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Home :: Archive :: 1992 :: April ::
Commentary on Scene 1 of The Tempest
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 3, No. 90. Friday, 17 Apr 1992.
Date: 		Thu, 9 Apr 1992 12:52:00 -0400
From: 		GEOFF WALL <
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Subject:  	First Scene of The Tempest
The Tempest
A Commentary on the Opening Scene
(c) Geoffrey Wall 1992
University of York
A tempestuous noise of Thunder and Lightning heard:
Enter a Ship- master, and a Boteswaine.
	With a noise and a flash of light, the play begins, at the
romantic heart of the storm. We are plunged into chaos and
mortal danger, down into the twilight place where representation
itself begins and ends.
	What could be more futile than the puny effort to stage a
storm?  Where could there be any greater gap between the real
thing and its theatrical representation?
	There is a noise and a flash of light, an elemental din of
thunder and lightening, signified theatrically,  in 1611, the first
year of The Tempest, by the mild artifice of a large iron cannon
ball rumbling its way slowly down a long sloping wooden trough,
punctuated by  the beating of a drum, staccato, and the
conflagration of gunpowder in a lightening-machine.
	 There is splendid and poignant incongruity in all of this.
Noises of every kind are the very stuff of  The Tempest, noises
minutely discriminated and most tellingly described in their
effects on human hearts.  There is in this first scene the crash of
thunder,  the sound of the masterUs whistle, the roar of the waves,
Ra cry withinS, a Rconfused noise withinS.
	Consider the anxious discoverer, the audacious world-
historical man from Europe. As he enters the new land, he is
exquisitely and perpetually uncertain as to whether the noises
which reach him from somewhere out there are the cries of some
real animal or whether they are simulated, with sinister intent, by
some human voice.  The shadow side of the experience of
discovery, the mood that is scarcely  represented in the literature
of the voyages, is the childish fear that something is watching me,
listening to me, leading me, unawares, towards oblivion.   The
discoverer is gripped by the fantasy of his sudden total subjection
to the mysterious other.  Such thoughts are habitually kept at bay
by the happier fantasy of subjecting the other.  This triumphant-
anxious fantasy permeates The Tempest, an investigation at many
levels of intertwined fantasies of omnipotence and of
powerlessness.  A king on a ship in a storm is an excellent
beginning. And, once the storm is revealed as the work of a
human artist, the sequence is existentially complete.
	In actual performance difficult choices are to be made. For
the more harrowing the storm becomes  the harder it will be for
the audience to hear what is being said upon the stage.  The more
storm there is, the less sense we will have of the precise human
nuance of what is being enacted under its darkening  shadow.
	For the moment, though, the storm is just a storm.  None of
its victims is heard to speculate as to its author.  They are intent,
in their common extremity, minutes from death by drowning,
intent upon a struggle for power which is now acted out on the
deck of their sinking ship.
	Master and Boatswain are heard first.
	- Bote- swaine.
	- Heere Master: What cheere?
	- Good: Speake to th' Mariners: fall too't, yarely, or we run
our selues a ground, bestirre, bestirre.
	It is a brisk summons, and an obedient greeting.  An order is
given.  The chain of command  is clear and simple.  The two
speakers address each other as bosun and master. For each of
them is, discursively, in his proper place. These places are nicely
discriminated.  We see, on stage, not just a group of mariners
rushing about and making a lot of noise; we observe the urgent
practical workings of a social hierarchy
	The shipUs master is, merely, the Master:  a grave voice, the
very embodiment of authority. He would have been a literate
artisan, a man skilled in the use of chart and compass,  dressed
distinctively better than those over whom he had command. He
customarily wore a gold whistle hanging on a cord around his
neck.  He speaks first, then he leaves the stage and we never see
him again.
	The Boatswain is his agent.  He passes on the word  from the
master above to the mariners below. And he translates the word,
from the imperatively paternal to the persuasively fraternal.
	- Heigh my hearts, cheerely, cheerely my harts:
yare, yare: Take in the toppe- sale: Tend to th' Masters
whistle: Blow till thou burst thy winde, if roome e-nough.
