The Tempest is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1610–11, and thought by many critics to be the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone. It is set on a remote island, where Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place using illusion and skillful manipulation. He conjures up a storm, the eponymous tempest, to lure his usurping brother Antonio and the complicit King Alonso of Naples to the island. There, his machinations bring about the revelation of Antonio’s lowly nature, the redemption of the King, and the marriage of Miranda to Alonso’s son, Ferdinand


  • Prospero, the main character. The overthrown Duke of Milan. He now lives on an island and has become a great sorcerer.
  • Miranda, Prospero‘s daughter, who falls in love with the Prince of Naples, Ferdinand.
  • Ariel, a mischievous spirit who does Prospero‘s bidding and is visible only to him. He became Prospero‘s “slave” because he was saved by Prospero from being trapped in a tree by Sycorax.
  • Caliban, a villainous island native, son of a witch named Sycorax (see below), who ruled the island before Prospero arrived. He now works as Prospero‘s slave but despises him. In the play, he is known to have said many colorful curses. An example is “a southwest wind blow on ye and blister ye o’er”.
  • Sycorax, a deceased Algerian sorceress and mother of Caliban who was banished to the island before Prospero arrived and enslaved the spirits on the island, including Ariel. She is not seen or heard in the play, only referred to by other characters.
  • Iris, Ceres, and Juno, spirits and goddesses
  • Alonso, King of Naples
  • Sebastian, Alonso’s treacherous brother.
  • Antonio, Prospero‘s brother, who usurped his position as Duke of Milan. He and Sebastian plot unsuccessfully to kill Alonso and his family to come to the throne.
  • Ferdinand, Alonso’s son. Falls in love with Miranda.
  • Gonzalo, a kindly Neapolitan courtier, who secretly provided Prospero and Miranda with food, water, and books when they were pushed out to sea.
  • Adrian and Francisco, lords.
  • Trinculo, the King’s jester and friend of Stephano.
  • Stephano, the King’s drunken steward and friend of Trinculo who tries to help Caliban overthrow his master
  • Boatswain
  • Master of the ship

Synopsis/Condensed Outline of the Plot

The magician Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, have been stranded for twelve years on an island after Prospero’s jealous brother Antonio (aided by Alonso, the King of Naples) deposed him and set him adrift with the then-3-year-old Miranda. Gonzalo, the King’s counsellor, had secretly supplied their boat with plenty of food, water, clothes and the most-prized books from Prospero’s library. Possessing magic powers due to his great learning, Prospero is reluctantly served by a spirit, Ariel, whom Prospero had rescued from a tree in which he had been trapped by the witch Sycorax. Prospero maintains Ariel‘s loyalty by repeatedly promising to release the “airy spirit” from servitude. Sycorax had been banished to the island, and had died before Prospero‘s arrival. Her son, Caliban, a deformed monster and the only non-spiritual inhabitant before the arrival of Prospero, was initially adopted and raised by him. He taught Prospero how to survive on the island, while Prospero and Miranda taught Caliban religion and their own language. Following Caliban‘s attempted rape of Miranda, he had been compelled by Prospero to serve as the magician’s slave. In slavery, Caliban has come to view Prospero as an usurper and has grown to resent him and his daughter. Prospero and Miranda in turn view Caliban with contempt and disgust. The play opens as Prospero, having divined that his brother, Antonio, is on a ship passing close by the island, has raised a tempest which causes the ship to run aground. Also on the ship are Antonio’s friend and fellow conspirator, King Alonso of Naples, Alonso’s brother and son (Sebastian and Ferdinand), and Alonso’s advisor, Gonzalo. All these passengers are returning from the wedding of Alonso’s daughter Claribel with the King of Tunis. Prospero contrives to separate the shipwreck survivors into several groups by his spells, and so Alonso and Ferdinand are separated, each believing the other to be dead.

Three plots then alternate through the play. In one, Caliban falls in with Stephano and Trinculo, two drunkards, who he believes have come from the moon. They attempt to raise a rebellion against Prospero, which ultimately fails. In another, Prospero works to establish a romantic relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda; the two fall immediately in love, but Prospero worries that “too light winning [may] make the prize light,” and compels Ferdinand to become his servant, pretending that he regards him as a spy. In the third subplot, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso and Gonzalo so that Sebastian can become King. Ariel thwarts them, at Prospero’s command. Ariel appears to the “three men of sin” (Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian) as a harpy, reprimanding them for their betrayal of Prospero. Prospero manipulates the course of his enemies’ path through the island, drawing them closer and closer to him. In the conclusion, all the main characters are brought together before Prospero, who forgives Alonso. He also forgives Antonio and Sebastian, but warns them against further betrayal. Ariel is charged to prepare the proper sailing weather to guide Alonso and his entourage (including Prospero and Miranda) back to the Royal fleet and then to Naples, where Ferdinand and Miranda will be married. After discharging this task, Ariel will finally be free. Prospero pardons Caliban, who is sent to prepare Prospero’s cell, to which Alonso and his party are invited for a final night before their departure. Prospero indicates that he intends to entertain them with the story of his life on the island. Prospero has resolved to break and bury his magic staff, and “drown” his book of magic, and in his epilogue, shorn of his magic powers, he invites the audience to set him free from the island with their applause.

