Often labeled Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, The Tempest offers a unique bookend to the playwright’s prolific career; although it was his last independently written play, his friends commemorated the work by including it as the opening play in the First Folio compendium of his works.
Shakespeare probably wrote The Tempest in 1611 or late 1610 at the earliest. Although it is one of only three plays with no direct literary source, Shakespeare was influenced by the social and political climate of his day. He references, for example, reports from the 1609 shipwreck of the Sea Venture (see page 8), as well as popular commentaries on exploration and occultism.
The play’s first recorded performance was on Hallowmass (November 1) 1601, “at Whitehall before King James; it was also one of the plays that the King’s Men performed for the wedding festivities of the Princess Elizabeth and the Elector Palatine, Frederick V, in the winter of 1612-1613. In fact, one theory holds that Shakespeare inserted the masque into the play as a surprise for the betrothed couple.
Along with the distinction of being Shakespeare’s second-shortest play, The Tempest is one of two of his plays to adhere to Aristotle’s three classic unities. These include unity of action (a play should have one main action with limited subplots), unity of place (a play should cover a single physical space and not attempt to compress geography), and unity of time (the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours).
From the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries, The Tempest was only staged in majorly adapted forms. The most popular reimagining of the play was William Devenant and John Dryden’s 1667 Restoration adaptation, The Tempest, or, The Enchanted Island. This version, along a subsequent operatic adaptation, appealed to aristocratic sensibilities by emphasizing the story’s themes of class and social structure. It also made major cuts and additions, adding romantic subplots and characters while retaining less than a third of the original text.
When the original story returned to the stage in the late 1800s, stagings began to reflect shifting political and social ideologies. Popular interest shifted to Ariel and Caliban and the nature of servitude; productions began infusing the play with Darwinist (Caliban as the “missing link”), psychoanalytic (Ariel as the superego and Caliban as the id), and postcolonial (Prospero stealing the island from and then enslaving its native inhabitants) theories.