The Tempestby William Shakespeare(1564 – 1616)Type of Work:Romantic fantasySettingA remote island; fifteenth centuryPrincipal CharactersProspero, the rightful Duke of Milan,cast away on an island in the seaMiranda, his beautiful daughterAlonso, King of NaplesFerdinand, Alonso’s sonAntonio, Prospero’s wicked brother, andfalse Duke of MilanSebastian, Alonso’s brotherGonzalo, a kind philosopherTrinculo and Stephano, two drunken courtiersAriel, Prospero’s spirit servantCaliban, Propero’s grotesque slave-monsterStory OverveiwA great tempest arose that drove a certainship, bound to Naples from Tunis, off its course and onto an unchartedisland. The storm had been magically called up by Prospero, one of thetwo human inhabitants of the island, in order to bring the vessel to shore. Prospero had once been the mighty Dukeof Milan, and had reigned justly. But he had grown so absorbed in his intellectualpursuits – most o them relating to the supernatural – that he turned overthe tedious reins of government to his “trusted” brother Antonio, freeinghimself to devote his time to the library and the studies he loved. But,sadly, his ambitious brother, taking advantage of Prospero’s naivete, usurpedhis 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 cruellycaptured Prospero and his infant daughter Miranda, and set them adriftat sea in a small, rotting craft.
They would have been drowned – Antonio’swish had not a counselor on the ship, Gonzalo, provided them with foodand drink, and with those volumes from Prospero’s collection that containedhis magic spells. When Prospero and Miranda washed ashoreon their remote island, they found two rather unusual inhabitants. Thefirst was a fairy spirit named Ariel, who had been imprisoned within atree by her former master, a witch named Sycorax. Prospero freed Arielfrom 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 – andeveryone and everything else, for that matter – but was also forced toacknowledge him as master.
For twelve years Prospero had kindly ruled overthe other three islanders, all the while practicing a form of benevolentsorcery. Why, then, did Prospero incite the elementsto 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 himofhispowersomaiiyyearsbefore Antonio, Alonso, and their courtiers. Thekind, wise Gonzalo was also aboard, along with Ferdinand, Alonso’s honorableson. Prospero’s plan was to magically scatter the passengers about theisland in three groups, put them through a series of trials and adventuresby which the bad would be chastised and the good rewarded, and then bringthem all together to make peace once and for all. Alonso, together with Antonio, Sebastian,Gonzalo, and others, found themselves together on the beach.
They wereastonished to discover that not only had they survived the shipwreck, butthat their clothes were clean, dry and pressed (one of Prospero’s manybits of magic). However, Alonso did not see Ferdinand among the survivors,and supposing his son had drowned, cried out in grief. Still the good-heartedcounselor, old Gonzalo tried to cheer the distraught Alonso, but Sebastianjoined Antonio in mocking his efforts at optimism. At this time, the invisible Ariel cameon the scene.
By playing her tilting music she caused a deep sleep to comeupon everyone except Sebastian and Antonio. The situation prompted Antonioto tempt Sebastian with a proposition: , My strong imagination sees a crowndropping upon thy head,” he began. He went on to say, in effect, “You rememberhow simple it was for me to seize the entire rule of Milan by overthrowingmy brother? Well, by killing your brother Alonso as he sleeps, you couldbecome 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 offhis brother’s head when Ariel awakened the company. Antonio’s plot hadbeen frustrated. As the men tramped awkwardly around theisland in hopes of finding Ferdinand alive, Sebastian and Antonio lookedforward to a second opportunity to murder Alonso. But suddenly the groupwas beset by a miraculous vision, sent by Prospero: a numerous troupe offairies and sprites, dancing about a table laden with rich foods. The hungrycompany, invited to eat, was just about to partake, when suddenly lightning, struck and thunder rolled; Ariel appeared in the form of a Harpy (a greedymonster, part woman and part bird). As quickly as it had appeared, thebanquet table vanished.
