Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Tempest is among Shakespeare's later plays. In it, Shakespeare returns to many of the old themes which recur throughout his dramatic work: themes of love mixed with themes of betrayal. At the same time, The Tempest shows Shakespeare's maturity in the ways in which, through the character of Prospero, the playwright seems to present a reflection on storytelling itself.
The character of Prospero looms over the entire narrative, driving it forward, and serves almost as a dramatic representation of Shakespeare himself. This is one of the most popular theories as far as The Tempest is concerned—Prospero is considered to be a semi-autobiographical character who provides a particularly enlightening lens through which to view the play and its actions.
The Tempest is a tale that, in many respects, takes place after critical events in the story have already happened: it deals, in large part, with the repercussions and resolution of an event which took place long before the narrative of the play. Antonio's betrayal, Prospero and Miranda's arrival on the island, and the friendship between Prospero and Caliban (as well as the resulting dissolution of that friendship after Caliban attempts to rape Miranda) are all critical events within the story that unfolded long before the play even begins.
Even so, the story largely concerns the continuing repercussions these events—via Prospero's attempts to reclaim his former station and Caliban's attempts to overthrow Prospero. Additionally, we see echoes of these past events; for example, Antonio (who had already overthrown Prospero) conspires with Sebastian to betray Alonso in order to usurp him as king of Naples. Here, we see the theme of betrayal in the past and in the present: Caliban's betrayal of Prospero and his daughter, as well as his subsequent attempt to overthrow Prospero; the usurpation of the duke of Milan; and the attempted murder of the king of Naples.
Finally, as noted above, Prospero looms large throughout the play, and it is interesting to consider how much his use of magic tends to resemble a kind of creative showmanship. Particularly notable is the way in which he makes a "character" of himself to further advance his designs.
After Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love, Prospero treats their love as the plot of a drama. It's not enough that they are in love—he must turn Ferdinand's pursuit of his daughter into a dramatic quest, while casting himself as the antagonist within that quest. It's all performative, and his magic tends to work similarly: he uses spirits and illusions in order to manipulate events and individuals to fulfill his designs. Within the world of The Tempest, Prospero does appear to be an author of sorts.
Most of Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, and tragedies were written during England’s “golden age” under the celebrated 45-year reign (1558-1603) of Queen Elizabeth I. Historically, the Elizabethan era took place in the wake of the Protestant Reformation when the English Renaissance was ushered in and the arts flourished. When King James I succeeded Elizabeth to the throne after her death in 1603, he continued, at least to some extent, the rich cultural legacy left by the late queen. The new king, a patron of the arts, agreed to sponsor the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s theatrical group.
By 1608, after an illustrious career as a playwright, Shakespeare turned away from the great tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear) and directed his creative energies toward the romances or tragi-comedies (The Tempest, Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale).
The romances involve improbable and fanciful events that border on imagination rather...
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than fact. Prospero’s magic is typical of the genre. Characters are often drawn in opposing categories of black and white and include the idealized heroine. InThe Tempest, for example, Miranda is portrayed as the pure image of chastity. Love in the romances is characteristically subjected to great difficulty. Miranda stands by anxiously as she watches Ferdinand bear the “trials of love” imposed upon him by Prospero.
The Tempest is tragi-comic with a serious plot that could be suitable for tragedy but ends happily like a comedy. The usurpation of Prospero’s dukedom and the plot of Antonio and Sebastian to kill Alonso and Gonzalo carry potential tragic elements, but the evil plans are eventually thwarted, and all ends happily.
The Tempest was first published in the Folio edition of 1623 where it was placed as the opening work. According to an account book at the Revel’s Office in Somerset House, the play was first performed at Whitehall on Hallowmas night, November 1, 1611. It was produced in court for the second time to celebrate the marriage of the daughter of James I, Princess Elizabeth, to the Elector Palatine in the winter of 1612-13.
There are no known sources for the main plot, but it is believed that Shakespeare used Strachey’s True Repertory of the Wrack and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates (dated July 15, 1610 and later published in Purchas His Pilgrims in 1625), Jourdain’s A Discovery of the Bermudas (published 1610), and the Virginia Council’s True Declaration of the Estate of the Colony in Virginia (published 1610). These publications are an account of the Virginia Company Expedition from Plymouth to Jamestown. News reached England that all except the flagship, The Sea Adventure, had arrived safely. It was rumored that the admiral, Sir George Somers, and the future governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas Gates, had drowned in a storm at sea. To everyone’s surprise, the two men miraculously appeared in Jamestown with the story that they had run aground on the isle of Bermuda. For the character of Caliban, Shakespeare also used Montaigne’s essay, “Of the Cannibals,” which praised the savage of the New World as the natural man. Since these sources are dated as late as 1610, Shakespeare could not have written the play much before it was performed in 1611.
