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The Tempest: Introduction

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The Play:

The Tempest is almost certainly Shakespeare’s last play as sole author. It was first performed in 1611 and first published in the First Folio of 1626. Shakespeare changed his relationship with The King’s Men in 1608, when he bacame a sharer in The Blackfriar’s tenancy, and retired to Stratford around 1610. So The Tempest could be thought of as Shakespeare’s ‘farewell’ to theatre.

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The play tells the story of Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, and a magician, who was put to sea with his baby daughter Miranda in a leaky boat, and arrived at a desert island with two inhabitants – Caliban, a monstrous being; and Ariel; a spirit. They became his servants.

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Prospero brought his daughter up on the island, and at the time the play starts, she is nearly fifteen. The people who deposed him – Antonio, Prospero’s brother; and Alonso, the King of Naples, togerther with Gonzalo, who helped Prospero escape, are in a boat at sea nearby.

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Prospero uses his magical powers, and the abilities of Ariel, to raise a tempest and shipwreck the boat on his island. The people on the boat are scattered about the island.

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Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, is ship-wrecked alone, and quickly finds himself at Prospero’s cell, where he meets and falls in love with Miranda.

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Alonso, and Gonzalo search for Ferdinand without success. Antonio (Prospero’s brother) and Sebastian (Alonso’s brother) conspire to kill Alonzo and Gonzalo, but are prevented by Ariel.

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The king’s drunken butler, Stephano, and a jester, Trinculo, meet up with Caliban and conspire together to murder Prospero, so Stephano can marry Miranda and become king of the island.

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Within the same day, all the parties are brought together at Prospero’s cell. Prospero forgives his brother and Alonso and accepts Caliban. He  renounces his power by breaking his magic staff and freeing Ariel. Ferdinand and Miranda will be married in Naples, and everyone returns to the unharmed boat for the journey back to Naples.

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The Context:

In the 1560s, the decade of Shakespeare’s birth, England turned outward and started a period of expansion. In 1562, John Hawkins, a cousin of Francis Drake, embarked on a slave expedition to West Africa and the West Indes. From 1566 to 1572 Drake engaged in a series of expeditions to the America, leading in turn to his circumnavigation of the world from 1577 – 1580.

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The war with Spain theoretically started in 1588 with the Spanish Armada, but really started informally around 1585 with Drake destroying Spanish settlements in the Caribbean, and repeating the project in 1595.

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In England, Elizabeth was encouraged in her expansionist plans by Dr John Dee, astrologer, magician, and advisor to Elizabeth, and a model for Prospero in The Tempest. The eyes of England, and Europe, were turning across the Atlantic to the Americas.

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Getting even closer to The Tempest, an English translation of Montaigne’s Essay ‘On Cannibals’ was published in English in 1603. And in 1610, an account of a shipwreck in Bermuda was published under the title: A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle of Devils. Ariel  says, in A1S2, ‘From the still-vexed Bermudas, there she’s hid;’.

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What the Play is about:

Fairy tales are capable of many interpretations and this simple fairy tale at the heart of The Tempest, has been interpreted in almost as many ways as there are readers, and so I shall leave you to find your own interpretation of this magical fairy tale. Some may think the play would be better titled as Miranda’s Dream. To help you in your exploration of the play, you’ll find a number of posts, or essays, which help you explore the play through it’s text:

Let’s Explore:
A1S2: Prospero’s back story
Let’s play section:
A1S2: Prospero tells Miranda their history (2 players)
A2S1: Sebastian and Antonio are tempted (5 players)
A2S2: Caliban discovers new gods (3 players):
A3S2: Friends fall out (4 players):
A4S1: Magic and Masque at Miranda and Ferdinand’s nuptials (5 players)

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As an aging man myself, my interpretation of the tale is that of an aging man, reconciling himself to the loss of his powers; forgiving his enemies; ensuring his daughter’s marriage; and preparing for death –

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And thence retire me to my Milan where
Every third thought shall be my grave.

 

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