Themes and motifs

the theatre

The Tempest is explicitly concerned with its own nature as a play, frequently drawing links between Prospero’s Art and theatrical illusion; the shipwreck was a spectacle that Ariel performed, while Antonio and Sebastian are cast in a troop to act.[16] Prospero may even refer to the Globe Theatre when he describes the whole world as an illusion: “the great globe … shall dissolve … like this insubstantial pageant”.[17] Ariel frequently disguises himself as figures from Classical mythology, for example a nymph, a harpy, and Ceres, acting as the latter in a masque and anti-masque that Prospero creates.[18] Early critics, such as Thomas Campbell in 1838, saw this constant allusion to the theatre as an indication that Prospero was meant to represent Shakespeare; the character’s renunciation of magic thus signalling Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. This theory persists among later critics, and remains solidly within the critical canon.[19]


Magic was a controversial subject in Shakespeare’s day. In Italy in 1600, Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for his occult studies. Outside the Catholic world, in Protestant England where Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, magic was also taboo; not all “magic”, however, was considered evil.[20] Several thinkers took a more rational approach to the study of the supernatural, with the determination to discover the workings of unusual phenomena. The German Henricus Cornelius Agrippa was one such thinker, who published in De Occulta Philosophia (1531, 1533) his observations of “divine” magic. Agrippa’s work influenced Dr. John Dee, an Englishman and student of supernatural phenomena. Both Agrippa and Dee describe a kind of magic similar to Prospero’s: one that is based on 16th-century science, rationality, and divinity, rather than the occult. When King James took the throne, Dee found himself under attack for his beliefs, but was able to defend himself successfully by explaining the divine nature of his profession. However, he died in disgrace in 1608.[21] Shakespeare is also careful to make the distinction that Prospero is a rational, and not an occultist, magician. He does this by providing a contrast to him in Sycorax. Sycorax is said to have worshipped the devil and been full of “earthy and abhored commands”. She was unable to control Ariel, who was “too delicate” for such dark tasks. Prospero’s rational goodness enables him to control Ariel where Sycorax can only trap him in a tree. Sycorax’s magic is frequently described as destructive and terrible, where Prospero’s is said to be wondrous and beautiful. Prospero seeks to set things right in his world through his magic, and once that is done, he renounces it, setting Ariel free.[21]

The soul

The Tempest can be interpreted as Shakespeare’s last treatise on the human soul, in particular the Renaissance conception of the tripartite soul divided into vegetative, sensitive, and rational spheres, as described in both Platonic and some Christian Philosophy (and later in Freud’s id, ego and super ego) which was first linked to The Tempest in the 1956 screenplay for Forbidden Planet by Cyril Hume, Irving Block, and Allen Adler, which presents us with ‘monsters from the Id’, although the theory is dismissed as ‘obsolete’ in that imagined future, and later and more scholarly by James E Phillips in 1964.[22] Prospero is exiled to an island with a symbol of his baser, ‘vegetative’ nature – Caliban – and his higher, ‘sensitive’ or supernatural side – Ariel. Some productions have seen the same actor play all three roles, making them symbols of the conflict within a fully actualised or awakened Prospero – that between crude selfish physicality and a higher, mystical side. For as long as Prospero is battling with these qualities and lost in books, he is banished from Milan. As the play finds its conclusion, he is both able to accept his base, brutal nature (“this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” he says when taking responsibility for Caliban) while letting go of his connection with higher, powerful forces (“then to the elements be free, and fare thou well” he says, setting Ariel free). Abandoning magic and acknowledging the brutal potential of his nature, he is allowed to return to his rightful place as Duke, subject to agreement from the audience: “as you from crimes would pardon’d be, let your indulgence set me free.”


