Historical Context with Sources

by Haley Gillette


Though there is no direct inspiration for  The Tempest (one of the few works of his that don’t), many literary experts believe that the occupation of the new world also occupied the bard’s thoughts. Colonialism and the ever-expanding empire does seem to take center stage in this tragic-comedy as we follow the story of some unlucky passengers as they recover from a shipwreck on a desolate island (possibly inspired by a shipwreck cast off of the Bermudas). “It is thought to have been inspired by Shakespeare’s reading of a real-life event described by a voyager: On July 24, 1609 a fleet of nine English vessels was nearing the end of a supply voyage to the new colony of the Bermudas when it ran into ““a cruel tempest,”” what I can only assume was a hurricane.” (calshakes.org) The fleet’s admiral, along with a handful of members survived , to the shock and amazement of those who heard the news, including Shakespeare, who voices that surprise in Ariel as she asks Prospero, “Not a hair perish’d?” Ariel, a character totally original in creation, must be a representation of what the sailors must have seen after the wreckage of the storm, when they were reeling from shock. shipwreck

The play was most likely written around 1610-1611 and performed in the Court by the King’s Men in 1611. It was to celebrate the marriage of King James’s daughter Elizabeth and stands out as one of the few plays from Shakespeare that has an entirely original plot. It also stands out for the malleability of the stage in its simplistic, almost Spartan manner that gave the audience the the ability to project their own vision for the play onto the barren stage. This falls in line with the Elizabethan and Jacobean-style stages that were common for the time. However, the work makes up for its simple stage with the special effects and pageantry that was unlike any other production Shakespeare had done up to this point, and suggests a maturity of style. This is marked more in its similarity to the “masques” that were performed by noble amateurs and had exceptionally elaborate sets. This makes sense as it was initially performed at court for a wedding ceremony. It also stands out for the fact that this was one of Shakespeare’s last plays and many believe that Prospero was a literary extension of the bard, himself. As the epilogue states, “now my charms are or’thrown” and begs the audience’s indulgence and to release him with their applause. This was an allusion to the fact that if there was no applause from the audience at the end of the show, the play was unlikely to be performed again. Of course, this was not the case for The Tempest, as it still holds influence in the world of literature hundreds of years later.

Skalem. “The Inspiration for The Tempest.” Blog post. California Shakespeare Theater. Cal Shakes Blog, 29 May 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Tempest.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2002. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

“The Tempest: Historical Background, Literary and Philosophical Theories, Themes, Motifs, and Topics for Investigation.” St. John’s College HS. St. John’s College HS, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.