From the angle of the Elizabethan playwright, there was no money to be made from publishing the fruits of your labours. The profit lay in selling your manuscript to a theatre company in a one-off deal, and then getting back to work on your next project.
For the theatre companies in turn, publishing the script was self-defeating. Doing so would only result in fewer punters at the gate and a smaller take. To make money, theatre companies wanted audiences, not readers.
This is not to say that Shakespeare’s plays weren’t published in his lifetime. Around a half of them were – mainly in rough and ready versions of the original. These were versions pirated during performances and produced under the radar in the days before copyright. Shakespeare himself saw no profit from these.
The plays we have today weren’t actually published until seven years after Shakespeare’s death, when the First Folio appeared. Without the hard work and drive of two actors from his old theatre company, determined to collect the plays before they were forgotten, around half of his plays would have been lost: among them, “Macbeth” and “The Tempest”.
One of the questions these two actors – John Heminges and Henry Condell – had to face was what order to give the plays in the single volume they envisaged. They decided to put “The Tempest” first, and for this reason for many years, Shakespeare scholars believed this play was the first to flow from Shakespeare’s quill.
In fact it was the last. True, there were later collaborations, but it seems to have been written in 1611, as the author was contemplating a return to the town of his childhood and his wife and daughters. Readers may sense authorial thoughts of home and retirement anticipated in some of the decisions Prospero makes in the course of the play.
Scene by Scene
ACT ONE SCENE ONE
A storm at sea poses a mortal threat to the aristocratic party on board the failing ship.
ACT ONE SCENE TWO
On the island, Prospero explains to his daughter the background to the storm.
The tempest will bring his old enemies, who once usurped his throne, into his power.
Among them will be his brother, Miranda’s uncle, Antonio, who took his throne twelve years ago.
Prospero was keen then to study magic, so he “cast upon my brother” the management of the state.
But Antonio conspired with Prospero’s old enemy the King of Naples to expel them from Milan.
They were cast adrift on the sea armed only with provisions charitably donated by Gonzalo.
Now these various characters are on the island, and the chance to challenge them has come.
The spirit Ariel confirms for Prospero that the storm has brought the boat safely to land.
Moreover, those on board have been split up, with Ferdinand the King’s son “by himself”.
The rest of the fleet is sailing home having witnessed (they imagine) the King’s ship wrecked.
Ariel has done his duty and will be rewarded by Prospero with his freedom in due course.
Prospero exchanges insults with Caliban, who believes the island is his, not Prospero’s.
Caliban recalls how at first he and Prospero co-operated each other and learned from one another.
Even Miranda, normally placid and sympathetic, regrets having helped Caliban in the past.
Ferdinand meets Miranda, and love begins to bloom between the two young people.
Prospero accuses Ferdinand of visiting the island “as a spy” but Miranda speaks up for him.
Ferdinand’s increasing attraction to Miranda pleases Prospero: “It works”, he says enigmatically.
ACT TWO SCENE TWO
Elsewhere on the island, Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio and Gonzalo have all landed safely.
Gonzalo, an old courtier of Alonso, notices there is something magical about the island.
He observes that their clothes, “drenched in the sea”, appear to be newer than before.
Despite Gonzalo’s optimism and good nature, Antonio and Sebastian ridicule and disrespect him.
Alonso, returning from his daughter’s wedding, is heartbroken at his son’s apparent death.
Gonzalo is excited about his clothing, but Alonso rebukes him and laments the loss of his son.
Sebastian blames Alonso for the ship wreck, though Gonzalo suggests he be more tactful.
Gonzalo proceeds to imagine a perfect society without violence but supported by nature.
Ariel arrives, to put everyone to sleep except Antonio and Sebastian, who will guard Alonso.
Antonio persuades Sebastian to follow his own example and usurp his brother’s throne.
As Sebastian is about to murder his brother, Ariel rouses the whole party from their sleep.
The two assassins, pressed to explain why they’re armed, claim that they heard lions nearby.
ACT TWO SCENE TWO
Caliban, grumbling about Prospero, spots one of the shipwrecked party, and dives for cover.
