Complete List of Other Shakespeare Plays on DVDs, Including Two Versions of The Tempest
The Tempest
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Key Dates
Plot Summary
Shakespeare's Musicality
Figures of Speech
Significance of Names
Character Habitats
Shakespeare and Humanism
Prospero's Island as New World
Shakespearean Marvels
Caliban as Exploited Native
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography of Shakespeare
Complete Free Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010 ©
Type of Work

.......The Tempest is a comedy with an atmosphere resembling that of a fairy tale. It is among Shakespeare's most mature and most admired plays.

Key Dates
Date Written: Probably 1611. 
First Performance: Probably November 1, 1611, at Whitehall (the English royal palace) by the Kings Players.
First Printing: 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays. 


.......The main sources for the play have not been fully established. Possible sources include an account of the wreck of the Sea Venture in the Bermudas in 1609; A Discovery of the Bermudas (1610), by Sylvester Jourdain; A True Repertory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates upon and from the Islands of the Bermudas (written in 1610 and published in 1625), by William Strachey; Comedy of the Beautiful Sidea (circa 1600-1605), a German drama by Jacob Ayer; New and Large Discourse of the Travels of Sir Anthony Shirley, Knight (1601), by William Parry; essay by Montaigne (1533-1592).

.......The Tempest begins at sea on a foundering ship. The rest of the action takes place on an island. Strong evidence suggests that the island Shakespeare had in mind was a fictionalized Mediterranean version of an island in the Bermudas. 

