One of Shakespeare’s last plays, The Tempest is a culmination of his life’s work with familiar situations, common motifs, and echoing themes. Audiences are immediately comfortable with The Tempest—the oft repeated relationships of ruler and subject, master and servant, father and daughter, young lover and worthy lady; its use of the transforming power of music, magic, and time; and its exploration of the nature of humanity and the disparity between illusion and reality, between the outer show and inner truth. Despite its familiarity, The Tempest is unique unto itself, a new story that also summarizes and perhaps even transcends the old ones.
Central to the play is Prospero’s island. Like the woods outside of Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, this uncharted island is part of the green world, as Northrop Frye called that natural place where characters find themselves and lose a few of their flaws. However, it is more than just a place removed from the ordinary traffic of man. “[T]he isle is full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (3.2.135–36; all references to the play are from The Riverside Shakespeare, [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974]). Originally peopled only by the spirit Ariel, the monstrous Caliban, and all manner of supernatural entities, the island providentially becomes the home of Prospero and Miranda.
As Duke of Milan, Prospero had been absorbed with the pursuit of knowledge, delegating his brother Antonio to rule for him, but he was oblivious to his brother’s greed for power and position. With the help of Alonzo, the King of Naples, Antonio seized the dukedom and banished Prospero and Miranda to an almost certain death cast adrift in a “rotten carcass of a butt, not rigg’d, / Nor tackle, sail, nor mast” (1.2.146–47).
Shipwrecked on the island, Prospero continues his study, but his focus is broadened in his twelve-year exile. Separated from Milan, he creates a new kingdom over which to reign. His rule is benign. He teaches Caliban, attempts to civilize him, and punishes him only because he must. He cannot allow him to rape Miranda or destroy the order of the island. Ariel and the other spirits of the island are also his subjects. They are not mistreated and are eventually freed. Prospero serves his apprenticeship and learns how to rule.
His talents are demonstrated when his brother and the Neapolitans are shipwrecked in a storm on his island kingdom. With Ariel to do his bidding and other spirits to perform as commanded, Prospero carefully orchestrates the tempest, the dispersing of the characters, and what they are allowed to see and do. His art is perfected. Never are they harmed, never are they in danger. Any discomfort, either physical or emotional, is temporary, occurring only to lead them to the possibility of a positive transformation.
Prospero’s exile on the island has also taught him to be a father. Here he has learned to care for another and has integrated human interaction into his character. Miranda remembers a time when more than four or five ladies waited upon her. On the island Prospero is exclusively in charge of her upbringing. With his loving guidance, Miranda has become a consummate princess—in speech, in bearing, in compassion.
Prospero tells her that as her schoolmaster he made her “more profit / Than other princess’ can, that have more time / For vainer hours, and tutors not so careful” (1.2.172–74). According to Caliban, Prospero calls Miranda “a nonpareil” (3.2.100). Ferdinand immediately falls in love with her and says to her, “[Y]ou, / So perfect and so peerless, are created / of every creature’s best!” (3.1.46–48). As a child, her gentle, compassionate nature prompted her to teach Caliban (1.2.353-58). She fears greatly for the ship’s passengers in the tempest (1.2.1–13), and later offers to perform Sebastian’s labor for him (3.1.23–25).
The Tempest shows the positive traits of humankind exemplified by Prospero and Miranda, but no character is merely a representation of virtue. Prospero is still understandably angry about his brother’s treachery, and he harshly (but wisely) tests Ferdinand’s love for Miranda. Gonzolo helped Prospero when he was exiled and seems a positive character, but his optimism is not without naivety. Antonio and Sebastian, on the other hand, seem to lack any virtues. They are arrogant and rude to the crew during the tempest, contributing nothing but interfering with the dangerous job of saving the ship.
In short, all characteristics of humanity are represented in the play. One of the most prevalent is lust. Antonio’s lust for temporal power compels him to displace Prospero as duke and banish him and his daughter Miranda. Antonio also easily seduces Sebastian to attempt to murder his own brother Alonzo, the King of Naples, to usurp his kingdom even though he and his brother are shipwrecked together with no certain means of return. Stephano is just as easily convinced to kill Prospero in order to rule the island with Miranda as his queen and Caliban and Trinculo as viceroys, his drunkenness preventing him from deducing that Miranda might object to such a bond with her father’s murderer.
Tied to the desire for power are lust and greed. Both Caliban and Stephano desire Miranda. Quelled in his attempt to possess her himself, Caliban readily offers her to Stephano as part of the reward package for killing Prospero. Being the sovereign of the island or of Milan has the added inducement of wealth, appealing to the greed of Stephano and Sebastian. Alonzo helped Antonio because of an established enmity toward Prospero but also because Antonio agreed to pay him tribute for his help. Having paid Alonzo for twelve years, Antonio eagerly urges Sebastian to kill Alonzo and become the King of Naples, ending Antonio’s payment.
In so many plays, Shakespeare explores the differences between illusion and reality, but in The Tempest illusion and reality are the same. Though the courtly figures from Naples and Milan cannot see Ariel and are mystified by his spells questioning their own senses, Ariel is real. Prospero’s magic is real. The tempest, the food, the entities that deliver it and remove it, the sea-drenched clothing made fresh and new, the rich apparel to transform Stephano from drunken butler to lord of the island are real. They seem illusion because they are foreign to the common experience and cannot be explained by the newcomers. Life is a mixture of good and evil, spiritual and temporal, the magical and the mundane. Perspective alters individual perception, but The Tempest offers a full vision of reality.