Depending on who you ask, The Tempest is either Shakespeare’s final play, one of Shakespeare’s final plays, or Shakespeare’s final solo effort (he worked on several plays, late in his career, as collaborations with other writers).
The Tempest tells the story of Prospero who, like Shakespeare, is an older man with enormous creative powers approaching the end of his career. Prospero is presented with an opportunity to confront those who wronged him in the past, and restore himself and his daughter to their former positions of privilege and authority–but in doing so he must abandon his sorcery and the world he has created for himself on a mysterious island, far away from the civilized world.
Key Aspects of The Tempest
The Tempest is classified as one of Shakespeare’s romances–meaning that it is more serious and dramatic in tone than his comedy, but lacks the unhappy ending of a Shakespearean tragedy.
The entire play is set on a remote island, removed from civilization. The first scene is set on a ship near the coast of this island.
Point of view
The Tempest is a play, and therefore does not employ first person or third person point of view. We learn about the characters and the plot by reading the dialogue between the different characters.
The Tempest centers upon the character of Prospero, and his attempt to right the wrongs that have been committed against him in the past and to restore himself and his daughter Miranda to their rightful legal status among the Italian aristocracy.
Prospero is the central character of the play. The roles of the other characters in the narrative are largely defined by their relationship to Prospero. For example, Antonio and Alonso are forced to confront the sins they have previously committed against Prospero, and Prospero’s servants Ariel and Caliban aspire to emancipate themselves from life under Prospero’s rule.
Nature vs. Civilization: The island represents the natural world, removed from the influence of civilization. Nature is presented here as something base and animal that is best tamed by the civilized world.
Colonialism: The Tempest was written in the early 16th century, when European Colonization of the New World was just beginning. Many scholars see The Tempest as a reflection of this historical reality. The European characters in the play clearly regard the “primitive” island (and it’s sole native inhabitant) as theirs to conquer and exploit as they please. This attitude is often problematic to modern audiences.
Legitimacy of Power: Who is the “rightful” Duke of Milan, the “rightful” King of Naples, or the “rightful” owner of the island? Which characters are “rightfully” subordinate (or even enslaved to) other characters? What rules determine legitimacy of power in the world of The Tempest? These are questions the character’s wrestle with throughout the narrative, not always coming to clear conclusions. It does appear that, in this world, one’s place in the social hierarchy has more to do with race, ethnicity, birth, and social class than it does with character and capability.
Vengeance and Forgiveness: Prospero is on a quest to avenge the wrongs done to him in the past, most notably those committed by Alonso and Antonio. He spends the bulk of the play tormenting his transgressors psychologically (i.e. forcing them to endure a shipwreck, terrorizing them with his spirits, leading Alonso to believe his son is dead, etc.) only to ultimately forgive them. This theme of vengeance and forgiveness reoccurs within subplots, most notably in Caliban’s plot to seek vengeance against Prospero, whom he ultimately forgives.
The Storm: The titular tempest that opens the play symbolizes Prospero’s anger, chaos, and the disruption of the social order.
The Island: The island represents a place completely isolated from the civilized world and beyond the authority of anyone other than Prospero. On the island, Prospero is able to create a world that is completely within his control. The island also represents the New World as seen by European colonizers.
Prospero’s Books: Prospero’s books are the source of his magical powers. This interest in magic gets him into a lot of trouble in Milan, but enables him to rule with absolute power on the island. At the close of the play, Prospero disposes of the books, signaling his intention to give up the practice of sorcery and his willingness to give up the power he has had on the island.
The Chess Board: The game played by Ferdinand and Miranda symbolizes cunning, strategy, and attempts to gain control by “capturing kings.” The fact that these two characters are the ones engaged in this game implies that they may not be as artless as they appear to be.
In the climactic scene of The Tempest, Ariel, in the form of a harpy, confronts the principle antagonists Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso.
The Tempest is divided into five acts. Each act contains between one and three scenes.