The Tempest

William Shakespeare

Context

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest around 1610 and is considered Shakepeare's last play.

There were several equally important discourses and schools of thought that were either emerging or already circulating during the time through which Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. They have been identified and defined individually to make your study of them easier. 

The Renaissance

An intellectual revolution in Europe during the 16th-18th centuries in which people rediscovered Classical Greek and Roman art and culture, which promoted the beauty and potential of the human form.

Christian Humanism

Humanism is a philosophy that emphasises the value and agency of human beings. It emerged as a result of the rediscovery of Classical Greek and Roman texts. The idea that humans were powerful beings capable of individual thought ran against the ideas promoted by the Church, which argued that the Bible should be the ultimate source of moral authority and that humans were inherently corrupt. 

Christian Humanism emerged as a response to that conflict and suggested that humans are capable of making their own moral judgements, but that those judgements should be made with Christian values taken into account. 

Renaissance Feudalism

There was a strong emphasis on peoples' place in society; those at the top were believed to have been placed there by God because they were pious and moral, while those at the bottom were corrupt and sinners. There was an expectation that if you were at the top of society, you would do whatever was necessary to protect your place. The idea that you had to get revenge for any challenges to your power is obviously very anti-Christian, which partly explains the emergence of Christian Humanism.

The Great Chain of Being

Everyone's position in society is predetermined by God. To seek to change your or someone else's position in society was considered to be a challenge to God's will, which was a great sin. The natural order thus relied on the Great Chain of Being remaining intact. If it was disrupted, the natural order would be out of balance. 

The Divine Right of Kings

The ‘Divine Right of Kings’ thought that kings were appointed directly to the throne by God, and that they therefore had divine protection. Kings were the most powerful of humans according to the Great Chain of Being. To kill a king, or to challenge his rule, was to disrupt that order and the natural balance. 

Machiavellianism

Machiavellianism is a behavioural or political philosophy that holds that the ends justify the means. It was conceived of by Niccolo Machiavelli and was first explained in his seminal text The Prince. Many of Shakespeare’s villains are Machiavellian, insofar as they betray the trust of the protagonist, and the audience are left to watch as they further their own agenda unbeknownst to the hero. 

The Age of Exploration

When Europeans 'discovered' the Americas and beyond they struggled to understand whether each land’s native inhabitants were human - and if they were therefore deserving of rights.See Michel de Montaigne On Cannibals for more information.

Characterisation of Caliban as a sub-human, hypersexual being aligns with early racist views regarding non-Europeans: they were seen as primitive, inferior or non-human and unable to control their emotions and impulses. 

Role of Women

Throughout the early 17th century women were disenfranchised and confined to the domestic sphere. They were viewed as being too emotional and therefore 'dangerous', or that they were volatile and manipulative. The Madonna-Whore complex materialises as considering women who did not conform to strict expectations of demure and innocent behaviour, as immoral.

Plot

Act 1 Scene 1

A ship carrying Alonso, the King of Naples, his brother Sebastian, his son Ferdinand, Antonio, Gonzalo and others is threatened by a storm. Panicked, the noblemen argue with the Botswain (the ship’s commanding officer), who desperately tries to keep the ship afloat. 

Act 2 Scene 2

Prospero and Miranda observe the ship’s wreckage from afar. Prospero explains his past to Miranda, revealing that he was once the King of Naples, and that he was exiled to the island by his treacherous brother, Alonso. He also reveals that he created the storm with his magic. Frightened, Miranda begs him to tell her that there were no casualties: he reassures her that there wasn’t. 

Act 3 Scene 1

Ferdinand is now working as Prospero’s servant. Miranda proposes to him, and he accepts. Prospero secretly watches the encounter from a distance. He approves of the relationship. 

Act 3 Scene 2

While drunk, Caliban plots with Trinculo and Stephano to kill Prospero and to make Stephano king of the island. Ariel is unconvinced and claims that Caliban is a liar. 

Act 3 Scene 3

Spirits deliver a feast to the noblemen. As they dine, Ariel and Prospero, who are invisible, arrive and explain that as punishment for exiling Prospero and Miranda from Milan, Ferdinand has been killed by Fate. 

Act 4 Scene 1

Prospero commands Ariel to organise for some spirits to perform a play in honour of Ferdinand and Miranda’s upcoming marriage. A short while later, Prospero is reminded that Caliban has been plotting to kill him, and that he will attempt to do so soon. He ends the masque before Caliban arrives. When Caliban does arrive, he is unable to get the two friends he came with to kill Prospero, who chases them off with spirits who appear in the form of dogs. 

Act 5 Scene 1

Prospero appears in his wizard robes. Ariel counsels him to show mercy to his enemies. He is convinced, and announces that he will retire from magic, and will reassume the identity he had in Milan. The Botswain arrives to announce that the ship is seaworthy again. 

 

Prospero forgives the noblemen and arranges to join them on their journey back to Naples after the wedding. He arranges for Ariel to create calm weather for the journey, before setting him free. 

Epilogue

Prospero asks the audience to release him from the stage with their applause. 

quote table

Quote
Technique
Idea
“but release me from my bands / with the help of your good hands”
Metaphor
Forgiveness, Imprisonment, Art
“I shall no more to sea, to sea, Here shall I die ashore.”
Dramatic irony
Grief
“My spirits, as in a dream are all bound. / My father’s loss, the weakness which I feel”
Simile
Grief
“Brim full of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly / Him that you termed, sir, the good old lord Gonzalo. / His tears runs down his beard like winter’s drops”
Simile
Grief, Imprisonment
“Yet, with my nobler reason, ‘gainst my fury / Do I take part”
Juxtaposition
Revenge, Forgiveness
“The rarer action is in virtue, than in vengeance”
Juxtaposition
Revenge
"Let them be hunted soundly. At this hour / lies at my mercy all mine enemies.”
Metaphor
Revenge
“If thou dost break her virgin-knot before / All sanctimonious ceremonies … No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall / To make this contract grow, but barren hate”
Religious allusion
Power, Control, Gender
“I am your wife, if you will marry me. / If not, I’ll die your maid.”
Hyperbole
Individuality, Gender
“You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!”
Metaphor
Power, Imprisonment

The Tempest

Hag-Seed