The Tempest

The Tempest has adapted on a scale that might even eclipse that of Hamlet, so exhaustiveness is a lost cause.  As I did for Hamlet, I’m instead going to list a fairly arbitrary assortment of things.  The only criteria are that 1) there must be something interesting about them, and 2) they must be easy to find, or at least it must be easy to find enough information about them to start a conversation.


As Prof. Greetham pointed out, from the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries The Tempest was mainly performed in versions other than Shakespeare’s.  An important adaptation that we will be discussing in class is The Tempest, or The Enchanted Isle by William D’Avenant and John Dryden.  Scott Palmer recently directed a production of this play in Hillsboro, OR, and recorded this discussion of his intentions:

There was also a recent production at the University of Hall, which is discussed in this academic paper:

There is a Gutenberg edition of the actual play here:


Robert Browning’s “Caliban upon Setebos” is available on RapGenius, where an online community of amateur poetry annotators has been rapidly developing:


A more recent play adaptation is Une Tempête (1969) by the Martiniquan writer Aimé Césaire, which takes a postcolonial approach to the story.  Here is a video of a performance (in French):

Here are English translations of a few excerpts of the play:

The full play can be found in both English and French editions at NYPL.


Among Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest has proven exceptionally popular among musical adapters.  Wikipedia claims that “at least forty-six operas or semi-operas based on The Tempest exist”, and lists an imposing number of choral, orchestral, and ballet works.  One of the best-known orchestral works is Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest fantasy.  There is a video of a performance of this work on YouTube:


The indie rock band The Decemberists have a multi-part song called “The Island: Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel The Drowning” that is based on The Tempest.  It is available on YouTube:


Just two-odd weeks ago, the David H. Koch theater opened its fall season with a new ballet adaptation of The Tempest by Alexei Ratmansky, with music by Jean Sibelius.  I can’t find any info about upcoming performances (if there are any), but here are a couple of reviews:


There was recently a contemporary dance adaptation of The Tempest called The Tempest Replica (2011), directed by Kidd Pivot.  Here are some excerpts from a performance:

Here is a review:


The earliest film based on The Tempest was a 1905 silent film that depicted the storm in Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production of the play.  The earliest film that I have been able to track down online, however, is from 1908, and was directed by Percy Stow:

It has captions explaining what is happening in each scene, but no dialogue.  It also has some pretty nifty special effects for 1908.


Yellow Sky is a 1948 Western film with a similar plot to The Tempest, starring Gregory Peck.  It is available in full on YouTube:


The 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet is also allegedly based on The Tempest.  The DVD is available at NYPL.  Here is the trailer:

There was a 1957 radio play adaptation of the film, which is available here:


Derek Jarman directed a queer film version of The Tempest that premiered in 1979.  It is available streaming on NetFlix, as well as at NYPL.  Here is a review that includes a clip:


I won’t list all of the BBC productions that have been made over the years, but this short 1992 “animated tales” version could be fun.  It’s online here:


Trancers 4: Jack of Swords is a ridiculous-looking 1994 movie in which a time-traveling cop has to defeat the “evil Lord Caliban” with the help of Caliban’s “rebellious son Prospero”.  It doesn’t seem to have much to do with The Tempest, but I include it because the seemingly arbitrary appropriation of names from the play might be relevant to a discussion of how Shakespeare has diffused into our culture—perhaps they are not meant to call The Tempest in particular to mind, but just to create a vague association with Shakespeareanness that helps to establish the time period in which the action takes place.  In any case, here is a detailed review of the movie and its sequel:


There is a 2010 Hollywood film adaptation starring Helen Mirren as Prospera.  You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, while it lasts:


Zetsuen No Tempest is an anime series based on The Tempest which ran for 24 episodes.  You can watch the first episode online here:

It was based on a manga series of the same name.


The final issue of Neil Gaiman’s comic book series The Sandman borrows some aspects from the play, while also depicting Shakespeare’s composition of it.  It is collected in the compilation The Sandman: The Wake, which you can get from Medgar Evers.


