The Tempest

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2007
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Plot summary
Pages: 28
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Tempest


The first record of its performance, in the court Revels Account, indicates that The Tempest was presented before James I and his court on November 1, 1611, Hallomas night, at Whitehall, by Shakespeare's own acting company, the King's Men. The Tempest was performed for the court again around February 1613, along with a dozen other plays of a festive and celebratory nature, to celebrate the wedding of James I's daughter, Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine, who would later briefly reign as the king of Bohemia. The performance date of November 1611 is especially useful in dating the composition of The Tempest because the play is not listed in the notebook of a London doctor named Simon Foreman, who jotted down the plays he saw. Foreman noted that he saw Cymbeline (1610) and The Winter's Tale (1611) but does not list The Tempest. Foreman died in September of 1611.

Its first printing appeared in 1623 when The Tempest was given pride of place in the commemorative Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, issued and introduced by two of his fellow players in the King's Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell. It is a particularly good text among Shakespeare's plays, where bad editions and poor printing can cause editors much distress. Its source is thought to be a clean copy made for publication directly from Shakespeare's own papers by his acting company's own scrivener, Ralph Crane. (The company's scrivener was the man who copied out the plays Page 864  |  Top of Articleand performed other secretarial functions, an essential person in an age before any mechanical reproduction existed other than printing done with moveable type set by hand.)

Uncharacteristically, with the exception of Love's Labors Lost, the plot of The Tempest has not been taken from any previous story. It is Shakespeare's own invention, but it is compounded from folk stories and several significant contemporary elements and events. In June 1609, a fleet of nine ships with some 500 colonists set out from Plymouth, England, for Jamestown, Virginia, intending to settle in the New World. Around Bermuda, the lead ship, Sea Venture, was separated from the rest of the fleet in a storm. All the other ships safely reached the port of Jamestown. The Sea Venture's crew and passengers, including the admiral and the governor-to-be of the colony, were given up for dead. However, on May 23, 1610, nearly a year later, the passengers from the wrecked ship arrived in Jamestown in two ships they themselves had made. Two accounts of their shipwreck, of the island in the Caribbean they happened upon, and of their subsequent experiences, were published in London in 1610. One was A Discovery of the Barmudas, otherwise called Ile of Divels by Sylvester Jourdain. The other, which appeared about a month later, was The True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia. It was a report of the Virginia Company, which was financing the venture. Shakespeare was a friend of two of the leaders of the Virginia Company, the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke; he is likely not only to have seen the "Bermuda pamphlets," as these reports were called, but to have considered their particulars with his friends. It is also certain that Shakespeare, in addition, had read Montaigne's essay "Of the Cannibals," in which the great French essayist speculates that the savages of the New World, despite their primitive ways, may have significant human virtues that the Europeans lack. Since the later part of the twentieth century, the intimate connection that The Tempest has with the discovery and exploitation of the New World has made it of particular interest to scholars concerned with colonialism, patriarchy, and the hierarchical relations associated with them.

For people in the seventeenth century, before the closing of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642 or after their reopening by Charles II with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1661, after the fall of the Puritan Commonwealth, The Tempest was a play that lent itself to celebratory spectacle and imaginative scenery. Shakespeare's theater had not used scenery. It was an open air theater, modeled on the platforms that had been set up in inn-yards when plays were presented. But The Tempest includes a masque. The masque, a staged spectacular performed for court entertainment during the years of Charles I, was already gaining popularity under James I. It was heavily dependent upon scenery and stage effects. When Charles II reopened the theaters in 1661, he made Sir William Davenant head of a company of actors called The Duke's Men and gave him performance rights to a number of pre-Cromwellian plays including nine by Shakespeare, of which The Tempest was one. A storm, spirits, apparitions, magic, a monster, and an enchanted isle all lent themselves to the sort of spectacular opulence that Davenant recalled from when he had staged masques for King Charles I. In his effort to tame and to bring Restoration sophistication to plays which were considered rough and primitive, in addition to rewriting them, Davenant introduced scenery and spectacular stage machinery. The Tempest, now called The Enchanted Isle, rewritten by Davenant and John Dryden, with many new songs set to music thought to have been composed for the play by Henry Purcell, and staged by Davenant, was a very different play from Shakespeare's. Significantly, however, it was one of the principle plays instrumental in inspiring the design of the proscenium stage, which could accommodate panels of painted scenery—called flats—and, consequently, helped shape how theaters were imagined and built until the middle of the twentieth century.

Because it is the last complete play Shakespeare wrote without a collaborator, and since his death in 1616 followed the play's composition only by some five years, and since it is a play about a magus giving up his magic (which can be seen as comparable to an artist separating himself from his art) and retiring into a life where "every third thought shall be my grave," The Tempest has come to be seen as Shakespeare's valediction, an attribute that clings to it even if some textual scholarship demurs.

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Act I, scene ii Act I, scene ii (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan)


Act 1, Scene 1

The Tempest begins with a great sea storm tearing a ship apart, the efforts of the crew to save the ship, and the curses of some of the passengers, who seem to think the mariners are not making a great enough effort in trying to keep the ship afloat. But all is lost. The ship cracks in the storm and goes down.

Act 1, Scene 2

Miranda and her father, Prospero, sit on the shore watching the sea as Miranda describes the storm and the shipwreck, the clash of sea and sky. She tells her father, too, how her heart went out to the creatures on the ship and how she suffered with them. So deep is her pity, and so well is she acquainted with her father, that she guesses that the storm is his work, and begs him, if it is, to calm the waves he has set thrashing. Acknowledging her insight, Prospero tells her to be easy, that all aboard the ship are safe and that he has done nothing but for her benefit. He then asks her if she remembers anything of her childhood or how they came to be living on the island. She tells him she remembers several serving women who attended her, and he tells her the story of their life before the time she can remember, before their life on the island

Prospero had been the Duke of Milan, but he had been more devoted to study than to governing his realm. He had given over that responsibility to his brother, Antonio. Greedy for power, rather than serving as an honorable deputy, Antonio confederated with the king of Naples, pledging to pay tribute taxes to him, in order to banish Prospero and take his place. Prospero and Miranda were cast off on a poor boat and left to whatever fate befell them at sea, but Gonzalo, an honest minister, supplied them with garments, food, and, of great importance, some of Prospero's books. They survived at sea and the currents took them to an uninhabited Page 866  |  Top of Articleisland. Prospero tells Miranda that now fortune has sent all his enemies to him on the ship she has seen wrecked and that if he acts carefully, he can bring them both good fortune. But now he tells her she is feeling sleepy, and she sleeps.

Prospero summons Ariel, a spirit of the air, whom he commands, and questions him how well he performed his task of simulating a shipwreck and if everyone is safe. Ariel reports that all went well and everyone is safe upon the island, but wandering about, dazed, in several separated groups. Thus the king of Naples thinks his son, Ferdinand, is drowned, and Ferdinand believes his father has perished. When Prospero tells Ariel there is more work to be done, Ariel reminds him that Prospero has promised to free him. Prospero responds angrily that he will but not "before the time be out." He reminds Ariel of the condition he (Ariel) was in before Prospero arrived. Ariel had been the servant of an evil witch named Sycorax who had confined him in the hollow of a tree after he refused to obey her. When she died, Ariel remained imprisoned for twelve years until Prospero arrived and freed him. If Ariel complains, Prospero threatens, he will "rend an oak and peg" him in it for another twelve years. Ariel begs pardon and promises obedience, and Prospero promises him his freedom once his work is finished. He commands Ariel to turn himself into a sea nymph now and return to Prospero in that shape.

When Ariel is gone, Prospero wakes Miranda and summons his other slave, the ugly and deformed Caliban. Not an airy spirit but a brute creature of the earth, whom Prospero employs to carry firewood, Caliban is the son of the witch Sycorax. When Prospero and Miranda arrived upon the island, they treated Caliban well and taught him to speak. He, in turn, showed them secret places on the island where they could get food. But Caliban's nature is brutish and base. He tried to rape Miranda and people the island with his progeny. Prospero then made Caliban his slave rather than his pupil. He exercises his control by means of magic power: he disciplines and punishes Caliban by wracking him with intense body pain.

After Prospero dismisses Caliban, Ariel returns. He is leading Ferdinand, the king's son. Although Ariel is invisible to Ferdinand, Ferdinand can hear the songs he sings. One of them, "Full fathom five thy father lies," reminds Ferdinand of his father, whom he believes is drowned. When Ferdinand and Miranda see each other, with one look exchanged, they fall in love. This is exactly what Prospero wishes to happen, yet to test the lovers, he says, and to make their love not seem too easy, he sets himself up as an obstacle to it, assumes a forbidding attitude, accuses Ferdinand of sneaking onto the island to steal his daughter and take his place. Miranda is shocked to see her father thus enraged, tells him how she loves Ferdinand, but Prospero rebuffs her. When Ferdinand tries to resist Prospero, Prospero casts a spell on him that makes his muscles powerless. Ferdinand says he does not mind being a prisoner as long as he can see Miranda but once a day from his prison. Miranda tells him not to worry, that her father is of a better nature than what he seems to be. To Ariel, in an aside, Prospero rejoices at their love and promises him his freedom after their work is completed

Act 2, Scene 1

On another part of the island, Alonso, king of Naples; his brother, Sebastian; Prospero's brother, the usurping Duke of Milan, Antonio; Gonzalo, the counselor who had supplied Prospero with provisions and some of his books when he was set adrift; and several courtiers, all survivors of the wreck, wander about, amazed at this strange place. Gonzalo advises the king to be merry and not to despair of his son, Ferdinand, who is not among them. As Gonzalo and Alonso talk, Antonio and Sebastian mock them, particularly Gonzalo's optimism, intended to distract the king from his grief. From their conversation, the audience/reader learns that they are all coming home from the marriage of Alonso's daughter, Claribel, to the king of Tunisia.

As they are speaking, Ariel enters invisible and casts a sleep spell on everyone except for Antonio and Sebastian. As the rest sleep, Antonio goads Sebastian to the murder of his brother Alonso, the king of Naples, so that he may take his brother's place. Antonio reminds him by way of encouragement, how he successfully supplanted his brother, Prospero. As they stand with swords drawn about to commit murder, Ariel sets up a buzzing in Gonzalo's ears. He wakes, sees them drawn, and wakes the king. Sebastian and Antonio explain that they drew their swords because they heard a noise as of a herd of dangerous cattle and were preparing to defend the king. Their explanation accepted, the Page 867  |  Top of Articleparty, weapons drawn, move from where they are to find a safer spot on the island. Ariel closes the scene, voicing his intention to report to Prospero what has so far happened.

