We use these text fragments from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, plus one excerpt from Leonardo’s Notebooks, as starting points for development of concepts and performance material in the Vortex Series projects. Tap a heading to view the text and discussion for a fragment. Special thanks to Julia Lupton and Colby Gordon for the discussions.

From The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

If you wish to represent a tempest consider and arrange its effects when the wind blowing over the face of the sea and of the land lifts and carries with it everything that is not fixed firmly in the general mass. And in order to represent this tempest you must first show the clouds riven and torn and flying with the wind, together with storms of sand blown up from the seashores, and boughs and leaves swept up by the strength and fury of the gale and scattered with other light objects through the air… Let the sea be wild and tempestuous, and full of foam whirled between the big waves, and the wind should carry the finer spray through the stormy air resembling a dense and all-enveloping mist. Of the ships that are there, some should be shown with sails rent and the shreds fluttering in the air in company with the broken ropes and some of the masts split and fallen, and the vessel itself lying disabled and broken by the fury of the waves, with the men shrieking and clinging to the fragments of the wreck. Make the clouds driven by the impetuous winds, hurled against the high mountain tops, and there wreathing and eddying like waves that beat upon rocks; the very air should strike terror through the deep darkness caused by the dust and mist and heavy clouds.


Shakespeare’s The Tempest opens with a storm. Bored and hung over, a party of royal wedding guests is heading home to Milan from Tunisia. Suddenly a tempest bears down upon them like a monster of the deep. The storm crashes against their own disaffection, rocking them in waves of antipathy and churning up their mutual distrust and endless self-interest.

This tempest has been conjured by a magician, Prospero, stranded on the island thanks to the machinations of these very men. Prospero wields light and sound as a weapon, buffeting the voyagers and invading the delicate porches of their ears with sulphurous bursts of thunder and lightning. The storm is a howling, screaming, belching body. The shouting crew, the rupturing vessel, the bellowing winds, and the crashing waves pour together in a diversity of sounds, all horrible.

The stage becomes a ship, thrust into a sea of faces and exposed to the heavens. And the ship is the ship of state, its failures in courage and command dividing this sour polity against itself as well as the world.

The Tempest (1.2, 196-206)

I boarded the King’s ship. Now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement. Sometimes I’d divide
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards, and bowsprit would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. Jove’s lightning, the precursors
O’th’ dreadful thunderclaps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not. The fire and cracks
Of sulfurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege and make his bold waves tremble,
Yea, his dread trident shake.


Ariel is the agent of Prospero’s image-making. This trans-angel is the efficient yet annoyed executor of Prospero’s designs. Ariel is Prospero’s chief dancer, stage designer, and stage manager. Ariel is pure light and movement; Ariel is will realized in action.

Ariel doesn’t cause the storm; Ariel performs it. As luminous plasma, Ariel divides and disperses, popping up here and everywhere, flaring up in many places.

Ariel enacts Prospero’s Fiat Lux, the “Let there be light” of God the Creator. This fiat coerces the world into being, making Neptune himself tremble.

The Tempest (1.2, 331-44)

This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first
Thou strok’st me and made much of me; wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee
And showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle:
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursèd be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax—toads, beetles, bats—light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’th’ island.


While Ariel belongs to the air, riding waves of sound and light, Caliban is a thing of earth: heavy, dark, molten, of indeterminate shape. Ariel wears resentment lightly; Caliban chafes and rages. He is the sodden, solid, fertile earth, alive with new impressions after the storm has past. Born on the island to an exiled witch who died soon after, Caliban was his own king until Prospero arrived, teaching him language in return for local knowledge. When Caliban tried to mate with Prospero’s daughter Miranda, the father enslaved Caliban, exiling him from the family table and subjecting him to hard and tedious labor: deforesting the island.

Caliban is Prospero’s creature, but he is also a creature of the island. A Creature is a created thing, fashioned by and subject to another. The Creature, caught between mud and mind, dust and dream, measures the difference between the human and the inhuman while belonging to both. Creature rhymes with future: a creature contains its own creative seed, and is always in the process of becoming. The universe of creatures is measured neither by the totality of humanity nor the particularity of a culture but rather by the infinity of life forms. Creature Caliban may be subject to Prospero, but he alone among the island’s citizens and denizens can tune into the music of the world.

The Tempest (1.2, 395-401)

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.


Ariel beguiles the young prince Ferdinand with a song commemorating the drowning of his father at sea. Shimmering, invisible, fluid, Ariel is a spirit of environmental sound, sliding into Ferdinand’s ears in order to seduce, disorient, and comfort him. Ariel channels the noise of the world, giving voice to the sounds bubbling up from the ocean floor and metrically miming the surge of the sea. Ariel’s sound art routes currents of action and information across the island and guides the characters through the environment, triggering or inhibiting their movement as the scene requires. The island is a tuned landscape supporting an acoustic architecture that manages flows of traffic and information, staging scenes, sequencing encounters, and designing tableaux.

In spite of Prospero’s efforts to micro-manage the island scene, the environment generates its own acoustic territories in which the landscape itself programs the actions, teases out the fantasies, and impedes the projects of the shipwrecked arrivals. The sound world of The Tempest is a vibrant, vibrating field of mutual, multi-directional influence. On the island, the noise of the world binds together human, animal, plant, and meteorological actors in a sonorous ecology.

