The Tempest (Vol. 84)
See also The Tempest Criticism (Volume 29) and The Tempest Criticism (Volume 61).
Among Shakespeare's last plays, The Tempest (c. 1611) is generally categorized as romance and frequently interpreted as his farewell to dramatic art. Considered to be one of Shakespeare's most original plays, no source for the central plot has been definitively identified. The Tempest is set in an unidentified age on an unnamed island, which some critics have suggested evokes themes of European colonialism in the New World. The plot centers on the magician Prospero, exiled Duke of Milan, who has been unfairly deposed and set adrift in the ocean with his daughter Miranda. After arriving on the island he uses magic to free the fairy-like Ariel and enslave the bestial Caliban. Prospero then punishes his usurpers, his brother Antonio and King Alonso of Naples, by luring them to the island and destroying their ship in a magical storm. After exacting his vengeance, Prospero closes the drama with a gesture of reconciliation by announcing the union of his daughter and Alonso's son, prince Ferdinand. In the final scene, Prospero confronts his brother, who rules in his place, and demands his dukedom back. He leaves the island under the control of Caliban, forsakes his magical powers, and returns triumphant to Milan. The character of Prospero, who some critics believe represents Shakespeare himself, has long fascinated critics, and many believe that the key to understanding the play's philosophical message lies in understanding his character.
Critical analyses of the principal characters of The Tempest has frequently sought to understand the interpersonal dynamics of the relationships among Prospero, his servants, and his daughter. Sharon Hamilton (2003) focuses on the relationship between Prospero and Miranda, and views the play, in large part, as a matter of Miranda's coming of age and betrothal. In Hamilton's reading, Prospero, her magician-father, seeks to guide Miranda through her emergence into womanhood, and in this respect proves himself to be a caring and skilled mentor and protective patriarch. Similarly, Paul A. Cantor (1980) emphasizes the wisdom and heroism of Shakespeare's Prospero, valorizing his contemplative attitude and control of his passions in surmounting threats of conspiracy and in choosing an appropriate romantic match for Miranda. Offering an allegorical approach to character in The Tempest, Grace R. W. Hall (1999) interprets the drama as Shakespeare's imaginative reworking of a medieval Mystery Play, arguing that the play shares much in common with these didactic dramas designed to instruct audiences in Christian morality. While Hall does not seek to reduce the play to an exclusionary formula, she does examine its major characters in terms of their scriptural counterparts. According to this scheme, Prospero may be aligned with Moses, the Judeo-Christian lawgiver. The pure and innocent Miranda bears a certain resemblance to the Virgin Mary, and Ferdinand willingly suffers for others in the manner of Christ. Ariel figures as an agent of divine law or Providence, Caliban a stand-in for Adam, and the remaining characters constitute a chorus of fools and doubting cynics. Presenting a more traditional survey of character in The Tempest, Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (1999) summarize the qualities of the drama's four central figures: Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban. They discuss Prospero's multiple roles as enlightened philosopher, authoritarian figure, vengeful magician, and slave master. His daughter Miranda presents herself as a somewhat demure but willful individual, who largely embodies Prospero's obsessions with chastity, fertility, and obedience. Ariel would likely have evoked ideas of angels or spirits to Jacobean audiences, the critics observe, and is indeed described as a magical sprite or nymph associated with the elements of air and water. Ariel's earthly counterpart Caliban, however, remains a much more controversial figure. A savage, possibly evocative of New World cannibals to audiences of the early modern period, Caliban is undeniably a recalcitrant slave, whom Vaughan and Vaughan argue should be viewed as human, despite numerous theatrical interpretations that have suggested otherwise.
