With pages of articles, images, interviews, and activities, this Context Guide is designed to help audiences of all ages connect with the play. Read it here or grab a paper copy during the show!
Julie-Ann Elliott is portraying Ariel in The Tempest. She was a National Player for Tour 44, where she played Rosalind in As You Like It and Ma Joad in Grapes of Wrath.
Tell me about your decision to join National Players.
There were two reasons I wanted to go on tour. I was in the graduate program at Catholic University, and Bill Graham was head of the MFA acting program and chair of the department at the time. One of the reasons I went to grad school was for classical training, and while we did have a classical acting class, it didn’t feel like enough. It seemed intimidating and untouchable because it was that thing that I had never done. I was also very close with some people who had been on tour prior to coming to Catholic, so I had all of their fraternal stories which seemed wonderful and inviting, and you were a part of this huge brother-sisterhood, and I wanted to be a part of that.
What was it like playing two roles back-to-back for a year, and did you get the training that you wanted?
I feel like I did. I had some classical training at Catholic, and Mr. Graham was our acting coach for the Players as well, but this was much more intensive. So yes, you have to grow, and you have to know what you’re doing enough to keep within the boundaries of the direction. You have to know two versions of both shows, so you have to know the text inside and out and be able to make the jumps you need to. To me, it was more important to think about how to approach the characters and tell the story. You need to know what the language means and you need to make it feel like your own, and I was more concerned with that than scanning and marking.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned as a Player?
The actors are loading and unloading the truck, and we all had to put the set together, we all had to screw the lights on the truss, so everybody is a part of the whole process. One of the big things is learning how to be a part of a team, knowing you’ve got a job to do and everybody has to do their part. I’ve gone into theaters with bigger budgets and with people who’ve always worked equity or don’t remember not working equity, and there’s an expectation that things will always be taken care of. Although I often have those expectations myself, being a Player puts you in the mindset of “We have a job to do and we’re going to make it work.” Continue reading
“Alchemists grow old and die in the embraces of their illusion…the achievements of the magicians are unsure and fruitless. Those practices are openly convicted of vanity, and the secret and remotest loft tower’ of the magician’s pride must be abandoned if he is to come ‘close to things.’ The real truth is that the obstacle to the course I propose lies…in human pride…it is this pride that has brought men to such a pitch of madness that they prefer to commune with their own spirits rather than with the spirit of nature.”
– Frances Bacon, a major opponent of occultism during the reign of King James I
The shipwreck in Act I, Scene 1, in a 1797 engraving based on a painting by George Romney
My guess is that most modern readers do see something of the ageing playwright in the wizard. How not to find metaphors in the way he moves characters around the island, conjures visions, makes pointed comments about “the great globe itself” and eventually throws aside his staff and foreswears his art? What greater last words could there be for the genius from Stratford than that famous speech about how “our revels now are ended”, or his final lines in the play asking for the audience to give him their applause and so “set him free”? Following on from that, who wouldn’t find it poignant that The Tempest is widely thought to be one of Shakespeare’s final plays (and many say his very last)? That he probably lived no more than five years after its composition? And that he did indeed quit the stage just as Prospero quit his enchanted island?
Once you start seeing autobiography in these final speeches, it follows that Shakespeare might have written more of himself into Prospero. Bardolators have loved this idea from the late 19th century onwards. Writing in 1875, for instance, Edward Dowden said: “We identify Prospero in some measure with Shakespeare himself … because the temper of Prospero, the grave harmony of his character, his self-mastery, his calm validity of will … and with these, a certain abandonment, a remoteness from the common joys and sorrows of the world, are characteristic of Shakespeare as discovered to us in all his latest plays.”
It’s easy to be cynical about the idea that we know Prospero is Shakespeare because he shares characteristics with all the other characters we’ve also identified with the playwright. Yet it’s also easy to see why this line of thought is so tempting. Shakespeare is a uniquely tantalising historical figure. He gives us a feeling of remarkable kinship and understanding. He stretches out to us, through the ages, and shows that he thought and felt much as we do; he saw his world as we see ours. What’s more, he still speaks our minds. We can still identify with Hamlet, Othello and even Macbeth. And as a result, few historical figures feel closer than the man who created them. Except, of course, we know next to nothing about him.
According to the Arden edition of The Tempest, Shakespeare made some very diliberate naming choices with this play. These include:
- Prospero means “prosperous,” “fortunate”
- Miranda is a play on the word “wonder”
- Caliban is an anagram of “cannibal”
- Trinculo derives from a word for excessive drinking
- Stephano derives from an Italian word for stomach
- Ferdinant means “brave journey”
- Ariel means”God’s lion”
“The action on this island is mainly geographic movement writ small. The first four acts conclude with an invitation to move on: ‘Come, follow,’ ‘Lead the way,’ ‘Follow, I pray you,’ ‘Follow and do me service.’ The characters perambulate in small groups from one part of the island to another; only at Prospero’s final invitation, ‘pray you, draw near,’ do they join in one place…The sense of continual movement contributes to the play’s elusiveness.”
— Excerpted from the introduction to the Arden edition of The Tempest