John Donne may have said that “no man is an island,” but he didn’t mention anything about a play. Essentially, that’s where The Tempest begins and ends: an island.
But Where? Where is this summer’s island? I felt that I had to answer this question before any further steps could be taken in the creation of the world of my production. I considered every island on the earth, from Kauai to New Zealand to Easter. I even toyed around with the idea of Antarctica (too cold!). I Googled, I Wiki’d and, I’m not going to lie, I made a Pinterest board.
But as my head got more and more crowded with various geographical locations and my Tempest board accumulated more and more pins, I realized that I had erred. A man isn’t an island and a play isn’t a set. My island, whatever it might be, needs to serve one mighty purpose in the world of The Tempest: allowing Prospero to keep phis daughter safe.
Prospero may have been stripped of title, power, and status, but this ocean-bound chunk of land lets him fulfill his fatherly duty and protect Miranda. This island has housed them, fed them, kept them safe and suddenly presents Prospero with the means to exact his revenge. But it also delivers an unexpected surprise, Ferdinand, with whom Miranda falls in love. Now she needs more from her father; more than a magical island, more than his protection. She needs room to grow and live her life. And to give his daughter a future, Prospero has to sacrifice everything he wants for himself. What parent has not been faced with that choice?
I finally settled on an unnamed island “somewhere in the Mediterranean in the 18th century,” historically a shipwreck graveyard. Yes, we have a wonderful Master and Commander-inspired clothing, a delightfully surprising set, inventive soundscape and magical lighting, not to mention puppets. But in the end, it will make my night to look over and see a parent hug a child a little closer when the final lines echo off the shores of our island and across the stones of the Mary Rippon theater.
—Geoffrey Kent, director
For the last 12 years, Prospero, the exiled duke of Milan, has lived on an uncharted island with his daughter, Miranda, while plotting revenge on the brother who usurped his dukedom. Prospero and Miranda have survived with the aid of the disfigured native, Caliban, and the nimble spirit, Ariel. The moment has finally come for Prospero’s revenge: a passing ship carries the unsurping duke of Milan, Antonio, alongside the king of Naples, Alonso, and Alonso’s brother, Sebastian.
Prospero and Ariel conjure a terrifying storm, which causes the noblemen and crew to abandon their sinking ship and scatter in three groups around the island, each thinking the others have perished. As the noblemen wander the island, Antonio urges Sebastian to steal his brother’s crown, as he stole Prospero’s dukedom. Alonso’s son, Ferdinand, discovers Miranda and they quickly fall in love. While their meeting secretly pleases Prospero, he still feigns indignation and requires Ferdinand to prove his love for Miranda through hard labor. The jester, Trinculo, and butler, Stephano, encounter Caliban and all distract themselves with drinking and plotting Prospero’s overthrow.
Ariel taunts and tricks the shipwrecked men, while Prospero ponders his decision to further his revenge. He deciders that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance” and chooses to forgive his enemies. The men are all reunited, and they learn of the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. Satisfied, Prospero vows to leave his magic behind. The crew appears with the ship unharmed, and together they leave for home, aided by Ariel, who will be free after assisting with the ships’s safe return.
—Bianca Gordon, dramaturg
"All torment, trouble, wonder and amazement/Inhabits here."
–Gonzalo, Act V, Scene 1, The Tempest
First produced in 1611, The Tempest is one of the few plays that Shakespeare created almost entirely on his own, without borrowing from existing story lines or plays. However, Shakespeare’s decision to set the play on an island may have been inspired by a wild shipwreck story circulating around England in 1609.
A report made its way back to England that a fleet of ships headed to the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia was caught up in a storm near the Bermuda islands. One ship was lost from the fleet and it was assumed that the men were gone. Jamestown was shocked when these men arrived a year later and conveyed their amazing story of survival on a fertile island. This fantastic tale was so sensational that it is almost certain Shakespeare would have heard the story before penning The Tempest in 1611. It is now assumed that Prospero’s island may have been inspired by British reports of the Bermuda islands
The island is also a focal point for theoretical perspectives of The Tempest. There are two key veins of Shakespearean scholarship surrounding the island and its inhabitants. One perspective is the Renaissance Humanist lens, which views Prospero as creator and artist upon the island. The island is a place of discovery and imagination that fits Prospero’s love of knowledge and the practice of his “art.” His daughter, aptly named Miranda, is derived from the Latin verb miror, which means to wonder, to be astonished at. In Italian, mirando is an adjective that means wondrous, and these characters relate to the uncharted land with a beautiful sense of amazement and rightful authority.
Another critical perspective associated with Shakespeare’s island is the post-colonial lens whereby Prospero is viewed as colonizer who has settled on a land not his own, taken power, and enslaved the inhabitants of the island, Caliban and Ariel. Prospero needs both for his survival, and post-colonial theorists examine the binaries and break down the categories of power and dominance, freedom and slavery, civilized and savage. This lens tends to focus especially upon Caliban, whose name may have originated from Montaigne’s 1580 essay “Of Cannibals,” and whose mother Sycorax, was from Algiers. Multiple theatrical productions have evolved that explore Caliban’s voice to retell the story from another’s eyes rather than privileging Prospero’s perspective.
While CSF’s production of The Tempest is not located within a specific geographic or cultural site, the island remains the ideal landscape to evoke the wonder, strangeness, and awe that permeate this story.
—Bianca Gordon, dramaturg
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