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William Shakespeare’s The Tempest


The Tempest is widely recognized as the final play of William Shakespeare. It was first performed in early 1611 for King James the 1st, and later for the King’s daughter, Elizabeth, to celebrate her wedding to the Elector of Palatine, Frederick. Academics and historians alike believe the most relevant source material for The Tempest to has been the wreck of an English ship in Bermuda in 1609, along with reports from travelers about the island. The play was written in the seventeenth century, an era that was well regarded as the ‘age of exploration’.

The Tempest reads as thought the playwright is offering commentary about Europe’s unhinged exploration of new lands. When Prospero anchors down on an unfamiliar island and encounters Caliban he immediately presumes him to be philistine and savage. Based on this assumption, Prospero endeavors to culture Caliban by teaching him his own native dialect and traditional customs. Unfavorably for the traveller, Caliban does not readily conform to the new skills he is being taught. This causes Prospero to abandon his attempt to refine the savage and instead he holds Caliban captive, forcing him to assume responsibility for the tasks that he feels are too menial for civilized individuals.

For modern readers, not quite capable of grasping the full concept of colonialism, it is necessary to question whether or not Shakespeare views this as the true order of things – had the play been written today, would there have been such a profound ‘master and slave’ relationship? How would today’s society have reacted to the depiction of captivity and oppression?

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Book Summary

The Tempest begins on the deck of a navigator’s vessel that is being ravaged at sea by a violent tempest in Act I, Scene I. The seamen fight with all of their might to lower the ship’s sails in a bid to control the ship. Passengers, Antonio, Alonso, Ferdinand and Sebastian, worried by the growing noise of the storm, come up from below to investigate. However, they are quickly ushered away by crew members who insist that the quartet do nothing but cause an interference. It is not long before the ship succumbs to the harsh weather, beginning to fall apart and leaving the occupants to believe that the end is near.

In Act I, scene II, we are introduced to Miranda and Prospero who, thanks to Prospero’s magical abilities, have just witnessed the quandary of the now disheveled ship. Upon removing his magical cloak, Prospero regales Miranda with the story of her birth and her true place in life. He goes on to explain how he along with Miranda, who was barely a toddler, were forced upon a decaying ship and sent out to sea to meet their untimely demise. This had been part of a scheme by Prospero’s own brother, who with the help of the King of Naples, planned to steal Prospero’s power and take over his station.

In a strange twist of fate, these men – enemies to Prospero – have ventured close to the island where Miranda and Prospero have been living for the past 12 years. The storm that engulfed the ship the men were travelling on was created by Prospero. With the assistance of Ariel, a spirit that must obey his command, Prospero devised a scene that would cause the ship’s crew to believe that the other passengers had drowned, and vice versa.

Ariel is reluctant to continue his servitude, but Prospero quickly reminds the spirit that he had freed him from the imprisonment of Sycorax and Caliban. Prospero promises Ariel complete freedom if it is to help him complete his plan.

Prospero and Miranda venture off to see Caliban, the slave of Prospero and former ruler of the island. Caliban curses Prospero, who in turn promises to punish Caliban for his insolence. Prospero reminds the slave that he once attempted to befriend him, teaching him proper dialect and conduct and of how Caliban had repaid his graciousness by attempting to violate Miranda’s honor.

Elsewhere, Ariel’s mesmerizing music has lured Ferdinand closer to Miranda and Prospero. Immediately, Miranda is intrigued by Ferdinand’s handsome charm, and he is equally in awe of her beauty. He refers to her as a ‘goddess’ and endeavors to win her over. Prospero discloses to the audience that he had hoped that the two would be smitten for each other and that his disapproving demeanour was little more than an attempt to draw them closer together.

In Act II, Scene I, Antonio, Alonso, Gonzalo and Sebastien have washed ashore on the other side of the island. Gonzalo pleads with Alonso to see the bright side of things. Despite Ferdinand having presumed drowned, they must be thankful that they are still alive. Alonso, with good reason, is unwilling to remain optimistic. Sebastian and Antonio poke fun at Gonzalo, ridiculing him for his many speeches. Spitefully, Sebastien blames Alonso for the death of Ferdinand. After all, they would not have even made this voyage had Alonso permitted his daughter to marry a European prince instead of the King of Tunis.