Then Ariel rebuked Alonso, Antonio and Sebastianfor the crimes they had committed – or had intended to commit – and ledthem all, guilt-stricken and humbled, to Prospero. Ferdinand had landed on another part ofthe island. As he inourned the father he believed to have drowned, he foundhimself helplessly guided by Ariel’s music to Prospero and Miranda. Nosooner had Ferdinand set eyes on Prospero’s unspoiled, tender-hearted daughter,than he fell in love with her, and she with him. Prospero, however, concealedhis 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 hadundergone an ordeal to prove his devotion. The wise magician then orderedthe 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, worknot so hard! My father is hard at study. He’s safe for these three hours. “Now Prospero was indeed at study; not thestudy of books, but of hearts. As he watched the two lovers, he smiledat his innocent daughter’s conspiracy, and sighed with joy at Ferdinand’srefusal to slacken his work. When Prospero was satisfied with Ferdinand’sprobation, he gave him Miranda’s hand and instructed the pair to wait withhim until the other castaways should arrive.
Stephano and Trinculo, one a butler andthe 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 andwere lumbering about on the sand, blind drunk, when they had the misfortuneof bumping into hideous Caliban, lying on the beach under a stinking cloak. After accepting a drink from the staggering courtiers, Caliban, now tipsyhimself, promised to help them obtain sovereignty over the island – ifthey 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. Arieloverheard their conspiracy and intervened to thwart their plan by placingdiversions in their path – attacking hounds; rich, tempting raiment danglingon elusive clotheslines; and many other such conjurations.
Later, Ariel drove the pathetic trio throughfilthy ditches, swamps, and brier patches, until they finally reached Prospero’scave. Now, with the entire ship’s populationreunited – minus Ferdinand, who was playing chess with Miranda inside thecave – Prospero gathered everyone into an enchanted circle and revealedhis true identity. All were astonished, as they had thought the duke waslong dead. Prospero mildly rebuked all the schemers of evil:First Alonso and Antonio, for overthrowinghis dukedom and leaving him to perish; then Sebastian, for plotting tokill Alonso; and lastly Trinculo and Stephano, for conniving with Calibanto murder him. Then, assured that the company had repented of their evildeeds and intentions, he granted his full, sovereign forgiveness to all.
Prospero next warmly commended his benefactorGonzalo for his “saintly” character and behavior. Finally, he beckonedpenitent Alonso to enter the cave. There, the father tearfully embracedthe son he had thought dead. When introduced to Miranda, Ferdinand’s cherishedbride-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 readyfor a return voyage to Milan. Before departing the island, however, theold 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 vowingto give up his long-held practice of sorcery. Prospero sailed with the company back toItaly – to begin life anew, to reign once more in Milan, and to witnessthe marriage of his daughter to faithful Ferdinand. CommentaryThis unusual play – full of music, sorcery,conspiracy, romance, comedy, and pathos belongs to the last period of Shakespeare’scareer. The odd, bitter-sweet drama embodies qualities of both tragedyand comedy, though this and others of the final plays are usually classifiedas romances.
In The Tempest, everybody, as Gonzalo notes,leaves the island in a changed state: Alonso finally suffers the pangsof guilt and begs forgiveness for his crimes against Prospero; Antonioeventually humbles himself. These two villains are mirrored in a kind ofcomic relief by Trinculo and Stephano, who are also led to repentance. Since The Tempest is considered Shakespeare’sfinal great play, many critics have suggested that Prospero representsShakespeare 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 farewellto the theater before retiring to his Stratford home. The entire allegoricalplot, beginning with an oceangoing peril and subsequently spanning thebreadth of human emotions, ending in a scene of serenity and joy, may indeedreflect and symbolize the writer’s reflections on his life. At any rate, the play stands as one ofShakespeare’s greatest works, possessing a strange, undefinable, compositequality that sets it apart from all others.