The considerable potential for character interpretation offered by The Tempest has made it an enticing text for contemporary directors and actors. Nevertheless, early twenty-first-century performances of the drama continue to demonstrate the widely acknowledged difficulty of satisfactorily staging this work, which relies on romance, magic, and spectacle, and requires both an eloquently realized Prospero and a strong ensemble cast. Karen Fricker reviews director Conall Morrison's 2000 production of The Tempest at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, finding its exaggerated metatheatrical themes overdone, and its superficial references to political unrest in Northern Ireland out of place. While noting that individual performances by its cast members were generally good, Fricker laments the failure of Lorcan Cranitch's “inconclusive” Prospero to unite the cast and effectively orchestrate the action of the play. According to critic Matt Wolf, Vanessa Redgrave proved to be a disappointing Prospero in the 2000 staging of the drama directed by Lenka Udovicki at the Globe Theater in London. Wolf contends that the solid supporting cast, including excellent comic performances by actors in the roles of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano, failed to save this production. Wolf's assessment of another Tempest, (see Further Reading) under the direction of Jonathan Kent in 2001 at the Almeida Theater, again suggests the central importance of Prospero to the drama on stage. Skillfully played by Ian McDiarmid, Prospero delivered a vital performance matched by an elaborately designed stage, which Wolf considers a mirror into Prospero's clouded psyche. Amy Rosenthal deems director Michael Grandage's 2003 Tempest, after its transfer from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield to the Old Vic in London, far less inspired. Overly traditional in the critic's view, this staging suffered from a somewhat uneven cast, save for a compelling Daniel Evans in the role of Ariel. In her final assessment, Rosenthal contends that the production was only partially redeemed by its emotionally satisfying, if conventional, ending. Colonialist themes predominated in another 2003 production of the drama by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In his review, Thomas Larque commends the production and admires the strong performances by Kananu Kirimi as Ariel and Geff Francis as Caliban, noting the deftness of both actors as they emphasized their characters' exploitation by an authoritarian Prospero.
The multidimensional text of The Tempest has inspired a rich variety of critical analyses on such themes as human salvation, power, magic, and politics. Surveying the play as a whole, Charles Stephens (1994) studies its historical context, mythic resonance, political overtones, etymological signification, and concern with magic and illusion. The critic describes the work as fundamentally “a play about the salvation of ordinary individuals” from natural, supernatural, and human threats. Power is the principal focus of Alexander Leggatt's (1999) reading of The Tempest. Leggatt follows Prospero's efforts to finally surrender control of his servants, his daughter, and his enemies once he becomes aware of the ultimate emptiness of his power over others. David Daniell (1989) surveys critical approaches to The Tempest from the second half of the twentieth century, including those that emphasize a conflict between nature and art, and study allegorical, mythic, and ritual elements in the drama. John S. Mebane (1989) explores the occult context of The Tempest in its varied depiction of magic. In Mebane's interpretation, Prospero's access to supernatural forces should be viewed in terms of his closeness to divinity. The critic thus sees Prospero as a benevolent magus figure who wields redemptive powers temporarily granted by God. In the critic's view, Prospero's final act of burying his magical book and forsaking his magical knowledge, therefore, can be taken as a reminder of the limits of art and the efficacy of faith. Lastly, Kevin Pask (2002) examines the genre and politics of The Tempest. Pask describes the drama as an inversion of the pastoral tradition that displays politicized motifs of colonialist, aristocratic, and sexual domination. Identifying the drama as “counter-pastoral,” Pask emphasizes political themes associated with Caliban's conspiracy, Prospero's colonialist control of his underlings, and the magician's strict domination of his daughter's sexuality—motifs that combine to undercut the ostensibly romantic framework of The Tempest.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Stephens, Charles. “Shakespeare.” In Shakespeare's Island: Essays on Creativity, pp. 6-31. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Stephens presents an overview of The Tempest and surveys such subjects as setting, historical context, theme, and character. The critic describes the work as fundamentally “a play about the salvation of ordinary individuals” from natural, supernatural, and human threats.]
‘Frisch weht der Wind der Heimat zu.’
Tristan und Isolde
‘Oed’ und leer das Meer’
William Shakespeare's The Tempest takes place on an island surrounded on all sides by an ocean, but it is no New Atlantis or Citta del Sole. Prospero's island is not named, but it is clear that it must lie somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. Alonso's fleet was sailing from Naples to Tunis, where his daughter Claribel was to be married to the King, when Prospero's tempest caused its shipwreck. In Shakespeare's time, there was no King of Tunis. The ruler of that domain was called the Bey of Tunis. Tunis was a pirate base and part of the Ottoman Empire, whose Sultan, as recently as 1529, had laid siege to Vienna. In the following year, his fleet wintered in Toulon. Philip II, who mounted an ‘armada’ against...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Cantor, Paul A. “Shakespeare's The Tempest: The Wise Man as Hero.” Shakespeare Quarterly 31, no. 1 (spring 1980): 64-75.
[In the following essay, Cantor probes Shakespeare's depiction of Prospero as the contemplative hero of The Tempest, a figure who displaces the drama's conspiratorial, comic, and romantic subplots in favor of his philosophical return to power.]
‘Go to the Poets, they will speak to thee More perfectly of purer creatures;—yet If reason be nobility in man, Can aught be more ignoble than the man Whom they delight in, blinded as he is By prejudice, the miserable slave Of low ambition or distempered love?’
