The Tempest
A Study Guide
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Table of Contents

Type of Work      Composition and Performance      Publication      Sources      Settings      Tone      Characters      Plot Summary
Themes       Conflicts     Flashbacks      Climax      Shakespeare's Musicality      Figures of Speech      Shakespeare's Name Game
Character Habitats      The Tempest and Humanism      Prospero's Island as the New World      Shakespeare's Grab Bag of Marvels
Shakespeare's Verbal Magic      Caliban as Exploited Native      Ariel as a "Fallen Spirit"
Play's "Grace and Grandeur"     Study Questions and Essay Topics?..

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
...© 2003, 2008

Revised in 2010, 2013, 2016 ©

Type of Work

The Tempest is a stage comedy with a fairytale atmosphere. It is among Shakespeare's most mature and most admired plays. It ranks among William Shakespeare's most mature and most admired plays for its lyrical writing and simple but engaging plot.

Composition and Performance

Shakespeare probably wrote The Tempest in 1610 and 1611, although he may have written it entirely in 1611. The first documented performance of the play was at Whitehall, the English royal palace in London, on November 1, 1611. The play was performed again for English royalty in May of 1613.

Publication

The Tempest was first published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, as part of a collection that included thirty-five other Shakespeare plays. Friends of Shakespeare oversaw the publication project, attempting to make sure that the printed plays were authentic copies of the stage plays. The Tempest and the other plays in the collection were printed on large sheets of paper called folios, each of which was folded in the middle to create four pages. The collection came to be known over time as the First Folio.

Sources

Likely sources for the play are accounts of a 1609 shipwreck in the Bermudas. These accounts include (1) William Strachey's A True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates upon and from the Islands of the Bermudas (written in letter form and circulated in 1610, then published in 1625) and (2) Sylvester Jourdain's A Discovery of the Barmudas [Bermudas], published in 1610. Both accounts include details of events similar to the fictional events in The Tempest. Shakespeare may also have drawn upon (1) German dramatist Jacob Ayer's Comedy of the Beautiful Sidea (Comedia von der schönen Sidea, circa 1600-1605), (2) William Parry's New and Large Discourse of the Travels of Sir Anthony Shirley, Knight (1601), and (3) Michel de Montaigne's "Of Cannibals" ("Des cannibales," 1580), an essay that idealizes savages discovered in South America by Nicolas Durand (1510-1571). In The Tempest, Shakespeare does the opposite, ridiculing a savage, Caliban, as a lowly beast. Shakespeare may also have received inspiration from "Naugragium" (Latin for "Shipwreck"), a chapter in volume 1 of The Colloquies, by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), a Catholic priest who was one of the greatest Renaissance humanists.

Settings

The Tempest begins at sea on a foundering ship. The rest of the action takes place on a mysterious and magical island populated by a wizard and his daughter, sprites and goblins, and the grotesque son of a witch. Strong evidence suggests that the island Shakespeare had in mind was a fictionalized Mediterranean version of an island in the Bermudas, located east of present-day North Carolina. All of the action takes place in a period of just over three hours.

Tone

The tone of the play is lighthearted, magical, and mischievous.

Characters
 
Prospero: Rightful Duke of Milan, Italy, and the main character. He had been overthrown by his evil brother and, with his three-year-old daughter, set adrift by his evil brother to die. But provisions provided secretly by Prospero's friend Gonzalo enabled him and his daughter to reach a mysterious island. There, Prospero practices magic and rules the island and its inhabitants for twelve years. When a ship carrying his brother and other high officials of Naples—including the king—sails a course near the island, Prospero conjures a powerful tempest that blows the ship to his island.
Antonio: Prospero's brother. He illegally seized Prospero's dukedom. After the tempest drives the ship carrying him and Alonso, the King of Naples, to Prospero's island, Antonio conspires against the king.
Miranda: Fifteen-year-old daughter of Prospero. She has lived with her father on his island since she was three years old and has never seen a man except for her father and the half-human Caliban. The name Miranda is derived from the Latin word mirandus, meaning wonderful, strange, and admired.
Alonso: King of Naples. He helped Antonio oust Prospero as Duke of Milan. However, after arriving at Prospero's island, he exhibits genuine remorse for his reprehensible treatment of Prospero.
Sebastian: Brother of King Alonso. He conspires with Antonio to kill Alonso.
Ferdinand: Son of King Alonso and heir to his father's throne. He and Miranda fall in love when they first meet.
Gonzalo: Honest old friend and counselor of Prospero. He provided Prospero and Miranda the means to survive at sea after Prospero was overthrown by Antonio.
Ariel: Spirit of the air on the magical island. He serves Prospero. Ariel first served a witch, Sycorax, who imprisoned him in a recess of a pine tree after he refused to do her bidding. He remained there to suffer great torment for twelve years, during which time Sycorax died. Upon his arrival on the island, Prospero freed Ariel but bound the sprite to his service. Ariel possesses protean power, enabling him to alter his appearance instantly. He can also travel to any part of the island, or the world, in a split-second.
Adrian, Francisco: Lords in Alonso's entourage.
Trinculo: Alonzo's court jester.
Stephano: Antonio's butler.
Caliban: Savage half-man who reluctantly serves Prospero. He is the son of a witch, Sycorax. Caliban believes he is the rightful ruler of Prospero's island, having inherited it from his mother.
Sycorax: A dead witch who was the mother of Caliban. She is referred to in flashbacks. Sycorax, who was at one time a resident of Algeria in North Africa, was banished to the island occupied by Prospero. Before Prospero and Miranda arrived on the island, she imprisoned Ariel and other spirits.
Boatswain: Foul-mouthed senior crewman overseeing the deck of Alonso's ship.
Iris, Ceres, Juno: Goddesses who take part in a masque, or entertainment, in Act 4 to celebrate the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. In classical mythology, Iris was a messenger goddess and goddess of the rainbow. Ceres was the goddess of agriculture, and Juno was the queen of the gods.
Nymphs and Reapers: Participants in the masque.
Master: The captain of Alonzo's ship.
Mariners: Crewmen of Alonzo's ship.
Island Spirits: Sprites and goblins on Prospero's island.
Claribel: Daughter of King Alonso. She marries the King of Tunis. Tunis is a city in Tunisia, a country in North Africa. Claribel has no speaking part in the play.
King of Tunis: Claribel's husband. He has no speaking part in the play.

