Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ – an Overview

Posted on July 30, 2008


‘The Tempest’ is a part of the last group of plays written by Shakespeare. The other plays included in this group are ‘Winter’s Tale’, ‘Cymbeline’ and Pericles. ‘The Tempest’ has also been called ‘Shakespeare’s last will’, as it expresses his opinion about the way we should live and opinion different from that en his tragedies and comedies. The play belongs to the category called dramatic romances. The play tries to answer the moral question – ‘How to live?’ It presents a moral lesson so much so that it has been labeled as a Morality Play. Critics have seen in Prospero a reflection of Shakespeare himself, a sage who after suffering all the anguish of the soul had decided on a reposeful retirement to Stratford.
“Forgiveness and freedom are the keynotes of the play”, says Dowden while it is Verity, who states “Forgiveness and Reconciliation are the keynotes of the play”. ‘The Tempest’ is the story of a wronged man, Prospero. His Dukedom of Milan has been usurped by his brother Antonio, who hatched the conspiracy with the co-operation of Alonso (King of Naples) and Sebastian (Alonso’s brother). Prospero is expelled from the country and sent on a boat so that ti may drown in the storm. It is by god’s grace that Prospero accompanied by his infant daughter Miranda safely reaches and island unharmed by the sea-storm. Living on this almost uninhabited island (the only ones living there were – Caliban, a half-monster and some spirits), Prospero continues his habit of reading books of magic which were placed in the boat by his honest minister, Gonzalo. Prospero acquires so much power that he can do anything. Using his powers he brings his enemies to the same island. But when the time comes to punish them he does not do so. Instead he arouses a sense of guilt in them. He tells Ariel that his enemies are repentant of their past misdeeds which ‘sole drift of mine purpose doth extend it not a frown further’. All that wanted his enemies was to have ‘heart sorrow and a clear life ensuing’, that is remorse and repentance for their past misdeeds and a vow to lead a sinless life in future. Prospero had probably realized that the virtue of forgiveness is greater that the quality of vengeance:
“…the sweetness doth life
In virtue than in vengeance”
– a truth that Shakespeare too had understood at the fag end of his writing career. Even in his last speech (after he throws his books of magic into the sea), Prospero seems to be echoing Shakespeare’s view.
Prospero forgives his brother Antonio, also the King of Naples, Alonso and Sebastian. The only revenge (if we can call it one) he has upon his enemies is that by using magic he made Ferdinand, son of Alonso (King of Naples) fall in love with and pledge to marry Miranda. After the reconciliation Prospero will be re stored back his Dukedom, and Miranda will inherit both the Dukedom of Milan and Kingdom of Naples. The reconciliation takes place between the brothers – Antonio and Sebastian too are repentant of their evil designs and King of Naples too reconciles. Apart from these, there are others too who are reconciled to their near and dear ones. Ferdinand and Miranda are together once again after Prospero had made Ferdinand work as a log-man. Alonso is too glad to meet his son Ferdinand; both had presumed each other to be dead.
Another dominant characteristic of the play is the element of freedom. The play begins and ends with the idea of liberty. In the very beginning of the play we are informed that Ariel was set free by Prospero. Throughout the play Ariel, the airy spirit, requests Prospero to free him. Prospero had got the island rid from the clutches of the witch Sycorax, Caliban’s mother.
Earlier even Caliban had been forgiven and let free by Prospero but we learn that Caliban had tried to outrage the modesty of Miranda. So he was made a slave by Prospero. But at the end of the play, both Ariel and Caliban are set free by Prospero.
We also find the dominance of these keynotes in the Ferdinand-Miranda love story. Ferdinand is made to work as a ‘patient logman’ by Prospero to test his sincerity. Later he is set free and reconciled with Miranda. As Dowden has put it: “Shakespeare was aware that no life was ever lived which does not need to receive as well as to render forgiveness.”
The play is a dramatic romance, different from Shakespeare’s early comedies and tragedies. In a tragedy the events take a turn for the worse for the hero and the play ends with the hero’s sufferings, rather death. In a comedy, all is gay, the events are favourable and play ends on a cheerful note. While in a dramatic romance, there is a twist in-between, events change from unfavourable to favourable resulting eventually into a happy ending for the protagonist. Thus to state the essence of the play Dowden’s words are the most suitable: “true freedom of man consists in service”. Shakespeare presents before us this truth in the form of ‘one of the most perfect plays’ (as Hazlitt has called it). The play is a summation of the whole experience of Shakespeare – the lessons life had taught him.