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The Tempest

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English Literature

The Tempest (1611) was first performed on November 1st, 1611, at the Blackfriars theatre in front of King James I. It is “Shakespeare’s most musical play,” 1 and is better suited to the more indoor venue (rather than the partially outdoor Globe theatre). It is also very complex with ambitious stage directions of “tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning” (Act 1, Scene 1) and a “quaint device” (Act 3, Scene 3) that allows a banquet to be entirely removed. It is a play rife with spirits, witches and magicians, castaway islands, storms and shipwrecks. But what does Shakespeare explore through the characters like Prospero, Ariel, Antonio, Miranda and others? How has this play continued to contribute to theatre and literature over the centuries?

The Tempest : Summary

Let's examine the play in more detail.

Act I

The Tempest begins with a storm and follows the shipwreck of several ships holding a King, a Duke, a Prince and a Lord near an island in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, onshore, we learn that a man named Prospero has magically caused the storm with the help of his servant Ariel. He reveals to his daughter and the audience the reason he is on the island: several of the men on the ships had betrayed him and deprived him of his Dukedom. Prospero calls for Caliban, another servant of his, and orders him to find wood for them.

The tempest, image of a stormy sea, StudySmarterImage of a stormy sea, pixabay

Prospero sends Miranda to sleep before scheming with his servant, Ariel, on what to do with the men who have been cast onto the island. They have engineered the storm in a way that those on the ships will arrive on the island unharmed, but they will be separated and scattered across the island. King Alonso fears that his son has died as he is not to be seen. His son, Ferdinand, is in fact safe elsewhere on the island and instantly falls in love with Miranda. Prospero forces him into his service, to carry wood, but Ferdinand is content as long as he can admire the beautiful Miranda. Prospero promises Ariel his freedom if he continues to help him.

Act II

Ariel tries to guide a group of courtiers around the island but realises that Antonio and Sebastian are plotting to murder the King and Gonzalo. Ariel wakes the King up with music and successfully foils Antonio’s plans.

Meanwhile, a jester called Trinculo stumbles across Caliban and Stephano, the ship’s butler also finds them. Caliban immediately adores Stephano and swears himself into his service and Stephano, who has already started to drink from a barrel of wine that he came ashore with, encourages the others to join him.

Act III

Ferdinand continues to work for Prospero, taking up the duties that Caliban had abandoned. Miranda tries to save him from doing so, and requests him to take a break or even let her take over but he refuses. The pair confess their love for each other and Miranda proposes to marry him, to which Ferdinand agrees. Prospero watches over this turn of events and explains his feelings about it to the audience.

Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano drink more together and dream of their futures on the island. Stephano has adopted the title of Lord and orders his new servant, Caliban, to drink. Caliban, who is not used to alcohol, gets drunk quickly and begins to complain about Prospero. Ariel hears this and waits to listen for more. Caliban encourages the others to try and help him plot revenge against Prospero, but Ariel begins to stir trouble. Caliban continues to plan how to get rid of Prospero: destroy his magic books, kill him and then let Stephano become King of the island with Miranda as his Queen. Ariel plays music on the flute, piquing their curiosity so they decide to enact this plan after they have followed the music.

Antonio and Sebastian still hope to kill King Alonso, and so they wait until he grows drowsy from looking for his son. Spirits, however, begin to play music and parade a mysterious banquet before them all, inviting them to eat. Prospero enters, invisible, and watches as Gonzalo convinces the others to eat from the banquet. Ariel however, appears with a strike of thunder and rips the banquet away in the form of a harpy. Ariel explains how it is fate and destiny that has driven them to the island and taken Ferdinand away, as a result of their crimes against Prospero. Alonso feels remorse that his son has ‘died’ because of his actions, but Sebastian and Antonio decide to fight the spirits, running after them.