Act 2, Scene 2

Caliban is alone on stage carrying wood for Prospero, cursing him, and describing how Prospero's spirits torment him with cramps and aches for every small act of defiance. When he sees Trinculo, Alonso's jester, approaching, he assumes it is one of Prospero's agents come to punish him and he lies down, hoping to escape his notice. Trinculo, seeing a storm approaching, looks for some place to take shelter and sees Caliban's form, mostly hidden under the garment he is wearing. Trinculo pokes about. Seeing in Caliban the strange shape of a "monster," he reflects that such a creature put on display in England might make his fortune. Then he slips under Caliban's garment for protection when he hears thunder in the distance.

Stephano, the king's butler, enters. He is carrying a bottle and he is drunk and singing a bawdy song. Caliban, fearing he is one of Prospero's spirits about to hurt him cries out for mercy, startling Stephano, who wonders what he has come upon. Investigating, since Trinculo and Caliban are lying together under Caliban's garment, he thinks there is a four-legged monster partially in the shape of a man, partly in a more brutish, perhaps fish-like form. Caliban continues to cry out in fear. In order to calm the strange monster Stephano pours some of his liquor into Caliban's mouth. Hearing Stephano talking to himself and to the monster, hidden Trinculo recognizes Stephano's voice and calls out his name, amazing the drunken Stephano. Stephano drags Trinculo out from under Caliban's garment. Caliban, now drunk, seeing the two, considers that they are "fine things." Additionally, he believes that Stephano, bearing the bottle, must be a god. Caliban swears he will serve him. They all drink more, and the two survivors tease Caliban, Stephano saying he is the man in the moon, and are delighted by Caliban's gullibility. Caliban promises to show them all the glories of the island, vowing again to serve Stephano now and proclaiming his freedom from Prospero.

Act 3, Scene 1

In front of Prospero's cell, Ferdinand is doing Caliban's work of log bearing. Miranda enters and Prospero follows, eavesdropping, unseen by either of them. Miranda expresses pity that Ferdinand must work as he does and offers to do the log bearing for him. He asks her name and she tells him, realizing she has violated her father's command. They proclaim their love for each other, Ferdinand saying she is finer than any woman he may ever have cared for and Miranda saying that although she has not seen other men except her father and Caliban to compare him to, she would want no other but him. She calls him "husband." He calls her "mistress, dearest." They take hands and bind their hearts together. They depart in different directions leaving a delighted Prospero alone who proclaims that he can not be so glad of their love as they are, but that he could not have a greater gladness at anything than he has at their union.

Act 3, Scene 2

Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo have gotten drunker. Caliban proclaims himself Stephano's slave. In their drunkenness, they begin to quarrel, Caliban claiming that Trinculo mocks him. Ariel enters invisible and adds to the chaos and makes them more quarrelsome by throwing his voice and making it seem like Trinculo is indeed saying disrespectful things and calling both Caliban and Stephano liars. Caliban tells Stephano that the island is ruled by Prospero, whom he calls a tyrant and a sorcerer, who has cheated Caliban out of it. Caliban urges Stephano to seize Prospero's magic books, burn them, and kill Prospero, then become king of the island and marry Miranda. Trinculo and Stephano agree to the conspiracy, but Ariel, invisible, makes music sound around them, amazing and frightening them. In response, Caliban explains the enchantments of the island to them, in a speech the beauty of whose language contradicts the brutish-ness of his character. They leave the stage unwittingly following Ariel, led by his music.

Act 3, Scene 3

The scene shifts to Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Gonzalo, and their party. They are also being led in a trance around the island until Gonzalo proclaims he is too weary to go any further. Alonso agrees and adds that it does not matter to him what they do since he is out of hope that his son Ferdinand is still alive. Antonio and Sebastian voice their gladness to each other that the king is in despair and plot to make a second attempt on his life that evening.

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Prospero and Ariel enter unseen and Ariel directs a group of spirits who bring in a table with a banquet set for the amazed travelers. But before they can begin to eat, the banquet vanishes and Ariel appears in the form of a harpy. Addressing Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio, he calls them "three men of sin." He tells them that they have been spat up on the island for the wrong they did to Prospero and that they will suffer unless they repent the evil they have done from the depths of their hearts.

Prospero praises Ariel for his work and says that he is now going to visit Ferdinand and Miranda. Coming out of his trance, Alonso tells Gonzalo he heard Prospero's name spoken and mention made of the crimes he has committed against him. The party advances and Gonzalo tells the courtiers to follow closely, for they are desperate men and he is old, slow, and tired.

Act 4, Scene 1

Prospero reveals his true, glad feelings about their love to Ferdinand and Miranda. He sets, however, a very serious condition for his continuing favor. Ferdinand must refrain from breaking Miranda's "virgin knot," before their wedding. Ferdinand vows that willingly he will obey. Prospero then summons Ariel and commands him to present a masque, a wedding pageant for the lovers.

There follows then a little play within the play in which Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, which is a bridge between heaven and earth, Ceres, the goddess of agricultural plenty, Juno, goddess of heaven, and several nymphs sing, dance, and offer their best wishes for joy and plenty to the couple. A special point is made that Venus and Cupid, representatives of erotic rather than chaste love, are to be absent from the pageant. In the midst of the pageant, however, Prospero recalls the plot against him by Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, and in a sudden fit, breaks off the masque. Ferdinand is surprised by the sudden change. Prospero tells him not to be disturbed, and in a famous speech, "Our revels now are ended," explains that what he saw were merely shadows which have vanished as everything will vanish, including ourselves, for "we are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep." He tells them he will walk by himself a bit "to still his beating mind," and wishing him peace, the lovers depart.

Prospero summons Ariel to deal with Caliban and his cohorts. He commands Ariel to hang fancy garments on a clothes line. The drunken conspirators enter, soaking wet and contentious, having been led by Ariel's music through foul bogs. Stephano and Trinculo are diverted from their purpose, murdering Prospero, by the allure of the garments. Caliban warns them to ignore the fancy clothing, that they are a snare and a delusion. The drunken servants are taken in by the glitter, however, and when they reach to take the garments, Prospero and Ariel set a pack of fierce dogs upon them.

Act 5, Scene 1

Prospero appears in his magic robes with his book and magician's staff ready to conclude the work he undertook when he first planned the tempest. He asks Ariel how the king and his followers are faring. Ariel tells him they are all prisoners, unable to leave the lime grove in front of his cell. Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio, he tells Prospero, are "distracted," and the rest watch them, grieving. Ariel says the spectacle would be enough to soften his heart were he human. Prospero then reveals the motive for his plot when he agrees with Ariel and explains that he has set reason above fury and not brought his enemies to him for vengeance but, if they are penitent, for reconciliation. He instructs Ariel to bring the king's party to him. Ariel departs. Alone, Prospero invokes the elves that haunt such natural places as hills, brooks, and lakes and whose powers he has commanded. He reviews the supernatural feats he has accomplished, like "bedim[ming] the noontide sun," and vows now to "abjure" "this rough magic" when his work is finished. He has one more task to accomplish and afterwards, he will break his staff and drown his book.

Ariel returns leading the king's party, who now stand, captive, within a charmed circle; the king, Antonio, and Sebastian are jerking like madmen, the others are trying to attend to them. Prospero orders "solemn" music to sound and as their spirits are calmed, he addresses each, reintroducing himself. He speaks first to Gonzalo, recognizes his virtue, and calls him "honorable" and "good." He rebukes Alonso for his role in his [Prospero's] overthrow and similarly reprimands Sebastian. Turning to his own brother, first denouncing his unnatural ambition in usurping his place and then his plot to murder Alonso, Prospero forgives him. As the king's party Page 869  |  Top of Articleawakens from their spell, Prospero changes from his magician's robe back into court clothing. Prospero then sends Ariel to the cove where the ship lies safely anchored, instructing him to bring the crew to him.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • A Tempestade, an opera in Portuguese by Ronaldo Miranda, premiered in 2006.
  • Caliban's Hour (1995) is a novel by Tad Williams set twenty years after the last act of The Tempest. Caliban travels to Naples, breaks into Miranda's bedroom with the desire to avenge himself upon Prospero by murdering her, and tells her, first, the story of The Tempest from his point of view.
  • The 1957 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet turns Prospero's island into a planet, the shipwrecked castaways into space cadets, Caliban into a robot named Robby, and Prospero himself into a mad scientist who has unleashed the destructive forces of the Freudian id.
  • In Prospero's Books, John Gielgud is Prospero in Peter Greenaway's highly sensuous reimagination of the play, which premiered in 1991.
  • "Requiem for Methuselah," episode No. 76 of Star Trek: Original Series, was first broadcast on February 14, 1969. The episode was written by Jerome Bixby, and directed by Murray Golden, and derives its plot and characters from The Tempest.
  • The Tempest was an opera based on Shakespeare's play by Thomas Adès. It premiered in 2004 and featured a libretto by Meredith Oakes.
  • The Tempest, Derek Jarman's 1979 film adaptation, deconstructs and recomposes Shakespeare's play by cutting it into pieces, rearranging them, and adding some new ones, like the high camp ending—a production number with a chorus line of sailors dancing in a shower of golden glitter and singing "Stormy Weather."
  • Paul Mazursky's 1982 film, called simply Tempest, turns Prospero into a bitter architect whose actress wife is unfaithful and who flees to a Greek island with his daughter and his girlfriend.
  • In 1998, Jack Bender directed a version of The Tempest starring Peter Fonda. It was set in the American south between 1851 and 1863 in the period preceding and including the Civil War.

Gonzalo is the first to speak. He issues a prayer that "some heavenly power guide us out of this fearful country!" Prospero interrupts him by introducing himself to the king as 'the wronged Duke of Milan." He embraces him and welcomes him to the island. In a daze, Alonso cannot be sure if what is happening is illusion and the result of enchantment or if the actual Prospero stands before him in reality. No matter which, Alonso says, since he has seen Prospero, "Th'affliction of my mind mends." He imagines Prospero has "a most strange story" to tell, and without even being asked resigns as Duke of Milan and begs Prospero's pardon for the wrongs he has done him. Prospero embraces Gonzalo, scolds Sebastian and Antonio for their plot against Alonso, but promises not to tell him of it, at least not now. He reviles Antonio again, whom he says he cannot call brother, but forgives him and demands his dukedom back. Throughout the scene Antonio says nothing. It is the job of the director and actor or the reader to imagine his response, whether he is gracious and penitent or resentful and capitulates only because he has no other choice.

