple: it only has nine scenes and a dozen speaking parts of substance. Miranda is the only female role, though Ariel would have provided a showcase for a boy actor who could sing. After the short opening scene representing a ship struggling in a storm, all the remaining action takes place on Prospero’s island. A series of very precise references to the timing of Ariel’s release from his servitude suggests that the action takes place almost in “real time,” during a few hours on a single afternoon. For the first time since
The Comedy of Errors
, written nearly two decades earlier, Shakespeare conforms to the neoclassical “unities,” the idea that a well-made play should have a single focus of time, place, and action.


The narrative is concentrated on questions of mastery and rule. During the tempest in the opening scene, the normal social order is out of joint: the boatswain commands the courtiers in the knowledge that the roaring waves care nothing for “the name of king.” Then the back story, unfolded at length in Act 1 Scene 2, tells of conspirators who do not respect the title of duke: we learn of Prospero’s loss of power in Milan and the compensatory command he has gained over Ariel and Caliban on the island. The Ferdinand and Miranda love-knot is directed toward the future government of Milan and Naples. There is further politic plotting: Sebastian and Antonio’s plan to murder King Alonso and good Gonzalo, the madcap scheme of the base-born characters to overthrow Prospero and make drunken butler Stephano king of the island. The theatrical coups performed by Prospero, assisted by Ariel and the other spirits of the island—the freezing of the conspirators, the harpy and the vanishing banquet, the masque of goddesses and agricultural workers, the revelation of the lovers playing at chess—all serve the purpose of requiting the sins of the past, restoring order in the present and preparing for a harmonious future. Once the work is done, Ariel is released (with a pang) and Prospero is ready to prepare his own spirit for death. Even Caliban will “seek for grace.”

But Shakespeare never keeps it simple. Prospero’s main aim in conjuring up the storm and bringing the court to the island is to force his usurping brother Antonio into repentance. Yet when the climactic confrontation comes, Antonio does not say a word in reply to Prospero’s combination of forgiveness and demand (“I do forgive / Thy rankest fault—all of them—and require / My dukedom of thee, which perforce I know / Thou must restore”). He wholly fails to follow the good example set by Alonso a few lines before (“Thy dukedom I resign, and do entreat / Thou pardon me my wrongs”). As for Antonio’s sidekick Sebastian, he has the temerity to ascribe Prospero’s magical foresight to demonic influence (“The devil speaks in him!”). For all the powers at Prospero’s command, there is no way of predicting or controlling human nature. A conscience cannot be created where there is none.

By this time, Prospero has broken his staff. Ariel’s key words in the speech that prompts the master to renounce his magic—his power—are “were I human” (5.1.23). The fact that a nonhuman spirit has shown “a touch, a feeling” for the afflictions of Prospero’s enemies reveals to him that his own humanity requires him to forgive instead of revenge. The play is indeed an investigation of what it means to be human, or, to put it another way, of the meaning of humanism.


In Shakespeare’s time, the essence of humanism was the idea of “art.” To be human was to stand above the rest of nature by means of the arts of rational debate, eloquent speech, and ethical responsibility. Humanism was above all an educational project that aimed to inculcate civic virtue: through reading and literary composition, through history, through the “liberal arts,” young men could be trained as public servants and loyal subjects. This is the main reason why there was a vigorous debate about the theater in the period: the drama, with its ancient Greek and Roman precedents, had a venerable humanist pedigree, but the public stage was a less malleable arena than the university, and the theater-going audience represented a more mixed and unruly clientele than the boys regimented in Elizabethan grammar schools. The fact that Prospero persistently uses theater as an educational device suggests that
The Tempest
may be read as Shakespeare’s interrogation of his own art.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Prospero as “the very Shakespeare, as it were, of the tempest.” In other words, the leading character’s conjuring up of the storm in the opening scene corresponds to the dramatist’s conjuring up of the whole world of the play. The art of Prospero harnesses the power of nature in order to bring the other Italian characters to join him in his exile; by the same account, the art of Shakespeare transforms the platform of the stage into a ship at sea and then “an uninhabited island.” “If by your art, my dearest father,” says Miranda on Prospero’s first appearance, “you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.” A few lines later, he asks his daughter to help him take off his “magic garment,” which he addresses as “my art.” “Art” is thus established as the play’s key word. Caliban is Prospero’s “other” because he represents the state of nature. In the Darwinian nineteenth century, he was recast as the “missing link” between humankind and our animal ancestors.

Prospero then transforms the “bare island” into a schoolroom. He delivers a series of history lessons to Miranda, to Ariel, to Caliban—and to the audience in the theater. One senses that Miranda has been told the story of her life many times before and that on this occasion she is struggling to stay awake. As Duke of Milan, Prospero reminds her, he was “for the liberal arts / Without a parallel.” Becoming more and more absorbed in his study, he delegated first the “manage” (administration) and then the outright “government” of his state to his brother Antonio. Prospero’s mistake was to pursue learning for its own sake rather than as a means to a political end. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the “liberal arts” were intended as tools for government, not distractions from it.

Prospero’s name means “fortunate,” or more literally “according to one’s hopes.” This could also be a translation of the name of one of the most famous figures in the dramatic repertoire during Shakespeare’s early years in the theater: “Faustus” is Latin for “fortunate.” Marlowe’s hugely successful play opened with a soliloquy in which Dr. Faustus explains that he has become bored with the conventional curriculum of the liberal arts. He accordingly crosses the border into the dangerous territory of necromancy; he makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his immortal soul for the transitory power that magic can offer him; only when it is too late does he realize the error of his ways and cry out, “I’ll burn my books.” Both the coincidence of name and Prospero’s climactic line, “I’ll drown my book,” spoken as he abjures his “rough magic,” suggest that Shakespeare was courting parallels with
Dr. Faustus
. The benign spirit Ariel and the “savage and deformed slave” Caliban might be considered to serve an analogous function to the good and bad angels who watch over Faustus.

The difference from Marlowe is that Prospero claims to practice “natural” as opposed to “demonic” magic. Magical thinking was universal in the age of Shakespeare. Everyone was brought up to believe that there was another realm beyond that of nature, a realm of the spirit and of spirits. Natural and demonic magic were the two branches of the study and manipulation of preternatural phenomena. Magic meant the knowledge of hidden things and the art of working wonders. For some, it was the highest form of natural philosophy: the word came from
, the ancient Persian term for wisdom. Sir Francis Bacon, in many ways a pioneer of scientific empiricism, did not hesitate to describe magic as “a sublime wisdom, and the knowledge of the universal consents of things” (
De augmentis scientiarum
). The “occult philosophy,” as it was known, postulated a hierarchy of powers, with influence descending from disembodied (“intellectual”) angelic spirits to the stellar and planetary world of the heavens to earthly things and their physical changes. The magician ascends to knowledge of higher powers and draws them down artificially to produce wonderful effects. Cornelius Agrippa, author of the influential
De occulta philosophia
, argued that “ceremonial magic” was needed in order to reach the angelic intelligences above the stars. This was the highest and most dangerous level of activity, since it was all too easy—as Faustus found—to conjure up a devil instead of an angel. The more common form of “natural magic” involved “marrying” heaven to earth, working with the occult correspondences between the stars and the elements of the material world. The enduring conception of astrological influences is a vestige of this mode of thought. For a Renaissance mage such as Girolamo Cardano, who practiced in Milan, medicine, natural philosophy, mathematics, astrology, and dream interpretation were all intimately connected.

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