After last class, a few of us were talking about the old children’s TV series Wishbone, which did a version of The Tempest in 1996.  Here it is on YouTube, in three parts:


Back in 2003, the Royal Shakespeare Company was apparently planning to produce a Tempest video game, in collaboration with MIT.  Nothing seems to have come of it, but here is a press-releaseish article:


There have been a number of recordings of songs from the play, in both traditional and new settings.  Pete Seeger recorded a version of “Full Fathom Five” for his album Dangerous Songs!?, which you can find on Spotify.  The goth band Miranda Sex Garden did a choral version of “Full Fathom Five”, and the sludge-metal band Harvey Milk recorded a bizarre rendition of “Where the Bee Sucks There Suck I”.  The name “Full Fathom Five” has also been appropriated numerous times outside of music.  It is the title of a Jackson Pollock painting, which is owned by the MoMA:

It is also the name of a young-adult “fiction factory” which was the subject of this exposé in New York magazine:


Finally, here is a video mashup that imagines what a Disney version of The Tempest would look like:

6 thoughts on “The Tempest

  1. I find Robert Browning’s poem “Caliban Upon Setebos” a very appropriate form of adaptation since it is commonly thought that Caliban is the most poetic character of The Tempest. Browning’s poem focuses on the internal conflicts that Caliban faces with his belief in the god Setebos. The text further emphasizes Caliban’s complexities and intelligence. Caliban fears god, and acknowledges that he must not seem to be enjoying life too much. For example, Browning states, “Meanwhile, the best way to escape His Ire / Is, not to seem too happy. ‘Sees, himself / Yonder two flies, with purple films and pink, / Bask on the pompion-bell above: kills both.” Caliban continues to exhibit to Setebos that he is a wretched creature, destroying things instead of showing that he enjoys beauty and the nature around him. This poem works to expand the idea that Caliban can certainly be read as a disabled character, having no relationship with others and living alone on the island his entire life. He is usually displayed as deformed in some way, bridging his connection between human, animal, and demon or devil. Browning’s poem works to further illuminate the psychological ramifications that solitary life has brought Caliban.

    As a character, Caliban remains one of the most well-known names from the play (I would argue that this is because he is a disabled and character deemed as “other.”) I was surprised that the Decemberists’ song “The Island…” is based on The Tempest. I have listened to this song multiple times (I quite enjoy The Decemberists!) but have never looked up the lyrics. The section below obviously references The Tempest:
    “In the lowlands, nestled in the heat
    A briar cradle rocks it’s babe to sleep
    Its contents watched by Sycorax
    And patagon in paralax
    A foretold rumbling sounds below the deep
    Come and see
    Come and see”

    It is interesting that the song has Sycorax actively watching her child, while this did not happen in the work. Furthermore, the second section labeled “The Landlord’s Daughter” seems to reference Miranda, and I believe is written in first-person from Caliban’s point of view, leading to the possible rape. This song, compared with Browning’s poem, does not take as much of a sympathetic look inside Caliban’s mind, yet interestingly also gives voice to Caliban’s motives- a voice that it seems people want to hear more of.

    I see the Decemberist’s song as a modern form of poetry (I’m not saying it’s at the same literary level of Browning’s poem- but that songs pervade our culture more than poetry does.) Aside from naming “Sycorax” there are no obvious references to the Shakespeare play, which is probably why I missed the reference while half-asleep on the subway. Indeed, this will make me pay more attention to songs in general. Like John’s post on Lana Del Rey’s song “Carmen,” many songwriters do reference larger works, and it seems that these works are the ones that are repeatedly adapted. As a culture, there are works that we are expected to know!

    Sidenote: Thank you, Jeff, for posting the Wishbone episode. It provided a moving revisit to my childhood! I also never realized how many outfits they put that poor Jack Russell in. But the point is that I heard of most of the great classics for the first time through episodes of Wishbone. Whether this is positive or not, it is what happened to me as a ’90s child! Adaptations were my first experiences with great literature.

    • Yes, the characterization(s) of Caliban (and even Prospero) may show a good deal about the motivations of the adapter. In “Caliban on Setebos” RB is clearly fascinated by the articulate and sympathetic nature of C (cf. Grendel in the Gardner novel that we did earlier), and to see him under the auspices of disability lends another important contemporary element. Note that this goes even further in the “Enchanted Island” production, which is not only sympathetic to C but portrays Prospero as a tyrant, begging forgiveness of all he has harmed, including Sycorax, who has a major role in the adaptation as the jilted woman, and dispossessed sovereign. There is even some suggestion that S & P will renew their former relationship, once P has acknowledged his crimes: a very different take on the moral compass from WS.

