“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,/Which thou tak’st from me.”

The Tempest

Act One, Part One

By Dennis Abrams



Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, living in banishment on an island

Miranda, Prospero’s daughter

Antonio, Prospero’s brother, the usurping Duke of Milan

Alonso, King of Naples

Sebastian, Alonso’s brother

Ferdinand, Alonso’s son

Gonzalo, an honest old counselor from Naples

Adrian and Francisco, lords

Ariel, a spirit attending Prospero

Caliban, a wild “savage” enslaved by Prospero

Trinculo, Alonso’s jester

Stephano, Alonso’s drunken butler

Master of a ship and his sailors


the tempest photo act one 1Act One:  Antonio, Alonso and his son Ferdinand are traveling by sea when their boat is caught in a terrible…tempest. Shipwrecked, they and their party are cast ashore on a strange and apparently deserted island – unaware that the tempest has been caused by Prospero’s magic, their former duke and now the island’s ruler. Responding to questions from his daughter Miranda, Prospero tells the story of how they arrived on the island twelve years earlier: as Duke of Milan he had handed some duties to his brother Antonio, who, gaining a taste for power, overthrew Prospero with the help of Alonso, King of Naples. Cast adrift in a boat, Prospero and the young Miranda eventually landed on the island, where they took as servants (or slaves) the spirit Ariel and the “savage” Caliban – whose island it originally was. When Ariel reveals to Prospero that his enemies are now where he wants them, the magician begins the next step of his plan. Enticing Ferdinand to them by magic, he encourages him and Miranda to fall in love, while pretending to disapprove.

In 1607, just four years into James I’s reign, the Virginia Company, dedicated to investing in the recently colonized Americas, founded a settlement they called “Jamestown” in his honor. Two years later, the Company attempted its boldest venture yet, the settlement of no fewer than four hundred colonists, shipped across the Atlantic during the summer of 1609. Unfortunately, disaster struck: caught in a hurricane (or tempest if you will), the fleet was broken up, one of these ships was sunk and another, the Sea Venture, driven onto the rocky coast of the Bermudas. Soon, news began to reach Britain that the Sea Venture’s human cargo had survived to tell the tale, and in September 1610 a sensational real-life story by one of the survivors, William Strachey, began circulating among London’s “chattering classes.” Strachey’s “True Reportory of the Wreck” described how the passengers and crew had encountered a miraculous and exotic island, its seas bursting with fish, its skies filled with exotic birds, its forests teeming with massive wild boars. Unlike the unlucky and ill-prepared colonists at Jamestown (who had been all but wiped out the previous winter by starvation and disease), the Bermudan colonists stayed for nine relatively peaceful months. Two of their members voted to say behind when the rest set sail for Virginia, and became the islands’ first permanent settlers.

On November 1, 1611 – just over a year after the “Reportory” reached England – a partial reconstruction of some of those events was performed in front of the same King who had chartered the Virginia Company four years earlier. That play, of course, was The Tempest.  Scholars tend to agree that Shakespeare probably read Strachey’s account and others that drew upon the chaotic experiences of the fledgling American colonies, and the Tempest’s subject matter had never been more topical. In what has sometimes been called Shakespeare’s “American play,” a group of Milanese voyagers are shipwrecked by a storm every bit as wild as that experienced by Strachey. Washed ashore on a mysterious and seemingly “uninhabited” island, they begin to confront the idea that they, too, are “colonists,” and might actually be stuck there for the rest of their lives. “Had I plantation of this isle, my lord,” begins the counselor Gonzalo,

All things in common nature should produce

Without sweat or endeavor. Treason, felony,

Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,

Would I not have; but nature should bring forth

Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,

To feed my innocent people.


Gonzalo’s fantasy echoes those of many seventeenth-century Europeans, eager to read about the apparently infinite liberties promised by the New World. Though Shakespeare’s reliance on colonial literature for The Tempest is difficult to pin down (even with Strachey, supposedly a key source, the resemblances are said to be fleeting and unspecific), his dramatization of colonial desires – the utopian wish to return to an older, simpler life, unfettered by the advance of civilization and nourished by all-giving Nature – shows just how seductive those dreams can be.


