A ship at sea is the victim of a fierce tempest (storm). The terrified passengers include Alonso, the
King of Naples; his son Ferdinand; his brother Sebastian; his kind old councilor Gonzalo; and Antonio,
the false Duke of Milan. The men don't know it, but the storm has brought them to the island of the
magician Prospero (who conjured up the tempest) and his daughter Miranda.
Prospero is the real Duke of Milan. Twelve years earlier, he had been overthrown by his younger
brother Antonio. With the help of Alonso and Sebastian, Antonio drove Prospero and Prospero's daughter
Miranda out of Milan and had them cast out to sea. But divine providence brought them to the island.
Prospero has two servants: the airy spirit Ariel, through whom he commands other, lesser spirits; and
Caliban, a monster he found on the island and treated kindly until Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Now
Prospero rules him sternly.
Prospero has a plan to deal with his old enemies. He's separated Alonso's son, Prince Ferdinand, from
the others. When Ferdinand and Miranda meet, they quickly fall in love. But Prospero wants to make sure
that Ferdinand fully deserves his daughter, so he tests him with the heavy task of piling a thousand logs
King Alonso, meanwhile, is grief-stricken, because he thinks Prince Ferdinand has drowned. His
councilor Gonzalo tries to comfort him; Gonzalo believes deeply in divine providence, though Antonio
and Sebastian jeer at his optimism. These two plot to kill Alonso and Gonzalo as they sleep, so Sebastian
can usurp his brother's crown just as Antonio stole Prospero's. But Ariel wakes the king and his councilor
before the two villains can drive their swords into them.
Two other survivors of the tempest are Stephano, a drunken butler who's managed to salvage a keg of
wine, and Trinculo, a jester. They encounter Caliban, and soon all three are roaring drunk. Caliban takes
these fools for gods who will free him from his slavery to Prospero; together they scheme to kill the
magician. But Trinculo and Caliban squabble, especially after Ariel starts doing mischief. The invisible
spirit keeps calling Caliban a liar; Stephano thinks the insult comes from Trinculo, and eventually he
pummels the innocent jester. Before they can set their scheme against Prospero in motion, Ariel leads
them off with enchanted music, then goes to report the scheme to his master.
The King's party, discouraged in its search for Ferdinand, stops to rest. Ariel and the other spirits
prepare a banquet for the group, but then turn into harpies and snatch it away. As the men look on
astonished and terrified, Ariel tells the guilty ones (Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio) that they're being
punished for their crime against Prospero. The spirit's voice sends them into a maddened frenzy.
Ferdinand, meanwhile, has passed his test. After Prospero lectures the young man to remain chaste
until the marriage, the spirits entertain the lovers with a masque, in which the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and
Juno wish the couple a prosperous and happy life. The masque ends abruptly when Prospero remembers
Caliban's plot on his life and starts up in anger. He and Ariel lure the plotters with expensive clothing.
Stephano and Trinculo are so carried away by the loot that they forget about their scheme. Suddenly
Prospero and Ariel unleash the spirits, who attack the conspirators fiercely with pinches and cramps.
Prompted, perhaps, by Ariel, Prospero has decided to forgive his old enemies. He brings Alonso,
Sebastian, and Antonio before him, along with Gonzalo and the rest of the King's party. After removing
the spell that had maddened them, he reveals his identity. Alonso quickly asks his pardon, though
Antonio and Sebastian never really repent. To Alonso's delight, Ferdinand turns out to be not only alive
but betrothed to the lovely Miranda as well. Ariel leads in the captain of the ship and the boatswain, who
declares that the ship they'd thought was ruined is- incredibly- in perfect condition (more of Ariel's
magic). When Ariel brings in Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, they're in sorry shape from the punishing
spirits. Prospero forgives Caliban, too. He's decided to give up his magic and return with the others as the
rightful Duke of Milan. After commanding Ariel to speed their trip, Prospero promises the airy spirit the
freedom he's wanted for so long.
[The Tempest Contents]
Prospero stands at the very center of The Tempest. He has more lines than any other character. He
prompts most of the action, and he has the last word. He's contradictory, a difficult character to evaluate.
He was once the Duke of Milan, but a love of study led him to leave governing to his brother Antonio;
the treacherous Antonio then drove him out of Milan. Later, on his island, he lovingly educated the
monster Caliban and gave him freedom. Caliban returned that kindness by trying to rape Prospero's
daughter, Miranda. Prospero makes essentially the same mistake with both Antonio and Caliban: he fails
to keep them in their proper place, and he fails to exercise his responsibilities. It may be an error on the
side of kindness, but it's an error all the same, and he and others suffer because of it. It makes him a less
than perfect ruler.
If Prospero has a lesson to learn, however, he's learned it by the time the play opens. The Prospero
you see exemplifies wisdom, justice, and super-human good judgment. This near-faultlessness has led
some readers to regard Prospero as a representation, in human terms, of God. Prospero stands in relation
to the other characters as God does to humanity: judging, punishing, and forgiving. (Thanks to Ariel, he's
all-knowing too.) But he's an Old Testament God, prone to vengeful fury when he's crossed, and quite
willing to look on calmly while those in his power are punished. You could argue that the sufferings of
Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo are comic; however, there's something cruel in the way Prospero toys
with his old enemy Alonso, letting him think until the last minute that his beloved son Ferdinand is dead.
