At the center of the play’s action, and controlling it from the island where he lives in exile, is the wise magician Prospero. He conjures a storm to shipwreck his brother Antonio, usurper of his ducal throne in Milan. Prospero engineers a marriage between his daughter and the son of an enemy, King Alonso of Naples, who accompanies Antonio. The marriage would end the feud and allow Prospero to regain his dukedom.
The portrayal of the villainous characters presents a contradiction between seeming and being. Reportedly they have victimized Prospero; yet on stage we see them as Prospero’s victims. The shipwreck leaves them helpless, stranded, and separated; Alonso grieves when he thinks that his son has died in the storm.
Over all is Prospero--reportedly the victim--manipulating others’ perceptions. In the end, he reveals Alonso’s son as still living, secures the king’s repentance for supporting Antonio the usurper, and regains his dukedom.
As Prospero manages the perceptions of other characters, Shakespeare manages those of the audience, often to its confusion. For example, though Prospero is supposed to be the stock figure of the benevolent magician, Shakespeare makes him address his daughter and servants with unneeded harshness that seems out of character. Again, the stock dramatic plot calls for wrongdoers to repent, yet two who planned Alonso’s murder are pardoned without repenting. Even a Christian audience might have trouble forgiving their lack of remorse. Such conflict is a typical effect of watching Shakespearean drama.
Scholars see THE TEMPEST as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. Prospero’s speech beginning “Our revels now are ended ...” seems to sum up both the play’s action and the playwright’s estimate of human life. Besides a philosophically challenging situation, the play contains some of Shakespeare’s best poetry, songs, and comic scenes.
French, Marilyn. Shakespeare’s Division of Experience. New York: Summit Books, 1981. French sees the play as Shakespeare’s attempt to synthesize themes from his earlier works and finally propound a theory of justice that satisfies the hierarchical imperatives he had previously set out. An examination of gender roles plays a significant part in her attempts to explicate Shakespeare’s universe. Caliban is presented as representative of colonized peoples.
Kermode, Frank. William Shakespeare: The Final Plays. London: Longmans, Green, 1963. Kermode sees this play as the most classically unified of Shakespeare’s late works, and finds a repetition of earlier themes including “guilt and repentance, the finding of the lost, forgiveness, the renewal of the world, [and] the benevolence of unseen powers.”
Lindley, David. “Music, Masque and Meaining in The Tempest.” The Court Masque. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1984. Lindley examines the masque as a unique Renaissance art form and uncovers the role music plays in The Tempest to assert and deny power.
Peterson, Douglas L. Time, Tide, and Tempest: A Study of Shakespeare’s Romances. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1973. Places the play in the context of Shakespeare’s romance plays. Explores the themes and motifs of redemption and natural order, which elaborated on Shakespeare’s earlier vision.
Smith, Hallett Darius, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Tempest”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Provides viewpoints and interpretations of The Tempest by sixteen critics, including A. C. Bradley and Northrup Frye. Includes a chronology of important dates and a bibliography.