From Garber:

the tempest photo act one 2“As The Tempest begins, the audience finds itself in the middle of a storm at sea. All around is confusion: ‘A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard.’ Voices cry out, seemingly from nowhere, in disconnected fragments that recall other Shakespearean storms, and other romances.

Boatswain:  Keep your cabins; you do assist the storm.

Gonzalo: Nay, good, be patient.


These lines might have come from the shipwreck scene in Pericles, where the nurse Lychordia urges the King in very similar words: ‘Patience, good sir, do not assist the storm.”

‘What care these roarers for the name of king?’ cries the Boatswain in despair. This is an echo of the storm in The Winter’s Tale, in which the nobleman Antigonus was torn to pieces by the bear. Those waves, too, ‘roared,’ with no regard for such cultural niceties as rank and status. This present tempest, the tempest in the play that bears that name, is thus somehow the quintessential storm, the ‘perfect storm, distilled of all the Shakespearean tempests we have weathered before, from Othello and King Lear to the romances. Indeed, this scene is often played in total darkness, emphasizing the confusion and disorder.

And yet in a moment the audience will discover that the tempest that has whirled about us was not a tempest at all, but a piece of art. We find ourselves, in fact, in a position very close to that of Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. We, too, are a horrified audience with only a single thought:

If by your art, my dearest father, you have

Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,

But that the sea, mounting to th’ welkins’s cheek,

Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered

With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel,

Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,

Dashed all to pieces! O, the cry did knock

Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perished.

Had I been any god of power, I would

Have sunk the ship within the earth, or ere

It should the good ship so have swallowed and

The fraughting souls within her.


‘O, I have suffered/With those that I saw suffer!’ Miranda, whose name comes from the Latin word mirari, ‘to wonder at,’ is the ideal spectator of tragedy and catharsis. Had she been any god of power, she would have intervened. But her father, Prospero, tells her – and us – that we are to have ‘[n]o more amazement,’ no more wonder: ‘There’s no harm done.’ As for Miranda, ‘[T]hee, my daughter,’ he says, ‘[a]rt ignorant of what thou art.’ His remarks framed by this suggestively chiasmic sentence (‘art ignorant of what thou art’), Prospero will ‘pluck [his] magic garment’ from him, saying, ‘Lie there, my art,’ and will begin to tell his daughter that the storm is a fiction, that is victims are safe: and that the entire event is a function of his art. Thus, from the very beginning, art the noun, meaning ‘magic,’ and art the verb, the present indicative of ‘to be,’ establish a frame for both the sentence and the play. The question of whether art is linked primarily to ordinary being or to magical creation will lie, as we have already begun to sense, at the very heart of Shakespeare’s play.

As the audience soon learns, this is not the first tempest to have touched the lives of Prospero and Miranda. The play is structure like a hall of mirrors, a palimpsest, or a mise en abyme. Twelve years ago, says Prospero, in a very similar storm, ‘i’th’ dead of darkness,/The ministers’ of Naples and Milan ‘hurried thence/Me and thy crying self.’ This tempest is thus a cyclical event, a repetition (like the performance of a play) – a wrought and invented storm, to answer and resolve the first storm, a dozen years earlier, when Miranda was ‘a cherubim,’ an angel, ‘that did preserve me.’ So Prospero, formerly powerless or overpowered, now returns to the storm as a ‘god of power,’ in Miranda’s phrase – one who can look into the ‘dark backward and abyss of time’ and can transform it into both present and future.