(Bringing Ferdinand back from the dead, so to speak, is God-like too.) But if Prospero feels anger, he also
overcomes it. Ultimately he's a benevolent figure. Why do you think some readers of this play regard him
as even more forgiving than a Christian God?
An equally popular view is that Prospero is a stand-in for Shakespeare. Prospero is deeply interested
in marrying off his daughter; Shakespeare was the father of two daughters, only one of whom had
married when The Tempest was written. Prospero's time of life is roughly equivalent to Shakespeare's:
he's aging and starting to think about death. Supporters of this theory point to the speech (Act V, Scene
I, lines 33-57) generally known as Prospero's farewell to his art, in which he declares that he'll abandon
magic when he leaves the island. Since The Tempest is probably the last play that Shakespeare wrote, or
wrote alone, and since not long after he wrote it he left London for a quiet retirement in Stratford-on-
Avon, many readers have interpreted Prospero's speech as Shakespeare's farewell to his own art. These
readers say that Prospero's magic stands for Shakespeare's poetry, and that Prospero's breaking of his
wand symbolizes Shakespeare laying down his pen. But there's an equally adamant group of readers who
argue that it's unnecessary to look outside The Tempest for its meaning, when there's so much meaning
before you on the page.
Prospero is a disturbing, even contradictory mixture of blanket forgiveness and almost wanton cruelty-
although many would argue that his enemies deserved harsh treatment. Even if you accept his vengeful
pleasure in tormenting Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio, you still have to ask: Why does he let kind old
Gonzalo suffer too? Why does he nearly break Miranda's heart by letting her think he hates Ferdinand? It
may be that these moral and psychological issues are exactly the kinds of questions you shouldn't be
asking about the play. You face a fundamental problem in trying to analyze Prospero (and most of the
other characters in The Tempest), and this problem stems from the type of work The Tempest is. Late in
his career, Shakespeare wrote four "romances"- Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and
The Tempest- that are much simpler in technique than his earlier plays, almost like fairy tales. They
strive not for psychological depth but for lightness, simplicity, and grace. If Prospero isn't as complex a
man as, say, Hamlet, it's not because Shakespeare failed to develop his character adequately, but because
he was striving toward a very different goal.
There is one psychological trait, however, that Shakespeare clearly means you to observe, and even
condemn, in Prospero, because he wants to make a moral point about it. This trait is anger. Late in the
fourth act, Prospero interrupts the spirits' pleasant masque when he's suddenly overcome with rage at the
thought of Caliban's plot against him. Then, early in Act V, he admits to Ariel that he can only forgive his
enemies by letting his "nobler reason" overcome his all-too-evident "fury." This
fury, more than any other quality, makes Prospero a flesh-and-blood human being instead of a stick-figure
wise man. But it doesn't always make him a likable character. You might think of the last time you were
furious about something in order to achieve a better understanding of Prospero's behavior. Did you handle
yourself better than he did?
The "airy spirit" can assume different shapes (flame, nymph, or harpy), and it's through
him that Prospero commands the lesser spirits. Ariel is all lightness, quickness, and grace. But his
foremost characteristic is intelligence; he's practically made of intelligence, and he even moves with the
speed of thought. ("Come with a thought," Prospero tells him in Act IV, Scene I.) It's part of
his nature- as, perhaps, it's characteristic of thought- to be free. Thus, he serves Prospero loyally but not
willingly, in return for Prospero's aid in freeing him from the cloven pine tree, where the witch Sycorax
had imprisoned him.
Ariel declares in Act V, Scene I, that he doesn't have human emotions. But his mischievous streak-
which he displays in the tricks he plays on Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo- suggests that he has a sense
of humor. More importantly, he has a strong moral sense. You can deduce this from his harsh speech to
the "three men of sin" (Act III, Scene III), in which he stresses the themes of justice and
repentance. Of course, Prospero could have prompted those lines. But you also know, from Prospero's
reminiscences in Act I, Scene II, the reason Sycorax imprisoned Ariel in the cloven pine: the good spirit
was "too delicate" to carry out her "abhorred commands."
Readers looking for concealed autobiography in The Tempest have sometimes argued that Ariel
represents a specific aspect of Shakespeare, usually his poetic genius. Ariel certainly is
"creative"; he constructs the situations that Prospero has dreamed up for various characters.
In addition, he's the most musical of the characters in a play filled with music- he's constantly singing,
playing, or calling forth enchanted music, a fact that adds not only to his charm but to his aura of magic
too, especially since so many of his songs are both vague and lovely. If Ariel's personality is hard to pin
down, it's because he's so light, so misty. He's meant to be mysterious, because he's a magic being.
The monster offspring of a witch and a devil, Caliban is a would-be rapist, thief, and killer. Yet it's
almost impossible not to like him. Maybe this is because it's easy to see one side of yourself in him: who
wouldn't rather lie around in the sun than haul firewood and clean the house? One view of Caliban is that
he's too innocent, too childlike to be a full-fledged villain. Like an animal, he simply snatches at what he
wants without thinking about right or wrong. He's generally unteachable. Prospero's problems with
Caliban, in this view, are really his own fault for failing to recognize the monster for what he is, and
giving him an education that only makes him dissatisfied with his low place in the social order.
An opposing view, which Prospero seems to share, regards the "born devil" as a deeply
evil being. It's clear that Caliban doesn't repent his attempt to rape Miranda; he only regrets that it was
stopped. ("Would't had been done!" he cries in Act I, Scene II.) His lack of any moral sense
makes him the opposite of Ariel. In fact, he's almost a negative or anti-Ariel: slow-moving, earthbound,
stupid, and lazy. He wants freedom not because it's in his nature but because he hates work. If Ariel's
nature embodies freedom, Caliban is by nature a slave. He needs authority because he can't control
himself. Those who look for autobiography in The Tempest regard him as the dark side of Shakespeare's
personality: greed and appetite. The fact that Prospero keeps him chained in a rocky den may signify the
poet's self-discipline, the way he keeps his desires under control.
Caliban is also contrasted with Miranda. Prospero carefully nurtures his daughter; her education turns
her into a fine, moral young woman. But Caliban is a beast "on whose nature/Nurture can never
stick" (Act IV, Scene 1); education rolls right off him when it doesn't do outright harm.
Finally, Caliban forms a strong contrast to the real villains of the play, Antonio and Sebastian. The
monster strays into crime because he doesn't know better. Antonio and Sebastian, however, do know
better; they're noblemen, and their only excuse for their behavior is greed and sinfulness. Perhaps this
explains why in the last act Shakespeare suggests that the supposedly unteachable Caliban has learned a
lesson: "I'll be wise hereafter/And seek for grace."
As you read you'll note that Caliban is given some of the loveliest poetry in the play. Certainly this is
a part of what makes him so likable: any beast who responds to music with Caliban's sensitivity (see the
speech in Act III, Scene II) can't be all brute. His poetry also reminds you that, like Ariel, he's a magical
being. His coarse cohorts, Stephano and Trinculo, speak prose; Caliban's verse is part of the enchantment
of Prospero's island.
Alonso, King of Naples, was one of the men who plotted against Prospero; thus, he deserves his
punishment on the island. But he isn't a villain on the order of Antonio and Sebastian. Besides, his part
in the plot seems to have been mainly political. The deal brought him the annual tribute that Milan paid
Naples, and you can at least understand the motivations of a leader who seeks wealth for his realm. But
the main reasons that Alonso comes off far better than Antonio and Sebastian are that he's grieving deeply
for Ferdinand- you can't help feeling sorry for a bereaved father; and, when confronted with his crime he
feels guilty, repents, and asks for pardon.
Alonso is a pessimist, constantly looking on the dark side of things. After the tempest he's certain,
although he has no real evidence, that Ferdinand is dead; he refuses to be consoled by the voices of
reason. And when at last Prospero reveals to him the living Ferdinand, his first reaction is worry: What if
it's an illusion? In the context of a play whose major emphasis is on divine providence, this pessimism is
seen by some as a major character flaw. Alonso (as Prospero rebukes him in Act V) lacks patience, and
patience is a sign of faith in the God who watches benevolently over human events.
Overall, though, many regard Alonso as a good man if not a great one. His love for his son speaks in
his favor, as does his quick acceptance of Miranda as Ferdinand's betrothed. Like everyone else, he's
capable of wrongs; however, he's also capable of recognizing them, regretting them, and atoning for them.
Gonzalo is the voice of patience in The Tempest. He probably comes closer than any other character
of the older generation to representing Shakespeare's idea of a good Christian, because he's not flawed
with Alonso's pessimism or Prospero's anger. Gonzalo always trusts Providence. Even during the tempest
he's calm enough to joke about the boatswain's gallows-bound looks, and to find a sign of hope in them.
It's Gonzalo who appreciates the miracle of their safety on Prospero's island, Gonzalo who unwaveringly
insists that Ferdinand is still alive.
Above all, Gonzalo is loyal. When Antonio and Sebastian plot to murder the King, they know they
have to kill Gonzalo too; he would never accept Sebastian as King. Later, when Alonso is maddened by
guilt, Gonzalo stands beside him weeping, the most grief-stricken of the mourners.
His kindness extends even further. He oversaw the actual casting-out-to-sea of Prospero and Miranda,
and Prospero, rather than feeling bitter toward him, remembers his "charity" with fondness
twelve years later. Gonzalo provided the clothing, food and fresh water that kept them alive, and the
beloved books that have allowed Prospero to master the spirits.
But your picture of Gonzalo might not be as sentimental as all this suggests. Shakespeare had a
knack for satirizing gabby old men (Polonius in Hamlet is a prime example), and he appears to have
sketched Gonzalo with a hint of a smile. The old man doesn't deserve the rude jeers of Antonio and
Sebastian in Act II, Scene I, but his manner is befuddled and talkative enough to give some point to their
jokes. His speech about how he would rule the island (Act II, Scene I) is far more starry-eyed than
practical, though it's true that he's chattering mainly to entertain King Alonso and distract him from his
grief. In addition, he gets carried away during his great Act V speech on divine providence, ending with
the assertion that everybody has attained self-knowledge, which is a long way from the truth. These little
imperfections make Gonzalo seem more human than he otherwise might.
Antonio is the obvious villain of The Tempest. He betrayed his brother Prospero by stealing his
dukedom and driving him out of Milan. Once on the island, he plots with Sebastian to kill Alonso and
steal his kingdom. He's rude to the boatswain (Act I, Scene I) and to kind old Gonzalo (Act II, Scene I).
Despite all the talk about the importance of repentance, he never says he's sorry for anything he's done.
In fact, during the reconciliations of Act V he remains silent except for one sarcastic jab at Caliban.
Antonio is a character of little psychological complexity; he's simply evil. The term "motiveless
malignancy," which the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge devised to describe Iago, the villain
of Othello, applies equally well to Antonio. If you regard the play from a Christian viewpoint in which
Prospero stands for God, Alonso represents the sinner who repents, and Antonio and Sebastian represent
unrepentant sinners. The shortcoming with this interpretation is that instead of being damned they're
forgiven along with everybody else (though it's probable, considering Prospero's threat of blackmail, that
he's planning to keep them on a very short leash).
Without Antonio and Sebastian, The Tempest really would seem as light as a fairy tale- especially
because Caliban, despite all his wickedness, strikes audiences as such a funny, likable creature. Antonio
and Sebastian are sour notes- figures of real, human evil. By letting them off unrepentant, Shakespeare
brings the world of The Tempest much closer to our own imperfect world. Evil exists, he might be
saying, and sometimes it goes unpunished; we can't say why.
Alonso's treacherous brother Sebastian is to some extent a carbon copy of Antonio- not quite as evil,
perhaps, since he merely follows Antonio's lead in the scheme to kill Alonso. Though Sebastian, like
Antonio, is unrepentant at the end, he's not as sourly silent. His last line, accusing Stephano and Trinculo
of theft, is hypocritical enough to be funny.
If Antonio and Sebastian are thoroughly evil, then Ferdinand and Miranda are completely good.
Certainly they're no more complex psychologically- they resemble the brave, handsome prince and the
beautiful, sweet princess of a fairy tale.
Ferdinand is the son of Alonso and thus heir to the throne of Naples. He's a dutiful son, grieving for
his father when he thinks he's drowned, and begging his pardon for becoming betrothed without his
permission when he learns Alonso is alive after all. He's courageous enough to draw a sword against
Prospero when the magician threatens him, and patient enough to perform the burdensome task of piling
a thousand logs when he knows Miranda is the prize.
Ferdinand's chastity forms a sharp contrast to Caliban's uncontrolled desire. (This subject is the
substance of his conversation with Prospero near the beginning of Act IV.) But he's not prissy. The young
prince is red-blooded enough for Prospero to have to chastise him (Act IV, Scene I) about embracing
Miranda a little too warmly.
Through their children Ferdinand and Miranda, Alonso and Prospero find a way to heal their old
enmity. It's easier for them to be reconciled once their son and daughter are betrothed.
Miranda's only experience of people- at least since the age of three, when she was cast out to sea with
Prospero- has been her father. Thus, she's a bit naive. When she first sees Ferdinand (Act I, Scene II), she
thinks he's a spirit; when she sees the royal party (Act V, Scene I), she's so overcome by their splendor
that she's convinced they're "goodly creatures," even though two of those creatures are
Antonio and Sebastian. (But since Caliban attempted to rape her, she's learned to hate him; she clearly
has had some experience of evil.)
Miranda's innocence is her great charm. She's had the best of both worlds: a splendid and civilized
education without the corrupting influence of civilization. Because she doesn't know how to be coy, she's
straightforward about her feelings for Ferdinand; this lack of cunning is part of what wins his heart.
Overcome by Ferdinand's handsomeness, she falls in love with him at once. But the way their love is
depicted is so far from realistic that you can't condemn her for overhasty judgment: love at first sight is a
convention of the literary form known as a romance.
Stephano is a coarse, drunken brute. He bullies Caliban and Trinculo mercilessly, and he has no
qualms about joining a plot to kill Prospero, steal his island, and rape his daughter. But Stephano's
wickedness shouldn't be taken too seriously. Like Caliban, he can be excused for having a low nature.
He's principally a comic creation whose job is to give the audience some relief from the more serious
main plot. Stephano is the kind of character whose slapstick distress makes you laugh. For example, when
the goblins attack him and his cohorts at the end of Act IV, it's funny, not awful.
Trinculo probably says less of real intelligence than any of Shakespeare's other jesters, though he does
have a jester's ear for a good pun. He always seems to be afraid of something: the weather, Caliban, or
Ariel's music. Stephano bullies him, but he follows Stephano's lead in a way that parodies Sebastian's
relationship with Antonio.
The boatswain, the officer in charge of the ship's deck crew, is a gruff sailor who's too competent to
be intimidated by the interference of Antonio and Sebastian during the tempest. Gonzalo's comments
suggest that his appearance is thoroughly disreputable ("perfect gallows"), but the old man's
jokes about his blasphemy aren't supported by anything in the text. His oaths may have been spoken
onstage but left out of the published version.
- IRIS, CERES, JUNO
Prospero's spirits imitate these three goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology during the masque, in
Act IV, for Ferdinand and Miranda. Iris is the goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the gods.
Ceres oversees the harvest and fertility in general, so her blessing would be important to a couple who
want children. Juno, queen of the gods, is the protector of marriage.
[The Tempest Contents]
All the action of The Tempest takes place on (or, in the first scene, very close to) the remote island
where Prospero and Miranda have spent the last twelve years. The island must be somewhere in the
Mediterranean Sea, because Prospero and Miranda were cast out to sea from Italy, and because Alonso's
fleet is on its way home to Naples, in Italy, from Tunis, in northern Africa, when the storm strikes. But
the island has more in common with the Bermuda Islands in the Atlantic Ocean than with any islands in
the Mediterranean. This is because one of Shakespeare's sources was a series of pamphlets that had been
written about a recent shipwreck in the Bermudas. (For more information, see the Note about "the
still-vexed Bermoothes" in Act I, Scene II.)
Popular superstition held that the Bermudas were aswarm with fairies and demons, just as Prospero's
island is. Everything about the island whispers magic, especially the ever-present music that Caliban
describes in his beautiful speech, "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises" (Act III, Scene II).
By setting the play on an island and limiting his cast to a few characters, Shakespeare lets his themes
stand out in sharper relief. A court setting would be far more complex; Prospero would have to worry
about the influence of current events, and as head of government he'd have to curb his vengeance and act
in a way that appeared more responsible. The shipwrecked characters feel lost and forlorn on the island
and thus behave with a straightforwardness that would be more guarded if they were in their normal
Once on the island, some of the characters recreate the society from which they came. Gonzalo, for
example, is mainly interested in preserving the social order by guarding the well-being of King Alonso.
Antonio, ever the schemer, sees in the shipwreck a means for upsetting the social order and seizing more
power. Stephano and Trinculo, on the other hand, behave so freely and amorally because they think
they're outside the limits of society and have no punishment to fear.
- PROVIDENCE AND PATIENCE
Prospero tells Miranda (Act I, Scene II) that they reached the island "By providence
divine"- that is, through the guidance and benevolence of God. Though there are few direct
references to God in The Tempest, this highly Christian theme permeates the play. Ferdinand phrases it
briefly in Act V: "Though the seas threaten, they are merciful." The Tempest is a play about a
storm that turns into a blessing. There are times in all our lives when things may look bleak, even
desperate; but a good Christian trusts in the wisdom and mercy of God to bring things to a happy end.
If Prospero represents the workings of providence (he raises the storm and offers the blessing),
Gonzalo is the good Christian, the man of faith. (His speech in Act V, Scene I, is the great summation of
the providence theme.) Another name for this faith is patience: Gonzalo patiently endures doubt and
hardship because his faith sustains him. His firm belief in a just God convinces him that no matter how
bad things look, they'll turn out for the best. Alonso, in contrast, is the impatient man, rebuffing
Gonzalo's attempts to console him. Because he lacks faith in providence, he insists that Ferdinand is dead
and that searching for him is useless. He refuses to believe a just power oversees events, and this doubt
signifies a lack of trust in God.
- FORGIVENESS AND REPENTANCE
The Tempest is clearly a play about reconciliation. What isn't clear is whether Prospero intends from
the beginning to forgive his old enemies or whether his mercy is a last-minute decision. The fact that he
plans from the first to marry Ferdinand to Miranda would suggest that he had planned a reconciliation
with Ferdinand's father, Alonso, all along. On the other hand, however, you can point to the anger that
grips Prospero until the end; if he were planning to forgive from the beginning, wouldn't he already have
overcome his anger? Those who think he decides only late in the play to forgive, focus especially on
Ariel's description, early in Act V, of Alonso and his party in distress, which may be the turning point in
prompting Prospero to pity and mercy.
But Prospero's words here lead to a further confusion. "They being penitent," he tells
Ariel, is all he wanted- which is essentially what Ariel told the "three men of sin" in his harsh
speech near the end of Act III, Scene III. Alonso asks for Prospero's pardon and expresses remorse for his
crimes to Miranda as well. Antonio and Sebastian, however, give no hint that they're penitent, when even
the bestial Caliban is declaring he'll "be wise hereafter/And seek for grace."
Then why does Prospero forgive these unremorseful villains? That's one of the mysteries of the play.
(Even God forgives only sinners who repent.) It may be that Shakespeare considers humanity so depraved
that if you only forgave those who deserved it, then nobody would ever be forgiven. Or he may think that
the forgiveness itself is what's important, regardless of whether the forgiven party deserves it; as Prospero
says, "The rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance" (Act V, Scene I). But if that's the case,
where does justice fit in- isn't it also right to punish criminals, especially unrepentant ones? This is a
question to which Shakespeare doesn't provide the answer. What advice might you give to Prospero
regarding Antonio and Sebastian?
- KNOWLEDGE AND ORDER
Shakespeare uses education to contrast Miranda, who has a "high" nature, with
"low"-natured Caliban. Miranda's education nurtures her into a fine, moral, and chaste young
woman. But Caliban, as Prospero complains in Act IV, Scene I, is a creature "on whose
nature/Nurture can never stick"; his education only makes him dissatisfied with his low status. As
Caliban says, his main profit from learning language is knowing how to curse.
Prospero made the same mistake with Caliban as he had made with Antonio: he failed to keep them
in their proper places, and his leniency gave both of them a taste for a station higher than their own.
Shakespeare's audience had a highly developed sense of order- the King ruled by divine right, aristocrats
were people with high natures, and the poor drudged at their low station because God intended it that way.
Trying to rise above your station was doing exactly what got Satan expelled from heaven.
Knowledge, though precious, can be dangerous if it interferes with order. Adam and Eve ate from the
tree of knowledge because they wanted to be "as gods." Prospero, too, lost his dukedom
because he neglected governing for studying. Prospero's book may be the source of his power on the
island, but he must learn the proper place of knowledge on the scale of values if he is to be a truly wise
- BEAUTY AND VIRTUE
Much is said about beauty in The Tempest. Miranda in particular is taken with the way people look.
She falls in love at her first sight of Ferdinand's "brave form", and later, when she beholds
Alonso and his nobles, she cries,
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!
(Act V, Scene I, lines 181-184)
Miranda associates beauty with "goodliness" not only because of Ferdinand, but also
because her main image of evil has been Caliban- who, as Prospero informs you in Act IV, Scene I, grows
uglier as his mind cankers. Caliban's mother, the "foul witch Sycorax, was equally deformed,
"grown into a hoop" with "age and envy" (Act I, Scene II).
Shakespeare's audience believed in a connection between physical and moral beauty; the body, they
thought, was a reflection of the soul. (According to Genesis, after all, God created humanity in his own
image.) But they weren't quite as naive as Miranda, and neither was Shakespeare: the "goodly
creatures" she extols include Antonio and Sebastian, who may look noble but aren't. The theme of
beauty-equals-virtue works on a simple, fairy-tale plane in the Miranda-Ferdinand scenes, but before the
play is over Shakespeare reminds you that reality isn't as neat.
- CHASTITY AND APPETITE
A contrast in The Tempest is made between Ferdinand, who praises chastity, and Caliban, a creature
of uncontrolled desire. (See especially the beginning of Act IV, where Prospero lectures Ferdinand on the
subject.) Prospero must learn to control his own appetites, especially for knowledge, and to control his
Though Caliban is the prime example of appetite run amuck, Shakespeare also offers Stephano (a
drunkard) and Trinculo- who plan murder, rape, and robbery- as well as Antonio and Sebastian, as
horrible examples of what uncontrolled appetites can do to people.
- OTHER THEMES
The above listing of themes is only a beginning; it doesn't exhaust the thematic richness of The
Tempest. The list of themes goes on and on. An important one is the contrast between nature and society.
Nature's representative is Caliban; when you compare him to the wise, just, and civilized Prospero you
can appreciate the sharp differences. However, society has also produced Antonio and Sebastian, and
Caliban compares favorably with these villains. A civilized man may be superior to an uncivilized beast,
but the natural beast is better than the depraved products of society.
Another important theme might be called purification through suffering. Prospero, in his long exile,
has more than atoned for whatever mistakes he might have made when he ruled Milan. Ferdinand must
suffer through Prospero's tests before he can win Miranda's hand. Most significantly, Alonso must
undergo the suffering that Prospero has designed for him before Prospero can find it in his heart to
forgive him. Prospero has created a Purgatory for Alonso and his companions on the island; only after
they're purged is he ready to show them his benevolent side.
Shakespeare's dramatic verse is written in iambic pentameter. An iamb is a metrical foot composed of
an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one- for example, to-DAY. A pentameter line consists of
five feet, as at the opening of Act IV:
if I / have TOO / ausTERE/ly PUN/ished YOU.
But The Tempest was written at the end of Shakespeare's career, and by the time he wrote it he had
begun introducing subtle variations into his usual iambic pentameter. Thus, you won't find many lines that
fit the mold as perfectly as the above example.
The Tempest contains some of Shakespeare's finest verse. Compared to his earlier plays, however, it's
relatively scarce in imagery. One view is that Shakespeare had become so adept by the time he wrote The
Tempest that his metaphors, instead of being rich and highly developed, dart in and out of the verse,
mere hints of images that move as quickly as thought. An equally interesting suggestion is that The
Tempest doesn't need as many images in its language because the play itself is an image- you don't need
metaphors for a metaphor.
An example will serve to illustrate the complexity of Shakespeare's late style. In Act I, Scene II, as
Prospero is telling Miranda about the way Antonio betrayed him, he says that his treacherous brother,
having both the key
Of officer and office, set all hearts i' th' state
To what tune pleased his ear...
The imagery here isn't especially vivid or sensuous, but the metaphor is quite complicated, and it
hinges on a pun. With the figure of a key- the kind of key that opens a door- Prospero declares that
Antonio had control over both the dukedom and the Duke (Prospero himself). But then the meaning of
"key" changes to a musical one, as in "the key of C-sharp," and the metaphor
changes to a musical one, too.
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's romances, and as such it has a fairy-tale quality. The language
of the play reflects that quality. It's stark and tragic at points, notably during the beginning storm scene
and in the last two acts, when Prospero is deciding between vengeance and forgiveness, and a tragic
outcome seems possible. But generally the language is among Shakespeare's loveliest and most delicate.
Caliban's famous speech, "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises" (Act III, Scene II) provides
an excellent example of the language of the romance.
All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between
parents and children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected that
the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will differ markedly from the English used
today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help you understand The Tempest.
MOBILITY OF WORD CLASSES
Adjectives, nouns, and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Shakespeare's day.
Adjectives were often used adverbially. In Act V, scene i, line 309, Prospero speaks of "dear-
beloved" where today we would require "dearly-beloved." Adjectives could also function
as nouns, In Act I, scene ii, line 329, Prospero describes "that vast of night," where a modern
speaker would use "vast abyss."
Nouns were often used as verbs. Caliban complains:
...here you sty me...
(I, ii, 344)
where "sty" is the equivalent of "keep me in filthy conditions.
And verbs could occasionally function as nouns, as when "manage" is used for
The manage of my state
(I, ii, 69)
CHANGES IN WORD MEANING
The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be illustrated by the fact that
"nice" formerly meant "wanton." Many of the words in Shakespeare still exist
today, but their meanings have changed. The change may be small, as in the case of
"plantation," which meant "colonization," as in
Had I plantation of this isle, my lord
(II, i, 137)
or more fundamental, so that "complexion" (I, i, 29) meant "outward
appearance," "gaberdine" (II, ii, 103) meant "long, outer garment,"
"monstrous" (III, iii, 31) meant "nonhuman," "rack" (IV, i, 156)
meant "small cloud" and "admire" (V, i, 154) meant "wonder at, be amazed
Words not only change their meanings, but are frequently discarded from the language. In the past,
"bootless" (I, ii, 35) meant "useless," "foison" (II, i, 159) meant
"abundant harvest," and "welkin" (I, ii, 4) meant "sky, heavens." The
following words used in The Tempest are no longer current in English, but their meaning can usually be
gauged from the context in which they occur.
- YARE (I, i, 6)
- promptly, speedily
- TEEN (I, ii, 64)
- sorrow, trouble
- COIL (I, ii, 207)
- FLOTE (I, ii, 234)
- BATE (I, ii, 246)
- reduce, abate
- HESTS (I, ii, 274)
- CHIRURGEONLY (II, i, 136)
- TILTH (II, i, 148)
- tillage of the land
- CHOUGH (II, i, 261)
- jackdaw, kind of crow
- FEATER (II, i, 268)
- more gratefully
- KIBE (II, i, 272)
- chilblain, inflamed sore
- INCH-MEAL (II, ii, 3)
- inch by inch
- MOW (II, ii, 9)
- make faces, grimace
- BOMBARD (II, ii, 21)
- vessel for carrying liquids
- DEBOSHED (III, ii, 25)
- DOIT (II, ii, 32)
- small coin
- SCAMEL (II, ii, 172)
- bird, seagull
- PATCH (III, ii, 62)
- jester, fool
- FRESHES (III, ii, 66)
- springs of fresh water
- MURRAIN (III, ii, 78)
- WEZAND (III, ii, 89)
- TROLL (III, ii, 115)
- sing cheerfully
- CATCH (III, ii, 124)
- song, tune
- LAKIN (III, iii, 1)
- little lady, By Our Lady
- FORTHRIGHTS (III, iii, 3)
- straight paths
- DOWLE (III, iii, 65)
- small feather
- BASS (III, iii, 99)
- speak in deep/low tones
- STOVER (IV, i, 63)
- hay, cattle fodder
- TWILLED (IV, i, 64)
- BOSKY (IV, i, 82)
- VARLETS (IV, i, 170)
- PARD (IV, i, 261)
- PIONED (IV, ii, 64)
- DEMI-PUPPETS (V, i, 36)
- small spirits
- JUSTLE (V, i, 158)
- push, drive
- MO (V, i, 234)
Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in three main ways:
- Questions and negatives
could be formed without using "do/did," as when Alonso asks Gonzalo:
Heard you this, Gonzalo?
(II, ii, 311)
where today we would say: "Have you heard this?," or where Antonio states:
...But I feel not
This deity in my bosom
(II, i, 272)
where modern usage demands: "I do not feel..." Shakespeare had the option of using the
following forms a and b, whereas contemporary usage permits only a:
How do you look? How look you?
How did he look? How looked he?
You do not look well. You look not well.
You did not look well. You looked not well.
- A number of past participles and past tense forms are used that would be ungrammatical today.
Among these are:
"holp" for "helped" in
By foul play, as thou sayest, were we heaved thence,
But blessedly holp hither
(I, ii, 62-3)
"forgot" for "forgotten" in
...Hast thou forgot
(I, ii, 257)
"broke" for "broken" in
I have broke your hest to say so
(III, i, 37)
"spoke" for "spoken" in
(IV, i, 31)
and "waked" and "oped" for "wakened" and "opened"
...graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
(V, i, 48-9).
- Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with "thou" and "he/she/it":
Thou wert but a lost monster
(IV, i, 202)
...he hath lost his fellows
(I, ii, 418)
Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun, "thou," which could be used
in addressing a person who was one's equal or social inferior. "You" was obligatory if more
than one person was addressed, and this is the pronoun used by the boatswain to the courtly party:
Do you not hear him? You mar our labour; keep your cabins
(I, i, 12-13)
but it could also be used to indicate respect, as when Miranda and Ferdinand express their love for
Mir. Do you love me?
Beyond all limit of what else i' th' world
Do love, prize, honour you.
(III, i, 67ff)
Frequently, a person in power used "thou" to a subordinate but was addressed
"you" in return, as when Gonzalo and the boatswain speak:
Gon. Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard
Boat. ...You are a counsellor, if you can
command these elements to silence...
(I, i, 19ff)
but if "thou" was used inappropriately, it could cause grave offense.
One further pronominal reference warrants a comment. There was not a sharp distinction between
"it" and "he/she" in Elizabethan English. Miranda describes Caliban:
'Tis a villain, sir
(I, ii, 311)
and Stephano used "it" where "she" would now be obligatory:
Is it so brave a lass?
(III, ii, 101)
Prepositions were less standardized in the past than they are today, and so we find several uses in The
Tempest that would have to be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are "on" for
And sucked my verdure out on it
(I, ii, 87)
"to" for "for" in
Tunis was never graced before with such a paragon
to their Queen
(II, i, 71-2)
"of" for "from":
...she was of Carthage, not of Tunis
(II, i, 79)
"with" for "in":
...with a twink
(IV, i, 43)
and "on" for "in":
...on a trice
(V, i, 238)
Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and regards such utterances as
"I haven't none" as nonstandard. Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis
and the following occur in The Tempest:
This is no mortal business nor no sound
That the earth owes
(I, ii, 409-10)
Nor go neither; but you'll lie, like dogs, and yet
say nothing neither
(III, ii, 18-19)
POINT OF VIEW
Usually it isn't productive to talk about "point of view" in a play. A novel, in contrast, has
a narrator. He or she may be omniscient, standing outside the story, reading the characters' thoughts and
perhaps offering some opinions of his or her own; or the narrator may be one of the characters in the
story. But a play rarely has a narrator, as the various characters speak for themselves.
To an unusual degree, however, you see The Tempest from one character's point of view- Prospero's.
Shakespeare seems to endorse Prospero's opinions: the magician may not be perfect, but most of what he
says is trustworthy (except, perhaps, when he's very angry). Besides, like author and spectator, Prospero
witnesses almost all of the action (and he controls most of it). When he's not there, Ariel is there in his
stead, so he misses very little. He witnesses Miranda and Ferdinand's declaration of love (Act III, Scene I)
and the punishment of the "three men of sin" (Act III, Scene III). Prospero doesn't tell the
story, like an omniscient narrator; however, in the sense that he's behind the events, he creates it. You
may feel, however, as some readers have, that this limitation in the point of view is a drawback. Because
you see everything from Prospero's standpoint, it's difficult to develop real sympathy for some of the other
characters. What would the play be like, for example, if you saw things through Alonso's eyes? Or
Gonzalo's? It would have a very different feeling, and Prospero would certainly seem less ideal than he
does as the play stands.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
The Tempest is unique among Shakespeare's mature plays in observing the classical unities of time
(everything happens in one day- a matter of hours, in fact) and of place (everything happens in one
locale, Prospero's island or just offshore). Critics in Shakespeare's time thought observing the unities was
essential to good drama. Could Shakespeare have been sensitive to criticism, attempting in The Tempest
to prove that he was adept at dramatic construction?
The play has been criticized, however, for lacking one of the most basic elements of good drama:
tension. There's conflict, of course- between Prospero and, at one point or another, practically all the
other characters- but there's not much suspense about the outcome. Prospero is in control from beginning
to end. The only real question is whether he'll forgive his enemies.
The Tempest is also unusual in its division by Shakespeare into five acts, along the lines of classical
Roman tragedies. Of course, we're accustomed to five-act Shakespeare, but these divisions are usually the
work of later editors. Here, however, structural evidence suggests the playwright himself divided The
Tempest into five acts.
Shakespeare's romances differ from his other comedies, with which they're often grouped, in their
emphasis on the passage of time. In The Winter's Tale, for example, sixteen years pass between Acts III
and IV. The Tempest differs from the other romances in that time passes not within the play- the action
takes place in just a few hours- but before it. Twelve years have passed between Prospero's exile from
Milan and the storm that opens the play.
The romances, as a group, share certain other characteristics. One is the gross improbability of the
action. Magical things happen; the plays are almost like fairy tales. (Improbable events happen in the
comedies, too, but those events are more like coincidence than magic.) Also, the character relationships,
especially the love relationships, are simpler in the romances than in the other comedies. Ferdinand and
Miranda's love isn't much different from that of Prince Charming and the Sleeping Beauty; it doesn't have
the psychological depth that you find in Shakespeare's earlier love relationships such as Romeo and
Two plot elements are noteworthy in the romances. First, they share a concern with storm- a concern
that gives The Tempest its title. Second, travel on the sea always plays a part in them. The Tempest
begins with a voyage, and ends with the characters preparing for another one.
THE FIVE-ACT STRUCTURE
ACT I: EXPOSITION. The storm; Prospero fills Miranda in on past events; introduction of Ariel and
ACT II: Rising Action. Antonio and Sebastian plot against Alonso; Caliban joins forces with
Stephano and Trinculo.
ACT III: Climax. Ferdinand and Miranda declare their love; Ariel charms Caliban's group into
following him, and punishes the "three men of sin."
Act IV: Falling Action. The spirits' masque for Ferdinand and Miranda; Prospero and Ariel punish
ACT V: Conclusion. Prospero forgives his enemies.
The Tempest is one of a handful of Shakespearean comedies for which we can't pinpoint the sources.
There have been some attempts to link it to a slightly earlier German comedy Comedia von der schonen
Sidea, by Jakob Ayrer (1543-1605), but the evidence isn't convincing.
There are, however, elements within the play that are clearly related to other documents. The most
important of these documents are a series of pamphlets concerning the survival of some mariners in the
Bermuda Islands after a tempest in 1609. Until then, the Bermudas were popularly thought to be inhabited
by demons and fairies. The Bermuda pamphlets were published in 1610, around the time Shakespeare
was writing The Tempest, and it's evident from certain similarities of phrase, especially in the first act,
that he read and remembered them. It's also probable that the whole idea of survival on a lush, remote,
magical island influenced his conception of The Tempest.
There are several speeches for which we can cite a specific source. One is Gonzalo's fantasy (Act II,
Scene I) about governing the island; this was based on the French essayist Montaigne's "Of the
Cannibals," a treatise on the American Indians, which was published in the English translation of
John Florio in 1603. Prospero's farewell to his art (Act V, Scene I) adopts phrases from the Roman poet
Ovid's Metamorphoses; Shakespeare apparently drew both on Arthur Golding's 1567 translation and on
the Latin original. There are a few other details whose origins we can trace: for example, the name of the
devil-god Setebos, whom Caliban and his mother worship, comes from Robert Eden's History of Travel
(1577), where Setebos is mentioned as a devil worshipped by the Patagonians of South America.
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
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