The play's opening scene is set in the midst of a murderous storm, which would seem to suggest that The Tempest is going to be as dark as, say, Macbeth, which also happens to begin with a terrible storm.
This play, though, is most definitely not Macbeth. Soon enough, we learn from the tricksy spirit Ariel that not a soul on the ship was harmed. (Seriously, the play has a "tricksy spirit." How can you argue with the tone being "whimsical"?)
Thus, even naturally scary events are undone by the magic of the island, and the tone that seeps into the rest of the play is one of wonder, amazement, and admiration. Mystery still abounds, but the magic performed is not black and scary, rather more a thing of the natural world. Further, with its silly drunkards the play has a certain lightness to it—even the would-be killers of the King tell hilarious jokes and are occasionally lighthearted.
In The Tempest, all past wrongs are forgiven and even the nastiest people get second chances. We think Miranda's final speech pretty much sums up the play's hopeful attitude about life and the human condition:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O, brave new world
That has such people in 't! (5.1.215-218)
Sure. Miranda may be a little naive but we like to think this is Shakespeare's way of telling us that life is pretty marvelous.
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:
The Tempest is named after the big storm that dominates the entire first scene of the play. The rest of the play takes place on an island, so maybe the play should really be called The Island, right? Wrong.
Shakespeare, as usual, draws our attention to not just the word, but the thing behind the word. The whole play can be thought of as the result of big storms—both personal and public, both real and imagined. We talk about the symbolic meaning of the tempest in "Symbols," so check it out if you want to know more...
At the play's end, everyone is ready to head back to Naples, where Miranda and Ferdinand will get hitched before old Prospero retires to Milan. (Good thing Prospero's big, nasty storm didn't actually destroy the ship, right?)
In the meantime, everyone leaves the stage and heads inside to Prospero's cell. But Prospero remains on stage and delivers one of the most fascinating and moving speeches in all of Shakespeare:
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
In other words, Prospero says that now that he's retired from a lifetime of performing magic, he needs the audience's help if he wants to leave the island—the only thing that can free him and send him home is the audience's approval and loud applause. That's weird, don't you think? Why the heck does Prospero need the audience's applause in order to return home?
Like we've said before, for some, this final speech is Shakespeare's way of saying goodbye to the theater. (The Tempest was probably the last play Big Willy wrote entirely himself and, soon after The Tempest was completed around 1611, Shakespeare left London and retired to Stratford.)
If we read Prospero the skillful magician as an artist like Shakespeare the skillful playwright, then we can see why the following lines might sound like a touching goodbye: " Now my charms are all o'erthrown, / what strength I have's mine own."
For more on Prospero's relationship to the magic of the theater, see "Quotes: Art and Culture."
The play takes place entirely on an island (and the water surrounding it). We have a confession, Shmoopsters. We're not exactly sure where the island is located. Since the King of Naples and his party were travelling between Naples and Tunis when Prospero whipped up the little storm that shipwrecked them, it seems likely the island is located somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Yet, there are some obvious references to the Caribbean, which has led some scholars to suggest the island is either located in the New World or that the New World was on Shakespeare's mind when he wrote the play. Ariel's reference to "the still-vex'd Bermoothes" is a pretty clear shout-out to Bermuda, previously avoided because it was thought to be the devil's island.
The Caribbean isles might also have been fresh in Shakespeare's imagination because of a popular travel account written around the same times as the play: In 1609, a Virginia Company expedition to Jamestown lost its flagship, the Sea Venture. It was assumed that the flagship was as good as gone, but then a year later, the crew turned up happy and tan, after having passed the time in Bermuda.
The account of that adventure was published as A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle of the Devils and was a very popular read. (Learn more about the Sea Venture shipwreck here.) Did we mention that Caliban's name is probably an anagram of the word "can[n]ibal," a term derived from "carib" (as in the Caribbean)?
What's important is that the place is an island, and thus removed from territorial or national claims, and, most importantly, any kind of civilization—including the King's court and Prospero's ex-dukedom in Milan. If you want to know more about the setting, check the "Themes: Contrasting Regions."
Brain Snack: The fancy setting also just so happens to work out for Princess Elizabeth, daughter of the English King James I, who enjoyed a special production of the play as part of her wedding festivities. The whimsical setting probably made for a pretty magical evening.