Plot Summary

After attending his daughter Claribel’s wedding in Tunis, a city in the north African country of Tunisia, King Alonso of Naples and his company sail home to Italy in a fleet of ships and encounter a violent storm. With Alonso is his beloved son, Ferdinand. Others on the king’s ship are Antonio, the Duke of Milan; Antonio’s butler, Stephano; the king’s brother, Sebastian; a counselor, Gonzalo; and Trinculo, a jester. When thunder booms and lightning strikes, winds churn the sea into a terrible fury that imperils all of the ships. Mariners laboring to save the king’s vessel cry out, “All lost! to prayers, to prayers! all lost!” (1.1.28). Gonzalo is the last to speak as the ship founders: “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground, long heath, brown furze, any thing. The wills above be done! but I would fain die a dry death” (1.1.44).

As a strange, fiery light illumines the ship, the king and his company jump overboard. All except Ferdinand wash ashore in separate groups at different locations on an enchanted island. Ferdinand lands by himself, isolated from the others. Alonso thinks Ferdinand has drowned, and vice versa, and both mourn their losses.

The ruler of the island is the sorcerer Prospero. It was Prospero who caused the tempest. Aware of who was on the ship, thanks to his magical powers, he commanded the sea to deliver to him the king and his company to settle some unfinished business. Twelve years before, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, had been set adrift to die at sea with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, after his brother, Antonio, seized his dukedom with the connivance of King Alonso. However,  the kindly counselor Gonzalo sneaked food and drink to Prospero, along with his books of magic. So it was that Prospero and his daughter survived and landed on the island to live in a cave.

One of Prospero’s first orders of business on the island was to free the sprites imprisoned by a witch named Sycorax. The chief sprite was Ariel, a spirit of the air. In exchange for his liberation, Ariel agreed to do Prospero’s bidding. Sycorax posed no further threat, for she was dead. However, she left behind an ugly, half-human offspring named Caliban. Although Caliban once tried to ravish Miranda, Prospero trains him to talk and perform menial chores, using magic to keep the beast-man’s instincts in check.

Ariel has proved a valuable servant. In fact, under Prospero’s orders, it was Ariel who guided the tempest toward the island and set the king’s ship “ablaze” by imitating fire. Sometimes Ariel would divide himself and become fire in several places at once: the topmast, bowsprit, and yards. In fright, the king and his company hurled themselves overboard. Miranda witnessed the terrible spectacle. In reporting on it to her father, she assumes he caused the tempest and begs him to calm the raging waters. She expresses sympathy for the ship’s crew and passengers, telling her father that
                               I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting souls within her. (1.2.6-14)
Prospero informs her, however, that no harm was done; for Ariel has preserved the ship in a hidden harbor and cast its crew into a deep sleep. Ariel allowed the rest of the fleet to survive the storm and resume the trip to Italy, “supposing,” as Ariel tells Prospero, “that they saw the king’s ship wrecked and his great person perish” (1.2.277-278).

After Alonso and the others arrive on the island, Prospero dispatches Ariel to bring the handsome young Ferdinand to the cave, where the beautiful Miranda is sleeping. He also sends Caliban to bring wood. When Ferdinand arrives, Miranda awakens and falls immediately in love with him. Love smites Ferdinand as well. Their love for each other delights Prospero, but he believes that love needs to be tested with trials in order to make it strong and lasting. So he pretends Ferdinand is a spy who has come to the island to take it from him. Prospero imprisons him despite Miranda's pleas that Ferdinand is gentle and poses no threat.

Elsewhere on the island, King Alonso and most of his company are still asleep. The only two who remain awake—the evil Antonio and Alonso’s brother, Sebastian—see an opportunity before them: If they kill Alonso, Naples will be theirs. But just as they draw their swords, King Alonso and Gonzalo awaken. Meanwhile, Caliban, who is bringing in the wood, curses Prospero, wishing upon him “all the infections that the sun sucks up.” (2.2.4). Caliban, after all, was the ruler of the island before Prospero arrived. Why should he now be carrying wood for Prospero?

