Module A: Text Analysis - The Tempest

Table of Contents
SPOILERS!!! (duh)

So this turned out longer than I thought it would… there’s just so much to talk about with these texts. I hope you’re not using this the night before the exam (or the day of 😳). If you are doing last minute study though, I would highly recommend OSP’s “Shakespeare Summarised: The Tempest” before you keep reading. After that, feel free to jump around using the nav menu on the right (or above if you’re a mobile user) to figure out what you don’t already know.


The Tempest

In 1609 a fleet of nine ships left England carrying five hundred colonists with the goal of settling in Virginia but encountered trouble, and one ship - the Sea Venture - was driven onto the rocks of Bermuda the ‘Devil’s Islands’ and London mourned this loss for a year. However, in 1610 it was discovered that this ship had survived and eventually reached Virginia, after finding that Bermuda was plentiful and that they were able to survive there, but mutiny broke out and some survivors began to steal resources and it was after this that the group left for Virginia. It is argued that this event inspired Shakespeare to create a similar tale of ’loss and rediscovery, of the benevolence of nature, and of mutinies against an island’s leader’. (Gibson, R. (2004) The Tempest ‘Commentary and Notes’ Cambridge University Press: New Edition).

Attitudes and Values

The time that Shakespeare was writing in was full of attitudes and values which directed and influenced the themes of literature. Some common attitudes and values were: romance, prosperity, peace, conspiracies, colonisation, a decline in the significance of religion, science, technology and exploration, virginity, theatre, music, fine arts and entertainment such as Masques. These attitudes and values may have inspired or affected Shakespeare’s work. For example, The Tempest uses several themes taken from the attitudes and values of this time such as: romance, peace and colonisation.


The play is full of magic. The storm which disrupts the opening of the play is merely an enchantment and many of the characters are magical or illusions, for example Ariel and the spirits Juno, Ceres and Iris. Elizabethan England’s relationship with magic was complex; the distinction between magic and science was not always clear and many people believed in superstition, witches and magicians. Both the good and bad sides of magic are used within the play - it is presented as an effective way to express feelings and create positive events, and contrastingly, as a devious and shrewd technique to achieve selfish desires. Prospero’s magic is benign as he uses it to achieve success and solve his problems and the darker side of magic is shown through Sycorax, Caliban and the evil God Sebetos who use magic to cause pain. However, these magical powers, especially Prospero’s, are limited. For example, Prospero cannot force Miranda and Ferdinand to fall in love and he depends upon luck to assist him in his endeavours.

The Tempest as a Masque

Some critics believe that The Tempest is symbolic of the tradition Masque’s of the 16th century and that the play was performed to celebrate the marriage of King James the First’s daughter’s - Princess Elizabeth - marriage in 1612-1613, as the play was first performed around this time and contains similarities to these social events such as the wedding and the preceding Masque. Masque’s were elaborate events which were designed to appeal to an audience’s senses and to glorify the monarch and they symbolised a desire to return to the past through their its disregard of agrarian life.

The Tempest as a Romance

The Tempest can be viewed as a romance through its ending which involves a wedding and a reconciliation between two families. Romance is most obviously portrayed through Miranda and Ferdinand who experience love at first sight and are representative of the innocence of true love. It is argued that some of Shakespeare’s plays with the potential to become tragedies become romances because their tragic elements are resolved at the end of the play. Other elements of love are also explored by Shakespeare, for example Prospero’s fatherly love for Miranda, Alonso’s fatherly concern for Ferdinand, and the relationship between Ariel and Prospero.


The Tempest is concerned with the issue of colonisation. Shakespeare makes many comments about this subject throughout the play, the most obvious of which being the idea that western colonisation is foolish and irrational. For example, Prospero as the leader of the island takes control of the natives for his own purposes, such as Caliban and Ariel, but this is presented negatively through Shakespeare’s negative portrayal of Prospero as arrogant and manipulative.

Source 1

This belief of superiority was very usual in the European mind when the colonization was in vogue. During Shakespeare’s times and the writing of The Tempest, what we refer as “The First British Empire” was happening, in which most of the colonization of America and Africa and the slave trade occurred. Around the year 1611, the English were trying to establish themselves on different parts of America, which were slowly subduing to the British Empire. Even though The Tempest is considered a postcolonial play, it did happen in the middle of this colonial process and so Shakespeare could see first-hand what was going on and react to it. In 1607 the English colonization in America had started, so four years previous to the release of the play. In those first years, the colonization was concentrated on the territories of New England and Virginia, whose expeditions were carried by commercial companies. Virginia was the first territory to be colonized and it all happened, as we previously said, contemporaneously to Shakespeare’s writing of The Tempest. Maybe Sycorax’s island was a representation of Virginia and, as we said, Prospero and Caliban and Ariel represented the colonizers and the colonized respectively. We could say that The Tempest was mainly a reaction to all this facts that were taking place and Shakespeare decided to choose a position with his opinion.

There have been many theories about Shakespeare’s opinion shown through The Tempest. O’Toole has one of the most known theories about this topic in his work Shakespeare’s Natives: Ariel and Caliban in The Tempest in which he claims that in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s referring to colonization through his characters was a reaction to an essay made by a writer called Montaigne. In his essay, titled On Cannibals, the writer describes natives as cannibals and savages and argues that trying to tame them goes against Nature. Now, according to O’Toole, besides criticizing this belief, he also claims that colonization can benefit the colonized. Both of these opinions are shown through the characters of Ariel and Caliban. We do agree with these in the sense that Shakespeare, as member of the higher classes, believed that colonization could be necessary, but as a civilized man, he did agree that some of the colonization techniques had gone too far and could be rather negative for the colonized, who at the end of the day, where still human.

After the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, the interest for the New World grew. This discovery constitutes one of the most important events of universal history which represents the encounter of two different worlds which had developed independently since the origin of humanity. The Queen Elizabeth I settled the basis of what with time became the British Empire in which England played a very important role concerning the development of many of the colonies in the New World. Jamestown and Virginia were founded just few years ago of Shakespeare’s first publication of The Tempest, considered by some critics as the last of Shakespeare’s plays. And although the plot is totally original the story draws on historical facts of his time when wrecks, expeditions and sailings became more popular due to the fact of the growing interest for the Americas. Many authors took ideas in order to write from his own historical background. In addition, many islands were discovered during Shakespeare’s lifetime and visited by English explorers around 1607. In this case, the English colonial project seems to be on Shakespeare’s mind throughout the play taking into account characters and the main setting which is an unnamed remote island which Shakespeare describes evasively and contradictorily. Some Shakespearean scholars have agreed that the island is not in the Mediterranean Sea, but in the Americas since Bermuda Islands are named in the play.

Source 2

The Tempest was written and performed during an age of geographic exploration. During the 17th century European countries were exploring new territories around the world and establishing colonies. With each new colony European countries expanded their political, economic, and cultural influence.

The primary result of colonization for the natives in these newly “discovered” regions of the world, however, was exploitation and slavery. Families were divided or destroyed, ownership of land and a way of life were surrendered, and people were forced to serve new masters. Additionally the colonists often brought diseases that wiped out native populations and practices that altered the natural world forever. It is within this context of colonization that William Shakespeare explores the budding issues of exploitation that come when one culture dominates another. Prospero’s slave Caliban reflects how Europeans considered the natives they encountered in their explorations to be “savages” who must be “educated” and “civilized” in order to be saved.

Religion and Monarchy

At the time of the play’s creation, religion was still a major influence in everyday life. Religion was an intense and a powerful influence which dictated how society should conduct itself. It can be suggested that Prospero is a tool used by Shakespeare to criticise the controlling nature of religion. For example, Prospero dominates the island in which the play is set and its inhabitants, from the native Caliban to his daughter Miranda, and as the self-imposed ‘God’ of the island his initial shallow and revengeful portrayal may be a critique by Shakespeare to suggest that religion should not restrict society.

In the period William Shakespeare was writing, plays full of tragedy despite happy endings, English monarchy was immersed in a change of perspective. Tudor’s unconditional heir, Elizabeth I, had reigned from 1530 to 1603 having marked a long and successful period in which the Spanish Armada was defeated. In religion, English population was witness of the returning of Protestantism. She refused to marry and devoted her whole life to her country. In 1583 Elizabeth I attended to the blossoming of the English theatre. She took a special interest in plays. In 1583 Queen Elizabeth’s Men Company was formed. And by the 1590s the company of Lord Chamberlain, whose writer and actor was William Shakespeare, was the dominant.

At the age of 69 Elizabeth I ‘the Virgin Queen’ died which supposed a drastic turning point in the life of England. In the year of 1567 a little thirteen-year-old James Stuart was crowned as a king of Scotland. He was the son of Elizabeth cousin’s Mary, who was behaved under the Elizabeth’s reign. James was brought up by a Presbyterian scholar known throughout Europe. His tutor taught James I that kings were not absolute and possessed of divine powers but when, in 1603, James was crowned, he had already written ‘Kings are called Gods, they are appointed by God and answerable only to God’ which meant that to act against him was to rebel against God. Religious terms got into a confusion since Protestantism “shared” ideals with Catholicism, therefore Puritans felt markedly outcast and the beginning of diasporas in the search of a better world barely sprouted, giving way to Colonialism. It is precisely the effects of Colonialism, the germ of one of the most outstanding last period plays including The Tempest that William Shakespeare wrote. Caliban can be reflected as a conquered person. Jacobean theatres emerged as an obsession with morality and the zeal of the audience for violent stories of treachery. Critics argue that King James I, in spite of patronising a leading playing company throughout his reign, was not musical and his taste focused more in satire drama and only Shakespeare’s wittiness was immediately captured by the monarch.

Utopias and Idealism

Often the new territories in Africa and the Americas were quite different from the homelands of the European colonizers. Exposure to these exotic locations inspired Europeans to imagine more idealistic governments and to develop romanticized notions about the natives of these lands, imagining them as more primitive, “natural” beings living in innocent harmony with the world around them. Some believed that the less developed, less populated locations provided the opportunity to create a new social order—a utopia—where humans could establish a heaven on earth.

In The Tempest the character Gonzalo reveals his vision for an idealistic commonwealth in Act 2, Scene 1, in a speech recognized by scholars as linked to the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne’s description of an indigenous South American society in his essay “Of Cannibals.” In this essay first published in 1580, Montaigne questions the superiority of his own culture and suggests that in more primitive societies individuals are better able to live in harmony with nature. Also it is likely that Shakespeare was influenced by the writing of the British humanist Sir Thomas More, whose Utopia (1516) uses an exploration of life on the fictional island of Utopia, where a European traveller lands after being separated from his party, to criticize his own culture under the reign of Henry VIII.


Shakespeare is the author of around thirty-seven plays and one hundred and fifty four sonnets and he became the most popular writer in England at the time, and his legacy is still immense today. Shakespeare was part-owner of an acting company called Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which after their success and popularity with King James the First was renamed The King’s Men, and with this company he performed many of his plays at The Globe Theatre in London - a theatre which the group built. This theatre and its productions were extremely popular during Shakespeare’s time, but the Globe burnt down in 1613, during a production. As I have already mentioned, The Tempest is viewed by some as a farewell from Shakespeare to theatre. This is primarily due to the fact that this was Shakespeare’s last play and this goodbye to theatre is paralleled by the character of Prospero who gives up his magic and art at the end of the play. This character even makes references to ’the great globe’, which can be interpreted as either the world itself, or Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.

There are many other references to the theatre with The Tempest, such as its spectacular dramatic events - the shipwreck, the banquet and the Masque which appear like stage productions - produced by Prospero, the director and writer of the play. The language used within the play also suggests that The Tempest can be viewed as Shakespeare’s theatre: Ariel ‘performs’ tasks, such as setting up the Masque, Antonio uses a semantic field of acting - ‘cast… perform… act… prologue…’ (Act 2, Scene 1) and Prospero refers to life as ’the great globe itself (Act 4, Scene 1).

The original staging of The Tempest occurred in a time when there was no electricity or sound systems. They kept their stage sets simple because they had to. Yet Shakespeare includes plenty of special effects in the magical world of Prospero’s island.

Actors used their bodies, sounds, firecrackers and other pyrotechnics, and props to create the effects of thunder, lightning, and a sinking ship, for example, when staging the terrific storm in the first scene of the play. They had to execute impressions of an elaborate banquet that magically appears and disappears as well as a masque with goddesses singing and dancing, using trapdoors and wires that allowed actors to hover above the stage. A curtain was often used to hide a smaller rear area of the stage so that surprises could be “revealed,” as when Ferdinand and Miranda are found playing chess together at the end of the play. Together these theatrics would have captured the audience’s imagination in new ways and conveyed a sense of the wonder in the play.

Plot Summary

Video Version

Act I

Close to a Mediterranean island, a storm overcomes a ship that carries King Alonso of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and his brother Sebastian. They were on their way home from Tunis to Italy when the storm hit and demolished their ship. Shipwrecked with them are the courtier, Gonzalo, and the Duke of Milan, Antonio. From the island, Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, watches the storm and shipwreck with his 15 year-old daughter, Miranda. Miranda fears for the ship’s crew, but Prospero assures her that everything is fine. He decides to open up about his past, telling her how 12 years previously, his brother Antonio had deposed him in a coup.

With the aid of Gonzalo, Prospero had escaped in a boat with the infant Miranda and his books of magic. They travelled to the island, made it their home, and enslaved the only native islander, Caliban. The only other inhabitants of the island are the spirits including Ariel, whom Prospero had rescued from imprisonment in a tree. Since Antonio was on the boat that is now shipwrecked, Prospero hopes finally to rectify his past. As Miranda sleeps, Prospero discusses his role in the shipwreck with Ariel. They plot about what to do with the men now that they are on the shore.