The Tempest (2.1, 142-151)

I’th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty—


Gonzalo imagines a humanism without hierarchy. His fantasy folds together geographical certainties, Old World projections, legendary topoi, utopian speculation, foundational myths, and sexual fantasies into a whimsical fabric of conjecture that ripples above a barely concealed undercurrent of desire for dominance.

The Tempest (2.2, 1-17)

All the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him
By inchmeal a disease!
His spirits hear me,
And yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’th’ mire,
Nor lead me like a firebrand in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid ’em. But
For every trifle are they set upon me;
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me; then like hedgehogs, which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.


Two drunken sailors discover Caliban hiding beneath a rain slicker in the wake of the storm and enter into an alliance with him to take over the island from Prospero. The insurrection will fail. Caliban curses his master who has inflamed him with the pricks and pinches of enforced servitude. The images of his suffering are visceral, kinetic, and auditory, disclosing a whole world of symptoms that knot together mental outrage with physical affliction and entangle him in the prickly, cacaphonous landscape of the island. He falls into mud that mires his movements; he is led astray by fireflies; he steps on the spiny bodies of sea urchins and hedgehogs; he is aggravated and harassed by the noise of monkeys and snakes. Caliban’s body speaks in symptoms, which he raises into the language of the curse, a projectile of invective speech that sublimates the symptom’s hieroglyphics of pain.

The Tempest (3.2, 81-89)

Why, as I told thee, ’tis a custom with him
I’th’ afternoon to sleep. There thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books; or with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
85Or cut his weasand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books, for without them
He’s but a sot as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command—they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.


Caliban instructs his co-conspirators to attack Prospero where his strength lies: in his technology. Kill him with a log, a stake, or a knife – but burn his books first, which will leave him defenseless. Caliban is planning a grand hack.

The Tempest (3.2, 128-136)

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.


Where the Europeans hear “a diversity of sounds, all horrible,” Caliban hears “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” The island soundscape is woven out of a myriad sonic threads: birds, springs, waves, wind, foliage, showers. The “tempestuous noise” that begins our sonic journey melts into an autopoetic symphony orchestrated by the island itself.

Hovering on the threshold of sleep, Caliban is open to the noise of the world, the thousand twangling instruments of an environmental subtone that rushes through him, activating his desires and keying his fantasies of superabundance. The stimulation of this sound, hovering about his ears in a low-level hum, is an agonizing and erotic experience, forcing him to cry out in a rapture of pleasure and pain.

The Tempest (3.3, 54-83)

You are three men of sin, whom destiny—
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in’t—the never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you, and on this island,
Where man doth not inhabit—you ’mongst men
Being most unfit to live. I have made you mad;
And even with suchlike valor men hang and drown
Their proper selves.
You fools, I and my fellows
Are ministers of fate. The elements
Of whom your swords are tempered may as well
Wound the loud winds, or with bemocked-at stabs
Kill the still-closing waters, as diminish
One dowl that’s in my plume. My fellow ministers
Are like invulnerable. If you could hurt,
Your swords are now too massy for your strengths
And will not be uplifted. But remember—
For that’s my business to you—that you three
From Milan did supplant good Prospero;
Exposed unto the sea, which hath requit it,
Him and his innocent child; for which foul deed
The powers, delaying not forgetting, have
Incensed the seas and shores—yea, all the creatures—
Against your peace. Thee of thy son, Alonso,
They have bereft; and do pronounce by me
Ling’ring perdition—worse than any death
Can be at once—shall step by step attend
You and your ways; whose wraths to guard you from,
Which here in this most desolate isle else falls
Upon your heads, is nothing but heart’s sorrow
And a clear life ensuing.


Ariel presents the corrupt Italian prisoners with a beautiful banquet and then destroys it before their eyes. They are the authors of their own suffering. The island’s prisoners, once masters of their world, are now too weak to lift their swords, and their weapons and designs are useless against the rising sea. Nature has “delayed, but not forgotten” its response to the abuses of the Europeans. What is left for this company of engineers and politicians is “lingering perdition,” an extended suffering in which their own hunger seeds hallucinations that remind them of their guilt.

The Tempest (4.1, 148-158)

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


Prospero stages an engagement masque for the new couple, Ferdinand and Miranda, and then dissolves the illusion. He imagines the dismantling of the theatrical entertainment as the end of the world itself, when all the great monuments of the world will disappear, leaving “not a rack behind.”

The Tempest (5.1, 33-57)

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you, whose pastime
Is to make midnight-mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid—
Weak masters though ye be—I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar. Graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure; and when I have required
Some heavenly music—which even now I do—
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.


Prospero promises to break his magic staff and drown the books that contain his spells: chemical formulae, computer code, engineering plans, futures markets. He is stepping back from the forms of control over persons, spirits, and places that had characterized his rule and he is making room for new forms of relationship to the island, to social life, and to the creative process. The drowned books resemble the drowned body of the king in Ariel’s famous song. That echo is a promise: Prospero’s extraordinary knowledge won’t disappear but rather transmute into something “rich and strange,” issuing in forms of creativity and invention that respond with respect and awe to the music of the world and the sounding of the sea.