In The Tempest Shakespeare puts romance onstage. He gives us a magician, a monster, a grief-stricken king, a wise old councillor, and no fewer than two beautiful princesses (one of whom we only hear about) and two treacherous brothers. The magician is Prospero, former duke of the Italian city-state of Milan, whose intense attraction to the study of magic caused him to lose sight of the political necessity of maintaining power, which he then lost to his treacherous brother, Antonio. When we first meet Prospero, he has already suffered twelve years of exile on a desert island, where his only companions have been his daughter, Miranda, now a beautiful princess, the spirit Ariel, and the monster Caliban, whom Prospero has used his magic to enslave. Now, sailing by the island and caught in a terrible storm are Prospero’s enemies (and one of his friends), who are returning from North Africa after having attended the wedding of another beautiful princess, Claribel of Naples, and the king of Tunis. On the ship are Antonio, who usurped Prospero’s dukedom and put him out to sea; King Alonso of Naples, who conspired with Antonio against Prospero; Sebastian, Alonso’s brother, who is about to conspire with Antonio against Alonso; Prince Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, destined to discover and fall into the power of the beautiful Miranda; and finally, Gonzalo, the wise old councillor who, twelve years before, provided Prospero with the books and other necessities that have made it possible for Prospero not only to survive his exile, but also to grow ever more powerful as a magician. Prospero will now turn his awesome power upon his enemies through the agency of Ariel (and the many other spirits whom Ariel directs) in producing terror in Prospero’s victims and pleasure in those whom Prospero favors.
Yet The Tempest is more than romance, for its characters exceed the roles of villains and heroes, some of them becoming both villains and heroes. Prospero seems heroic in enduring his long exile, in protecting his daughter from Caliban, and in mastering a spirit world that he can use to control the elements and much else, but he also seems villainous in his enslavement of others, notably Caliban, and his enormous appetite for revenge on his enemies. Caliban seems to deserve the name of monster for his attack upon Miranda, but he also seems heroic in his resistance to Prospero, who wrests the island from him and attempts to tyrannize over him. Thus The Tempest belongs not only to the world of romance, but also to the period of colonialism, written as it was in the early stages of the European exploration and conquest of the New World.
The doubleness that we see in the play’s embodiment of seemingly timeless romance and a temporally specific historical moment is characteristic of this complex play, which seems simple and lyrical but which contains wonderfully complex narratives and emotions. For an examination of these complexities, we invite you to turn, after you have read the play, to “The Tempest: A Modern Perspective,” written by Barbara A. Mowat.