Overview of Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'

Facts, Analysis, and Themes

Shakespeare's "The Tempest" is full of magic, and that sorcery comes through in many ways. Multiple characters enlist magic to achieve their goals, the play's plot is driven mostly by magical actions, and there is even a magical tone to some of the language used throughout the play.

While this enchantment makes "The Tempest" one of Shakespeare's most enjoyable plays, there is more to the work. The thematic subject matter is vast and asks wide-ranging moral questions, making it a real challenge to study.

To help with that obstacle, here are the top facts and themes in "The Tempest" you need to know about this iconic Shakespeare play. 

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'The Tempest' Is About Power Relationships

Caliban, Ariel, Stephano and Trinculo in The Tempest
Corbis via Getty Images

In "The Tempest," Shakespeare draws on master/servant relationships to demonstrate how power—and its misuse—works. In particular, control is a dominant theme: Characters battle over control over each other, the island, and Milan—perhaps an echo of England’s colonial expansion in Shakespeare’s time.

With the island in colonial dispute, the audience ​is invited to question who the rightful owner of the island is: Prospero, Caliban, or Sycorax—the original colonizer from Algiers who performed "evil deeds." Both good and evil characters search for power in the play, as this article demonstrates.

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Is Prospero Good or Bad?

Roger Allam as Prospero UK - William Shakespeare's The Tempest directed by Jeremy Herrin at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London.
Roger Allam as Prospero in William Shakespeare's The Tempest directed by Jeremy Herrin at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. Corbis via Getty Images

"The Tempest" raises some difficult questions when it comes to Prospero's character. He is the rightful Duke of Milan but was usurped by his brother and sent on a boat to his death—luckily, he survives. In this way, he is a victim trying to reclaim what is rightfully his. However, Prospero takes some cruel actions throughout the play, particularly toward Caliban and Ariel, making him appear villainous.

Thus, the extent to which he is a victim or a perpetrator is not clear and largely left for the audience to debate.

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Caliban Is a Monster...Or Is He?

UK - William Shakespeare's The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Amer Hlehel as Caliban in William Shakespeare's The Tempest directed by David Farr at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Corbis via Getty Images

Another character in "The Tempest" who is left undefined is Caliban. He is introduced to us as a savage, but a more sympathetic reading shows him to be more complex. Caliban has certainly been treated like a slave by Prospero, but is that cruelty or fair punishment for attempting to rape Miranda? As an island-born son of a colonist, does he get to call himself a native and, as a result, fight back against the colonial Prospero? Or does he have no claim to the land either?

Caliban is a delicately constructed character: Is he a man or monster?

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'The Tempest' Is a Magical Play

Scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest, 1856-1858. Artist: Robert Dudley
Alonso, King of Naples, shipwrecked with his court on Prospero's enchanted island, amazed by the fairies, goblins and strange creatures preparing a banquet. Prospero, invisible to mortals, stage manages everything (centre back Chromolithograph designed by Robert Dudley for edition of Shakespeare's works published in 1856-1858. Print Collector/Getty Images

As previously noted, "The Tempest" is largely considered Shakespeare's most magical work—and with good reason. The play opens with a huge magical storm capable of shipwrecking the main cast, and the survivors are magically distributed across the island. Magic is used throughout the play by various characters for mischief, control, and revenge, driving the plot forward. Meanwhile, not everything is what it seems on the island; appearances can be deceptive, and characters are often tricked for the amusement of Prospero.

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'The Tempest' Asks Difficult Moral Questions

UK - 'The Tempest' Performance in Stratford Upon-Avon
Antony Sher as Prospero and Atandwa Kani as Ariel in the joint Baxter Theatre/Royal Shakespeare Company production of William Shakespeare's play The Tempest, directed by Janice Honeyman at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford -upon-Avon. Corbis via Getty Images

Morality and fairness are themes that run through the "The Tempest," and Shakespeare's treatment of them is particularly interesting. The colonial nature of the play and ambiguous presentation of fairness may even point to Shakespeare's own political views.

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'The Tempest' Is Classified as a Comedy

Plays by Shakespeare
Getty Images

Strictly speaking, "The Tempest" is classified as a comedy. However, you'll notice that you don't find yourself in fits of laughter while reading or watching.

Shakespearean comedies are not "comic" in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they rely on comedy through language, complex love plots, and mistaken identity. Still, though "The Tempest" does share many of these characteristics, it is quite a unique play in the comedy category. When compared to a classic comedy play like "A Midsummer Night's Dream," you see that the elements of tragedy in "The Tempest" make it toe the line between these two genres.

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What Happens in 'The Tempest'

UK - 'The Tempest' performance at the Edinburgh International Festival
Soo-Me Lee as Ariel, Seung-Hyun Lee and Eun-A Cho as Caliban with Young-Kwang Song as Prospero in Mokwha Repertory Company's production 'The Tempest' directed by Tae-Suk Oh at the King's Theatre as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. Corbis via Getty Images

This condensed breakdown of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" crams the complex plot into a single page for easy reference. Of course, it's no substitute for reading the play in its entirety.