Understanding The Tempest


This Web page has been designed to assist students to:

  • Explore 16th century English theater and drama.
  • Develop perspective on evolving criticism of 16th century worldviews in drama.
  • Deepen appreciation for the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s work.
  • Broaden awareness of the authorship debate.

For ease of study, topics have been divided into 4 categories

  1. William Shakespeare
  2. Ottoman Threat, European Exploration, and Elizabethan Drama
  3. Background and origins of The Tempest
  4. The Tempest:
    1. Overview
    2. Themes in focus

Note: Some of these categories will naturally overlap.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

Few literary persons have attracted more scrutiny than William Shakespeare. Yet, there is a common belief that we know very little about him. Scholars, adamant in their defense of Shakespeare’s genius and his authorship of all the plays and poetry traditionally attributed to him, have footnoted seemingly every inch of his birth, life, and death.

Other scholars, equally adamant in their belief that Shakespeare’s work was composed by other authors, look at the same information and attribute different meanings. So, as a student approaching a study of Shakespeare, it is important to analyze where fact ends and guessing begins.

Timeline of William Shakespeare A timeline of events before, during, and after Shakespeare’s life. Each event is linked with questions and answers for a quick overview of important facts of his life.

Biography of William Shakespeare A summary biography of William Shakespeare that includes notes on the chronology of the plays. While the text is not easily skimmed, many of the points on Shakespeare’s life and commentary on the time-line of the plays are thoughtfully composed for insight into Shakespeare’s background.

Background of William ShakespeareA short (2:23) YouTube film clip of how Shakespeare wrote and distributed his scripts to Elizabethan actors. The visual insight shows how a play might have evolved from creation to performance under Shakespeare’s guidance.

Authorship Debate A Wikipedia overview of the debate whether or not William Shakespeare is the actual author of the poems and plays attributed to him.

William Shakespeare, Author In this short essay, Dr. Peter J. Leithart makes a clear, simple case as to “Why I Am a Stratfordian”.

William Shakespeare, Author A website promoting William Shakespeare as the author of the plays and poems attributed to him.

Edward de Vere, Author A Wikipedia overview of Oxfordian scholarship that supports Edward de Vere as the true playwright.

Edward de Vere, Author A website devoted to researching and honoring Edward de Vere. Of particular interest is the FAQ section which answers the question of how a reader’s appreciation of the plays will change if he believes Edward de Vere to be the playwright.

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Ottoman Empire, European Exploration, and Elizabethan Drama

Just as the today’s events affect the plays that are written for modern stage, what was happening while Shakespeare wrote The Tempest influenced him. The Ottoman Empire was a naval rival that was taking control of the Mediterranean trade routes just as European ships were pushing west to explore the New World. Information from people traveling to the Mediterranean, as well as the Americas, was publicized in newspapers and discussed in English pubs. Along with those current events, The Tempest was shaped by English expectations of drama, theater, and performances.

The Moor in Shakespeare Salaamun Alaikum wa Rahmatullah explores how Moors are viewed as “the other” in Shakespeare’s plays. A brief history is given of Elizabethan attitudes and their exposure to different cultures. Citation information is available here.

Ottoman Empire An overview of the history of the Ottoman Empire. Highly useful context of the world outside of England at the time of The Tempest.

Ottoman Empire and Europe HistoryToday article by Geoffrey Woodward describing the impact the Turks had on 16th century Europe. The section on the differences in ship design is useful for understanding the shipwreck in The Tempest.

Age of Discovery Wikipedia overview of European exploration in 15th and 16th centuries.

Impact of Global Exploration Documents how European exploration evolved over time. Towards the bottom of the page, there are several paragraphs about cultural impressions of natives that briefly touches on The Tempest and Caliban.

Shakespeare’s TheaterA website page that explore Elizabethan Theater: actors, speech, music, set design, costume and swordplay. This site also links for Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

The Globe in 1599 Detailed mapping for virtual reality Globe theater from 1599.

Background and origins of The Tempest

While it is unknown when The Tempest was written, it was performed in 1611 and published in 1623. The first performance was for King James I, and then later, in 1613, it was performed for the wedding festivities of Princess Elizabeth. The published text of The Tempest was unusually well prepared because it was divided into acts and scenes with complete and full stage directions.

There are many disputes about when The Tempest was written and what source documents Shakespeare used. Many of the arguments center on whether or not an actual shipwreck in Bermuda was the basis for The Tempest.

The Voyage and Wreck of the Sea Venture A site that gives the history of the Sea Venture of 1609 and its re-appearance in 1610. Provides details arguing against Shakespeare basing The Tempest on the Sea Venture.

a href=”http://shakespeareauthorship.com/tempest.html”>Dating The Tempest David Kaufman maintains the traditional viewpoint that The Tempest was based on shipwreck of the Sea Venture and the accounts given by the survivors.

Montaigne’s Essays Essays published in 1603 which Shakespeare may have used as a source for his description of the native people in The Tempest.


The Tempest is believed to be Shakespeare’s last comedy and many regard it as his most mature and most admired play. It has all the familiar parts of the fairy tale: the magician with the friendly spirit and a beautiful daughter. Yet, even fairy tales can have serious themes.

The Tempest A short overview of the play and a few of its themes.

The Tempest A website devoted to The Tempest. Scholarly articles are mixed with interesting background material about the play. Note especially the information on labyrinths.

The TempestAct by act summary of The Tempest by Absolute Shakespeare.


Theme in Focus: reconciliation and forgiveness

Forgiveness and RecocilationAn essay that explores the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation in The Tempest.

Reconcilation in The TempestA personal essay on faith and reconciliation in The Tempest.

Reconcilation in The Tempest Pink Monkey study guide that explores the supernatural as well as forgiveness and reconciliation themes.


Theme in Focus: natural world vs. governed world

Nature and Society Text of a speech on the themes of society and the natural world in The Tempest.

Magic and Prospero’s ExperimentA study guide (PDF) which explores the themes of magic and the supernatural in The Tempest. Helpful questions about how Prospero’s magic works on the island but not in Milan.

The Natural World Essay about social order in The Tempest. Good analysis of freedom and returning to the natural order.

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