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.
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.