Prospero: Rightful Duke of Milan. With his daughter, he had been set adrift by his evil brother to die, but provisions provided secretly by his friend Gonzalo enable him and his daughter to reach a mysterious island. There, Prospero practices magic and rules the island and its inhabitants for 12 years. When a ship carrying his brother and other high officials of Naples—including the king—sails a course near the island, Prospero conjures a powerful tempest that blows the ship to his island. 
Antonio: Prospero's brother. He illegally seized Prospero's dukedom. After the tempest drives the ship carrying him and Alonso, the King of Naples, to Prospero's island,  Antonio conspires against the king. 
Miranda: Fifteen-year-old daughter of Prospero. She has lived with her father on his island since she was three years old and has never seen a man except for her father and the half-human Caliban. The name Miranda is derived from the Latin word mirandus, meaning wonderful, strange, and admired
Alonso: King of Naples. He helped Antonio oust Prospero as Duke of Milan. However, after arriving at Prospero's island, he exhibits genuine remorse for his reprehensible treatment of Prospero. 
Sebastian: Brother of the king.
Ferdinand: Son of the King of Naples.
Gonzalo: Honest old counselor and friend of Prospero. 
Ariel: Spirit of the air on the magical island who serves Prospero. Ariel first served a witch, Sycorax, who imprisoned him in a recess of a pine tree after he refused to do her bidding. He remained there to suffer great torment for twelve years, during which time Sycorax died. Upon his arrival on the island, Prospero freed Ariel but bound the sprite to his service. Ariel possesses protean power, enabling him to alter his appearance instantly. He can also travel to any part of the island in a split-second.
Adrian, Francisco: Lords.
Trinculo: Jester.
Stephano: Drunken butler.
Caliban: Savage half-man who serves as a slave on Prospero's island. He is the son of a witch, Sycorax. Caliban believes he is the rightful ruler of Prospero's island, having inherited it from his mother. 
Iris, Ceres, Juno: Goddesses presented by the spirits. In classical mythology, Iris was a messenger goddess and goddess of the rainbow. Ceres was the goddess of agriculture, and Juno was the queen of the gods.
Nymphs, Reapers: Dancers
Master of the Ship
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2003
.......After attending his daughter Claribel’s wedding in Tunis, Africa, King Alonso of Naples and his company sail home to Italy in a fleet of ships and encounter a violent storm. With Alonso is his beloved son, Ferdinand. Others on the king’s ship are Antonio, the Duke of Milan; Antonio’s butler, Stephano; the king’s brother, Sebastian; a counselor, Gonzalo; and Trinculo, a jester. When thunder booms and lightning strikes, winds churn the sea into a terrible fury that imperils all of the ships. Mariners laboring to save the king’s vessel cry out, “All lost! to prayers, to prayers! all lost!” (1. 1. 28). Gonzalo, the king’s counsellor, is the last to speak as the ship founders: “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground, long heath, brown furze, any thing. The wills above be done! but I would fain die a dry death” (1. 1. 44).
.......As a strange, fiery light illumines the ship, the king and his company jump overboard. All except Ferdinand wash ashore at the same location on an enchanted island. Ferdinand lands on another part of the island. Alonso thinks Ferdinand has drowned, and vice versa, and both mourn their losses. The ruler of the island is the magician Prospero. It was Prospero who caused the tempest. Aware of who was on the ship, thanks to his magical powers, he commanded the sea to deliver to him the king and his company to settle some unfinished business. Twelve years before, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, had been set adrift to die at sea with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, after his brother, Antonio, seized his dukedom with the connivance of King Alonso. However,  the kindly counselor Gonzalo sneaked food and drink to Prospero, along with his books of magic. So it was that Prospero and his daughter survived and landed on the island to live in a cave. 
.......One of Prospero’s first orders of business on the island was to free the sprites imprisoned by a witch named Sycorax. The chief sprite was Ariel, a spirit of the air. In exchange for his liberation, Ariel agreed to do Prospero’s bidding. Sycorax posed no further threat, for she was dead. However, she left behind an ugly, half-human offspring named Caliban. Although Caliban once tried to ravish Miranda, Prospero trains him to talk and perform menial chores, using magic to keep the beast-man’s instincts in check. 
 Ariel has proved a valuable servant. In fact, under Prospero’s orders, it was Ariel who guided the tempest toward the island and set the king’s ship “ablaze” by imitating fire. Sometimes Ariel would divide himself and become fire in several places at once: the topmast, bowsprit, and yards. In fright, the king and his company hurled themselves overboard. Miranda witnessed the terrible spectacle. In reporting on it to her father, she assumes he caused the tempest and begs him to calm the raging waters. She expresses sympathy for the ship’s crew and passengers, telling her father that
                                I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting souls within her. (1. 2. 6-14)
.......Prospero informs her, however, that no harm was done; for Ariel has preserved the ship in a hidden harbor and cast its crew into a deep sleep. Ariel allowed the rest of the fleet to survive the storm and resume the trip to Italy, “supposing,” as Ariel tells Prospero, “that they saw the king’s ship wrecked and his great person perish” (1. 2. 277-278).
.......After Alonso and the others arrive on the island, Prospero dispatches Ariel to bring the handsome young Ferdinand to the cave, where the beautiful Miranda is sleeping. He also sends Caliban to bring wood. When Ferdinand arrives, Miranda awakens and falls immediately in love with him. Love smites Ferdinand as well. Prospero pretends Ferdinand is a spy and takes him prisoner. Elsewhere on the island, King Alonso and most of his company are still asleep. The only two who remain awake—the evil Antonio and Alonso’s brother, Sebastian—see an opportunity before them: If they kill the king, Naples will be theirs. But just as they draw their swords, King Alonso and Gonzalo awaken. Meanwhile, Caliban, who is bringing in the wood, curses Prospero, wishing upon him “all the infections that the sun sucks up.” (2. 2. 4). Caliban, after all, was the ruler of the island before Prospero arrived. Why should he now be carrying wood for Prospero? 
.......Trinculo happens upon Caliban and takes shelter with him from a threatening storm. Stephano, the king’s butler, also shows up, drunk. It seems he had the good fortune to float ashore on a barrel of wine, which he put to good use after fashioning a flask out of tree bark. After he plies Caliban with wine, the monster-man dreams of being free of Prospero. Back near the cave, Ferdinand is gathering wood under orders from Prospero. When Miranda goes out to help him, the two lovers forget about the wood. Instead, they coo and woo, and talk of marriage. From a distance, Prospero watches and smiles approvingly. Caliban, suddenly possessed of a bold and persuasive tongue, convinces his new companions, Stephano and Trinculo, to help him murder Prospero so that they can all become the new rulers of the island. Their plan is to steal upon him while he is sleeping, brain him with a log or pierce him with a stake or a knife, then burn his books. 
.......Ariel, off working on Prospero’s behalf, conjures up a magnificent banquet for King Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo and the rest of the king’s entourage. As they are about to eat, lightning flashes, thunder booms, and Ariel appears in the form of a harpy, a hideous bird. He claps his wings and the banquet vanishes. Then he rebukes Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian for their previous mistreatment of Prospero and Miranda years before. He tells them that
Lingering perdition—worse than any death
Can be at once,—shall step by step attend
You and your ways. . . .” (3. 3.93-95)
.......After Ariel vanishes and Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian leave the scene, the goodly Gonzalo, observing the reaction of the three men, says, 
All three of them are desperate: their great guilt, 
Like poison given to work a great time after, 
Now ’gins to bite the spirits.” (3. 3. 124-126)
Prospero, meanwhile, presents an entertainment for Ferdinand and Miranda in celebration of their forthcoming marriage. The entertainers are spirits in the form of three deities—Ceres, goddess of agriculture; Iris, goddess of the rainbow; and Juno, queen of the gods—who sing to the betrothed couple. Then Nymphs and Reapers descend upon the island and perform a graceful dance. After the entertainment, Prospero uses his magic to thwart the murderous plots against him while Ariel spellbinds Alonso and the others with music and leads them to Prospero’s cave. Ferdinand rejoices at the sight of his father, and Alonso rejoices at the sight of his son. Then every offender repents his wrongs, and even the beastly Caliban admits he was a “thrice-double ass” (5. 1. 328). Prospero, having regained his dukedom, renounces magic and prepares to return to Naples with Ferdinand, Miranda, and Alonso and his entourage after Alonso’s ship—thought wrecked and lost—is found still afloat and seaworthy. Prospero commands Ariel to calm the seas, then frees him. Only Caliban remains on the island.


Forgive and forget. Though Prospero has been wronged, he reconciles with his wrongdoers. 
Repent your sins. All of Prospero's wrongdoers repent at the end and achieve redemption. 
The New World (America) is a raw, untamed wilderness. Prospero's island may have symbolized America, or the islands off the coast of America, with Caliban representing the uncivilized native population. 
Exploration of new lands often results in mistreatment of native populations. It has been suggested that Caliban represents indigenous peoples exploited by Europeans during the Age of Discovery. 
The storms of life are followed by peace and calm.
Friends in need are friends indeed. Thanks to his friend Gonzalo, Prospero and his daughter survive their ordeal at sea.
Freedom must be earned. Everyone in The Tempest is a slave or a captive—socially, emotionally, geographically or otherwise. For example, Prospero and Miranda, victims of treachery, are captives of their environment. The shipwrecked adversaries of Prospero are captives of guilt, ambition or desire for revenge. Ariel, a free spirit of the air, is Prospero's slave. Caliban, a misshapen half-human, is a prisoner of unruly instincts. Only through ordeal, tribulation, and demonstrations of humanity do these characters redeem and liberate themselves. 

.......The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax in The Tempest occurs, according to the first definition, in Act III, Scene III, when Ariel (appearing as a Harpy, a mythological monster with the head of a woman and the body of a bird) reveals Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian as sinners who conspired to remove Prospero from his dukedom. According to the second definition, the climax occurs at the end of Act V when Ferdinand and his father are reunited, and all the enemies in the play become friends.

Shakespeare's Musicality

......The Tempest is among Shakespeare’s finest plays in terms of its musicality. Shakespeare scholar G. B. Harrison has written the following appraisal of the language of the play:

Shakespeare, like all Elizabethan dramatists, used four kinds of speech in his plays: blank verse, rhymed verse, prose and song. Each kind has its uses, and the whole play, especially in his maturity, is conceived as a kind of verbal symphony, each scene or episode being composed as part of a complete harmony. The Tempest in its poetical scenes is the finest example of the musical use of words in all Shakespeare’s plays.” (Major British 53)
Among the passages that best exhibit musicality are the poems, such as the following
Full fathom five thy father lies; 
Of his bones are coral made: 
Those are pearls that were his eyes: 
Nothing of him that doth fade, 
But doth suffer a sea-change 
Into something rich and strange. 
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: 
Hark! now I hear them,ding-dong, bell. (1.2.456) 
Ariel, while invisible, sings this poem to Ferdinand, telling the lad that his father lies under thirty feet of water. The poem has a rhyme scheme of ababccdd.

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free. (epilogue)

Figures of Speech: Types

......Following are examples of figures of speech from the play.


Good wombs have borne bad sons. (1. 2. 141)
Contrast of good wombs and bad sons. The statement is also a paradox.
................ Hast thou forgot
The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy
Was grown into a hoop? (1.2.259-260)

Full fathom five thy father lies (.2.394)

He that dies pays all debts. (3.2.143)

Your tale, sir, would cure deafness. (1.2.106)
This line also contains a metaphor comparing the tale to a remedy.
My library 
Was dukedom large enough. (1.2.128)
Comparison of a dukedom to a library.

................. The king's son, Ferdinand, 
With hair up-staring,—then like reeds, not hair,
Was the first man that leap'd; cried, 'Hell is empty
And all the devils are here.' (1.2.213-216)
Comparison of Prospero's island to hell

You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. (1. 2. 430-431)
Comparison of knowledge to profit. 

