Discussion Topic

The significance of the beginning, ending, and title of The Tempest


The beginning of The Tempest establishes the play's themes of power and control through the storm that shipwrecks the characters. The ending signifies reconciliation and forgiveness as Prospero forgives his enemies and relinquishes his magical powers. The title reflects both the literal storm and the tumultuous events and emotions experienced by the characters throughout the play.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the beginning and ending of The Tempest?

The play opens with a violent storm at sea that leads a ship filled with important personages to shipwreck on a deserted island. As we find out in act 1, scene 2, this storm was the first step in Prospero's plan to revenge himself on the people who betrayed him and stole his kingdom. Prospero's enemies usurped his kingdom and put he and his very young daughter, Miranda, out to sea in a leaky vessel. Now, however, Prospero, formerly the duke of Milan, has his chance for payback against his brother Antonio, who stole his dukedom, and Alonso, the king of Naples, who worked with Antonio to betray him. Prospero, with his skills in magic and the magical sprite Ariel under his command, has a strong advantage over his captives.

However, by the end of the play, having confused, accused, and scared his enemies, Prospero has a change of heart. This occurs when Ariel expresses his pity at how frightened the shipwrecked people are. Prospero feels that if a mere sprite, who isn't human, can feel mercy for his captives, he, too, should take the higher path. Prospero decides to do what is rarely done to enemies in one's power: he forgives them and sets them free. He even forgives Antonio, the chief villain, despite Antonio's lack of remorse.

The play shows a movement from vengeance to forgiveness and makes it clear that in his final act of mercy, Prospero has found his better and higher self.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the title The Tempest?

Some Shakespearean scholars and critics, including Hallett Smith and Frank Kermode, suggest that the title of Shakespeare's last fully Shakespeare-written play should be The Island, or Prospero's Island, rather than The Tempest. They argue that the storm at sea occupies only one scene in the play, whereas the island itself remains constant throughout the play and is the location for all of the action in the play.

However, The Tempest isn't about the storm at sea. The raging tempest is simply an illusion that Prospero uses to deceive his intended captives and to bring all of those onboard the ship onto his island so he can manipulate and control them. Prospero shipwrecks his enemies and forces them to his island in much the same way that Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, were cast adrift and landed on this island twelve years ago, for which he intends to avenge himself against his enemies.

Rather than referring to the storm—which doesn't truly exist—the title is symbolic of the turmoil between, among, and within the characters themselves and the multiple subplots which compete for the audience's attention. There's no character in the play who isn't at odds at one time or another with another character or group of characters. Even Miranda, ever the loving daughter, is at odds with her father for bringing the violent storm against the ship and everyone aboard it.

MIRANDA. If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
... O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces!
(act 1, scene 2, lines 1–8)

Prospero assures Miranda and the audience that it's all an illusion.

PROSPERO. Be collected.
No more amazement. Tell your piteous heart
There's no harm done.

The direful spectacle of the wreck, which touched
The very virtue of compassion in thee,
I have with such provision in mine art
So safely ordered that there is no soul—
No, not so much perdition as an hair
Betid to any creature in the vessel
Which thou heard'st cry, which though saw'st sink.
(act 1, scene 2, lines 14–16, 30–37)

No one was hurt by the storm or the shipwreck. In fact, Prospero does nothing to the involuntary guests on his island except frighten and confuse them with magic and illusions, humiliate Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio—who Ariel calls the "three men of sin"— in the banquet scene, and thwart the doomed-to-fail assassination plot initiated against him by his slave Caliban, and Caliban's cohorts, Trinculo and Stephano.

The Tempest is ultimately a play about the self-discovery, forgiveness, reconciliation, and reunion that arise from by the spiritual turmoil of the characters who were brought together by the illusion of a storm.

Prospero forgives and reconciles with his primary enemies, Alonso, the king of Naples, and Prospero's brother, Antonio, who usurped Prospero's dukedom of Milan twelve years earlier. Alonso agrees to the marriage of Miranda and his son, Ferdinand. Ariel receives his long-promised and long-delayed freedom. As the others sail away to Milan, Caliban is left once again the master of what was originally his own island.

Finally, as Prospero promised, when all of these things are accomplished, Prospero frees himself and everyone else from his magic.

PROSPERO. And, when I have required
Some heavenly music—which even now I do—
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
(act 5, scene 1, lines 56–62)

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the title The Tempest?

First, and most obviously, Shakespeare called the play The Tempest because the play's action centers around the effects of a violent storm. Prospero, with the help of Ariel, conjures up the weather that shipwrecks the royal party made up of Alonso, Ferdinand, Sebastian, Antonio, Gonzalo, Stephano, and Trinculo and then punishes them for leaving him and his daughter on the island twelve years previously.

In this regard, the title also refers to Prospero's all-consuming anger toward them. The tempest is not something that he has conjured on the spur of the moment. He has been planning his revenge for years. Even to the point that he arranges for Ferdinand to come immediately to him in order to encourage a relationship between him and his daughter, Miranda.

However, like with all storms, Prospero's anger doesn't last. It reaches a certain high, in this case as early as the storm itself, then dies down. Only when he's faced with the consequences of his actions can Prospero slowly piece everything back together and finally find peace with himself and others.

