Explore the dramatic impact of the tempest scene in Act 1, Scene 1 in The Tempest.
You should consider the development of the character thorough action and dialogue; the use of stage space and other stage effects; and finally the likely effects upon a Jacobean audience and a modern one.
The Tempest was written in 1606-1611 and can be described as a ‘late play’ or a ‘tragicomedy’. It is a play that looks at human emotions and characters that are put under pressure. The first scene is one, I think, of importance since it introduces the courtiers and show us their true characters. It is also exciting, which means that the audience will be interested from the moment the play starts. The Tempest was possibly one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote. By this time Shakespeare would have been famous throughout England and so there would have been much expectation surrounding the play. Therefore it was necessary that the first scene be one of great impact.
In order to create a scene of dramatic effect that will make people interested in the play there must be a powerful image such as a storm, a tempest. However with limited resources Shakespeare had to make the scene authentic through the actors. The illusion of the ship can be made by the actors’ tone of voices, actions and movements. For example the dialogue in the first scene is mostly one of commotion and shouting such as “all lost! To prayers, to prayers, all lost!” “We split, we split!” “Farewell, my wife and children!” “Farewell brother!” “We split, we split, we split!”
Lots of imperatives are used such as “Take in the topsail!” “Tend to th’master’s whistle.” “Down with the topmast! Yare, lower, lower!”
This conveys to us an ambience of disorder and chaos, one similar to that, which occurs in times of natural disaster. This confusion is created by the mass of voices screaming different things. There is also a distinct change in the mood of the scene. First there is a determination to overcome the tempest, then despair as they realise there is no chance of survival:
“Heigh, my hearts! Cheerly, cheerly, my hearts! Yare, yare! Take in the topsail….”
“All lost! To prayers, to prayers, all lost!”
“What, must our mouths be cold?”
The first scene holds the authenticity of a due to the names of different nautical positions used:
“Here, master, what cheer?”
“Good; speak to the mariners. Fall to ’t yarely or we run ourselves aground…”
This confirms that the characters are indeed on a ship and also that they are in a state of emergency, not only by the tone of the actor’s voices but also by the dialogue.
The fact that the scene takes place on a ship may seem obvious but on a bare stage with few resources things would have had to be obvious in order to present this scene to the audience. Another reason for the obviousness is that The Tempest was inspired by a piece of contemporary news, about “The Sea-Adventure”.
In May 1609 “The Sea-Adventure” set out with a fleet of eight ships and 500 colonists on board behind it to Virginia. “The Sea-Adventure was the flag ship but it became separated from the rest of the fleet when they encountered a storm. On board was Sir Thomas Gates, the leader of the expedition and 150 companions. They were driven onto the rocks of Bermuda, feared at the time as it is even now and called “Devil’s Islands” by sailors. By 1610 news had reached England that “The Sea-Adventurer” had been lost in the storm and so the conclusion was reached that they were killed in the squall. About a year later news returned to England that “The Sea-Adventurer” had arrived in Virginia. While they were in Bermuda the travellers had lived on fresh water and food. They had built two boats from the one flagship. However just as The Tempest is full of power struggles a mutiny broke out with attempts to seize stores, spreading of malicious rumours and a bid to murder and govern the isle.
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Another way in which the first scene makes a lot of impact is that such a quiet scene follows it. The next scene features Prospero sitting with Miranda, very often portrayed on a bare stage to accentuate the tranquillity and it is about the history of his life, how he came to be on the bare isle is revealed to Miranda for the first time. The switch from a thunderous storm to gentle seashore has the same effect as a diminuendo in music-it makes you listen. It is in this scene that we discover that the storm was Prospero’s conception. My first reaction certainly was one of shock: how could such a seemingly gentle father be as wicked as to put people’s lives in danger. This is another way of revealing people’s true natures- in the proclamation that he is in fact to blame for the storm it also shows us that Prospero is capable of dark magic and malevolence. I think the reason that he explains the account of his life before it is explained that the storm was made by his actions was because this makes us realise that it is not pure malevolence or simply for enjoyment but it is for the purpose of revenge. We realise that he is simply doing that which his adversaries did once to him.
The fact that the storm was, in a sense an illusion makes us feel more awed by Prospero because the audience thinks that it is a ‘real’ disaster that is involved in the story.
