National Army Museum

The Tempest first performed

The first performance of The Tempest on record was at court on All Hallows’ Day, on November 1st 1611.

'Caliban - A Man or a Fish', a 16th-century illustration
'Caliban - A Man or a Fish', a 16th-century illustration

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon and married a local woman, Anne Hathaway, in 1582 when he was 18. Very little is known about the ‘lost years’ between then and the first definite reference to him in London ten years later, when he was attacked by a rival playwright as ‘an upstart crow’. There’s a story that he joined a professional theatre company in a humble capacity at first, as a messenger or a prompter’s assistant perhaps, and made his way up as an actor and playwright. By his early thirties, at any rate, he was a popular dramatist in London. At some point he may have joined the Queen’s Men, a leading company that had been founded by Sir Thomas Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s intelligence chief, to help promote support for her regime and the Protestant religion.

In 1594 Shakespeare helped to set up a new company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, along with the actor Richard Burbage, who would play the star roles in Shakespeare’s plays. They frequently performed at court and have been described as the greatest acting company in the entire history of theatre. In 1599 they built the Globe Theatre south of the river in Southwark. It seems to have opened with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, after consultations with an astrologer to select a propitious date.

The exact order in which Shakespeare’s plays were written and performed is uncertain. An astonishing explosion of creativity between 1599 and 1606, bridging the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of James I in 1603, produced four great tragedies – Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth – as well as Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, along with other plays. After them he wrote less and turned in a new direction with The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, the last play of which he was the sole author.

The Winter’s Tale was put on at the Globe in the summer of 1610. It was in that year apparently that Shakespeare, who had made ample money as a shareholder in the theatre company, left London and retired to Stratford (though he was still often in London). The first performance of The Tempest on record was at court on All Hallows’ Day in November 1611. There is an interesting theory that the play may essentially be about returning home after the storms and dramas of life to find peace and contentment.

The play’s central character is Duke Prospero of Milan, whose name can be translated as ‘I make happy’. Profoundly learned and fascinated by the occult, he has been expelled from his dukedom by his enemies, led by his own brother, Antonio, and King Alonso of Naples. He and his young daughter Miranda have been living for 12 years on a mysterious island where he has perfected his mastery of the magic arts. It is also inhabited by a spirit called Ariel, released by Prospero from imprisonment in a tree and identified by some as Shakespeare’s own genius, and a brutish, deformed slave called Caliban (close to an anagram of ‘cannibal’), who lusts after Miranda and has been venturesomely identified with the theatre audience.

Prospero discerns that a ship with Antonio and King Alonso on board, as well as Alonso’s son Ferdinand, is passing close by on its way from Tunis to Naples and he conjures up a ferocious storm, which so frightens his enemies that they abandon the ship and take to the island, where they wander uneasily about and Ferdinand goes missing. He meets Miranda and they fall instantly in love. After various murder plots and masque-like illusions created by Prospero and Ariel, who informs his enemies that it is their evil treatment of Prospero that has caused their predicament, the play moves to its climax with Prospero forgiving Alonso and Antonio. Alonso restores Prospero to his dukedom, while Prospero promises to renounce magic and sets Caliban free. The achievement of serenity and harmony is symbolised and perfected by the loving union of Miranda and Ferdinand.

For a change, Shakespeare made the plot up, but there was a real Duke Prospero of Milan who was deposed in 1461 and Shakespeare could have read about him. There is a debt to Virgil’s Aeneid and the play itself points out that the voyage from Tunis to Naples is the same one taken by Aeneas. The Tempest is about reconciliation and forgiveness between enemies and the achievement of contented happiness. It was performed at court during the marriage celebrations of James I’s daughter Elizabeth, the future ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia, in 1613.

Shakespeare lived on comfortably in Stratford until his death there in 1616, as he approached his 52nd birthday. ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.’

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