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Alonso then tells Prospero that despite this good fortune his grief is still great because in the tempest he lost his son, Ferdinand. Prospero commiserates by telling that he has suffered a similar loss in the storm, that he has lost his daughter. Alonso speaks what must be Prospero's very thoughts and the end of his scheme. "O heavens," he says, "that they were living both in Naples, / The King and Queen there!" After Prospero reassures the company that he is Prospero, he shows them the cell in which he lives, and reveals Ferdinand and Miranda within playing a game of chess. Alonso is astonished by the vision of his son alive. Ferdinand kneels to his father. Miranda is dazzled by the sight of humanity and utters her astonishment: "O, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world / That has such people in't." Prospero checks her delicately, having had experience of mankind, and says, "'Tis new to thee." The parents all agree upon the marriage. Gonzalo gives voice to the optimism which governs the play and is the result of the triumph of reconciliation over revenge. He tells them to "rejoice beyond a common joy," and asks rhetorically, "Was Milan thrust from Milan that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?" He ends by celebrating how "all of us" found "ourselves / When no man was his own." Ariel enters with the amazed crew of the ship and then leaves to bring in Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Prospero takes responsibility for Caliban: "this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine." Caliban vows that he was "a thrice-double ass" to take Stephano for a god, and promises to be "wise" and to "seek for grace." Prospero invites the court party into his small cell to rest and says that in the morning they can all set out for Naples where the wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda will be celebrated and then he will go back to Milan, to govern, but "where / Every third thought will be my grave."


When the stage is clear, Prospero remains and addresses the audience directly as a man, like other men, with no magic powers, or even as the actor who has played Prospero. He has, he says no strength but the strength of prayer and begs the audience to set him free from the spell of the island with their applause.



Adrian is a courtier stranded on Prospero's island with Alonso's group.


The King of Naples, Alonso is returning from Tunisia, where he has given his daughter, Claribel, in marriage. He conspired with Antonio in the coup against Prospero some twelve years earlier.


Antonio overthrew his brother, Prospero, and became Duke of Milan twelve years before the start of the play. By his orders, Prospero and Miranda were set adrift at sea.


Ariel is an air spirit who had been confined in a tree by the witch, Sycorax. When Prospero arrived on the island, he freed Ariel from that prison, but did not grant him liberty, making him rather the primary artificer of his magic. Prospero promises, however, to free Ariel after his present enterprise. Ariel has the power to be invisible or to assume whatever shapes, or become whatever sounds, he chooses.


The boatswain is one of the crewmen who battle the storm and must contend at the same time with the angry passengers in the first scene during the apparent shipwreck.


Caliban is a strange and monstrous creature, partially human, partially bestial. He is the son of the witch, Sycorax, and a demon. He is Prospero's slave and drudge. Although Prospero had tried to tame him and had taught him language, Caliban remained a brute, but an eloquent brute with an aesthetic sensitivity as well as a debased appetite. Caliban attempted to rape Miranda. Prospero controls him by tormenting him, through his magic, with physical pain. When the shipwrecked party arrive on the island, Caliban is thrown into company with Alonso's butler, Stephano, and with Alonso's jester, Trinculo. Stephano gets Caliban drunk and, being drunk, Caliban takes Stephano for a god and makes him his new master, then goads Page 871  |  Top of Articlehim on to murder Prospero and become ruler of the island.


Ceres is the earth goddess of agricultural plenty who lost her daughter Persephone when Pluto raped her and took her to his death kingdom, Hades. Ceres appears in the wedding masque Prospero presents to Ferdinand and Miranda to wish bounteousness upon them.


Ferdinand is a prince, the son of Alonso, the king of Naples. He is cast upon Prospero's island by himself, separated from his father during the shipwreck. Ferdinand is convinced that his father has been drowned. When he sees Miranda, he falls in love with her instantly. He is tender, upstanding, and chaste in his virtue.


Gonzalo is a wise and tired old counselor to Antonio. He had helped Prospero at the time of his expulsion from Milan, supplying him with provisions and the most important volumes of his books. Gonzalo is of an optimistic nature and on the island he tries to keep up the king's good cheer.


Iris is the goddess of the rainbow. She appears in Prospero's wedding masque for Ferdinand and Miranda. With the rainbow she joins heaven and earth.


The goddess Juno appears in Prospero's wedding masque representing heavenly blessings.


Miranda is Prospero's well-educated but innocent daughter. Until those who were shipwrecked appeared on the island, she had never seen a man save her father and Caliban (to the degree that he is a man). When she sees Ferdinand, Miranda falls in love with him immediately. She persists in loving him despite her father's apparent objections to him and despite her usual obedience to her father.


Twelve years before the start of The Tempest, Prospero had been the Duke of Milan. More devoted to his books, to the study of the liberal
John Light as Caliban and Patrick Stewart as Prospero in Act I, scene ii at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2006 John Light as Caliban and Patrick Stewart as Prospero in Act I, scene ii at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2006 (© Donald Cooper / Photostage. Reproduced by permission) arts, and to the practice of magic than to governing, Prospero delegated most of his authority to his brother Antonio. Antonio, thus elevated, was overcome by the lust to hold power completely and banished Prospero from Milan. With his infant daughter, Miranda, Prospero was set adrift in a small boat and left to the mercies of the sea. The currents carried the boat to an island inhabited only by spirits, an evil witch who ruled them, and her son. Through the power of his magic, Prospero overcame the power of Sycorax the witch, and assumed command of the spirits and of her son, the half-human, half-bestial Caliban.


Sebastian is the brother of Alonso, the king of Naples. He, too, is shipwrecked on the island with his brother. Antonio goads Sebastian to kill Alonso and become king.

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Stephano is Alonso's butler. On the island, he has found a cask of wine from the ship. He is drunk throughout the play. When Caliban drinks some of his liquor and gets drunk, he thinks Stephano is a god and convinces him to overthrow Prospero, take Miranda to wife, and rule the island.


Trinculo is Alonso's jester and Stephano's friend. He participates in Caliban's drunken plot to kill Prospero.


Revenge versus Reconciliation

Nearly all the tragedies written during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I were plays about revenge. The greatest among them are by Shakespeare, who examined the theme dramatically, and the idea itself in nuanced soliloquies and conversations in his most complex tragedies. In The Tempest, he took a situation that the dramatists of his age were accustomed to present in a revenge tragedy and used it to fashion a reconciliation comedy. The first act of The Tempest actually comes after the events of a tragedy—the usurpatious brother overthrows the righteous ruler. Instead of killing Prospero, however, Antonio sets him adrift on the sea. And instead of seeking revenge, Prospero, the righteous ruler, forgives his brother, seeks reconciliation, and sets reason above passion.

Art, Magic, and Illusion

The Tempest is a play about art, magic, and illusion, and it depends upon illusion for its effect. The art that Prospero has mastered, and Shakespeare's art as a dramatist, reflect each other. Both can make unreal things seem real and both can influence, by their art, how others will feel. [And as any playwright may fear might happen among his audience or his readers, Prospero occasionally puts people to sleep.] Shakespeare's audience would have been aware of two types of magic, the white (good) and the black (evil). Prospero is a theurgist. He practices white magic—a force derived from divine sources and used for the control of natural elements. This form of magic has affinities with the natural sciences, as in the study of alchemy (the forerunner of modern chemistry). The other form of magic, black magic, is tangentially related to the action of The Tempest. Black magicians, like Caliban's mother, the witch Sycorax, derive their power from demonic forces.


Central to The Tempest is the theme of chastity. Prospero is adamant that Ferdinand and Miranda remain chaste until their wedding night. He warns Ferdinand that if he "break" Miranda's "virgin knot before / All sanctimonious ceremonies may / With full and holy rite be minist'red," that "No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall / To make this contract grow; but barren hate, / Sour-eyed disdain, and discord," will be the result of their union. In the masque itself, Juno pointedly asks Iris about Venus and Cupid, patrons of unchaste, erotic love. Iris assures her they will not be present and will cause no trouble to Ferdinand and Miranda "Whose vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid," until after their marriage. The importance of chastity for Prospero is its reliance on reason to command passion, which is his course with regard to vengeance and forgiveness, and which is what art (or magic) is: the domination of raw natural phenomena by the organizing and ordering process of the intelligence and the rational will.

Humanity Versus Brutality

When Miranda exclaims upon seeing Alonso's party for the first time, "O brave new world / That has such people in't!" Prospero tempers her enthusiasm, saying, "'Tis new to thee." In her naïveté, she is actually echoing a similar thought to the one Hamlet utters with much more sophistication when he declaims to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "What a piece of work is man." What Prospero is pointing out to her is that, despite the pleasing form that most people present, bestiality resides in men as surely as it does in Caliban. Caliban represents the irrational and brutal forces that reside within mankind as well as the noble ones. And Caliban is also susceptible to noble insight as his final promise shows, and to delicate sensibility, as his exquisite speeches describing the island demonstrate. The discovery of savages and cannibals in the New World shook the common understanding of what people actually are. In The Tempest, Shakespeare seems to be tracing the range of human possibility from the bestial and brutish Page 873  |  Top of Articlein Caliban, through the virtuous and rational, as exemplified, for example, by Ferdinand, and reaching to the ethereal, as represented by Ariel.


The Tempest is the last complete play that Shakespeare wrote. Afterwards, he collaborated with John Fletcher on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Only five years after finishing The Tempest, moreover, he died. Readers have always had a sense that when Prospero gives up the practice of magic, Shakespeare is suggesting his own farewell to playwriting and the theater. Like Shakespeare, Prospero makes the story of The Tempest happen. He set it in motion with the storm, and he directs the actions of the characters through his magical interventions. Like Prospero, Shakespeare is a kind of magician, having created characters out of thin air, his imagination, and past events in his plays. The story of The Tempest itself is, also, the conclusion of a much older and longer story, the overthrow of Prospero by his brother, and it is the resolution of that story. Prospero not only abjures his magic, but leaves his island to return home where death will be always in his thoughts. Similarly, Shakespeare retired to his home in Stratford, leaving the insular life that a London theater man lived. It is unwise to make a hard and fast connection between Prospero and Shakespeare simply because it is purely a fanciful hypothesis, and because the play works perfectly well without it. Nevertheless, an amplitude of sentiment is achieved when readers do bring the two figures imaginatively together, as inevitably, given what is known of Shakespeare's life, they must.

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  • In a well-developed essay of not less than five hundred words, compare and contrast The Tempest (Shakespeare's original) with Davenant and Dryden's version (which is readily available on-line).
  • Imagine you are a social worker assigned the family of Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban as part of your case load. Write a report of your visit to that family including discussions of their environment, their characters, and their interactions. State what you think their essential problems are and what actions ought to be taken to aid this family.
  • Write one monologue each for three of the major characters of The Tempest in which that character gives his or her take on the events of the play. Present your monologues to the class.
  • Imagine you are a sailor on board the ship that is apparently shipwrecked at the beginning of The Tempest. Write a letter to a friend back in Milan describing what you experienced yourself, where you were during the action of the play, what you saw, and how it all has affected you.
  • Write an adaptation of The Tempest set in contemporary times, in contemporary settings with contemporary characters and situations, reflecting similar themes and concerns to those found in The Tempest.
  • Read Shakespeare's King Lear, and in a thoughtfully crafted essay of at least five hundred words, compare Lear with Prospero. Focus on their relationships to their daughters, their power, and the consequences of their actions.


