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The Tempest
William Shakespeare


When Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, he was approaching the end of a long, productive, and highly successful career in the theater. He was respected by his fellow playwrights, and was possibly the most popular playwright of his day though his considerable reputation wasn't nearly as dazzling as it is now. Today, of course, few people would argue that the world has produced a greater writer, in any language, than William Shakespeare. Yet when it comes to his life, we don't have a great deal of information, and guesswork outweighs the facts.

Actually, however, we do know more facts about Shakespeare than about most of the other dramatists of Renaissance England. Unfortunately, those facts gleaned from some forty documents that name Shakespeare and many more that refer to members of his family- don't reveal much. We're not even sure of the exact date of Shakespeare's birth- the first document that mentions him records his baptism, on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-on-Avon, the quiet village where he was born. We accept April 23 as his birthdate since children were generally baptized three days after their birth. Today Stratford has become a literary shrine to which tourists from all over the world travel to see performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Four centuries after his birth, Shakespeare's plays are still performed more than any other playwright's, living or dead.

Shakespeare's father was comfortably well-off; he had married the daughter of a wealthy land-owner, and he owned a business that dealt in leather goods (such as gloves) and farm commodities. John Shakespeare also dabbled in local affairs. By 1568 he had risen to the post of high bailiff, the equivalent of mayor; but for some reason he dropped out of politics, and suffered some financial setbacks.

We know nothing of Shakespeare's schooling, but it's probable that as the son of a public official he attended the town's grammar school, where he would have received a fine education in Latin. He would draw on his knowledge of Latin rhetoric, logic, and literature in his later playwriting. (Prospero's farewell to his art, for example, in Act V of The Tempest, owes something to the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid.) In 1582 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior. She was pregnant at the time of the marriage, since Susanna Shakespeare was born six months later. It was considered permissible, in Shakespeare's England, for engaged couples to sleep together, so there's no reason to assume it was a forced wedding. In 1585 the couple had twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son, died two years later.

Some time after the birth of the twins, Shakespeare left Stratford for London. There's a tradition that he was forced to leave Stratford because he was caught poaching (illegally hunting) deer on a local aristocrat's land, but there's no firm evidence to verify this. According to another tradition, he became a country schoolteacher; some people have suggested that he worked as a traveling actor. It was time when country towns like Stratford were declining in prosperity. London was the main center of opportunity for ambitious young men and women, so it's not surprising that Shakespeare went there to seek his fortune.

Nobody knows when or how Shakespeare became involved in the theater, but he made a name for himself in a relatively brief time. By 1592, when he was just twenty-eight, he was attacked by a rival playwright, Robert Greene. Greene wrote a pamphlet in which he sneered at Shakespeare as an "upstart crow," a mere actor who, with no university education, had the nerve to think he could write plays. (Attacks on Shakespeare's education would continue to plague him. Even several years after his death, his great contemporary Ben Jonson could accuse him, in a poem that's otherwise complimentary, of having "small Latin, and less Greek." Study of the plays, however, proves that this wasn't altogether just.) Shakespeare must have been quite popular by the time of Greene's attack, because it drew complaints, and Greene's editor apologized to Shakespeare in Greene's next pamphlet.

During his career as a playwright, Shakespeare continued to act as well, though the profession was considered slightly beneath anything a real gentleman might undertake. He was listed in a document in 1598 as a "principal comedian," and in 1603 as a "principal tragedian." In 1594 he became one of the founders of a company called the Chamberlain's Men, which he remained with for the rest of his career. When James I took the throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the company became the King's Men. The name change indicated royal support: from then on, they enjoyed the official status of servants of the King.

All this meant profits for Shakespeare. He earned one tenth of the take at the Globe Theatre, where the Chamberlain's Men performed. (He was the only London dramatist who held a share in a theater.) He bought real estate in Stratford, where he had become a famous native son. In 1597 he purchased a fine house in the town- the house to which he retired not long after he wrote The Tempest.