The Tempest, Image of a banquet meal, StudySmarterImage of a banquet meal, pixabay

Act IV

Prospero accepts the proposals between Ferdinand and Miranda and asks Ariel to summon spirits to perform a masque. They arrive in the form of the Roman goddesses: Juno, Iris and Ceres, and give a performance in celebration of true love. While another dance begins with nymphs and reapers, Prospero takes off as he remembers Caliban’s conspiracy against him. Prospero asks Ariel what Caliban and his friends are doing, and he explains how he had led them with music through briars and a dirtied pond. As they try to make their way back, Ariel and Prospero set a distraction to try and save Prospero’s life: they leave rich clothing in hopes that they will steal them.

A masque was a form of courtly entertainment that often was performed before nobility (and royalty). It was normally an allegorical type of performance and involved people acting, singing and dancing while in masks.

When Trinculo and Stephano arrive with Caliban they are, predictably, distracted by the clothes as their own are muddy from the pond, much to Caliban’s dismay. Ariel then sets spirits in the disguise of dogs upon them, and chases them off.

Act V

Ariel reminds Prospero that the time has come for his freedom, and Prospero accepts this and asks him how Alonso and the others are. Ariel explains that he has imprisoned them in a grove and that the three traitors are half-crazed with fear and Gonzalo is crying. He asks Ariel to release them before turning to the stage and explains to the audience in soliloquy how he will surrender magic.

A soliloquy is when an actor or character narrates their thoughts to the audience. They may be alone, onstage, or have other characters present in the scene as well, but only the audience and the character speaking know the inner-most thoughts of the character.

Ariel guides the characters onto the stage in an enchanted state. Prospero praises Gonzalo for his loyalty and help when he had fled from Milan and criticises the others for their treacherousness as they stand there. Prospero promises Ariel his freedom and asks him to collect the sailors who had been stranded on the island as well.

He releases the characters from their enchantment and talks to them. He forgives everyone but asks for his dukedom back. Alonso expresses his grief over Ferdinand to Prospero, and Prospero explains how he too, has lost his child in the storm. However, he then reveals Miranda and Ferdinand playing chess together. Alonso begs for forgiveness, which Prospero grants him.

Once the sailors arrive, Ariel then leaves to send Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban to Prospero’s cell. Prospero invites the other characters to stay with them for the night, wishing to share his stories with them, before they leave the next morning for Milan. Prospero has much to contemplate as his daughter returns to Milan, and after he frees Ariel, Prospero asks him to ensure that the seas are calm for their voyage home.

Epilogue

The play ends with a final soliloquy from Prospero. He explains that he is trapped on the island, just as he had done to Caliban and Ariel. He reveals that it is their applause that can free him, and begs for forgiveness for all that he has done.

The Tempest : Characters

Let's look at the characters of the play.

Prospero

Prospero is the play’s main protagonist. Before the events of the play, his brother, Antonio, and the King, Alonso stole his rightful seat as Duke of Milan from him. He escaped from Naples with the help of Gonzalo and was accompanied by his young daughter, Miranda. The two survived on an almost isolated island in the Mediterranean, where Prospero is learning to perfect his magic when a shipwreck brings Prince Ferdinand and a group of people to the island.

Miranda

Miranda is Prospero’s daughter. She has inhabited the island with her father for 12 years, with little memory of civilisation, thereby contributing to her naivete and lack of knowledge about human society. She is a beautiful person who is greatly admired by those that behold her.

Her name etymologically translates from the Latin word mirror to 'to be admired'.

Caliban

Caliban is one of the original inhabitants of the island. He was born to the now-dead witch Sycorax. Caliban was immediately drawn to Prospero when he arrived, and showed him around the island. However, after Caliban attempted to rape Miranda, Prospero enslaved Caliban. This made Caliban resentful towards Prospero and he began to seek justice for him by stealing the island away.

Ariel

Ariel is a complex non-human character. He is an elemental spirit who was trapped on the island by Sycorax and is saved by Prospero, only to be put into a temporary servitude. Throughout the play, Ariel does Prospero’s bidding in the hope of being freed.