Reading any one of Shakespeare's plays can feel like reading a long poem and that's because they're written in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (how we talk every day). (Note: The play Richard II is the one exception to this rule—it's the only Shakespeare play written entirely in verse—even the gardeners speak poetry.)
We break all of this down in the paragraphs that follow, but here's what you should remember about Shakespeare's plays. The nobility and other important figures tend to speak in "blank verse," which is a formal way to talk. The commoners, or "everyday Joes," tend to speak just like we do, in regular old prose.
However, in The Tempest, Shakespeare does something a little bit different. Prospero's slave, Caliban, speaks prose (especially when he's cursing at Prospero), but he also speaks a lot of verse, which makes sense since Prospero taught him to talk.
Let's talk about unrhymed iambic pentameter (also called "blank verse"). Don't let the fancy names intimidate you—it's really pretty simple once you get the hang of it.
Let's start with a definition of iambic pentameter. An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one (sounds like da DUM). "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
Let's try it out on these lines from The Tempest, where Gonzalo comforts the shipwreck survivors:
beSEECH you, SIR, be MErry. YOU have CAUSE,
so HAVE we ALL, of JOY; for OUR esCAPE.
Every second syllable is accented (stressed) so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since the lines have no regular rhyme scheme, we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter, a.k.a. blank verse.
Like we said, not everyone in the play speaks in verse. "Everyday Joes," (with the exception of Caliban) don't usually talk in a special rhythm—they just talk. Check out the way the drunken Trinculo speaks when he bags on Caliban:
I shall laugh myself to death at this puppy-headed
monster. A most scurvy monster! I could find in my heart to
beat him— (2.2.7)
Yup. No fancy iambs there.
Like the storm in King Lear, the tempest that opens our play is full of symbolic meaning.
When Prospero uses magic to whip up a storm that shipwrecks the King of Naples on the island, the tempest seems like a very physical manifestation of Prospero's anger and his suffering, which has been eating at him for the past twelve years. Big surprise there, right?
Although the tempest (like Prospero's anger) is definitely powerful enough to cause a shipwreck, no real harm is actually done. Prospero wants to teach Alonso and Antonio a lesson, but the fact is that he doesn't kill anybody or cause permanent damage to the ship or its inhabitants. Unlike the notorious storm-whipper-uppers in Macbeth (that would be the Weird Sisters), Prospero is NOT an evil guy. He's bitter, controlling, and wants some payback for losing his dukedom, but, ultimately, Prospero forgives the men who once betrayed him.
We also want to point out how the tempest is associated with social upheaval. You probably noticed that as the crew and passengers are being tossed around on deck, panic sets in and quite a lot of trash talking goes down after Duke Antonio tries barking orders at the crew. The Boatswain, who knows a thing or two about sailing, basically tells the Duke of Milan to keep his mouth shut and get out of the way: "Hence! What cares these roarers / for the name of King? To cabin! Silence; trouble us not" (1.1.5). Oh, snap! The social and political hierarchy begins to break down here as the Boatswain points out that royal titles are meaningless in a life and death situation at sea. ("Roarers," by the way, means "waves" in this context but it's also a term used to describe a rioting crowd.)
At this point, we wonder for a moment if we'll have a mutiny on our hands that could turn into a Lord of the Flies scenario once everyone washes up on shore. (If Stefano, Caliban, and Trinculo had their way, Stefano would have usurped both Alonso's and Prospero's power, right?) When we think about it, this is basically what happened back on dry land in Milan when Prospero's brother snatched the dukedom from him.
By the middle of Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero has worked his magic to win back his dukedom and he has also orchestrated the marriage of Miranda and Prince Ferdinand, who everyone thinks is dead thanks to Prospero. Still, Prospero's got one more trick up his sleeve. In the middle of the scene, Prospero gathers everyone around and dramatically draws back a curtain to reveal his virginal daughter and Ferdinand...playing a game of chess. Surprise!
It looks like Ferdinand has made good on his promise to keep his hands to himself until his wedding night, wouldn't you say? As it turns out, the conversation going on between Miranda and Ferdinand is as G-rated as the action. Miranda bats her eyelashes and says something cute ("Sweet lord, you play me false") and Ferdinand promises that he'd never do such a thing (5.1.1). So, it seems like chess is being used here as a metaphor for romantic pursuits or, the kinds of teasing little "games" played by people who are in love.
We really want to believe Ferdinand when he says he'd never cheat (it wouldn't bode well for the couple's marriage), but we can't say the same thing about the parents of this sweet couple. Hmm. Is Shakespeare trying to tell us something?