This scene of necessary exposition, explaining what has happened before the play begins, is beautifully and concisely handled. To Miranda the past is ‘rather like a dream than an assurance,’ and the figure of life as a dream, and the difficulty of telling dreaming from walking will persist as a major theme. As her name implies, Miranda is the ideal audience, hanging on every word; the play begins at a key moment in her life, as well as in her father’s a moment when everything is about to change. Yet we may notice that there is something odd in the way Prospero tells his tale. Over and over again he asks her whether she is paying attention to his story. ‘I pray thee mark me.’ ‘Doest thou attend me?’ ‘Thou attend’st not!’ ‘Dost thou hear?’ Why does he do this, when, as she protests, ‘Your tale, sir, would cure deafness,’ and when the audience in the theater, too, listens almost as if spellbound? Perhaps for that very reason. Prospero’s repetition itself is a kind of charm or spell, hypnotizing his wondering daughter, so that finally, as he says, ‘Thou art inclined to sleep; ‘tis a good dullness,/And give it way. I know thou canst not choose’ (1.2.186-187).

The shape of the play is predicated on the general thesis – one omnipresent in Renaissance literature and drama, and given eloquent expression in Shakespeare’s plays as early as Puck’s Epilogue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – that life may all be an illusion, ‘[n]o more yielding but a dream,’ or, as Prospero will express it in an equally celebrated passage, that ‘our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.’ When Prospero enchants his beloved daughter, when Miranda sleeps, the audience is transported into the world of possibility that this is also the world of theater and art.

What does it mean to sleep in this play about dream and fantasy, about the seen and the unseen? For Miranda, it is the point of entry into a whole new world. For Prospero, it means that he can evoke his ‘tricksy spirit’ Ariel, whom he has charged with overseeing the storm and its effects. Allied with imagination, invisible to everyone but Prospero – and the audience – Ariel seems to be the embodiment of music and sound. He plays on pipes and tabors throughout the action, and he sings a number of songs, the first two of which may be the most striking, though all of them are lovely. The play, like the isle, is full of music. These first two songs are both sung to Ferdinand in Act I, scene 2, when Ferdinand thinks of himself as the sole survivor of a shipwreck that has drowned his father and left him King of Naples.

In the first song we hear what is in essence a prediction of the action of the play to come – a song of plot, of forethought:

Come unto these yellow sands,

And then take hands;

Curtsied when you have and kissed –

The wild waves whist –

Foot it fealty here and there,

And, sweet sprites, bear

The burden. Hark, hark.


This song is closely related to the riddles and prophecies that play such a large part in the other romances. Decoded, it is the whole story of the play. Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, has come unto these yellow sands – landed on the isolated island that is the central romance locale. He will shortly take hands with Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, and both ‘curtsy’ and ‘kiss’ – that is, both obey the rules of decorum and chastity – and express his love and plight his troth. Doing so will make the ‘wild waves whist,’ stilling the tempest, a tempest that has really been raging since Prospero and the infant Miranda were put out to sea, a tempest that is, as Prospero says, (sounding much like King Lear), the counterpart of his ‘beating mind.’ Once the tempest or dissension is stilled, the play will move to a marriage dance (‘Foot is featly here and there’) performed by the masque of the nymphs and the mowers, both symbols of fertility. ‘And, sweet sprites, bear/The burden.’ The word ‘burden’ here carries two meanings: the heavy task of bringing this plot about, and also the chorus of the song, since a ‘burden’ in music is a refrain or chorus. As they bring about the desired marriage and reconciliation, the sweet sprites, and Ariel in particular, will accompany that transformation with music and song, bearing both burdens at once.

Ariel’s second song to Ferdinand is every more celebrated, and makes a cameo appearance, as readers of modern poetry will recognize, in The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. But where Eliot’s poem centers on fragmentation and loss, in the Shakespearean context Ariel’s song is one of metamorphosis and transformation, though it begins with a lie:

Full fathom five thy father lies.

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.