(Wordsworth, The Prelude, XII, 68-74)
Anyone who has seen a good production of The Tempest knows how effective the play can be on the stage. But if one were merely to recount the plot to someone otherwise unfamiliar with it, he might begin to wonder how such material could hold an audience's interest. Consider what happens in The Tempest, or rather what does not happen. A pair of would-be murderers are just about to strike their helpless victim in his sleep, when he awakens to prevent the crime. A handsome youth and a beautiful maiden fall in love, but on the advice of her father decide to keep their passion in check until they are married. A group of low-born conspirators set out to overthrow the...
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SOURCE: Vaughan, Virginia Mason, and Alden T. Vaughan. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: The Tempest, edited by Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan, pp. 1-138. London: Thomson Learning, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Vaughan and Vaughan analyze the main characters of The Tempest—Prospero, Miranda, Caliban, and Ariel—and briefly summarize the remaining, minor characters.]
Like the location of the enchanted island, the origins of [The Tempest's] characters are elusive. There are, to be sure, links to Shakespeare's earlier endeavours: Prospero has often been compared to Measure for Measure's Vincentio, Miranda to the late romances' Marina, Imogen and Perdita. Despite the echoes of past creations, the characters in The Tempest are as much sui generis as the play's structure and language.
Ben Jonson included a Prospero and a Stephano in the first version of Every Man in his Humour (1598), which makes it tempting to imagine that Shakespeare, who appears in Every Man's cast list, once performed Jonson's Prospero. But the resemblance between the two characters is in name only. Prospero, ironically enough, means ‘fortunate’ or ‘prosperous’ but, like Shakespeare's magician, the name has often belied reality. For example, William Thomas's Historie of Italie (1549), sometimes suggested as a direct source for The...
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SOURCE: Hall, Grace R. W. “Shakespearean Typology: The Several Identities of Characters in The Tempest.” In The Tempest as Mystery Play: Uncovering Religious Sources of Shakespeare's Most Spiritual Work, pp. 49-71. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Hall argues that The Tempest may be read as Shakespeare's version of a Mystery Play, and surveys its characters in terms of their biblical counterparts.]
“Who's there?” “Are you a man?”
Macbeth 2.3.8, 3.4.57
Bethell averred, “More has been written about character than about any other theme in Shakespearean criticism. … [B]ut there is still some haziness about the principles governing Shakespeare's presentation of character.”1 Brook noted that “Shakespeare's verse gives density to the portrait.”2 The density may be explained in part by what Bethell described as “The mixed mode of character presentation favored by Shakespeare and the popular dramatic tradition [which] depends for its validity upon the principle of multiconsciousness.”3
Shakespeare's use of the multiconsciousness mode of representation has led to a wide variety of identifications for Prospero. Almost two hundred years after the First Folio appeared with The Tempest as the lead play, Clark asked, “Who is Prospero?” and...
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SOURCE: Hamilton, Sharon. “The Father as Inept or Able Mentor: Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.” In Shakespeare's Daughters, pp. 13-34. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003.
[In the following excerpt, Hamilton studies the relationship between Prospero and his daughter Miranda in The Tempest, considering the play “a fable of fatherly wish-fulfillment and ideal nurture.”]
The Tempest is Miranda's coming of age ritual. It begins with the revelation of her true identity and ends with her betrothal. Every stage in this initiation process is overseen by her magician-father. Prospero is one of the earliest examples in literature of father as single parent. He protects Miranda, both from knowledge that would make her unhappy and from physical and emotional danger. He lavishes affection on her; never hesitating to say how and why he prizes her. At the same time, he respects her individuality. He has acted as Miranda's “schoolmaster,” setting high standards and training her mind. Like a good teacher, he encourages her to express herself and to make her own choices, even to the extent of countermanding his orders about how she should behave. Although Prospero has pressing reasons for wishing her match with Ferdinand, the young prince whom his magic brings to the island—it is Miranda's and Prospero's one chance for future security—he will not force her to...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Fricker, Karen. Review of The Tempest. Variety 377, no. 8 (10 January 2000): 119-20.
[In the following review of director Conall Morrison's 2000 production of The Tempest at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, Fricker laments the lack of “magic” in this staging and reflects on its facile political overtones and episodic presentation.]
The Abbey has clearly tried to conjure a major theatrical event out of its first-ever production of The Tempest, but the one crucial thing that got left out was a clear interpretative take on the play. What results is a magic-free, plodding evening only partially redeemed by a magnificent set design from Monica Frawley.