Blank Verse

While parts of The Tempest are written in prose, most of it, except for Ariel's songs and the verse in Prospero's wedding masque, is written in blank verse. Blank verse is composed of unrhymed pentameter lines usually written in iambics. A pentameter line is a line composed of five feet. A foot is made up of two syllables. In iambic pentameter, the first syllable of each foot is unstressed and the second is stressed. Look, for example, at line 303 in act 1, scene 2: "To every eyeball else. Go take this shape." "To" is unstressed. "Ev" of "every" is stressed, while the second syllable of "every" is unstressed, but "eye" of "eyeball" is. Thus: "to EV/'ry EYE/ball ELSE." (The verse in the masque is generally composed of rhymed couplets, which are lines in Page 874  |  Top of Articlepairs rhyming with each other. The continuous closure of the rhyme on each second line makes this kind of verse good for didactic and ceremonial verses. Blank verse, because of the absence of rhyme, flows like unregulated speech.)


Like several of Shakespeare's comedies, The Tempest closes with an epilogue, a speech made by a leading character (in this case Prospero), who partially steps out of his role and speaks directly to the audience, often alluding to a theme of the play in his request for applause. Prospero speaks of being forgiven and released from the bonds of sin.


As part of the celebration of their marriage, and to give some pleasing example of his art as a magician, Prospero presents a masque before Ferdinand and Miranda. The masque is a form of entertainment that was fashionable in the courts of both James I and Charles I. Not really a play, it was a spectacular event with costumes, scenery, astonishing and sumptuous stage devices (machines that could lower supposedly divine characters down from the heavens, for example), music and dancing. There also was not a clear separation between the performers and the audience. In fact, the action of a masque centers around the audience, as it does in The Tempest, where the focus is on blessing its two viewers, Ferdinand and Miranda, and their coming nuptials. In the court masques, the king was usually at the center of the action. At the time Shakespeare wrote The Tempest his fellow playwright, and therefore his rival, Ben Jonson, was writing masques for the court regularly.


Mirroring is a technique often found in Shakespeare's plays, whether tragic or comic, which makes one set of characters or one line of action reflect another set of characters or another line of action. In The Tempest, Antonio and Sebastian's plot to kill Alonso, Sebastian's brother, so that Sebastian may become king of Naples reflects Antonio's usurpation of his brother Prospero's place twelve years earlier. The comic plot in which Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano conspire to murder Prospero mirrors and burlesques both.

Music, Song, Spectacle

Music, song, dancing and stage machinery, like the throne on which Juno alights, are concentrated in the masque in The Tempest but are also structural parts of the entire play. Ariel actually sings three songs. Music sounds throughout the island and often is used to induce spells or to calm mental distress. Music also accompanies spectacular stage devices, as when Prospero appears "on the top," in act 3, scene 3 and watches "several strange Shapes, bringing in a banquet; and dance about it" and, soon after, when Ariel appears as a harpy and the table disappears.

Musical harmonies, in the Renaissance, were believed to have magical powers themselves; the nearer music in its harmonies approached the absolute music of the heavens, the greater the power. It was believed that the celestial frames that were thought to hold the heavenly bodies in their movements moved all the planets and the stars. The sound made by the harmonious motions of these spheres was called the music of the spheres.

The Unities

The classical unities of time, place, and action, which Aristotle describes as being among the characteristics of a drama, were often ignored by playwrights writing during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. Shakespeare seldom followed the unities. Most of his plays sprawl, in the words of the chorus in Henry V "jumping o'er times, / Turning th' accomplishment of many years / Into an hour glass." In The Tempest, however, Shakespeare adhered strictly to the unities, so much so that Prospero even asks Ariel, at the beginning of act 5, "How's the day?" and Ariel answers, "On the sixth hour, at which time, my lord, / You said our work should cease." Everything happens in a single day. All the strands of the plot are woven together into the single action of reconciliation. The action occurs in a single place, on Prospero's island.



Prospero is a magician who has come to his power through the study of the liberal arts. Magic, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, was not the practice of amazing tricks which Page 875  |  Top of Articledefied the apparent laws of nature, as it is thought of presently, although Prospero is capable of such feats. Magic was considered a branch of knowledge not clearly distinguished from fields like mathematics and chemistry—which in those centuries was called alchemy and had magical and transformative associations. A prominent scholar named John Dee, who died impoverished in 1608 or 1609, studied magic and believed he conversed with spirits and gained the reputation of being an evil magician, seems a likely partial model for Prospero.

New Worlds

James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company in June 1606 to establish a colony in the New World. On May 14, 1607, explorers working for the company landed on Jamestown Island and established the Virginia English colony. In 1609, some five hundred English colonists sailed from Plymouth, England, to Jamestown. They encountered a storm in the Caribbean and Sea Venture, the lead ship, was lost. The rest of the fleet of nine vessels made it safely to Jamestown. Nearly a year later, two boats arrived with the shipwrecked passengers, including the admiral and the governor of the colony. The news spread to London and two personal accounts of the experience on the island of Bermuda and the return to civilization were written. They came to be known as "the Bermuda pamphlets." Shakespeare undoubtedly saw them before composing The Tempest. The idea of the New World and of people who were different from Europeans had already become a matter for literary consideration by the time Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. Michel de Montaigne, the French essayist (1533–1592), speculated on the New World in an essay, "Of the Cannibals." Gonzalo's speech about a Utopian commonwealth is derived from that essay, which Shakespeare must have read in a translation by John Florio.

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  • 1600s: Shakespeare's plays appealed to a mass audience and Shakespeare was regarded as the foremost playwright of his era.
    Today: Shakespeare's plays still appeal to a mass audience and he is regarded as one of the greatest playwrights of all time
  • 1600s: News of geographical exploration and discovery in the New World excited essayists like Montaigne in France and dramatists like Shakespeare in England to think about traditional European values, systems of governance, and even about the fundamental nature of mankind.
    Today: Once again, new and perplexing realms, which have the potential for redefining mankind and changing the nature of the social landscape, are being discovered through the exploration of outer space, cyberspace, genetic research, and cloning.
  • 1600s: Young women were given in marriage by their fathers to their husbands, and were not considered independent persons in their own right
    Today: While in some cultural enclaves, even in countries like England, women are still subject to the rule of their fathers, in general, women have gained the right to live independently and to choose their husbands themselves or to live both unmarried and independently of their fathers.

Revolution and Restoration

From 1642, some thirty years after the composition of The Tempest, until 1649, a series of civil wars were fought between the forces of King Charles I and those loyal to Parliament. Parliamentary forces won, and in 1649, the English Commonwealth and then the Protectorate, were established in place of the monarchy. Beginning in 1642, the Page 876  |  Top of Articletheaters in London were closed. When the monarchy was restored and the theaters were given license to function by King Charles II, in 1661, the theatrical style had changed considerably. While no theater had been ongoing in England, the court in exile had been established in France and theater continued to develop there, where conventions and mores were different. Two examples of the changes were that women, rather than boys, played women's parts onstage and scenery was used on a proscenium stage, for example. Under these altered circumstances, The Tempest was often performed in its radically revised version entitled The Enchanted Isle by William Davenant and John Dryden.


Thomas McFarland argues that The Tempest "constitutes the alpha and omega of Shakespeare's comedy," by the way it brings together "the two great realities of Shakespeare's comic vision—the movement towards social concord on the one hand and on the other the recognition of disharmony and disruption." While McFar-land concludes that "The Tempest serenely reasserts the enchantment of brotherhood and social harmony," other critics do not agree. William J. Martz emphasizes that the conflict of these forces occurs within Prospero himself as an internal, character struggle. The purpose of his struggle, according to Martz, is to overcome his own eroticized love for his daughter in the external world through reconciliation with his enemies. The plot of The Tempest, Martz argues, springs from Prospero's need to create the context in which he may surrender his desire as he gives his daughter as a gift in marriage to the son of the king of Naples, the former enemy with whom he has become reconciled.

Rather than focusing on theme or character, Derek Traversi sees Shakespeare as less concerned than he had been in plays like The Winter's Tale, which just precedes The Tempest, "with the evolution of experience towards … its symbolic representation," which is achieved through character and plot development. In The Tempest, he asserts, "the various characters and situations exist from the first entirely in terms of a definite 'symbolic' function." Robert H. West believes that what is being symbolized in The Tempest is "the poign-ance of man's insubstantial pageant … of human happiness against the shadow of mortality." In the "great tragedies," West writes, Shakespeare explores the mystery of "iniquity;" while in The Tempest, Shakespeare examines "the mystery of felicity."

Early critics of The Tempest were as enthusiastic about the play as these middle and later twentieth-century critics. Rather, however, than emphasizing the psychological, philosophical, symbolic, or moral aspects of the play, they were excited by how it "show[ed]," as John Dry-den wrote, in 1679, "the copiousness of [Shakespeare's] invention." Thirty years later, in 1709, Nicholas Rowe wrote that Shakespeare's "greatness … do's no where so much appear, as where he gives his Imagination an entire Loose, and raises his Fancy to a flight above Mankind and the limits of the visible World." As a representative of this kind of imaginative invention, Rowe calls The Tempest "perfect." Nearly fifty years later, Joseph Warton, in 1753, wrote, "Of all the plays of Shakespeare, The Tempest is the most striking instance of his creative power. He has there given the reins to his boundless imagination, and has carried the romantic, the wonderful, and the wild, to the most pleasing extravagance." In a lecture given in 1811 or 1812, Samuel Taylor Coleridge still finds it essential to focus on the fact that in The Tempest, "Shakespeare has especially appealed to the imagination." In a written "Analysis of Act I," Coleridge asserts that "the power of poetry is, by a single word perhaps, to instil that energy into the mind, which compels the imagination to produce the picture." Coleridge then cites Prospero's phrase "hurried thence / Me, and thy crying self," and argues that "by introducing a single happy epithet, 'crying,'… a complete picture is presented to the mind, and in the production of such pictures the power of genius consists." Astonishment at the imaginative, dramatic and intellectual heights Shakespeare achieved in The Tempest continued throughout the nineteenth century. Nearly a hundred years after Coleridge, writing in 1909, the great novelist Henry James wrote that "the value of The Tempest is, exquisitely, in its refinement of power, its renewed artistic freshness … Prospero has simply waited, to cast his magic ring into the sea, till the jewel set in it shall have begun to burn as never before."

A major thrust of nineteenth-century criticism of The Tempest was allegorical criticism, wherein the critics see the text as a symbolic representation of something else, and the characters represent Page 877  |  Top of Articleideas or characteristics. Edward R. Russell, for example, argued that Prospero stood for God. Critics like W. A. Schlegel in Germany, Victor Hugo in France, Russell and John Ruskin in England, are but some of the most noteworthy to understand The Tempest as an attempt to represent universals—political or metaphysical or psychological or spiritual truths—symbolically, and who saw the play's characters as representing abstract concepts like beauty, goodness, evil, et cetera.

