The Tempest (play)

From Academic Kids

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Miranda and Ferdinand, Angelica Kauffmann, 1782.
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Ferdinand and Miranda, from The Tempest, Act V, Edward Reginald Frampton (British, 1870-1923).

The Tempest is one of William Shakespeare's last plays. Its first known performance was on November 1, 1611 at Whitehall Palace in London. It would also have been performed at the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars Theatre.

The Tempest belongs to the class of plays commonly grouped as Shakespeare's Late Romances. In these plays, Shakespeare shows a concern with family ties and reconciliation in a mythic setting.



The mage Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, have been stranded for twelve years on an island in the Mediterranean, after Prospero's brother Antonio - helped by the King of Naples - deposed him and set him adrift with the three-year-old girl. Possessed of magic powers derived from his books, Prospero is reluctantly served by a spirit, Ariel, whom he rescued from imprisonment in a tree. Ariel previously served the Algerian witch Sycorax, who had herself been exiled to the island, dying before Prospero arrived. The witch's son Caliban, a deformed monster, was the only non-spiritual inhabitant before the arrival of Prospero, and has been compelled by Prospero to serve as his slave.

The play opens as Alonso, the King of Naples, Antonio and others sail close by the island, returning from a marriage between Claribel, Alonso's daughter, and a Tunisian King. Prospero, having divined his enemies' proximity, raises a storm (the tempest of the title) to stage an apparent shipwreck. Prospero, through Ariel, contrives to separate the survivors of the wreck, so that Alonso and his son, Ferdinand, believe one another dead.

Three plots then alternate through the play. In one, Caliban convinces two drunkards in the King of Naples' service - Stephano and Trinculo - to raise a rebellion against Prospero. In another Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love, and in the third, Alonso is tormented both by Prospero's magic, and his own grief at having lost his son. The play ends as Prospero forgives those who have betrayed him, Miranda and Ferdinand unite, and Prospero renounces magic.


The Tempest is one of the few Shakespeare plays for which there is no known source for the overall narrative. However, some of the words and images in the play seem to derive from a report by William Strachey of a real-life shipwreck on the island of Bermuda of sailors travelling toward Virginia. Strachey's report was written in 1610; although it was not printed until 1625, it circulated widely in manuscript and Shakespeare may have taken the idea of the shipwreck and some images from it. In addition, one of Gonzalo's speeches is derived from 'On the Cannibals', an essay by Montaigne that praises the society of the Caribbean natives; and much of Prospero's renunciative speech is taken word for word from a speech by Medea in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Themes / Tropes


The play repeatedly extols the virtues of temperance. Prospero repeatedly urges Ferdinand and Miranda to not indulge in lust but be temperate in their love, warning Ferdinand that "If thou dost break her virgin knot before / All sanctimonious ceremonies may / With full and holy rite be minister'd.../ Sour-ey'd disdain, and discord, shall bestrew / The union of your bed". Similarly, the masque with which Prospero entertains the couple centres around Juno, goddess of chaste marriage, and explicitly excludes Venus and Cupid, deities of lust. The masque concludes with "watery naiads" joining with "sunburned sicklemen", in an allegorisation of the idea that humors - associated with the elements - need to be balanced in order to create a virtuous temperament, in the individual or in a union: water and fire balance each other out.

The play likewise warns against intemperance; most noticeably with the drunkards Stephano and Trinculo being brought to justice, but also through Prospero's punishment of Caliban when the latter attempted to rape Miranda. Prospero himself - whose magic is repeatedly linked with alcohol - is said to be "with anger so distemper'd", and learns through the play the need to control his violent temper, ultimately clearing the sky of the tempest, which had been its principal manifestation.

The Theatre

The Tempest is overtly concerned with its own nature as a play, frequently drawing links between Prospero's Art and theatrical illusion. The shipwreck was a "spectacle" "performed" by Ariel; Antonio and Sebastian are "cast" in a "troop" to "act"; Miranda's eyelids are "fringed curtains". Prospero is even made to refer to the Globe theatre when claiming the whole world is an illusion: "the great globe... shall dissolve, like this insubstantial pageant". Ariel frequently disguises himself as figures from Classical mythology, for example a nymph, a harpy and Ceres, and acts as these in a masque and anti-masque that Prospero creates.