	We hear, in these lines, the language of common life, so
called. It is the language of the lesser sort, of those who work with
their hands, the mechanicals,  servants and artisans.  Their talk
was conventionally the stuff of comedy. Most tellingly, they were
rarely named, scarcely individualised.  Usually they are
designated by their function or trade.   There are other plays that
begin with such voices.   We hear them at the beginning of
Hamlet:  the two sentinels, Barnado and Francisco, (touchingly and
exceptionally individuated, ) shivering in the dark, high  on the
cold battlements above Elsinore.  We hear them too, ominously
insubordinate,  at the beginning of Coriolanus, where they are
merely designated by their trades.
	The mariners, in this scene,  are an anonymous collectivity, a
collection of hands. They are there to pull the ropes that work the
sails that drive the ship that carries the king.  They therefore
have no singular voice.  We see them at work and we hear their
cries of distress,  but we do not see them ever again, after this. We
hear of them,  eventually, from the bosun, in  the playUs closing
sequence.  In between, from first to last, their collective labour
power is magically preserved by the enchanted sleep that
overcomes them.   [QUOTE] They are not tempted, the mariners,
even in their sleep, by dreams of insurrection.  They are locked
away, intact.  It was not so, in reality.  [expand with detail from
Strachey letter]
	 The mariners have an entrance, but  no marked exit. They
come and go, urgent and purposeful, grimly silent, all through this
scene. They are staggering with the motion of the ship, repeatedly
jostling the courtiers as they pass among them, and this rude
jostling contact breaks the social rules which delicately regulated
encounters between the high and the low.
	 Enter Alonso, Sebastian, Anthonio, Ferdinando, Gonzalo, and
	Mariners are different from courtiers. They look differrent.
Their garments, their bodies, their movements are different.
	 I want to visualise the mariner. I want to see him as he
may have been shown on stage.
	He is wearing a coarse grey sea-cloak, made out of sail
canvas.  It is smeared down the front with black tar and crusted
over with crumbs of white salt. He has a length of shipUs rope for a
belt.  His cheeks have been harshly scrubbed by  the action of sun,
wind and spray, out on the open deck. He is marked all over his
body with exotic blue stains of  gunpowder.   Rope-burns, wood-
splinters and the sharp touch of freezing iron have all left their
indelible signature upon his hands.  His breath stinks of saltfish
and stale beer.  His food is cold and his clothes are wet.  In the
eyes of the world, he is a notoriously independent, predatory,
loud-mouthed, lecherous, quarrelsome, drunken individual.  He is
a supremely familiar figure, set before us now,  in the costume of
his kind.
	The brisk obedience of the mariners contrasts strikingly
with the consciously elegant gestures of the kingUs party.   They
have strayed ineptly on deck.  There is panic among the great.
	The royal party is centred upon the person of Alonso, King
of Naples.  He is the most powerful man present. Every movement
of his entourage physically expresses their recognition of his
power.   Alonso the King is surrounded by his son, Prince
Ferdinand, his brother Sebastian, his creature Antonio, and his
councillor Gonzalo.  These four men live in the innermost circle,
close to the king.    Each of them has his own repertoire of
deferential gesture, gaze and facial expression.   They are
watching the king at every moment.  And they are watching  each
other too, though without appearing to do so.  Moment by
moment, with all the energy of their exquisite and predatory
intelligence, they are conscious of their own  rising or falling.
They are aware of every shade of royal favour, every hint of
possible displeasure.  Even upon the deck of the ship at sea, these
men are still as they have always been.  For everything about
them, their clothes, their gestures, their voices, all proclaim their
hereditary power.  It is a form of social magic which they have
always practised upon all around them.  But now, in the storm,
they are beginning to imagine their own powerlessness.  Even so,
they speak as if they were secure in the charmed space marked
out by their palace walls, set aloft above some prosperous Italian
	 The Boatswain has ignored the king, and then collided with
him as the deck tilts in the storm.  The common man is too close to
the king.  The King speaks first.
	- Good Boteswaine haue care:
	Grudging recognition?  But scarcely will it soothe royal
vanity.  The King must speak again, a little more sharply.
	- Where's the Master?
	No answer to his question. A command is necessary.
	 - Play the men.
	The imperative, delivered above the noise of the storm, is
lost on the air.  The Boatswain pauses to gaze at the king.  He is
	- I pray now keep below.
