Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Paul Yachnin
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The Tempest: Critical Introduction


11. Origins

First Performances and Publication

What do we know about the first performances and first publication of The Tempest? A note in an historical source, the Revels Account for 1611, tells us that, "By the King's players: Hallowmas night [i.e. November 1] was presented at Whitehall before the King's Majesty a play called The Tempest" (Chambers 2: 342). A second record, from the Chamber Account, includes the play among fourteen others performed at court during the wedding celebrations of King James' daughter to a German prince, Frederick, the Elector of the Palatinate:

2Item, paid to John Heminge upon the Council's warrant dated at Whitehall 20th day May 1613 for presenting before the Princess Highness the Lady Elizabeth and the Prince Pallatine Elector fourteen several plays, viz. one play called Philaster . . . one called The Knot of Fools . . . The Maid's Tragedy, The Merry Devil of Edmonton, The Tempest, A King and No King . . . (Chambers 2: 343)

3Because of these references to court performances and also because there is a court-like masque in the play, some readers have concluded that The Tempest was written expressly for the court. This idea about the play is of a piece with a still-lingering notion that Shakespeare aligned his art with the interests and the views of the King. Since the idea is historically unfounded and deeply misleading about Shakespeare's art, it is good to get it out of our way at the outset.

4There are three strong objections to the view that The Tempest was written for the court. One is simply that the records that survive tend to be official ones like the account books that note the payments made to those who entertained at court. The absence of evidence of early commercial performances of the play therefore is not at all significant. Two, it was Shakespeare's normal practice to write plays that could be performed at court, on tour in English towns outside London, as well as at the two playhouses that the King's Players owned in London--the large, open-air amphitheater the Globe and the more exclusive, indoor venue the Blackfriars. Three, we know that The Tempest was performed at a public, commercial theater because Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Jonson, makes fun of at least one such performance in his 1614 comedy Bartholomew Fair, which was also performed at a commercial playhouse. At the start of Jonson's play, a character called the Scrivener takes the stage and speaks to the audience on behalf of the author (remember that The Tempest features a "servant monster," "a living drollery," and a good deal of dancing):

5If there be never a servant-monster i' the Fair, who can help it, he [i.e. Ben Jonson] says, nor a nest of antics? He is loath to make nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget Tales, Tempests, and such like drolleries, to mix his head with other men's heels, let the concupiscence of jigs and dances reign as strong as it will amongst you. ( Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, "Induction," 130-5)

6That The Tempest, like all of Shakespeare's plays, was written for one or more public playhouses in London, for rural audiences in the provinces, and also for the royal theater at Whitehall can help us understand the complex political meaning of the play, which, as we will see, is able to knit into a coherent vision a spirited argument for the value of labor and the community of laborers at one end and a defense of something like absolute loyalty to monarchical government at the other.

7The Tempest is a masterful play written for theatrical performance by someone who himself was a working actor, a shareholder in the most successful playing company in England, and a part-owner of two splendid playhouses. He was a consummate man of the theater. But Shakespeare also wrote his plays as literature, as texts to be read as well as staged. His plays were printed in quarto editions throughout his lifetime; and in 1623, seven years after he died, The Tempest was published as the first play in a handsome folio edition of his works, Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, Published according the True Original Copies. John Heminge and Henry Condell, Shakespeare's fellows in the King's Players and the sponsors of the volume, might have arranged to have The Tempest appear as the first play in the volume because they thought of it, as many have since, as Shakespeare's summing up of a career in the theater or as his farewell to his art; or they or the publisher might have thought that the play, being previously unpublished, would be more likely to persuade browsers to buy the book. In the epistle "To the Great Variety of Readers" that appears over their names, Heminge and Condell remember their friend tenderly ("he was a happy imitator of nature [and] a most gentle expresser of it"), and they offer the book to potential purchasers as a fitting remembrance of him; so perhaps they did mean their readers to regard the lead-off play and especially the character of Prospero as a memento of the playwright and a reflection on the "rough magic" of theater. But, of course, we do not know how they expected the purchasers of the volume to regard the plays, only that they expected that the book would appeal, as they said, "to a great variety of readers" who would find his plays, which had been, they claimed, "maimed and deformed" in previous editions, now "cured and perfect of their limbs as he conceived them," and who would "read him therefore, and again, and again."

8The Folio edition of The Tempest, which provides the copy-text for the present edition, does seem "cured and perfect of [its] limbs"; it is a carefully produced text, mostly error-free. While most of the stage directions are what we are used to seeing in Shakespeare's early texts--phrases like "Enter Prospero and Miranda" or "Exit Caliban"--a significant number of them read as if prepared for a literary text rather than for a theatrical script. The first stage direction in the play says, "A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard," which is more detailed than usual for a playhouse-derived text; a number of them describe the action as if they were bits of narrative instead of instructions for actors: "Enter certain reapers, properly habited," one says, "they join with the nymphs in a graceful dance, towards the end whereof PROSPERO starts suddenly and speaks, after which, to a strange, hollow, and confused noise, they heavily vanish."