Starting in the 1930s, scholars like J. Middleton Murry, E. M. W. Tillyard, G. Wilson Knight, Reuben Brower, and Frank Kermode, while not repudiating the past writings on The Tempest, began to treat the play more carefully with regard to its structure, imagery, characters, unity, and historical context than had been the habit of earlier critics.

In the 1980s, as critics grew interested in the connection between literature and historical or social phenomena, the way The Tempest appeared to treat European imperialism and colonial people became a significant topic in critical writing about the play. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, for example, put forth the argument in 1985, in "The Tempest and Oppression," that the real plot of the play is Prospero's anxiety about his legitimacy as ruler of the island, and that the plot towards reconciliation which he generates and which seems to be the main action of the play is really a sub-plot.


Neil Heims

In the following essay, Heims suggests there is a connection between Prospero's decision to give his daughter in marriage and his decision to forgive rather than take revenge upon those who have wronged him.

A common strand in many of Shakespeare's plots concerns a conflict between a father and his daughter regarding her choice of a husband. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Cymbeline, among other plays of his, Shakespeare presents a situation in which a daughter defies her father in the choice of a husband. The subsequent action in each of these plays always involves a consequence of that opposition and that defiance. Usually, this father/daughter conflict is central to tragedy, but Shakespeare has introduced it into comedies, too, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Hermia prevails over her father's objections and marries Lysander. In The Tempest, Shakespeare resolves the father daughter conflict that has so often concerned him, turning the material of tragedy into comedy by connecting the father/daughter motif to what is probably the primary theme of the majority of his plays—revenge.

The defining action of The Tempest is Prospero's decision to forgive his enemies rather than to avenge himself for the wrongs done to him. In the period spanning the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, when tragic drama was almost entirely made up of revenge tragedies, this reversal is unique in the body of Shakespeare's work. The fundamental action of a revenge tragedy, whether it is one of the precursor plays to Hamlet like the blood soaked The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, or such a sophisticated and complex play as Hamlet itself, King Lear, or Othello, consists of a wrong perpetrated and the crosscurrents of revenge that wrong-doing generates.

In The Tempest, twelve years before the opening scene of the play, Prospero had been seized by his brother, stripped of his dukedom, and cast out to sea with his infant daughter, Miranda, in a small boat which was hardly sea worthy. That action, which comprises the usual opening for a revenge tragedy, is the prologue to The Tempest. The Tempest itself takes that action as its starting point and also recapitulates that past action of overthrowing Prospero in the two parallel subplots. The first subplot involves Antonio and Sebastian's attempt to murder Alonso and usurp his crown. The second involves Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo in their plot to murder Prospero and become rulers Page 878  |  Top of Articleof the island. In these two threads, the tragic material is debased by what must be parody. That Antonio and Sebastian, who are shipwrecked and castaway on a strange, and apparently uninhabited, island should be concerned about staging a coup d'etat is ridiculous. For the three drunkards, the attempt to kill Prospero is an exercise in low comedy. Parodic as these two subplots are, nevertheless, they keep alive in the present two facts from the past. Antonio is still a villain, and Prospero and other figures of authority and order, like Alonso, the king of Naples, are still in danger. Disorder still threatens to destabilize the established order—even on this remote island.

Even so, the principle action of The Tempest turns on the desire to return good for evil rather than to take revenge, to let anger go rather than to nurse it. Without forcing an absolute cause and effect relation between the two, it may be noticed that Prospero's act of letting go of anger and eschewing revenge, and of letting go of his daughter, function simultaneously and may be seen as reflections of each other. If letting go of his anger means eschewing revenge, the question remains: what, in Shakespeare's plays, does a father's act of letting go of his daughter mean he is eschewing?

Reflecting the social reality of their time in their assertion of the father/daughter bond as a bond of possession, Shakespeare's plays, nevertheless, transform that social fact into a literary motif with its own literary function. The father's control of his daughter, in Shakespeare's worlds, seems to express a generalized characteristic of mankind, the desire to possess and the reluctance to yield. In Shakespeare's plays, within that desire to possess and to control, there is often interwoven an erotic element. That element is often submerged and can be discovered through the study of images or through character analysis. But there are instances where the motif is overt. The most obvious example comes in the first of Shakespeare's four last plays, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, of which The Tempest is the last.

In Pericles, Antiochus, the king of Antioch, sets an obstacle for all suitors for his daughter. They must solve a riddle. The suitor who can solve the riddle will marry his daughter. Those who fail are beheaded and their heads hung on the pales of the gates surrounding the palace. Here's the riddle:

    I am no viper, yet I feed
    On mother's flesh which did me breed.
    I sought a husband, in which labour
    I found that kindness in a father.
    He's father, son, and husband mild;
    I mother, wife, and yet his child.
    How they may be, and yet in two,
    As you will live, resolve it you.

Pericles understands that to solve the riddle is to confront the king and his daughter with the fact of their incestuous relationship. In fear for his life, he flees. Later, when he has a daughter of his own and his wife has died, Pericles gives the daughter whom he cherishes into the care of the king and queen of Tharsus, whose land he has saved from famine. When he gives them his daughter to raise, he also makes a rather strange vow:

    Till she be married …
    By bright Diana, whom we honour all,
    Unscissored shall this hair of mine remain,
    Though I show ill in't.

He has developed a sort of traumatic response to his own experience with Antiochus and his daughter. Pericles's vow, in the name of Diana, the goddess of chastity, seems to indicate a fear of falling into the same evil that Antiochus practiced. By putting his infant daughter, Marina, beyond his reach and by vowing not to cut his hair, although it will make him physically unattractive, until after she is married, Pericles attempts to protect himself and his daughter from the threat of incest.

In The Winter's Tale, the play Shakespeare wrote right before he wrote The Tempest, there is also a hint of the illicit attraction fathers can have for their daughters when Leontes, king of Sicilia, first sees Perdita, whom he does not know is his daughter, and says to Florizel, her betrothed, "I'd beg your precious mistress."

Perhaps the most significant example of the destabilization that the improper passion of a father for his daughter can cause is explored in King Lear. While there may or may not be suggestions in the text of an actual erotic fixation on his daughters, Lear's desire to command their entire love is in itself a form of lust, as Cordelia herself intimates when she asks, "Why have my sisters husbands, if they say / They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed, / That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty. / Sure I shall never marry like my sisters, / To love my father all."

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Alec Clunes, Patrick Wymark, and Clive Revill in a scene from The Tempest at the Stratford Festival, 1957 Alec Clunes, Patrick Wymark, and Clive Revill in a scene from The Tempest at the Stratford Festival, 1957 (Central Press/Getty Images)

In The Tempest itself, as Prospero is relating the story of his overthrow to Miranda in act 1, scene 2, just after he announces that "Twelve year since, / Thy father was the Duke of Milan," Miranda asks, at line 55, "Sir, are not you my father?" He answers that her mother was a virtuous woman and "She said thou wast my daughter." It is an innocent enough exchange, and Page 880  |  Top of ArticleMiranda's confusion at hearing so unexpected a revelation easily accounts for it. Yet the very inclusion of this exchange suggests the odd possibility that Prospero could have answered in the negative and left open Antiochus' prerogative for himself. But, of course, he does not. The very purpose of his project, which constitutes the story line of The Tempest, is to transfer his possession of Miranda to a husband.

When Prospero does give his daughter in marriage to Ferdinand, he is fierce in setting the condition that Ferdinand avoid the temptation to "break her virgin knot" before all proper marriage ceremonies and rituals are performed. With the firmness of one who has practiced similar self-restraint himself, Prospero imposes such restraint on Ferdinand. By doing so, Prospero is not only giving his daughter to Ferdinand, but he is passing on to the prince a particular piece of behavioral wisdom, essentially stated in his words to Ariel: "with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury / Do I take part." Prospero is teaching Ferdinand to serve reason, which is a faculty dependent upon the restraint of passion—fury being one sort of passion—rather than to be dominated by desire and thus become, in Hamlet's phrase, "passion's slave."

In his lesson, Prospero is not opposing possession. Rather he is opposing the lust to possess. Social order, according to Prospero, functions within the boundaries of possession. A husband possesses his wife; a king or a duke possesses his title and all to which, by that title, he is entitled. Prospero returns to Milan, after all, and resumes his role as the Duke of Milan. But even as he takes possession of his old dukedom, he has become wise enough to begin to let it go, promising that every third thought will be about dying. To grasp at a desire from passion for possession, as Antonio, Alonso, Sebastian, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo all do in The Tempest, does not further a just social order but rather, it furthers chaos and injustice. In the same way that Prospero does not oppose possession, Prospero does not oppose desire. He opposes allowing desire to overwhelm and vanquish reason. In the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda, Prospero's ideal is exemplified. It is a marriage in which reason and the restraints of ceremony on the one side, and passionate desire on the other, are in harmony. Reason governs passion and passion is satisfied through the mediating power of reason. Consequently, chaos is avoided and order is maintained.

In The Tempest, Prospero can repudiate the sort of desire Caliban represents, a libidinal rapacity, because he is aware of it in himself. The recognition of a part of himself in Caliban helps to explain also the painful severity of the punishments he inflicts on Caliban. Prospero is not avenging himself on Caliban for Caliban's brutish behavior. He is attempting to suppress it using a pre-Pavlovian sort of behavior modification. The restraint he enforces on Caliban with aches and stitches Prospero enforces on himself with reason. That Prospero recognizes that he and Caliban bear similarities, despite their great differences, is subtly conveyed toward the end of The Tempest when things are being sorted out. Pointing to Caliban, Prospero says, "this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine." The versification is such that the acknowledgment has the force of a psychological insight. The line break comes after the word "I". Thus pointing to Caliban, Prospero says, "This thing of darkness I," suggesting some identity between himself and Caliban—I am this thing of darkness—before he completes the thought in the next line with "Acknowledge mine."

It is tempting to argue that because Prospero has renounced possession of his daughter he is able to renounce vengeance and, consequently, to regain what he has lost and to cause the others, as Gonzalo says, in act 5, scene 1, to find themselves "when no man was his own." Having overcome himself in the one sphere, Prospero is able to do so in the other. But even allowing only a restrained interpretation that avoids a direct cause and effect relationship, it is apparent that eschewing vengeance and letting go of his daughter are aspects of the same accomplishment of his soul and his intellect. Much earlier in his career, Shakespeare wrote in the thirteenth line of his sixteenth sonnet, "To give away yourself keeps yourself still." By letting go of his daughter and his fury, Prospero becomes his own, recovering his dukedom and the humanity which comes from the recognition of mortality.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on The Tempest, in Shakespeare For Students, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Craig Bernthal

Bernthal examines the issues of guilt, judgment, and redemption in The Tempest. The play, he Page 881  |  Top of Articlenotes, contains Biblical references to judgment and divine providence that audiences in Shakespeare's time would have been extremely familiar with. The character of Prospero, for example, attempts to induce guilt and extend forgiveness. In the end, Garber contends that in Shakespeare's play, the concept of free will remains intact.

