How does act 1, scene 1 serve as a dramatically effective opening to The Tempest by William Shakespeare? Explore characterization, speech, and atmosphere.

Act 1, scene 1 of The Tempest is a dramatically effective opening because it sets up the play's themes of social disorder and reorder. It also creates dramatic interest in the conflict between the ship's crew and the nobles onboard.

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The Tempest opens with a storm at sea and a shipwreck, a dramatic and ambitious beginning for a seventeenth-century play. While the scene is light on stage directions, Shakespeare does call for "a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning" to set the mood. Characters run on and off the stage,...

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The Tempest opens with a storm at sea and a shipwreck, a dramatic and ambitious beginning for a seventeenth-century play. While the scene is light on stage directions, Shakespeare does call for "a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning" to set the mood. Characters run on and off the stage, shouting orders and arguing with one another, lending the scene a sense of chaos and confusion. They have lost control of their ship, much as the characters will lose control of what happens to them once they are marooned on Prospero's island.

The dialogue between the ship's crew and the noble passengers onboard is rich in characterization and conflict. Antonio and Gonzalo insist that the ship's crew remember who is on board (that is, the king and the prince) when the boatswain implores them to quit bothering the crew as they try to figure out how best to survive the elements. The nobles criticize the manner of the crew while the crew desperately tries to keep the ship afloat:

ANTONIO. Where is the master, boatswain?

BOATSWAIN. Do you not hear him? You mar our labor.
Keep your cabins. You do assist the storm.

GONZALO. Nay, good, be patient.

BOATSWAIN. When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin! Silence! Trouble us not.

GONZALO. Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.

BOATSWAIN. None that I more love than myself. You are a counsellor; if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present, we will
not hand a rope more. Use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long, and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of
the hour, if it so hap.—Cheerly, good hearts!—Out of our way, I say.

Antonio and Gonzalo come off as foolish and out of touch with reality, while the crew are more relatable in their concern with fighting the storm.

These exchanges do more than create conflict: they establish the themes of class conflict in the play. Within the storm, the usual noble-commoner or master-servant dynamic is upset, with the crew speaking harshly to the nobles in a way that would not happen in less life-threatening circumstances. These conflicts foreshadow interactions between Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel on the island, as well as Prospero's employing the noble Frederick for menial labor.

By the end of The Tempest, the social order is restored, with Prospero returning to his rightful place in society, but before that, all is turned upside down due to Prospero's magic. The storm in act 1, scene 1 is a great illustration of how the characters' social stations will be turned inside out in the action to follow.

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The Tempest opens, not surprisingly, with a tempest or huge storm at sea. We are thrust immediately into a wild and dramatic atmosphere of nature run amok, in which we realize anything could happen, including the capsizing of the ship. The scene ends on a cliffhanger with the ship still caught in the storm, and Gonzalo saying he would "fain die a dry death" rather than drown at sea.

We get a sense in this opening that the normal rules of civilization are upended when the desperately working boatswain says to Gonzalo, who has just reminded him of the people of rank on the ship:

"You are a councilor. If you can command these elements to silence and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more. Use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap.—Cheerly, good hearts!—Out of our way, I say."

In other words, the boatswain is saying the "high rank" of a person like Gonzalo is worthless against raging nature. Death—or the imminence of death—is the great leveler, and the lowly boatswain is at this point more valuable than his betters, so he feels free to tell them to get lost.

Antonio and Sebastian come across as arrogant and unpleasant characters as they abuse the sailors trying to save the ship. There is more than a little class-based snobbery revealed when Sebastian says the following to the boatswain:

"A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!"

Antonio shows a lowness of character and lack of empathy when he accuses the sailors of incompetence, blaming the possible sinking of the ship on them and wishing the boatswain would drown ten times: 

"We are merely cheated of our lives by drunkards. This wide-chopped rascal—would thou mightst lie drowning the washing of ten tides!"

Since rank will be an important part of the play, with characters like Caliban subordinate to those like Prospero, it is fitting that the play starts with that theme.

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This play, considered Shakespeare’s last romance and perhaps containing autobiographical symbols, begins with a sailing scene, a ship at sea, in a huge storm (a tempest). The sound effects called for, and the frantic speech of the ship-master and boatswain, reflect the ever-present conflict between man and nature, with the boatswain and Gonzalo making grim jokes about their pale complexions, etc., and wrestle with sails and lines for their very survival.  The human chaos generated, and echoed in this violent storm, is Miranda’s questionable lineage and the uncle Antonio, who mismanaged Prospero’s estate, and Prospero’s own admission that he spent too much time on his “studies” (magic) (scene ii).  So the frightening chaos of the storm scene sets the audience up for the “tempest” of their situation.  As in much classical literature, man and Nature must find an “island” where a compromise of wills can be worked out.  Shakespeare has found a rhetorical device to dramatize these abstractions.  Many scholars see Shakespeare’s life and writing career as undergoing just such a battle, with his “genius” the “magic” he brought to the problem.  The pace of the dialogue as it unravels in Act I scene I requires a cast of skilled actors, just as sailing in a storm requires a good crew.

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