Ferdinand

Ferdinand is the son of the King of Naples, Alonso. He is presented as an equal to Miranda and falls in love with her the moment he sees her.

Alonso

Alonso is the King of Naples, and father to Ferdinand. He helped Antonio usurp Prospero's Dukedom but shows a hint of remorse and regret for doing this during the play. He believes his son has died and that it is a result of his wrongdoing.

Antonio

Antonio is Prospero’s traitorous brother, who also conspires against his accomplice: King Alonso.

Gonzalo

Gonzalo is a Lord who saved the lives of Prospero and Miranda when he gave them a boat to escape Naples.

Sebastian

Sebastian is the King Alonso’s brother, who is easily manipulated because of his ambition. Antonio and Sebastian conspire against King Alonso so that Sebastian can become king.

Trinculo and Stephano

Trinculo and Stephano are in the service of King Alonso, and they are stranded due to the shipwreck. They find each other (as well as Caliban) when they arrive on the island. Stephano is a butler (and a heavy drinker) and Trinculo is a jester. When they find Caliban, he swears loyalty to them to exact revenge upon Prospero

Iris, Ceres and Juno

Iris, Ceres and Juno are Roman goddesses who come as spirits to witness and bless the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. They are the goddesses of rainbows, agriculture and the Queen of the Gods respectively.

The Tempest : genre

Shakespeare’s play lends itself to multiple dramatic genres. It combines elements of comedy, romance and even tragedy!

The Tempest is predominantly a comedy: a happy ending, a promise of marriage, forgiveness for all and an idyllic setting. However, it does differ from Shakespeare’s other comedies. Many of his comedies involve a division between the lovers, followed by a reconciliation, like Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. However, this divide is only found between brothers in The Tempest. The play does not include any disguises or mistaken identities, like that of Viola in A Twelfth Night or Portia in A Merchant of Venice.

The relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand explores elements of romance. It includes tropes like love at first sight and supernatural forces. However, the fact that Miranda is the one to propose to Ferdinand offers a twist on the traditional conventions of the genre at the time. Depending on how the actress performs these lines might change the tone of the play from romance to comedy.

The seriousness that the play begins with also introduces elements of tragedy. The tempest itself, the perceived losses of children and fathers, the betrayal between family and conspiracies against other people are all elements that occur in tragedies. However, Shakespeare ensures that these are merely touched upon, and lightened by the fact that there are supernatural beings and magic to ensure the safety of the characters (and that all is forgiven at the end).

The Tempest : themes

The Tempest explores the following themes:

  • Justice

Much of the plot of The Tempest revolves around Prospero attempting to get justice for being exiled from his homeland. He uses Ariel to shipwreck the sailors and other characters aboard the ship so that he might achieve this. Prospero also seeks justice for his actions at the end of the play, asking the audience for forgiveness. On another level, Caliban also tries to seek justice for the way he has been treated by Prospero on the island.

  • Exploitation

All those who arrive on the island after the death of Sycorax try to exploit it. Prospero, for example, exploits the only inhabitants on the island, Ariel and Caliban, by forcing them into servitude (or slavery). Furthermore, characters like Trinculo and Stephano aspire to become Kings of the island by further exploiting those already on the island (by taking Caliban on as a servant, killing Prospero and forcing Miranda to marry them). Other characters also remark on the possibility of profiting from Caliban’s physical appearance, should they bring him home.

  • The supernatural

The presence of magic, witches, spirits, nymphs and reapers across the stage immediately introduces the theme of the supernatural. There is also a question of the difference between the human and the Other. Caliban, for example, is likely to be human despite being born to a witch, but it is his physical appearance that makes other characters cruel to him.

The 'Other' is a philosophical and sociological concept that refers to an individual or a group of people that are perceived as not belonging owing to differences (often physical).

The Tempest : significance

The Tempest is a very significant play in the English literary canon owing to its uniqueness amid the body of Shakespeare’s other works. It is the most musical play, and involves many exciting contraptions to help with presenting the magic onstage. It was also Shakespeare’s final play before he retired.