Trinculo happens upon Caliban and takes shelter with him from a threatening storm. Stephano, the king’s butler, also shows up, drunk. It seems he had the good fortune to float ashore on a barrel of wine, which he put to good use after fashioning a flask out of tree bark. After he plies Caliban with wine, the monster-man dreams of being free of Prospero. Back near the cave, Ferdinand is gathering wood under orders from Prospero. When Miranda goes out to help him, the two lovers forget about the wood. Instead, they coo and woo, and talk of marriage. From a distance, Prospero watches and smiles approvingly. Caliban, suddenly possessed of a bold and persuasive tongue, convinces his new companions, Stephano and Trinculo, to help him murder Prospero so that they can all become the new rulers of the island. Their plan is to steal upon him while he is sleeping, brain him with a log or pierce him with a stake or a knife, then burn his books.

Ariel, off working on Prospero’s behalf, conjures up a magnificent banquet for King Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo and the rest of the king’s entourage. As they are about to eat, lightning flashes, thunder booms, and Ariel appears in the form of a harpy, a hideous bird. He claps his wings and the banquet vanishes. Then he rebukes Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian for their previous mistreatment of Prospero and Miranda years before. He tells them that
Lingering perdition—worse than any death
Can be at once,—shall step by step attend
You and your ways. . . .” (3.3.93-95)
After Ariel vanishes and Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian leave the scene while the goodly Gonzalo observes their reaction to what they just witnessed. He says,
All three of them are desperate: their great guilt,
Like poison given to work a great time after,
Now ’gins to bite the spirits.” (3.3.124-126)
As remorse eats away at Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian, Prospero presents an entertainment for Ferdinand and Miranda in celebration of their forthcoming marriage. The entertainers are spirits in the form of three deities—Ceres, goddess of agriculture; Iris, goddess of the rainbow; and Juno, queen of the gods—who sing to the betrothed couple. Then nymphs and reapers (farmers) descend upon the island and perform a graceful dance. After the entertainment, Prospero and Ariel use their magic to thwart the plot of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano to murder Prospero. Prospero directs spirits in the form of hounds to chase the conspirators, then tells Ariel to set goblins upon them to
       grind their joints
With dry convulsions; shorten up their sinews
With aged cramps, and more pinch-spotted make them
Than pard [leopard] or cat o' mountain. (4.1.257-260)
Next, Ariel confines Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian in a grove of lime trees and puts them under a spell that temporarily paralyzes them. Ariel reports to Prospero that they are "brimful of sorrow and dismay" (5.1.18). Later, Prospero releases all of his enemies from their enchantment and has them brought to his cell, where Ferdinand and Miranda are playing chess. Alonso rejoices at the sight of his son, as does Ferdinand at the sight of his father. Then Prospero's enemies reconcile with him, and even the beastly Caliban admits he was a “thrice-double ass” (5.1.328). Prospero regains his dukedom, renounces magic, and prepares to return to Naples. Alonso’s ship—thought wrecked and lost—is found still afloat and seaworthy. Prospero commands Ariel to calm the seas, then frees him. Prospero, Alonso, and the others leave for home. Caliban remains on the island.

Epilogue

An epilogue is a short speech or poem that appears at the end of some plays. It addresses the audience after the action of a play ends. In The Tempest, Prospero speaks an epilogue in which he says it is up to the audience to determine whether he remains on the island or returns to Italy to resume his rulership of Milan. If the audience cheers and applauds, indicating that the play is a success, he will be allowed to fulfill his wish of returning to Milan. He says, in part:
I must be here confin’d by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands [with the help of your applause].
Gentle breath [cheers] of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.

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Themes

.Justice Tempered With Compassion—and a Bit of Mischief

Prospero's brother, Antonio, unjustly forced him out of his dukedom and ordered him and his daughter, Miranda, to be set adrift on the Mediterranean. Had it not been for Gonzalo, who provided Prospero with provisions, he and Miranda would have died at sea. Alonso, King of Naples, sanctioned Antonio's rulership. Twelve years later, having mastered the art of sorcery, Prospero uses his wizardry to regain his dukedom while working a modicum of mischief on his wrongdoers by throwing a scare into them. They suffer the terror of a raging storm and a shipwreck, then ride violent waves that spew them onto the shore of a strange and mysterious island. After Prospero plays more tricks on them, the wrongdoers repent and yield to him. Prospero then renounces vengeance, at least the bloody and deathly kind. Before releasing the wrongdoers from a spell, he tells Ariel,

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,   
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury   
Do I take part: the rarer action is   
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,   
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend           
Not a frown further. (5.1.31-36)


He even forgives his traitorous brother, Antonio, who usurped Prospero's dukedom. Prospero says,

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother          
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive   
Thy rankest fault; all of them; and require   
My dukedom of thee, which, perforce, I know,   
Thou must restore. (5.1.140-144)

King Alonso, who sanctioned Antonio's takeover of Prospero's dukedom, says, "Thy dukedom I resign, and do entreat / Thou pardon me my wrongs. (5.1. Justice prevails.

