A Study Guide
?..Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008
Revised in 2010, 2013 ©
.......The Tempest is a stage comedy with an atmosphere resembling that of a fairy tale. It is among Shakespeare's most mature and most admired plays.
.......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] (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)
Montaigne's "Of Cannibals" ("Des cannibales," 1580), an essay that
idealizes savages discovered in South America by Nicolas Durand, sieur
de Villegaigon. In The Tempest,
does the opposite, ridiculing a savage, Caliban, as s lowly
beast.The name Caliban
appears to be a rearrangement of the letters of cannibal, with the second n omitted.
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 the king.
Ferdinand: Son of the King of Naples. He falls in love with Miranda.
Gonzalo: Honest old counselor and friend of Prospero.
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 in a split-second.
Adrian, Francisco: Lords.
Stephano: Drunken butler.
Caliban: Savage half-man who serves as a slave on Prospero's island. 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.
Iris, Ceres, Juno: Goddesses presented by the spirits. 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, Reapers: Dancers.
Master of the Ship
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2003
.......After attending his daughter Claribel’s wedding in Tunis, Africa, 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, the king’s counsellor, 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 at the same location on an enchanted island. Ferdinand lands on another part of the island. Alonso thinks Ferdinand has drowned, and vice versa, and both mourn their losses. The ruler of the island is the magician 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.......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. Prospero pretends Ferdinand is a spy and takes him prisoner. 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 the king, 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.......After Ariel vanishes and Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian leave the scene, the goodly Gonzalo, observing the reaction of the three men, says,
All three of them are desperate: their great guilt,Prospero, meanwhile, 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 descend upon the island and perform a graceful dance. After the entertainment, Prospero uses his magic to thwart the murderous plots against him while Ariel spellbinds Alonso and the others with music and leads them to Prospero’s cave. Ferdinand rejoices at the sight of his father, and Alonso rejoices at the sight of his son. Then every offender repents his wrongs, and even the beastly Caliban admits he was a “thrice-double ass” (5.1.328). Prospero, having regained his dukedom, renounces magic and prepares to return to Naples with Ferdinand, Miranda, and Alonso and his entourage after Alonso’s ship—thought wrecked and lost—is found still afloat and seaworthy. Prospero commands Ariel to calm the seas, then frees him. Only Caliban remains on the island.
.......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.
......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;Figures of Speech: Types
......Following are examples of figures of speech from the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
Good wombs have borne bad sons. (1.2.141)Alliteration
I would fain die a dry death. (1.1.43)Apostrophe
Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging! (1.1.17)Hyperbole
Your tale, sir, would cure deafness. (1.2.106)Metaphor
While you here do snoring lie,Paradox
What's past is prologue. (2.1.261)
.......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.
.......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:
.......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)
.......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 population—the savage beast-man, Caliban, and the sprite, Ariel—turning 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).
.......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 deities—including 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.
.......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?
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:
English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote that The Tempest was one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. He said:
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 crew—are 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