Shakespeare’s new genre in his last plays was well-received by his early seventeenth-century audience and the public’s new interest did, in fact, reach far beyond to the end of the century with Shadwell’s tragi-comedy, Royal Shepherdess, and Dryden’s Secret Love.
The abundance of literary criticism on The Tempest dates back to the eighteenth century when Dr. Samuel Johnson apologizes for Shakespeare’s use of song. He feels that Ariel’s songs “express nothing great.” Coleridge praises the play for its morality, though he feels that Shakespeare “may sometimes be gross.” G. Wilson Knight approaches the play with a theme of immortality which is metaphorically expressed in terms of victorious love. Bordering on the allegorical, Knight’s view equates the sea to fortune, the tempests to children and birth, and gentleness to royal blood. For W. L. Godschalk, the central thrust of the play lies in the problems of government rather than the progress of the soul toward redemption.
Kermode’s thematic approach to The Tempest concerns the opposition between the worlds of Prospero’s art and Caliban’s nature. Zimbardo deals with the universal conflict between order and chaos, asserting that Prospero’s art is an attempt at imposing form on the formless. She places Caliban at the center of disorder, conceding, however, that he too feels the effect of the harmony or order of the island but just for a moment. Reflecting the literary criticism of the nineteenth century, James Russell Lowell sees the play as an allegory in which Prospero represents imagination, Ariel is seen as fancy, and Caliban as brute understanding. Nutall, though an allegorist, rejects Lowell’s nineteenth-century view. He sees The Tempest as a metaphysical allegory in which Ariel and Caliban could be the psychic processes.
In contrast to the allegorists who have idealized Prospero as Shakespeare himself, Cutts would have us believe that Prospero is out for revenge, selfishly seeking his own end which is the restoration of his power. Unlike Cutts, Northrop Frye contrasts Prospero’s “white magic” with the “black magic” of Sycorax. Prospero’s motives are good, he reasons, and in tune with the higher order of nature. Sisson also feels that in view of Parliament’s statute against witchcraft and the conjuration of evil spirits, Shakespeare would have been careful to make a sharp distinction between the evil powers of Sycorax representing “black magic” and the “white magic” of Prospero which does not deal with incantations in the performance of magic.
Enchanted island. Remote home of the rightful duke of Milan, Prospero, as well as his daughter Miranda and his slave Caliban. Presumably the almost deserted island is in the Mediterranean Sea, but it resembles the tropical islands of even more remote seas around the world that European navigators were beginning to discover during William Shakespeare’s time. Europeans were coming to expect far-off islands to be home to strange creatures and peoples, such as Prospero’s islander slave, Caliban. To the Europeans, remote tropical islands also seemed like earthly paradises, recalling myths of an original Golden Age or a new Utopia.
Such earthly paradises—or any new lands, for that matter—were starting to be occupied by Europeans without much regard for their original inhabitants. A microcosm of this developing colonial mentality exists in The Tempest, whose island originally belonged to Caliban, who is described as a “savage” and “monster.” After becoming stranded on the island with his young daughter, Prospero at first coexists peacefully with Caliban. However, when Caliban tries to mate with Miranda, Prospero takes over the island and enslaves Caliban.
What enables Prospero to enslave Caliban so easily is his knowledge gained from books (much superior to the black magic of Caliban’s mother, a witch). Through this knowledge, Prospero is able to torture Caliban’s joints and give him nightmares. Prospero uses the same knowledge to draw his European enemies to the island, stir up a storm that shipwrecks them, and harass them until they beg forgiveness. Prospero is an archetypal figure of the scientist, and his abilities to play music in the air, control the weather, and call on spirits to do his bidding make the island a science and technology museum.
