Historical Background

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 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. In The 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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Enchanted island

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.

Modern Connections

(Shakespeare for Students)

The Tempest is filled with music, magic, and supernatural spirits, much of which appears during the betrothal masque conjured up by...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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.