Time works in The Tempest in three principal ways: real time, or the present; past time; and magical time, or time-out-of-time. The real time is the same as that of drama.
The play’s action takes place in real time, during one day. The action begins with the shipwreck, and within an unspecified short period, it picks up on the island’s shore, as Miranda tells her father that she just saw the ship split apart. The magical time complicates exactly how long that took.
The past has two phases: twelve years earlier, when Prospero and his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, arrived on the island, and twelve years before that, when the pregnant Sycorax and Ariel arrived. Prospero relates some events that happened in Milan prior to the twelve years that elapsed, which Miranda was too young to remember. However, Shakespeare’s use of twelve years for both significant spans indicates that these are more mythical than strictly historical.
The magical time is effected by both the wizard Prospero and...
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