Gonzalo insists that no one should shoulder the blame and asks the men to bask in the beauty of the island. He then goes on to describe the levels of government that he feels would be best suited for the island. He proclaims that it would be a ‘utopia of equality, with no marks or wealth or social status. All would have leisure and their needs would be met without sweat or endeavor.”

Ariel, under the guise of invisibility, wanders around the men and causes all but Antonio and Sebastien to fall into a deep slumber. With the others asleep, Antonio details to Sebastian how he plans to steal the crown from his brother.

With Alonso’s son and daughter no longer in the picture, stealing the crown would be easy. All Sebastian would need to do would be to kill Alonso. Antonio uses his own past and an example: he overthrew his brother and now reaps the rewards. Antonio pledges to murder Gonzalo in order to prevent him from interfering with their plan. Sebastian agrees to follow Antonio’s lead, promising Antonio that for his part in the plan he will be rewarded by never again having to pay tribute to Naples.

Ariel awakens Gonzalo, alerting him silently that treachery is in the air. Gonzalo arises to see that the men have drawn their swords, however, the two manage to avoid suspicion by proclaiming that they had heard loud noises and were merely protecting the king. The men endeavour to continue their search for Ferdinand.

Act II, Scene II introduces Trinculo and Stephano, who encounter Caliban and express difficulty in determining the species of the being. Trinculo wonders if Caliban might be some sort of fish, but decides later to take shelter with Caliban because he is fearful of the pending storm. Stephano, who has availed himself to the ship’s liquor supply, is conflicted by Caliban who not only shakes tremendously, but also has four legs and two voices. Caliban becomes so enamoured by Stephano that he vows to no longer serve Prospero, and instead promises to escort his new master around the island and to provide him with food and drink.

When Act III, Scene I begins, Ferdinand is seen stacking wood for Prospero, but rather than complaining he states that his work is not loathsome as he serves the beautiful Miranda. Miranda, empathetic to Ferdinand’s plight, offers to take his place. With their love having grown, they decide to marry.

Caliban, who is very noticeably intoxicated, continues to declare his servitude to Stephano in the opening of Act III, Scene II. Ariel, still invisible, begins to wreak havoc amongst the trio by creating the illusion that they are continually interrupting one another. In a fit of rage, Stephano attacks Trinculo for defying Caliban and later consorts with Caliban to overthrow Prospero, taking Miranda as his bride, and ruling the island. Their discussion is halted when they hear Ariel’s music, the men follow the sounds hoping to find its source.

Act III, Scene III sees Alonso and his crew faced with the decision to abandon their search for Ferdinand. They have become to accept the realization that he must have fallen victim to the sea. Sebastian and Antonio have vowed to grasp the next opportunity to enact their plan. Without much explanation, music begins to play and a group of spirits invite the men to join them at feast. Not surprisingly, the men are confused and wonder who will believe their stories when they return from their voyage. Moments before the men begin to eat, Ariel takes the scene and the table vanishes. With a voice that can only be likened to the thunder of the storm, Ariel states, “You are three men of sin” and later goes on to state knowledge of their plan to overthrow Prospero, citing the shipwreck as having been ‘fair punishment.’ Overtaken with guilt, the trio disband and flee in different directions. Gonzalo believes that they may come to certain fate, out of guilt or desperation, and asks the rest of the group to follow them.

In Act IV, Scene I, Prospero offers his approval for the engagement of Miranda to Ferdinand, but cautions the groom-to-be not to succumb to passion prior to the wedding.

Prospero summons Ariel and instructs the spirit to gather the wedding guests while he stays back and entertains the betrothed couple with a display of magic. Called by Iris, Ceres and Juno appear to witness the example of true love. The spirits sing blessings, while nymphs and reapers dance in the background. Suddenly, Prospero interrupts the celebration – announcing that he has just had visions of the plot to overthrow him by Caliban and his cohorts.