Trinculo, Alonso’s court jester, discovers Caliban, and joins him to hide from the storm.
Stephano, equipped with wine rescued from the shipwreck, discovers both Trinculo and Caliban.
Stephano promises his old acquaintance Trinculo that he has more wine hidden in his cave.
Caliban, new to alcohol, believes Stephano a god and pledges to follow him rather than Prospero.
Stephano appoints himself king of the island, to be served by Caliban as he once served Prospero.
Caliban volunteers to show them the island and to serve them as he once served Prospero.
ACT THREE SCENE TWO
Ferdinand has been charged by Prospero with moving a large pile of logs – normally Caliban’s job.
But Miranda reveals that her father is studying, and unlikely to reappear “for these three hours”.
Prospero, watching unseen, sees Miranda’s growing attraction and concludes “thou art infected”.
Ferdinand reveals that he is now King of Naples, and would happily make her his queen.
Miranda weeps for joy and agrees “I am your wife if you will marry me”.
Prospero observes their growing romance from a distance, pleasantly surprised at their love.
ACT THREE SCENE TWO
In his campaign to escape Prospero, Caliban will serve Stephano as his master, not Trinculo.
Stephano takes his responsibilities seriously, and rebukes Trinculo for abusing Caliban.
As Caliban explains his resentment towards Prospero, Ariel, invisible, disrupts their conversation.
Caliban encourages them to support his plot to kill Prospero and to take his “nonpareil” daughter.
Stephano agrees to the plan, leaving Ariel to conclude “This will I tell my master”.
Caliban affirms that the island is a magical place, as Ariel’s music draws them towards Prospero.
ACT THREE SCENE THREE
Alonso’s party are weary, though Antonio and Sebastian remain committed to their murder plot.
Suddenly accompanied by music a banquet appears magically, overseen by the invisible Prospero.
Confused but excited by what they are seeing, the royal party are cautious about eating.
The banquet abruptly disappears, leaving Ariel to say their past misdeeds have caught up with them.
Sebastian and Antonio react aggressively but Gonzalo senses that things are not as they seem.
Alonso, grieves for his son and leaves, planning to join him, pursued by Sebastian and Antonio.
ACT FOUR SCENE ONE
Prospero accepts that Ferdinand will marry Miranda, but requires that he respect her.
To mark their union, Prospero creates a ‘masque’ or dance in which fertility is celebrated.
Iris, Ceres and Juno celebrate the forthcoming nuptials of the young couple in song and dance.
Prospero reflects on the transience of human life in a speech laced with theatrical images.
Ariel reports his music is bringing Caliban’s troop to Prospero by the most painful route.
Stephano and Trinculo, heading to murder Prospero, are distracted by a pile of new clothes.
Caliban enjoins them to keep focused on the task – the clothes are nothing but “trash”.
Prospero contemptuously sets the dogs on them and conjures other punishments for them.
ACT FIVE SCENE ONE
Ariel reports to Prospero that Alonso’s party remain trapped by grief and bewilderment.
He adds that if Prospero could see them, his own heart would melt in sympathy for the King.
While Ariel hurries to bring them, Prospero resolves to abandon magic once his task is complete.
Prospero thanks Gonzalo for once helping him, but he reprimands Alonso for his past cruelty.
Both Antonio and Sebastian are also rebuked while Gonzalo looks on bewildered at events.
Alonso laments he has lost his son in the tempest, and Prospero offers him sympathy.
He is reconciled to Alonso but threatens Antonio and Sebastian with revealing what he knows.
He teases Alonso by saying that, just as he has lost a son, so has Prospero himself lost a daughter.
He then presents Alonso and Miranda playing chess together, to Alonso’s amazement.
Gonzalo reflects that the trip to witness the wedding in Tunis brings an even happier event.
The boatswain arrives to reveal that their “royal, good and gallant ship” is once again seaworthy.
Prospero releases the spirit Ariel, and hands over Stephano and Trinculo for punishment.
Caliban accepts he was a fool to believe in Stephano and Trinculo, and will seek for grace in future.
Prospero promises calm seas on the return to Italy, and alone with the audience abandons magic.
Like the majority of Shakespeare’s plays, “The Tempest” relies on dramatic irony for many of its effects. From the first act, the audience knows that Prospero has caused the tempest and will govern what happens next, down to the last detail. So when Stephano and Trinculo dream of taking over the island, or when Sebastian and Antonio conspire to usurp Alonso’s throne, the audience recognises that none of this will happen without Prospero’s consent.
The play opens with a storm (as do “Twelfth Night” and “Pericles”) in which the superstition that a man will die at sea if he has “a drowning mark” on him is aired. Gonzalo, one of the unsung heroes of the play, concludes that the boatswain is destined to die on the gallows, so is likely to survive (along with his passengers) the present storm.
In 1.1. Shakespeare seems to reveal some understanding and experience of seamanship, if his use of nautical jargon is any guide: “Down with the topmast! yare! lower, lower! Bring her to try with main-course” and so forth. In this context it is worth remembering that much of Shakespeare’s working life was spent by the Thames, the location for many (though not all) of London’s theatres.
Miranda’s first words to her father (“If by your art, my dearest father, you have / Put the wild waters in this roar ….”) indicate how well she knows him. But how well is that? One of the main functions of 1.2 is to provide the audience with the backstory on which the next four acts depend. In the process it emerges that Miranda has never before thought to enquire – among other things – where her mother is, where the family comes from, how they have ended up on this island and so forth.
Prospero has two tasks: to tell Miranda about her background and to bring Alonso’s party safely to the island through the storm. Some may feel he has accomplished these in the wrong order. It seems improbable that he has never yet appraised her of this important back story – though others might argue the real audience for this recapitulation is not Miranda but those seated in the theatre.
Aided by Alonso the King of Naples, Antonio – Prospero’s younger brother – seized the throne of Milan. Now Antonio is ready to help Sebastian follow his example, and usurp his older brother. Not for the first time in Shakespeare’s plays, a younger brother has broken the rules of primogeniture: Edmund for Edgar in “King Lear”, Richard of Gloucester for various older siblings in “Richard III”, Duke Frederick for Duke Senior in “As You Like It”. Shakespeare himself was the oldest of four brothers.
Prospero evidently puts some faith in superstition since he believes that “by my prescience / I find my zenith doth depend upon / A most auspicious star, whose influence / If now I court not but omit, my fortunes / Will ever after droop.” Does he court this star? Certainly his fortunes seem buoyant in this play at least.
The “foul witch Sycorax” is presented in the play as the agent of bad magic – as Prospero is the agent of good. Ariel is at the centre of this contrast. This is quite specific: Ariel’s entrapment in the cloven pine “was a torment / … which Sycorax / Could not again undo: it was mine art, / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / The pine and let thee out.” Witches were not popular in official circles at this time: James I had written extensively against them (for example in his book “Daemonologie”, 1597), and Shakespeare had form of his own on this subject as the author of “Macbeth”.
Prospero’s first remarks to Caliban are laced with contempt: “thou earth,” for example, “thou tortoise” and “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam”. Prospero repeatedly refers to Caliban as a slave, and in this he is at least accurate. His scorn is not of course limited to Caliban: when Miranda pleads for mercy for Ferdinand, Prospero denounces her as “my foot”.
Relationships between fathers and daughters in Shakespeare rarely run smoothly. There are too many examples to mention of daughters defying or outwitting their fathers. By comparison with (for example) Juliet (Capulet), Desdemona (Brabantio) or Jessica (Shylock), Miranda is positively saintly. Relationships between mothers and sons, on the other hand – Hamlet and Gertrude, Coriolanus and Volumnia – are quite unusual. “The Tempest” features a kind of mother / son combination in Sycorax and Caliban – though Sycorax is of course dead.
Ariel’s song, sung for Ferdinand’s benefit alone – “Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made …” – seems somewhat insensitive in the circumstances. Nonetheless, the prevalence of songs in Shakespeare’s plays serves as a reminder that musical theatre is not a new form of entertainment. Dance is also a feature of “The Tempest”, as the masque in 4.1 suggests.