Let's think about this. The goal of a chess game is to capture your opponent's king by strategically placing him in a position from which he can't move. Gee. That sounds kind of familiar. Where have we seen this kind of game before? Oh, we know! This is exactly what's been going on between Prospero and Alonso ever since the King of Naples allowed Antonio to steal Prospero's dukedom. In the end, Prospero has ultimately won this little game by backing Alonso into a corner from which the king cannot move. Check mate. Game over.
Prospero's books are a pretty big deal in this play. They're the source of Prospero's magic, which is why Caliban says Prospero is completely vulnerable without them:
Why, as I told thee, 'tis a custom with him,
I' th' afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books, or with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
Or cut his wezand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books; for without them
He's but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books. (3.2.11)
In other words, without the contents of his treasured library, Prospero's a "sot" (a stupid fool) and as powerless as Caliban. When Prospero says he's going to retire from the magic business, he promises "I'll drown my book" (5.1.5).
As useful as these books are, we also want to point out that Prospero's nose was buried in these very same texts back in Milan when his brother was busy stealing his dukedom (1.2). By his own admission, when Prospero was "rapt in secret studies," he neglected his duties as a ruler and isolated himself from the rest of the world (1.2.10). That's odd. Why would Shakespeare warn us that burying oneself in his or her art can be dangerously isolating? Let us know when you work that one out for us.
Brain Snack: The artsy 1991 film Prospero's Books concentrates on the (imagined) contents of our favorite magician's library.
Ever the optimist, Gonzalo's response to being stranded is to make a big speech about how things would be if he ruled the isle:
I' the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people. (2.1.23)
Shakespeare (a notorious and unapologetic plagiarist) cribbed Gonzalo's speech from Montaigne's famous essay "Of Cannibals" (1580), where the Brazilian Indians are described as living at one with nature:
[Brazilian Indians have] no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate or politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions...no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or metal. (from John Florio's 1603 English translation)
At a time when Europeans were running around calling natives in the Americas "savages," Montaigne suggests that the Brazilian Indians live a utopian lifestyle while European colonizers are the real barbarians. (This essay, by the way, is where the concept of the "noble savage" comes from.)
So, it's interesting that Shakespeare puts this speech in the mouth of one of his characters, don't you think? Does this mean that Shakespeare endorses Montaigne's ideas about New World inhabitants? Maybe. Gonzalo, after all, is the play's ultimate good guy. On the other hand, Caliban, who is a kind of exotic "other," is portrayed as a complete savage in this play.
If you're like us, you're probably wondering why the play and most of the characters in it are so obsessed with Miranda's virginity. Prospero is always talking about it (and guarding it from the likes of Caliban) and, when Ferdinand sees Miranda for the first time, he says he hopes she's unmarried and still carrying her V-card (1.2.3). What the heck is going on here? We've done some investigating (read: close analysis of the text) and we've come up with some ideas.
First of all, it was really, really, really important for unmarried women to be chaste in Shakespeare's day. If they had sex before marriage, they were considered damaged goods who couldn't be depended on to produce legitimate offspring. (Trust us. There were entire sermons and books written about the subject.)
Miranda's virginity is a thing that's treated like a "treasure" to be guarded, mostly by her dad, who prevents Caliban from raping her and populating the "isle with Calibans" (1.2.3). Prospero not only prevents his daughter from being assaulted, he also puts a stop to the potential threat that the island could be taken over by the offspring of his slave. Prospero would much rather give his daughter over to Prince Ferdinand (although he gives his son-in-law a huge lecture about keeping his hands to himself until after the wedding) because 1) Miranda loves the guy and 2) Miranda and Ferdinand will have legitimate babies that will one day rule Naples.
At times, it also seems like Miranda's virginity is symbolic of her purity, innocence, and goodness. (As opposed to Sycorax the witch, who hooked up with the devil and gave birth to Caliban.) It also seems like Miranda's status as a virgin helps to somehow redeem the island's naturalness. Remember that the last woman on the island was Sycorax. She was unnatural by virtue of being a witch, but also because when she came to the island, she was already carrying the devil's child (it doesn't get any more unnatural than that). If the island is to be a place of redemption for all the characters in the play, Miranda's virginity is symbolic of the promise of a new and pure beginning.
