The Tempest is widely recognised as William Shakespeare's last complete play, classified by some as a romance and by others as a tragi-comedy1, and often described as his greatest work. It was written between 1610 - 1611, and most likely first performed by Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, in the autumn of the same year. In 1611 it was played for King James I by the same company. Its plot is, unusually for Shakespeare, almost completely original, containing two characters2 who are almost unique.
The Tempest was one of the first plays to be performed at the private Blackfriars Theatre, and its performance was included as part of the festivities for the marriage of the king's daughter, Princess Elizabeth, to the Bohemian Friedrich von der Pfalz, Elector of the Palatinate. It was first published in the First Folio in 1623.
The entire play (with the exception of the very first scene) is set on a fictional island which almost seems alive with magic, both visual and aural. This setting is utilised to explore themes ranging from social order and the supernatural to the conflict between 'civilised' man and nature. This can also be taken to represent the cruelty of the European colonists of the New World, which was beginning to become more accessible to settlers at the time the play was written3.
Sources and Inspiration
The Tempest was written as the great age of discovery was beginning to come into being. Shakespeare drew on letters from expeditions to the colonies for his inspiration; one of them told the remarkable story of the ship, Sea Venture. This story begins in 1609, when nine ships set out from England with the aim of strengthening and securing John Smith's Virginian colonies. However, as the fleet passed close to the Bermudas, the Sea Venture was separated from the rest of the ships during a storm. This ship was the leader of the fleet, and the commanders, along with the passengers, were presumed lost at sea. The rest of the expedition continued to Virginia with heavy hearts. However, a year later there came a revelation, as news arrived in England of how the ship had run aground on a Bermudan island and finished the voyage after repairs had been made, arriving in Virginia twelve months after. The story also drew on Michel de Montaigne's essay, 'Of Cannibals'4.
The actions in the play essentially follow on from actions twelve years earlier, when Prospero was Duke of Milan. Though Prospero was a goodly man, he was more interested in private study of magic and philosophy in his magnificent library than managing his dukedom, so he delegated a lot of his responsibility to others. These others included his brother, Antonio. After a while, Antonio decided that he should rule Milan and took the dukedom for himself, aided by King Alonso of Naples. Prospero and Miranda, his three-year-old daughter, were cast adrift in a boat5, with only a few of Prospero's precious books of magic which the Neapolitan Gonzalo managed to hide on the boat before they arrived.
The pair are miraculously saved from the sea and land on a mysterious island, whose only inhabitants are the brutish Caliban, orphaned son of the witch Sycorax, and Ariel, an 'airy' spirit imprisoned by Sycorax in a tree. Prospero breaks the spell that was keeping Ariel trapped and in return Ariel becomes his servant. Caliban is at first treated with kindness as Prospero attempts to 'civilise' him; but this clearly doesn't work as he tries to rape Miranda, for which deed Caliban becomes Prospero's slave.
Prospero spends years on the island plotting for his revenge on those who overthrew him. He puts his plans into action when he uses his magic to call up a great storm - the tempest of the title - which causes all his old enemies, returning to Italy from a diplomatic trip to Tunis, to be shipwrecked and cast ashore on the island. Ferdinand, son of Alonso, is washed up alone, not far from Prospero's dwelling. He soon comes into contact with Miranda, with whom he falls in love, as she does with him. The Italian lords, including Alonso and Antonio, are marooned separately. Sebastian, Alonso's brother, and Gonzalo are also among them. Alonso is distraught at the loss of his son6 and the group starts to wander the island in search of him. Antonio encourages Sebastian to kill Alonso and take the crown of Naples, as Antonio did to Prospero.
Elsewhere, two other Neapolitans, Stephano the butler and Trinculo the jester, are thoroughly drunk on a butt of wine rescued from the shipwreck. They come across Caliban gathering wood for his master, and allow him to taste some wine. Caliban, who has never tasted wine before, comes to regard Stephano as a god, and becomes his servant. Together they plot to kill Prospero and take control of the island. Prospero, through both his own magic and Ariel's, is aware of all of this, and uses his power to bring all on the island under his control. However, in the course of the play, his attitude has changed, and when he has all his enemies before him he forgives them. All are reconciled as Ariel and Caliban are freed, Miranda and Ferdinand are married, and Prospero is restored as the Duke of Milan. He vows to take more interest in the government of his dukedom than he did previously, and breaks his staff in two and throws his books of magic into the sea.
