Today my daily walk took me through some very blustery Spring air: the clouds and trees moved and tossed and moaned and whistled with unsettled ease. It seemed a tempest might brew. That brings me to today’s brief notes: Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The opening scene of this play shows a tempest shipwrecking a vessel. In the second scene we meet the author of that tempest, the mighty Sorcerer Prospero. But how mighty is he? His own daughter takes him to task:


If by your art, my dearest father, you have

Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,

But that the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s cheek,

Dashes the fire out. Oh, I have suffered

With those that I saw suffer. A brave vessel

Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her

Dashed all to pieces. Oh, the cry did knock

Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perished.

Had I been any god of power, I would

Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere

It should the good ship so have swallowed and

The fraughting souls within her.


     Be collected.

No more amazement. Tell your piteous heart

There’s no harm done.


    Oh, woe the day!


      No harm.

I have done nothing but in care of thee,

Of thee, my dear one—thee my daughter, who

Art ignorant of what thou art, naught knowing

Of whence I am, nor that I am more better

Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell

And thy no greater father.


    More to know

Did never meddle with my thoughts.

The Tempest, Act I Scene ii


May I highlight what I think is the most the lovely part of Miranda’s opening speech?

…you have

Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,

But that the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s [heaven’s] cheek,

Dashes the fire out.

Isn’t it great?

Anyhow, for years I wondered why I keep coming back to this opening scene between the sorcerer Prospero and his daughter Miranda and I think I’ve figured it out.

Miranda loves her father, but nonetheless knows he created the storm and that it has apparently sunk a ship, killing the men on board. He responds with vague promises that no harm was done and that he’s only doing it for her, and that she doesn’t know everything. Sounds like lame excuses.

And yet Prospero, by play’s end, ascends to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest protagonists. And that’s why I like this beginning: It’s a great lesson for writers. The best writers set up their heroes for failure: heroes who are flawed and seem incapable of redemption.

Shakespeare introduces one of his greatest characters by having him taken down by the very sympathetic Miranda, she motivated by the most noble of principles: she cares for her fellow men–even strangers. Shakespeare doubles down on this technique later in the scene when he introduces Ariel and Caliban, Prospero’s two magical servants. They’re really slaves. By scene’s end we see Prospero treating Caliban with contempt, and basically admitting to Ariel that he’s broken his promises to the creature.

Back to Miranda. She’s innocent and naïve, yet brave, not afraid to disagree with her father. And she’s honest–when she sees Ferdinand for the first time, she doesn’t hesitate to admit she loves him. But I guess what I really love about Miranda is at play’s end, Shakespeare chooses her to utter these immortal lines:

O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!

The Tempest, Act V Scene i

The Tempest is arguably the capstone of Shakespeare’s works, coming as does near the end of his career. And despite all the travails of the harsh Elizabethan world, and all the tragedies of Shakespeare’s own life, he prefers to release, on the lips of a Miranda, a message of hope and belief in the nature of mankind.

The image of John William Waterhouse’s painting Miranda – The Tempest, 1916, one of Waterhouses’ last Pre-Raphaelite influenced masterpieces, showing the sorcerer’s daughter witnessing the ships destruction. Apparently Shakespeare’s scene can inspire both writers and painters alike.


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