Play Context of The Tempest

The majority of Shakespeare’s plays are set in other countries. Foreign settings have the advantage of allowing local social commentaries to be made. Italy was particularly favoured because it was the origin of the Renaissance and home to many of the source texts that inspired playwrights.
Originality of plot or character was not considered necessary of desirable in literary works. A largely illiterate population and a traditional oral culture created a demand for the familiar and reassuring.
Audiences already expected to know the basic storylines, settings and outcomes of plays they attended… ….and the skill and creativity of the playwright was demonstrated by the quality of the improvements made to an existing work.
No manuscripts of any of Shakespeare’s plays have survived. Some of the plays were published during his lifetime, in editions known as Quarto. In 1623, a collected edition known as the First Folio was published. As The Tempest was the first play to be set in the Folio, it appears that the compositors took care to lay it down, so it contains few textual cruces.
A number of changes will have been made from the original text for any edition. Different editors are likely to have different views and arrive at different conclusions. But the goal of an editor is generally to produce an edition that makes sense when acted on the stage, rather give an account of all the possible interpretations of the play.
The Tempest was first performed at court in 1611 and has enjoyed popularity ever since, though it has changed dramatically over the centuries. It has inspired operatic performances, film adaptations, poems and a number of psychological and philosophical studies, underlining the fact that the play has always stimulated a vast array of responses.
The spectacular opening scene was a particular attraction to audiences of the 17th and 18th centuries… …while its songs and musical interludes serve to increase its running time and to retain the audience’s attention whenever the narrative drive slows down.
Indeed, after the initial drama of the first scene, the tempo of the play became softer. It only has nine scenes, four of which are in excess of 250 lines.
Events and the interaction of the characters seem to flow more naturally than in some of Shakespeare’s other plays… …but the longer scenes can be a drain on the audience and make it difficult to sustain dramatic tension.
The fact that Prospero is entirely in control of all the play’s events also lessens this tension. Interest is therefore maintained through… …the murderous sub-plots, the courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda, and our expectation of a revelatory denouement.
Issues of race, gender and sexuality are all intrinsic to the meaning of The Tempest, and the interpretation of the most central characters has different as a result of casting choices. From being presented as a wronged duke and devoted father, Prospero’s character has also been cast as an empire-builder who sets out to appropriate a foreign land and ‘civilize’ its indigenous population (Ariel, Caliban).
Where some directors have seen him as a caring and indulgent father, others see him as a despot and obsessive patriarch… …whose voyeuristic interest in the marriage of his daughter has unpleasant incestuous undertones.
Any actor playing the role of Prospero must have a sound awareness of these tensions in his character and pay particular attention… …to facial expressions and body language during the scenes where he observes other characters without being seen himself.
The role of Prospero is extremely demanding, as he choreographs all of the play’s events and speaks one third of its lines. Even when he is not directly involved in the action, he is assumed to be aware of what is happening on other parts of the island, through Ariel’s presence or by eavesdropping.
Shakespeare’s decision to conform to the unity of place means that, if the stage is divided into sections to represent the different places of the island… …some characters will remain on stage, having to stay in character even when they are not the main focus of the audience’s attention.
Until the 19th century, the role of Caliban was a peripheral one, but he has perhaps been the focal point of 20th century productions. He has been portrayed as a Native American, a black African and a homosexual. In whatever form he has, he has been a symbol of an oppressed minority.
He has had several ethnic incarnations, and certain references in the text suggest that he is more humanoid than human. Trinculo describes him as a ‘deboshed fish’. and the references to Caliban’s fishiness have led to the use of prosthetic scales and fins as part of his costume.
Some directors have taken literally Trinculo’s comment that Caliban is ‘puppy-headed’, adorning him with a pair of dogs’ ears. After Darwin’s theories of evolution, Caliban has been played, in contradiction to textual evidence, as an ape-like creature to depict earlier evolutionary form of man.
The increasing importance of the character of Caliban is one of the reasons for the play’s longevity of appeal. He has provided a focal point for political and post-colonial readings of the play up to the present day.
Although written at a relatively early stage in English colonization of America and Africa, the political climate of different eras and cultures has contributed to… …the various interpretations of Prospero’s least willing slave. Prospero’s appropriation of the island also came under scrutiny as the issues of slavery gained status.
The debate about the factors that influence our intellect, morality and physical capabilities is also explored, Prospero bemoans Caliban as ‘a devil, as born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick’ Although audiences of Shakespeare’s day may well have agreed with this point of view, today’s more tolerant and cosmopolitan views might question the morality of imposing one’s own values on others.
Miranda’s role has altered dramatically since the play’s first inception. In early performances… …her sharp outburst at Caliban was reassigned to Caliban on the basis that the speech was too confident and unladylike.
However, the challenging and complex aspects of her character have been explored in greater detail. An actress playing Miranda must decide how to balance her contrasting character traits, such as telling Ferdinand her name against her father’s will.
Her innocence can be played as a noble virtue or tragic ignorance, as she is perhaps na├»ve in declaring Antonio and Sebastian as ‘goodly creatures’… …and her willingness to let Ferdinand cheat as chess, suggests a worrying subservience on her part, which would be transferred to other areas of her marriage.
Ariel’s relationship to Prospero is open to interpretations; he can be plated as the ‘malignant thing’ who discharges his duties out of necessity… …or as a willing assistant to Prospero, who shows genuine gratitude to the magician for ending Sycorax’s magical imprisonment.
The Tempest has a large cast of minor, or even absent characters. We hear about Sycorax and Claribel without them appearing on stage… …while Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo, Stephano and Trinculo play important roles in developing the plot without stealing centre stage.
The result is that the burden of dramatic tension shifts onto the more complex characters of… …Prospero, Caliban, Miranda and Ariel; it is on these pivotal roles that the success of a production depends.
Any play must be considered in relation to its historical and social background and the political climate… …which produced it, and be viewed in the context of contemporary attitudes.
Critical interpretations should include responses to the issues which concern us nowadays, such as… …the stereotyping of gender and race in the portrayal of women and different cultures across the world.
A feminist critique will try to ascertain whether the play challenges of accepts and endorses the patriarchal status quo and the misogyny of the time. A post-colonial critique will study the way Caliban is portrayed as the ‘Other’ in his own native land by the European courtiers.
Structuralist approaches will look at language to expose the shifting and ambivalent relationships between words and meanings. Post-structuralists will look for narrative gaps and what is in the narrative, at how the plot is framed, and at the assumptions being made.

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