The Tempest, written circa 1611, typifies Shakespeare's writing in the final period of his career. The play is a tragicomedy, combining elements of tragedy with the positive resolution of comedy. Shakespeare set the play on an unnamed island in an unidentified age. In the play, Prospero has been unfairly deposed and set adrift in the ocean with his daughter Miranda. Upon arriving on the island he uses magic to free the spirit Ariel, enslave a half beast named Caliban, and to engineer the shipwreck of his brother Antonio, the king of Naples, and the king's son Ferdinand. Under the control of Prospero, Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love. In the final scene, Prospero confronts his brother, who rules in his place, and demands his dukedom back. He leaves the island under the control of Caliban, and returns to Milan with the others. The lack of a clear location and time has intrigued critics since the play's introduction. Although no source for the plot has been identified, scholars have noted the influence of various literary sources and the advent of colonialism on the play. In addition, critics have studied the nature of Prospero and the possibility that he represents the author.
Concern with the role of colonialism has dominated scholarship on The Tempest for a century. Some critics have challenged the interpretation that Prospero benignly reestablishes the order of the natural world at the end of the play, maintaining instead that the play reflects the inherent oppression and tyranny of the colonial system. However, recent scholarship has redefined these arguments. In his 1999 essay, Robert B. Pierce examines the apparent discord between the emerging metatheatrical and historicist readings of the play. He suggests that by applying both readings—by viewing The Tempest both as a work of literature and a historical document—that a more accurate and full interpretation can be determined. Through the years, critics have also debated whether Shakespeare meant the play to be set in the new colony of Virginia or Bermuda. Richard Wilson (1997) discards existing arguments by positing that the play is set neither in Virginia nor Bermuda but in the Mediterranean. Through the application of the work of recent historians, Wilson shows how the play's meaning is clarified by locating the play off the coast of northern Africa.
Benefitting from advancements in the study of social and cultural history, Shakespearean scholars have focused on aspects of Elizabethan society for clues to a clearer understanding of the playwright's intent. For instance, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1997-98) considers the role of alchemy as a metaphor in the play. She argues that Prospero uses alchemy as a means of reforming and improving society. In an earlier article, Simonds (1995) advocates rejecting misleading postmodern readings of the play in favor of a more accurate historicized viewpoint. She applies her knowledge of Renaissance iconography, particularly emblems and woodcuts, to the play. In addition, emerging evidence on the life of the playwright and his environment has fostered new lines of debate about the autobiographical aspects of the play. Critics have long maintained The Tempest represents one of Shakespeare's most intensely autobiographical works. Building on the interpretation that Prospero represents Shakespeare, David Beauregard (1997) argues that the play reveals Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic. Paul Cantor (see Further Reading) makes the case that the play reflects Shakespeare's concepts on politics and society and represents the playwright's efforts to provide a clear statement of his personal philosophy. Cantor concludes that Shakespeare believed the knowledge of how to rule did not necessitate authority to rule and vice versa. The critic posits The Tempest represents Shakespeare's ultimate summary of justice.
Scholars of The Tempest are drawn particularly to the concepts of the natural world versus the unnatural or monstrous as it was understood in Shakespeare's time. Many critics focus on the relationship of Prospero, who represents modern and rational humanism, and the savage and barbaric Caliban. Scholars believe that Shakespeare's central thesis of the play can be found within his representation of the natural and unnatural state. For instance, Mark Thornton Burnett (1997) considers the nature of the monstrous in Elizabethan culture and concludes that Prospero shares equally in Caliban's distinction as monstrous. In her 2000 essay, Julia Reinhold Lupton discusses the universality of Caliban, placing him within the order of the cosmos. She states that Caliban is neither universal nor particular but exists in between. Finally, John Gillies (see Further Reading) rejects earlier arguments about the location of the island in the play. Rather, he states the island is allegorical and symbolic, representing the state of disorder and the problems in the lives of the characters.