The Tempest

The Tempest

Written by William Shakespeare

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7:30 p.m. Monday – Thursday Evenings
8:00 p.m. Friday & Saturday Evenings
2:00 p.m. Saturday Matinees


I think The Tempest may be my favorite play by Shakespeare. I say “may be” because every time I go to work on any of the canon, I discover so much that is new and rich as to make the entire experience like falling in love all over again. But The Tempest is a play I visited twice as an actor in the 1970s – and I was pretty good (or at least thought I was) in those productions. It was the first Shakespeare I directed when I came to PTC twenty-seven years ago, and it will also be the last Shakespeare I direct here as artistic director, so I confess it holds a special place for me.

The Tempest is about sin and redemption, revenge and mercy, black magic and white magic—but ultimately about grace. I use the term not totally but certainly in resonance to its theological meaning: “being at one with God.” In secular terms you might alter that to read: “being at one with oneself and one’s place in the universe.” It is, in effect, a long meditation on that profound two-word line from Hamlet, “LET BE.” The progress of the play is very distinct: Prospero’s movement from a state of anger and need for revenge to forgiveness, acceptance, peace—a state of grace. Prospero’s journey also has something of the Faustian arc to it as well: the man who has achieved much but seeks more and studies the occult not for the sake of knowledge itself; but in an attempt to control not only the human world, but the natural and even the supernatural and in so doing endangers his very soul.

In addition to the profundity of its central theme, it is a play rich with magic, love, melodrama and some of the funniest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote all weaving around that one idea: “let be.” And as probably the last play Shakespeare wrote without a collaborator, The Tempest has all sorts of resonances as to Shakespeare letting go of his powers as theatre artist. So, surrounding that arc of revenge transformed to mercy is the very power of words, of narrative, of the theatrical event itself to shape the way in which we perceive ourselves and our universe. It is a play that is completely and utterly of the theatre.

Maybe that’s why I love it so much.

~ Charles Morey, Director

‘O brave new world’

What would you do if you were stranded on a desert island? A continually intriguing question, it’s led to countless stories about human ingenuity, morality, bravery, to questions of nature versus civilization, and, at heart, to the always-fascinating question of what each of us would be capable of doing in an extreme situation. In Robinson Crusoe, we have the brave adventurer who builds a home on a desert island for himself, and then fights cannibals; in The Lord of the Flies the boys who regress into unbelievable cruelty and inhumanity; in Survivor a modern treatment ofRobinson Crusoe – who would survive best? – with the added element of cruelty that they vote one another off or on the island, rather than leaving it to fate.

For the Italian commedia dell’arte players, the shipwreck on a desert island has always been a great starting point for a play. In the earliest published scenari (or basic plots, from which the players improvised each performance) we already have several examples of shows starting with this premise. A group of Italians are shipwrecked on an island or a strange shore. Separated in the crash, they find each other in groups of twos or threes. The fools in one of these scenari don’t at first recognize each other: one has been spat up again from a whale-can he be human? In several, they try to take control of the island from a sorcerer who rules there, by gaining control of his book. The sorcerer manipulates them all, in one case providing a magical supper which bursts into flames when they try to eat it, but everything turns out for the best in the end, with the sorcerer triumphant. It’s likely that Shakespeare saw or heard of some of these pieces – the commedia players came through London and his longtime colleague, Will Kemp, may even have performed with one troupe abroad.

But the main question the plays get to, and which Shakespeare treats so thoroughly in The Tempest, is of how we live. Given the chance to start from scratch in a brave new world, what would we do? It was a question very much in the air in Shakespeare’s time, as Europeans were colonizing the new world, and occasionally being shipwrecked in it! As the one noble member of the court that’s shipwrecked in The Tempest, Gonzalo immediately conceives of the sort of utopia he feels the island could be, ruled fairly, with an idealized nature as the model, rather than the civilization they come from:

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

This idea of nature versus civilization as we know it resonates throughout the play, but without nature being the clear winner Gonzalo’s speech suggests. The question of how to govern, and what makes a good ruler, is particularly important. We see what, left to their own devices, the various characters do – most become self-seeking, trying to get what they can for themselves; a few are even ready to murder to attain their ends. What is the best answer? Gonzalo’s lofty plans are no sooner stated than laughed down by the rest of the court; Prospero has set himself up as king of the island, and made Ariel and Caliban, whom he found there, his servants. His government model, that of the philosopher king, certainly seems the most effective we see, but it too is continually in question – his educating Caliban didn’t make Caliban “civilized” in his terms; Ariel wants mainly to be free… Even in this magical world, the question of how best to live and to rule are continually up for debate, as is the important question of whether, and where, we can find mercy and forgiveness even in the harshest of conditions.

~ Elizabeth Williamson, Dramaturg