How does Shakespeare create drama and tension in Act 1, Scene 1?  

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Shakespeare had to simulate the effect of a ship in a storm with very little in the way of props. The Mariners would be wearing seafaring-type costumes and, of course, the King and his entourage would be wearing the kind of clothing they would wear at court. There would be a strong contrast between the two kinds of characters. The boatswain would be shouting all his lines at everybody regardless of whether Mariners or noblemen. The tone of his voice would suggest the seriousness of the situation, especially because he is obviously spent much of his life at sea and knows more about it than anybody else. This desperate shouting would be important in creating the impression that he has to make himself heard above the howling storm. There would be offstage sound effects. The stage directions at the beginning of Art 1, Scene 1 read simply:

On a ship at sea. A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard.

Shakespeare himself would probably order the sound effects devices and tell the stage hands what he wanted them to do. Thunder can be represented with a big drum. Lightning might be represented by crashing cymbals or other metal against metal. Shakespeare uses similar sound effects in King Lear when he has the mad King shouting in the storm and at the storm in Act 3, Scene 2 of that play.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, all germains spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

No doubt Shakespeare would instruct the stage hands to make noise at the ends of lines so that all the words could be heard by the entire audience. For example after, "Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder...", there would be a peal of simulated of thunder. The word "thunder" would be a cue for the men offstage to make noise. The same would be employed intermittently on and offstage in The Tempest.

The actual words spoken by the Boatswain would suggest the serious danger, as would the fear shown by the passengers. Both the landsmen and the Mariners are in fear for their lives. The Boatswain has some very good lines. For example, when Antonio asks, "Where is the Master, Boatswain?" the Boatswain replies:

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

Antonio means the ship captain, but the Boatswain indicates that the real master is the storm. The Boatswain's bad manners suggest that he doesn't care because he doesn't expect to live much longer anyway.

Through costumes, shouting, body language, offstage sound effects, and much of the dialogue in this short scene, Shakespeare creates an impressive amount of drama and tension. And yet it will all be an illusion. There will be no ship, no sea, no wind, no rain, no clouds, no crashing canvas or rigging falling. Only actors on a bare stage. The play could be staged outdoors in a park in modern times and the audience would still have the illusion that they were watching a scene of great distress in a storm at sea. 

Near the very end of Act 1, Scene 1, the Mariners cry out that all is lost. Up to this point the dialogue has been shouted by single voices, but now all the actors representing Mariners would be urged to shout at once as loudly as possible.

‘Mercy on us!’—‘We split, we split!’—‘Farewell, my
wife and children!’—‘Farewell, brother!’—‘We split, we(60)
split, we split!’

When the scene ends, the audience does not know what actually happened. But their interest will certainly be captured and held for a long while.


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