Loyalty and Disloyalty

After Antonio began managing the affairs of state for his brother, he seized more and more power until he became the de facto ruler of Milan. His advance enabled him to step out of Prospero's shadow and do as he pleased. Or so he thought. Instead, he had fallen under the shadow of another man, the more powerful Alonso, King of Naples, to whom he was to pay tribute (money) and homage. But the King of Naples, a longtime enemy of Prospero, told Antonio he would waive payment of the tribute if he forced Prospero out of his dukedom. Enthralled with the idea of becoming the Duke of Milan with all the trappings of power, Prospero tells Miranda in recounting events of his overthrow, he ordered his henchmen, in midnight darkness, to arrest Prospero and cast them adrift on the Mediterranean, knowing full well that they would probably be doomed to death at sea. But Prospero and his daughter survived, thanks to his loyal counselor, old Gonzago. He had provided the two castaways, food and clothing, as well as Prospero's beloved books—including books on magic and sorcery. Eventually, Prospero and his daughter found their way to an island. There they survived in isolation. As one of his first acts on the island, Prospero freed the spirit Ariel from twelve years of imprisonment in the hollow of a tree. Grateful, Ariel pledged to be Prospero's loyal servant.

After the apparent shipwreck, Antonio plots against Alonso—to whom he had also pledged loyalty—persuading the king's brother, Sebastian, to join him in murdering Alonso. Sebastian would accede to the throne of Naples. (Antonio would be free of Alonso's overarching shadow.) Thus, history is about to repeat itself, with Sebastian's disloyalty to Alonso imitating Antonio's disloyalty to Prospero. Sebastian tells Antonio,    

Thy case, dear friend,   
Shall be my precedent: as thou got’st Milan,   
I’ll come by Naples. Draw thy sword: one stroke           
Shall free thee from the tribute which thou pay st,   
And I the king shall love thee. (2.1.293-297)


The themes of loyalty and disloyalty reflect what happens in the real world, especially in government, in business—indeed, in all the activities and places in which humans interact with each other. Unfortunately, conflicts involving these themes don't always end happily, as in The Tempest.

Humanism

During the European Renaissance between 1400 and 1600, great thinkers began advocating the betterment of civilization by emphasizing the study of classical culture and literature and by promoting the cultivation of such ennobling qualities as compassion, generosity, friendship, wise judgment, and prudence. In The Tempest, Prospero exhibits those qualities. He does not seek to retaliate against those who wronged him; he seeks only to bring them out of the darkness of hatred and revenge. In this respect, he is like the Renaissance humanist who builds a bridge for the Dark Ages to cross into the enlightenment of a new age in which humankind renounces its old barbarity and savagery. In discussing this idea, Shakespeare scholar Bernard D. Grebanier wrote:

Shakespeare is perhaps the perfect expression of Renaissance humanism. His profound sympathy for humanity enabled him to pierce to the very core of his characters; his unexcelled gifts as a poet made his men and women unforgettable creatures of flesh and blood. This may be said as much of the best of his earliest plays as of The Tempest, where Prospero is himself a kind of incarnation of the best of what the Renaissance had extended to mankind. (Grebanier, Bernard D., et al. English Literature and Its Backgrounds. New York: Holt, 1950, page 242)

Prospero’s Island as the New World

Shakespeare sets the play in a far-off, isolated island. Whether he intended the setting to symbolize the New World is arguable, but it certainly resembles it. Like America, it is wild and undeveloped, with strange sights, sounds, and creatures. It has a “colonial” overseer, Prospero, who oversees the native population—the savage beast-man, Caliban, and the sprite, Ariel, and his companions. Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, knows no other world but her father’s island. In this respect, she is like the real-life Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas (on Roanoke Island, off the coast of present-day North Carolina).

Dedication vs Neglect

As retold in a flashback, Prospero so loved books and learning that he turned over his duties as duke to Antonio to devote his full attention to increasing his knowledge, isolating himself in his study. He neglected to perform any of his offices. Meanwhile, in his new position as manager of the affairs of state, Antonio took advantage of Prospero's neglect to gain more and more control over the dukedom. This experience awakened in him, as Prospero says, "an evil nature" (2.1.111). Eventually, with the backing of the King of Naples—long an enemy of Prospero—Antonio overthrew Prospero, kicked him out of Milan, and ordered him to be set adrift at sea with his daughter. Fortunately, however, Prospero's dedication to perfecting the art of sorcery on the island enabled him to expose the evildoing of his enemies and regain his dukedom.

Love at First Sight

Like other Shakespeare heroes and heroines, Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love at first sight. Miranda's enthrallment with Ferdinand is understandable. He is, after all, the first young man she has ever met. Yet she appears to see beyond his physical presence into his soul. Ferdinand likewise seems to prize Miranda body and soul. Their instant love for each other suggests that at least some people have an instinctual ability to evaluate the overall worthiness and desirability of a potential mate without consulting elders or experts in human relationships. Lovestruck men and women may not be able to explain why they have fallen in love at first sight. But their joy at having done so—along with their queasy stomachs—tells them that they have done the right thing.

Friends in Need

In The Tempest, friends in need are friends indeed, as the old saying says. Thanks to his friend Gonzalo, Prospero and his daughter survive their ordeal at sea.

