Get ready for a magical evening of Shakespeare on the Common as the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company stages The Tempest, this year's annual family-friendly "Shakespeare in the Park" production of free Boston theater during July and August.
Watch the actors on stage above a grassy slope as this classic Shakespearean story about magic, betrayal, revenge, and family loyalties plays out before you.
There's nothing more perfect than enjoying one of these wonderful Shakespeare on the Common performances under the stars on a balmy Boston summer evening.
Performances take place in July and August on a temporary stage near the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common.
Bring a blanket or low folding chair to sit on, and get ready to be entertained, to have your thinking challenged in new ways, and to listen to the thrilling language of Shakespeare, as meaningful today as when he wrote this play four centuries ago.
Bonus: Shakespeare knew the power of laughter - so even in his most tragic plays, you can always expect some comic relief.
"Cheat Sheet" for Shakespeare's The Tempest: Can't Quite Recall this Play? Here Are Highlights
Shakespeare is believed to have based The Tempest on a real-life travel story that he read about a fleet of nine ships belonging to the Virginia Company that became caught in a hurricane (ie, tempest) while on a supply run from England to Bermuda in 1609. Just as they approached the islands, one of the ships crashed as it hit the shore, but rather miraculously according to eye witnesses on other ships, everyone on the ship survived unscathed.
Eye witnesses also reported seeing a "little round light" that seemingly flitted around the crashed ship all night. This is now believed to be the phenomenon called "St Elmo's Fire," the luminous spots sometimes produced after a hurricane but 400+ years ago, it probably seemed other-worldly. The reports of these little flashing lights may have been Shakespeare's inspiration for the fairy-like sprite Ariel, one of his most charming magical characters.
Setting for The Tempest
A (mythical) Mediterranean island - although the shipwreck may have inspired Shakespeare occurred in England's then-new colony of the Bermuda islands.
Plot of The Tempest
As is so often true with Shakespeare's places, get ready for a plot with many twists, turns, and subplots. In The Tempest, a heavy dose of magic adds to the action.
Here is a bullet-point summary of the major initial developments in The Tempest's plot:
- Prospero, once the Duke of Milan before his brother Antonio and Alonso, the King of Naples steal it away from him, and his young daughter Miranda are set adrift at sea and wash up on an island where they enslave a local inhabitant named Caliban.
- Twelve years later, Prospero and the spirit Ariel perform some magic and create a storm that causes a vessel to shipwreck on the island - part of a plot concocted by Prospero to regain his power. On board is Alonso's brother Sebastian, son Ferdinand, trusted advisor Gonzalo, plus a few attendants.
- Prospero and Ariel perform more magic and divide the shipwreck survivors into three groups.
- Prospero successfully plots a romance between Miranda and Ferdinand - no magic required.
At this point, a series of subplots develop: a couple of attempted murders, a masque ball featuring appearances by the goddesses Juno, Ceres, and Iris, a lecture on chastity, and a chase involving some dog-shaped goblins from a swamp. Will revenge or supernatural powers win? Well, this is a comedy - so you can probably guess the outcome.
Commonwealth Shakespeare's productions are always fast-paced, entertaining, and thought-provoking. The Tempest promises to be an evening to remember.
What is the Meaning of The Tempest?
On the surface, this play seems like pure entertainment - a riff on the "all's well that ends well" theme that Shakespeare entertains in many of his romantic mix-up comedies.
But some critics looking for a broader meaning suggest that Shakespeare may have been a couple of themes: the nature of illusion (ie, magic and theater itself), and the role of England, the colonizer, in demonizing the natives (such as Caliban) of lands they colonized in order to justify their enslavement. Other themes that emerge center around guilt and lack of penance among the colonizers, and the tension between negotiation and rebellion among those who are colonized.
What, if anything, will Commonwealth Shakespeare do with these themes? The answer will unfold during July and August - and, as always with this particular theater troupe, it is sure to be interesting and thought-provoking.
Why Does this Play Seem Familiar?