Few of Shakespeare's plays have plots so driven by the supernatural as The Tempest. Magic is the agent which creates the conflict between the different characters or factions, but it is also the method by which the conflict is ended and Prospero achieves his goal. Through their magic, we learn about the characters wielding it. It can represent their denial of human rights and ignorance of the importance of uninfluenced human emotion, but also the dangers of self-indulgence and hunger for power. As well as being used to drive the plot and keep interest among the audience, it illustrates the basic themes of love, power and politics. Also, it helps us understand some deeper themes in the play, such as the blurring of the line between illusion and reality. This effect is well illustrate by Alonso's words: 'If you be he [Prospero] or no,' near the end of the play, when he has been so tormented by the visions induced by Prospero's magic he has little ability to differentiate between what is real and what is not.
If a description of what this play is about had to be expressed in one word, it would probably be 'transformation'. Each of the characters is permanently changed (mostly for the better) by their experiences on the island7. The whole island is a changing entity, physically and supernaturally, even extending to the weather. Changes to the characters and their relationships are even more common, including changes to rank and identity, emotion and states of being. There is also the cycle of order and disorder throughout; notice how many of these changes are cyclical.
Prospero is the play's main character, and an extremely complex one at that. He is a powerful magician, and uses his powers to drive his quest for revenge (the plot of the play) to its final end. His commmitment to this cause reveals his vengeful nature, but he also loves his only daughter Miranda greatly (though this love causes him to become a little overprotective - as any father would be). He changes during the course of the play, becoming more humane and less vengeful. His name means 'to make happy or successful' in Latin. Some scholars also believe Shakespeare created him as a representation of himself. Some of the lines given to Prospero in the play seem to suggest this (see 'Propero's Farewell To His Magic'). Perhaps the most famous player of the role is John Gielgud, who first took the part in 1930 and starred in the famous film adaption Prospero's Books (1991), directed by Peter Greenaway.
This swift business I must uneasy make lest too light the winning make the prize light.
on the relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand.
... grind their joints with dry convulsions, shorten up their sinews with aged cramps!8
when pursuing Stephano, Caliban and Trinculo after their failed murder attempt.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be, let your indulgence9 set me free.
the very last words of the play, in Prospero's epilogue, which is again seen by some as Shakespeare ending his career.
The daughter of Prospero. She has lived on the island for as long as she can remember, and has seen no other men than Caliban and her father in that time. Due to this isolation from society, she is rather naïve. She is docile and loyal to her father, but also, at the age of fifteen, becoming sexually aware. She is a relatively undeveloped character, but her purpose is more as a symbol than anything else; she represents the ideals of innocence, goodness and beauty. Shakespeare was the first recorded person to use this name, meaning 'worthy of admiration'.
O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in't!
her most famous lines.
O, I have suffered with those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel...dash'd all to pieces!
after Prospero has shown her the shipwreck; she is clearly very emotional.
Ariel is one of the play's great enigmas, a mischevious airy spirit. Shakespeare assigns to him neither a gender nor a physical form. He is Prospero's servant. He was imprisoned in a tree by Caliban's mother, Sycorax, because he refused to do as he was bid. For 12 years he was trapped, until Sycorax died and Prospero arrived on the island and freed him. When the play starts, he has already served Prospero for 12 years. He benignly accepts his captivity for most of the play, only once reminding Prospero that he had promised to free him.
I boarded the king's ship; now on the beak, now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin I flam'd amazement.
his report to Prospero on the storm; this shows that he is excited even though he had so recklessly endangered human lives.
Your affections would become tender...mine would, sir, were I human.'
one of the few signs we are given that tells us that Ariel is not human.
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-change10
Into something rich and strange.
one of Ariel's songs.
The son of the witch Sycorax. His shape is not described in detail, but from the text we can deduce that he is vaguely humanoid, but ugly and deformed. When Prospero arrived on the island, he was at first treated well as the Italian attempted to 'civilise' him, but when he tried to rape Miranda Prospero made him into a slave. Later in the play he displays his softer side, but also demonstrates that he is capable of greater things. As he plots with Stephano and Trinculo, he often uses verse, indicating his superiority - he takes control. Perhaps he plans to take the island back by killing both Prospero and his fellow conspirators?