This Tempest was not only the Abbey's final production of the millennium but the last under Patrick Mason's six-year tenure as artistic director. Interestingly, and generously, Mason opted not to helm here, choosing instead Conall Morrison, an Abbey associate director and Irish theater's golden boy of the moment (his production of Martin Guerre is currently touring the U.S. on the way to Broadway).
Morrison's past large-scale productions have reveled in the metatheatrical, displaying an ability to marshal all the forces of theater into a celebration of the medium itself; pairing him with the play that is often read as Shakespeare's own reckoning with the theatrical art would...
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SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of The Tempest. Variety 379, no. 4 (12 June 2000): 25.
[In the following review of Lenka Udovicki's 2000 production of The Tempest at the Globe Theatre, Wolf finds Vanessa Redgrave's Prospero disappointing, but praises a solid comic supporting cast.]
There can't be an actress alive who's as elemental as Vanessa Redgrave, so the first thing to note about her gender-bending Prospero in The Tempest, the Globe's season-opener in its summer lineup of four plays, is the decidedly earthbound nature of her portrayal, even as (on opening night, at least) nature unfurled a genuine London tempest around her. Redgrave, dogged? How can that be, one might well ask, having watched this performer take so many risks throughout her career that merely inheriting a role once played by her father would seem the least of her exercises in bravado? The problem, I suspect, lies in the lack of an authoritative outside eye to shape an intriguing array of ideas that, for the moment, doesn't equal a performance. The play's eloquent appeal to “melting the darkness” notwithstanding, Redgrave has yet to reach that alchemical destination.
That's in no way to question the casting of an actress who, on paper at least, is a tremendous prospect for the role. Having launched her career with a Rosalind that has become the stuff of legend, it surely makes sense for...
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SOURCE: Larque, Thomas. Review of The Tempest. Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 1 (winter 2003): 17.
[In the following review of the 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of The Tempest, Larque commends the production and admires the strong performances by Kananu Kirimi as Ariel and Geff Francis as Caliban, noting the deftness of both actors as they emphasized their characters' exploitation by an authoritarian Prospero.]
It remains to be seen whether Adrian Noble's policy against the RSC's use of traditional proscenium stages like the Barbican and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre survives his resignation, but this Roundhouse production of The Tempest proves a strong argument in favor of such a move. With the stage almost surrounded by seats, this performance—in the round—takes place amidst the audience, giving a sense that the actors are almost always within reach of the spectators. This is especially true when the action spills out into the aisles, and also for the “promenaders” who sit onstage at the actors' feet. This sense of intimacy is one of the best things about this production, and it is hard to see how this will survive the transfer to the notoriously unsympathetic Royal Shakespeare Theatre later in the year.
Like The Merchant of Venice, which cannot now be performed without suggesting the Holocaust, there is a long historical shadow over modern...
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SOURCE: Rosenthal, Amy. Review of The Tempest. New Statesman 132, no. 4623 (3 February 2003): 46.
[In the following review, Rosenthal characterizes the dramaturgy of Michael Grandage's 2003 staging of The Tempest at the Old Vic in London as “disappointingly conventional and ponderous,” and contends that the production was only partially redeemed by its emotionally satisfying, if conventional, ending. ]
Michael Grandage's production of The Tempest, newly transferred from the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, opens on a bare, uncurtained stage with only a silky, greenish backcloth and a rope ladder suspended at the front. With the house lights still up, a crash of thunder silences the audience. The ladder begins to sway wildly, the backcloth becomes a heaving, swirling sea, shouting mariners arrive and a shipwreck is conjured before our eyes. Then Prospero appears and, with a dash of his staff, the rope ladder whisks away and the backcloth gathers into a twisting cyclone, which is sucked dramatically down into his magic book. He slams the book shut, silence falls and the storm is over.
This impressive opening is one of many striking visual moments in the production, elegantly designed by Christopher Oram. These effects are imaginative and often beautiful, arresting our attention at times when it might be wandering. Although the production has delightful touches and to...
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SOURCE: Mebane, John S. “Magic as Love and Faith: Shakespeare's The Tempest.” In Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare, pp. 174-99. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Mebane concentrates on the theme of magic in The Tempest as it relates to Renaissance conceptions of human nature. The critic stresses Prospero's status as a benevolent magician who employs his powers for the good of humanity.]
In his Jacobean tragedies Shakespeare calls into question the idealistic conception of humanity which had been developed by Renaissance humanists and carried to its logical extreme in the occult tradition. Hamlet's discovery of lust and treachery begets his profound disillusionment with human nature, and he tells Ophelia that he himself, as a representative of humankind, is “proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” he continues, “We are arrant knaves, believe none of us” (III.i.126-29).1 He tells her to enter a nunnery, to abandon the world and the flesh which Hamlet sees as thoroughly corrupted. In his earlier speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet juxtaposes the eloquent praise of humanity...