From about 1592 to about 1612 (the dates of most of the plays are conjectures), Shakespeare produced some thirty-seven plays that are as rich and varied as anything in the body of world literature. They're remarkable for the beauty of their verse and for the intensity and nuance with which Shakespeare delves into the psychology of his characters. In addition, their wide range is amazing. The First Folio of Shakespeare's collected works, published in 1623, seven years after his death, divided them into comedies, histories, and tragedies; they range in tone and subject matter from the highjinks of A Midsummer Night's Dream to the gentle melancholy of As You Like It to the political philosophizing of Henry IV to the bitter ironies of Hamlet to the almost unbearable agonies of King Lear. The plays are stunningly profound and complex. But toward the end of his career, Shakespeare began writing a different kind of drama- much lighter, much simpler, much less psychological; you could almost call these plays fairy tales. (Most critics refer to them as "romances".) But their simplicity is a kind of purity- not the simplicity of shallowness, or of a playwright who can't handle anything more difficult, but a simplicity that goes beyond complexity. First Shakespeare wrote Pericles, then Cymbeline, then The Winter's Tale; finally, with The Tempest, he perfected this interesting form. After he wrote The Tempest, he left London and apparently retired from the theater. The last plays, Henry VIII and possibly The Two Noble Kinsmen, were probably collaborations with other playwrights. He died in Stratford in 1616.

* * *

For most of his working life, Shakespeare was associated with the Globe Theatre. It was an open-air theater located across the Thames from London proper, so that it was out of the city's jurisdiction. It was round or octagonal; inside, the stage jutted halfway out into the yard. There was a second story above the stage that could be used for a balcony scene, as in Romeo and Juliet, or for the battlements in Hamlet; above that, a third story held the musicians' gallery. On the very top, a flag waving from a turret announced the day's performance.

The cheapest tickets, at one penny (a day's wage for an apprentice), admitted you to the yard, where you stood with the other "groundlings" to watch the play. Another penny would buy you a seat in the upper galleries, and a third would get you a cushioned seat in the lower gallery- the best seats in the house. Sets were simple, but costumes were ornate. The audience was diverse- theater held a position in Shakespeare's England similar to the position movies hold today. People of all social classes went to the theater, so Shakespeare had to include something in his plays for everyone. There had to be erudition to appeal to the scholars: there were clowns who made awful puns, as Trinculo does in The Tempest, for the spectators in the yard. And of course Shakespeare had to be careful that nothing he wrote would offend the King, for whom the King's Men performed at court. For example, Shakespeare had to be sensitive in his presentation of Prospero as a magician. James I considered himself an authority on magic, and if Shakespeare had seemed to endorse black magic he could have landed in jail.

Since the Globe was an open-air theater, it couldn't be used during cold weather. During the winter, the King's Men performed at court or in one of London's indoor theaters. In 1608, Shakespeare and six partners took over the Blackfriars Theatre, which was much more like the theaters we're used to: a large indoor room, artificially lit. Admission to the indoor theaters was more expensive, and the stage machinery was more sophisticated. The Tempest may well have been acted at the Globe- the King's Men used both theaters after 1608- but it was almost certainly performed at Blackfriars, and the kind of spectacle in the play suggests that it was conceived with the sophisticated indoor theater in mind. The extensive music in the play also seems more appropriate to an indoor theater. Music was an important and popular element of Globe performances, appealing as it did to every class of spectator; however, in an indoor theater you could achieve more subtle musical effects because the acoustics were so much better. That's probably one reason there's so much music, especially instrumental music, in The Tempest.

We know the play was acted at court, because there's a record of a performance attended by the King at Whitehall Palace on November 1, 1611. This was an early performance, perhaps even the first. The play is fairly easy to date. It can't have been written later than that 1611 performance, and it can't have been written before 1610, because passages in it rely on the "Bermuda pamphlets" (see the section on Sources), which were published that year.


ECC [The Tempest Contents] []
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