The Tempest first appeared in print as the first play in the 1623 Folio of Shakespeare. Throughout the play’s history, the play has been variously regarded as a highlight of Shakespeare’s dramatic output, as a representation of the essence of human life, and as containing Shakespeare’s most autobiographical character, in the form of Prospero the magician-ruler. The 1623 text appears to have few omissions or corruptions in the text, though the play does include stage directions that are unusually detailed when compared to Shakespeare’s other plays. Some strange spellings and idiosyncrasies in format do appear in the text, with prose sometimes appearing as verse, and vice versa; for these reasons, the text of the play is believed to be a transcription of a later performance at court. However, this is indeterminate, and other critics believe that the Folio text was copied from either Shakespeare’s original text, or a close replica of it.
The first known performances of the play were at the court of James I, in 1611 and 1613; and the presence of the Jacobean-era masque further cements the play into this time frame. However, the first performances of the play may not have been at court at all; and, there is some remaining evidence that the play received some revision and perhaps some London performances between 1611 and 1613. The betrothal masque which appears in Act IV might have been added for the 1613 performance, since the play was staged as part of a celebration of the wedding of Elizabeth, the daughter of James I. The masque could have been added in order to make the play more occasion-appropriate, as some critics have theorized.
Although a few of Shakespeare’s plays were relatively well-known before 1650, The Tempest was not among these, as seen by the few allusions to it that have survived or been discovered. Actually, a Restoration retread of The Tempest, done by Davenant and Dryden, was actually more popular than Shakespeare’s original for a time, despite its reduction of the original material to a near parody. A character named Hippolito was added, who was basically a male parallel to Miranda; and Miranda and Caliban were given sisters, Dorinda and Sycorax respectively. The work was a lighthearted comedy, unlike Shakespeare’s text; and, until the nineteenth century, the characters Hippolito and Dorinda were often incorporated into Shakespeare’s own version. The Davenant and Dryden version was even more successful when made into an opera in the late 17th century, and overshadowed Shakespeare’s version for another hundred years or so. In 1838, the original version was finally performed, minus the added characters and musical spectacle.
After the 17th century and until the 1930’s, Ariel was also portrayed as a female character, despite evidence to the contrary within the text. Caliban was also changed, and beginning with Victorian productions, he became less diabolical, and more tragic and human in character. Wrapped up with Caliban was a great deal of anti-slavery sentiment, and then the part was marked with Darwinistic thought starting in the late part of the century.
For many years, The Tempest was regarded as one of Shakespeare’s comedies; however, the presence of tragedy, comedy, and a good deal of romance means that the play does not easily fit into any of these three genres exclusively. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest is most often grouped with The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and Pericles?three other works that are also difficult to classify, because of their similar mix of comedy, drama, and romance.
Inspiration for The Tempest is believed to have come from a letter written by William Strachey, detailing the experiences of a shipwreck survivor. The Virginia Company was newly formed in the years before the play; and, in 1609, a fleet was sent out from England, with four hundred colonists who were supposed to land in Virginia. However, a hurricane hit the ships as they neared the coast, and the governor’s ship was separated from the others; luckily, they found themselves near Bermuda, and were able to land safely there and live quite comfortably on the island. The account that William Strachey wrote of this ordeal was first printed in 1625; however, the letter gained a wide audience starting in 1610, and manuscripts of it were circulated. Shakespeare also knew many others who were involved in the Virginia Company venture, like Southampton and Pembroke, to whom Shakespeare dedicated a few of his works?and there is even evidence that he may have known Strachey himself. There are clear parallels between Strachey’s letter and the events described within The Tempest, so it is more than likely that Shakespeare was familiar with the text, and was inspired by it to write the play that appeared at court about a year after the letter was circulated in London.