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THE TEMPEST

William Shakespeare
The Tempest
The tempest that begins the play, and which puts all of Prosperos enemies at his
disposal, symbolizes the suffering Prospero endured, and which he wants to inflict
on others. All of those shipwrecked are put at the mercy of the sea, just as Prospero
and his infant daughter were twelve years ago, when some loyal friends helped them
out to sea in a ragged little boat (see I.ii.144151). Prospero must make his enemies
suffer as he has suffered so that they will learn from their suffering, as he has from
his. The tempest is also a symbol of Prosperos magic, and of the frightening,
potentially malevolent side of his power.

The storm or tempest


The play begins with a mighty tempest that brings about the shipwreck that puts
Prosperos enemies at the mercy of the sea. This reflects the way that control was
taken from Prospero and he and his infant daughter were put out to sea twelve years
before Prospero is visiting that same fate on his enemies, and bringing them under
his control. The tempest represents the political and social upheaval that is central to
the story, indicating that events have been put in motion that must play out, giving a
sense of inevitability as the drama unfolds. The social order is reversed, with the
common sailors taking control from the hands of the ruling class. This disorder
weaves throughout the story, until Prospero promises calm sailing for the return
voyage, indicating all has been set right. As the tempest has been created by
Prospero, it symbolizes his enormous power and mastery over his environment.
However, it is also a little frightening, hinting at his potential for malevolence and the
possibility that he does not have the level of control that he thinks he has.

Shakespeare's World
Most of Shakespeare's career unfolded during the monarchy of Elizabeth I, the
Great Virgin Queen from whom the historical period of the Bard's life takes its name
as the Elizabethan Age. Elizabeth came to the throne under turbulent circumstances
in 1558 (before Shakespeare was born) and ruled until 1603. Under her reign, not
only did England prosper as a rising commercial power at the expense of Catholic
Spain, Shakespeare's homeland undertook an enormous expansion into the New
World and laid the foundations of what would become the British Empire. This
ascendance came in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the former
regaining Greek and Roman classics and stimulating an outburst of creative
endeavor throughout Europe, the latter transforming England into a
Protestant/Anglican state, and generating continuing religious strife, especially
during the civil wars of Elizabeth's Catholic sister, Queen Margaret or "Bloody Mary."
The Elizabethan Age, then, was an Age of Discovery, of the pursuit of scientific
knowledge, and the exploration of human nature itself. The basic assumptions
underpinning feudalism/Scholasticism were openly challenged with the support of
Elizabeth and, equally so, by her successor on the throne, James I. There was in all
this an optimism about humanity and its future and an even greater optimism about
the destiny of England in the world at large. Nevertheless, the Elizabethans also
recognized that the course of history is problematic, that Fortune can undo even the
greatest and most promising, as Shakespeare reveals in such plays as Antony &
Cleopatra. More specifically, Shakespeare and his audiences were keenly aware of
the prior century's prolonged bloodshed during the War of the Roses between the
houses of Lancaster and York. Many Elizabethans, particularly the prosperous,
feared the prospect of civil insurrection and the destruction of the commonwealth,
whether as a result of an uprising from below or of usurpation at the top. Thus,
whether or not we consider Shakespeare to have been a political conservative, his
histories, tragedies and even his romances and comedies are slanted toward the
restoration or maintenance of civil harmony and the status quo of legitimate rule.