The Great Prize of Freedom

Everyone in The Tempest is a slave or a captive—socially, emotionally, geographically, or otherwise. For example, Prospero and Miranda, victims of treachery, are captives of their environment. The shipwrecked Italians are captives of Prospero and his sorcery; some of them are also captives of their own faults and weaknesses. Ariel, a spirit of the air, is Prospero's servant. Caliban, a misshapen half-human, is a prisoner of unruly instincts and of his overlord Prospero. Throughout the play, these characters work to attain their freedom and—through ordeal, tribulation, demonstrations of humanity, reformative behavior—get it. Even the lovers Ferdinand and Miranda have to undergo trials to prove that their love is genuine before they achieve the freedom to marry.

Importance of Education

Prospero believes that a good education is extremely important. He values education so highly that he turns the day-to-day operation of his dukedom over to his brother, Antonio, so that he can master the content of his books. Unfortunately, his brother becomes drunk with power and overthrows Prospero. After arriving on the island, Prospero continues his education with the books old Gonzalo provided him before he and his daughter were set adrift. Moreover, he devotes a great deal of attention to the education of his daughter and even teaches his language to the half-human Caliban. Although it was his total dedication to education that caused Prospero to lose his dukedom, it was also education that regained it for him; for he had mastered magic and sorcery as presented in his books, then used this knowledge to cause the shipwreck and carry out a plan that resulted in the restoration of him as the rightful Duke of Milan.

Power

Twelve-year flashbacks reveal that thirst for power motivated Antonio to betray and exile Prospero and his daughter and that Prospero mastered the power of sorcery, enabling him to rule his new island home and its inhabitants—Caliban and the supernatural entities—and even to control the elements. After the play returns to the present time, Caliban complains that he should rule the island, as did his mother, the witch Sycorax, before she died. In other words, he wants power. Then there is the case of Ariel, Prospero's spirit servant. He has the power to change his appearance at will—and even to become fire or to fly to the ends of the earth in a split-second. Alas, though, he lacks the power to free himself from servitude to Prospero. After the Italians are on the island, power struggles occupy all of the principal characters. On the one hand, Prospero executes a plan to win back the power to rule Milan as its duke. On the other, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill King Alonso so that Sebastian can accede to the throne of Naples; Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo plot to kill Prospero and seize his power. In the real world, the desire for power is a major force in determining the course of world history, for better or worse. This force motivates the ambitious in politics, business, religion, journalism, medicine, and just about every other field of human endeavor. Whether those who rise to power can handle it without becoming corrupt is another question. In The Tempest, Prospero is up to the task.

Magic and the Supernatural

Magic and otherworldly forces drive the plot of The Tempest and enable the actors to execute theatrics that cloak the play with a fairytale atmosphere. For this reason, the play appeals to the child in all of us—and to children themselves. In fact, The Tempest—along with A Midsummer Night's Dream—are among the most frequently performed plays in elementary and secondary schools. The play has an evil witch, Sycorax—whom we learn about in flashbacks—and a good "witch," Prospero, who works powerful but harmless magic throughout the play. The supranormal elements in the play reflect the seemingly supranormal elements we confront in the real world, such as coincidence, serendipity, bad luck, ball lightning, UFO sightings, voodoo, the predictions of Nostradamus, and so on.

Conflicts

The main conflict in the play is between Prospero and his brother, Antonio, who overthrew Prospero as Duke of Milan and ordered him and his daughter to be set adrift. Other conflicts include the following:

Prospero vs Alonso: Alonso, a longtime enemy of Prospero, supported Antonio's overthrow of Prospero.
Prospero vs Caliban: Caliban believes he is the rightful ruler of the island. He conspires with Stephano and Trinculo to murder Prospero.
Sebastian and Antonio vs Alonso: Sebastian and Antonio plot to murder Alonso so that Sebastian, Alonso's brother, can become the king of Naples.

Flashbacks

Shakespeare uses flashbacks to recount events that occurred before and just after his arrival on the island. The main flashback begins at line 65 of the second scene of Act 1 and ends at line 205. During this flashback, Prospero tells his daughter, Miranda, the story of his ouster as Duke of Milan and his arrival on the island with her when she was three years old. Other flashbacks occur from time to time to reveal information about Sycorax, Caliban's mother, and her imprisonment of Ariel and other sprites. .

Climax
.
The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax in The Tempest occurs, according to the first definition, in Act III, Scene III, when Ariel (appearing as a Harpy, a mythological monster with the head of a woman and the body of a bird) reveals Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian as sinners who conspired to remove Prospero from his dukedom. According to the second definition, the climax occurs at the end of Act V, when Ferdinand and his father are reunited, and all the enemies in the play become friends.

Shakespeare's Musicality

The Tempest is among Shakespeare’s finest plays in terms of its musicality. Shakespeare scholar G. B. Harrison has written the following appraisal of the language of the play:

Shakespeare, like all Elizabethan dramatists, used four kinds of speech in his plays: blank verse, rhymed verse, prose and song. Each kind has its uses, and the whole play, especially in his maturity, is conceived as a kind of verbal symphony, each scene or episode being composed as part of a complete harmony. The Tempest in its poetical scenes is the finest example of the musical use of words in all Shakespeare’s plays. (Major British Writers. New York: Harcourt, 1959)
Among the passages that best exhibit musicality are the poems, such as the following
Full fathom five thy father lies; 
Of his bones are coral made: 
Those are pearls that were his eyes: 
Nothing of him that doth fade, 
But doth suffer a sea-change 
Into something rich and strange. 
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: 
Hark! now I hear them,ding-dong, bell. (1.2.456) 
Ariel, while invisible, sings this poem to Ferdinand, telling the lad that his father lies under thirty feet of water. The poem has a rhyme scheme of ababccdd.

