The Tempest, Act 1


I suspect Sh. has Ben Jonson in mind in that opening scene. He usually, it seems to me, begins a play with a conversation, maybe with just a couple of characters, that develops the situation that immediately follows. By contrast, Ben often starts with something big and noisy, characters arguing about something, shouting. Of course Sh. certainly is joking about or with Ben and the unities several times in “The Tempest” as Prospero, and maybe Ariel, ask what time it is, calling attention to the fact that things are taking place within an allowed single time period. And of course the action all follows the unity of place, everything within walking distance on the island.

 Clearly “A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard” and the shouting of the bosun and master and mariners are a loud, boisterous opening, even before the gentles come in and start shouting at the bosun and he at them. Of course the basic point of the argument is human value in the present moment; the gentles are useless, in the way, and only the sailors are of use in the crisis. Perhaps the bosun wants to heave-to (“bring her to try”) with the main sail (“course” is the basic sail on the main- and fore-masts, the largest sail) to stop the ship’s progress. Lowering the topmast might give the ship more stability, a lower center of gravity, but it seems a futile maneuver at this point. Then the bosun orders the main and foresail set to try to sail off the lee shore. Obviously Sh. knows something about sea-going terminology, even if the maneuvers aren’t effective. And it all ends in the cries of shipwreck, Antonio cursing the sailors as drunkards. Of course the competence of the sailors will soon prove moot when we learn the actual cause of the shipwreck.

The most effective staging I’ve seen had everyone swaying in unison against the assumed movement of the ship/stage, until the audience almost felt seasick. The playing time I think would be much longer than it takes in reading, giving a sense of presumed danger and tragedy to contrast with the scene immediately following. Miranda reacts as if she has seen the tragic scene we saw, and Prospero’s calm becomes strange until he enters the lengthy exposition. I wonder if Prospero’s seemingly impatient reminders to Miranda (“Dost thou attend me?”, “Thou attend’st not”, “Dost thou hear?”) are given to characterize him as a somewhat fussy and schoolmasterly father, or whether they’re meant, perhaps amusingly, for the audience, who also have to take in a good deal of exposition. Of course her lesson isn’t the end of the exposition, and successively we have back stories that involve Ariel and Caliban.

It’s an extraordinarily long scene, though broken up into Miranda, Ariel, Caliban, then Ferdinand sections. And all of it develops sides of Prospero.


You bring a mariner’s knowledge to the details of the opening scene. The maneuvers don’t save the ship, but maybe the mariners could not: the ship was doomed by magic. I like your point about the contrasting ways in which Shakespeare and Jonson like to begin a play. (It has set me trying to think of a Shakespeare play that begins with action. What about “Macbeth”?) Yes, Antonio curses the sailors, but by the end of the scene do we not sense a difference between him and Sebastian (who will emerge as more villainous)? Antonio says loyally “Let’s all sink wi’ the King” and Sebastian says, in effect, the hell with the king: “Let’s take leave of him.” Because garrulous Gonzalo gets the last words, I think we get a hint that the play will not be about a shipwreck and will not end with his death.

1.2 runs to more than 500 lines, but as you say is broken up into sub-scenes. In the first of them Shakespeare presents exposition under cover of Prospero’s explanation to Miranda of how they got to the island. We quickly learn that the storm was raised by magic, and that all the men on the ship are safe — another indication about where the play is going. He calls himself Miranda’s schoolmaster, and he does treat her roughly. I think he’s not just “seemingly impatient.” Is he not still fuming about the injustice done him, self-absorbed, determined at last to present his complaint to someone who will hear him out? Miranda is paying close attention, as her quick replies indicate, and does not deserve the reproofs. I think he’s irascible, not a kindly old father and magician. As for what happened in Milan, he makes clear who the bad guys are, but was Prospero not a negligent duke? (By the end of the play we learn that he does not want to regain his office.) By the end of this subscene we hear that Gonzalo is noble and that Antonio is false and evil, but don’t have a fix on Sebastian and Alonso yet. Although Prospero takes off his magic garment at the beginning of the scene, he still wields his magic, casting a charm on Miranda to make her sleep. One dimension of Prospero’s plan is now laid out: the bad guys are within  his grasp, though it is still unclear what he will do with them.

In the second subscene we again hear that all the drowned men are in fact safe. Prospero is just as impatient with Ariel as he is with Miranda. Again Shakespeare provides exposition under cover of something else, here Prospero’s insistent reminder to Ariel of what Ariel knows but Prospero thinks is in danger of forgetting. A metaphorical and literal clock is set ticking, and we are invited to expect that the action will be over by six pm, i.e., in four hours. So from Ariel’s point of view the rest of the play will be about gaining freedom soon.