  2. The Forbidden Planet connection is blowing my mind and slightly shifting some childhood memories, too.

    It strikes me that Browning’s presence on RapGenius is an interventionist form of adaptation. The Browning annotations aren’t so robust, but I’ve been reading a lot about the ways in which RG has evolved has a website, up to and including the presence of established authors (like Junot Díaz, here: using the site to enhance and challenge their own works (sometimes in progress) ( Is this form of participatory annotation another example of digitally mediated interventions in classical texts, or does it (could it) go beyond that? How far would annotations have to go to shift from being annotations to being their own form of adaptation (another way of asking the question we’ve been surrounding all semester, of what makes an adaptation, I guess)?

    The interventionist form of adaptation is a category in which I also place the Césaire, along the lines of Makeba’s great points last week on what an all-black cast does to a work like Carmen in the Hip Hopera. The Jarman seems to fit in their company, too: “Jarman’s transgressive approach to the material is further established by the way he uses a cut-up style technique to dismantle, replace and reinterpret the Bard’s original text without completely destroying the play’s poetry.” Part of Césaire’s intervention comes immediately, in the Master of Ceremonies’ introduction: he breaks down the third wall in a manner often used by Shakespeare, but he goes further in referring to the fictionality of the characters, even casting in the first moments of the play. Prospero picks up on this later, consoling Miranda: “It’s only a play. There’s really nothing wrong.” Even Caliban picks up on it, albeit without mentioning fictionality directly:

    “Prospero, you’re a great magician:

    you’re an old hand at deception.

    And you lied to me so much,

    about the world, about yourself,

    that you ended up by imposing on me

    an image of myself: –

    underdeveloped, in your words, incompetent,

    that’s how you made me see myself!”

    I’m wondering what function the reference to fiction serves in an adaptation context. It seems like another layer of meta-commentary, and maybe also an opening out onto With The Tempest, as Caliban’s quote above indicates, mentions of control and authorship can refer directly to Prospero’s sorcery, but Césaire takes that further, as with the other quotes I included. Other thoughts?

    Sidenote on literary lyrics: The Decemberists do a lot of literary alluding, to the point that MTV published a piece last year on non-Decemberists bands with literary-influenced lyrics ( I’m a little chagrined that I didn’t bring up the Kate Bush when we did Wuthering Heights.

    FInally, this isn’t an adaptation per se, but I do think it’s interesting that The Economist (of all publications) has named its literary arts and culture blog after Prospero (without, it has to be said, any explanation why; they just say that “this blog provides literary insight and cultural commentary from our correspondents”). Check it out here:

    • Awesome post Hilarie! I wondered about Cesaire’s shattering the fourth wall as well, especially so early on. The naming of Caliban is also very interesting as Caliban is very direct with Prospero regarding his hatred for the name because answering to it will make him complicit in his own cultural erasure. I like the allusion to the post-slavery/black power movements when “Caliban” instructs Prospero to call him “X”. Sp much history linked to one little letter… As this was first published in 1969, the Black Power Movement was at it’s peak. Caliban even refers to Ariel as an Uncle Tom at one point. He was intent on creating an adaptation full of current (for him) cultural references.

  3. I was struck by “Prospero’s Books”, particularly in the method Greenaway employs to convey Prospero’s far-reaching magic. Instead of special effects, the magic seems to be embodied by a nude menagerie one-third mythological caricature, one-third teeming human mass, one-third methodical, clockwork machine. I thought this was an interesting way to scene “magic”, as magic is really a bit of all three (godliness, nature, artifice). Magic spells are generally performed by the wizard, but here, magic quite literally performs – as Prospero’s magic tumbles, dances, swims, and jumps. Adaptation always seems to involve a shift in medium, and Greenaway’s film incorporates as many art-forms as possible to adapt Shakespeare’s story, with the oft-crowded set displaying several performances, and several screens, layered on-top of one another. What’s more, the island setting is quite literally a set, dominated by the figures that represent Prospero’s power, creating an eerie sense of enclosedness even though technically supposed to depict a tropical island.
    The Decemberists give Miranda a shout-out in “We Both Go Down Together”, one of my favorite Decemberist songs ( ). It’s not nearly Shakespeare’s Miranda, but once again I would not be surprised if this naming was intentional, if names, even accidentally still, create connections between unrelated works. Marvel Comics’ “Caliban the Morlock” (a recurring figure in the X-men series) is a similar kind of (double) reference; he’s no relative to Shakespeare’s Caliban, but he is an abject mutant who lives in the sewer, fearful that anyone discover his grotesque bodily disfigurements. Likewise, the videogame Call of Duty: Black Ops, contains a protocol codenamed “Prospero”, for nuclear retaliation, which opens up interesting comparisons between sea-rending magic, authority, politics, and nuclear destruction.

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