The Tempest; or, The Enchanted Island (staging)

by William Davenant & John Dryden (November 1667; pub.1670)

This play has generated much comment from a range of critics, and been much confused with a later operatic version in the process, but what has not been widely recognised is just how superbly crafted for the theatre it is. Economical and precise, Davenant and Dryden exploit the LIF resources so that the staging becomes a physical embodiment of the play’s themes. Viewed from this perspective, the much-abused symmetries in the plot are complemented by a lucid, oppositional staging that reveals the play as a machine to anatomize 17th century ideas of the ‘natural man’.

Oppositional symmetry runs through the stage directions. A prime example of this is the terrifying of Alonzo’s shipwrecked party by Prospero’s spirits early in Act 2. First, the men hear a disembodied antiphon from each side of the stage – “A Dialogue within sung in parts” – that confronts the usurping duke – “Do you hear, Sir, how they lay our Crimes before us?” – then, “Enter the two that sung, in the shape of Devils, placing themselves at two corners of the Stage”.[1] Clearly the devils are on the corners of the forestage with Alonzo’s party in between, and judging by Antonio’s exclamation – “Sure Hell is open’d to devour us quick” – the men are probably backing away. The devils now summon more aid from behind the retreating men: “We’ll muster then their crimes on either side: Appear! appear! their first begotten, Pride. [Enter Pride”. Then alternately appear Fraud, Rapine, and Murther who then “fall into a round encompassing the Duke, &c. Singing”. After terrifying the men, “All the spirits vanish”.

The implied staging involved here exploits the whole stage space except for the relieve area. It could be argued that the spirits might enter alternately through four forestage doors, instead of through wing passageways as I propose. However, this solution limits the staging solely to the forestage and offends realism by leaving an obvious escape route through the scenic area. Not only does it lack the dynamism of a staging involving the whole stage area, it does not address the difficulty involved with the last stage direction: the requirement for the spirits to vanish. Speed is obviously of the essence here. There is very little evidence relating to trapdoors at LIF and it is unlikely that it had four that could accommodate the spirits’ vanishing. It is more likely that the spirits simply ran offstage; in which case running through the nearest wing passageways is far simpler than arranging for forestage doors to be opened and closed by stagehands at the correct time (‘spirits’ opening and closing doors themselves is hardly conducive to the effect required).

The implied action in this example emphasises symmetry. This emphasis occurs throughout the play, usually in the form of oppositional staging, to the extent that the text might be seen as an ideal advertisement for the two-door argument. Opposition is evident in exits and entrances. There are three instances of ‘the other door’ format and five instances where two characters or groups are directed to ‘enter/exit severally’; one of these even forms the stage picture: “Exeunt severally, looking discontentedly on one another”.[2] Furthermore, a passage near the end of Act 4 seems to make a virtue of forestage binary opposition. Earlier in the play the forestage doors were established as leading to different caves near Prospero’s cell. During Act 4 Hippolito is grievously wounded in a sword fight with his rival Ferdinand. The furious Prospero exercises his ducal powers and has condemned Ferdinand to die the next day. He obviously meets resistance to this judgement for he calls on supernatural assistance:

Do you refuse! help Ariel with your fellows
To drive ’em in; Alonzo and his Son bestow in
Yonder Cave, and here Gonzalo shall with
Antonio lodge.
[Spirits drive ’em in, as they are appointed.[3]

Of course, in both this passage and the one cited above other staging solutions are perfectly possible, but none it seems to me offers the same degree of visual coherence and congruence with the play’s themes. Scenically the implied staging is economical and straightforward. A seascape of some kind is an obvious requirement for 1.1. Shadwell’s later operatic version specifies, “a thick Cloudy Sky, a very Rocky Coast, and a tempestuous Sea in perpetual Agitation”.[4] The reference to “perpetual Agitation” suggests a wave machine may have been used at Dorset Garden and since the next scene in the play does not need a relieve setting this might also have been a possibility at LIF. However, the scenic relationship between the two versions is difficult to determine. The opera certainly suggests the type of scenery thought appropriate to the scene nearly seven years later, and Shadwell may be asking for embellished versions of existing scenery, but the question we need to ask is how appropriate to a straight play at the smaller LIF is a scene heading to an opera at Dorset Garden?  The answer is not necessarily appropriate at all. Restoration operas were usually lavish affairs with large budgets and spectacular effects, and illustration of the LIF production by reference to the opera is missing the point. It was the lavish novelty of the Dorset Garden opera that was the thrill for Restoration audiences. This is clear from a comment by the prompter John Downes: “The Tempest…made into an Opera by Mr. Shadwell, having all New in it; as Scenes, Machines; particularly one Scene Painted with Myriads of Ariel Spirits; and another flying away…all was things perform’d in it so Admirably well…”.[5]