Elsewhere, the men still following Ariel’s music, have ventured through trails of mud and untouched paths. The men are angry with Caliban who continues to urge them to murder Prospero. However, upon arriving to Prospero’s home, they are distracted by the expensive garments they see hanging outside to dry and force Caliban to carry their newly stolen clothing. At the end of the scene, spirits in the form of dogs arrive and begin to attack them.

Prospero comes to the realization that his plan is falling into place in Act V, Scene I.  Each of his enemies have all gathered. Ariel argues that the men are sorrowful, stating that it would be in human nature to take pity on the men. This causes Prospero to change his viewpoint, he decides to offer his mercy. Thinking reasonably, and not out of passion, he states that ‘the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,’ and that because the men are sorry for their crimes, his has accomplished his goals. Ariel releases the men, while Prospero uses his magical ability to create soothing music to calm the spirits of those who conspire against him. Ariel retrieves Prospero’s stolen clothing, allowing him to display his rightful status as the Duke of Milan. When the trio of men arrives, Prospero welcomes them and informs them of his knowledge of their crimes. This causes Alonso to beg for forgiveness and, when conversing about life, discloses that he is deeply troubled by the death of his son. In a show of solidarity, Prospero announces that he has also lost a child – his daughter. He then asks the men to glance into his home, where they see Miranda and Ferdinand happily playing chess.

Ariel guides the sailors inside, who announce that the ship has been found and is in good repair. Caliban and his two human conspirators are led in, still entangled in their stolen goods. Caliban expresses a change of heart, accepting that Prospero is a true leader – unlike the drunkard Stephano. He reaffirms his pledge to serve Prospero. The men retire and listen to the tales of Prospero’s life. They are promised a safe journey home.

Character Analysis

The true Duke of Milan, who has been stripped of his rule and exiled to sea by Antonio, his brother, and Alonso, the King of Naples. Prospero, along with his daughter, Miranda, have lived for twelve years on an island inhabited by them and a group of spirits. Prospero has become the powerful leader and master of the sprit, Ariel, and the creature, Caliban. Prospero controls nearly every being on the island. He has even exercised control over his own daughter. Prospero expects those around him to be fully devoted to him. And, while domineering, he is a forgiving man. At the end of the play, he shows mercy to those of have wronged him.

Prospero’s servant, the spirit Ariel was rescued from a prison where he was being held by the witch, Sycorax. Grateful for having been rescued, Ariel serves Prospero, relying on magic to carry out his wishes. However, Ariel longs for true freedom, which Prospero continues to promise him. Until then, Ariel will serve Prospero and appears to take pleasure in the mischievous antics he is asked to play on Prospero’s enemies. In the end, it is Ariel’s compassion that encourages Prospero to forgive his wrongdoers.

The unwilling slave of Prospero, Caliban was the son of Sycorax and the true ruler of the island. Caliban feels strongly that he should have control of the land. When Prospero originally settled on the island, Caliban offered him friendship. However, Prospero was never able to see him as more than a savage beast. Caliban deeply desires taking the island back from Prospero. In several ways, Caliban is a symbol for the native inhabitants of lands explored by Europeans. Shakespeare, through Caliban and the relationship with Prospero, explores the theme of early colonization.

The daughter of Prospero, Miranda is the unknowing princess of Milan. Knowing very little about her history, Prospero educates her in scene two. Miranda appears to be compassionate and loyal to her father. Her only display of negativity is directed towards Caliban, who attempted to sexually assault her. Having been kept away from all other humans except her father, Miranda is enamoured when she encounters other humans, she immediately falls in love with Ferdinand.

Antonio is Prospero’s brother. He once enacted a plan to overthrow Prospero and later conspires with Sebastian to overthrow Alonso. Antonio has a thirst for power, he is incapable of showing remorse for his wrongdoings. Even after his brother’s forgiveness, Antonio still shows little repentance.

The once trusted advisor of Alonso, Gonzalo played an integral part in the kidnapping of Prospero and Miranda. Gonzalo, by nature, is kind and made arrangements for the duo to have provisions and a chance to survive their exile. Gonzalo is often ridiculed for his overly positive demeanour.

