The Tempest First lecture Performance of Act III, scene 1

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The Tempest

  • First lecture

Performance of Act III, scene 1

  • This will happen at 3 p.m., so we’ll finish the lecture at this point.
  • The student actors, from the BFA program are Josh Keeler and Samantha Stinger.
  • Their director is Professor Irwin Appel, from Dramatic Art.

Shakespeare’s most experimental play

  • The Tempest feels like Shakespeare’s last play.
  • (Though Henry VIII, written with John Fletcher, is his actual last play.)
  • Prospero isn’t Shakespeare, but when P. bids farewell to his art at V.3.33ff, we feel it has something to do with Sh’s retirement from the theater and his return to Stratford that year.
  • And the “metatheatricality” of the play, the way it refers so often to theatrical processes, gives us a sense it has to do with playwrighting.
  • It’s certainly his most experimental play.
  • Strange characters – Ariel and Caliban.
  • A plot driven partly by magic.
  • Observing the “unities” of time and place – a first for Shakespeare
  • A wedding masque enacted by spirits.
  • And Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s colleague and friend (well, sort of), seems to have disliked it.

Ben’s critique

  • Jonson’s own plays are mostly set in London, his characters, while comic exaggerations, are London types.
  • In the Induction to Bartholomew Fair (1614), Jonson has his spokesman, the Bookholder, indicate what the audience will not find in his play:
  • There is no “servant-monster” or “a nest of antics.”
  • Jonson “is loath to make nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget Tales, Tempests, and such like drolleries, to mix his head with other men’s heels, let the concupiscence of jigs and dances reign as strong as it will amongst you.”
  • The “servant-monster” must = Caliban, and the “nest of antics” refers almost as obviously to the dancers of The Tempest or WT.
  • In both plays, Sh. “mixes his head with other men’s heels” and includes country dances.
  • Ben disliked the reliance on fantasy, on the strange and outlandish.
  • Characters and events that can happen only in the imagination.
  • But more than subject matter: he disliked theatricality that isn’t afraid of dancing, music, exotic theatrical effects.
  • Even though The Tempest observes the “unities.”

Dating, sources, text

  • As we noted in discussion of WT, the play was performed at court on Nov. 1, 1611.
  • There is no narrative source for the play . . .
  • . . . a distinction it shares with Midsummer Night’s Dream and Merry Wives of Windsor.
  • Two minor but interesting “sources”:
  • In 1610 a document was circulating in manuscript (not printed until 1625) by William Strachey called A True Report of a Wrack.
  • Described the shipwreck of the Sea-Venture, the flagship of a flotilla going to Virginia, wrecked on Bermuda.
  • Contained descriptions of a storm and various elements of Bermuda.
  • And Michel de Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals, which praises the inhabitants of the New World (Brazil) and imagines the possibility of an earthy paradise there.
  • Translated by John Florio and published in 1603.
  • It forms the basis of Gonzalo’s discourse on a utopian commonwealth.
  • The text of the play is the First Folio of 1623, where it appears as the first play.


  • Is Sh. having some fun with Ben Jonson?
  • In spite of all the bizarre romance material of the play – and the fact that the plot stretches over 12 years –
  • the play observes the unity of time and place.
  • P. asks Ariel (I.2.239): “What is the time o’ th’ day?”
  • And learns that it’s just after 2 p.m. (when plays began at the Globe). Lots to do before 6.
  • At beginning of Act V, Ariel says it’s 6.
  • Bo’sun says (V.1.223) that “three glasses since” – three hours ago – we gave the ship up for lost.
  • “Hey, Ben, I can do the unities if I want.”
  • The storm and shipwreck: pulling out all the theatrical stops: thunder, squibs for lightening, lots of noise.
  • And very realistic sailing commands to keep a ship off a lee shore: “bring her to try with the main course.”
  • But all fake!
  • Miranda was terrified, but Prospero says there was no harm – just his art.
  • Prospero’s speech to Miranda, to Ariel, to Caliban – a kind of jokey way of doing exposition? Teasing the audience too? And Ben?
  • “Dost thou attend me?” “Thou attend’st not!” “Dost thou hear?”
  • The quarreling with Ariel and Caliban: Ben Jonson’s favorite way of doing exposition was to have two characters come on stage quarreling with each other.

More metatheatricality

  • What are we supposed to believe about the island?
  • “How lush and lusty the grass looks,” Gonzalo says.
  • “The ground indeed is tawny,” Antonio replies.
  • They’re both pointing to the same bare stage of the Globe.
  • Which do we believe? A version of the Dover Cliff problem from Lear.
  • Prospero’s wedding masque: “some vanity of mine art.”
  • “Spirits, which by mine art/ I have from their confines called to enact/ My present fantasies” (IV.1.121-23).
  • Interrupted in a way that again reminds us we’re in a theater.
  • And Prospero’s speech that points – also! -- to the theater and to London (ll. 146ff).
  • And the epilogue – “spoken by Prospero” – that enlists the audience in the business of ending the story and the play.
  • And in the theme of forgiveness as well.
  • Which makes explicit the collaboration of the audience in the whole project of theater.
  • Shakespeare’s constant insistence on the role of the audience.
  • (Very different from Ben Jonson’s attitude toward audiences.)


  • Not an easy-going guy!
  • Does his experience explain that?
  • He had been a devoted scholar: “for the liberal arts/ Without a parallel” (I.2.73-74).
  • “Me (poor man) my library was dukedom large enough.”
  • In a way, he becomes a kind of fantasy of the Renaissance man, the magus who could, through mastery of arcane learning, control the elements.
  • And also of the artist who could body forth his imaginative life?
  • But the result was to neglect the real business of being a duke (and to neglect the real business of life?).
  • Which meant near death and 12 years of exile.
  • And the result of his indulgent treatment of Caliban?
  • Will he allow himself to be inattentive in the future.
  • Or to control everything?
  • Finally, what does he intend in the round-up of his enemies?
  • How can they be properly punished?
  • Does he know?
  • How can he be sure that Ferdinand is not some spoiled aristocratic jerk?

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