When Shakespeare came to write The Tempest in 1610, the recent establishment of English colonies in the New World spurred interest among the dramatist’s contemporaries in the differences among peoples in the two hemispheres. That led to philosophical speculations about human nature itself: Are all people the same, no matter where they live? How much does one’s environment affect one’s behavior and, more importantly, one’s outlook on life? These are the questions that underlie Shakespeare’s last drama, a play that transcends the traditional definitions of tragedy or comedy to encompass elements of both.
The action in The Tempest is set on a remote island where Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan, has been living in exile with his daughter, Miranda. They are attended by airy spirits and by the subhuman creature Caliban. As the play opens, Prospero creates a storm that causes a shipwreck. The castaways from the ship include the young nobleman, Ferdinand, whose interest in Miranda becomes apparent from the moment he sees her. For her part, Miranda does not know how to respond to Ferdinand’s attention. She has never seen a man other than her father, although Caliban, certainly a male, displays some lurid interest in her, and she is appropriately repulsed by him. While the young lovers are working out their relationship, Prospero’s brother, Antonio, who had usurped Prospero’s throne, arrives at the island in search of Ferdinand. Prospero takes this opportunity to set things right, convincing his brother to give up his claims to the throne. At the play’s end, everyone is ready to return to Milan, fortified with what they have learned about virtue while on the island.
More than one critic has pointed out the highly metaphoric nature of this drama and the extensive use of lyrical language throughout. The Tempest may be Shakespeare’s most poetic play. That is not surprising, since Prospero is the dramatist’s most definitive portrait of the artist. Like the poet (the word comes from the Greek, meaning “maker”) who creates from nothing an illusion of reality and a commentary on truth, Prospero sustains the world around him on the island largely through his own efforts, and others are dependent on him for their very lives.
Hence, a central theme of this play is the investigation of the nature of reality itself. Throughout, Shakespeare deals with problems of reality and illusion. His central character, Prospero, has the powers of a magician; he is able to cast spells, affect the elements, and influence action by invoking mystical powers. This master of illusion suggests on more than one occasion that what is real is not always what one perceives, and that life itself is merely an illusion, a fiction grounded in reality but transcending it. In fact, the implication is that what is most valuable about human nature cannot always be explained in realistic terms. Equally important is Shakespeare’s contrasting nature with art or artifice. Prospero’s world is one that he has constructed (often, it is suggested, with the help of his magic) out of the natural world that he has found on the island. Through this contrast, Shakespeare is able to explore an issue that was becoming of significant concern to his contemporaries: Are individuals better in their natural state, or in the civilized society that they have created? If one assumes Caliban is the playwright’s example of “natural man,” it is clear on which side of the debate Shakespeare rests. Order, decorum, and artifice are held in high esteem by the admirable characters in this drama—and, by implication, they are the values in which Shakespeare himself believes.
Alonso, the king of Naples, is returning from the wedding of his daughter to a foreign prince when his ship is overtaken by a terrible storm. In his company are Duke Antonio of Milan and other gentlemen of the court. As the gale rises in fury and it seems certain the vessel will split and sink, the noble travelers are forced to abandon ship and trust to fortune in the open sea.
The tempest is no chance disturbance of wind and wave. It was raised by a wise magician, Prospero, when the ship sails close to an enchanted island on which he and his lovely daughter, Miranda, are the only human inhabitants. Theirs is a sad and curious history. Prospero is the rightful duke of Milan, but being devoted more to the study of philosophy and magic than to affairs of state, he gave much power to his ambitious brother, Antonio, who twelve years earlier seized the dukedom with the aid of the crafty Neapolitan king. Prospero and his small daughter were set adrift in a boat by the conspirators, and they would have perished miserably had not Gonzalo, an honest counselor, secretly stocked the frail craft with food, clothing, and some of the books Prospero valued most.
The exiles drift at last to an island that is the refuge of Sycorax, an evil sorceress. There Prospero found Caliban, her son, a strange, misshapen creature of brute intelligence, able only to hew wood and draw water. In addition, there were many good spirits of air and water who became obedient to Prospero’s will when he freed them from torments to which the sorceress Sycorax had condemned them. Chief among these is Ariel, a lively sprite.