	Balanced between a request and a command, this causes
astonishment.  The king has been told to go below, to descend,
actually and symbolically.  It is a humiliation.  Eyebrows are
raised, perhaps in ironic indignation.  And the king is silenced. He
does not speak again, in the course of this scene.
	His creature, Antonio, second in authority, repeats the kingUs
resonant question.
	- Where is the master?
	We can hear his whistle sounding loud. We have seen it, a
gold whistle on a cord around his neck, the emblem of his office.
	- Do you not heare him?
	Antonio disregards this piece of confident impudence. His
face hardens.  The BoatswainUs tone changes. Keeping the
initiative, he ventures a plain rebuke.
	- You mar our labour.  Keep your Cabins: you do assist the
	Like the king before him, Anthonio is silenced by
insubordination.  He does not even try to reconquer the ground he
has lost.  The Boatswain has usurped the place and the voice of
	At this point, the third member of the party intervenes.  It
is Gonzalo, the kingUs counsellor, a virtuoso rhetorician,
acknowledged master of the language of persuasion. (hee's a Spirit
of perswasion, onely professes to perswade) He is the one to
reassert propriety, to put this man back in his place.  The verbal
champion takes the field.  The tone is finely judged, the form of
address is firmly  condescending.
	- Nay, good, be patient...
	But the smooth flow of a homily on the virtues of
resignation is checked by a rough retort.
	- When the sea is!
	And worse follows.
	- Hence! what cares these roarers for the name of King?
	This is unanswerable.  The BoatswainUs joke is satisfactory,
grim and exact. It spells out, subversively, the common humanity
of all who find themselves there, on the open deck, the subjects of
the storm. The roaring elements know no master at all.  The joke
reaches out threateningly  towards all those reassuringly orthodox
Renaissance similes  in which social disturbance is compared to
various forms of natural disaster.
	- To Cabin; silence: trouble us not.
	Gonzalo is provoked, professionally,  by the injunction to be
silent.  He tries again.   He aims to prompt the  impulse of
deference by an menacingly oblique reference to the primary fact
of the kingUs presence on the ship.  He doesnUt risk Rthe name of
	- Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboord.
	But the bosun is not to be cowed by such tactics. He comes
back with:
	- None that I more loue then my selfe.
	Then he turns  on Gonzago, mockingly solemn, conciliatory.
	- You are a Counsellor.
	Gonzago assents quietly to this.  He thinks he is to be
granted a belated recognition.
	- If you can command these Elements to silence, and worke
the peace of the present, wee will not hand a rope more...Use your
	He spells out the primary division of labour. On one side of
the great antithesis there are exalted ideologues, the hired prize
fighters such as Gonzago, who control the social world by the force
of their words.  On the other side there are  all those who work,
speechlessly, with their hands.  The bosun of course leaves out of
account the dramatic fact that it is Prospero who is commanding
these elements.  It also leaves out of account the possibility that
the storm is providential, a punishment for some guilty deed.  Not
even a  hint of supernatural explanation can be allowed in at this
	The bosun has proved his point.  Authority, in the person of
Gonzago,  is tongue-tied.
	- If you cannot, giue thankes you haue liu'd so long, and
make your selfe readie in your Cabine for the mischance of the
houre, if it so hap.
	Having silenced his superiors with his straight-talking
eloquence, the bosun leaves the scene.  There is a pause.  The
courtiers are a little  disconcerted.  But then Gonzago works his
magic to return everything to its proper place.  The recent defeat
can be cancelled, with ingenuity.  He plays his audience with great
skill, building the joke piece by piece.
	- I haue great comfort from this fellow.
	They are puzzled.  This must be some witty paradox.  For of
course Gonzago has just been thoroughly dis-comforted by Rthis
	- Methinks he hath no drowning marke vpon him, his
complexion is perfect Gallowes.
	There is laughter at this little verbal triumph.  It is a most
consoling proverb to invoke, when faced with especially stubborn
insubordination.  Every reader of Machiavelli, the precocious
analyst of  hegemony, knows that when the fraudulence of power
(Rthe name of kingS) has been stripped bare, then force will save
the day.  Hanging, of course, was the most humiliating form of
public execution  set aside for those of low status.  The shift from
the  marinerUs rope to the gallows rope, especially if the bosun is
wearing a rope around his waist,  savours of the fluent and
resourceful improvisation of power.  It is a kind of ideological pun.
