Although some scholars have speculated that Shakespeare wrote portions of The Tempest at an earlier stage in his career, most literary historians assign the entire play a composition date of 1610 or 1611. And while Shakespeare may have had a hand in The Two Noble Kinsmen (written a decade or so after The Tempest and assigned to dual authorship), The Tempest is customarily identified as the Bard's last stage piece. These marginal issues aside, The Tempest is the fourth, final, and the finest of Shakespeare's great and/or late romances. Along with Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, The Tempest belongs to the genre of Elizabethan romance plays. It combines elements of tragedy (Prospero's revenge) with those of romantic comedy (the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand), and like one of Shakespeare's problem plays, Measure for Measure, it poses deeper questions that are not completely resolved at the end. The romance genre is distinguished by the inclusion (and synthesis) of these tragic, comic, and problematical ingredients and further marked by a happy ending (usually concluding with a masque or dance) in which all, or most, of the characters are brought into harmony.
No reading of The Tempest can do it justice: Shakespeare's tale of Prospero's Island is inherently theatrical, unfolding in a series of spectacles that involve exotic, supra-human, and sometimes invisible characters that the audience can see but other characters cannot. The play was composed by Shakespeare as a multi-sensory theater experience, with sound, and especially music, used to complement the sights of the play, and all of it interwoven by the author with lyrical textual passages that overflow with exotic images, trifling sounds, and a palpable lushness.
The richness of The Tempest as theater is matched by the extraordinary thematic complexity of its text. Recognizing that all of the themes and accompanying figurative strands of the play cannot be discussed here, the play's topical highlights can still be approached by first noting the salience of two themes that arise from the very theatricality of the play: the opposition between reality and illusion and the tandem subject of the theater itself. The play challenges our senses and is self-consciously a performance orchestrated by Shakespeare's effigy in the master illusionist Prospero. There are, in addition, numerous interpenetrating polarities in the play, most notably between nature and civilization or Art. These thematic strands come together at multiple points of intersection. Nevertheless, from one angle in the text, The Tempest asks a single question, one that Shakespeare had posed in many of his other plays: What is a human being? (or, in Elizabethan terms: What is man?)
Summary of the Play
Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, has been living on a primitive island with his fifteen-year-old daughter, Miranda, for the past 12 years. His dukedom had been usurped by his own brother, Antonio, whom Prospero had entrusted to manage the affairs of government while he was concentrating on his study of the liberal arts. With the support of Alonso, the King of Naples, Antonio conspired against his brother to become the new Duke of Milan. Prospero and his three-year-old daughter were put on “a rotten carcass of a butt” without a sail. Gonzalo, a member of the king’s council, took pity on them, and stocked the leaky vessel with food, fresh water, clothing, and Prospero’s books. Providence has now brought his enemies to the shore of the island, and Prospero must act quickly.
The action begins with a tempestuous storm at sea. Afraid for their lives, Alonso and Gonzalo urge the Boatswain to do all he can to save the ship, but he rudely orders the royal party to stay in their cabins and “trouble us not.” They are finally convinced to go below and pray for mercy.
Ariel, an airy spirit, raised the tempest just as he was instructed by Prospero, his master, informing Prospero that all except the mariners plunged into the sea. Ariel reports that he has left the ship safely docked in the harbor with the mariners aboard. The rest of the passengers, with garments unblemished, have been dispersed around the island. Ariel then lures Ferdinand, Prince of Naples, onto the island with his songs, informing him of his father’s supposed death by drowning. The young prince is led past Prospero’s cave where he meets Miranda, and they fall in love. To keep Ferdinand from winning his prize (Miranda) too quickly and easily, Prospero uses his magic to force Ferdinand to yield to the indignity of stacking logs.
Elsewhere on the island, Ariel, with the help of Prospero’s magic, puts Alonso and Gonzalo to sleep. While they sleep Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso and Gonzalo and take over the throne. Just as they draw their swords, Ariel awakens Gonzalo and he, in turn, rouses the king. The conspirators claim that they heard wild animals and drew their swords. The king readily accepts their excuse.
