Comedy and Tragicomedy
The Tempest is actually classified in Shakespeare's first folio as a comedy, which would be fine enough, except this play has certain elements that are peculiar to a new genre. When The Tempest came out, the "tragicomedy" had recently been brought into the English theater scene (by John Fletcher, who would eventually replace Shakespeare as principal writer for the King's Men).
Its principle elements were pastoral settings (shepherds, shepherdesses, fuzzy lambs, etc.), misunderstandings or mix-ups about love, and potentially tragic consequences that are happily avoided by some magical intervention. Shakespeare, because he's just like that, added to the form.
The Tempest is also part of a group of four plays (including Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and Pericles) that literary critics refer to as the "romances." (Not the kind of romances that feature a scantily clad woman and guy with bulging muscles on the book cover.) These plays were written at the end of Shakespeare's career and share a few things in common. Let's take a quick peek at our handy-dandy checklist of elements that are common in Shakespeare's "romance" plays to see how The Tempest fits into the genre:
- Elements of magic and the fantastic: Prospero is a magician who whips up a storm and sends his airy sprite on crazy missions all over the island. Check.
- A long, wandering journey: Okay. The action of the play only takes place during the course of a day but, just think about what Prospero and Miranda have gone through during the twelve years leading up to the play's opening scene—they're booted out of Milan and set adrift at sea before landing on a remote island, where they live for a really long time before finally getting the chance to return to Italy. Check.
- Obsession with the concept of loss and recovery: Check. This is the most important element of Shakespeare's "romances." So much has been lost (or seems to have been lost) in this play but, in the end, most characters gain something far better. Prospero, for example, loses his kingdom and twelve years of his life in Milan, but he also gains a new son in law and learns that vengeance is far less important than forgiveness. We could go on... but you get the idea.