by William Shakespeare
(1564 – 1616)
Type of Work:
A remote island; fifteenth century
Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan,
cast away on an island in the sea
Miranda, his beautiful daughter
Alonso, King of Naples
Ferdinand, Alonso’s son
Antonio, Prospero’s wicked brother, and
false Duke of Milan
Sebastian, Alonso’s brother
Gonzalo, a kind philosopher
Trinculo and Stephano, two drunken courtiers
Ariel, Prospero’s spirit servant
Caliban, Propero’s grotesque slave-monster
A great tempest arose that drove a certain
ship, bound to Naples from Tunis, off its course and onto an uncharted
island. The storm had been magically called up by Prospero, one of the
two human inhabitants of the island, in order to bring the vessel to shore.
Prospero had once been the mighty Duke
of Milan, and had reigned justly. But he had grown so absorbed in his intellectual
pursuits – most o them relating to the supernatural – that he turned over
the tedious reins of government to his “trusted” brother Antonio, freeing
himself to devote his time to the library and the studies he loved. But,
sadly, his ambitious brother, taking advantage of Prospero’s naivete, usurped
his power – a plan he was only able to carry out with the help of Alonso,
the King of Naples and sworn enemy of Milan. Antonio and Alonso cruelly
captured Prospero and his infant daughter Miranda, and set them adrift
at sea in a small, rotting craft. They would have been drowned – Antonio’s
wish had not a counselor on the ship, Gonzalo, provided them with food
and drink, and with those volumes from Prospero’s collection that contained
his magic spells.
When Prospero and Miranda washed ashore
on their remote island, they found two rather unusual inhabitants. The
first was a fairy spirit named Ariel, who had been imprisoned within a
tree by her former master, a witch named Sycorax. Prospero freed Ariel
from the tree and thus became her new master.
The other creature, Caliban, son of Sycorax,
was a lumbering, deformed, half-savage figure. He hated Prospero – and
everyone and everything else, for that matter – but was also forced to
acknowledge him as master. For twelve years Prospero had kindly ruled over
the other three islanders, all the while practicing a form of benevolent
Why, then, did Prospero incite the elements
to cause this ship to be tossed aground on his island? Because he knew,
as it turned out, that the ship bore the very people who had usurped him
ofhispowersomaiiyyearsbefore Antonio, Alonso, and their courtiers. The
kind, wise Gonzalo was also aboard, along with Ferdinand, Alonso’s honorable
son. Prospero’s plan was to magically scatter the passengers about the
island in three groups, put them through a series of trials and adventures
by which the bad would be chastised and the good rewarded, and then bring
them all together to make peace once and for all.
Alonso, together with Antonio, Sebastian,
Gonzalo, and others, found themselves together on the beach. They were
astonished to discover that not only had they survived the shipwreck, but
that their clothes were clean, dry and pressed (one of Prospero’s many
bits of magic). However, Alonso did not see Ferdinand among the survivors,
and supposing his son had drowned, cried out in grief. Still the good-hearted
counselor, old Gonzalo tried to cheer the distraught Alonso, but Sebastian
joined Antonio in mocking his efforts at optimism.
At this time, the invisible Ariel came
on the scene. By playing her tilting music she caused a deep sleep to come
upon everyone except Sebastian and Antonio. The situation prompted Antonio
to tempt Sebastian with a proposition: , My strong imagination sees a crown
dropping upon thy head,” he began. He went on to say, in effect, “You remember
how simple it was for me to seize the entire rule of Milan by overthrowing
my brother? Well, by killing your brother Alonso as he sleeps, you could
become King of Naples. No one would ever know how you ascended to the thronc.”
Sebastian succumbed to the temptation, and was just about to strike off
his brother’s head when Ariel awakened the company. Antonio’s plot had
As the men tramped awkwardly around the
island in hopes of finding Ferdinand alive, Sebastian and Antonio looked
forward to a second opportunity to murder Alonso. But suddenly the group
was beset by a miraculous vision, sent by Prospero: a numerous troupe of
fairies and sprites, dancing about a table laden with rich foods. The hungry
company, invited to eat, was just about to partake, when suddenly lightning
, struck and thunder rolled; Ariel appeared in the form of a Harpy (a greedy
monster, part woman and part bird). As quickly as it had appeared, the
banquet table vanished. Then Ariel rebuked Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian
for the crimes they had committed – or had intended to commit – and led
them all, guilt-stricken and humbled, to Prospero.