Caliban enters, cursing his master, Prospero, for enslaving him. Trinculo, the king’s jester, appears, hiding under Caliban’s cloak to escape a rainstorm. Stephano approaches them, thinking it is a monster with four legs. He finally recognizes Trinculo and is surprised to see him alive. Stephano, having drifted ashore on a barrel of wine, offers Caliban a drink. Unaccustomed to the effects of the alcohol, Caliban kneels to Stephano, taking him for a god who “bears celestial liquor.” Determined that Stephano should be lord of the island, Caliban leads the pair to Prospero’s cave where they plan to murder him.
Prospero magically sets a banquet for the royal party, but Ariel, disguised as a harpy, claps his wings over the table, and it vanishes. Ariel warns the royal party that the storm was a punishment for their foul deeds, and there is no way out except repentance. In another part of the island, Prospero relieves Ferdinand of his duties, telling him he has endured the difficult trial of love and has won Miranda’s hand in marriage. Ariel arranges a masque in honor of the happy couple, but while the masque is in progress, Prospero suddenly remembers Caliban’s plot to kill him, and the masque vanishes. Ariel has lead the conspirators from the filthy-mantled pool to Prospero’s “glistering apparel” hanging on a lime tree in front of his cave. Though Caliban is annoyed, his companions are gleefully sidetracked, stealing the royal robes and forgetting their purpose at hand which is to murder Prospero. Finally, spirits in the shape of dogs are released, and the thieving trio are driven out.
The king and his party are brought to Prospero where he charms them in his magic circle, praising Gonzalo for his kindness, but censuring Alonso for his cruelty and Antonio for his ambition. Removing his magician’s robe, Prospero gives up his magic powers, presenting himself to Alonso as the “wronged Duke of Milan,” and the repentant king immediately restores his dukedom. In a sudden spirit of forgiveness, he pardons all of them for their crimes against him. He then leads Alonso to his cell where Ferdinand and Miranda are making a pretense of playing chess. Alonso is overjoyed to see his son alive.
Ariel enters with the master and boatswain of the ship. To the king’s amazement the ship is undamaged and docked in the harbor. The three conspirators, driven by Ariel, appear in their stolen royal apparel. Caliban calls himself a “thrice-double ass” to have taken Stephano for a god. Prospero invites the king’s entire party to spend the night in his cell where he will give them an account of his last 12 years on the island. In the morning they will return to Naples where they will prepare for the marriage of the betrothed pair, Ferdinand and Miranda.
Prospero rewards Ariel for his services by giving him his freedom and releasing him to the elements. In the epilogue Prospero tells the audience his magic powers are gone, his dukedom has been restored, and he has forgiven his enemies. He now asks them to praise his performance with their applause and, thereby, release him from the illusory world of the island.
Estimated Reading Time
Most Shakespeare plays, written to be viewed by an audience, usually take approximately three hours to perform on the stage. The Tempest is an unusually short play with a performance time of about two hours. It would be possible to read it almost as fast the first time around to get the plot of the story. The Tempest is impressive theater with its magical manipulations, its masque, including spirit-like goddesses, its spirits in the form of dogs, and, perhaps above all, its songs. For this reason an auditory tape of The Tempest, available at most university or county libraries, is an excellent device that can be used to follow along with the text, making the drama more interesting by bringing the characters alive with the use of sound effects. After the initial reading, it should be read more carefully, taking special note of the difficult words and phrases that are glossed at the bottom of most Shakespeare texts. This reading would probably take about 4-5 hours for the entire play, allowing a little less than an hour for each of the five acts. Since the acts of The Tempest vary from one to three scenes each, the length of reading time for each act will, of course, vary. It should be noted that the length of the scenes also varies from 63 to 504 lines.