We also want to point out that Miranda will inevitably lose her virginity to her new husband and this signals that she is growing up and, well, changing in ways that not even her father can manipulate and control. Miranda (unlike Isabella in Measure for Measure) is really excited about this and says as much about what she "desires to give" Ferdinand after she becomes his wife (3.1.9).
Water is central to this play, and, particularly, the act of being immersed in water – namely, drowning. Of course, the first scene when the ship splits is a pretty good time to worry about drowning, but the imagery goes beyond that to represent loss and recovery.
When first exiled with Miranda, Prospero suggests that he could have drowned the sea with his own tears when he cried over his lost dukedom and his past: "When I have deck'd the sea with drops full salt" (1.2.18).
The new inhabitants of the isle are obsessed with water too. Ferdinand, upon hearing Ariel's song, knows it refers to his father's certain drowning:
Full fathom 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 (1.2.20)
Ariel's song leads Ferdinand to believe that his father has drowned and is lost to him forever. Not only that, but the song suggests that his body has been transformed into something unrecognizable.
Later, when Alonso gives up hope that Ferdinand could have survived the shipwreck he says, "he is drown'd / Whom thus we stray to find, and the sea mocks / Our frustrate search on land. Well, let him go" (3.1.1) and Antonio notes the King has "given up hope" (3.1.1).
The idea here is that when someone is lost to the sea, there probably isn't even going to even be a body that can be recovered. Drowning demands that the dead must be let go, without the closure of a burial ceremony. So what we're talking about here is the seeming finality of drowning. Usually, once a thing is given to the ocean, it can never be taken back, which is why Rose drops the diamond necklace into the ocean in everyone's favorite tacky love story (yes, Titanic).
But wait! The Tempest isn't just a story about loss. It's also about the recovery of what seems to have been lost forever. As we know, Ferdinand and his father don't actually drown and when they discover each other at the play's end, we're reminded that new beginnings are possible.
Same goes for Prospero, who once thought Milan would never be restored to him but lives to see the day his daughter is married to Prince Ferdinand and will live as a royal in Italy. While Miranda and Prospero will never get back the twelve years they lost on the island, the play suggests that, despite their suffering, they will gain something even greater.
Hands stuff pops up all over the place in this play. Prospero takes Miranda's hand before he tells her of their true identity, and our first introduction to the Prince and King has them below deck, praying, with their hands clasped. Ariel invites Ferdinand to take hands (presumably Miranda's) as he leads him away from crying over his father's death. Miranda is offered Ferdinand's hand as a symbol of his faith to her and of their marriage. Prospero gives Miranda's hand in marriage to Ferdinand when he agrees to their union, and Alonso clasps all their hands together and raises them to the heavens when asking God's blessing on the new union. Finally, when Prospero gives his epilogue speech to the audience, he asks that they bring their hands together, supposedly in prayer forgiving him his failures, but really in applause to tell him that he's totally awesome.
So, hands mean prayer, truth, love, and applause. (By the way, did you know the origin of the handshake was to show the other person your goodwill by revealing that you had no concealed weapon in your hand? Well now you do.)
Of course, to stretch this thing out the way English professor-types do, the ultimate importance of the hand is that it is the source of the translation from the mind to the page, the seat of writing and so the palm of the play. This act of translating words beyond the page, of making them worthy of playing, is the best thing that Shakespeare could hope to do. As his plays were written to be acted, applause (the act of the audience's hands) was the playwright's only assurance that he hadn't sucked. This is especially significant if we think of The Tempest as Shakespeare's last play. After a long career, the man deserved a bit of the audience's indulgence, in the form of their clasped hands, providing the ultimate praise of his own hand's work.
We thought you might look here for some thoughts about Prospero's epilogue. We talk about it in "What's Up With the Ending?," which is where you should go now if you want to know more about it.
Prospero has been wrongly thrust onto this island, and that wrong must be addressed—or, by Jove, this isn't a play by William Shakespeare.
We find Prospero with a loving and precocious daughter, who has a sensitivity towards those she has not met (namely everybody). Prospero has two servants, and is well kept on the island.
We meet Prospero when he is anxious about the work he has ahead. His power depends on getting this timing right. Unlike a traditional frustration stage, we're not really worried that Prospero won't pull it all off (nor is he). Why? Because the play isn't really about the plot at all, since Prospero has already moved all of his enemies to the island in the first scene of the first act.