The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounced
The name of Prosper: it did bass my trespass.(3.3.97-99)
Metaphor (and personification) comparing the winds to a singer
Metaphor comparing thunder to the sound made by an organ pipe

No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow. (4.1.18-19)
Comparison of heaven's approval to rain (aspersion) that promotes the growth of a seed

We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (4.1.168-170)
Comparison of humans to the immateriality of a dream

What's past is prologue. (2.1.261)

Shakespeare's Name Game

.......Did you notice in your reading of The Tempest that the name of the beast-man, Caliban, is an anagram for cannibal (except for a missing n)? Did you also notice that name of Prospero’s servant, Ariel, sounds like aerial, meaning in the air, of the air, high flying, ethereal, and fanciful—words which all describe Ariel? Other characters also have names suggestive of their qualities and lot in life: Prospero (a name that derives from the Latin prosperare, meaning to cause to prosper), who prospers through his magic and intelligence; Miranda (a name that derives from the Latin mirandus, meaning strange, wonderful, miraculous), who is wonderful to behold and is indeed strange—that is, exotic; and Ferdinand (a name that derives from Germanic words meaning bold traveler), who has traveled on the high seas and survived a roaring tempest.

Character Habitats

.......Shakespeare's plays frequently present characters in settings far removed from urban centers. However, they generally are creatures of the city, the court, the vibrant life where people throng. Consider the following observation: 

    Shakespeare's characters are . . . dubious of rusticity. Valentine [in The Two Gentlemen of Verona] does not rejoice in his woodland life as head of an outlaw band; the lovers of A [Midsummer Night's] Dream find their woodland adventure unnerving, and mountain life seems rude to the characters in Cymbeline who are forced to endure it. Although Florizel [in The Winter's Tale] dreams of spending his life with Perdita in a cottage, she knows that pastoral bliss is only a dream; true content lies in Leontes' court, to which all the characters . . . return. Even Prospero [in The Tempest], who has no great desire to see Milan again, knows that he and Miranda must leave their island, which is as much prison as refuge to them. Although critics can idealize the pastoral experiences of Shakespeare's characters as renewing contacts with nature, that experience is often somewhat harrowing.—Shakespeare's Comedies From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery. Newark: U of Delaware, 1986 (Page 144).
The Tempest and Humanism
.......During the European Renaissance between 1400 and 1600, great thinkers began advocating the betterment of civilization by emphasizing the study of classical culture and literature and by promoting the cultivation of such ennobling qualities as compassion, generosity, friendship, wise judgment, and prudence. In The Tempest, Prospero exhibits those qualities. He does not seek to retaliate against those who wronged him; he seeks only to bring them out of the darkness of hatred and revenge. In this respect, he is like the Renaissance humanist who builds a bridge for the Dark Ages to cross into the enlightenment of a new age in which humankind renounces its old barbarity and savagery. In discussing this idea, Shakespeare scholar Bernard D. Grebanier wrote:
Shakespeare is perhaps the perfect expression of Renaissance humanism. His profound sympathy for humanity enabled him to pierce to the very core of his characters; his unexcelled gifts as a poet made his men and women unforgettable creatures of flesh and blood. This may be said as much of the best of his earliest plays as of The Tempest, where Prospero is himself a kind of incarnation of the best of what the Renaissance had extended to mankind. (Grebanier, Bernard D., et al. English Literature and Its Backgrounds. New York: Holt, 1950, page 242)
Prospero’s Island as The New World

.......Shakespeare sets the scene in a far-off, isolated island. Whether he intended the setting to symbolize the New World is arguable, but it certainly resembles it. Like America, it is wild and undeveloped, with strange sights, sounds, and creatures. It has a “colonial” overseer, Prospero, who exploits the native populationthe savage beast-man, Caliban, and the sprite, Arielturning them into servants, or slaves. Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, knows no other world but her father’s island. In this respect, she is like the real-life Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas (on Roanoke Island, off the coast of present-day North Carolina). 

