The first recorded performance of The Tempest was 1 November, 1611.
Both were written when Shakespeare was a King's Man -- Groom of the Chamber to King James.
The plays were performed on Hallowmass, or All Saints' Day -- a day of remembrance and celebration of saints, known and unknown, and especially those who had suffered martyrdom for Christ.
Othello was approximately in the middle of Shakespeare's career.
The Tempest was at the end of his career.
The Tempest may have been the last play that Shakespeare wrote by himself, and there are those who believe that it was indeed the very last play he wrote -- the later plays ascribed to him were written in his style by others.
I would like to write a little about the period of time between the two plays, and how the events of the day influenced Shakespeare's writing.
|Rory Kinnear as Iago with Adrian Lester as Othello in a recent National Theatre production|
Othello was written after Hamlet, arguably the pinnacle of Shakespeare's career. As I have shown in my version of Hamlet, the play was a reflection of all that had passed, and an indictment of sorts of the Elizabethan period.
Shakespeare's plays before Hamlet, were for the most part entertainment, but often they were appeals to the Queen. Shakespeare wanted to communicate to her what he wanted to say, and what was being said by her public.
Elizabeth died in March, 1603 and quickly King James arrived from Scotland and was crowned king.
In the time between March 1603 and when Shakespeare would have written Othello, sometime in the middle to later part of 1604, there was much that was happening. Without going into great detail, King James wanted to unify the country and create a Great Britain at a time when the country was being torn apart, along political and religious lines. Some people wanted religious toleration, and it was not happening fast enough.
I think that Othello represents an early attempt by Shakespeare to communicate with his king. The play is dark and violent and centers of course around a great man, Othello who is undone by a unfounded jealousy whispered in his ear by his right hand man, Iago.
I won't get into all of the details of what Shakespeare was trying to say to King James, but the moral of the story would seem to be: "be careful of your councillors for they may deceive you."
I think that Shakespeare, who was now a frequent visitor to the king's court, was concerned that the powerful men at court didn't have the king's best interest at heart, and this would lead to more problems, and perhaps even to violence.
Well, the violence didn't take long to occur. Almost exactly one year later, on 5 November 1605 was of course the day when a plot to blow up the House of Lords -- killing King James -- was foiled.
Shakespeare included some allusions to the Gunpowder plot in his play Macbeth. I think that Shakespeare was trying to communicate with his king again.
|Ralph Fiennes as Prospero in a 2011 production of The Tempest|
What was he trying to say? I think that Shakespeare did not see real change in his country, and while it may have been peaceful on the surface, the seeds of violence were already being sown.
I don't think Shakespeare anticipated the Civil War in 1642 -- which saw King James' son Charles executed -- but I don't think he would have been surprised.
By 1610 and 1611, I think Shakespeare could tell that his messages to the king were going unheeded. It must have been a very dark time in his life.
Did he give up? Was he silenced? Did he write The Tempest knowing that it would be his last real effort, his swan song -- the last play to be performed by the King's Men at the Globe?
We may never know.
I am not the first person to say that the last plays of his were written for the entertainment of the king's children -- and may have been in fact appeals to them. Maybe Shakespeare thought that his message, his warnings, would be better received by James' children than by James himself.
That may explain the fantastical story of The Tempest, with Prospero the sorcerer -- thought to have been performed by Shakespeare himself.
It must have been a very personal story that Shakespeare wanted to tell. I think Shakespeare wrote The Tempest knowing that it would be played on Hallowmass -- and in some strange way -- I think it was a moment to reflect on the past, and those who had suffered -- saints or not -- and on an England that had changed quite a lot, and had not changed enough.
David B. Schajer
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