In the third subscene Prospero proposes to Miranda that they go to “visit” Caliban. This seems lame: there’s no “plot” reason for this. I think Shakespeare just needs to introduce Caliban and to set up a contrast with Ferdinand in the next subscene. I think the meeting with Caliban has drawn the attention of postcolonialists since Greenblatt’s “Learning to Curse.” He enters cursing and thuggish, a sneering would-be rapist who deserves to be a slave, but he does seem to have a case: “the island’s mine,” left to me by my mother. I used to be king, and you have now enslaved me under cover of civilizing me. Hard now not to think of Europeans and the native creatures they encounter in the New World. Prospero again behaves angrily, threatening Caliban just as he threatened Ariel. He imprisons Caliban in “this stone” just as Sycorax had imprisoned Ariel in a tree. So what’s the difference between the sorceress Sycorax and the magician Prospero? They both were in effect dumped on the island and abandoned. They each have one child. Interesting that it’s made clear Sycorax was pregnant before she arrived on the island, so we can dismiss right away the idea that Prospero is Caliban’s father, regardless of the fact that he will later say he “acknowledges” him “mine” — which is what fathers of bastards say when they admit to being fathers.

In the fourth subscene, with Ferdinand, things begin to change, introduced by Ariel’s song. And the second song is about “sea change.” The dead, we already know, have been changed into “something rich and strange,” but now Ferdinand hears it, and knows that this is “no mortal business.” Once again Prospero acts impatient and threatens, but now we see that his speaking “ungently” is a stratagem. And we see that Prospero’s real plan is to marry off his daughter. . . but not yet. We are in the realm of romantic comedy, where young lovers want to marry, but confront obstacles (often parents), and finally overcome them. In this play Prospero is the one who brings boy and girl together, then separates them, and will later rejoin them.


I’ve thought in the last few years that “The Tempest” represents experimental theater for Sh. It has no narrative source (like “MND”), just that Bermuda pamphlet about an undiscovered island and a shipwreck. And it has lots of strange elements, magic, a monster, a spirit servant, a masque, a magic circle — other things?

I’ve long wondered if Prospero actually has a plan for what he wants to do with his enemies. He does seem to have a plan for Ferdinand. But what of the enemies? It is of course a wonderful fantasy to have everyone who has ever harmed you in your control, and he does seem to relish this. But what to do with them? Does he know? Thus his irascible nature must give us some apprehension about where it’s all going.

With Miranda he seems to me school-masterish and strict, only indulgent in his obvious care for her and his memory of how her toddler presence was a comfort. He does admit to having been too bookish and having neglected rule of the dukedom for his books. And he raises apprehension by admitting that this moment is the crucial one for his fortunes — but not what he will do.

But beginning with Ariel, he seems harsh, initially pleased with Ariel’s management of the crew and the gentles, but impatient when Ariel reminds him of his promise of liberation. Prospero’s quarrel with Ariel brings out more exposition (in a Ben Jonson-like quarrel?), but certainly suggests a guy who is not likely to allow anything not to his liking. Even when Ariel gives Caliban’s name, Prospero snaps at him, “Dull thing, I say so.” After Ariel’s lively account of the storm and his role in it, including turning into St. Elmo’s fire, and separating the gentles and the mariners, Ariel seems anything but dull. But Prospero isn’t mollified and ends up threatening Ariel, who is nonetheless entirely compliant.

When he wakes Miranda and they go to find Caliban, he starts by abusing him, and Caliban responds with a seemingly appropriate curse. Yes, plotwise it does seem lame, but we’ve got to get through the population of the island. Now we’re in Greenblatt and postcolonialist territory. I tended to resist this, wanting to make it more part of the nature/nurture war of renaissance ideas. But I think it’s a legitimate perspective, especially since the Bermuda pamphlet allows an Atlantic perspective. And their history can seem allusive to the relationship of Europeans to the indigenous, initial fascination and love followed by dispossession and bitterness. Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda motivates Prospero’s anger and the severing of their mutual fascination, but can we say it wasn’t his own misjudgement, allowing Miranda’s indulgence in teaching C.? Caliban’s response, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t Is,/ I know how to curse,” does seem somehow emblematic of the Old and New World clash. Of course in 1611 it’s still too early for Sh. to know the full tragedy of that story, but it does seem encapsulated in the Prospero-Caliban relation. Finally, who does, or should, own the island, Propero or Sycorax?

The ending of the scene seems to create an artificial situation for comedy. Ferdinand is led in by Ariel’s songs. The stage direction says Ariel is invisible, but this must mean invisible to Ferdinand, not to the audience, and Ferdinand hears and is drawn by the song. The song we always remember, “Full fathom five thy father lies” promises something unexpected. “Sea change” is fascinating, apparently Sh’s coinage, which of course becomes proverbial. The meeting between Miranda and Ferdinand promises a comedic ending, and Propero’s here seemingly-enacted heavy role fits with it perfectly. Miranda doesn’t believe the role, and Prospero seems to confirm his role-playing. His control over Ferdinand puts the latter in a Caliban-like position, but his remarks to Ariel at the end of the scene give it all away. Interestingly, Ferdinand’s initial response to Miranda seems Virgilian, which get reprised in the later joking about “widow Dido” and the question about where Carthage was.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell