The Tempest is a play by William Shakespeare. It is believed to have been written between 1610 and 1611 and is generally considered to be the last play that Shakespeare wrote. It was first published in book form in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, in the First Folio, the first collection of the complete works of Shakespeare. The play is classified as a comedy because it has a happy ending in which two characters are about to get married and wrong done in the past is righted. Fantasy also forms an important element of the play, the existence of magic and magical beings is essential to the plot.
The action takes place on an island which was formerly the home of Sycorax the witch. After the death of Sycorax, Prospero and his three year old daughter Miranda arrived there. Prospero had been the Duke of Milan and had spent most of his time while duke studying magic. Prospero's brother Antonio, with help from King Alonso of Naples, overthrew Prospero. He and Miranda were placed in a boat, the kindly courtier Gonzalo made sure that they had food, water and clothes and that Prospero could take his magical books. When he arrived on the island, Prospero released the spirit Ariel, who had been magically trapped inside a tree by Sycorax, and found Sycorax's son Caliban, described as being ugly and deformed. Prospero made both Caliban and Ariel his slaves.
At the beginning of the play, Prospero and Miranda have been living on the island for twelve years. A ship carrying Prospero's brother Antonio, King Alonso and his son Ferdinand and other courtiers is due to pass near to the island. Prospero uses his magic to cause a storm, the tempest of the title, which brings his enemies to his island.
Unlike most of Shakespeare's plays, The Tempest has no single fictional source. It is likely that Shakespeare drew on non-fiction accounts of genuine shipwrecks and descriptions of the Americas, even though the island in the play is in the Mediterranean. There are also similarities between the characters in the play and stock characters in Italian commedia dell' arte.
King Alonso of Naples is returning home from his daughter's wedding in Tunis. The ship in which he is traveling, along with his son Ferdinand, his broher Sebastian, Duke Antonio of Milan and other courtiers, is caught in a violent storm and is broken in two.
On the nearby island, Miranda watches the shipwreck and is worried about the people on board. Her father Prospero tells her that nobody will be harmed in the storm which he has magically caused. He goes on to explain that he is the rightful Duke of Milan and that his brother Antonio, with help from King Alonso, robbed him of his dukedom. After twelve years of exile on the island, Prospero finally has the opportunity to settle the score with his enemies.
Prospero summons his slave, the spirit Ariel. He tells Ariel to make himself invisible to everyone except for Prospero himself and adds that, if everything goes according to plan, Ariel will soon be released from his service.
Caliban, Prospero's other slave, is summoned. Caliban complains that he was once ruler of the entire island and that he is now being mistreared by Prospero, who was once kind to him. Prospero says that he made Caliban his slave because of the ingratitude that he showed after he attempted to befriend and educate him and because Caliban attempted to rape Miranda. Caliban says that the only good he got from Prospero's education was learning how to swear. He is then sent off to gather firewood.
All of the people on board the ship have survived but, through magic, have been scattered around the island. King Alonso's son Ferdinand is alone and thinks that he is the only survivor of the shipwreck. The invisible Ariel, singing a taunting song about a drowned father, leads Ferdinand to Miranda and Prospero. Miranda and Ferdinand immediately fall in love with each other at first sight, which was exactly what Prospero intended. Miranda is then extremely upset when Prospero declares that Ferdinand is now his prisoner.
Elsewhere on the island, King Alonso believes that his son Ferdinand has drowned. The kindly courtier Gonzalo tries to comfort him but the king's brother Sebastian says that King Alonso was advised not to travel to Tunis and is ultimately responsible for their misfortune by making the journey. The invisible Ariel uses magic to put everyone to sleep, except for Sebastian and Duke Antonio of Milan. Antonio tells Sebastian to kill Alonso so that he can become the next King of Naples. Sebastian agrees but, as they draw their swords, Ariel makes King Alonso wake up again. Antonio and Sebastian assure the king that they were trying to protect him from a wild animal which they heard.
A clap of thunder sounds, just as Caliban finishes chopping firewood. Trinculo, King Alonso's jester, arrives looking for somewhere to shelter from the coming storm. Caliban assumes that Trinculo is a spirit sent by Prospero to spy on him and, hoping that the spirit will not notice him, lies down on the ground. Trinculo sees Caliban and comments that if he were in England he could charge people to see Caliban as a freak of nature. As the storm gets closer, Trinculo decides that the only place to take shelter is under Caliban's cloak.
Stephano the butler arrives. He has come to the island on a barrel of wine and, after having swallowed most of the barrel's contents, he is now very drunk. He sees Caliban and Trinculo lying together and mistakes them for a monster with two heads and four legs. In order to appease the monster, he gives Caliban some of the little wine that he has left. Caliban cries out, still thinking that Stephano and Trinculo are spirits sent to torment him. Trinculo gets up and he and Stephano are delighted to be reunited with each other. Caliban, who has never tasted alcohol before, has become drunk from the little wine that Stephano has given him and declares that from now on he will be Stephano's slave. Stephano gladly accepts his offer.
As Prospero's prisoner, Ferdinand is forced to do physical labor. He comforts himself with the thought that Miranda feels sorry for him. Prospero and Miranda enter but Prospero steps aside to leave Miranda and Ferdinand alone. Miranda offers to take the logs which Ferdinand has been ordered to carry but Ferdinand will not allow her to do so. The two declare their love for each other and say that they want to get married as soon as possible. Prospero is pleased to hear this.
Caliban tells Stephano that together they should kill Prospero and take possession of his magic books and Miranda. Stephano likes the idea of making Miranda his wife and becoming ruler of the island but Ariel overhears their plans and warns Prospero.
King Alonso and his courtiers are searching the island for Ferdinand. Magical creatures suddenly appear carrying food which the hungry men run towards. Ariel makes himself visible to them in an ugly form. He tells the men that they are being punished for their sinful lives and that the torment will continue until they change their ways. The magical creatures reappear with the food but King Alonso tells the men to continue to search for Ferdinand.
Prospero has agreed to the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand and arranges for spirits to put on an entertainment for them, in which some spirits take on the forms of the goddesses Iris, Ceres and Juno. The entertainment comes to an abrupt end and the spirits all disappear when a noise is heard outside. The noise is made by Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, all drunk and preparing to kill Prospero.
Ariel is ordered to fetch all of Prospero's possessions, because Prospero knows that Stephano and Trinculo will be distracted by them. Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo enter and, against Caliban's pleadings, Stephano and Trinculo try on Prospero's fine clothes. They are then chased away by spirits which Prospero has made take on the form of viscious dogs.
Prospero tells Ariel that all of his enemies are now at his mercy and he will soon be able to leave the island.
It has been three days since the storm that brought King Alonso and his men to the island. Ariel tells Prospero that Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio have gone mad and that Gonzalo is extremely distressed. Prospero decides to show his enemies the mercy that they did not show him twelve years earlier. He tells Ariel to bring the men to him, he will restore their sanity and then renounce magic forever.
Prospero breaks the spell that the men are under and tells Ariel that he is now free. Prospero identifies himself to King Alonso and his men. King Alonso regrets his mistreatment of Prospero, he is reunited with Ferdinand and the two fathers are reconciled over the upcoming marriage of their children. Against Sebastian and Antonio's wishes, Prospero is made Duke of Milan once more. Prospero forgives Antonio but the two brothers are not fully reconciled.
Some crewmen enter with the amazing news that their ship has been magically restored and it is ready to set sail.
Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, all still drunk, are brought before Prospero by Ariel. Caliban says that he regrets choosing the foolish Stephano as his master. Prospero tells Caliban that he will soon be master of the whole island again.
Ariel's final task for Prospero is to ensure that there is good sailing weather to safely guide the ship back to Italy.
- Text of William Shakespeare's The Tempest on Wikisource.
- Quotations form The Tempest on Wikiquote.
- Free public domain audiobook of The Tempest from LibriVox.
- The Tempest on the SparkNotes website.
- The Tempest Key Stage 3 study guide from BBC Bitesize.
- Video of the 1908 silent movie The Tempest on Wikimedia Commons.