Finally, the title refers to how Prospero has come to see himself as some sort of God who can manipulate and control everything around him, including the weather. As a God, he feels he has the right to enslave people and bend them to his will simply because feels he has a higher more important objective.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the title The Tempest?

A tempest is a violent storm and considering that the first scene of the play takes place in such a storm, the title is quite fitting. It is this tempest, caused by Prospero's magic, that results in the entire plot and action of the play.

There is a symbolic meaning to the play's title as well. The relationships between many of the characters are as chaotic as a violent storm. Nothing goes smoothly for anyone, even the would-be puppet-master Prospero. He has to endure a mutiny that nearly throws all his plans awry.

Antonio's true motivations are laid plain to the King of Naples. The King for his part is distraught over the feared loss of his son. Almost nobody respects Gonzalo, despite his wisdom and optimistic outlook. Throughout all of this, we see Prospero's extreme anger towards his brother building before eventually subsiding as a storm does.

As we can see, the literal tempest exposed a the underlying stormy relationships between nearly every character in the play. In this sense, it is a very appropriate title.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the title The Tempest?

In The Tempest, the final work that Shakespeare completed on his own, a sorcerer named Prospero hatches a plot to use his illusory powers to restore Miranda, his daughter, to her proper place. By creating a storm, he forces his deceitful brother to come under the illusion that they are shipwrecked on an island where the snake-like and conniving nature of Prospero's brother Antonio will be revealed. As a consequence, Prospero's daughter will marry the king's son Ferdinand.

The definition of tempest, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a violent storm." Thus, The Tempest refers, quite literally, to Prospero's storm that shipwrecks his brother and the king. On a deeper, more literary note, however, the titular tempest refers to the tumultuous plot of the play. With many different intersecting story lines, The Tempest, like most of Shakespeare's work, is structurally and literarily complex. While Prospero's scheme originally is seemingly simple, the tempest he conjures up in order to shipwreck Antonio ultimately creates a metaphorical tempest. Meanwhile, while the King and Antonio are shipwrecked, two drunkards attempt to create a rebellion against Prospero, Prospero attempts to play matchmaker with his daughter and the King's son, and Antonio and the King's brother plan to murder the King in order to commandeer power.

The Tempest contains two tempests: a literal storm, and a metaphorical tempest that refers to the chaotic plot that is set in motion.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the title The Tempest?

The title of The Tempest has both literal and metaphorical significance. Literally, it refers to the storm, or tempest, whipped up by Prospero's magic to shipwreck the King of Naples and his crew. As storms go, it is quite torrid, but not fatal. Prospero might be a magician who is deeply embittered by his treatment, but he is not an evil man. He wants to make a point to those responsible for his banishment.

Just as a literal tempest brings the King of Naples to the island, so a metaphorical tempest originally brought Prospero there twelve years ago. Prospero had been Duke of Milan until he was overthrown in a palace coup by his sneaky brother, then cast out into exile. This sudden, rapid handover of power was itself a political storm, one that will have profound repercussions as the play progresses.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the title The Tempest in terms of symbolism, imagery, and Shakespeare's time?

The Tempest starts with an actual storm, or tempest, created by Ariel to bring ashore to the island the men who helped Antonio usurp the throne that belongs rightfully to Prospero. The imagery of the ship in the storm is of a vessel that the high seas and violent winds have torn asunder. As the ship is about to go down in Act I, scene 1, voices cry out:

"Mercy on us!—We split, we split!—Farewell, my wife and children!—Farewell, brother!—We split, we split, we split!" (lines 36-38)

The image of the ship being torn apart has a symbolic meaning as well, as the ship of state (referring to the government) is about to be torn apart too. Antonio, who has wrongfully usurped the dukedom, is eventually to be unseated in favor of Prospero, the rightful duke. The storm is a symbol for the coming dissolution of the current political structure. 

The significance of The Tempest in Shakespeare's time is that it was written in 1610, a year after the British first colonized Virginia. A ship called the Sea Venture was wrecked during a storm off Bermuda in 1609 during the third supply mission to the new colony of Virginia, and its wreck is believed to have inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the title The Tempest in terms of symbolism, imagery, and Shakespeare's time?

This title can be understood on both a literal and symbolic level. First of all, the literal definition of a "tempest" is a violent disturbance, sometimes related to weather, sometimes related to other upsetting commotion.

As the play begins, we meet the magician Prospero (ex-Duke of Milan), his lovely daughter, Miranda, the spirit of the winds, Ariel, as well as other spirits who live on a tropical, enchanted island. Prospero and the spirits battle a ship at sea transporting enemies. The enemies scatter over the island. The Price of Naples, Ferdinand, meets Miranda and falls in love with the handsome prince.

Thus, the tempest is literally the storm, and symbolically the disruption of the enchanted life of seclusion that Prospero has enjoyed.

As for the "effect of the era," Shakesperian scholar Stephen Greenblatt says the "Shakesperare's contemporaries were fascinated by the figure of the "magus" the great magician who by dint of deep learning, ascetic discipline and patient skill could command the secret forces of the natural and supernatural world." Though feelings about the occult were mixed, people were interested. Therefore, it is not surprising that characters like Prospero and Ariel crop up in the Renaissance.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on