Despite Davenant’s intimate connection with LIF (or perhaps because of it), there are only three scene headings in the play, only two of which are descriptive: “The Scene changes, and discovers Hippolito in a Cave walking, his face from the Audience” (2.5), “Scene changes, and discovers Prospero and Miranda”, “Scene, a Cave” (3.6).[6] In the dialogue Prospero also refers to his cell, but the terms are not differentiated in the text and there is no reason why the cave setting should not also serve as Prospero’s cell. In the three scenes with stated discoveries the dialogue strongly suggest that the cave setting is a relieve. In 2.4, a page before Hippolito is discovered walking in his cave, Prospero tells us that he has removed Hippolito from his usual lodging “And here have brought him home to my own Cell”.[7] In order for Hippolito to be discovered, the scenery showing prior to the discovery must, therefore, be a shutter representing the cell. Thus, two cave/cell settings are likely to have been available. The shutter may have been used with the palm tree wings suggested for the island setting to show the front of the cave, and the relieve would have its own rock wings to form a deep cave scene. This is the solution shown in the scenery plot. The full scenic requirement is only four settings: seascape (shutter or relieve), cave/cell (shutter and relieve), and the island. The various parts of the island may be represented by one setting.

The stated discoveries in the scene headings indicate the extent to which acting in the relieve area is implied by this play. The first (2.5) demonstrates that by the mid-late 1660s the relieve space was beginning to be seen as a viable acting area. Contrary to received opinion, when Hippolito is discovered in 2.5 he does not immediately advance onto the main stage.[8] In fact, the point of this scene is that two separate areas are being used; the upstage Hippolito is being observed and anatomised by Miranda and Dorinda downstage. The text directs: “Enter Miranda and Dorinda peeping”. The best position from which to satisfy this direction is from behind one of the forestage doors. A position in the scenic area from behind the wings is possible, of course, but not only does this reduce the dramatic potential inherent in a positioning that uses the full length of the stage, but it fails to exploit fully the dramatic potential in the direction for peeping. The direction to peep usually implies that it is important for the actors involved to be shown to be peeping; in effect it must be demonstrated to an audience. The physical attitude adopted signifies a secretive or illicit activity that enhances the drama of the scene. Of course, it would be possible to peep from behind a wing, but the demonstration would probably be clearer from behind a door on the brighter forestage.

Instead of immediately advancing from his position, Hippolito stays there ruminating and presumably ‘walking’, until 33 lines of dialogue later there is the direction: “Hip. Seeing her”. At this point Hippolito and Dorinda warily move to meet in the scenic area or upper forestage, perhaps circling each other before he “Takes her hand”. The pattern of this staging is inverted in the second discovery: “Scene changes, and discovers Prospero and Miranda”. Note that two scenic actions are implied here: the wings change from, say, palm trees to rock wings representing the cave/cell, and the island shutters withdraw to reveal the cave/cell relieve. In this scene instead of the impetuous Dorinda and the ‘natural man’ Hippolito, we see the more mature Miranda and the civilised Ferdinand, and this time the woman starts from the relieve area and the man from the forestage door. We know Ferdinand enters from the forestage, because by now he has become associated with a particular door that marks the entrance to his ‘cave’: earlier Prospero had split the pair saying to his daughter, “Go in that way…/ I’le separate you”, and to Ferdinand, “That Door/ Shews you your Lodging”.[9] Thus the staging in these matched discovery scenes wittily counterpoints the mirrored structure of the plot. In many of these play commentaries I bemoan the lack of scenic headings, with this play it is astonishing that out of 18 inferred scenes so much can be decoded from the three supplied headings.


[1] London: Herringman, 1670, p.16.
[2] Ibid. p.72.
[3] Ibid. p.70.
[4]London: Herringman, 1674, p.1.
[5] Roscius Anglicanus, pp.34-5.
[6] Op cit p.28, 44, 48.
[7] Ibid. p.26.
[8] See, for example, Styan: “An actor might be ‘discovered’ by opening such shutters, upon which he would come forward without breaking the flow of the action” (Restoration Comedy, p.27).
[9] Op cit p.46.