The Inspiration for THE TEMPEST

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly reveals real-world inspiration for one of Shakespeare’s final plays.

The Tempest has an unclear setting: We know simply that it takes place somewhere in the Mediterranean, since Alonso and Antonio are on their way back from Tunis (where Alonso’s daughter has been reluctantly married off) to Naples. The Tempest is also one of the few Shakespeare plays not to have a clear literary source. It is thought to have been inspired by Shakespeare’s reading of a real-life event described by a voyager: On July 24, 1609 a fleet of nine English vessels was nearing the end of a supply voyage to the new colony of the Bermudas when it ran into “a cruel tempest,” presumably a hurricane. The vessels in the fleet couldn’t keep together, and two fared particularly badly. One of them, The Sea Venture, carrying the fleet’s Admiral, ran ashore.

The Sea Venture

"The Sea Venture in a Heavy Sea in 1609," painting by Christopher Grimes

How could they have survived such peril? Ariel conveys the amazement that Shakespeare probably felt in reading of the safe delivery of the sailors to the shore: “Not a hair perish’d,” he says to Prospero in wonderment. Exhausted by battling the tempest and suffering the effects of food deprivation, the sailors huddled on the battered ship in corners or, indeed, as one sailor put it, “wheresoever they chanced first to sit or lie.”[i]  This sailor’s account was most likely the basis for Ariel’s report to Prospero:

The mariners all under hatches stow’d;

Who, with a charm join’d to their suffer’d labour,

I have left asleep…

Moreover, Ariel herself (for whom there is no literary precedent) was probably inspired by what the sailors saw after the wreck of the Sea venture. The Virginia Company Secretary William Strachey, one of the survivors, reports seeing in the aftermath:

An apparition of a little round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze,…shooting sometimes from shroud to shroud, tempting to settle as it were on any of the four shrouds:…half the night it kept with us, running sometimes along the mainyard to the very end, and then returning. [ii]

As you’ll read in my program article, what Strachey saw was a phenomenon called “St. Elmo’s Fire”—the luminous plasma created by an electric field emanating from a volcanic eruption or a storm. Ariel describes himself to Prospero, flitting around the shipwreck, “flam[ing] amazement,” “burn[ing] in many places: on the top mast,/The yards and bowsprit….” To the cramped streets of London, Shakespeare brought these images of a sparsely-populated island, a place whose existence had only recently been made known to Europe at all. Not unlike Prospero—whose art contracts the vagaries of life into his magically-controlled universe—Shakespeare contracted the far reaches of the known world to the perimeter of his dramatic stage, using the stage itself to infuse this world with its own far-reaching mysteries.

The Tempest begins previews at our stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA, on Thursday, May 31, opens Saturday, June  2, and continues until Sunday, June 24.

[i] This account was given by Silas Samuel Jordan, whose job it was to keep a daily log of events on the ship.


From Romance to Revenge

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly on Prospero’s and other’s journeys in The Tempest

The Tempest is a “Romance” play, best illustrated in relationship to King Lear, written six years before in 1605. Lear is a tragedy that leaves its audiences in a diminished Britain amidst the wasteland of loss, with only Lear’s brief reunion with his beloved Cordelia to comfort us—and even that reunion is made bittersweet, since both are dead by the time the curtain falls. The Tempest affords a more elegant wrap-up. Its fairytale structure—the power of Prospero’s magic; the mysterious setting somewhere in the Mediterranean; and the satisfaction of final redemption and of a wedding to close things—allows Shakespeare to tie up the play’s loose ends and to make what many have seen as his farewell to London and the stage (although he did write The Two Noble Kinsmen after this, as well as contributing to a few other plays).

Michael Winters is Prospero

Michael Winters plays Prospero in our 2012 production of THE TEMPEST; photo by Kevin Berne.

The Tempest highlights several prominent themes and conventions. It is one of Shakespeare’s most spectacular plays, with its apparitions (Ariel/Harpy); its storm and shipwreck to begin the play; and the dance, the vanishing banquet, the songs, as elements of scenic display. The Tempest is also underscored by journeying: There is the interrupted journey made by Milan’s Duke Antonio and Naples’ King Alonso, which brings them to the island; the journey that Prospero has made from Milan to the island; the journey that Shakespeare the dramatist has often been said to be making as he gives us an artist (playmaking as a form of magic?) who, by the play’s end, says goodbye to his art; and the journey from activity to age, signaled by Prospero’s transformation from an artificer at the height of his powers to one wearied by his art.

What is the relationship between art and nature? We experience nature through our bodies, but perhaps it is through art that nature is more truly understood. Nowhere is this juxtaposition between art and nature more intensely felt—and perhaps more challenging—than in the relationship between Prospero, master of the island via his mind and magical practice, and Caliban, who claims ownership of the island via his birth and breeding. “This island’s mine, by Sycorax, my mother,/Which thou take’st from me,” Caliban tells Prospero, “For I am all the subjects that you have,/Which first was mine own king.” Yet while Caliban declares ownership via his birth, Prospero sees this self-appointed “king” as a perverse wretch, an “abhorred slave” whose proclivities have abused the laws of “nature.” Who has more claim to authenticity? Caliban with his unchecked appetites, or Prospero with his history of Dukedom, his rage, and the sophisticated arts that he uses to check and arouse Nature’s tides? “This rough magic I here abjure,” Prospero says near the close of the play. “I’ll break my staff,/Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,/And deeper than did ever plummet sound,/I’ll drown my book.” Why does he ultimately disclaim ownership and authority on the island? The Tempest teases us with this question.

The Tempest begins previews at our stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA, on Thursday, May 31, opens Saturday, June  2, and continues until Sunday, June 24.