Ferdinand is quite quick off the mark when he meets Miranda for the first time: “O, if a virgin, / And your affection not gone forth, I’ll make you / The queen of Naples” he tells her. Happily his impetuous approach to romance is shared by Miranda herself. Nonetheless it is a striking feature of Shakespeare’s plays how often a female’s sexual history and status become features of public discourse. Laertes’s conversation with his sister Ophelia in “Hamlet” seems equally inappropriate to modern eyes.
The nobles’ contempt for Gonzalo is highlighted as soon as they land on the island, whereupon his optimism is contrasted with their cynicism. Later, when Prospero’s role in proceedings is revealed, he greets Gonzalo with affection and respect; Sebastian and Antonio are allowed to feel less welcome. Gonzalo’s aversion to guns and other weaponry seems especially prescient today.
Gonzalo and Adrian are quick to spot the virtues of the isle. Gonzalo also notices that his clothes are refreshed by their encounter with the sea – “our garments, being … drenched in the sea, hold notwithstanding their freshness and glosses, being rather new-dyed than stained with salt water.” This echoes a promise made by Ariel in 1.2 that the visitors would suffer “Not a hair perish’d; / On their sustaining garments not a blemish, / But fresher than before.” Gonzalo noticed, so Ariel’s efforts are not in vain.
Sebastian observes that sleep “seldom visits sorrow,” though he adds that “when it doth, / It is a comforter.” Shakespeare has a great deal to say about sleep – Macbeth for instance believes that with the killing of the king he has “murdered” sleep, and his wife has a troubled relationship with repose – so here the playwright returns to a familiar theme.
Does Prospero intend, when he diverts the boats, wrecks them and brings the travellers to the isle, that Antonio (his usurping younger brother) will tempt Sebastian to do to Alonso what was done to him? The answer appears to be that he does, since as Ariel observes “My master through his art foresees the danger / That you, his friend, are in; and sends me forth— / For else his project dies—to keep them living.” It’s Alonso who is being protected here, illustrating the extent of Prospero’s control over events. Alonso is described by Prospero, incidentally, as “an enemy to me inveterate”, which illustrates the depth of his forgiveness and reconciliation in Act Five. Naples, Alonso’s city-state, was the largest city in the world in the sixteenth century. London was among the five largest.
There is a pervasive use of dramatic irony throughout the play – for example when Sebastian reminds Antonio that he once usurped his brother’s throne, eliciting the reply “And look how well my garments sit upon me; / Much feater than before ….” The audience knows that a reckoning is at hand – his garments will prove most unfit very soon.
Both Trinculo the jester and Stephano the butler have the same instinctive reaction to Caliban when they first encounter him – to make money out of him. More generally, in so far as the play is an allegory for imperialism – in other words, the play anticipates the colonisation of territory overseas by European powers – it explores among many other features the insight that alcohol will prove in some cases destructive to subject peoples. If the audience feels any sympathy for Caliban, they will fear for him here.
When Caliban believes that Stephano and Trinculo will come to his aid, he prepares to repeat the mistake he made with Prospero: “I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’ th’ island” he tells Stephano, “and I will kiss thy foot: I prithee, be my god.” More reassuringly, at the play’s end, when reconciliation and redemption are the central themes, Caliban announces he will exercise greater caution in future, and “be wise hereafter”.
In 3.1, while Ferdinand flirts with Miranda, Prospero watches them and the audience watches him. All this passes her by: “My father” she tells Ferdinand, “Is hard at study; pray now, rest yourself; / He’s safe for these three hours.” Dramatic irony is again pervasive, giving the audience a privileged insight into the events being described. It’s a technique Shakespeare makes the most extensive use of throughout his work.
Prospero uses a metaphor drawn from illness – “infected” – to describe Miranda’s developing love for Ferdinand. Later he suggests that not everything is wholly under his control as he describes himself as “surprised” at the speed with which Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love. Many critics see Prospero’s role as analogous to that of the author, the writer – controlling events but also managing them. Yet there are times when characters take on a life of their own, and Prospero has to be quick to make sure things stay under control here.