Of course, Ferdinand’s father is not dead. But for the son who does not yet know this, the terrifying aspects of human death are, in this song, entirely masked or transcended. Instead of decay or fear, we have metamorphosis: ‘Of his bones are coral made;’ ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes.’ Coral and pearls are natural materials, transformed from miniscule sea creatures, from shells and sand. Metamorphosis here is not only fantasy; it is an aspect of nature and of change. Audiences and readers familiar with Shakespeare’s language may call to mind the very similar, and yet very different, passage in Richard III, when Richard’s brother Clarence dreams of death by drowning (1.4.21-33). AS we saw in a consideration of that play, the similarity of the imagery in the two passages (gems in place of eyes; fish gnawing upon the bodies of the dead; gold, pearls, and jewels scattered on the sea floor) points up the radical difference in tone. Clarence’s horrific vision of decay becomes Ariel’s blithe assurance of eternal change. The concept of a ‘sea-change/Into something rich and strange’ clearly goes beyond the local relevance of the song here – Ferdinand’s mourning for his father – to comment upon the progress of the entire play. As in Antony and Cleopatra, in Twelfth Night, and elsewhere in Shakespeare, the sea is fertile and even eternizing. The formal structure of this song, with its patterns of chiasmus, or crossing, beautifully mirrors the pattern of metamorphosis here:

Bones/coral: pearls/eyes

[Body/jewel: jewel/body]

Nothing/doth fade: doth suffer/something

[negation/change: change/affirmation]

For the audience, the summoning of Ariel signals a fundamental shift in perception. Throughout the play, as we will see, sleep and waking will be used as a measure of the imaginative capabilities of the dreamer. By this simple but powerful device the play splits the visual and imaginative field, allowing for parallel and distinct planes of awareness. We see what Prospero sees. Others, though, see less, see differently. Sleep and dream – as in a contemporary Renaissance play like Calderon’s La vida es sueno (1635) or a modern play like Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946) – are ways of entering and exiting the dramatic action, as well as indices of consciousness and conscience.

Thus the play is framed by the sleep of the mariners, who take no part in the action. Ariel has put them in safe harbor, as he explains to his master, Prospero: ‘all under hatches stowed,/Who, with a charm joined to their suffered labour,/I have left asleep’ (1.2.231-233). At the close of the play, rubbing their eyes in a touchingly innocent ignorance, they will emerge from their temporary prison. The Boatswain speaks for them all as he explains his puzzlement:

If I did think, sir, I were well awake

I’d strive to tell you. We were dead of sleep,

And – how we know not – all clapped under hatches,

Where but even now, with strange and several noises


We were awaked…


They find their ship magically restored to wholeness, their captain alive and ‘[c]lap’ring to eye her.’ The Boatswain concludes his explanation:

     On a trice, so please you,

Even in a dream, were we divided from them,

And were brought moping hither.


In a sense, the whole play takes place during the mariners’ dream, the dream of the uninformed, and the uninvolved.”


From Mark Van Doren:

the tempest photo act one 3“Separations and reconciliations are woven here within the circle of a remote and musical island where an enchanter, controlling the black magic of native witchcraft with the white magic of his liberal art, controls also a tempest until it brings to pass all things he has desired. The ship it founders on the shore, or seems to founder, carries his two chief enemies: his brother Antonio, whose treason has put the sea between them, and Alonso, king of Naples, confederate to the treason. Prospero as duke of Milan had honored his brother with ‘confidence sans bound.’ But Antonio had abused his trust, and that is the first separation. The second has occurred likewise before the play begins, and nothing in the play can cure it. Alonso has lost his fair daughter Claribel by marriage to the King of Tunis, and indeed it is from that ‘sweet marriage’ that he is returning, bound sadly home for Naples, when he suffers shipwreck on Prospero’s island. Alonso’s loss of his remaining heir, his son Ferdinand, is temporary in so far as Prospero merely keeps them apart on the island until the separation has served his purpose, meanwhile entertaining the prince with the unearthly music of Ariel and with the charms of his own daughter Miranda; but it permanent when Ferdinand and Miranda give themselves away to each other in love. And by the same blow, happy though it be, Prospero loses Miranda. The plot of ‘The Tempest’ is a complex of separations – and, swiftly and harmoniously, of reconciliations, so that Gonzalo can say:

    In one voyage

Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,

And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife

Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom

In a poor isle, and all of us ourselves

When no man was his own.