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free. (Epilogue)

Shakespeare's Verbal Magic

There is real magic in The Tempest: Shakespeare's ability to cast a spell over his audience with the enchantment of words. Especially noteworthy are passages exhibiting a musical quality. Shakespeare scholar G. B. Harrison has written the following appraisal of the language of the play:

Shakespeare, like all Elizabethan dramatists, used four kinds of speech in his plays: blank verse, rhymed verse, prose and song. Each kind has its uses, and the whole play, especially in his maturity, is conceived as a kind of verbal symphony, each scene or episode being composed as part of a complete harmony. The Tempest in its poetical scenes is the finest example of the musical use of words in all Shakespeare’s plays. (Major British Writers. New York: Harcourt, 1959)

Among the passages that exhibit musicality are poems or poetic speeches with end rhyme. Here is an example.

Ceres, most bounteous lady, thy rich leas   
Of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats, and peas;   
Thy turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep,   
And flat meads thatch’d with stover, them to keep;   
Thy banks with pioned and twilled brims,            
Which spongy April at thy hest betrims,   
To make cold nymphs chaste crowns; and thy broom groves,   
Whose shadow the dismissed bachelor loves,   
Being lass-lorn; thy pole-clipt vineyard;   
And thy sea-marge, sterile and rocky-hard,            
Where thou thyself dost air: the queen o’ the sky,   
Whose watery arch and messenger am I,   
Bids thee leave these; and with her sovereign grace,   
Here on this grass-plot, in this very place,   
To come and sport; her peacocks fly amain:            
Approach, rich Ceres, her to entertain. (4.1.-71-86)
In this passage, the rainbow goddess Iris addresses the goddess of agriculture, Ceres.

Unrhyming verse lines also work a spell on the audience. Many of them do so not only with musicality but also with the vivid images, as in the following passage spoken by Miranda.


If by your art, my dearest father, you have   
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.   
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,          
But that the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s [sky's] cheek,   
Dashes the fire out. O! I have suffer’d   
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,   
Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her,   
Dash’d all to pieces. O! the cry did knock           
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.   
Had I been any god of power, I would   
Have sunk the sea within the earth, or e’er   
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and   
The fraughting souls within her. (1.2.3-15)

Even prose passages with niblets of conversation contribute to the verbal magic, as the following lines demonstrate.

ADRIAN:  The air breathes upon us here most sweetly.   
Seb.  As if it had lungs, and rotten ones.   
Ant.  Or as ’twere perfumed by a fen.           
Gon.  Here is everything advantageous to life.   
Ant.  True; save means to live.   
Seb.  Of that there’s none, or little.   
Gon.  How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!   
Ant.  The ground indeed is tawny.           
Seb.  With an eye of green in ’t. (2.1.43-51)

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech from the play. 

Antithesis: Use of contrasting words, phrases, or ideas in a sentence with a balanced structure

Good wombs have borne bad sons. (1.2.141)
Contrast of good wombs and bad sons. The statement is also a paradox.


Alliteration: Repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of words or syllables
I would fain die a dry death. (1.1.43)

................ Hast thou forgot
The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy
Was grown into a hoop? (1.2.259-260)

Look, he’s winding up the watch of his wit; by and by it will strike. (2.1.15)    

Full fathom five thy father lies (2.394)

He that dies pays all debts. (3.2.143)

Apostrophe: Addressing an abstraction or a thing, present or absent; addressing an absent entity or person; addressing a deceased person
Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging! (1.1.17)
The speaker addresses Fate.

Hyperbole: A gross exaggeration
Your tale, sir, would cure deafness. (1.2.106)
This line also contains a metaphor comparing the tale to a remedy.

I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’ the island. (2.2.61)

Metaphor: Comparison of unlike things using like, as, or than
My library 
Was dukedom large enough. (1.2.128)
Comparison of a dukedom to a library

................. The king's son, Ferdinand, 
With hair up-staring,—then like reeds, not hair,
Was the first man that leap'd; cried, "Hell is empty
And all the devils are here." (1.2.248-251)
Comparison of Prospero's island to hell

You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. (1. 2. 430-431)
Comparison of knowledge to profit
 
It [sleep] seldom visits sorrow; when it doth      
It is a comforter. (2.1.174-175)
Comparison of sleep to a visitor and a comforter   

The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounced
The name of Prosper.(3.3.97-99)
Metaphor comparing the winds to a singer
Metaphor comparing thunder to the sound made by an organ pipe

No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow. (4.1.18-19)
Comparison of heaven's approval to rain (aspersion) that promotes the growth of a seed

We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (4.1.168-170)
Comparison of humans to the immateriality of a dream


