What’s In a Word: Etymology of ‘Tempest’

We for a certainty are not the first
Have sat in taverns while the tempest hurled
Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed
Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.
~ A.E. Housman 1859-1936

My family and I recently saw a rendition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in theater and it stirred my curiosity on the history of the word ‘tempest’. The Online Etymology Dictionary defines tempest as:

tempest (n.) “violent storm,” late 13c., from Old French tempeste “storm; commotion, battle; epidemic, plague” (11c.), from Vulgar Latin *tempesta, from Latin tempestas “a storm; weather, season, time, point in time, season, period,” also “commotion, disturbance,” related to tempus “time, season” (see temporal).

Sense evolution is from “period of time” to “period of weather,” to “bad weather” to “storm.” Words for “weather” originally were words for “time” in languages from Russia to Brittany. Figurative sense of “violent commotion” in English is recorded from early 14c. Tempest in a teapot attested from 1818; the image in other forms is older, such as storm in a creambowl (1670s)

“Alas, the storm is come again! my
best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no
other shelter hereabouts: misery acquaints a man with
strange bed-fellows.”

~Trinculo, Shakespeare’s The Tempest

The word ‘tempest’ wasn’t really popularized until the introduction of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in 1611. The exact order in which Shakespeare’s plays were written and performed is uncertain. An astonishing explosion of creativity between 1599 and 1606, bridging the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of James I in 1603, produced four great tragedies – Hamlet,Othello, King Lear and Macbeth – as well as Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, along with other plays. After them he wrote less and turned in a new direction with The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, the last play of which he was the sole author.

The Winter’s Tale was put on at the Globe in the summer of 1610. It was in that year apparently that Shakespeare, who had made ample money as a shareholder in the theatre company, left London and retired to Stratford (though he was still often in London). The first performance of The Tempest on record was at court on All Hallows’ Day in November 1611. There is an interesting theory that the play may essentially be about returning home after the storms and dramas of life to find peace and contentment.

The play’s central character is Duke Prospero of Milan, whose name can be translated as ‘I make happy’. Profoundly learned and fascinated by the occult, he has been expelled from his dukedom by his enemies, led by his own brother, Antonio, and King Alonso of Naples. He and his young daughter Miranda have been living for 12 years on a mysterious island where he has perfected his mastery of the magic arts. It is also inhabited by a spirit called Ariel, released by Prospero from imprisonment in a tree and identified by some as Shakespeare’s own genius, and a brutish, deformed slave called Caliban (close to an anagram of ‘cannibal’), who lusts after Miranda and has been venturesomely identified with the theatre audience.

'Caliban - A Man or a Fish', a 16th-century illustration

‘Caliban – A Man or a Fish’, a 16th-century illustration

Prospero discerns that a ship with Antonio and King Alonso on board, as well as Alonso’s son Ferdinand, is passing close by on its way from Tunis to Naples and he conjures up a ferocious storm, which so frightens his enemies that they abandon the ship and take to the island, where they wander uneasily about and Ferdinand goes missing. He meets Miranda and they fall instantly in love. After various murder plots and masque-like illusions created by Prospero and Ariel, who informs his enemies that it is their evil treatment of Prospero that has caused their predicament, the play moves to its climax with Prospero forgiving Alonso and Antonio. Alonso restores Prospero to his dukedom, while Prospero promises to renounce magic and sets Caliban free. The achievement of serenity and harmony is symbolised and perfected by the loving union of Miranda and Ferdinand.

For a change, Shakespeare made the plot up, but there was a real Duke Prospero of Milan who was deposed in 1461 and Shakespeare could have read about him. There is a debt to Virgil’s Aeneid and the play itself points out that the voyage from Tunis to Naples is the same one taken by Aeneas. The Tempest is about reconciliation and forgiveness between enemies and the achievement of contented happiness. It was performed at court during the marriage celebrations of James I’s daughter Elizabeth, the future ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia, in 1613.

“Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”

~Prospero, Shakespeare’s The Tempest

To learn more about the history of William Shakespeare and his plays, please visit HistoryToday.


This entry was posted in England, Europe, Horrible History, What's In a Word. Bookmark the permalink.

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