Ferdinand had landed on another part of
the island. As he inourned the father he believed to have drowned, he found
himself helplessly guided by Ariel’s music to Prospero and Miranda. No
sooner had Ferdinand set eyes on Prospero’s unspoiled, tender-hearted daughter,
than he fell in love with her, and she with him. Prospero, however, concealed
his pleasure in seeing these two youngsters so much enthralled by one another,
and refused to allow Ferdinand to take Miranda as his queen until he had
undergone an ordeal to prove his devotion. The wise magician then ordered
the young prince to spend the day lugging and stacking a pile of huge logs,
menial labor unbefitting royalty. But Ferdinand gladly accepted the task.
He toiled, even through the pleadings of his beloved: “. .. Pray you, work
not so hard! My father is hard at study. He’s safe for these three hours.”
Now Prospero was indeed at study; not the
study of books, but of hearts. As he watched the two lovers, he smiled
at his innocent daughter’s conspiracy, and sighed with joy at Ferdinand’s
refusal to slacken his work.
When Prospero was satisfied with Ferdinand’s
probation, he gave him Miranda’s hand and instructed the pair to wait with
him until the other castaways should arrive.
Stephano and Trinculo, one a butler and
the other a jester, had turned up on still another stretch of the island.
They had managed to rescue several bottles of liquor from the ship and
were lumbering about on the sand, blind drunk, when they had the misfortune
of bumping into hideous Caliban, lying on the beach under a stinking cloak.
After accepting a drink from the staggering courtiers, Caliban, now tipsy
himself, promised to help them obtain sovereignty over the island – if
they would help him murder the present ruler, Prospero. The drunkards agreed,
and the three set off in a comical daze to seek out the magician. Ariel
overheard their conspiracy and intervened to thwart their plan by placing
diversions in their path – attacking hounds; rich, tempting raiment dangling
on elusive clotheslines; and many other such conjurations.
Later, Ariel drove the pathetic trio through
filthy ditches, swamps, and brier patches, until they finally reached Prospero’s
Now, with the entire ship’s population
reunited – minus Ferdinand, who was playing chess with Miranda inside the
cave – Prospero gathered everyone into an enchanted circle and revealed
his true identity. All were astonished, as they had thought the duke was
long dead. Prospero mildly rebuked all the schemers of evil:
First Alonso and Antonio, for overthrowing
his dukedom and leaving him to perish; then Sebastian, for plotting to
kill Alonso; and lastly Trinculo and Stephano, for conniving with Caliban
to murder him. Then, assured that the company had repented of their evil
deeds and intentions, he granted his full, sovereign forgiveness to all.
Prospero next warmly commended his benefactor
Gonzalo for his “saintly” character and behavior. Finally, he beckoned
penitent Alonso to enter the cave. There, the father tearfully embraced
the son he had thought dead. When introduced to Miranda, Ferdinand’s cherished
bride-to-be, Alonso was equally captivated by her.
And now, with joy and reconciliation reigning,
Ariel reported to Prospero that the beached vessel was repaired and ready
for a return voyage to Milan. Before departing the island, however, the
old magician, in a final act of kindness, freed Ariel from her servitude.
He then took his books and staff and cast them into the sea, openly vowing
to give up his long-held practice of sorcery.
Prospero sailed with the company back to
Italy – to begin life anew, to reign once more in Milan, and to witness
the marriage of his daughter to faithful Ferdinand.
This unusual play – full of music, sorcery,
conspiracy, romance, comedy, and pathos belongs to the last period of Shakespeare’s
career. The odd, bitter-sweet drama embodies qualities of both tragedy
and comedy, though this and others of the final plays are usually classified
In The Tempest, everybody, as Gonzalo notes,
leaves the island in a changed state: Alonso finally suffers the pangs
of guilt and begs forgiveness for his crimes against Prospero; Antonio
eventually humbles himself. These two villains are mirrored in a kind of
comic relief by Trinculo and Stephano, who are also led to repentance.
Since The Tempest is considered Shakespeare’s
final great play, many critics have suggested that Prospero represents
Shakespeare himself at the end of his work, that the magician’s final speech,
in which he renounces magic, is meant to symbolize the Bard’s farewell
to the theater before retiring to his Stratford home. The entire allegorical
plot, beginning with an oceangoing peril and subsequently spanning the
breadth of human emotions, ending in a scene of serenity and joy, may indeed
reflect and symbolize the writer’s reflections on his life.
At any rate, the play stands as one of
Shakespeare’s greatest works, possessing a strange, undefinable, composite
quality that sets it apart from all others.