Personification: Comparison of a thing or an abstraction to a person. Personification is a type of metaphor.
While you here do snoring lie,    
Open-ey’d Conspiracy    
His time doth take.  
Comparison of Conspiracy to a person
Paradox: Contradiction that contains a measure of truth
What's past is prologue. (2.1.261)

Shakespeare's Name Game

Did you notice in your reading of The Tempest that the name of the beast-man, Caliban, is an anagram for cannibal (except for a missing n)? Did you also notice that name of Prospero’s servant, Ariel, sounds like aerial, meaning in the air, of the air, high flying, ethereal, and fanciful—words which all describe Ariel? Other characters also have names suggestive of their qualities and lot in life: Prospero (a name that derives from the Latin prosperare, meaning to cause to prosper), who prospers through his magic and intelligence; Miranda (a name that derives from the Latin mirandus, meaning strange, wonderful, miraculous), who is wonderful to behold and is indeed strange—that is, exotic; and Ferdinand (a name that derives from Germanic words meaning bold traveler), who has traveled on the high seas and survived a roaring tempest.

Character Habitats

Shakespeare's plays frequently present characters in settings far removed from urban centers. However, they generally are creatures of the city, the court, the vibrant life where people throng. Consider the following observation: 

    Shakespeare's characters are . . . dubious of rusticity. Valentine [in The Two Gentlemen of Verona] does not rejoice in his woodland life as head of an outlaw band; the lovers of A [Midsummer Night's] Dream find their woodland adventure unnerving, and mountain life seems rude to the characters in Cymbeline who are forced to endure it. Although Florizel [in The Winter's Tale] dreams of spending his life with Perdita in a cottage, she knows that pastoral bliss is only a dream; true content lies in Leontes' court, to which all the characters . . . return. Even Prospero [in The Tempest], who has no great desire to see Milan again, knows that he and Miranda must leave their island, which is as much prison as refuge to them. Although critics can idealize the pastoral experiences of Shakespeare's characters as renewing contacts with nature, that experience is often somewhat harrowing. (Shakespeare's Comedies From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery. Newark: U of Delaware, 1986, page 144)
The Tempest and Humanism
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During the European Renaissance between 1400 and 1600, great thinkers began advocating the betterment of civilization by emphasizing the study of classical culture and literature and by promoting the cultivation of such ennobling qualities as compassion, generosity, friendship, wise judgment, and prudence. In The Tempest, Prospero exhibits those qualities. He does not seek to retaliate against those who wronged him; he seeks only to bring them out of the darkness of hatred and revenge. In this respect, he is like the Renaissance humanist who builds a bridge for the Dark Ages to cross into the enlightenment of a new age in which humankind renounces its old barbarity and savagery. In discussing this idea, Shakespeare scholar Bernard D. Grebanier wrote:
Shakespeare is perhaps the perfect expression of Renaissance humanism. His profound sympathy for humanity enabled him to pierce to the very core of his characters; his unexcelled gifts as a poet made his men and women unforgettable creatures of flesh and blood. This may be said as much of the best of his earliest plays as of The Tempest, where Prospero is himself a kind of incarnation of the best of what the Renaissance had extended to mankind. (Grebanier, Bernard D., et al. English Literature and Its Backgrounds. New York: Holt, 1950, page 242)
Prospero’s Island as the New World

Shakespeare sets the play in a far-off, isolated island. Whether he intended the setting to symbolize the New World is arguable, but it certainly resembles it. Like America, it is wild and undeveloped, with strange sights, sounds, and creatures. It has a “colonial” overseer, Prospero, who exploits the native populationthe savage beast-man, Caliban, and the sprite, Arielturning them into servants, or slaves. Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, knows no other world but her father’s island. In this respect, she is like the real-life Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas (on Roanoke Island, off the coast of present-day North Carolina). 

Shakespeare's Grab Bag of Marvels

To give his play a wondrous, fairy-tale atmosphere, Shakespeare set it on a remote island with an exotic landscape, then populated the island with a sorcerer (Prospero), a monster (the beast-man Caliban, son of a witch), a mischievous sprite (Ariel), a beautiful maiden (Miranda), a young prince who loves her (Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples), and mythological deitiesincluding Ceres, goddess of agriculture; Iris, goddess of the rainbow; and Juno, queen of the gods. Perhaps Shakespeare was capitalizing on stories about the New World across the seas—a world that was mostly terra incognita to the English and therefore a ripe subject for speculation about wonders there that awaited discovery. There were, of course, published reports about the Americas and the islands near the mainlands. These reports included several about Bermuda, including an account of the wreck of the Sea Venture in the Bermudas in 1609; A Discovery of the Bermudas (1610), by Sylvester Jourdain; A True Repertory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates upon and from the Islands of the Bermudas (written in 1610 and published in 1625), by William Strachey. The Spanish navigator Juan Bermúdez is credited with discovery of the Bermuda Islands, and they first appeared on Spanish maps in 1511. It may well be that the wreck of the Sea Venture inspired Shakespeare to write about the wreck of King Alonso’s ship.