The story draws heavily on the tradition of the romance, a fictitious narrative set far away from ordinary life. Romances were typically based around themes such as the supernatural, wandering, exploration and discovery. They were often set in coastal regions, and typically featured exotic, fantastical locations and themes of transgression and redemption, loss and retrieval, exile and reunion. As a result, while The Tempest was originally listed as a comedy in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, subsequent editors have chosen to give it the more specific label of Shakespearean romance. Like the other romances, the play was influenced by the then-new genre of tragicomedy, introduced by John Fletcher in the first decade of the 17th century and developed in the Beaumont and Fletcher collaborations, as well as by the explosion of development of the courtly masque form by such as Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones at the same time.[23]

Dramatic structure

The Tempest differs from Shakespeare’s other plays in its observation of a stricter, more organised neoclassical style. The clearest indication of this is Shakespeare’s respect for the three unities in the play: the Unities of Time, Place, and Action. Shakespeare’s other plays rarely respected the three unities, taking place in separate locations miles apart and over several days or even years.[24] The play’s events unfold in real time before the audience, Prospero even declaring in the last act that everything has happened in, more or less, three hours.[25][26] All action is unified into one basic plot: Prospero’s struggle to regain his dukedom; it is also confined to one place, a fictional island, which many scholars agree is meant to be located in the Mediterranean Sea.[27] Another reading suggests that it takes place in the New World, as some parts read like records of English and Spanish conquest in the Americas.[28] Still others argue that the Island can represent any land that has been colonised.[29]


In Shakespeare’s day, much of the world was still being discovered by European seafarers, and stories were coming back from distant islands, with myths about the Cannibals of the Caribbean, faraway Edens, and distant tropical Utopias. With the character Caliban (whose name is almost an anagram of Cannibal and also resembles “Cariban”, the term then used for natives in the West Indies), Shakespeare may be offering an in-depth discussion into the morality of colonialism. Different views of this are found in the play, with examples including Gonzalo‘s Utopia, Prospero‘s enslavement of Caliban, and Caliban’s subsequent resentment. Caliban is also shown as one of the most natural characters in the play, being very much in touch with the natural world (and modern audiences have come to view him as far nobler than his two Old World friends, Stephano and Trinculo, although the original intent of the author may have been different). There is evidence that Shakespeare drew on Montaigne‘s essay Of Cannibals—which discusses the values of societies insulated from European influences—while writing The Tempest.[30] Beginning in about 1950, with the publication of Psychology of Colonization by Octave Mannoni, The Tempest was viewed more and more through the lens of postcolonial theory. This new way of looking at the text explored the effect of the coloniser (Prospero) on the colonised (Ariel and Caliban). Though Ariel is often overlooked in these debates in favour of the more intriguing Caliban, he is nonetheless an essential component of them.[31] The French writer Aimé Césaire, in his play Une Tempête sets The Tempest in Haiti, portraying Ariel as a mulatto who, unlike the more rebellious Caliban, feels that negotiation and partnership is the way to freedom from the colonisers. Fernandez Retamar sets his version of the play in Cuba, and portrays Ariel as a wealthy Cuban (in comparison to the lower-class Caliban) who also must choose between rebellion or negotiation.[32] Although scholars have suggested that his dialogue with Caliban in Act two, Scene one, contains hints of a future alliance between the two when Prospero leaves, Ariel is generally viewed by scholars as the good servant, in comparison with the conniving Caliban—a view which Shakespeare’s audience may well have shared.[33] Ariel is used by some postcolonial writers as a symbol of their efforts to overcome the effects of colonisation on their culture. For example, Michelle Cliff, a Jamaican author, has said that she tries to combine Caliban and Ariel within herself to create a way of writing that represents her culture better. Such use of Ariel in postcolonial thought is far from uncommon; the spirit is even the namesake of a scholarly journal covering post-colonial criticism.[31]


Prospero, Ariel and sleeping Miranda from a painting by William Hamilton

The Tempest has only one female character, Miranda. Other women, such as Caliban’s mother Sycorax, Miranda’s mother and Alonso’s daughter Claribel, are only mentioned. Because of the small role women play in the story in comparison to other Shakespeare plays, The Tempest has attracted much feminist criticism. Miranda is typically viewed as being completely deprived of freedom by her father. Her only duty in his eyes is to remain chaste. Ann Thompson argues that Miranda, in a manner typical of women in a colonial atmosphere, has completely internalised the patriarchal order of things, thinking of herself as subordinate to her father.[34] The less-prominent women mentioned in the play are subordinated as well, as they are only described through the men of the play. Most of what is said about Sycorax, for example, is said by Prospero. Further, Stephen Orgel notes that Prospero has never met Sycorax – all he learned about her he learned from Ariel. According to Orgel, Prospero’s suspicion of women makes him an unreliable source of information. Orgel suggests that he is sceptical of female virtue in general, citing his ambiguous remark about his wife’s fidelity.[35] However, certain goddesses such as Juno, Ceres, Iris, and sea nymphs are in one scene of the play. SOURCE: WIKIPEDIA Related articles




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