By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most enchanting and enchanted plays: a fantasy or ‘romance’ featuring a magician, the ‘monstrous’ offspring of a wicked witch, fairies, a lavish masque, drunken conspirators, young lovers, and much else.
Before we say more about these individual elements (which demand separate blog posts at some later date), it might be worth offering a brief summary of The Tempest – one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, and widely regarded as his ‘farewell to the theatre’.
Before we begin summarising the individual acts of The Tempest, it’s worth setting out a bit of back-story first. Twelve years before the events of the play itself, a nobleman named Antonio overthrew his own brother, Prospero, from his position as Duke of Milan, because Antonio saw Prospero was more interested in tinkering about with magic than actually governing the city.
Prospero and his daughter Miranda (who wasn’t quite three years old when this happened) were exiled from Milan and went to live on an enchanted island which is the setting for the play. Alonso, the King of Naples, supported Antonio in his usurpation of Prospero, as did Alonso’s brother, Sebastian.
The Tempest begins, appropriately enough, during a storm at sea, which sees Antonio and his crew washed ashore the very island where Antonio’s exiled brother, the man he usurped, dwells with Miranda, the sprite Ariel, and Caliban, a wild native of the island.
Prospero tells his daughter Miranda (who is now a teenager) all about how they ended up on the island; Miranda had no idea her father was once a duke until this point.
Prospero then talks with Ariel, a fairy spirit who serves the magician and former duke. Ariel was formerly a slave of the witch Sycorax (who was also the mother of Caliban), and when the witch died, Ariel was left imprisoned inside a cloven pine tree until Prospero arrived and freed him. In gratitude for this act, Ariel agreed to serve Prospero.
Prospero discusses the tempest with Ariel – a tempest which, it turns out, Prospero has caused himself, using his magic. Prospero dispatches Ariel to see who has been washed ashore following the shipwreck. Caliban appears and is ordered to gather wood for Prospero.
Ferdinand, the son of Alonso, the King of Naples, is the first person washed ashore on the island, and hears Ariel’s enchanted singing. Ferdinand believes his father to have been drowned in the tempest.
Miranda catches sight of Ferdinand and is immediately smitten, and Ferdinand is similarly bowled over by Miranda’s beauty. Prospero intends to imprison Ferdinand, but Miranda entreats him not to.
The other people on the ship, including Ferdinand’s father, Alonso, and Prospero’s brother, Antonio, did not in fact drown. They, too, have made it ashore onto the island. They bicker, and then Ariel turns up, invisible, and casts a spell which ends up with all of them except Antonio and Sebastian asleep.
Meanwhile, Caliban, reluctantly gathering wood for Prospero and cursing his master, meets two men from the shipwreck: Stephano, who is Alonso’s drunken butler; and Trinculo, King Alonso’s jester. Stephano gives Caliban some wine, which prompts Caliban to view Stephano as some sort of god, dropped from heaven.
Ferdinand, now Prospero’s de facto prisoner, gathers logs for him. Ferdinand and Miranda talk and pledge their love for each other; unbeknownst to either of them, Prospero is listening in, earwigging their conversation from a distance.
Caliban pledges his service to Stephano, who plans to murder Prospero and take Miranda for his wife, so that the two of them can rule over the island as King and Queen. Stephano is, of course, rather drunk. Caliban advises him to burn all of Prospero’s books, for without them Prospero is bereft of his powers.
This scene mirrors the one between Ferdinand and Miranda since there is an unseen observer, listening in on their conversation: Ariel, still invisible, who overhears this talk of mutiny and rushes to tell Prospero.
Prospero gives Ferdinand and Miranda’s union his blessing, telling Ferdinand that he must wait until the wedding-night to go to bed with Miranda. Ferdinand readily agrees. They then watch the masque (a form of lavish court entertainment) that Prospero has arranged, celebrating their union: this spectacle is performed by spirits Prospero has conjured using his magic.
The spirits embody the Roman deities Ceres (the goddess of the harvest), Iris (goddess of the rainbow), Juno (the female counterpart of Jupiter: so, ‘queen of the gods’, if you like), and Venus (goddess of love).
Once the masque is over, the spirits vanish and Prospero recalls the plot against him by Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. As the three wannabe usurpers drunkenly prepare to overthrow Prospero, Ariel goes and ensures the three of them are chased off into the swamps by goblins (taking the form of hounds).
Prospero agrees to free King Alonso and his followers – who are still asleep elsewhere on the island, after the spell Ariel cast on them – from their spell, and welcomes them to the island. He forgives Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian for overthrowing him as Duke of Milan, and they agree to restore Prospero’s dukedom.
Prospero discovers Ferdinand and Miranda, now fully loved up, playing chess together. Alonso is overjoyed to discover his son is alive and survived the tempest. Prospero commands Ariel to free Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Caliban vows to serve Prospero from now on and behave himself, realising what a mistake it was to follow the drunken Stephano as a likely king.
Meanwhile, Stephano and Trinculo are restored to Alonso. Prospero prepares to leave the island, along with Alonso and Antonio and the others, freeing Ariel from his servitude.
The Tempest ends with Prospero addressing us, the audience, directly, and requesting that we release him from the island and allow him to retire to Milan, and older and wiser man.
This, in brief, is a summary of the play. You can read our analysis of The Tempest, and some background information, here.