Caliban as an Exploited Native

In The Tempest, Caliban suffers the same fate as many New World natives: He loses control over a domain he thought he ruled, becoming a virtual slave of Prospero. Although Prospero teaches him language, Caliban complains that the only benefit of this experience is that he learned how to curse. Caliban’s encounter with Prospero resembles the encounter of real-life native Americans with Europeans seeking riches in the New World wilds while spreading their culture. The natives learned bad habits, acquired alien diseases, and lost control of their domains. Of course, The Tempest centers on the wrong done to Prospero by his brother, who usurped Prospero’s dukedom. But did not Prospero usurp Caliban’s domain?

Ariel: a 'Fallen Spirit'

Early in the play, Prospero asks Ariel, "Dost thou forget / From what a torment I did free thee?" (1.2.297-298). What was the torment that Ariel suffered? According to esteemed English essayist and critic Samuel Johnson (1709-1784, Ariel was a fallen spirit who was suffering punishment when Propspero rescued him. Johnson wrote in Notes to Shakespeare (Volume 1):

      That the character and conduct of Prospero may be understood, something must be known of the system of enchantment, which supplied all the marvellous found in the romances of the middle ages. This system seems to be founded on the opinion that the fallen spirits, having different degrees of guilt, had different habitations allotted them at their expulsion, some being confined in hell, some . . . dispersed in air, some on earth, some in water, others in caves, dens, or minerals under the earth. Of these, some were more malignant and mischievous than others. The earthy spirits seem to have been thought the most depraved, and the aerial the least vitiated. Thus Prospero observes of Ariel:
       —Thou wast a spirit too delicate / To act her earthy and abhorr'd commands.
       Over these spirits a power might be obtained by certain rites performed or charms learned. This power was called The Black Art, or Knowledge of Enchantment. The enchanter being (as King James observes in his Demonology) one who commands the devil, whereas the witch serves him. Those who thought best of this art, the existence of which was, I am afraid, believed very seriously, held, that certain sounds and characters had a physical power over spirits, and compelled their agency; others who condemned the practice, which in reality was surely never practised, were of opinion, with more reason, that the power of charms arose only from compact, and was no more than the spirits voluntary allowed them for the seduction of man. The art was held by all, though not equally criminal, yet unlawful, and therefore Causabon, speaking of one who had commerce with spirits, blames him, though he imagines him one of the best kind who dealt with them by way of command. Thus Prospero repents of his art in the last scene. The spirits were always considered as in some measure enslaved to the enchanter, at least for a time, and as serving with unwillingness, therefore Ariel so often begs for liberty; and Caliban observes, that the spirits serve Prospero with no good will, but hate him rootedly.—Of these trifles enough.

Play Full of "Grace and Grandeur"

English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote that The Tempest was one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. He said:

The Tempest is one of the most original and perfect of Shakespear's productions, and he has strewn in it all the variety of his powers. It is full of grace and grandeur. The human and imaginary characters, the dramatic and the grotesque, are blended together with the greatest art, and without any appearance of it. Though he has here given "to airy nothing a local habitation and a name," yet that part which is only the fantastic creation of his-mind has the same palpable texture, and coheres "semblably" with the rest. As the preternatural part has the air of reality, and almost haunts the imagination with a sense of truth, the real characters and events partake of the wildness of a dream. The stately magician, Prospero, driven from his dukedom, but around whom (so potent is his art) airy spirits throng numberless to do his bidding; his daughter Miranda ("worthy of that name") to whom all the power of his art points, and who seems the goddess of the isle; the princely Ferdinand, cast by fate upon the haven of his happiness in this idol of his love; the delicate Ariel; the savage Caliban, half brute, half demon; the drunken ship's creware all connected parts of the story, and can hardly be spared from the place they fill. Even the local scenery is of a piece and character with the subject. Prospero's enchanted island seems to have risen up out of the sea; the airy music, the tempest-tost vessel, the turbulent waves, all have the effect of the landscape back-ground of some fine picture. Shakespear's pencil is (to use an allusion of his own) "like the dyer's hand, subdued to what it works in." Every thing in him, though it partakes of "the liberty of wit," is also subjected to "the law" of the understanding. For instance, even the drunken sailors, who are made reeling-ripe, share, in the disorder of their minds and bodies, in the tumult of the elements, and seem on shore to be as much at the mercy of chance as they were before at the mercy of the winds and waves. These fellows with their sea-wit are the least to our taste of any part of the play: but they are as like drunken sailors as they can be, and are an indirect foil to Caliban, whose figure acquires a classical dignity in the comparison. (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817, Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5085/5085.txt)

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Write an essay explaining how closed, isolated environments like Prospero’s island in The Tempest, Elsinore Castle in Hamlet, and the forest of Arden in As You Like It affect the characters.
  • Shakespeare uses allusions to mythology in The Tempest. What is an allusion? Where do allusions take place in Acts 3 and 4?
  • Lust for power, a theme in other Shakespeare plays, manifests itself in The Tempest in two independent conspiracies? What are these conspiracies and who is involved in them? 
  • Would you consider Prospero’s island an example of a microcosm? Write a short essay that explains your answer. In the essay, be sure to define microcosm as a literary device. 
  • To whom does Shakespeare address the epilogue at the end of the play? 
  • What was Prospero’s wife like? (See lines spoken by Prospero in Act I.) 
  • Do you despise or pity Caliban. Explain your answer. 
  • Do you approve of the way Prospero treats Miranda?