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  • In 1921, William Butler Yeats published a poem called, "A Prayer for My Daughter." Yeats's poem follows the meditations of a father about the life he has led, and the life he wishes for his daughter, as he sits by the cradle of his infant daughter while a storm in the Atlantic rages outside.
  • Book IV of the Latin poet Virgil's homage to Augustus Caesar and the Roman Empire, The Aeneid (29-19 B.C.E.), recounts the story of the bitter love affair between the Trojan Aeneas on his course to Italy after the Trojan War and Dido, Queen of Carthage, who kills herself for his love. There is also an opera, Dido and Aeneas (1689), by Henry Purcell with text by Nahum Tate (who revised Shakespeare's King Learfor the stage in 1681).
  • François-René de Chateaubriand's early nineteenth century novels, Atala and Rene (1801, are set in large part in the southern United States in forests among Indians. The people and the landscape suggest a different kind of world from the European world that Chateaubriand's hero is fleeing from—and from which Chateaubriand himself fled on the eve of the French Revolution.
  • Aldous Huxley took the name of his famous 1932 novel, Brave New World, from The Tempest and also derived many of his themes from it, especially the conflict between the spontaneous brutality of nature and the controlled cruelty of imposed order.
  • "Caliban in the Coal Mines" was Louis Untermyer's 1914 poem about the plight of coal miners. The poem embodies them in the figure of Caliban, defining Caliban as an oppressed creature in an unjust society.
  • In his 1846 poem, "Caliban upon Setebos," nineteenth-century poet Robert Browning makes Caliban an emblem of man. As the speaker of a dramatic monologue, he considers the existence of a deity and his relation to it.
  • In 1904, W. H. Hudson published Green Mansions, a classic story of Rima the Bird Girl in the forest and the conflict of nature and culture.
  • Paul and Virginia, was published by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in 1787 as Paul et Virginie (Paul and Virginia). Hardly known today, it was immensely popular during the first half of the nineteenth century. The novel is set on the island of Mauritius amid natural beauty and its theme is the conflict of nature and civilization.
  • Peter Pan (1904) is J. M. Barrie's classic tale of the conflict between grown up responsibility and the threatened paradise of childhood.
  • Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, traces the history of an Englishman who is shipwrecked and becomes a castaway on an island; he asserts his command over the natural environment through his industriousness, and has to deal with "savages" and cannibals. Like The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe has its roots in a real event, the plight of the Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who had been cast away on an island off the Chilean coast in 1709. After his rescue, he published an account of his adventures in 1712.
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… [A]lthough Prospero can create tempests and illusions, cramp the muscles of his enemies, or make them fall asleep, he has no direct access to their hearts; he can only create situations and take actions that may lead Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian to repent. Their wills remain their own. In this limitation, Prospero is like the three witches of Macbeth, who can plague a sailor with storms "sev'n-nights nine times nine," but who have no power to sink the sailor's ship or make him despair: "Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest tost." If the man hangs onto his courage and will, he will survive—unless a power higher than the witches or sorcerers decrees otherwise.

Prospero's method of eliciting repentance follows the biblical model. He preaches wrath to promote a sense of guilt, hoping that guilt will lead to sorrow and sorrow to true repentance. Though repentance founded on "attrition"—the sheer terror of divine punishment—was held to be acceptable to God, "contrition"—repentance motivated by genuine sorrow for one's sins—was better, for it acknowledged God's justice as well as his power. (Thus, we see Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure trying to reason Claudio out of the fear of death so that he can make a true act of contrition.) Prospero would prefer that Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian be truly sorry for what they have done to him and Miranda, for the sake of their "fraughting souls" as well as his own satisfaction, so he forces them into situations in which they are forced to experience what he and Miranda have experienced. This is not eye-for-an-eye vengeance, but an attempt to induce in the men some empathy for Prospero and Miranda's sufferings. First, the men are made to believe that they have been shipwrecked, as have been Prospero and Miranda. Because Miranda, then a three-year-old, would likely have died along with
The Raising of the Storm "The Raising of the Storm" (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan) her father, Prospero plagues Alonso with the apparent death of his son Ferdinand. On the island, the castaways find no apparent sources of food or water, and they have no idea how they will sustain themselves—problems they knew Prospero and Miranda would confront if they survived drowning. To drive this point home, Prospero tantalizes the men with a banquet that vanishes when they attempt to eat it. Robert Gram Hunter likens the banquet to the sacrament of Holy Communion, from which "notorious and unrepentant sinners are traditionally excluded …"

Clearly, none of the men is sorry for what they have done to Prospero and Miranda; Antonio and Sebastian only remember the coup as a precedent for murdering Alonso. Ariel, in the form of a harpy, removes the feast and pronounces the men's guilt, adding understanding to their suffering. The "Homily on Repentance," with which Shakespeare's audience would have been very familiar, lists four requirements of adequate repentance: contrition of heart, unfeigned confession and acknowledgment of sins, faith that God will pardon one's sins, and the amendment of one's life, which included a sincere attempt to make restitution for previous wrongdoing. Prospero will try to take Alonso and his men Page 883  |  Top of Articlealong this path. Ariel begins by trying to induce a true sense of guilt in the men:

    You are three men of sin, whom Destiny,—
    That hath to instrument this lower world
    And what is in't,—the never-surfeited sea
    Hath caus'd to belch up you; and on this island,
    Where man doth not inhabit,—you 'mongst men
    Being most unfit to live …
    For that's my business to you,—that you three
    From Milan did supplant good Prospero:
    Expos'd unto the sea, which hath requit it,
    Him and his innocent child: for which foul deed,
    The powers, delaying, not forgetting, have
    Incens'd the seas and shores, yea all the creatures
    Against your peace. Thee of thy son, Alonso,
    They have bereft; and do pronounce by me
    Ling'ring perdition—worse than any death
    Can be at once—shall step by step attend
    You and your ways; whose wraths to guard you from,—
    Which here, in this most desolate isle, else falls
    Upon your heads,—is nothing but heart-sorrow,
    And a clear life ensuing.
    (3.3.53-58; 69-82)

The only way to avoid the wrath of Fate (Shakespeare could not use the word "God" because the 1605 Statue of Abuses forbade it to be said on stage) is through "heart's sorrow" and a "clear [blameless] life ensuing," which restates the standard church doctrine of repentance. Ariel's pronoucement of guilt drives the three men to desperation, though in different ways. Antonio and Sebastian, with drawn swords, rush off stage to fight legions of fiends; Alonso, believing that his sins have caused Ferdinand's death, threatens suicide:

    O, it is monstrous, monstrous!
    Methought the billows spoke, and told me of it;
    The winds did sing it to me; and the thunder,
    That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounc'd
    The name of Prosper: it did bass my trespass.
    Therefore my son i' th' ooze is bedded; and
    I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded,
    And with him there lie mudded.

Gonzalo, fearing that the men will harm themselves, tells the others to follow them. Gonzalo recognizes the guilt of the three, but moreover, recognizes the spiritual corruption within them:

    All three of them are desperate: their great guilt,
    Like poison given to work a great time after,
    Now 'gins to bite the spirits. I do beseech you,
    That are of suppler joints, follow them swiftly,
    And hinder them from what this ecstasy
    May now provoke them to.

At this point the play turns toward the comedy of forgiveness … Once Alonso feels the pain that Prospero has been put through, Prospero perhaps recalls his own pain and begins to feel a bond with his enemy. Even Ariel, nimble, mercurial, and inhuman, can feel the spiritual pain of the shipwrecked men:

    Ariel: The King,
    His brother, and yours, abide all three distracted,
    And the remainder mourning over them,
    Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly
    Him that you term'd, sir, "The good old lord, Gonzalo";
    His tears run down his beard, like winter's drops
    From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works 'em
    That if you now beheld them, your affections
    Would become tender.
    Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?
    Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.
    Prospero: And mine shall.
    Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
    Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
    One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
    Passion as they, be kindlier mov'd than thou art?
    Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th' 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.
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Prospero has clearly made the Christian choice. His judgment extends charity to others, as he hopes to attain it himself at the moment of his death. Yet, as the play draws to a close, Shakespeare raises doubts about whether Prospero's god-like manipulation of events has led Alonso, Antonio, or Sebastian to sincere repentance, or whether Prospero's decision against vengeance rises to the level of forgiveness. Certainly the three "men of guilt" have been scared out of their wits and Alonso has been bludgeoned with the death of his son. If any of the three feels sorry for what he has done, it is surely Alonso, and when Prospero reveals Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess, and Alonso knows his son to be alive and in love with a beautiful and noble woman, his reconciliation with Prospero, through the marriage of their children, seems sure. Alonso takes all the steps of repentance, asking forgiveness of the one wronged and offering to make reparations. He tells Prospero: "Thy dukedom I resign, and do entreat / Thou pardon me my wrongs" (5.1.118-19). Alonso's transformation makes poetic truth of the song that Ariel sings to Ferdinand in act 1, which seemed to speak of Alonso's death but also foreshadowed his rebirth and transformation through the baptism of shipwreck:

    Full fadom 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.

From Sebastian, however, Prospero gets only an antagonistic lie. When Prospero tells Sebastian and Antonio that he knows about their plot to kill Alonso, he says "But you, my brace of lords, were I so minded, / I here could pluck his highness' frown upon you, / And justify you traitors"; Sebastian's response is, "The devil speaks in him" (5.1.126-30). When Prospero forgives his brother, his speech strives toward forgiveness, but perhaps falls short:

    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.

Antonio gives Prospero no thanks in reply and offers no apologies. He does not ask to be forgiven, and he has nothing to restore to Prospero, Alonso having returned the dukedom already. Antonio does not find his voice until Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo appear on stage, and then it is only to throw a verbal barb at Caliban. There is nothing to indicate that either Antonio or Stephano are repentant. Grace does not reach them. Stephano and Trin-culo wish only to be free of their cramps and are only as repentant as children who want to stop being spanked. But perhaps Caliban has learned something, for he recognizes his foolishness: "I'll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass / Was I to take this drunkard for a god, / And worship this dull fool!" Perhaps Caliban's resolution to seek grace refers only to his asking Prospero's forgiveness, but we cannot be sure he does not refer to a higher source, and even if he does seek only Prospero's "grace," for Caliban that is a step in the right direction.

