The Tempest | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Tempest | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Combining both comedic and tragic elements, William Shakespeare's The Tempest is one of the Bard's most beloved plays. It tells the story of Prospero, a castaway who uses a combination of magic and manipulation to restore his daughter Miranda to her royal status in Milan through marriage. The play is well-known for its colorful and magical characters Ariel, an enchanted spirit aiding Prospero in his quest, and Caliban, a bizarre, deformed creature who calls the island home.

Believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote alone—although there is much debate over that—scholars argue that there is an autobiographical element to The Tempest. Some critics view Prospero's renunciation of magic at the play's end to be symbolic of Shakespeare's own farewell to his career as a playwright. Whether or not this was intentional, The Tempest remains a fundamental part of the Shakespearean corpus and a play that has coaxed both laughter and tears from audiences for more than 400 years.

1. Shakespeare had to be careful about including magic in his play.

In an age when people could be burned at the stake for expressing interest in the occult, the inclusion of a magic user such as Prospero was somewhat taboo. To avoid being viewed as a promoter of witchcraft, Shakespeare wrote The Tempest with only Ariel using actual magic, and Prospero only using magic through speechcraft, renouncing the arcane arts altogether once things are at peace.

2. The Tempest is often read from a Freudian perspective.

Sigmund Freud's idea of the id, ego, and superego—the three elements of the human personality that dictate behavior—is often applied in critical readings of The Tempest. Caliban can be seen as the wild and animalistic id, while Ariel represents the morally aware superego, or conscience. Prospero is representative of the ego, often caught between these two polarized forces of nature.

3. The first film adaptation of The Tempest was in 1904.

The earliest film version of The Tempest was a 2-minute silent film that depicted the opening storm scene of the play. The frames on this film were hand tinted, giving it a much more sophisticated appearance than other silent films of the era. Later, in 1908, a more substantial 12-minute silent film was made by director Percy Stowe.

4. Shakespeare wrote The Tempest for a specific theater.

Unlike the large, open-air Globe Theater, the Blackfriars Theater in London was a smaller, more intimate indoor venue that gave 17th-century patrons a unique entertainment experience. Evidence from Shakespeare's stage directions indicate that The Tempest was most likely written to be performed at this theater and was first performed at the mysterious candlelit hall in either 1610 or 1611.

5. The Tempest features more music than any other Shakespearean play.

Taking advantage of the excellent acoustics at the Blackfriars Theater, The Tempest is the closest thing to a Shakespearean musical. Two full songs, "Full Fathom Five" and "Where the Bee Sucks" were composed by Robert Johnson for the play and are often modernized for contemporary performances. The play also features numerous musical cues, during which characters mime, dance, or simply listen along with the audience.

6. The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays.

At just over 2,000 lines, The Tempest is the second shortest Shakespearean play after The Comedy of Errors. However it isn't necessarily the shortest in run time, since it features numerous musical interludes.

7. The phrase "in a pickle" traces its origins to The Tempest.

The play is the first-known use of the popular idiom, as Alonso asks, "How camest thou in this pickle?" and Trinculo responds, "I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing." In The Tempest, however, the phrase is used to indicate drunkenness, as opposed to the common meaning of being in a difficult situation.

8. A science-fiction film moves the plot of The Tempest to an alien planet.

The 1956 film Forbidden Planet replaces the magic found in Shakespeare's play with futuristic space-age technology. Professor Morbius, the Prospero figure, is stranded on a planet with his daughter and a robotic creature that fills the role of Ariel. The planet, as it turns out, has been depopulated and made barren by "monsters from the Id," or products from the subconscious of a long-gone alien race.

9. Several moons of Uranus are named after characters in The Tempest.

Of the 27 discovered moons orbiting Uranus, five were given names from Shakespearean plays. Two of these, Ariel and Miranda, derive from The Tempest. The other three are named after characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

10. The courtly dance in Act 4 may have been a later addition.

Many speculate that the masque, during which Ariel and other spirits dance to entertain Miranda and Ferdinand, may not have been included in early performances of The Tempest. A staple of courtly life and stage presentation at the time, the masque was likely added in 1613 to honor the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V.

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