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SOURCE: Daniell, David. “Themes.” In The Tempest, pp. 38-63. London: Macmillan, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Daniell surveys critical approaches to The Tempest from the second half of the twentieth century.]
Watching Shakespeare's Tempest [in the seventeenth century, one] would see a pastoral tragicomic romance, with masque elements. It is not only in order, it is essential, to discuss, in dealing with The Tempest, both the traditions of romance drama in England, and the special literary conventions of pastoral romance as they appear, for example, in Sidney's Arcadia and Spenser's Faerie Queene, and to know how the play shares themes within these conventions. One of the many ways in which Frank Kermode's Arden edition of The Tempest was important was that it first, and most lucidly, set out that:
The Tempest, though exceptionally subtle in its structure of ideas, and unique in its development of them, can be understood as a play of an established kind dealing with situations appropriate to that kind. The Tempest is a pastoral drama; it belongs to that literary kind which includes certain earlier English plays, but also, and more significantly, Comus; it is concerned with the opposition of Nature and Art, as serious pastoral poetry always is, and it shares this concern with the other late comedies,...
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SOURCE: Leggatt, Alexander. “Shakespeare, The Tempest.” In Introduction to English Renaissance Comedy, pp. 109-34. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Leggatt analyzes The Tempest, suggesting that its principal concern is with the inversion and possible dissolution of various forms of power: individual, social, sexual, and linguistic.]
Modern criticism has put The Tempest, along with Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, among Shakespeare's ‘romances’; but that category is a recent invention. The Tempest appears in the Folio of 1623 at the head of the comedies, making it the first play in the collection. It has also acquired a kind of mythic status as the last play in Shakespeare's career, his summing-up, though in fact it could have been written before The Winter's Tale, and Shakespeare went on afterwards to collaborate with Fletcher, possibly on Henry VIII, certainly on Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio. In recent years the habit of seeing it as Shakespeare's meditation on his art has been replaced by what is virtually a critical industry treating the play as a document in the history of colonialism.1 The play has generally seemed to be making an important statement about something; yet in practice it has had some difficulty living up to its reputation as a...
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SOURCE: Pask, Kevin. “Prospero's Counter-Pastoral.” Criticism 44, no. 4 (2002): 389-404.
[In the following essay, Pask describes The Tempest as an inversion of the pastoral tradition that displays politicized motifs of colonialist, aristocratic, and sexual domination.]
At the beginning of the period in which Caliban was to acquire his strongest association with revolutionary energies of every sort, William Hazlitt lodged what remains a powerful if underappreciated critique of this association. Writing in response to the report of a lecture in which Coleridge described Caliban as “an original and caricature of Jacobinism, so fully illustrated at Paris during the French Revolution,” Hazlitt responded with some heat:
Caliban is so far from being a prototype of modern Jacobinism, that he is strictly the legitimate sovereign of the isle, and Prospero and the rest are usurpers, who have ousted him from his hereditary jurisdiction by superiority of talent and knowledge. “This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,” and he complains bitterly of the artifices used by his new friends to cajole him out of it.
Rather than Coleridge's envious Jacobin, Caliban is in fact much more like “the bloated and ricketty [sic] minds and bodies of the Bourbons.”1 Hazlitt is obviously attacking...
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Bender, John B. “The Day of The Tempest.” ELH 47, no. 2 (summer 1980): 235-58.
Explores the cultural, literary, and thematic significance of the premiere of The Tempest on the Christian holiday of Hallowmas.
Curry, Walter Clyde. “Sacerdotal Science in Shakespeare's The Tempest.” In Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns, pp. 163-99. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1937.
Focuses on the spirit of Renaissance Neoplatonism that informs The Tempest.
Dobson, Michael. “‘Remember / First to Possess His Books’: The Appropriation of The Tempest, 1700-1800.” Shakespeare Survey 43 (1990): 99-107.
Compares The Tempest with Dryden's 1667 The Tempest, or the Enchanted Island and subsequent adaptations of Shakespeare's drama in order to highlight significant political themes associated with imperialism, gender, and race in these works.
Felperin, Howard. “Political Criticism at the Crossroads: The Utopian Historicism of The Tempest.” In The Tempest, edited by Nigel Wood, pp. 29-66. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995.
Eschews a formalist approach to The Tempest in favor of a Marxist-materialist analysis that reveals the play as to be an allegory of power concealed...
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