9The Folio text of The Tempest itself is unusual in the volume, not only because it comes first, and not only because of the appearance of literary-seeming stage directions, but also because it was very carefully proof-read as it went through the printing process. The printing of the first page of the play (the first page of the body of the book of course) was stopped three times to make corrections (Hinman 1: 251). The text was set up from a transcription that appears to have been made by the professional scrivener Ralph Crane from a copy of the play in Shakespeare's own hand. Scholars have suggested that Crane did more than merely copy the text; in fact, he appears to have changed it in a number of ways, and he--not Shakespeare--might have been the author of the elaborate stage directions. Performances and printed plays are the work of many hands. In all, we could say that both the first performances and the first publication of The Tempest were collaborative and highly accomplished productions of which Shakespeare was the author but not the sole producer.

10Occasion and Date

We know about the circumstances of the play's first performances at court, and we also know that Shakespeare's company performed it for paying audiences in London. His fellow players, the scribe, and the printer took care when they transformed the written text into print. But what do we know about why Shakespeare wrote the play, and why did he write it when he did?

11One reason had to do with current events. In the summer of 1609, an English ship, the Sea Venture, bound to the colony at Jamestown, was separated from its companion vessels in a terrible storm and was wrecked on the uninhabited Bermudas. For over a year, people in England had no word from the ship that had been carrying Virginia's governor-designate Thomas Gates and Admiral George Sommers as well as some 150 others, including women and children. News of the miraculous survival of the colonists did not reach England until autumn 1610. Along with the wonderful news came a narrative report, True Reportory of the Wracke, by William Strachey, a man who had suffered the shipwreck and survived the ten months on the island. The Reportory circulated in manuscript (it was not printed until 1625).

12Shakespeare got hold of a copy, and it fired his imagination. The title of the first section is "A most dreadful tempest . . . their wracke on Bermuda, and the description of those islands" (Strachey 4:1734). Shakespeare read about how the ship was beset: "the clouds gathering thick upon us and the winds singing and whistling most unusually . . . a dreadful storm and hideous began to blow from out the northeast, which swelling and roaring . . . at length did beat all light from heaven" (1735). Shakespeare picked up the idea of the ominous singing of the wind here: in the play, Trinculo says, "another storm brewing! I hear it sing in the wind." And later, Alonso expands the metaphor:

Methought the billows spoke and told me of it;
The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ pipe, pronounced
The name of Prosper -- it did bass my trespass.
(TLN 1633-6)

13Did Shakespeare not also begin at this point to think about the uncanny music of the island, which is one of the dominant features of the play's setting? "Where should this music be?" Ferdinand wonders, "I'th'air or th'earth? / It sounds no more, and sure it waits upon / Some god o'th'island" (TLN 530-3).

14Shakespeare read about ball lightning in the Reportory. Strachey describes it as "an apparition of a little round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, half the height upon the main-mast and shooting sometimes from shroud to shroud" (1737). Ariel imitates it when he wants to terrify the mariners. On the Sea Venture, the sailors and their passengers worked together for three and a half days as the ship took on water. Strachey says that it was "not without his [i.e. its] wonder (whether it were the fear of death in so great a storm or that it pleased God to be gracious unto us) there was not a passenger, gentleman, or other, after he began to stir and labor but was able to relieve his fellow and make good his course" (1736). In the event, the tempest did not abate, and they were saved as if by a miracle when, on the fourth day, they spotted an island and were able to run the ship aground near land. Once the shipwrecks were together on the island, their Governor, Sir Thomas Gates, had--like Prospero--to manage a recalcitrant element among the men and even put down several mutinies. One of the mutineers argued fascinatingly that "it was no breach of honesty, conscience, nor religion to decline from the obedience of the Governor, or refuse to go any further led by his authority (except it so pleased themselves) since the authority ceased when the wreck was committed, and with it they were all then freed from the government of any man" (1744).

15And as in the play, the island that saved the lives of Strachey and his fellows was both a haven and a place of strangeness, even terror: "the dangerous and dreaded . . . islands of the Bermuda . . . because they be so terrible to all that ever touched on them; and such tempests, thunders, and other fearful objects are seen and heard about them that they be called commonly the Devil's Islands . . . Yet it pleased our merciful God to make even this hideous and hated place both the place of our safety and means of our deliverance" (1737).

16We will hear more about the play and the Americas in Section 4. For now we can say that Shakespeare's attentive reading of the Strachey letter demonstrates his keen interest in the English and European voyages of discovery, even though, as has often been pointed out, the play takes place on an island in the Mediterranean somewhere between Italy and the coast of Africa--very far indeed from the New World. We can say that the "occasion" (in the sense of "something that gives rise to discussion or consideration"--Oxford English Dictionary) of The Tempest was an English shipwreck in the New World that marooned a group of English men and women on a wonderful but frightening island and transformed a tragedy of loss and separation into a comedy of deliverance and reunion. "The events of 1609 in Bermuda," commented Frank Kermode in the first Arden edition, "must have seemed to contain the whole situation in little. . . . The Bermuda pamphlets seem to have precipitated, in this play, most of the major themes of Shakespeare's last years" (Kermode xxv). On the basis of when Shakespeare could have first read the letter that so sparked his imagination and when the play would have been first performed in one or the other of the London playhouses (in advance of the November 1 performance at court), we can determine that Shakespeare wrote the play sometime between late Fall 1610 and Fall 1611.