The Tempest was probably the last play Shakespeare wrote entirely by himself before he left London to lead the life of a man of property in Stratford. During the score of years that he had been active in London, he had seen many changes in the theatre and in popular taste, and, shrewdly sensitive to what the public wanted, he had always managed to provide plays that suited the fashion.
Indeed, few Elizabethan playwrights were more conscious of the box office than was Shakespeare, but he had the genius to put together popular dramas with enduring quality, so that in 1611 when he sat down to write The Tempest, he was able to create a play that would appeal first to King James and his nobles and later to the London public. The result was a mature play with a serene outlook and just the right mixture of fantasy, philosophy, spectacle, and humor. Themes of sin and forgiveness, repentance and salvation pervade the play; evil is present, to be sure, but never for a moment is there the least likelihood that its stratagems will succeed.
By 1611 a new style of drama had gained popularity on the London stages; tragi-comedies were setting the pace with writers like Beaumont and Fletcher attracting great followings, and, while Shakespeare’s later plays were not precisely imitative of the younger playwrights, they nevertheless reflect the fashion which Beaumont and Fletcher exemplified. Although now considered an “older” dramatist, Shakespeare was too original and experienced to need to imitate lesser writers, and he could conform to the new style and outshine them all. The Tempest is proof of this skill.
The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, is also the only play in which he faithfully adheres to the dramatic unities of time, place, and action called for in the classical Greek tradition. We may have to remind ourselves after we have finished reading or watching The Tempest that, despite the play’s many and varied events, the entire action occurs during the course of a single afternoon and in a single locale.
Plot elements in The Tempest are common to romance and folklore and appear in many places, but sources of the play remain vague and dispersed, with no definite and provable genesis. Shakespeare, like any creative artist, drew upon his memory for many elements that went into the play of the imagination. Yet, one of the identifiable influences seems to have been a group of pamphlets published in 1610 and generally known as the “Bermuda Pamphlets.” These writings describe a wreck on the Bermudas in 1609; they caused a good deal of comment and excitement in England, and there are a great many parallels between Shakespeare’s play and the story told in the pamphlets.
The Tempest is likely Shakespeare’s most poetic play, as well as his most original. While many attempts have been made to expound its “meaning,” the total impression left by the play is estrangement and reconciliation, sin and forgiveness, repentance and salvation. It shows how, in the fulness of time, a power like Divine Providence may work upon the wills and souls of sinful men to bring about their regeneration. The truest justice is not vindictive and punitive, but merciful and forgiving; and repentance is always necessary for salvation.