Early critics saw this constant allusion to the theatre as an indication that Prospero was meant to represent Shakespeare; the character's renunciation of magic thus signalling Shakespeare's farewell to the stage. This theory has fallen into disfavour; but certainly The Tempest is interested in the way that, like Prospero's "Art", the theatre can be both an immoral occupation and yet morally transformative for its audience.


The concept of usurping a monarch occurs frequently throughout the play: Antonio usurped Prospero; Caliban accuses Prospero of having usurped him upon the latter's arrival on the island; Sebastian plots to kill and overthrow his brother the King of Naples; Stephano has designs to depose Prospero and set himself up as "king o'the isle". As such, the play is simultaneously concerned with what constitutes virtuous kingship, presenting the audience with various possibilities. in the twentieth century, post-colonialist literary critics were extremely interested in this aspect of the play, seeing Caliban as representative of the natives invaded and oppressed by Imperialism.

List of Characters

  • Alonso, King of Naples
  • Sebastian, his brother
  • Prospero, the right Duke of Milan (the story's protagonist)
  • Antonio, his brother, the usurping Duke of Milan
  • Ferdinand, son to the King of Naples
  • Gonzalo, an honest old councillor
  • Adrian and Francisco, lords
  • Caliban, a savage and deformed slave

The name is suggestive of "Carib(be)an", and - given looser 17th century spelling - an anagram of "cannibal", both of which come from the same word. Both implications suggest he is representative of the natives of the New World, and a reference to one of Shakespeare's sources; Des Cannibales by Montaigne.

  • Trinculo, a jester

The name is linked to the Italian verb "trincare" meaning, as can still be heard, "to drink"; appropriate as he is one of the two drunkards of the play.

  • Stephano, a drunken butler (sometimes Stefano)

"Stephan" means "King" in Greek; appropriate as the play concerns itself with the notion of kingship, which this character is used to parody. Shakespeare also may have named him Stephano to suggest a popular rhyme - alluded to by Trinculo and sung in Othello - that begins "King Stephen was an a worthy peer/ His breeches cost him but a crown"; ironic as Stephano's ambition to rule the island is thwarted when he starts stealing clothes (his breeches cost him his "crown"); likewise Prospero lost his crown when he turned his attention to his Art, symbolized by a cloak.

  • Master of a ship
  • Boatswain
  • Mariners
  • Miranda, daughter to Prospero, often called "a wonder".

The name comes from the Latin root "mira-", to wonder. All other words in the play that come from the same root (admired, miracle, etc), can be understood to be referring to Miranda.

  • Ariel, an airy spirit

The name is certainly suggestive of the "air" element, directly opposing the character to Caliban, who is called "thou earth" by Prospero. It Hebrew the name means "lion of God" - it is therefore interesting that Ariel's voice is once mistaken for the roar of lions.

  • Iris
  • Ceres
  • Juno
  • Nymphs
  • Reapers
  • Spirits

(mentioned but never seen:)

  • Sycorax a witch, and mother of Caliban.

The name includes the Latin for "raven", with which she is frequently linked in the play. The stresses individually sound like "sick" and "wracks"; sickness and "wracking" people being two of the more insiduous ways Prospero uses his own magic.

  • Claribel daughter to Alonso

Her name comes from the French "clair et belle": "clear and beautiful" - words which can only describe musical notes, the weather, and bodies of water. She is thus the symbolic opposite to the titular tempest, which disrupts the weather, disturbs the sea and creates discordant sounds - and therefore has been absented from the play's action before it has begun.


The Tempest has inspired numerous later works, including short poems such as that by Robert Browning, and the long poem The Sea and the Mirror by W. H. Auden. John Dryden and William D'Avenant adapted it for the Restoration stage, adding characters and plotlines and removing much of the play's "mythic resonance". The title of the novel Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley is also taken explicitly from this play. The 1956 science-fiction film Forbidden Planet was inspired by the play, especially with regards to several of the characters, but the story does not follow the play at all closely. In 1991, Peter Greenaway directed Prospero's Books a film adaptation in which Prospero speaks all the lines.

External links

Template:Wikisource Template:Wikiquote

  • The complete text ( at Wikisource
  • The Tempest ( - plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
  • The Tempest ( - HTML version of this title.
  • Bermoothes ( in E. Cobham Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898).

Template:Shakespeareeo:La Ventego fr:La TempÍte de:Der Sturm (Shakespeare)


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