Historical Background

Most of Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, and tragedies were written during England’s “golden age” under the celebrated 45-year reign (1558-1603) of Queen Elizabeth I. Historically, the Elizabethan era took place in the wake of the Protestant Reformation when the English Renaissance was ushered in and the arts flourished. When King James I succeeded Elizabeth to the throne after her death in 1603, he continued, at least to some extent, the rich cultural legacy left by the late queen. The new king, a patron of the arts, agreed to sponsor the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s theatrical group.

By 1608, after an illustrious career as a playwright, Shakespeare turned away from the great tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear) and directed his creative energies toward the romances or tragi-comedies (The Tempest, Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale).

The romances involve improbable and fanciful events that border on imagination rather than fact. Prospero’s magic is typical of the genre. Characters are often drawn in opposing categories of black and white and include the idealized heroine. In The Tempest, for example, Miranda is portrayed as the pure image of chastity. Love in the romances is characteristically subjected to great difficulty. Miranda stands by anxiously as she watches Ferdinand bear the “trials of love” imposed upon him by Prospero.

The Tempest is tragi-comic with a serious plot that could be suitable for tragedy but ends happily like a comedy. The usurpation of Prospero’s dukedom and the plot of Antonio and Sebastian to kill Alonso and Gonzalo carry potential tragic elements, but the evil plans are eventually thwarted, and all ends happily.

The Tempest was first published in the Folio edition of 1623 where it was placed as the opening work. According to an account book at the Revel’s Office in Somerset House, the play was first performed at Whitehall on Hallowmas night, November 1, 1611. It was produced in court for the second time to celebrate the marriage of the daughter of James I, Princess Elizabeth, to the Elector Palatine in the winter of 1612-13.

There are no known sources for the main plot, but it is believed that...

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