'The Tempest' Overview

Overview of Shakespeare's Last Play

Scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest, 1856-1858. Artist: Robert Dudley
Scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest, 1856-1858. Alonso, King of Naples, shipwrecked with his court on Prospero's enchanted island, amazed by the fairies, goblins and strange creatures preparing a banquet. Artist: Robert Dudley.

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The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, estimated to have been written between 1610 and 1611. Set on an almost deserted island, the play forces its audience to consider the interaction between power and legitimacy. It is also a rich source for scholars interested in environmental, post-colonial, and feminist studies.

Fast Facts: The Tempest

  • Title: The Tempest
  • Author: William Shakespeare
  • Publisher: N/A
  • Year Published: 1610-1611
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Type of Work: Play
  • Original language: English
  • Themes: Authority and betrayal, illusion, otherness, and nature
  • Characters: Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, Caliban, Ferdinand, Gonzalo, Antonio
  • Fun Fact: The Tempest is thought to be one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote on his own

Plot Summary

Set on a near-deserted island, The Tempest tells the story of the magician Prospero’s attempts to gain back his dukedom from his deceitful brother Antonio, who banished Prospero and his infant daughter Miranda to an island. Decades later, when Duke Antonio, King Alonso, Prince Ferdinand, and their courtiers happen to sail near the island, Prospero conjures a storm and wrecks their ship. He is sure to separate the sailors into small groups, so each thinks they’re the only survivors. While King Alonso weeps for his son, Prospero orders Ariel, his fairy servant, to secretly lure Ferdinand to Miranda, and the two quickly fall in love.

Meanwhile, two Italian sailors have found the remains of the ship’s rum and happen upon Caliban, the hated and hateful enslaved person of Prospero. Drunk, the three of them plot to overcome Prospero and become kings of the island. However, Ariel eavesdrops and warns the all-powerful Prospero, who easily overcomes them. Meanwhile, Prospero has Ariel taunt Alonso and Antonio’s retinue with elaborate displays of fairy magic, only to remind them of their betrayal years ago.

Finally, Prospero has Ariel lead the confused sailors to his palace. Alonso tearfully reunites with his son, and gives his blessing to his marriage with Miranda. With his brother so firmly under his power and his daughter marrying into the royal line, Prospero takes back his dukedom. Power restored, Prospero gives up his magical powers, sets Ariel and Caliban free, and sails back to Italy.

Major Characters

Prospero. Ruler of the island and Miranda’s father. The former Duke of Milan, Prospero was betrayed by his brother Antonio and banished with his baby daughter Miranda. Now he rules the island with incredible magical powers.

Ariel. Fairy-servant of Prospero. He was imprisoned by the witch Sycorax when she ruled the island, but Prospero saved him. Now he obeys his enslaver’s every command, with the expectation of his eventual freedom.

Caliban. The enslaved person of Prospero and the son of Sycorax, a witch who once ruled the island. A monster figure but also a rightful native of the island, Caliban is often treated cruelly and represents a complicated figure.

Miranda. Daughter of Prospero and lover of Ferdinand. Loyal and chaste, she falls for the dashing Ferdinand immediately.

Ferdinand. Son of King Alonso of Naples and lover of Miranda. He is a loyal son and a faithful lover, working hard for Prospero to win Miranda’s hand in marriage, and represents traditional patriarchal values.

Gonzalo. The loyal Neapolitan councilor. He is always supportive of his king, and even saved Prospero's life when he was banished by providing him with necessary supplies.

Antonio. Prospero’s younger brother. He usurped his brother to become Duke of Milan himself, sending his brother and his child off to die in a boat. He also encourages Sebastian to murder his brother Alonso to become King of Naples.

Major Themes

Authority, legitimacy, and betrayal. With the action of the play being situated around Prospero’s desire for revenge for his unfair deposition as duke, Shakespeare encourages us to investigate the question of authority.

Illusion. Prospero’s magical ability to delude the other characters seems to parallel Shakespeare’s own ability to delude, at least briefly, his audience into believing the scene before their eyes is reality.

Otherness. With his near total control of the other characters in the play, Prospero is a powerful figure. However, what is the effect of his domination, and how do the characters react from whom he takes power?

Nature. Although this is one of Shakespeare’s most common themes, The Tempest’s setting on a near-deserted island forces its characters to interact with the natural world, as well as their own natures, in ways unusual to the playwright’s work.

Literary Style

Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest has had remarkable literary significance from its time of writing, which in this case is estimated to have been between 1610 and 1611. Like many of Shakespeare’s later plays, The Tempest deals with tragic and comic elements, but ends neither with a death nor a depiction of a marriage as is common to tragedies and comedies respectively. Instead, critics have grouped these plays into the genre of “romance.” Indeed, The Tempest has had a particular influence on nature studies and in particular the 19th century movement of European Romanticism, with its emphasis on the interaction between man and nature. It also has had significant influence on studies of colonialism, as it depicts Europeans taking over a foreign and tropical island.

The play was produced during the reign of King James I. There are numerous early versions of the play still in existence; each, however, has different lines, so it is the job of the editor to decide which version to publish, and accounts for the many explanatory notes in editions of Shakespeare.

About the Author

William Shakespeare is probably the highest regarded writer of the English language. Although the date of his exact birth is unknown, he was baptized in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1564 and married Anne Hathaway at age 18. Sometime between the age of 20 and 30, he moved to London to start his career in theatre. He worked as an actor and a writer, and as a part-time owner of the theatre troupe the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men. Since little information about commoners was retained at the time, not much is known about Shakespeare, leading to questions about his life, his inspiration, and the authorship of his plays.