The Tempest opens in the midst of a fierce storm. The location is a ship at sea, with a royal party on board. As the sailors fight to save the ship, several of the royal passengers enter, and Alonso, the king, demands to know where the master (captain) is to be found. The boatswain, worried that the passengers will interfere, orders them to go below deck. The king's councilor, Gonzalo, reminds the boatswain that he is speaking to the king, but the boatswain points out that if the king really has so much power, he should use it to quell the storm. If he lacks this power, the royal party should go below decks, as the boatswain orders. The royal party exits, presumably to go below deck to seek shelter.
Within moments, however, Antonio, Sebastian, and Gonzalo have returned topside again, much to the boatswain's annoyance. With Sebastian and Antonio cursing him, the boatswain continues in his efforts to save the ship. Soon, however, the sailors enter with laments that the ship is lost. Fearing that they will all soon die, Antonio, Sebastian, and Gonzalo elect to join the rest of the royal party below decks, where they will pray for their survival.
The opening confrontation between Gonzalo and the boatswain reveals one of the most important themes in The Tempest: class conflict, the discord between those who seize and hold power and those who are often the unwilling victims of power. When confronted by members of the royal party, the boatswain orders that they return below deck. He is performing his job, and to stop in response to Alonso's request for the master would be foolish. The boatswain cares little for Alonso's rank as king and asks, "What cares these roarers for the name of king?" (15 — 16). The king has no protection from the storm simply because of his rank, because the storm has little care for a man's social or political position. In response, Gonzalo urges the boatswain to remember that the king and his party are the passengers. The implication is that the boatswain should also remember that his social rank makes him subservient to the royal party, regardless of the circumstances. Gonzalo's words are a clear reminder that even in the midst of a storm, class or status remains an important part of life. However, the boatswain is not intimidated and responds that the royal party should "use your authority," to stop the storm (20-21). As far as the boatswain is concerned, all men are equal in a storm and all equally at risk.
Alonso seems to understand that the captain is the ship's final authority, at least initially. His original request for the master reflects his belief that the master is in charge of the ship, and that, as passengers, he (as king) and his retinue fall under the captain's authority. But alarm at the severity of the storm and frustration at the boatswain's order to go below decks causes the king's party to fall back on the rules of land — the king is the final authority. The boatswain's telling Gonzalo that the king should use his authority to stop the storm is a reminder that the king has no authority under these circumstances. Although he can control men (although not always with absolute certainty), even the king cannot control nature.
The storm and the subsequent rebellion on ship is a metaphor for the rebellion occurring in English society. In the Elizabethan and Jacobean world, English society was defined by its class system, in which individuals were born into specific classes by divine right. In the natural order of things (that is, the order defined by God), therefore, the aristocracy is superior. Although the characters of The Tempest are depicted as Italian in origin, their experiences and conflicts are English. Indeed, the passengers, who never forget that they are socially superior to the crew, need to be reminded that, during a storm, the captain of the ship is the final authority.
Furthermore, in the period just prior to the composition of The Tempest, English society had been rocked by political, social, and religious conflicts. The Gunpowder Plot (1605), for example, serves as an illustration of the conflict between the Protestant James and his Catholic subjects. The goal of the Roman Catholic conspirators was to murder James and kill the members of both houses of Parliament; fortunately for James, the plot failed. The social unrest in England, however, was exacerbated by James' extravagant spending on court entertainment, especially the lavishly staged masques, and the contrast between the poor and the rich became even more evident. Although James subjects lived in severe poverty, their burden was increased as they were taxed to pay for the king's masques. In response, unrest grew and would erupt several years later into revolution.
There are many tempests to be explored during the course of The Tempest. In addition to class conflict, there are also explorations into colonialism (English explorers had been colonizing the Americas) and a desire to find or create a utopian society. The storm scene that opens The Tempest establishes nature as an important element of the play and emphasizes the role of nature in society. Other tempests will be revealed in subsequent scenes, such as the emotional tempests that familial conflict creates (consider the conflict between Antonio and Prospero, and the coming conflict between Sebastian and Alonso); the tempests of discord (consider Caliban's dissatisfaction and desire for revenge) and of forbidden love (consider the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand). Finally, there are the tempests caused by the inherent conflict between generations. So, although The Tempest might correctly be called a romantic comedy, the title and the opening scene portend an exploration of conflicts more complex than romantic.
yarely briskly or smartly. Here the boatswain is instructing the sailors to move quickly or the ship will be pushed aground by the storm.
roarers noisy and unruly waves; here so called because they care little for royal rank.
boatswain the ship's petty officer, in charge of the deck crew, the rigging, anchors, boats, and so on.
drowning mark refers to a mole, located on the boatswain's face, the appearance of which was thought to portend a person's manner of death. In this case, the boatswain's mole appears to be the type that predicts a death by hanging.
merely [Obs.] absolutely; altogether; here, it means that they are completely cheated of their lives by drunkards.