The first scene, as I said before, brings out the true natures of people and it seems to me to be an introduction to the characters. We see, through their actions and dialogue, what they are really like. I think that it is difficult to distinguish different roles and people, unless the character is obviously looks the part, which is why Shakespeare has done this. Sebastian and Antonio are the only really unpleasant people. They curse the Boatswain openly:
Sebastian: “A pox o’your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog.”
When the Boatswain retorts that they should try and help instead of doing nothing and being useless, Antonio simple insults him:
Antonio: “Hang, cur, hang you whoreson, insolent noisemaker, we are less afraid to be drowned than than thou art.”
We can tell that they are rude, impatient and demanding. They are also discriminating against the boatswain and the sailors “We are merely cheated of our lives by drunkards…” which means that they take a fairly discriminative look on sailors as alcoholics. To the Boatswain Antonio points this abuse “this wide-chapp’d rascal, - would thou might’st lie drowning, the washing of ten tides.”. The “washing of ten tides” refers to a punishment for pirates, which involved the eventual, slow but inevitable drowning as the sea rose to high tide. They resist the call to work. We see from their actions later on in the scene that they are also very treacherous:
Antonio: “Let’s all sink wi’th’king,”
Sebastian: “Let’s take leave of him.”
This could be interpreted as only a very typically human action however, an action of self-preservation.
I found that Gonzalo doesn’t really fulfil his role of the king’s councillor, as he is actually quite an old foolish man who still tries to uphold a gentlemanly manner. This first scene shows how impotent Gonzalo is in a matter like this as he simply stands to the side and coarsely jokes to himself:
“…Though the ship were no stronger than a nutshell, and as leaky as an unstanched wench.”
An unstanched wench is meant as a sick pun on women and menstruation. The Boatswain himself explains to Gonzalo how useless he is in the face of a natural disaster:
“You are a councillor; if you can command these elements to silence, and work a peace of the present, we will not hand a rope no more- use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks that you have lived so long, and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if so hap…”
Alonso tries to maintain an air of authority by trying to give the boatswain imposing advice such as “Good boatswain, have care. Where’s the master? Play the men.”
This scene carries a lot of symbolism and themes that are carried on through the rest of the play, for example the inversion of the social hierarchy as the boatswain says about the king.
This is the first power struggle of the play. The boatswain makes the point that although the king has divine right, he has absolutely no power over nature, and therefore he is futile in a circumstance like this. We also see that nature or situations like the storm should and could only be resolved by those who are able to. In turn Prospero manipulates the situation, almost with a divine control, he is the only one who can put an end to the story. This is a reflection of Prospero’s control over the royal party. Although they think that they have eradicated him, and are in control, like nature, Prospero has in fact got a firm grip on their lives. We can also see how helpless humans are in the face of nature. Although we like to think that we have control over it we are in fact at its mercy and in a very vulnerable position. This theme of usurpation carries on throughout the play as we see Antonio and Sebastian’s attempted regicide and fratricide of Alonso and Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano’s parody of an assassination Prospero.
In comparison to other storms in Shakespeare’s plays I think that The Tempest has the most dramatic impact. Superstition was a common form of belief in Shakespeare’s time as we can see from the witch-hunts. People would often look to the heavens to find signs, hence astrology or horoscopes and whenever a storm comes up in Shakespeare it is because there is trouble brewing or the protagonists are fighting with storm of their conscience. I looked at the storm scenes of three other plays: Macbeth, Twelfth Night and King Lear.
Whenever the three witches appear on stage in Macbeth there is thunder. The three witches always cause trouble for Macbeth with their prophecies leading him to be thirstier for power. I think that the storm is installed to give an effect if mystery and menace.
In Twelfth Night we don’t actually see the storm but we see that this time the storm has caused trouble. We see that emotionally the storm has initiated Viola’s lament for her ‘dead’ brother.
The storm in King Lear makes him see what is really going on and to actually realise what the true natures of his daughters Goneril and Regan were. Thus this storm reflects his anger and realisation, his emotional struggle.
However The Tempest, in my view is not used for the expression of emotion as it had been for Twelfth Night or King Lear, or to highlight bad tidings. I believe that it is an introduction, which is not to say that it means little. In fact in my view without the storm in this scene there would be little dramatic impact at all. The storm is a clever preview of what to expect from the rest of the play and it really grips your attention. I think that the storms in the other plays don’t actually need to be there. The Tempest needed a natural disaster in order to reveal genuine characters and regular themes throughout the play. Without one Shakespeare would have found it difficult to stage such a dynamic introduction to his characters.