But we have known from the beginning that Gonzalo would have grounds for speaking so. Prospero’s isle is not poor; it is rich and strange and full of fair noises, and the magic with which he controls it will maneuver all lives into peace. We know this is not merely from his assuring Miranda in the second scene that the sea-storm has been ‘safely ordered’ (29), or from Ariel’s report that not a hair has perished (217), but from the sense we always have here that the danger is not real, that artifice is disarmingly at work, and that woe is only waiting upon sea-change. Tides of understanding must ‘shortly fill the reasonable shore’ (V.i.79-82) when music like this music plays – constantly, and with such continuing sweetness that the one unregenerate person on the island can speak of ‘sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’ (III.ii.145).

The hag-born Caliban is not deaf to the ‘thousand twangling instruments’ that hum about his ears. He is, however, the lowest inhabitant of the play; the human scale which Shakespeare has built begins with him. The island as we have it is among other things a microcosm of humanity, and its meanest soul smells music rather than apprehends it; or receives it at any rate in his grosser senses. We know Caliban first of all by his style, which may not be the ‘special language’ an old critical tradition says it is, but which gives us a creature complete in beastliness. His characteristic speech does not open the mouth to music; it closes it rather on harsh, hissing, or guttural consonants that in the progress of a mind bemired in fact, an imagination beslimed with particulars. Caliban has no capacity for abstraction, and consequently for the rational harmonies of music and love.

As wicked dew as e’er my mother brush’d

With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen

Drop on you both! A south-west blow on ye

And blister you all o’er!


The second of these sentence is scarcely articulated; it is a mouthed curse which no tongue’s skill can refine.

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou tak’st  from me. When thou cam’st first,

Thou strok’dst me and made much of me, wouldst give me

Water with berries in ‘t, and teach me how

To name the bigger light, and how the less,

That burn my day and night; and then I lov’d thee

And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,

The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.

Curs’d be I that did so! All the charms

Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!


‘Thou strok’dst me and made much of me’ – the second word is a thicket of vile sound, and the m’s that follow are the mutterings of less than human lips.”


And from Bloom:

the tempest photo act one 4“Since Caliban, though he speaks only a hundred lines in The Tempest, has now taken over the play for so many, I will start with him here. His fortunes in stage history are instructive, and comfort me at our bad moment for The Tempest. In Davenant and Dryden’s The Enchanted Isle, a musical revision that held the London stage on and off between 1667 and 1787, Caliban gets himself so drunk early on that he instigates no plot against Prospero. This Caliban (a different kind of travesty from our current noble rebel) for more than a century provided a prime role for singing comedians. In the High Romantic period, the prancing and yodeling yahoo finally was replaced by Shakespeare’s ‘savage and deformed slave.’ As the texts suggests, Caliban was still represented as half amphibian, but peculiar transformations crowded after that: a snail on all fours, a gorilla, the Missing Link or ape man, and at last (London, 1951) a Neanderthal. In a ghastly Peter Brook version of the 1960s, which I gaped at unbelievingly, Caliban was Java Man, a ferocious primitive who accomplished the rape of Miranda, took over the island, and celebrated his triumph by bum-buggering Prospero. Another modern tradition – now, of course, prevalent, has cast black actors in the role. Canada Lee, Earle Hyman, and James Earl Jones were among the early exemplars whom I saw. In 1970, Jonathan Miller was inspired to set the play in the age of Cortes and Pizarro, with Caliban as a South American Indian field hand, and Ariel as an Indian literate serf. That was bizarre enough to be entertaining, unlike George C. Wolfe’s infuriating recent success, in which Caliban and Ariel, both black slaves, vied with one another in hating Prospero. Fashions tire; the early twenty-first century may still have mock scholars moaning about neocolonialism, but I assume that by then Caliban and Ariel will be extraterrestrials – perhaps they are already.

