'The Tempest' Summary for Students

Shakespeare's most magical play was the last he wrote by himself

Illustration of William Shakespeare's play The Tempest
Robert Alexander - Contributor/Archive Photos/Getty Images

"The Tempest," written in 1611, was the final play that Shakespeare wrote on his own. (He coauthored his last two plays—"Henry VIII" and "The Two Noble Kinsman"—with John Fletcher). It is also one of only two Shakespeare plays that are entirely original. Because of those two facts, many assume that Prospero, one of the major characters in the play, is an amalgamation of Shakespeare himself.

Many readers and theater aficionados believe that when Prospero gives his final farewell in the play, it is actually Shakespeare saying goodbye to his audience. Whatever the case, "The Tempest" is one of Shakespeare's more fantastical plays when it comes to the use of magic.  

Plot Summary: A Magical Storm

"The Tempest" begins on a boat, tossed about in a storm. Aboard are Alonso the King of Naples, Ferdinand (his son), Sebastian (his brother), Antonio the usurping Duke of Milan, Gonzalo, Adrian, Francisco, Trinculo, ​and Stefano.

Miranda, who has been watching the ship at sea, is distraught at the thought of lost lives. The storm was created by her father, the magical Prospero, who reassures Miranda that all will be well. Prospero explains how they came to live on this island: They were once part of Milan’s nobility—he was a Duke—and Miranda lived a life of luxury. However, Prospero’s brother exiled them. They were placed on a boat, never to be seen again.

Prospero summons Ariel, his servant spirit. Ariel explains that he has carried out Prospero’s orders: He destroyed the ship and dispersed its passengers across the island. Prospero instructs Ariel to be invisible and spy on them. Ariel asks when he will be freed, and Prospero tells him off for being ungrateful, promising to free him soon.

Caliban: Man or Monster?

Prospero decides to visit his other servant, Caliban, but Miranda is reluctant, describing him as a monster. Prospero agrees that Caliban can be rude and unpleasant but says he is invaluable to them because he collects their firewood.

When Prospero and Miranda meet Caliban, readers and play-goers learn that he is native to the island, but Prospero turned him into a slave, raising issues of morality and fairness in the play. Prospero reminds Caliban that he tried to violate his daughter.

Love at First Sight

Ferdinand stumbles across Miranda and, much to Prospero’s annoyance, they fall in love and decide to marry. Prospero warns Miranda off and decides to test Ferdinand’s loyalty. The rest of the shipwrecked crew are celebrating their survival and grieving for lost loved ones. Alonso believes that he has lost his beloved son, Ferdinand.

Caliban’s New Master

Stefano, Alonso’s drunken butler, discovers Caliban in a glade. Caliban decides to worship the drunken Stefano and make him his new master in order to escape Prospero’s power. Caliban describes Prospero’s cruelty and persuades Stefano to murder him by promising that Stefano can marry Miranda and rule the island.

The other shipwreck survivors have been trekking across the island and stop to rest. Ariel casts a spell on Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio and derides them for their treatment of Prospero. Gonzalo and the others think that the spellbound men are suffering from the guilt of their past actions and promise to ensure their safety.

Prospero finally concedes and agrees to the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand and goes off to foil Caliban’s murderous plot. He orders Ariel to hang out beautiful clothes to distract the three fools. When Caliban and Stefano discover the clothes, they decide to steal them—Prospero arranges for goblins to “grind their joints."

Prospero’s Forgiveness

At the end of the play, Prospero has forgiven his countrymen, pardoned Caliban, and has promised to set Ariel free after he helps the ship leave the island. Prospero also breaks his magical staff and buries it, and tosses his book of magic into the sea. All of these things redeem his earlier behaviors and hearken back to the belief that he's not truly evil. The last thing Prospero does in the play is to ask the audience to set him free from the island with their applause, thus leaving his future up to the "fates."

Major Characters

Prospero: While Prospero can be viewed as an evil character, he may simply be angry, bitter, and controlling. The tempest that he whips up to shipwreck his countrymen is often said to be a physical manifestation of Prospero's anger. Because he doesn't kill any of his countrymen throughout the play, and eventually forgives them, many scholars argue that he is not evil.