The Tempest is filled with music, magic, and supernatural spirits, much of which appears during the betrothal masque conjured up by Prospero for Ferdinand and Miranda in IV.i. A masque is an elaborate theatrical production with little or no plot, usually featuring characters from mythology and consisting of music, dance, and splendid costumes. Masques were a popular form of courtly entertainment in Shakespeare's time, particularly during the reign of King James I. At their height, they were showcases for special effects: trapdoors and ropes on pulleys were used to raise and lower actors and props; scenery was painted on panels that would shift to reveal different locations or convey a sense of animation. Mountains were constructed onstage that would open up to reveal caves. Smoke was used to conceal stage machinery, and multicolored lighting was devised for illumination and dramatic effect. Renaissance audiences watching the betrothal masque in The Tempest would have been treated to goddesses dressed in gorgeous costumes and Juno "magically" descending in a "car," or chariot. Today, audiences continue to be fascinated with the magic of special effects. It can be argued, for example, that films such as Total Recall (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), Twister (1996), and Independence Day (1996) have been more popular for their spectacular illusions and computer imaging than for their storylines.
Shakespeare wrote The Tempest at a time when Europeans were voyaging to and colonizing the Americas, or the New World. Critics have pointed out that colonial attitudes toward the original inhabitants of the New World were extreme and contradictory. On the one hand, natives were described as pure and noble dwellers in paradise; on the other, they were called vicious savages who needed to be civilized for their own good as well as for the safety of the colonists. It has been suggested that the character of Caliban reveals these distorted views at least in part, and that his presence also demonstrates the Renaissance fascination with the New World inhabitants as novelties or sideshows rather than as people. Trinculo underlines this point on his first encounter with Prospero's slave in II.ii.31-33, when he observes that a "strange beast" like Caliban would be worth a fortune in England, where they will not give a do it to relieve a lame beggar, [but] they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian." Thus Shakespeare reflects the advent of an issue which continues to be problematical today, as indigenous people work to preserve their heritage and to educate others about their culture.
Finally, the fact that Alonso and his courtiers at first believe themselves to be shipwrecked far from home on an uninhabited island results in Gonzalo's cheerful description in II.i.148-57, 160-65 of what, under the circumstances, could be an ideal commonwealth:
I' th' commonwealth I would, by contraries, Execute all things; for no kind of traffic Would I admit; no name of magistrate; Letters should not be known; riches, poverty, And use of service, none; contract, succession, Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil; No occupation, all men idle, all; And women too, but innocent and pure; No sovereignty—
All things in common nature should produce Without sweat of endeavor: treason, felony, Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine, Would I not have; but nature should bring forth, Of it own kind, all foison, all abundance, To feed my innocent people.
Gonzalo's depiction of a community without commerce, laws, money, work, or literacy sounds extreme to his fellow castaways as well as to modern audiences; all the same, this exercise in reinventing society is relevant today in light of people's discontentment with taxes and "big government," and in the wake of recent experiments in overhauling health care, welfare, and education.
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.
Primary Sources Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
The First Folio of Shakespeare, The Norton Facsimile, ed. Charlton Hinman. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968.
Secondary Sources Berger, Karol. “Prospero’s Art,” Shakespeare Studies, Vol. X. New York: Burt Franklin, 1977.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Shakespearean Criticism. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1961.
Craig, Hardin. “Magic in The Tempest,” Philological Quarterly, 47 (1968): 8-15.
Cutts, John P. “The Tempest, the Sweet Fruition of Revenge,” Rich and Strange. Washington State University Press, 1968.
Dowden, Edward. Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1875.
Dryden, John. “Prologue to The Tempest,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968.
Frye, Northrop. A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.
Godschalk, William Leigh. Patterning in Shakespearean Drama: Essays in Criticism. University of Cincinatti: Mouton-The-Hague-Paris, 1973.
Johnson, Samuel. Johnson’s Notes to Shakespeare. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1956.
Kermode, Frank. The Arden Shakespeare, The Tempest. London: Methuen, 1969.
Knight, G. Wilson. The Crown of Life: Essays in Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Final Plays. London: Oxford University Press, 1947.
Long, John H. Shakespeare’s Use of Music. Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Press, 1961.
Lowell, James Russell. The English Poets. London: Kennikat Press, 1888.
Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1950.
Nuttall, A. D. Two Concepts of Allegory, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.
Sisson, C. J. “The Magic of Prospero,” Shakespeare Survey II. London: Cambridge University Press, 1958.
Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: The Last Phase. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1969.
Virgil. The Aeneid, ed. Moses Hadas. London: Bantam Books, 1965.
Wright, Neil. “Reality and Illusion as a Philosophical Pattern in The Tempest,” Shakespeare Studies, Vol. X. New York: Burt Franklin, 1977.
Zimbardo, Rose A. “Form and Disorder in The Tempest,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (1963): 49-56.