The courtiers from the ship are cast ashore unharmed. But the King is near despair, believing that Ferdinand, his son, drowned. Ferdinand has actually arrived safely on a different part of the island where he meets Miranda and they instantly fall in love. Prospero, fearing for his daughter, captures Ferdinand and forces him to carry wood. In the meantime, Ariel seeks his freedom. Prospero promises that he will liberate Ariel from servitude following the completion of just a few more tasks (typical).

Act II

Ariel uses music to lead the courtiers astray, while Sebastian and Antonio plot to kill the King while he is asleep. Their attempt is foiled by Ariel. All the people from the ship become ever more confused as they wander around. In another part of the island, the timid court fool, Trinculo, has come ashore and discovered Caliban. Trinculo hides beside Caliban from an approaching storm, and the ship’s butler, Stephano finds them.


Stephano, Caliban, and Trinculo, at Caliban’s suggestion, intend to kill Prospero and make Stephano lord of the island. They get very drunk before setting off to the cell to kill Prospero. Ariel, who saw the whole thing in his invisible state, reports this wicked plot to his master. Meanwhile, Prospero has relented and gives his blessing for Ferdinand and Miranda’s marriage. Then he entertains them with a masque of goddesses and dancing reapers before he remembers Caliban’s plots.

Prospero and Ariel then set a trap for the three plotters. Stephano and Trinculo fall for the plot and become distracted by gaudy clothes hung out for them. After they touch the clothing, they are chased away by spirits disguised as dogs.

Act V

Ariel brings all the courtiers to the cell where Prospero, renouncing his magic, reveals himself. Instead of enacting his revenge, he forgives them and accepts the return of his dukedom. Ferdinand and Miranda are betrothed. Sailors come to announce that the ship is safe. Prospero fulfils his promise and frees Ariel while Caliban and the drunken servants are rebuked. The play ends as all go to celebrate their reunions, and Prospero asks the audience to release him from the play.

Themes, Quotes, and Techniques

Let’s be honest, this is why you’re here. It’s basically your whole essay, minus the introduction and conclusion.

ThemesQuoteTechniquesConnected Themes
Power and Authority“What cares these roarers for the name of king?” and “Remember whom thou hast aboard/ None that I more love than myself” – Boatswain, Act 1Rhetorical Question Duologue
Power and Authority“Me, poor man, my library/ was dukedom large enough” – Prospero, Act 1 Scene 2Metaphor
Deception and Manipulation“…my trust,/ Like a good parent, did beget of him/ A falsehood” – Prospero talking about AntonioSimile
Deception and Manipulation“Mark his [Antonio’s] condition and the’ event. Then tell me/ If this might be a brother” – Prospero, Act 1 Scene 2Rhetorical QuestionForgiveness and Transformation
Colonialism and Postcolonialism“A devil, a born devil, on whose nature/ Nurture can never stick” – Prospero talking about CalibanMetaphor
Colonialism and Postcolonialism“This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother” and “For I am all the subjects that you have,/ Which first was mine own king” – CalibanImprisonment and Freedom
Colonialism and Postcolonialism“You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse” VS “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,/ Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” – CalibanHyperbole Aural Imagery
Imprisonment and Freedom“Abhorred slave… I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak…/But thy vile race… had that in’t which good natures/ Could not abide to be with. Therefore wast thou/ Deservedly confined into this rock” – MirandaMetaphor
Imprisonment and Freedom“Their great guilt,/ Like poison given to work a great time after,/ Now ‘gins to bite the spirits” – Gonzalo, the betrayers are imprisoned by guiltSimileDeception and Manipulation
Imprisonment and Freedom“As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free.” – Prospero, EpilogueRhyme Historical Allusion
Performance and Illusion“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,/ As I foretold you, were all spirits, and/ Are melted into air, into thin air”Repetition
Performance and Illusion“But this rough magic/ I here abjure, and…/ I’ll break my staff/ Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound/ I’ll drown my book.”Hyperbole Personification
Forgiveness and Transformation“At this hour/ Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” VS “The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” – ProsperoAlliteration Juxtaposition
Forgiveness and Transformation“Your charm so strongly works ‘em/ That if you now beheld them, your affections/ Would become tender…/ Mine would, sir, were I human.” – ArielEnjambment ParataxisColonialism and Postcolonialism
Forgiveness and Transformation“How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/ That has such people in’t!” – MirandaDramatic Irony
Truth and Perspective“How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!”Juxtaposition Aside
Grief and Mortality“Lingering perdition – worse than any death… falls/ Upon your heads – is nothing but heart’s sorrow,/ And a clear life ensuing” – Ariel says sorrow/repentance = clear conscienceMetaphor
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