Reading Passage 3
The Tempest: Shakespeare’s Final Play
A: The 23rd of April, 2016, marked the four hundredth anniversary of the death of the world-renowned English playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, at the age of 52. Numerous festivals, exhibitions, theatrical performances and other events were held around the world to commemorate the special anniversary year and celebrate and honour the life and continuing legacy of a figure that many regard as being the world’s greatest dramatist. In addition to the multitude of celebrations held in the author’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England, one of the more notable highlights across the Atlantic in the United States was the exhibition of Shakespeare’s First Folio, featuring discussion panels and a display of First Folio editions and digital content, in addition to local performances. The exhibition tour, its full title being First Folio: The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, travelled to all fifty American states, as well as the country’s capital, Washington D.C., and the territory of Puerto Rico.
B: First published in 1623, seven years following Shakespeare’s death, the book known as the First Folio is widely regarded by scholars as being the first authentic print collection of all the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. The content of the First Folio was prepared and compiled by Henry Condell and John Heminges, two friends and colleagues of the playwright. The Folio was published by the Stationers Company syndicate under the title Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Of the estimated 750 copies of the First Folio that were originally printed, fewer than 250 survive today, each worth millions of dollars. The largest collection of First Folios is held by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., with a total of 82 copies. Among the 36 plays appearing in the pages of the First Folio are eighteen of Shakespeare’s works that had never been previously published, including Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, The Taming of the Shrew, Comedy of Errors, Macbeth and The Tempest.
C: While there is not universal consensus, the overwhelming majority of contemporary Shakespeare critics consider The Tempest to have been the last of the plays penned by the bard. It is thought to have been completed by the author some time in 1611, and is the first of Shakespeare’s works to appear in the contents of the First Folio, among his collected comedies. Today, The Tempest is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s greatest works. Perhaps due to the fact that it was the final play of his writing career as a playwright, more is known about the early performances of The Tempest than many of Shakespeare’s other dramatic works. It was performed for the first time in Whitehall, London, on the 1st of November, 1611, for an audience that included King James I. Another performance of the play was given at the royal court two years later, forming part of the entertainment celebrating the marriage of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to Prince Frederick of Bohemia.
D: As far as plot is concerned, The Tempest is set on a remote island where the deposed Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter have been banished. Possessed of magical powers, Prospero conjures up a storm, or tempest, that causes a boat carrying a group of people from the mainland, including his only brother – the treacherous Antonio – and King Alonso of Naples, to become shipwrecked on the island. The play then moves through a number of scenes in five separate acts, as the various characters interact. By the conclusion of the story, Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and the son of King Alonso, Prince Ferdinand, have met and fallen in love and are married in Act IV of the play. At the same time, Prospero is redeemed and his former title and position are restored by the king as a result of revelations of his brother’s treachery. In the final scene, the epilogue of the play, Prospero, alone on the stage, addresses the audience in an extended monologue, renouncing his magical powers. With regard to this last scene, some early critics of Shakespeare’s work viewed Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest as representing the author’s announcement to the audience of his own intention to retire from the playwright profession.
E: In terms of Shakespeare’s sources of inspiration for the writing of The Tempest, scholars have pointed out that each of the playwright’s dramatic works was very much influenced by popular topics and concerns of the day, and that the author would make use of existing written material, drawing on literature and other documents from a variety of sources for many of his ideas. The bard’s final play is no exception in this respect. Of particular note is a pamphlet that was published in England in 1610 under the title A Discovery of the Bermudas, detailing the real-life account of the shipwreck of English colonists bound for Virginia in North America, which the playwright is known to have read. As well as funding the Virginia expedition, King James I had also written an essay on magic in 1603. The fact that the themes of colonialism and the supernatural both feature strongly in The Tempest reflects that these topics were broadly popular in Shakespeare’s day when the play was written and performed. Experts have also pointed out that the author copied large parts of Prospero’s soliloquy at the end of the play from a speech made by the character Medea in the epic poem Metamorphoses, written by the Roman poet, Ovid.
F: The fact that the 1623 First Folio publication of Shakespeare’s works opens with The Tempest is both a reflection of the play’s popularity at the time, as well as a significant factor in its subsequent critical history. Its position in first place certainly gave readers, academics and literary critics a strongly favourable impression of The Tempest in comparison with the author’s other works. Many felt, for example, that the bard’s final play represented the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s career, the playwright working at the height of his powers. In addition, the order of the works published in the First Folio lent greater weight to the idea that the character of the magician Prospero had been written by Shakespeare as a semi-autobiographical figure, intended to represent the genuine feelings of the author, at least at some level.
G: Today, more than four centuries after The Tempest was written, it remains one of William Shakespeare’s most popular and widely-recognised works. As with his other plays, it has been translated into and published in dozens of languages. These dramatic works, with their well-drawn, complex characters and compelling storylines, have had a tremendous impact on the theatre, as well as the English language and culture. The bard’s swan song, The Tempest, continues to be appreciated by modern audiences across the globe to this day in a variety of media formats, ranging from print publications of the original play and live theatrical performances to television and big screen adaptations.