Miranda: Miranda represents purity, innocence, and the island's naturalness through her virginity. Prospero is obsessed with keeping her virginity intact, and ensuring that when she's finally handed over to Ferdinand, her new husband will honor and treasure her. Miranda is often seen as a very innocent character and the antithesis of the witch Sycorax, the mother of Caliban.

Caliban: Caliban is the demon son of the witch Sycorax and the devil. Many people argue about whether he was human or monster. Some scholars believe that Caliban is an evil character because he has tried to rape Miranda in the past, because he is the son of the devil, and because he plots with Stefano to kill Prospero. Others say that Caliban is merely a product of his birth and that it is not his fault who his parents were. Many also view Prospero's mistreatment of Caliban (by making him a slave) as evil and that Caliban cannot be anything other than what he is.

Ariel: Ariel, who inhabited the island long before anyone else, is a sexually ambiguous character, neither male nor female. Sycorax imprisoned Ariel in a tree when s/he refused to do Sycorax's bidding because Ariel viewed her desires as evil. Prospero freed Arial, and Ariel remained faithful to Prospero the entire time the protagonist inhabited the island. Ariel is at the core a very kind, empathetic creature, sometimes viewed as being angelic. Ariel cares for humans and helps Prospero see the light and forgive his kinsman (even Caliban). Without Ariel, Prospero would likely have remained a bitter, angry little man on his island forever.

Major Themes

The tripartite soul: One of the major themes from this play is the belief in the soul as three parts and that Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel are all a part of one person (Prospero). Plato called this the "tripartite of the soul," and it was a very commonly held belief in the Renaissance.

The three factions of the soul were vegetative (Caliban), sensitive (Ariel), and rational (Ariel and Prospero). Sigmund Freud later adopted this concept into his id, ego, and superego theory. By this theory, Caliban represents the "id" (the child), Prospero the ego (the adult), and Ariel the superego (the parent). 

Many plays after the 1950s have the same actor playing all three roles, and it is only when all three characters can come to the same conclusion (forgiveness) that the three factions are brought together into one person. When this happens to Prospero—when the three parts of his soul unite—he can finally move on.

Master/servant relationships: 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 for control over 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.

Historical Context: Importance of Colonialism

The Tempest Complutense, a Madrid-based learning website, notes that "The Tempest" takes place in 17th century England—a time that was contemporary with Shakespeare's writing of the play—when colonialism was a dominant and accepted practice, particularly among European nations. The plot shows the deep influence of colonialism, especially in terms of Prospero’s actions: He arrives at Sycorax’s island, subdues it, and imposes his own culture on its inhabitants. Sycorax’s island can be seen as a representation of colonial America, which suffered the same subservient role as the island. The website notes:

"As Europeans did with the Americans, Prospero takes the power away from Caliban and treats him as an evil, ugly and deformed being, a despicable entity, who, in his eyes, is not even a human."

The belief of superiority was the normal state of mind in the European nations. During Shakespeare’s times and the writing of "The Tempest," colonization of America and Africa and the slave trade occurred. Around this time, the English were trying to establish their dominance in different regions of America, which were slowly coming under the rule of the British Empire.

Shakespeare also seems also to have drawn on Michel de Montaigne’s essay "Of the Cannibals," which was translated into English in 1603. The name of Prospero’s servant, Caliban, may have come from the word “Cannibal.” When picturing the storm in "The Tempest," Shakespeare may have been influenced by 1610 document, “A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia,” which described the adventures of some sailors who had returned from the Americas.

Key Quotes

As with all of his plays, Shakespeare's "The Tempest" contains plenty of pithy, striking, and moving quotes.

  • "A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!"
  • "Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground, long heath, broom, furze, anything. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death"
  • "Canst thou remember / A time before we came unto this cell?"
  • "In my false brother / awakened an evil nature, and my trust,
    like a good parent, did beget! of him / A falsehood in its contrary as great As my trust was, which had, indeed, no limit, / A confidence sans bound..."
  • "Good wombs have borne bad sons."
  • "Hell is empty / And all the devils are here"