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Connecting the dots.

Essays about how we communicate and why it matters.

Another Polar Vortex? Time to reread The Tempest.

Posted on Monday, February 24, 2014 by Shelley Cowan

It’s been quite a year: Record cold, snow and ice throughout the eastern U.S. California faces catastrophic drought; southern England was battered by wind and rain; volcanoes devastated Indonesia. And high above the earth, clear air turbulence played havoc with jet planes.

Storms surround us. Time to reread The Tempest.

Written near the end of William Shakespeare’s career, The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, overthrown by his brother, Antonio, with the help of Alonso, the King of Naples. After twelve years in exile on an island, Prospero learns that Alonso and his entourage are nearby. He lures them to the island by orchestrating a storm that results in a shipwreck.

It’s payback time. But not until the play’s end do the victims learn the storm was man made. 

The jury is out as far as the origin of our current tempests. Whether a product of nature's order, the supernatural or our own doing, Prospero reminds us that things are often not what they seem.

Prospero isn’t a god but he behaves like one; we feel the danger and the strength of his actions. And even though the play is considered a comedy, it doesn’t feel like one. We’re no longer sure that everything will work out. Shakespeare throws us into a “what if” world, and we have to work through improbabilities as we go.  

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in a time when the church could no longer contain the whole of human possibility. The new world offered infinite variety and energy of its own. Opportunity was in the air. But so was chaos.

If the glory of a free society is measured by the variety of humans it can contain, the society's cohesive powers must be greater than the strains – if things are to hold. In Shakespeare’s world, things don’t hold without first falling apart.

Amid the confusion, people are frightened. And they act accordingly, with behaviors that range from absurd to vengeful to noble. Balance is upset: between master and servant, and perpetrator and victim. 

The Tempest paints a diverse, wild world. Sanctity and grace live within the pagan; beauty is often grafted on to a baser stock. Every trait has its opposite, as well as a perverse version of itself. One’s greatest weakness and greatest strength are one in the same. Moderation is hard.

Shakespeare’s tempest is the result of Prospero’s magic – his power to transform. Prospero calls this his art, as we are reminded that art is the ability to defy nature. 

This year’s tempests call to question the storms we create in our world. As we brace for our next tempest, we hope there is time to restore balance, time to get it right. 


This was written with notes taken during my Shakespeare course at Hamilton College. Anything useful or true is due to the wisdom, kindness and grace of my professor, Edwin Barrett.