Ferdinand is the son of Alonso. Throughout the play, he shows expressions of his love for Miranda and later they agree to marry. It is this union that helps to reconcile the rift between Prospero of Milan and Alonso of Naples. Ferdinand is described as loyal, kind and compassionate.

The brother of Alonso. Sabastian conspires with Antonio to attempt to kill his brother and take his place as king.

Stephano is the butler of Alonso. He spends the entirety of the play drunk. Caliban briefly vows to serve Stephano when he becomes intoxicated on wine and mistakes him for a god. Stephano has ambitions of ruling the land, making Caliban’s plan to kill Prospero very enticing.

Themes of the Book

The Tempest explores several different themes, the most prevalent being loss and restoration, power, magic and illusion, and colonization.

Quotes from the Book – Explanation and Analysis

“You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language! (I.ii366-368)

Dictated by Caliban to Miranda and Prospero, this statement clearly illustrates the tumultuous relationship between the slave and master (or the colonized and the colonizer). Caliban is regarded as a ‘savage’ and feels oppressed by Prospero. Prospero proclaims that he once viewed Caliban as a friend – until he harmed his daughter.

“There be some sports are painful, and their labour delight in sets them off. Some kinds of baseness are nobly undergone, and most poor matters point to rich ends. This my task would be as heavy to be as odious, but the mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead and makes my labours pleasures.” (III.i.1-7)

Upon expressing her empathy to Ferdinand, and offering to take his place, he speaks these words to her, proclaiming his willingness to carry out any task her father demands because he is truly in love with her. The Tempest is deeply rooted in balance and compromise. Prospero had spent twelve long years on the island so that he could regain his rightful rule. Alonso had to lose his son so that he could be forgiven for his crimes. Ariel had to serve Prospero in order to receive his freedom. Ferdinand had to suffer the wrath of Prospero in order to win the heart of Miranda.

“[I weep] at mine unworthiness, that dare not offer what I desire to give, and much less take. What I shall die to want. But this is trifling, and all the more it seeks to hide itself, the bigger bulk it shows. Hence, bashful cunning, and prompt me, plain and holy innocence. I am your wife, if you will marry me. If not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellow, you may deny me, but I’ll be your servant. Whether you will or no.” (III.i.77-86)

In Act III, Scene I, Miranda declares her unwavering love for Ferdinand. She insists that he marry her, maturing from a meek girl under the influence of her father’s magic into an independent young woman who expresses control over her own future.

Symbolism of the Book

Prospero’s Cloak and Books
Prospero’s cloak and books are revealed as the authentic source of his magical ability. Only twice does he remove his cloak; when he is explaining to Miranda their history and her true identity and again, at the end of the play, when he chooses to give up his power in exchange for his life back.

Knowing how much Prospero loves his books, Gonzalo arranges for them to be placed on the ship when Miranda and Prospero are exiled from Milan. Had it not been for the books, Prospero would never have been capable of summoning the Tempest and restoring the relationship between Naples and Milan.

Caliban suggests that in order to overthrow Prospero, Stephano must seize his books.

At the end of the play, Prospero proclaims “I’ll drown my books”…a statement that many scholars later suggest is a proclamation from Shakespeare himself as he retires from writing.

The Tempest
The tempest storm is representative of the political unrest that is commonly seen throughout the play. When the passengers and the ship are at the mercy of the tempest, nature and the common workers (the seamen) seemingly have more power than the upper class leadership. This reversal of power continues throughout the entirety of the play, until Prospero regains his rightful spot as the Duke of Milan and promises to restore rule.

Key Facts

  • Prospero, a sorcerer and the Duke of Milan, was banished from his homeland and sent off to sea by his brother, Antonio, and the King of Naples, Alonso. Prospero uses his magical abilities to make these men repent for their wrongdoings and to restore him to his proper title.
  • The Tempest was created by Prospero in order to cause the ship sailed upon by his enemies to wreck.
  • The play frequently touches on the ‘illusion of justice’ and viewing men as monsters and vice versa.
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