The Tempest – Footnotes
These footnotes are a follow-up to our live discussion in episode five of the podcast, including a selection of points from my researches that we didn’t happen to include, as well as follow-up on any facts and questions that came up during our conversation with Tim.
St Elmo’s Fire
When Ariel tells Prospero how he manufactured the storm in Act 1 Scene II, he describes how he “flamed amazement”:
sometime I’d divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join.
The flares appearing at the tips of the ship’s masts might remind the sailors of the maritime weather phenomenon known as St Elmo’s Fire, where balls of light created naturally during an electrical storm would appear at the exposed points of the spars. St Elmo is an Italian name for St Erasmus, the patron saint of sailors, whose martyrdom included being painted in pitch and set alight, and his intestines being extracted and wound around a windlass. Sailors prayed to him for deliverance from the storm, seeing the electrical discharges as evidence of his presence.
Voyages to the New World
During our conversation Tim and I referred to Shakespeare’s knowledge of the exploration of the New World that was prominent in his lifetime. In particular in 1609, two years before he wrote The Tempest, a fleet of ships was despatched to North America to establish the British colony at Jamestown in Virginia. Famously one of the ships foundered in a storm, was separated from the others, but somehow beached safely on the island of Bermuda. The tale of their miraculous landing on a paradise island was popularised in various pamphlets published in 1609/10, from which the germ of the play may have occurred to Shakespeare.
Nature vs Nurture
The idea that being nobly born predisposed a character to virtue was a common belief of Shakespeare’s time – witness by extreme extension the inherited “divine right of kings” for example. Likewise, beauty was associated with virtue and ugliness with vice or evil. The contrasting figures of Miranda and Caliban can be seen as representations of this dialectic between Nature and Nurture. Miranda is hign-born, schooled from a blank age only by her father, she is chaste and kind. While Caliban as the offspring of a witch, is “a devil, a born devil”, “capable of all ill”, “on whose nature Nurture can never stick”, despite Prospero’s “human care” and Miranda’s teachings. Their education could not restrain or replace Caliban’s inherent vile nature that compelled him to “seek to violate the honour” of Miranda.
Nature vs Art
A similar debate is suggested in the play between the value of the natural world and the civilisation created by man’s art. That same learned art that establishes virtue in individuals, is by extension also responsible for creating a civilised society. Such a view, supported by religious certainty, underpinned the superior attitude of the colonialist missions. By contrast, Shakespeare presents a world unspoilt by the infrastructure of civilisation, and it is not clear that the natural world is not a more attractive place. Gonzalo makes a poetic and persuasive speech in Act II Sc I, where he describes a brave new world that could be created on the blank canvas of the island, a new commonwealth without the accumulated realities of wealth and poverty, contracts of law, land ownership, material goods and weapons, traffic or trade, even sovereign rulers. A potential paradise where “Nature should bring forth…all abundance to feed my innocent people.”
An unspoiled island may of course stand in for the Garden of Eden, where fallen men may arrive at true self-knowledge and be redeemed thanks to the mercy of the overseeing God, in this case Prospero?
The Power of Poetry
During the course of our conversation in episode 5, Tim quoted from John Berger on the power of poetry. We couldn’t fit the whole of our discussion about this subject into the time limit on our podcast, so I wanted to share the quotation here:
“Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory or defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.
Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.”
from And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
by John Berger
In Tim’s experience of considering and performing The Tempest, he believed that the poetic power of Shakespeare’s language raised the impact of the play; that poetry transcends the story, affecting the audience by tapping into shared human experience.
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
You might also be interested in …
Simon Stephens’s magical adaptation of Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been a smash hit around the world, loved for its innovative theatrical form and for its unique hero, 15-year old Christopher Boone, who teaches us to see the world differently. As the play embarks on a nationwide UK tour, I’m delighted to talk with Simon.
Best of Enemies re-enacts the explosive TV debates between American political pundits Gore Vidal and William F Buckley from 1968, and in so doing turns the lens on the corrosive nature of political discourse in our media today. Playwright James Graham joins us to talk about his fascinating new play.
Macbeth is a tragedy of love, ambition and betrayal, propelled by relentless energy and shocking violence, and infused by an air of the supernatural. Professor Emma Smith from Hertford College, Oxford, joins us to explore Shakespeare’s notorious ‘Scottish play’.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …