1. The Tempest is Shakespeare's last solo play. Many scholars attribute Henry VII (and some Two Noble Kinsmen) to a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, but The Tempest is the crowning play in the canon. Like The Winter's Tale, it is a romance, but a highly symbolic one somewhat indebted to the court masque. While The Winter's Tale is a developed tragi-comedy spanning sixteen years, The Tempest concentrates its action in a single afternoon on a deserted island, and presents a comic denouement to the bitter isolation and long exile of Prospero and his daughter Miranda. Overthrown as Duke of Milan twelve years before, Prospero orchestrates the punishment and perhaps the redemption of his old enemies through magical powers and creatures which beg for interpretation.

2. As in A Midsummer Night's Dream, magical powers are identified closely with the powers of the artist: "Lie there, my art," Prospero says as he removes his "magic garment" in the second scene (lines 24-25). Prospero's "secret studies" (77) have given him the powers of white magic, also known as Hermeticism in Shakespeare's time. His powers enable him to control nature and certain strange creatures on the island, notably Ariel and Caliban. Prospero's control over his world echoes the artist's control over the world of his creation, and we shall see Shakespeare's imagery of the artist throughout the play.

3. Beyond Prospero the artist and magician, however, we see an angry and vengeful politician who has lost his dukedom and is determined to rewrite his personal history. Earlier critics have seen him as a God figure, or a philosopher-king, but closer examination reveals conflicts in his nature that are frightening to his daughter, Miranda, and that produce moments of cruelty towards other characters, not just his political enemies summoned to the island and placed under his power. Magic and art triumph in the play, but their power dissolves as the characters sail back to Italy, into the legendarily dangerous world of the Italian city-state.

Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. The first scene shows a shipwreck, perhaps inspired by a contemporary account of a storm near Bermuda ("the still-vexed Bermoothes" [1.2.229]) that battered English ships on their way to Virginia in 1609. A storm at sea challenges the stagecraft of even modern theater technology, but the director of a studio production or film has a range of special effects to call on:


Prospero's magic has conjured up the storm that drives the ship full of his old enemies, bickering with the crew even as they face drowning:

Antonio. Where is the master, bos'n?

Boatswain. Do you not hear him? You mar our labor. Keep your cabins; you do assist
the storm.

Gonzalo. Nay, good, be patient.

Boatswain. When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin! Silence! Trouble us not! (1.1.12-18)

5. We see the shape of the island in scene 2. In Derek Jarman's film, Prospero dreams the tempest in a gothic castle where Miranda tiptoes gingerly through ominous shadows. Both Ariel and Caliban are menacing in this interpretation:


In the BBC production, however, there is a more conventional scene where Prospero explains their history to Miranda, who is heartsick at the thought of poor souls perishing. As Prospero lays aside his magic cloak, his "art," it becomes clear that Miranda too is his created artifact:

No harm.
I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who
Art ignorant of what thou art, nought knowing
Of whence I am, nor that I am more better
Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell,
And thy no greater father. (15-21)

He fills in their history, then puts a sleeping spell on her so he can harness Ariel to pursue his revenge against his brother, Antonio, now Duke of Milan, and his confederates Sebastian and Alonso, King of Naples:


Julie Taymor's film has spectacular special effects and Helen Mirren playing Prospera, widow of the Duke of Milan and his successor as ruler there. This scene stresses her violent anger at her exile and her desire for revenge as she conjures the storm. Only Miranda, her daughter, can calm her.


6. Ariel and Caliban seem to be associated with different elements. Fire and air are the higher, earth and water the lower:

Cleopatra. I am fire and air. My other elements
I give to baser life. (Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2.289-290)

Prospero styles them "thou, which art but air"(Ariel) and "Thou earth, thou" (Caliban). Julie Taymor's stage production takes a startlingly original approach to them and a wonderfully comic approach to Stephano and Trinculo:


These subplot clowns burlesque the murderous designs of Antonio and Sebastian in 2.1, which are prevented by Ariel:


7. Caliban is often seen as a symbol of oppressive colonial rule: "You taught me language, and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse" (1.2.363-364). Ariel too was oppressed by the witch Sycorax, Caliban's mother, before Prospero freed him:


In Taymor's film, by contrast, Ariel is a CGI image of the actor Ben Whislaw. The horror of Ariel's imprisonment by Sycorax is graphic:


Caliban, however, becomes more visibly human, and perhaps more eloquent in his resentment at being enslaved:


Prospero's anger at Caliban and Ariel becomes a controlling sternness towards Ferdinand, son of Alonso, whom he means to match with Miranda. Her name is translated "wonderful" from the Latin, and Ferdinand pronounces her "O you wonder!" (427). However much Prospero wishes for happiness for Miranda, however, he will maneuver the lovers to suit his political purposes as well.


8. The "noble Neapolitan," Gonzalo, provides a utopian vision of this unspoiled isle, analogous to many visions of the Americas in Shakespeare's day. The cynical politicians Antonio and Sebastian mock him for his idealism, and indeed The Tempest has an underlay of political realism that partially subverts its comic ending:


Prospero controls these politicians through Ariel. Having prevented the assassination of Alonso, Ariel presides as a winged vengeance over the stranded party, the "three men of sin" (3.3.53):


Taymor's film splices together the rebellion of Caliban and the murderous plot against Prospero/Prospera by Stephano and Trinculo:


If their suffering yields penance, then perhaps redemption will follow:

But remember
(For that's my business to you) that you three
From Milan did supplant good Prospero;
Exposed unto the sea, which hath requit it,
Him and his innocent child; for which foul deed
The pow'rs, delaying, not forgetting, have
Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures,
Against your peace. Thee of thy son, Alonso,
They have bereft; and do pronounce by me:
Lingering 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's sorrow
And a clear life ensuing. (3.3.68-82)

9. The last two acts deepen the vision of Prospero's art, which is also Shakespeare's. He creates a wedding masque for Miranda and Ferdinand, full of music and dance:


Yet he dissolves the vision in anger when he remembers the time has come for punishing Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Ariel is his instrument of retribution, an extension of his magical and artistic powers. Miranda and Ferdinand remark on Prospero's towering rage as he collapses the masque with an allusion to the Globe theater:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.


Taymor changes the elaborate dance and song of the goddesses and their attendants to a starry vision of the magician's power:


As a prelude to the last scene with Prospero's old enemies, Ariel and the goblins swoop down on the clownish rebels:


Notice that Prospero's art has failed to remake Caliban, an omen of the final irony of the play:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost!
And as with age his body uglier grows,
So his mind cankers. I will plague them all,
Even to roaring. (188-193)

10. Art's magic has its limits in the symbolism of the play, even as it has in Shakespeare's career. His plays can lend insight into human nature, but not change it. Caliban's ill nature will not yield to Prospero's nurture, perhaps an image of the failure of colonialism. (Begin this linked article at paragraph 20.) Prospero begins to contemplate the end of his art in language reminiscent of events and themes in Shakespeare's plays:

graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book. (5.1.48-57)

He says this partly in response to Ariel's urging that mercy is due to the sufferers:


Perhaps Caliban is part of Prospero's lower nature, and Ariel his higher:

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 moved 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. Go release them, Ariel.
My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore,
And they shall be themselves. (5.1.17-32)


11. The final scene shows us reconciliation and forgiveness:


Julie Taymor has said that she finds "freeedom" to be a key idea in the play. This clip begins with the promise of liberty to Ariel:


Yet the play ends with an ironic vision, as Prospero and Shakespeare bid their magic theaters farewell. Prospero returns to the dangerous world of Italian politics without his magical powers, and Shakespeare leaves his theater behind:


In this podcast by a South African actor, John Kani explains how a production of The Tempest in Johannesburg served to exorcize the era of colonial rule, when apartheid was the weapon of the ruling white minority. The final two lines of the playwere spoken by Prospero to Caliban, whom he has called a "thing of darkness I acknowledge mine":

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free.

Kani podcast



Here's a sketch of the structure of The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, the two most famous and successful romances. My page on Literary Romance is also useful to understand the form Shakespeare is using.

The symbolic natures of Ariel and Caliban are interesting, as is a study of Prospero. Patterns of guilt, retrubution, and forgiveness are found in the play. And once again, we have a missing mother and a father-daughter pair as a family unit.

Remember to quote your sources, and give the page number or web address. Here's a section from the bottom of my home page:

Citation Guides

Research and Documentation Online

A Guide for Writing Research Papers (MLA style)


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