Again, not so much of a nightmare—we've seen that Prospero's power is amazing enough to create a tempest, and his manservant (or spirit servant) Ariel is fiercely competent. It is distressing though, to have two murder plots hatched simultaneously. Prospero must face and stop both of these attempts at treachery.
Beautiful magic is performed all around, and Prospero gets over his vengeance kick while the bad guys escape the punishment they deserve. This works for some of them, and all of this mercy and good feeling is an all-around new start for everyone—they return to their old land with freshly clean consciences and clear futures.
The play starts out on a rather even keel for the characters. They've lived this way for twelve years in relative peace, with Prospero teaching Miranda—yet there's room for improvement under an auspicious star.
The peace that Miranda and Prospero have known is suddenly shattered by the presence of all these strangers. Of course, what's funny about The Tempest is that Prospero essentially willed the villains to him, so he's kind of created his own emergency—on purpose. At least with them around, he has a conflict to resolve.
Faced with all these bad guys, Prospero can either wreak havoc upon them with his vengeance, or forgive and maybe get his dukedom back. Also, he'd like his daughter to fall in love with the Prince of Naples, which he hopes is in line with her desires, though he doesn't really know if it will work. Despite the fact that Prospero seems to be in control of the action, we're unsure of how everything will turn out. Kind of.
Though Prospero has called the conflict to him, putting all these wicked people on the island together is bound to create unanticipated problems in a seemingly controlled situation. Sebastian agrees to murder the King, aided by Antonio. Elsewhere, Caliban is plotting to murder Prospero. While the little murder plots don't really deeply impact Prospero or his goals, they're still trifles he has to deal with.
Prospero knows that all of this is happening. Regardless, Prospero is busy creating complications for Ferdinand and Miranda by pretending he hates Ferdinand, so the young couple will take their love seriously having struggled for it. He's plagued by complications, but he's not above adding to them for his own ends.
The harpy chides all the traitors. Alonso in particular is singled out by the monster for the great wrong that was done to Prospero, claiming this past treachery is the source of the sea's anger at Alonso, and for this, the sea claimed his son. Up to this point, Prospero hasn't made any action to reveal himself or his power to the shipwrecked folks, and they've all been wandering around aimlessly.
With the harpy incident, we get the satisfaction of knowing that not only does Prospero plan to deal with the villains, but he's not above messing with their heads a little bit, too. For the first time, we know justice will be served.
The three traitors are unraveled by the harpy incident. The King is distraught at the confirmation that he does indeed suffer for what he's done to Prospero. Gonzalo is afraid of what the King might do in his crazed state. Antonio and Sebastian, murderous even when not crazed, have now vowed to fight the spirits one by one.
We're on the edge of our seats (or pages?) trying to figure out how each of the villains will respond to the harpy warning, and what will come of their reaction. Everyone is tense, with the saner group of the party in pursuit of the other three, hoping to stop them from doing anything drastic. Meanwhile, a drunk and power-lusty Stefano approaches Prospero's cell, with a coolly calculating and enraged Caliban by his side, all planning Prospero's bloody murder. Will Caliban succeed? Will Prospero die?
Prospero inquires after where the three traitors Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian are. Ariel informs his master that the men are all tied up in some strange states. Although Ariel is not human, he thinks that anyone who looked at them might be moved to pity the three traitors.
Prospero is moved by Ariel's gracious thought and decides to act on his virtue rather than his vengeance. Once Prospero has decided to treat the villains gently, he relaxes any tension we felt. We know the falling action of the play has begun, with resolution to follow.
Also, hearing of Caliban's planned treachery, Prospero gets Ariel to lay out his fine robes, which break Stefano and Trinculo's concentration on the deed against Prospero. Caliban, though enraged, sees the men for the distracted fools they are, and all are sent forth running by a comedic pack of bloodthirsty hounds. Caliban's renunciation of the real bad guys also adds to the falling action; he's no longer a dangerous rebel.
With all the spells broken, Prospero gathers everyone and gets to say his piece. Alonso, having survived an almost-attempted assassination, gives Prospero back the dukedom of Milan, which neutralizes the threat of Antonio and Sebastian.
We find out from the King that Stefano is merely his harmless, drunken butler (which we think is some assurance that he wouldn't really have tried to cut out Prospero's windpipe), and Caliban repents for his foolishness, wishing to be once again in Prospero's good graces. Most importantly, the rift between Naples and Milan will be sealed up in the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand. Everything is declared finished, which is the defining stuff of conclusions.