There are several pairs of males in this play: Stephano and Trinculo, Antonio and Sebastian, Ariel and Caliban, and even Gonzalo and Alonso. Above everything and everyone stands Prospero and – centrally – Ferdinand and Miranda. Shakespeare’s plays are male-dominated not only because they reflect society but also because female actors were barred from the stage until two generations after Shakespeare’s death. Female parts were played by boy actors, implying that the part of Miranda was played by a young man.
In 3.3 a bewildered discourse emerges about the exotic features to be found on the island. Gonzalo generalises: “When we were boys,” he recalls, “Who would believe that there were mountaineers / Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em / Wallets of flesh? or that there were such men / Whose heads stood in their breasts?” A similar sense of the dangers and exoticism of overseas underwrites aspects of the first act of “Othello”. It is worth remembering that Shakespeare was writing during an age of adventure and exploration – for example the first English circumnavigation of the planet (Sir Francis Drake in the Golden Hind) was completed while Shakespeare was a young man.
In revealing in 3.3 the connection between the treacherous plot against Propsero some dozen years previously and the shipwreck on this island, Ariel specifically connects the particular punishment Alonso suffers, the loss of his son, with the plotters’ negligence towards Miranda: “you three / From Milan did supplant good Prospero; / [and] Exposed unto the sea … / Him and his innocent child,” recalls Ariel, “for which foul deed / The powers, delaying, not forgetting, have / Incensed the seas and shores … / Against your peace. Thee of thy son, Alonso, / They have bereft …”. The parallel or punishment revolves around parenting, Ariel implies: Miranda was saved, Ferdinand is lost, honours are even.
The masque in 4.1 – Iris, Ceres and Juno – is to celebrate the union of Ferdinand and Miranda. Its effect is to bless the union and hope for issue: “Honour, riches, marriage-blessing, / Long continuance, and increasing, / Hourly joys be still upon you! / Juno sings her blessings upon you.” The masque is also a reminder that Shakespeare regarded theatre as performance, and strove to satisfy a taste for song and dance in many of his plays.
Prospero’s speech beginning “Our revels now are ended” in 4.1 plays on an extended metaphor of the stage (revels, actors, globe, pageant, rack), thus underlining the self-referential theatricality of the play more generally (magic = fiction, magician = author, island = theatre and so forth). The metaphor can be extended significantly further by reference to Prospero’s speech at the close of the play. Later Gonzalo sums up the theatre in general, perhaps, and in both senses the globe in particular – when he says of the isle, “All torment, trouble, wonder and amazement / Inhabits here.”
A curious use of the formal second person pronoun appears in Prospero’s address to Ferdinand in 4.1: “You do look, my son, in a moved sort, / As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.” Is the formal “you” form used (rather than the more intimate “thou”) purely because of Ferdinand’s status as a prince? One might rather expect that Prospero would address the younger man – his putative son-in-law – as “thou”. Meanwhile, almost immediately Ariel uses the informal pronoun in speaking to Prospero (“Thy thoughts I cleave to. What’s thy pleasure?”) before reverting to the more formal style: “I told you, sir, they were red-hot with drinking ….” In general Prospero would be addressed as “you”.
Stephano and Trinculo are set up by the incident involving the glittering clothes for the amusement and derision of the audience, much as Malvolio (“Twelfth Night”) and Cloten (“Cymbeline”) before them. Caliban meanwhile emerges from this scene with plenty of credit: “Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash,” he correctly tells Trinculo, a reminder that though he can at times be credulous, Caliban can also be discerning and insightful. It is worth bearing in mind that in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, strict dress codes prevailed, equating clothing with status. These codes were known as Sumptuary Laws, so the implication is that in helping themselves to the clothes, Stephano and Trinculo will be dressed (as Macbeth puts it) in borrowed robes.
Shakespeare’s preoccupation in his late plays is well summarised by Prospero in act five – “the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent, / The sole drift of my purpose doth extend / Not a frown further”. It isn’t clear that they’re all penitent but forgiveness and reconciliation matter most. “The Tempest” was Shakespeare’s last play.
