(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 612 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 1019 words.)