And Gonzago follows with an urbanely mocking  prayer for
salvation, cast in a playful version of the high style:
	- Stand fast good Fate to his hanging, make the rope of his
destiny our cable, for our owne doth little aduantage:
	The royal party leaves the stage, enjoying the satisfaction of
having the last word.  Gonzago then modulates to a subdued exit
line, spoken in an undertone:
	- If he be not borne to bee hang'd, our case is miserable.
	The bosun returns:
	- Downe with the top- Mast: yare, lower, lower, bring her to
Try with Maine- course.   A plague ...
{A cry within. {Enter Sebastian, Anthonio & Gonzalo}.
...vpon this howling: they are lowder then the weather, or our
	He notices that the three courtiers have returned to the
stage. This time the party is smaller: just Gonzalo, the kingUs
brother and his creature, Anthonio.  The ship is in ever greater
danger and the tone of those on deck is quite different. Away
from the KingUs constraining presence,  they allow themselves to
vent their anger. The bosun is scornful:
	- Yet againe? What do you heere? Shal we giue ore and
drowne, haue you a minde to sinke?
	This provokes Sebastian to  an accomplished display of
aristocratic contempt. Does his hand move towards the hilt of his
dagger as he speaks?
	- A poxe o'your throat, you bawling, blasphemous
incharitable Dog.
	Such imposing rhetorical largesse is countered by the
prosaic but unanswerable injunction:
	- Worke you then.
	Anthonio joins in; though less inventive than Sebastian, the
class style is distinctly similar:
	- Hang cur, hang, you whoreson insolent Noyse-maker, we
are lesse afraid to be drownde, then thou art.
	Gonzago now tries to calm this storm of words with a
soothing variation on his old theme.
	- I'le warrant him for drowning, though theShip were no
stronger then a Nutt- shell, and as leaky as an vnstanched wench.
	The joke - leaky as an vnstanched wench -  is thoroughly
and fascinatingly appropriate.  If delivered with urbane grace and
received with a superior smile it can serve to re-establish all the
complicity of the quite imperturbably privileged. Editors disagree
as to the precise sexual reference intended in GonzaloUs words.  It
may be about menstruation, or it may be about sexual arousal. In
either case, it is a symptomatic utterance.  For it touches on the
ominous topic of incontinent female sexuality, as it might present
itself to  the masculine imagination. All of the men in the play are
possessed by some version of the woman question. Here it is, at
the moment of its first inconspicuous appearance.
	What comes next follows nicely from this hidden sense.
	- Lay her a hold, a hold, set her two courses off to Sea
againe, lay her off.
	Enter Mariners wet
	The metaphorical femininity of the ship can now be shouted
aloud for the first time.  Lay her a hold... lay her off.  These
phrases involve specialised nautical terms, properly glossed as
such in editions of the play.  But they echo with all the other
colourfully sexual senses of lay.  The appearance on stage of
mariners wet  is a dream-like theatrical epitome of the chaotic
mess which threatens the cultural edifice when once the female
principle gets out of hand.
	- All lost, to prayers, to prayers, all lost.
The bosunUs lament
   <S {Botes}.> What must our mouths be cold?
  *<S {Gonz}.> The King, and Prince, at prayers, let's assist them,
   for our case is as theirs.
   <S {Sebas}.> I'am out of patience.
  *<S {An}.> We are meerly cheated of our liues by drunkards,
  *This wide- chopt- rascall, would thou mightst lye drow-ning
   the washing of ten Tides.
   <S {Gonz}.> Hee'l be hang'd yet,
   Though euery drop of water sweare against it,
   And gape at widst to glut him. <D {A confused noyse within}.>
   Mercy on vs.
   We split, we split, Farewell my wife, and children,
   Farewell brother: we split, we split, we split.
   <S {Anth}.> Let's all sinke with' King
   <S {Seb}.> Let's take leaue of him.  <D {Exit}.>
  *<S {Gonz}.> Now would I giue a thousand furlongs of Sea,
  *for an Acre of barren ground: Long heath, Browne
  *firrs, any thing; the wills aboue be done, but I would
   faine dye a dry death.  <D {Exit}.>

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