His magic gives him control of events, but not complete control: he is surprised, for example, at how quickly love blossoms between Ferdinand and Miranda. Bear in mind too that he once gave away control while Duke of Milan, and lived to regret it. In other respects, he is domineering towards others (Miranda for example and Caliban) but also generous and forgiving.
He craves to be free and has an agreement with Prospero to that end. He is obedient and meticulous in carrying out his duties, and high-spirited in toying with Stephano and Trinculo.
At times he is credulous, for example believing that Stephano is a god and relying on him in his desperation to liberate him from Prospero. At other times he is adult and insightful, disdaining the glimmering garments that distract his fellow conspirators. His attitude to Miranda is unreconstructed at best, but in other ways he is a co-operative if resentful companion.
Her first thoughts are for those who have suffered in the tempest, and this instinctive sympathy then attaches itself to Ferdinand, becoming love. In the scenes which describe her growing attraction to Ferdinand she emerges as impetuous and lacking caution, like Ferdinand himself.
The King of Milan is consumed with grief at the apparent loss of his son, particularly acute because he also feels he has “lost” his daughter following her marriage in Tunis. Alonso’s duplicitous role in Prospero’s loss of his dukedom is generously forgiven at the close.
Prospero’s brother who, many years ago, was trusted by his brother to govern Milan and proved unworthy of this trust. He remains a cunning and conspiratorial figure in the present, in particular encouraging Sebastian to kill his own brother Alonso to seize the crown of Naples.
Alonso’s younger brother, pliable, easily persuaded to murder his own brother as Alonso sleeps, yet at the same time ponderous and slow to understand what Antonio is suggesting. It remains unclear at the play’s end that he has learned any lessons or felt any remorse.
The courtier who once, many years ago ensured that Prospero and his infant daughter had provisions and books as they put out to sea from Milan. Now he is the first to appreciate the magical quality of the isle, the first to speak positively and optimistically about it, and the first to be embraced by the forgiving Prospero. There are many angry old men in Shakespeare as in life but Gonzalo is not one.
His delusion that he may become lord of the isle and marry Miranda is among the play’s more comical moments. Armed with the wine he rescued from the boat, he opportunistically assumes an authority which events will inevitably undermine.
His first instinct when he encounters Caliban is to calculate whether there is money to be made out of him. Thereafter he gormlessly shares the delusions of his associate Stephano. Clowns and jesters in Shakespeare are often given weighty insights to declaim. Not Trinculo.
- Why in the opening scene is Gonzalo confident the boat will not sink?
- What is the only item we know to have been rescued from the ship?
- What does Prospero pledge to drown at the end of the play?
- How does Ariel distract Stephano and Trinculo as they head off to murder Prospero?
- In which country does Trinculo think he could make a living by exhibiting Caliban?
- Which animal other than lions do Sebastian and Antonio say made them draw their swords?
- Give the first line of the song Ferdinand hears in Act One as he reflects on his father’s death?
- When Prospero was expelled from Milan, who ensured he had provisions and books?
- What is Miranda’s only memory of the life she led in Milan?
- What, according to Caliban, is the island full of?
- Because its captain will die by hanging not drowning
- A barrel of wine
- His book of magic
- With a line of glittering clothes
- Full fathom five thy father lies
- Her four or five serving women
Shakespeare was writing at a time when European nation states were beginning to develop the means and the impulse to strike out and explore the world beyond the seas. Yet in his plays in general, Shakespeare tackles the subject of colonialism and empire-building remarkably little: “The Tempest” (his last complete play) is an exception. Though some critics resist the description, others see in this play an allegory for colonialism that followed the age of exploration to which Shakespeare belonged.
Others see the play as an allegory for fiction itself and more precisely the theatre. In Prospero’s magic powers they see the ability of the dramatist’s imagination to summon up (as Prospero himself suggests) the “cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, / The solemn temples” and indeed (with a wry smile on the author’s part at the double entendre, no doubt) “the great globe itself”. All destined to disappear, as Prospero says, and “Leave not a rack behind”. The island is here one moment, gone the next, faded from our imaginations as if it had never been.
Ironic, perhaps, that this most enduring of playwrights should have left behind such an inaccurate account of his own craft.