Shakespeare's Grab Bag of Marvels

.......To give his play a wondrous, fairy-tale atmosphere, Shakespeare set it on a remote island with an exotic landscape, then populated the island with a sorcerer (Prospero), a monster (the beast-man Caliban, son of a witch), a mischievous sprite, a beautiful maiden (Miranda), a young prince who loves her (Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples), and mythological deities--including Ceres, goddess of agriculture; Iris, goddess of the rainbow; and Juno, queen of the gods. Perhaps Shakespeare was capitalizing on stories about the New World across the seas--a world that was mostly terra incognita to the English and therefore a ripe subject for speculation about wonders there that awaited discovery. .......There were, of course, published reports about the Americas and the islands near the mainlands. These reports included several about Bermuda, including an account of the wreck of the Sea Venture in the Bermudas in 1609; A Discovery of the Bermudas (1610), by Sylvester Jourdain; A True Repertory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates upon and from the Islands of the Bermudas (written in 1610 and published in 1625), by William Strachey. The Spanish navigator Juan Bermúdez is credited with discovery of the Bermuda Islands, and they first appeared on Spanish maps in 1511. It may well be that the wreck of the Sea Venture inspired Shakespeare to write about the wreck of King Alonso’s ship. 

Caliban as an Exploited Native

.......In The Tempest, Caliban suffers the same fate as many New World natives: He loses control over a domain he thought he ruled, becoming a virtual slave of Prospero. Although Prospero teaches him language, Caliban complains that the only benefit of this experience is that he learned how to curse. Caliban’s encounter with Prospero resembles the encounter of real-life native Americans with Europeans seeking riches in the New World wilds while spreading their culture. The natives learned bad habits, acquired alien diseases, and lost control of their domains. Of course, The Tempest centers on the wrong done to Prospero by his brother, who usurped Prospero’s dukedom. But did not Prospero usurp Caliban’s domain?

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Write an essay explaining how closed, isolated environments like Prospero’s island in The Tempest, Elsinore Castle in Hamlet, and the forest of Arden in As You Like It affect the characters.
  • Shakespeare uses allusions to mythology in The Tempest. What is an allusion? Where do allusions take place in Acts 3 and 4?
  • Lust for power, a theme in other Shakespeare plays, manifests itself in The Tempest in two independent conspiracies? What are these conspiracies and who is involved in them? 
  • Would you consider Prospero’s island an example of a microcosm? Write a short essay that explains your answer. In the essay, be sure to define microcosm as a literary device. 
  • To whom does Shakespeare address the epilogue at the end of the play? 
  • What was Prospero’s wife like? (See lines spoken by Prospero in Act I.) 
  • Do you despise or pity Caliban. Explain your answer. 
  • Do you approve of the way Prospero treats Miranda? 
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King Lear (1974)  Edwin Sherin James Earl Jones
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King Lear (1984)  Michael Elliott Laurence Olivier, Colin Blakely
King Lear (1997)  Richard Eyre Ian Holm
Love's Labour's Lost (2000) Kenneth Branagh Kenneth Branagh, Alicia Silverstone 
Love's Labour's Lost BBC Production) Not Listed
Macbeth (1978)  Philip Casson Ian McKellen, Judy Dench
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A Midsummer Night's Dream  (1999) Michael Hoffman Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)  Kenneth Branaugh Branaugh, Emma Thompson
Much Ado About Nothing (1973)  Nick Havinga  Sam Waterston, F. Murray Abraham
Othello (2005)  Janet Suzman Richard Haines, John Kaki
Othello (1990)  Trevor Nunn Ian McKellen, Michael Grandage
Othello (1965)  Stuart Burge Laurence Olivier, Frank Finlay
Othello (1955)  Orson Welles Orson Welles
Othello (1983)  Franklin Melton Peter MacLean, Bob Hoskins, Jenny Agutter
Ran  (1985) Japanese Version of King Lear  Akira Kurosawa Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao
Richard II (2001)  John Farrell  Matte Osian, Kadina de Elejalde
Richard III (1912)  André Calmettes, James Keane  Robert Gemp, Frederick Warde
Richard III - Criterion Collection (1956)  Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson
Richard III (1995)  Richard Loncraine Ian McKellen, Annette Bening
Richard III BBC Production  Ron Cook, Brian Protheroe, Michael Byrne
Romeo and Juliet (1968)  Franco Zeffirelli Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey
Romeo and Juliet (1996)  Baz Luhrmann Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes
Romeo and Juliet (1976)  Joan Kemp-Welch Christopher Neame, Ann Hasson
Romeo and Juliet BBC Production  John Gielgud, Rebecca Saire, Patrick Ryecart
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Twelfth Night (1996)  Trevor Nunn Helena Bonham Carter
Twelfth Night BBC Production  Not Listed
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The Winter's Tale  (2005)  Greg Doran Royal Shakespeare Company
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