Class Notes

The Tempest is found only in the first Folio of 1623. it was written in 1612. This was the first play in the printed Folio, but was the last play written entirely by Shakespeare.

It is unique in that it is one of two of Shakespeare’s plays which follow Aristotle’s dramatic unities (the other is an early play called The Comedy of Errors). He had not read Aristotle, but he was familiar with contemporaties’ use of the dramatic unities of time, place, and action. These hold that  the amount of time covered in a play is ideally the amount of time literally used to perform the play, that the entire play take place in the same area, and that there be only one action plot. The French liked to observe Aristotle’s Unities, so they also became known as the French Unities (and it is also an explanation for Shakespeare’s lack of popularity among the French during his life).

The Tempest is a Romance form of comedy along with Pericles, Cymbeline, and A Winter’s Tale. These are not romantic comedies but rather bittersweet, pensive plays. They are not farces at all. They use the title of Comedy to mean something that ends triumphantly, not an incredibly humorous play. The Tempest is almost a tragedy, and its atmosphere is rather dark. Caliban is scary, dangerous, and tragic. Each of these romances deals with father/daughter relationships as most central.

Perhaps this is because Shakespeare is older when he wrote the romances, ad because he is now under the Stuart’s monarchy, not Elizabeth Tudor’s. James I and his court are more aristocratic than the Globe Elizabethan theatre. Hence, the Blackfriars Theatre – a smaller, more costly theatre frequented by the elite upper class rather than the middle or lower ones as the Globe was. These people wanted more sophisticated, spectacle entertainment than the Elizabethans did.

Sources for The Tempest‘s plot are from an historical account of an English shipwreck of colonists going to Jamestown. All of the crew was saved, although the ship was completely ruined. But they were able to put the ship back together and sail back to the Bermudas, where they were rescued. Also, Elizabeth often appointed pirates to rob the Spanish fleets so Shakespeare had this information to draw from as well. By the time James I reigned, England was expanding to colonization, and was beginning to drag human “specimens” of other nations back for exhibit, as Shakespeare acknowledges in The Tempest.

This play begins at the end, beyond the tragedy storm. Shakespeare, in adapting Seneca, is following Greek tragedy form.

Some themes of this play include love, forgiveness, providence, creation/pro-creation, power/magic, book knowledge versus brawn or political power.

Prose is used in the storm at the sea, but Prospero speaks poetry, as does Caliban.

Prospero is troubled by the power he has, and at the play’s end, he throws away his staff and book. He has God-like power, but he is a man, and has done things with his power that God would not do – he is a slavemaster to both Ariel and Caliban. He cannot make the characters any better – the good characters are already good, and the bad ones are already bad. He cannot make Caliban any better, cannot change his soul like God could. Does this indicate that book power/knowledge/learning can only go so far? Or does it show recognition of God’s absolute power? How does this possibly relate to colonization and the English attitude towards Christianizing conquered nations, using that as a power play?


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