Theatre / The Tempest

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A scene — after one hard party enchantments

The Tempest is one of William Shakespeare's late "romances", not quite fitting into the categories of comedy or tragedy. The play centers around Prospero, a powerful sorcerer and the former Duke of Milan who was usurped by his brother, Antonio, and sent out to sea with just his books and his daughter, Miranda. Twelve years later, Prospero is ruling over a seemingly deserted island, with two of the island's only other beings at his command: Ariel, an air spirit (who's grateful to Prospero for rescuing him from being trapped in a tree, but would like to be freed from his service soon), and Caliban, the deformed son of a witch (who hates his master, and makes no secret of it).

When Antonio, along with a group that includes the King of Naples and his son, Ferdinand, sails by the island, Prospero has Ariel create a storm (the eponymous tempest) to shipwreck them onto the island, so that Prospero may have his revenge. The story ends happily, though, with Prospero forgiving those that wronged him, Ferdinand and Miranda falling in love and getting married, and Ariel getting his hard-earned freedom.

This play is considered one of Shakespeare's finest, even to this day. Gustave Doré illustrated the story. It inspired the science fiction classics Brave New World, Forbidden Planet and Prospero's Books, and The Decemberists song The Island, and the characters appear again in Prospero's Daughter and A Midsummer Tempest. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the Bard's final work (it may have been the last play Shakespeare wrote by himself, but even that is not certain). It's also one of the few plays in which Shakespeare appears to have come up with an original plot note .

There are roughly twenty-one filmed and televised versions of this play. Some play it straight, some update to modern times, one directed by Julie Taymor cast Helen Mirren as Prospera, and others such as Prospero's Books are massively wild re-interpretations.


This play provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Stephano and Trinculo.
  • And I Must Scream: Prior to being released by Prospero, Ariel was trapped inside a pine tree for some time by Sycorax. Granted, he could scream (which led to his release), but he couldn't do anything about it either.
  • Artistic License – Geography: Averted. Act I Scene 2 tells us that Prospero and Miranda were taken from Milan by "bark" (boat) "some leagues to the sea" where they were put aboard "a rotten carcass of a boat". While Milan does not have direct access to the ocean, Milan does have access to an extensive network of canals, one of which connects Milan to the Mediterranean Sea, through its Darsena harbour, via the Ticino river. The Grand Canal (Naviglio Grande) is still around today, and the Darsena harbour only stopped operating as a shipping port in 1979. A recent renovation has reopened this port for use as a shipping port and tourism destination.
  • As You Know: A lot of this in Prospero's first scenes with Ariel and Caliban, to explain the latter two's back stories.
  • The Atoner: Prospero has moments of this later in the play, and renounces sorcery at the end.
  • Attempted Rape: In the Back Story, Caliban tried this on Miranda and has never ceased reminding Prospero of it.
  • Author Avatar: Prospero, according to many critics. The Fourth Wall-breaking speech at the end certainly helps this idea, though it's hardly the first of Shakespeare's plays to end with a character directly soliciting the audience's approval. Some critics view Prospero's farewell to magic as Shakespeare's farewell to theater and writing, but this ignores the official timeline that Shakespeare wrote more plays after this.
  • Butt-Monkey:
    • Stephano and Trinculo, whilst having nothing to do with the usurping of Prospero, spend the entire play being ridiculed whilst flat-out drunk. Trinculo specifically in Act 3 Scene 2, when Stephano constantly beats him as punishment for what the invisible Ariel says.
    • Caliban too, but since he once attempted to rape Miranda, one can debate that he deserves it.
  • Cassandra Truth: Gonzalo is right about everything, but no one ever listens to him.
  • The Chessmaster: Prospero
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Prospero references this in his fourth-wall breaking speech at the end.
  • Daddy's Girl: Miranda.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Caliban, after Those Two Guys meet him.
  • Evil Prince: Antonio.
  • Expy: Prospero is often considered to have been inspired by John Dee, an adviser to Elizabeth I. Dee was a practicing occultist who was an early advocate of colonizing the New World — and, contemporary legend had it, he had saved England from the Spanish Armada by using his magic powers to... raise a tempest.
    • During his later years John Dee completely lost all courtly income when King James I—well known for his fear of witches, witchcraft, and the supernatural, including astrology—succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. John Dee was forced to sell most of his books and astrological paraphenalia to survive, a parallel to Prospero giving up his magic, and his books of magic, to return to Milan.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Miranda. She cries for the victims of the storm, and only calms down when her father assures her nobody was hurt. According to some versions of the play, she tried to teach Fish-Man and resident Enemy to All Living Things Caliban to read prior to the events of the play, but gave it up when he attempted to rape her.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Yes, confused readers: Ariel is male. Sometimes. See Viewer Gender Confusion. note 
  • Genre Savvy: Prospero — why else would the guy fake a Parental Marriage Veto while playing The Matchmaker?
  • Happiness in Slavery: Averted. Both Caliban and Ariel are Prospero's slaves, and both demand freedom, though they use different arguments. Ariel is eventually freed; Caliban's fate is left more ambiguous.
  • Harmless Villain: It's clear from the beginning that Caliban's takeover has no chance of succeeding.
  • Hidden Depths: Caliban is a despicable creature, who tried to rape Miranda and says he only values her teaching him to read because it opened up a whole new world of cursing and profanity for him...and then he gives a poetic, loving, beautiful description of the wilderness of the island, his only lines in rhymed verse.
  • If Jesus, Then Aliens: One of the men believes in unicorns after seeing Prospero's magic.
  • Irony : When Miranda comes in at the climax and sees Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio, she's overjoyed at there being more humans and exclaims "O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!"note  She's using these words to describe usurpers and men who would gladly turn upon their own brothers and rulers; if Antonio had had his way, she and her father would be long dead.
  • The Ingenue: Miranda.
  • Invisibility: One of Ariel's powers is invisibility. In fact, except for rare moments when he changes form, no one but Prospero can see him at all.
  • Island of Mystery: Prospero's island.
  • Jerkass: Antonio and Sebastian, and Prospero at times.
  • Karma Houdini: Antonio gets basically no comeuppance for his actions against Prospero. Prospero does torture them a bit through Ariel; whether this is enough is another question.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Shakespearean costuming was usually done with rich, well kept contemporary clothes regardless of the setting. This is why Prospero mentions how he was given rich linens before being exiled from Milan, and why the shipwrecked noblemen comment on how their clothes are bone dry despite having been sent through a storm.
  • Love at First Sight: Ferdinand and Miranda.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Miranda
  • Magic Wand: Prospero can "disarm thee with this stick, and make thy weapon drop." note 
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Brushed on — Prospero tells Miranda that her virtuous mother had told him she was his daughter.
  • The Matchmaker: Prospero
  • Meaningful Name: Prospero's name comes from the Latin word for "good fortune", which may or may not be ironic, depending on your point of view (he's unlucky to have been deposed, but lucky to be alive). Ariel means "Lion of God," appropriate here because he, being the one who unleashes the tempest, carries out the forceful will of Prospero, a godlike figure. Miranda's name means "to marvel", which is something she both does herself and inspires in others. Trinculo's name derives from a word for excessive drinking. Ferdinand means "brave journey". It's been suggested that "Caliban" is an almost anagram of "cannibal". note 
  • Missing Mom: Miranda's mother is mentioned once.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Subversion — Prospero only pretends to oppose Ferdinand and Miranda's relationship.
  • The Philosopher King: Slightly subverted, as, rather than making him a more effective ruler, Prospero's quest for knowledge ultimately distracts him from more worldly concerns, such as his brother trying to usurp him.
  • Plot Parallel
  • Rags to Royalty
  • Reverse Psychology: Prospero's fake Parental Marriage Veto
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Some Shakespeare scholars claim that the story of the Sea Venture, a ship bound for Jamestown in 1609, which was blown off course to Bermuda where it was wrecked and survivors established a new colony in Virginia, was the inspiration for this play. While eyewitness William Strachey did write an account of the shipwreck and subsequent colony founding in 1610, the letter was critical of the Virginia Company, the management of the colony, and was suppressed until the Company was dissolved in 1625, when it was published as A True Reportory. note . Since this story was published 9 years after Shakespeare's death, and was not available outside the Americas until then, it is unlikely Shakespeare used it as his inspiration for The Tempest. Stories of shipwrecks near Bermuda, an island surrounded by reefs, were common, so the story may well have been ripped from the headlines. One such account was of the San Pedro, a ship bound from Castaneda (a Spanish colony in the Caribbean) in 1596 for Spain, listed in contemporary Spanish documents in Madrid, Spain as "Lost In Bermuda". The wreck was discovered in 1951.
  • Secret Test of Character: Another reason for the above-mentioned Parental Marriage Veto.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Prospero summons the eponymous storm and performs his elaborate plot in a seeming effort to avenge his exile from dukedom. But the way his actions serve to teach his scheming brother, and the swiftness in which he agrees to Ariel's plea for mercy, suggest Prospero wasn't in this for revenge: he just wanted to go home with his daughter. (In the very last speech of the play he breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience to pray for him to be forgiven.)
    • Bear in mind that Prospero, as a member of the nobility, might not have needed forgiveness for exacting revenge on people who kicked him out of Italy. The sorcery, on the other hand, was very illegal and a major sin in Elizabethan England, and would have been a very good reason for Prospero to beg the audience to pray for his soul, in much the same way that Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream tells the audience that if all this magic has offended them, they should imagine they have just dreamed it all.
  • Shown Their Work: The commands shouted by the boatswain in the opening storm are exactly the actions a contemporary ship's crew would need to perform in their situation.
  • Spiritual Successor: To A Midsummer Night's Dream. Both plays feature a splintered cast of characters wandering around an enchanted wood where mythological spirits use illusion and magic to toy with humans, and both feature plentiful allusions between the artificiality of theater and the nature of love and humanity. But whereas Midsummer, written towards the start of Shakespeare's career, is about lovestruck passion, Tempest is a much more mature work about an aging patriarch using wisdom to temper the folly of youth, as well as his swan song as a solo artist. Together, they form a nice pair of book ends for his career.
  • Tender Tears: Miranda, on seeing the shipwreck.
  • Those Two Guys / Those Two Bad Guys:
    • Stephano and Trinculo.
    • Adrian and Francisco, in Alonso's party.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Sycorax, Caliban's mother and the witch who trapped Ariel in a pine tree long before the play's events, is described as "blue-eyed" as a euphemism for "pregnant." Reportedly, this expression refers to the eyelids of pregnant women turning bluish. Maybe an iron deficiency?
  • Visible Invisibility: Ariel and the other fairies are invisible to all characters save Prospero, but visible to the audience.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Reversed; the moment Prospero decides to back out of his revenge plan — a near-miss "My God, What Have I Done?"
    • Ariel does do this to Prospero if you assume Prospero is moved by Ariel's lines:

      ARIEL
      That if you now beheld them, your affections
      Would become tender.

      PROSPERO
      Dost thou think so, spirit?

      ARIEL
      Mine would, sir, were I human. Act V Scene 1

  • Win-Win Ending

Various productions and adaptations provide examples of:

  • Alternative Character Interpretation: In the play, Prospero makes the accusation that Caliban "didst seek to violate / The honour of my child". In a retelling by Brian Aldiss, Miranda and Caliban were in love with each other, and Prospero separated them against their will.invoked
  • Canon Welding: It's not done in the play itself, but many later writers have identified Sycorax with Circe.
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning: The 2012 London Olympics opening and closing ceremonies used Caliban's "Be not afraid" speech, but changed the context and the emphasis to give a different meaning.
  • Gender Flip: It's not uncommon for Ariel to be played by a female actor. Some productions have a female actor play Prospero. Though less common, some productions recast Trinculo as a woman because of the massive amount of Ho Yay between him/her and Stephano. Even characters such as Stephano, Sebastian and Antonio have switched genders on the odd occasion.
  • Hidden Depths: Robert Browning's poem Caliban Upon Setebos, basically Caliban musing on his deity with Darwinist undertones, is an excellent fanfiction on Caliban exploring such depths.
  • Outdoorsy Gal: Miranda is often interpreted as one (such as in the 2010 film), due to her being a Friend to All Living Things who's lived on an island most of her life.

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