Gonzalo brings the idea of Providence back into the play at this point, and his summary has the elevation of a psalm:

    … look down you gods,
    And on this couple drop a blessed crown!
    For it is you that have chalk'd forth the way
    Which brought us hither …
    Was Milan thrust from Milan, that his issue
    Should become Kings of Naples? O rejoice
    Beyond a common joy! and set it down
    With gold on lasting pillars: In one voyage
    Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
    And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
    Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom
    In a poor isle, and all of us ourselves
    When no man was his own.
    (5.1.201-04; 205-13)

Gonzalo's characteristic optimism leads him to overstatement, since there is little evidence that Antonio and Sebastian or Stephano and Trinculo have found their lost selves, the selves they could become if they allowed grace to enter their lives. But in Shakespeare's Christian view, which is certainly more Roman Catholic than Calvinist or Lutheran, every man's soul is his own; free will remains intact, and no one is transformed who does not want to be.

Source: Craig Bernthal, "Judgment and Divine Providence," in The Trial of Man: Christianity and Judgment in the World of Shakespeare, ISI Books, 2003, pp. 248-55.

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Ernest Gohn

In the following essay, Gohn discusses Shakespeare's use—hitherto unprecedented in his plays—of the classical unities of time and place in The Tempest. He argues that the work's structural unity, with action occurring as it does over the course of approximately three hours, is reflected in a thematic emphasis on the present. Gohn's analysis continues by relating this dramatic sense of urgency and preoccupation with the "now" in the play to its themes of hoped-for redemption and reconciliation.

Critics have spent so much time on character-analysis—and upon possible biographical, allegorical, and symbolic implications of The Tempest—that they have overlooked the great emphasis put on the sense of the present in the play. But it is an emphasis which we cannot ignore: such words and phrases as 'now', 'at this moment', 'at this instant' echo and reinforce one another throughout the play. Furthermore, the episodes of the play are usually conceived in a present which is a crucial nexus uniting the past to the future: the past is relevant only as it affects the present, the future only as it grows out of the present. The past is defined as that which occurred years ago in Milan, the future as that which will take place after the characters leave the island.

Shakespeare no sooner finishes his brief opening shipwreck scene than be begins to emphasize the crucial quality of the present. Prospero assures Miranda, who has been moved to pity by the sight of the wreck, that all he has done in raising the storm has been done in care of her, who is ignorant of what she and her father are. But now "Tis time', says Prospero, 'I should inform thee farther' (I, ii, 22-33). Prospero's care for his daughter, which has led him to raise the storm, is, then, intimately related to the time at which Miranda must learn of her past: he repeats, 'For thou must now know farther' (I, ii, 33). Prospero has at times in the past started to tell his history to her, but in the past he has always stopped, 'Concluding, "Stay, not yet"' (I, ii, 36). At this moment, however, 'the hour', 'the very minute' (I, ii, 36-37) has come. Miranda must know of her origins before she can take her place in Prospero's present scheme. As he assures her later in the midst of his narrative:

    Hear a little further,
    And then I'll bring thee to the present business
    Which now's upon's, without the which this story
    Were most impertinent.
    (I, ii, 135-38)

To Miranda, the 'present business' which is 'now' upon them must refer to the storm she has just witnessed. To Prospero, also, the shipwreck seems to be the 'present business'; but he evidently has more in mind, for when Miranda asks him his reason for raising the tempest, he replies in most general terms, terms which neither she nor the audience can understand until the play is over:

    Know thus far forth.
    By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune,
    Now my dear lady, hath mine enemies
    Brought to this shore. And by my prescience
    I find my zenith doth depend upon
    A most auspicious star, whose influence
    If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes
    Will ever after droop. Here cease more questions.
    (I, ii, 177-84)

Prospero's storm is merely the first phase of a larger sense of the moment which he 'now' courts, a sense which includes everything in the play. It is, one supposes, to keep his larger scheme secret that he carefully sends Miranda to sleep before he calls for Ariel: 'I am ready now' (I, ii, 187).

Ariel's interview with Prospero is, of course, mainly further exposition: we learn how Ariel has acted as Prospero's agent in creating the shipwreck and in disposing the various groups about the isle; we also learn of Ariel's imprisonment by Sycorax (the pre-Prospero history of the island). But between these two bits of exposition, Page 886  |  Top of Articlewe are again recalled to the sense of the present, made vivid by the pressure of time: 'The time 'twixt six and now / Must by us both be spent most preciously' (I, ii, 240-41). In this instance, Prospero's 'now' is that moment at least 'two glasses' after noon. But in Ariel's slight attempt at rebellion and in its happy resolution ('That's my noble master! / What shall I do? Say what. What shall I do?'—I, ii, 299-300), we realize that for Ariel, as for Prospero, the 'present business' is 'now' in another sense. Having performed his duties in this scheme of Prospero, he will be free. He had asked for his liberty 'Before the time be out' (I, ii, 246), but in his glad acceptance of Prospero's promise, we cannot help but think for Ariel the present is the larger action in which he must play his part.

Having been sent off by Propero's whispered command, Ariel returns, leading Ferdinand onstage. Ferdinand's passion has been allayed by Ariel's song, which, he recognizes, is 'no mortal business' (I, ii, 406). Prospero has thus prepared Ferdinand for the transcendant experience which he is now to have. Ferdinand 'now' (I, ii, 407) hears the music above him, and Prospero immediately directs Miranda to look at what she first thinks is a spirit. That Shakespeare's young lovers love at first sight is certainly no news, but in no other play is the event revealed so dramatically in the present, in a moment so pregnant. Miranda thinks that Ferdinand must be something divine, Ferdinand that Miranda must be a goddess. They have, as Prospero recognizes, changed eyes 'at first sight' (I, ii, 440), but the intensity of the present is revealed must fully in their mutual wonder. As they recognize their humanity, Miranda reveals that this is the 'first' (I, ii, 445) man that she ever sighed for; Ferdinand ignores Prospero's ungentle tone to propose marriage immediately. It is a 'swift business' (I, ii, 450) which causes Prospero to impose the test on Ferdinand. As the scene ends, Miranda comforts Ferdinand by assuring him that her father's nature is gentler than it has just appeared: 'This is unwonted / Which now came from him' (I, ii, 497-98). Something about this occasion makes him act in a manner unusual to him.

As Shakespeare turns to the shipwrecked crew in Act II, we soon discover that for them, too, the present is of peculiar significance. Gonzalo immediately recognizes the miraculous quality of their preservation and, joined by Adrian though ridiculed by Antonio and Sebastian, extols the idyllic quality of the island. He is most amazed, however, that their clothes are 'now' (II, i, 68, 97) still as fresh as when they first put them on in Africa for the marriage of Claribel who 'now' (II, i, 98) is Queen at Tunis. Gonzalo's moralizing does not ease the sorrow of Alonzo; rather, it stimulates lamentation for what he had done in the past that has occasioned the sorrow of the present. (Ironically, he does not realize how right he is, in a sense of which he is yet ignorant.) After Gonzalo's description of the ideal commonwealth—the possibilities of their present predicament now so obviously contrary to what they had known in the past in Milan and Naples—Ariel sends them all, except Sebastian and Antonio, to sleep.

For these men, left awake to do the wicked plotting which so explicitly reproduces the earlier plot against Prospero, the memory of the past stimulates the action of the present. Like Prospero, they see an occasion not to be missed. As Antonio begins to prod Sebastian.

    The occasion speaks thee, and
    My strong imagination sees a crown
    Dropping upon thy head.
    (II, i, 207-9)

Sebastian is 'standing water', but Antonio will teach him 'how to flow' (II, i, 221-22). As Antonio proceeds to be more explicit, he says 'what's past is prologue, what to come, / In yours and my discharge' (II, i, 253-54). This murder must be performed now. If it were death that 'now' (II, i, 261) had seized the sleepers, they would be no worse off than they are 'now' (II, i, 262). In the past Prospero's servants were Antonio's fellows; 'now' (II, i, 274) they are Antonio's men. Alonzo would be no better than the earth he lies upon, 'If he were that which now he's like, that's dead' (II, i, 282). Ready to carry out their treachery, they draw their swords, when Ariel enters to sing in Gonzalo's ear. If the sleepers are not kept living, Prospero's 'project' will not succeed (II, i, 299). In his song Ariel warns Gonzalo that conspiracy has taken this opportunity ('His time'—II, i, 303). The conspirators are about to 'be sudden' (II, i, 306) but Gonzalo awakes, saying 'Now good angels / Preserve the King!' (II, i, 306-7). Even Sebastian's lying explanation for their drawn swords stresses the present—'Even now we heard a hollow burst …' (II, i, 311). In this episode we again see the overwhelming relevance of action in the present. For Antonio and Sebastian, the present Page 887  |  Top of Article
The Prince in Servitude "The Prince in Servitude" (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan) moment (not before or later) is the occasion to carry out their evil purposes. They are stopped only by the timely appearance of Ariel. The Antonio-Sebastian-Alonzo subplot is thus intimately a part of Prospero's larger project—his conduct of the 'present business' which is the major concern of the play. Were the conspirators to succeed now, Prospero's unique opportunity for reconciliation with Alonzo would be lost. A lesser, evil instant would destroy the larger, good instant.

When we next see the court party, they are weary from their fruitless search for Ferdinand, and, stopping to rest, Alonzo will 'no longer' (III, iii, 8) keep hope for his flatterer. Antonio and Sebastian see in the abandonment of hope and in the weariness the possibility of another attempt on the king's life. They agree to take the 'next advantage' (III, iii, 13), which will be 'tonight, / For now they are oppressed with travel' (III, iii, 14-15). But at this moment Prospero again intervenes, this time with the dumb-show banquet. Sebastian will 'now' (III, iii, 21) believe in unicorns and in the phoenix; Gonzalo recognizes that if the reported this 'now' (III, iii, 28) in Naples, he would scarce be credited, although stories which had seemed unbelievable in his youth are 'now' (III, iii, 47) vouched for by travellers. As they approach the table to eat, Ariel appears in the guise of a harpy, the banquet suddenly vanishes, and Ariel delivers the speech which Prospero has commanded. In this speech Alonzo and his followers are first accused of evil, then reminded of their powerlessness ('Your swords are now too massy for your strengths'—III, iii, 67). But Ariel's most important business is to recall their treachery to Prospero in the past, again bringing the past into the context of the crucial present. The powers have delayed, not forgotten (III, iii, 73). Alonzo is promised punishment in the future, a punishment to be avoided only by repentance. Prospero compliments Ariel on his performance and observes that his enemies are 'now' (III, iii, 90) in his power. As Prospero goes off to join Miranda and Ferdinand, Alonzo recalls his early sin. For him, Ariel's speech, with its references to Providence, Fate, Prospero, and foul deeds is the moment of moral awakening, although at this point it drives him to despair instead of repentance. As Gonzalo observes, after Alonzo and the others have run off:

    Their great guilt,
    Like poison given to work a great time after,
    Now 'gins to bite the spirits.
    (III, iii, 104-6)

They must be stopped from the suicide to which they are 'now' (III, iii, 109) provoked.

