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What is the significance of time in The Tempest and does it reflect the time of drama?

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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 the sprite Ariel. This involves stopping real time so that various actions can be done or so that the person affected has no memory of time passing. While Prospero himself can cast spells, such as to call up the storm that caused the shipwreck, he largely depends on Ariel to carry them out. Ariel has the ability to split into several beings and do several actions simultaneously, as the sprite does during the storm.

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In Aristotle’s On the Art of Poetry, he referred to the “three unities” in drama: unity of place, unity of action, and unity of time. He said the plot should occur in a single place, the action should center around a unifying theme, and the story should take place in a single day. Shakespeare is faithful to all of these in The Tempest. The play takes place on the island, centers around Prospero’s desire for revenge and his eventual forgiveness, and takes place over the span of about four hours. At the end of the play, when Ferdinand and Alonso are reunited, Alonso says, “What is this maid with whom thou wast at play?/ Your eld'st acquaintance cannot be three hours” (Act V, Scene 1).

Time is important to the play in several ways. First, although the play takes place in the span of four hours, the audience must understand Prospero’s motivation for revenge, which is why he gives a lengthy explanation of the past in the beginning of the play. When Miranda tells him he has often begun to tell her the story, then left her wondering, he says, “The hour's now come;/ The very minute bids thee ope thine ear;/ Obey and be attentive” (Act I, Scene 2). Also, the short amount of time in the play gives the play momentum, carrying the action forward from scene to scene. Time also explains why there are three distinct subplots all developing at the same time –the revenge plot, the Stephano/ Trinculo/ Caliban plot, and the Ferdinand/ Miranda plot. Essentially, time gives the play structure.

Regarding the second question, “Is the time in The Tempest like the time of drama?” the answer is yes. A Shakespearean drama contains five acts. Looking at the action in each act, we can conclude that the way Shakespeare sets up his acts relates to the passage of time. In Act I, the beginning, the shipwreck occurs, Prospero recounts his past, and he discusses his plans with Ariel. In Acts II and III, the middle, the subplots and suspense develop. In Act IV, the “interlude,” Prospero holds a performance for Miranda and Ferdinand. This performance gives the actors time to reappear, together, near Prospero’s cell. Finally, in Act V, the end, Prospero gains an understanding of himself and chooses forgiveness instead of revenge. He even addresses his own death: “And thence retire me to my Milan, where/ Every third thought shall be my grave” (Act V, Scene 1). Although the passage of time is only four hours, these hours are divided in a way that is conducive to a Shakespearean drama.

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