Explore the dramatic impact of the tempest scene in Act 1, Scene 1 in The Tempest.

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Houmi Miura

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. ...

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