The play has been so significant over the past 400 years, that many still draw inspiration from it today. Aldous Huxley, for example, titled one of his most famous books Brave New World (1932) with a quote from The Tempest. There have also been many cinematic adaptations in more recent years, like the 1956 film called The Forbidden Planet that interprets elements of the play in the sci-fi genre, or Julie Taymor’s Tempest (2010) which genderbends the character of Prospero into a feminine-presenting role! Furthermore, the Hogarth Shakespeare series also released a reinterpretation of The Tempest by Margaret Atwood called Hag-Seed (2016)! Her reinterpretation explores a self-exiled theatre director in Canada as he navigates through tragedy and tries to seek revenge.

The Tempest (1611) - Key takeaways

  • The Tempest was first performed in 1611 at the Blackfriars Theatre in front of King James.
  • The Tempest is Shakespeare's most musical play. It is also a simultaneous tragedy, romance and comedy.
  • It is a very influential play that has experienced many remakes and reinterpretations, like Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed.
  • The play ends with Prospero talking directly to the audience in a soliloquy. He asks them to free him by clapping because he has been captured on the island by their attention.

1 Jennifer Waghorn, Video Lecture: “Playing Shakespeare’s Music- Part 1” with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2020.

The Tempest

The Tempest is about a man's attempt to gain justice, after he was usurped by his brother and King from his role as Duke. It is set on an almost deserted island and follows what happens to characters after a shipwreck.

The Tempest covers many themes like exploitation, power, the supernatural and justice.

The Tempest follows what happens after a storm shipwrecks characters on an almost deserted island and people try to seek justice.

The Tempest has many elements of Shakespearean comedies, like the happy ending, universal forgiveness and an idyllic setting.

Antonio is Prospero's brother in The Tempest. He betrays him and usurps his role as Duke.

Final The Tempest Quiz

Question

Who causes the tempest?

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Answer

Ariel is a spirit who is sent by Prospero to cause the tempest.

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Question

What happens before the narrative of the play?

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Answer

We learn that before the play began, Prospero was usurped by his brother and forced to flee. Gonzalo helped him out to sea where Prospero and his daughter landed on an almost deserted island. We also learn that a witch called Sycorax originally inhabited the island, and had imprisoned a spirit called Ariel and given birth to a son called Caliban.

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Question

Who were the original inhabitants of the island?


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Answer

Sycorax, Caliban and Ariel are the original inhabitants of the island. Sycorax, however, is dead by the time the play begins.

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Question

Why do Roman goddesses appear part way through the play?


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Answer

They are spirits disguised as the Roman goddesses Juno, Iris and Ceres and are asked by Ariel and Prospero to give a performance in celebration of the marriage proposals between Ferdinand and Miranda.

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Question

Who proposes first between Miranda and Ferdinand?


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Answer

Miranda offers the first proposal of marriage.

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Question

How does The Tempest end?


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Answer

The Tempest ends with Prospero asking the audience to release him from the island, as he can only be freed from their attention by clapping.

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Question

Who are Trinculo and Stephano?


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Answer

Trinculo is Alonso’s jester and is stranded on the island alone, until he finds Stephano. Stephano is the ship’s butler and was stranded on the island with a barrel of wine (that he starts to drink).

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Question

What genre is The Tempest?


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Answer

The Tempest is a combination of a comedy, a romance and a tragedy as it involves elements of all of them but also differentiates itself from others that Shakespeare has written.

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Question

What is particularly distinctive about The Tempest from Shakespeare’s other plays?


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Answer

It is Shakespeare’s most musical play.

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Question

How does The Tempest begin?

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Answer

The Tempest begins with a storm.

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Question

Where was The Tempest first performed?

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Answer

It was first performed on November the 1st,  in 1611 at the Blackfriars Theatre. It was performed in front of King James!

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Question

How is Julie Taymor's (2010) interpretation of The Tempest significantly different?

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Answer

The character Prospero is actually gender-bended and is instead called Prospera.

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