Tempest, The William Shakespeare

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Tempest, The William Shakespeare

Tempest, The William Shakespeare (ca. 1610-1611)

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S stage romance The Tempest pictures a common figure in imperial literature, the outcast ruler in exile. Drawing from 17th-century seafaring lore, the play alludes to the wrecking of the 300-ton flagship Sea-Venture on Bermudan shores on July 24, 1609. A nor’easter off the Azores separated the ship from a convoy of seven armed merchant ships and two pinnaces or tenders bound from Plymouth, England, with supplies for Jamestown, Virginia. After three days of buffeting, the Sea-Venture, England’s first purpose -built emigrant ship, and its 150 passengers survived a miraculous beaching on the reefs at Gates Bay, an unidentified inlet. On July 28, Admiral George Somers, Sir Thomas Gates, and the crew of the Virginia Company of London retrieved the cargo and sheltered on the “Devil’s Islands,” which they began colonizing. Some 142 survivors retrieved rigging and fittings from the Sea-Venture and sawed cedar trees into two boats—the Deliverance and the Patience—that carried them to Jamestown on May 23, 1610. The arrival saved the dwindling colony from starvation and disease.

In the early years of the rule of James I over England and Scotland, William Shakespeare’s interest in historical literature led him to A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia (1610), possibly written by an investor named Dudley Digges. English translations were also available of the French essayist Michel de Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” (1580), which offered a bloodthirsty view of the New World’s primitive societies, based on his meeting with a Brazilian native. Additional data from Sylvester Jourdain’s “A Discovery of the Barmudas, otherwise Called the Ile of Divels” (1610)—an eyewitness account in a letter by William Strachey, a survivor of the Sea Venture’s mishap, and a pamphlet by Sir Thomas Gates, governor of Jamestown—supplied enough background for Shakespeare’s composition of The Tempest. For romanticism, the playwright drew on Italian street drama, the commedia dell’arte, for the stereotypes of the villainous Caliban, the ingenuous Miranda, and the buffonish Stephano and Trinculo, who augment a cast of nobles striving for control of wealthy Italian duchies. Literary critics identify Caliban as a symbol of the diasporic victim, the disgruntled slave of West Indian entrepreneurs. In a retort to Prospero, Caliban sneers, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse” (1.2.363-364).

After the King’s Men debuted the allegorical play at the Globe and at Blackfriars, a reprise at

280 Tempest, The

Whitehall on November 1, 1611, delighted King James I and the Jacobean court with the fairy tale plot. The setting, a magical land to Europeans, bears “subtleties o' th' isle, that will not let you believe things certain” (5.1.124-125), a description of the allure of North America to explorers, readers, and playgoers. The title represents the human predilection for VIOLENCE; the action turns to comedy with a series of plots and counterplots interwoven with magic spells carried out by the wizard and master manipulator Prospero and his sprite Ariel. With its combined themes of atonement, forgiveness, and conciliation between conspirators and castaways, The Tempest was, perhaps fittingly, Shakespeare's last play, and therefore is called his “farewell to the theater.” The popular work continued to please royal audiences for the nuptials of Elizabeth, the princess royal, to Frederick V Count Palatine, on February 14, 1613. John Dryden's version of The Tempest in 1667 received mention in the diary of Samuel Pepys. Seven years later, the playwright Thomas Shadwell presented the drama in opera form, which the composer Henry Purcell rescored in 1695.

Staged Imperialism

Shakespeare's romance is a miniature version of the imperial clashes of his era and the abrupt unseating of rightful rulers. The dramatic conflict off the “still-vexed Bermoothes” (1.2.229) reflects an imperial conflict of the dramatist's day: the Hapsburg and Bourbon jostling for the duchy of Milan and the kingdom of Naples. The playwright describes a similar struggle for power in the coup d'etat by which Antonio usurps his brother Prospero's rule of Milan, a plot abetted by King Alonso of Naples. The text is one of family treachery, guilt, and repentance. Resolution of a political wrong rests on a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between Prospero's daughter Miranda and Ferdinand, the crown prince of Naples. Shakespeare has Sebastian say of Prospero's domain: “I think he will carry this island home in his pocket and give it to his son for an apple” (2.1.89-90), a double image of inherited rule that implies its success needs tending and nurture. The cynical summation attributes to the wizard Prospero the power-mongering of both the speaker and Antonio, his fellow plotter.

To emphasize the absence of greed and conspiracy in Prospero's New World realm, Shakespeare frees Miranda of earthly ambition by isolating her on the shores of Bermuda, far from Europe's cabals and power struggles. The three evildoers—Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano—undergo a trial by ordeal as punishment for their plotting murder. The romantic conclusion illustrates how purity of motive and innocent love renew humanity and reaffirm the best in the “brave new world” (5.1.205), which Shakespeare depicts as Europe's second chance for self-redemption. Antonio envisions the start of an English toehold in North America as “sowing the kernels of [empire] in the sea, bring forth more islands” (2.1.91-92). The Shakespearean romance and its allegory of repentance and forgiveness flourished in movie format in Tempest (1982), featuring John Cassavetes, Molly Ringwald, Susan Sarandon, and Raul Julia; and in Prospero’s Books (1991), starring John Gielgud.

A Power Shift

In 1969, a proponent of black Antillean nationalism, Aime Cesaire (1913-2008) of Martinique, adapted Shakespeare's romance into the drama Une Tempete (A Tempest), a surreal cleansing of the West Indies of British colonialists. He invigorated his Creole French play with subversion of British egotism and condescension through the enchantment of Afro-Caribbean animism. Dialogue represents the opposing philosophies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the characters of Caliban and Ariel, one a bitter black African and the other a thoughtful maroon. When the storm rages, the captain feels the presence of Shango, a monstrous, whirling orisha (divinity) carried west with the diaspora from the Oyo Empire (present- day Nigeria). Shango's phenomena hover over the action like black rage at postcolonial racism and treachery. Unlike Shakespeare's benign view of Renaissance colonialism, Cesaire's power structure lies in the hands of nature, which dwarfs the buffeted ship and entwines Prospero in a jungle grotto, a symbol of the white illusionist's self-exile in enemy territory.

Cesaire delighted in humbling the European imperialist. While the wizard Caliban wields magic, the seagoing adventurers crouch in their cabins. The storm humbles the crew and passengers for their effrontery in an expedition that threatens to contaminate the New World with greed, SLAVERY, and GENOCIDE. Expressing his outrage, Caliban accuses Prospero of the worst of betrayals, “Imposing on me an image of myself: underdeveloped, in your words, incompetent” (Cesaire 1985, 16). Following the radical orator Malcolm X, Cesaire accuses Prospero of robbing blacks of their self-esteem, true names, and history. Caliban commands, “Call me X” (18), a rejection of the identity forced on him by Europeans. In 1998, Cesaire's adaptation opened on the London stage on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the French Antilles.


Cesaire, Aime. A Tempest. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Borchardt, 1985.

Maley, Willy. Nation, State and Empire in English Renaissance Literature: Shakespeare to Milton. London: Macmillan, 2003.

Nutall, A. D. Two Concepts of Allegory: A Study of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Logic of Allegorical Expression. New Haven, Conn.: Yale of University Press, 2007.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. New York: Washington Square Press, 1961.