The critical tradition, until recently, has been far more perceptive than the directorial, as regards the role of Caliban. Dryden accurately observed that Shakespeare ‘created a person which was not in Nature.’ A character who is half-human cannot be a natural man, whether black, Indian, or Berber (the likely people of Caliban’s mother, the Algerian witch Sycorax). Dr. Johnson, no sentimentalist, wrote of ‘the gloominess of his temper and the malignity of his purposes,’ while dismissing any notion that Caliban spoke a language of his own. In our century, the poet Auden blamed Prospero for corrupting Caliban, a simplistic judgment [MY NOTE:  We’ll get to Auden’s case in a later post], but as always Auden on Shakespeare benefits us by his insight, here in the wonderful prose address, ‘Caliban to the Audience,’ from The Sea and the Mirror. Perhaps because Shelley had identified with Ariel, Auden assimilates Caliban into himself:

‘And from this nightmare of public solitude, this everlasting Not Yet, what relief have you but in an ever giddier collective gallop, with bison eye and bevel course, toward the grey horizon of the bleaker vision; what landmarks but the four dead rivers, the Joyless, the Flowing, the Mournful, and the Swamp of Tears, what goal but the Black Stone on which the bones are cracked, for only there in its cry of agony can your existence find at last an unequivocal meaning and your refusal to be yourself become a serious despair, the love nothing, the fear all?’

This is primarily Auden on Auden, heavily influenced by Kierkegaard, but it catches Caliban’s dilemma: ‘The love nothing, the fear all.’ Between Johnson and Auden on Caliban, the great figure is Browning, in his astonishing dramatic monologue ‘Caliban upon Setebos.’ Here the terrible psychic suffering brought about through the failed adoption of Caliban by Prospero is granted fuller expression than Shakespeare allowed:

Himself peeped late, eyes Prosper at his books

Careless and lofty, lord now of the isle:

Vexed, ‘stiched a book of broad leaves, arrow-shaped,

Wrote thereon, he knows what, prodigious words,

Has peeled a wand and called it by a name;

Weareth at whiles for an enchanter’s robe

The eyed skin of a supple ocelot;

And hath an ounce sleeker than youngling mole,

A four-legged serpent he makes cower and couch,

Now snarl, now hold its breath and mind his eye,

And saith she is Miranda and my wife:

Keeps for his Ariel a tall pouch-bill crane

He bids go wade for fish and straight disgorge;

Also a sea-beast, lumpish, which he snared,

Blinded the eyes of, and brought somewhat tame,

And split its toe-webs, and now pens the drudge

In a hole o’th rock and calls him Caliban;

A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.

Plays thus at being Proper in a way,

Taketh with mirth with make-believes: so He.

As throughout Browning’s poem, Caliban speaks of himself in the third person, except that the final ‘He’ is Setebos, the god of the witch Sycorax. The lumpish sea beast, ‘a bitter heart that bides its time and bites,’ is a sick child’s tortured plaything. Cast out by Prospero, Caliban bides his time but will be too fearful and inept to bite. What Browning sees is Caliban’s essential childishness, a weak and plangent sensibility that cannot surmount its fall from the paradisal adoption by Prospero. Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda is readily explained away by his current academic admirers, but I wonder sometimes why feminist critics join in Caliban’s defense. On this matter, the audience’s perspective has to be that of Miranda and Prospero, and not Caliban’s antic glee, that had he not been prevented, he would have peopled all the isle with Calibans. Half a Wild Man, half a sea-beast, Caliban has legitimate pathos, but he cannot be interpreted as being somehow admirable.”


My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – more on Act One


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3 Responses to “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,/Which thou tak’st from me.”

  1. Lesley says:

    “Mercy on us! We split! We split! Farewell, my wife and children! Farewell, brother!. We split, we split, we split.” Shakespeare is breaking it down for us in his Tempest.

  2. Lesley says:

    Garber: “This present tempest, the tempest in the play that bears that name, is thus somehow the quintessential storm, the ‘perfect storm, distilled of all the Shakespearean tempests we have weathered before, from Othello and King Lear to the romances.”

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