Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'

Facts, Themes, and Analysis

Shakespeare's 'The Tempest" is one of the most "magical" plays ever written. The word "magical" can be used in all senses when it comes to this play:

  • Characters use magic
  • The language is magical 
  • The action is set on a magical, mysterious island.

Whilst it is one of Shakespeare's most enjoyable plays, it can also be a real challenge to study because its thematic subject matter is vast and it asks some wide-ranging moral questions.

Here are the top The Tempest facts you need to know about this classic 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 the misuse of power - works. In particular, control is a dominant theme: characters battle over control for each other and the island - perhaps an echo of England’s colonial expansion in Shakespeare’s time. With the island in colonial dispute, the audience ​is asked 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 use and misuse power in the play, as this article demonstrates.

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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. Prospero survives and takes control of the island and seeks to exact revenge on his brother. The extent to which he is a victim or a perpetrator is not clear.

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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

A central theme in 'The Tempest' is "Caliban, man or monster?" The audience is asked to decide whether Caliban has had the island stolen from him by the colonial Prospero, or whether Caliban himself has a stake in the ownership of the island. He has certainly been treated like a slave by Prospero, but to what extent is this a fair punishment for attempting to rape his daughter? 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

'The Tempest' is often described as Shakespeare's most magical play - and with good reason. The play starts with a huge magical storm capable of shipwrecking the main cast on the island. The survivors are even magically distributed across the island. Magic is used throughout the play by various characters for mischief, control, and revenge ... and not everything is what it seems on the island. Appearances can be deceptive, characters are tricked into situations displaced around the island 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 play, and Shakespeare's treatment of them is particularly interesting. The colonial nature of the play and the ambiguous presentation of fairness perhaps points 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 - but 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. Whilst 'The Tempest' does share many of these characteristics, it is also quite a unique play in the comedy category.

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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 version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" crams the complex plot into a single page for easy reference.