The dialogue of the scene controls the tempo at which it goes. At the start of the first scene of The Tempest the pace is fast and continues to speed up until the climax at the end of the scene were we are left to wonder whether the crew and the royal party had survived or not. The immediate tone is one of urgency as the scene starts off with an imperative-“Boatswain!”. More commands follow as the urgency increases. However soon afterwards comes the first power struggle of the play as we see the clash between Alonso and the Boatswain. This heats up the intensity of the storm as the Boatswain, first tries to politely tell the king to keep below the deck, then loses his patience and almost commands the king to return to his cabin. You can see how exasperated the Boatswain becomes though the three responses he gives:
Alonso: “Good boatswain, have care. Where’s the master? Play the men.”
Boatswain: “I pray now, keep below.”
We can see the Boatswain tries to maintain the respect that ought to be kept with a king in a diplomatic manner.
Antonio: “Where is the master, boatswain?”
Boatswain: “Do you not hear him? You mar our labour-keep your cabins. You do assist the storm.”
We can see that soon the Boatswain’s tolerance will run out.
Gonzalo: “Nay, good, be patient.”
Boatswain: “When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin. Silence! Trouble us not.”
Finally his patience has snapped. He says “when the sea is” in response to Gonzalo’s request for him to be patient, meaning that he will become more tolerant when the storm has also become more tolerant.
The way that different productions of The Tempest stage the scene varies. For example sometimes it is presented on a bare stage but then others have large models of a ship or the elements of a shipwreck strewn about the stage, such as a frayed mast. I think that a production with modern technology would have a better effect of a realistic storm, but only if it’s well done. For example if the staging is particularly shabby and the quality of the technology is bad then obviously so is the effect it has on the audience. A bare stage can be very successful, but only if the actors are very good as well. In Shakespeare’s time the sound of thunder could be made with rolling cannon balls and drums. Usually squibs were used in scenes like this, which could give off a great amount of noise. If I were to use modern technology I would probably use the sounds of thunder and dark, dingy lighting to create an effect of a black sky. I might cover the stage floor with dry ice or a smoke machine in order to create the illusion of a boat rather than just a bare stage. This effect and the actor’s movements could make the swaying of the ship or violent rocking motion more believable if it is hard to tell where the stage floor is. I might just have large bits of wood scattered about the stage with a couple of wooden poles standing with white cloth draped over them to create an effect of a decrepit state. To create an illusion of rain I might use the sound of rain and actors entering the stage with wet clothes and wet hair. What I have also noticed in other productions of The Tempest is that although Ariel conjures up the storm he is never present in the first scene. I think that this is because the impact that this scene would have would be considerably lessened. The reason for this is that I think that the storm is meant to be realistic; with “an airy spirit” flying around the mast I think that the intensity of the scene would be lost, as I found out with a production that I took part in. I have found that with some productions of The Tempest people have cut out most of the scene completely. Taking Dereck Jarman’s The Tempest, the first scene is of Prospero sleeping but with a very disturbed sleep, full of nightmares. There are quick shots of footage of a storm, then back to Prospero’s face, as if we are looking at parts of his dreams. I think that this was very ineffective because it lacked the dramatic impact that the first scene would have had if it were included and there was no show of the power struggles, no introduction to characters. The second production I have seen of The Tempest is by John Gorrie. Although the acting was very bad, the scene took place on a “proper” ship and incorporated the full scene. There were realistic sounds and special effects such as the rocking of the ship and rain. I also felt more of a sense that this was something very exciting and that hopefully the rest of the production would be too. I also saw an entirely different form of The Tempest in Peter Greenaway’s adaptation, Prospero’s Books. It starts off with an old man speaking of his books, what powers they possess, what they are called. Echoes can start to be heard of the dialogue from the storm sequence. We see the old man writing some of the dialogue as it is being said. Some footage of raindrops is inserted between shots. The setting of the scene suddenly changes to what looks like a Turkish bath with the old man bathing in it. We soon see a child swinging on a swing above. The dialogue of the storm sequence was still echoing around while the child (playing Ariel) continued to urinate on a toy ship in the middle of the bath, to represent Ariel’s construction of the storm. The intention of this production may have been symbolic but I found it all rather confusing and much less dramatic than the BBC production, which had a lower quality of acting and probably not as much to spend in the way of the setting and special effects.