Following his formal gift of Miranda to Ferdinand (in the course of which Ferdinand promises not to violate her chastity, as he hopes for long life with 'such love as 'tis now'—IV, i, 25), Prospero calls for Ariel so that he can present the masque. Ariel asks, 'Presently?' and Prospero replies, 'Aye, with a twink' (IV, i, 42-43). Ariel promises to fulfill the task

    Before you can say, 'come', and 'go',
    Breathe twice and cry, 'so, so'.
    (IV, i, 44-45)

Ariel is not to approach until Prosporo calls for him, but it is after only six lines that Prospero bids, 'Now come, my Ariel!' (IV, i, 57). As the masque ends with a dance, Prospero suddenly recalls the Caliban-Stephano-Trinculo conspiracy, the 'minute' (IV, i, 141) of whose plot has come. Again, that is, Prospero recalls the importance of the moment: there is a minute for Alonso, for Ferdinand, and even for Caliban. We recall that from his first meeting with Stephano and Trinculo, Caliban, having discovered that they were not plaguing spirits, had perceived them as agents through whom to effect his own liberation. Page 888  |  Top of ArticleAs Prospero breaks up the entertainment, the revels 'now' (IV, i, 148) are ended. When Caliban approaches the cell, he, too, is aware of the precious quality of the moment: 'We are now near his cell' (IV, i, 195). Caliban's urgency can only be increased as Stephano and Trinculo are beguiled by the trumpery; Caliban will have none of it, for 'we shall lose our time' (IV, i, 248). The plotters being chased away, Prospero knows he is in absolute control:

    At this hour
    Lie at my mercy all mine enemies.
    Shortly shall my labors end …
    (IV, i, 263-65)

The enemies are in Prospero's power, but as Shakespeare approaches his fifth-act denouement [the final explanation or outcome of the plot] he maintains the emphasis on the present. The act opens with Prospero's assertion that 'Now' his project gathers 'to a head' (V, i, 1). He asks Ariel the time and learns that it is the sixth hour, 'at which time' (V, i, 4). Prospero had promised their work would cease. Ariel tells Prospero how he had left the court party mourning—if Prospero 'now' (V, i, 18) beheld them, he would be moved. While Ariel goes to release Alonzo and the others, Prospero abjures his rough magic; he will break his staff as soon as he has commanded some heavenly music, which 'even now' (V, i, 52) he does. Ariel brings in the distracted party, whose charms are dissolving 'apace' (V, i, 64); as Prospero reminds them of their past sins, their understanding grows. It will 'shortly' be clear that 'now' (V, i, 81-82) is muddy. Ariel is asked to fetch Prospero's Milanese garments 'quickly' (V, i, 86). Knowing that he will 'ere long' (V, i, 87) be free, Ariel can sing that he will live merrily 'now' (V, i, 93); he is then sent to bring the boatswain and the master to Prospero 'presently' (V, i, 101). Prospero, clad in his ducal robes, then reveals himself to the others, reassuring them that a living prince does 'now' (V, i, 109) speak to them. Alonzo immediately resigns the dukedom and entreats pardon, and Prospero embraces Gonzalo. Prospero could cause the disgrace of Sebastian and Antonio, but 'at this time' (V, i, 128) he will remain silent. Alonzo, thinking that the loss of his son is irreparable, laments, and Prospero reveals the living presence of Ferdinand, whom Alonzo greets, 'Now all the blessings / Of a glad father compass thee about' (V, i, 179-80). Miranda's response to the brave new world now revealed to her echoes the immediacy of her response to Ferdinand. Learning that Miranda is Prospero's daughter, Alonzo would ask her pardon, but Prospero, his purpose now accomplished, has no more use for the past:

    Let us not burden our remembrance with
    A heaviness that's gone.
    (V, i, 199-200)

As we approach the end of the play, we find that even the minor characters have experienced the suddenness of events. The master and boatswain had 'even now' (V, i, 232) been awaked and had been brought from the ship 'on a trice' (V, i, 238). Sent to free Caliban and his companions, Ariel drives them in only three lines later. Stephano (who is drunk 'now'—V, i, 278) and Trinculo are recognized by the court party, and Prospero acknowledges Caliban as his; the three are ordered to trim the cell, as a condition of their pardon. From the events of the day, even Caliban seems to have learned something: he immediately assents to Prospero's command (instead of cursing) and promises to be wise 'hereafter' (V, i, 294). The play ends with Prospero's promise to tell the others his story and with his final command to Ariel. The auspicious gales provided, Ariel will then be free …

When Prospero reveals his identity to Alonzo, Sebastian, and the others, he does not tell them, though they ask, how he came to be lord of the isle,

    For 'tis a chronicle of day by day,
    Not a relation for a breakfast, nor
    Befitting this first meeting.
    (V, i, 162-64)

The play that Shakespeare has usually written is a chronicle of day by day: an event happening at a particular time causes another event at some subsequent time. The Tempest is not such a play. Except for the few details which he has told Miranda in the first act—and the added hints we get from the scenes with Ariel and Caliban—we in the audience know no more of the story of Prospero than does Alonzo. At the end of other plays, notably Hamlet, Shakespeare has one character promise to tell the ignorant and amazed auditory what has happened—as Prospero promises at the end of The Tempest. The difference is that we in the audience already know what Horatio will tell the others—in fact, we know some things about Hamlet of which Horatio is probably ignorant. In The Tempest we do not know. We can assume that Shakespeare Page 889  |  Top of Articleconsidered such knowledge irrelevant to his play, that the tale of Prospero on the island is nonessential; for Shakespeare is here not interested in the sequence of day by day, but in the now which can redeem the past.

If this reading of The Tempest is correct, we can find a reason for Shakespeare's use of unity in this play, a reason which is, moreover, essential for our understanding of the play. What we perceived in the foregoing discussion is the great emphasis which Shakespeare puts on the idea of the present in The Tempest. If this play is, like the other romances, about reconciliation, it is about reconciliation now, within the few hours which Prospero must seize. Unlike Leontes, Prospero does not need time to repent. Rather, he needs to grasp the moment in which he can offer money, can stay his fury, can effect the awakening of Alonzo's conscience, can restore his daughter to her proper place among mankind. To tell this story, incorporating such themes, Shakespeare used the form most likely to create this sense of the urgency of the moment. He wrote a unified play.

Source: Ernest Gohn, "The Tempest: Theme and Structure," in English Studies, Vol. 45, No. 2, April 1964, pp. 116-25.


Barker, Francis, and Peter Hulme, "The Tempest and Oppression," Shakespeare: The Tempest: A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer, Macmillan, 1968, p. 208.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, "An Analysis of Act I," in Shakespeare: The Tempest: A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer, Macmillan, 1968, p. 47.

――――――, "Lecture 9," from "The Lectures of 1811–1812," in The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, Signet Classics, edited by Robert Langbaum, 1964, p. 141.

Dryden, John, "The Character of Caliban," in Shakespeare: The Tempest: A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer, Macmillan, 1968, p. 30.

James, Henry, "Introduction to The Tempest," in Shakespeare: The Tempest: A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer, Macmillan, 1968, p. 76.

Martz, William J., The Place of "The Tempest" in Shakespeare's Universe of Comedy, Coronado Press, 1978, pp. 22-7.

McFarland, Thomas, "'So Rare a Wondered Father': The Tempest and the Vision of Paradise," in Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy, University of North Carolina Press, 1972, p. 146.

Nuttal, A. D., "The Tempest and Its Romantic Critics" and "The Tempest," in Two Concepts of Allegory: A Study of Shakespeare's The Tempest and the Logic of Allegorical Expression, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1967, pp. 6-12.

Rowe, Nicholas, "Solemn and Poetical Magic," in Shakespeare: The Tempest: A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer, Macmillan, 1968, p. 31.

Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, edited by Edward Hubler, Signet Classics, 1963.

――――――, Henry V, edited by John Russell Brown, Signet Classics, 1965.

――――――, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, edited by Ernest Schanzer, Signet Classics, 1965, pp. 48-9, 100-01.

――――――, The Sonnets, edited by William Burto, Signet Classics, 1964, p. 56.

――――――, The Tragedy of King Lear, edited by Russell Fraser, Signet Classics, 1963, p. 43.

――――――, The Tempest, edited by Robert Langbaum, Signet Classics, 1964.

――――――, The Winter's Tale, edited by Frank Kermode, Signet Classics, 1963, p. 140.

Traversi, Derek, "The Tempest," in Shakespeare: The Last Phase, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1953, p. 193.

Warton, Richard, "Amazing Wildness of Fancy," in Shakespeare: The Tempest: A Casebook, edited by D. J. Palmer, Macmillan, 1968, p. 32-6.

West, Robert H., "Ariel and the Outer Mystery," in Shakespeare: 1564–1964, Brown University Press, 1964, p. 115.


Brown, Paul, "'This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine': The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism," in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp. 48-71, Cornell University Press, 1985.

Brown reads The Tempest as a work that addresses British colonialism in Shakespeare's time.

Cobb, Noel, Prospero's Island: The Secret Alchemy at the Heart of The Tempest, Coventure, 1984.

Grounded in the works of the psychologists C. G. Jung and James Hillman, and starting with the idea that "images" are "the speech of the soul," Cobb explores the nature and function of magic in The Tempest, and the power Prospero has as a magician.

Hamilton, Donna B., Virgil and The Tempest: The Politics of Imitation, Ohio State University Press, 1990.

Drawing on the story of Dido and Aeneas in the Aeneid, Hamilton sees parallels in The Tempest and argues that Shakespeare's play Page 890  |  Top of Article"is not a transcendent, indifferent text and that Shakespeare was not an apologist for monarchy," but was proposing questions about the nature of proper government, and was describing some of the political ambiguities of his own era.

Hollander, John, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500–1700, Princeton University Press, 1961.

A dense and scholarly work, in which Hollander traces the changing use of music and ideas concerning the powers and properties of music during two centuries of English poetry.

Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de, "Of the Cannibals," 1577.

In his essay Montaigne, who had himself met a cannibal in Rouen fifteen years before, considers the institutions of European civilization as they can be contrasted to the descriptions of how people live in the New World.

Orgel, Stephen., ed., Ben Jonson: Selected Masques, Yale University Press, 1970.

Orgel introduces and annotates fifteen of Jonson's masques, the extravagant spectacles glorifying the monarch which were presented in the courts of King James I and King Charles I.

Taylor, Gary, Reinventing Shakespeare, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983.

Taylor chronicles the way Shakespeare was understood, adapted, and performed beginning in his own time and extending to ours. Taylor charts the eighteenth-century response to The Tempest in detail.

Vaughan, Alden T., and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

The authors provide a comprehensive view of the historical responses to and interpretations of Caliban, showing how he is made to reflect the ideas of each era.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896100039