Frequently considered Shakespeare's last drama, The Tempest encapsulates many of the issues that occupied the dramatist near the end of his career. The romantic tale, one of Shakespeare's rare original plots, takes place on an enchanted island inhabited by the exiled former Duke of Milan and magician Prospero, his young daughter Miranda, and his servants, the fairy-like Ariel and bestial Caliban. Its action obeys the classical dramatic unities of time and place, restrictions that Shakespeare generally ignored in his other works, and relates Prospero's scheme to punish his usurpers—his power-hungry brother Antonio and King Alonso of Naples—by luring them to the island and destroying their ship in a magical storm. Scholars have variously interpreted the play as a Christian or political allegory, a study of European colonialism in the New World, and as Shakespeare's farewell to dramatic art. While none of these estimations has proven entirely satisfying, elements of such readings continue to appear in contemporary assessments of the drama. W. H. Auden (1947) represents a characteristically mid-twentieth-century appraisal of The Tempest, emphasizing its mythic qualities, as well as its Edenic and utopian design and final thematic movement toward reconciliation and forgiveness. In a 1966 essay centered on the figure of Caliban—the only native inhabitant of Prospero's island—Philip Brockbank inaugurated a trend in modern scholarship on The Tempest by observing its depiction of colonialist exploitation. In addition, Brockbank's essay explores the drama's various textual sources, including travel and exploration literature of the early modern period, and studies their significance in contemporary estimations of The Tempest.
Traditionally, character-based study of The Tempest has been centered on Prospero, the drama's resourceful, if occasionally authoritarian, protagonist. Nevertheless, many late-twentieth-century commentators have also focused on the play's minor figures, as well as on the ensemble of other characters. James E. Phillips (1964) favors a schematic understanding of character in The Tempest by describing Prospero and his two servants Ariel and Caliban as embodiments of a Renaissance conception of the human soul. According to Phillips, Prospero represents a human's higher rational faculties, while the ethereal Ariel signifies sensitive and passionate qualities, and Caliban denotes the base and bodily, or vegetative, functions. Offering a survey of Caliban as he has been interpreted in stage performance, Virginia Mason Vaughan (1985) highlights changing perceptions of this enigmatic figure over the centuries. Beginning with seventeenth-century interpretations that emphasized Caliban's monstrous nature, Vaughan goes on to cite nineteenth-century depictions of the character as a noble savage and late-twentieth-century performances that described his political status as a militant rebel or New World native subjugated by European imperialists. A contemporary approach to the figure of Miranda is represented by Jessica Slights (2001, see Further Reading) who argues that Prospero's daughter has too frequently been sentimentalized if not critically dismissed as naïve, and suggests that she evinces an assertiveness and autonomy that is usually denied her. Slights also acknowledges, however, that Miranda's moral agency and humanity largely rest on her domestic ties to her father and future husband, Ferdinand.
Though visually diverse and potentially challenging to stage, The Tempest has supported sustained theatrical interest. Evaluating George C. Wolfe's 1995 production of The Tempest on Broadway, Brad Leithauser (see Further Reading) finds Patrick Stewart's Prospero deserving of acclaim and praises Wolfe's “eclectic” design and interpretation, but notes inadequacies among the remaining cast. Robert Brustein offers a matching reaction, commending the “dazzling and spectacular” design of Wolfe's production and sparing only Stewart and Nestor Serrano's Antonio from criticism. Robert Smallwood finds nothing to praise in Jude Kelly's 1999 Tempest in West Yorkshire, with the notable exception of Sir Ian McKellen's remarkably interpreted, fascinating, and humanly earnest Prospero. Richard Hornby expresses similar feelings in regard to director Lenka Udovicki's production of the drama at the Restored Shakespearean Globe in 2001. For Hornby, Vanessa Redgrave's commanding Prospero was brilliant, while the rest of the staging was disastrous. Regarding two more British productions of The Tempest, Catherine Bates praises Jonathan Kent's 2001 staging at the Almeida Theatre as an excellent and timely exploration of reality and illusion, while Russell Jackson finds James MacDonald's 2000 to 2001 Stratford production technically innovative, but emotionally lacking. A final area of contemporary critical interest in The Tempest as a performance piece follows the accelerating trend of translating Shakespearean drama to a celluloid medium. Mariacristina Cavecchi (1997), evaluating director Peter Greenaway's film adaptation entitled Prospero's Books, finds it an intriguing cinematic expression of Shakespeare's work in a postmodern idiom, which, though it departs significantly from its source text, expands upon the illusionistic themes and intertextual signification of the original.
Contemporary thematic assessments of The Tempest have asserted a range of interpretations, many of which attempt to explain its elements of wonder, fantasy, and illusion, as well as Prospero's role as an artist-magician. Rose Abdelnour Zimbardo (1963) comments on the mythic, romantic, and tragic patterns in The Tempest, and centers her study on the expansive quality of the play. Zimbardo maintains that the drama depicts a conflict between the forces of order and chaos, and focuses on Prospero as an artist figure who attempts to control the powers of mutability and disorder through his art. Featuring an allegorical understanding of The Tempest, in which Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban respectively symbolize the soul, spirit, and body, Richard Henze (1972) finds the drama's theme in Prospero's spiritual control of the corporeal, and in his ultimate rejection of idealized fantasy in favor of worldly reality. The reconciliation of illusion and reality features prominently in Kenneth J. Semon's (1973) reading, in which wonder and amazement become mechanisms of knowledge and freedom. Peter G. Platt (1997) follows a similar line of inquiry by analyzing The Tempest as a dramatic exploration of the powers of wonder and of its complex, paradoxical relationship to wisdom and reason. Finally, John D. Cox (2000) responds to twentieth-century idealist and Marxist-materialist studies of The Tempest by defending the viability of a Christian, moral reading that coexists with allegorical and cultural/historical evaluations of the drama.