The opening scene of the Tempest is in fact, in the middle of a violent storm. What is interesting about that is often times a storm is a symbol of tragedy in Shakespearean literature, and this play is a comedy. On the ship is King Alonso of Naples and his son Ferdinand; Antonio the Duke of Milan and his trusted advisor Gonzalo. The sailors are frantically trying to save the ship from drowning when one of the first lines of the play is uttered: “What cheer?” This is a very intriguing thing to say in the middle of a storm. What do we have to be happy about right now? Shakespeare himself seems to be especially preoccupied with the concept of peace in the midst of a storm; how to achieve peace in your present situation. This theme is brought up in many of his other plays such as Hamlet. No matter how hard the sailors try, they cannot save the ship and it goes down, everyone apparently drowned. During the last few moments before the ship is pulled under, a couple of lines are spoken that bring up a few of the major concerns of the play: “We split! We split!” (The Tempest is about a family that has been split apart and is brought back together.) “Mercy on us!” (Another big point throughout the play is mercy.) So, the first scene ends with a wrecked ship and the death of everyone. Seems like an ironic way to begin a comedy, right?
In the second scene we meet the main character of the play, Prospero. He is a great magician and can even control the weather……..you find out later that he was responsible for the storm. Prospero has an unexpected back story. He once was the Duke of Milan, but he spent most of his time studying and reading books (which is how he learned the art of magic) instead of governing his lands. Most of the duties of his office were handed over to Prospero’s brother, Antonio. Antonio grew tired of doing all the work of a Duke without the official title; so he came up with a scheme to overthrow his older brother. With some help, he was able to overthrow Prospero; and instead of killing him, Antonio placed him and his daughter Miranda on a small boat with just a few books and supplies and cast them adrift in the middle of nowhere to die. However, Prospero and his infant daughter came upon a deserted island where they came ashore. This is where they made their home for the next 12 years until the beginning of the play.
Prospero had grown in character significantly during those 12 years spent on the island. Before, he was irresponsible by neglecting his government and rather scattered and inconsistent. Now, Prospero has grown into a very dominating figure; confident and attentive. His very first line tell us a lot about the person he has become: “Be collected” – Prospero thinks more about the consequences of what he does and the importance of thinking clearly. In the second scene, Prospero summons his servant, Ariel a spirit and asks him to give a clear account of how the storm went. He wants to know if it was performed “exactly, and one point”. This is another hint into the person that Prospero has grown into over the years.
At the end of the second scene we are left with a few questions:
Why did Prospero raise the storm? and did the men on the ship really drown?