In addition to being one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays on the stage, The Tempest has inspired numerous movies and even TV shows. Most recently and notably:
- The 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (Robby the Robot in the role of Ariel is a must-see)
- A 1960 Hallmark Hall of Fame performance with Richard Burton as Caliban, Lee Remick as Miranda, and Roddy McDowell as Ariel
- A 1969 Star Trek episode: Requiem for Methuselah
- A 1982 modern-language version which mostly feels dated and definitely not modern but is worth a look on Netflix because of the cast: John Cassavetes, Raul Julia, Gena Rowlands, Molly Ringwald, Susan Saradon
- A rather interesting 2010 version with Helen Mirren playing Prospero
Finally, you can even detect echoes of the shipwreck and other aspects of The Tempest in the 1998 rom-com Shakespeare in Love, a sort of mash-up of a number of the master playwright's works starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, and Judi Dench.
Bottom Line: Will You Enjoy The Tempest?
Yes, absolutely. Commonwealth Shakespeare Company excels at making even the most difficult plays accessible, so a light-hearted romantic comedy such as The Tempest is easy to love. You can be sure they'll deliver an absorbing, compelling, contemporary performance to leave you entertained ... and perhaps even thoughtful. And who can resist magic?
Where to Stay Nearby
Watch Shakespeare on the Common, and then stroll back to your hotel in five minutes or less when you stay at one of these popular hotels overlooking the Common, or just a block away.
What to Expect in This Year's Performances
Typically, the 18 or so Shakespeare on the Common performances attract 50,000 - 100,000 people each season. Without a doubt, this is one of the most popular Boston theaterevents of the year.
In case you're inwardly groaning at the idea of an evening of Shakespeare, rest assured that this is not the stodgy stuff that you may remember from high school.
The high-energy performance typically mixes in plenty of humor and more than a few bawdy jokes (carefully crafted to go over the heads of children in the audience) - perhaps not so different in spirit from how William Shakespeare's actors kept their diverse fans entertained in the Globe Theatre 400+ years ago.
What to Bring to Shakespeare on the Common
At a minimum, bring a blanket to sit on. The elevated, well-lit stage is at the bottom of a gentle slope, so you will be able to see well from wherever you're sitting. Some people also bring low folding chairs.
Mosquito repellent is always a good idea, and you should also bring an umbrella if there is any chance of rain. If you think the ground might be damp - perhaps from a shower earlier in the day - bring a lightweight tarp (or a couple of large plastic garbage bags) if you're planning to spread a blanket on the ground.
A light sweater or jacket can be welcome even on muggy nights, which can turn cooler than you might expect, especially if there's a breeze.
The area closest to the stage begins to fill up about 2 hours before the performance.
However, the slightly sloping ground as well as the lighting and sound systems make it easy for you to see and hear what's going on even if you're sitting far from the stage, so this is one time when you don't need to worry about getting a "good" spot.
Lots of people bring picnic dinners, and along with something cold and refreshing to drink. But if you don't have time to pack a dinner, don't worry. Stop by Earl of Sandwich (shown in photo) for casual fare. Other food vendors and food trucks will be nearby during many performances.
Alternately, stop by one of Boston's wine bars or have dinner before the performance at one of the terrific Theatre District restaurants just a block or two away, Chinatown restaurants two or three blocks away, or stop by a local Boston nightlife spot after the performance for a perfect summer evening.
Essentials: Shakespeare on the Common
- Location: Near the Parkman Bandstand and ball field on Boston Common. The Bandstand is behind Frog Pond, near the center of the Common.
- Dates and times: Usually July and August - check Boston Events Calendar for July for exact dates and times
- Cost: Free
- Rain: The show will be cancelled if there is lightening or heavy rain
- For more information: Shakespeare on the Common website
- Nearest T station: Green and Red Lines/Park Street, or Green Line/Boylston
- Parking: Boston Common Garage, entrance on Charles Street between Boston Common and the Public Garden.
- Stay: Downtown Boston Hotels
Boston Insider Tips
Alcoholic beverages are prohibited in Boston parks. However, you may notice a number of discrete thermoses and other beverage containers among the rather mellow crowd.
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