As wicked dew as e'er my mother brush'd with raven's feather...drop on you both. A south-west wind blow on ye and blister you all o'er!
to Prospero. He may be uncouth but he can articulate his anger well.
sweet airs which give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears...and then in dreaming the clouds methought would open and show riches ready to drop upon me, that when I wak'd I cried to dream again.
clearly capable of eloquent and fair speech - contrary to what the audience initially thinks of him.
These be fine things, an if they be not sprites. That's a brave god, and bears celestial liquor.
of Stephano. Falls again into the trap of worshipping a white settler (he has already done so once with Prospero).
The son and heir of Alonso. He clearly fits into a stock character type: the dashing young prince. After the shipwreck, he is marooned on his own on the island, and is led by Ariel to meet Miranda, with whom he promptly falls in love. Prospero wants him to prove his love, and so he is essentially Prospero's slave for a time.
No, precious creature; I would rather crack my sinews, break my back than you should such dishonour undergo while I sit lazy by.
to Miranda. Ferdinand is presented as a noble man and a caring lover.
O heaven, O earth, bear witness to this sound...
declaring his love for Miranda. Fond of overblown romantic speech and actions.
Ferdinand's father, King of Naples. Helped Antonio in stealing Milan from Prospero twelve years before the events in the play. Those 12 years seem to have changed him, as he appears repentant, and is constantly aware of the consequences of his actions. He blames himself for the apparent death of Ferdinand - the ships were returning from the marriage of Alonso's daughter, Claribel to the Prince of Tunis to seal an alliance. At the end, tormented by Prospero's conjurings and deceptions, he regrets his role in the overthrowing of Prospero.
I fear a madness held me. This must crave, an if this be at all, a most strange story. Thy dukedom I resign, and do entreat thou pardon me my wrongs. But how should Prospero be living, and be here?
at the end of the play, he is repentant.
Prospero's brother, and the Duke of Milan at the time of the events in the play. He is clearly one of Shakespeare's most villainous villians. He is greedy, aggressive and power-hungry, and scorns old Gonzalo's attempts to raise Alonso's spirits after the supposed loss of his son.
My strong imagination sees a crown dropping on thy head.
a strong influence on Sebastian; encourages him to usurp his brother's throne, as he did himself.
Twenty consciences stand 'twixt me and Milan, candied be they, and melt ere they molest!
does not want his conscience to trouble him; a true villain.
The brother of Alonso. Sebastian is Antonio's partner-in-crime, but is definitely not the brains of the outfit. He is good-natured at heart, but is still aggressive and is easily misled by Antonio's eloquent persuasion.
But one fiend at a time and I'll fight their legions o'er!
aggressive and defiant.
Alonso's honest old counsellor. He is an optimist, and highly idealistic, supporting views of the island as a potential utopia. He tries very hard to comfort Alonso after the loss of Ferdinand. He helped Prospero survive Antonio's coup d'etat.
Sir, the truth you speak doth lack some gentleness. You rub the sore when you should bring the plaster.'
reprimands Sebastian's criticism of Alonso. Always there to support Alonso, throughout the play.
'O rejoice beyond a common joy, and set it down with gold on lasting pillars!
optimistic and excitable.
'Was Milan thrust from Milan that his issue become kings of Naples?'
seems to believe strongly in fate.
A butler of Alonso's retinue, Stephano appears drunk through most of the play. In combination with Trinculo, he provides the comic relief of the play. He is generally crude, as would be expected of a drunk, but is also power-hungry. He illustrates that there is a struggle for power at all levels of society. Despite his bravado, he is a coward at heart, as he shows when he is scared by the strange noises of the isle (prompting Caliban to deliver his out-of-character speech reassuring him - see Caliban's second quote).
How cam'st thou [Trinculo] to be the siege [excrement] of this mooncalf? Can he vent [defacate] Trinculos?
a prime example of the crude comedy Stephano supplies.
A Neapolitan court jester and Stephano's friend. Trinculo is a little more cynical and a little less drunken than his companion, but has very similar character traits.
had but this fish [Caliban] painted, not a holiday-fool there but would give a piece of silver.
thinks mainly of money.
I do smell all horse-piss, at which my nose is in great indignation. - Trinculo's own, sourer brand of humour.
The Boatswain is not officially one of the principal characters but he merits a few sentences. A coarse, cheerful and capable man, he takes command of the ship during the storm as the Italian nobles go to pieces. He illustrates the fact the noble blood does not always make a better man.
Prospero's Farewell to his Magic11
Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into are, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself12
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 sleep.