Prospero, using his magic arts to draw the ship bearing King Alonso and Duke Antonio close to his enchanted island, orders Ariel to bring the whole party safely ashore, singly or in scattered groups. Ferdinand, King Alonso’s son, is moved by Ariel’s singing to follow the sprite to Prospero’s rocky cell. Miranda, who does not remember ever seeing a human face other than her father’s bearded one, at first sight falls deeply in love with the handsome young prince, and he with her. Prospero is pleased to see the young people so attracted to each other, but he conceals his pleasure, speaks harshly to them, and, to test Ferdinand’s mettle, commands him to perform menial tasks.
Meanwhile Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and Gonzalo wander sadly along the beach, the king in despair because he believes his son drowned. Ariel, invisible in the air, plays solemn music, lulling to sleep all except Sebastian and Antonio. Drawing apart, they plan to kill the king and his counselor and make Sebastian tyrant of Naples. Watchful Ariel awakens the sleepers before the plotters can act.
On another part of the island, Caliban, carrying a load of wood, meets Trinculo, the king’s jester, and Stephano, the royal butler, both drunk. In rude sport they offer a drink to Caliban. Tipsy, the loutish monster declares he will be their slave forever.
Like master, like servant. Just as Sebastian and Antonio plot to murder Alonso, so Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano scheme to kill Prospero and become rulers of the island. Stephano is to be king, Miranda his consort, and Trinculo and Caliban will be viceroys. Unseen, Ariel listens to their evil designs and reports the plan to Prospero.
Miranda disobeys her father’s injunction on interrupting Ferdinand in his task of rolling logs and the two exchange lovers’ vows, which are overheard by the magician. Satisfied with the prince’s declarations of devotion and constancy, Prospero leaves them to their happy company. He and Ariel go to mock Alonso and his followers by showing them a banquet that vanishes before the hungry castaways can taste the rich dishes. Then Ariel, disguised as a harpy, reproaches them for their conspiracy against Prospero. Convinced that Ferdinand’s death is punishment for his own crime, Alonso is moved to repentance for his cruel deed.
Returning to his cave, Prospero releases Ferdinand from his task. While spirits dressed as Ceres, Iris, Juno, nymphs, and reapers entertain Miranda and the prince with a pastoral masque, Prospero suddenly remembers the schemes being entertained by Caliban and the drunken servants. Told to punish the plotters, after tempting them with a display of kingly garments, Ariel and his fellow spirits, now in the shapes of fierce hunting dogs, drive the plotters howling with pain and rage through bogs and briar patches.
Convinced that the king of Naples and his false brother Antonio repented the evil deed they did him years before, Prospero commands Ariel to bring them into the enchanted circle before the magician’s cell. With strange, beautiful music, Ariel lures the king, Antonio, Sebastian, and Gonzalo to the cell, where they are astonished to see Prospero in the appearance and dress of the wronged duke of Milan. Prospero confirms his identity, orders Antonio to restore his dukedom, and severely warns Sebastian not to plot further against the king. Finally, he takes the repentant Alonso into the cave, where he sees Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess. A joyful reunion follows between father and son, and the king is completely captivated by the beauty and grace of Miranda. During this scene of reconciliation and rejoicing, Ariel appears with the master and boatswain of the wrecked ship, who report the vessel safe and ready to continue the voyage. Ariel drives the three grotesque conspirators into the cell, where Prospero releases them from their spell. Caliban is ordered to prepare food and set it before the guests, and Prospero invites his brother and the king of Naples and his entourage to spend the night in his cave.
Before he leaves the island, Prospero dismisses Ariel from his service, leaving that sprite free to wander as he wishes. Ariel promises calm seas and auspicious winds for the voyage back to Naples and Milan, from where Prospero will journey to take possession of his lost dukedom and to witness the marriage of his daughter and Prince Ferdinand.