The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare   (1610)  – 124 pages  Grade: A


Shakespeare wrote both tragedies and comedies.  If no one dies a violent death in a Shakespeare play, the play is considered a comedy.  In the tragedies the dead bodies pile up on the castle floors (see Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.)

No one is killed in ‘The Tempest’, so it is considered a comedy.  In fact the play is a powerful argument against violent revenge.

 “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” 

 Prospero is the main character in ‘The Tempest’, but it is the good Gonzalo who sets the pace for the play’s spirit.  When Prospero’s brother Antonio tricked Prospero out of his Milan dukedom and banished him and his three year-old daughter Miranda to this island, it is the good Gonzalo who makes sure they are well provided for.  After Gonzalo’s fine example, the spirit of ‘The Tempest’ is kind moderation.

Thus when Prospero and his helper Ariel use magic to create a tempest that shipwrecks the vessel of the King of Naples Alonso and Prospero’s brother Antonio, they make sure no one is injured or killed.   Still there are devilish plots in the works.  Antonio and Alonso’s son Sebastian want to steal Alonso’s throne by killing Sebastian’s older brother Prince Ferdinand.   Prospero’s slave Caliban plots to kill Prospero.

Meanwhile the shipwrecked Prince Ferdinand falls immediately in love with the now almost fifteen year-old Miranda and she with him.  The play does not say whether their love is part of Prospero’s magic or just strong mutual attraction.   After only about three hours, their marriage is assured.

the-tempest-billington-007‘The Tempest’ was the last play that William Shakespeare wrote by himself.  By 1610, colonialism was well under way in England’s colonies, and ‘The Tempest’ was Shakespeare’s first and only play that addresses colonialism.

Caliban is the black slave of Prospero, and Shakespeare did not portray him in a positive light.  Caliban is described as ‘hag-born’, a ‘demi-devil’, a ‘poor credulous monster’ who ‘didst seek to violate the honour of my child (Miranda)’.  Later Caliban seeks to regain the island for himself by murdering Prospero.  Yet Caliban is eloquent in his words describing the island:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.


 In this portrayal of Caliban, the question arises if these are Shakespeare’s own opinions or the opinions of the characters he is portraying on stage.  Thus Caliban could have been seen as a monster in the eyes of Prospero but not necessarily by Shakespeare.   Of course plenty of white Christians are portrayed negatively in Shakespeare including Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet, and Antonio here in ‘The Tempest’.  Perhaps it is a form of implicit racism to never portray a black person in a negative or evil light.

6 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve seen this performed twice, so maybe that’s why it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – seeing them on stage is what brings them alive, I think.


    • Hi Lisa,
      I haven’t seen The Tempest live yet. I kind of avoided the play for a long time because of its reliance on magic as a plot device. Now I think The Tempest is a pretty good play but no Hamlet or King Lear.


  2. I read this last year with the Guardian books Reading Group (a monthly interactive online bookclub). I was interesting to read it that way with the ongoing discussion. One of the most interesting aspects of the play for me is the way it was interpreted and re-interpreted in performances over the years – especially with the Caliban character. My Modern Library edition had fascinating supplementary material.


    • Hi roughghosts,
      Yes, it must be difficult to come up with a good interpretation of Caliban considering all the bad stuff Prospero and Miranda say about him in the play As well as reading the play twice, I watched a performance of the play on video that was quite good. I suppose Caliban is Shakespeare’s most questionable character besides Shylock. Or is it Iago?


      • The interesting thing is how Caliban was re-envisioned in the light of Darwin. He can represents visions of humanity far beyond what Shakespeare may have conceived.

        Otherwise, I have a strong sympathy for Shylock, he makes a strong and, I think, passionate plea for acceptance as a socially marginalized man but events conspire to put him in a place which reinforces that social stereotype. Iago, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities as a dinner companion or anyone I would want to cross swords with. I want to stand up and cheer when he meets his end.


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