The Tempest read-along – Acts I & II

Shakespeare’s, The Tempest is unique among his plays in many ways. The most interesting to me is that it appears to be the only play of his where he made up the plot entirely on his own.  Other plays are based, admittedly sometimes very loosely, on historical, legendary, or mythological events, but there doesn’t seem to be a ‘source story’ here.  It has been argued that the inspiration for the play was a ‘current event’ of the time – that being the 1609 voyage of a fleet of supply ships bound for the colony of Jamestown in America which encountered bad weather, losing it’s flagship In storms around the islands of Bermuda. The Tempest is also thought to be the last play that Shakespeare wrote entirely on his own, without collaborators.

 The first two acts of the play (which stage one of the read-along covers) generally set the stage for the main action later.  It starts quite dramatically with the the crew of a ship struggling to save their ship in a storm (a tempest, if you will). The passengers of the ship are royalty from Naples and Milan, and provide some brief comic relief in the opening scene, getting in the way of the earnest efforts of the crew “you do assist the storm!”

In the second scene we learn that there is a ‘puppet-master’ behind all these events:  Prospero.  Described as the “right Duke of Milan” in the Dramatis Personae, we learn he has been deposed by his brother, Antonio, and has been living in exile on an island with his daughter Miranda.  She knows something of his “powers ” (his position was usurped at least in part because he spent too much time in ‘secret books,’ apparently learning the ways of magic) and asks him to stop the storm, as she feels empathy toward the crew.  Prospero begins to tell her something of her past in Milan, before their exile.  She surprises him by remembering, though young when they departed, some detail of their time there.  This leads Prospero to say, “what seest thou else, in the dark backward and abysm of time?”  I love the language “dark backward and abysm of time.”  Funny, I just looked up “abysm” on to see the difference, if any, between that word and “abyss” and the definition is given as: ABYSS <the dark backward and abysm of time – Shakespeare>.  Neat.

We also meet one of Prospero’s two servants, Ariel.  A spirit of some kind that had been imprisoned (within a piece of driftwood for twelve years!) on the island by its prior owner/resident, the witch Sycorax.  In payment for freeing him, some bargain has been made where Ariel will serve Prospero for a determined period of time.  With Ariel’s help & powers, Prospero has conjured the storm which has brought his ‘enemies’ to the shores of the island.  Ariel is careful to strand them in various locations, not all together – perhaps this makes future staging of the play easier than if they were all in one group.  Left alone is Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples.  Miranda sees him and thinks him the noblest man she has ever seen (indeed, besides her father and his other servant, the wretched Caliban, Ferdinand is the ONLY man she has ever seen).  The other ‘nobles’ are washed ashore in a group, as are the two ‘comic’ characters, Trinculo and Stephano.  One of the latter stumbles upon Caliban (the offspring of the witch) sheltering underneath a blanket and provides some comic relief when Stephano finds them as well.  Our visit with the stranded nobles does not endear them to us, however.  With the exception of the King of Naples, who is sure his son has perished, they all give a rather distatesful, self-serving impression.  They are clearly “the bad guy” in the play, but who is “the good guy?”  Prospero seems a little shady too, in my opinion.  Perhaps the final acts will illuminate for us…

1 Comment

  1. Allie said,

    August 17, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Excellent thoughts/review!
    Yes, I see Prospero as a shady little manipulator, but then I do feel some sympathy since he was abandoned on the island as well. I am looking forward to seeing if he gets his due, or delivers it.

    I really love Ariel’s character. I find him fascinating and I am looking forward to what happens to him in the next acts!

    Thanks for participating!


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