The Tempest

Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, covers the serious topics of colonialism and imperialism, making this work perfect for cross-curricular study. This guide includes a detailed synopsis and suggested teaching activities for before, during, and after reading the play.
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The Tempest

by William Shakespeare


The Tempest is generally regarded as Shakespeare's last play, first performed in 1611 for King James I and again for the marriage festivities of Elizabeth, the King's daughter, to Frederick, the Elector Palatine. Scholars attribute the immediate source of the play to the 1609 shipwreck of an English ship in Bermuda and travelers' reports about the island and the ordeal of the mariners. The period in which it was written, the seventeenth century age of exploration, the circumstances of its performance at court, and the context of the playwright's writing career suggest immediately some of its rich themes and ambiguities.

The play can be read as Shakespeare's commentary on European exploration of new lands. Prospero lands on an island with a native inhabitant, Caliban, a being he considers savage and uncivilized. He teaches this "native" his language and customs, but this nurturing does not affect the creature's nature, at least from Prospero's point of view. But Prospero does not drive Caliban away, rather he enslaves him, forcing him to do work he considers beneath himself and his noble daughter. As modern readers, sensitive to the legacy of colonialism, we need to ask if Shakespeare sees this as the right order; what are his views of imperialism and colonialism? What are our twentieth century reactions to the depiction of the relationship between the master and slave, shown in this play?

The theme of Utopianism is linked to the explorations of new lands. Europeans were intrigued with the possibilities presented for new beginnings in these "new" lands. Was it possible to create an ideal state when given a chance to begin anew? Could humans hope to recreate a "golden age," in places not yet subject to the ills of European social order? Could there be different forms of government? Would humans change if given a second chance in an earthly Paradise?

The play emphasizes dramatic effects. Because it was performed at court, there is a lot of stage business: music, dance, masque-like shows. The role of the artist is explored through Prospero's use of his magic, and parallels can be drawn to Shakespeare's own sense of his artistry.

Finally, knowing that this is Shakespeare's last play, it is intriguing to explore autobiographical connections. Does he see himself in Prospero? Does he feel somehow isolated, in need of reconciliation? How is this play a culmination of other themes he has explored?

These questions assume an audience of students who have previously encountered Shakespeare. So, this play will be most appropriate for high school seniors or college students. The Tempest is an excellent play for study, though, because it shows Shakespeare's final treatment of themes that have run through the other plays, e.g. good and evil, justice and mercy. In addition, this play provides a primary source perspective on 17th-century attitudes about imperialism. Students of world history might especially be interested by this view. Also, the low humor and pageantry in the play heightens its appeal to a wider audience. Students might especially have fun with the scenes involving Caliban and the members of the crew.

In this guide we will suggest activities and discussion questions which encourage students to explore these various ideas. Since the play may be challenging to high school students, teachers will need to carefully provide students with background knowledge in order to insure that their reading and enjoyment of the play is as rich as possible. As in previous Teacher's Guides to Signet Classics, we include a detailed synopsis of the play and suggested teaching activities for before students read, while they read, and after they read the play. A variety of activities is listed in each section, so the teacher can choose according to the themes, interests, background, and needs of students.



Characters by Relationship

Prospero, the true Duke of Milan but now living on a deserted island

Miranda, his daughter

Antonio, brother of Prospero and usurper of the role of Duke of Milan

Ariel, "an airy spirit" who does Prospero's bidding

Caliban, a savage creature controlled by Prospero

Alonso, King of Naples

Sebastian, his brother

Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples

Gonzalo, former advisor to Prospero, now principally serves Alonso

Act I, scene i

The play begins on the deck of a ship at sea in the middle of a violent tempest. Amid loud sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning, the sailors fight to bring down the sails in order to control the ship. The passengers, Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and Ferdinand, come on deck to see what is happening, but the sailors complain that they interfere with their work and make more noise than the storm. Soon all appears lost as the ship breaks apart. The passengers and crew believe they are about to drown.

Act I, scene ii

The scene changes to the island where Miranda and Prospero have viewed the plight of the storm-tossed ship through Prospero's magic powers. Removing his magical robe, Prospero tells Miranda the history of her birth and her true place and value. He describes how he and Miranda, then not quite three years old, were forced to board a rotting ship and put to sea to suffer certain death. The conspiracy to take over Prospero's power and station was the work of his brother who plotted with the King of Naples, Prospero's enemy. Now "by accident most strange," all these men have been brought close to the island where Prospero and Miranda have been shipwrecked for the last twelve years. Through magic and the spirit Ariel who is required to do his bidding, Prospero created the storm and chaos among the sailors and passengers so that they would be separated and believe the others drowned. However, Prospero has protected them all from harm and hidden the ship under a charm.

When Ariel appears reluctant to continue to serve Prospero, he reminds the spirit of its imprisonment by the witch Sycorax and Caliban, her child, until Prospero worked his magic. (Ariel's gender is unspecified.) Besides, Prospero promises complete freedom in just two days time if Ariel carries out his designs.

Prospero awakens Miranda and they visit Caliban, "the slave," who carries wood, makes fire, and serves their basic needs. Caliban curses Prospero, his master, for usurping his rightful rule of the island, and Prospero vows to punish Caliban for these insults and his continued insolent behavior. Prospero recalls how when he attempted to befriend Caliban and teach him language and manners, Caliban tried to "violate the honor" of Miranda.

Meanwhile Ariel's song and music has lured Ferdinand near to Prospero and Miranda. Miranda is immediately impressed by Ferdinand's good looks, and he is equally smitten by her beauty, calling her a "goddess." Prospero lets the audience know through the vehicle of asides that this attraction is exactly what he had planned and hoped for, and he only acts disapproving in order to make their bond even stronger. Miranda pleads with her father to spare Ferdinand while Prospero demands his subservience.

Act II, scene i

Meanwhile Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and Gonzalo have washed up on another part of the island. Gonzalo councils Alonso to see the optimistic side of their predicament. Even though Ferdinand is missing, they should rejoice that they are alive. This is, of course, the last thing that Alonso wants to hear. Meanwhile Sebastian and Antonio ridicule Gonzalo, making fun of his speeches. Cruelly, Sebastian even accuses Alonso of being responsible for Ferdinand's death. They wouldn't have been on this journey if Alonso had allowed his daughter to marry a European prince rather than the King of Tunis.

Gonzalo counsels moderation; no one is to blame. He also calls on the company to observe the beauty of the island. Then he begins to describe the type of government he would institute on this island. It would be a utopia of equality with no marks of wealth or social status. All would have leisure and their needs would be met "without sweat or endeavor."

Ariel, who is invisible, passes among the men playing music, and all of the company, except Antonio and Sebastian, suddenly fall into a deep sleep. Antonio uses this moment to describe to Sebastian the opportunity he now has to seize the crown from his brother.

With Alonso's son and daughter out of the way, Sebastian can easily claim the crown; all he has to do is kill Alonso. Antonio points to his own behavior as a model. He overthrew his brother and now enjoys success. He vows to kill Gonzalo to prevent his interference with their plot while Sebastian kills his brother. Sebastian decides to follow Antonio's "precedent," promising Antonio as his reward that he will no longer have to pay tribute to Naples.

Just as they draw their swords, Ariel awakens Gonzalo, singing in his ear that treachery is at hand. Sebastian and Antonio are able to avoid suspicion by saying that they too had heard a loud noise and were protecting the king. The company now decides to continue their search for Ferdinand.

Act II, Scene ii

On another part of the island, a parallel scene occurs between Trinculo, a jester, Stephano, a butler, and Caliban. At first Caliban hides from Trinculo, fearing he will torment him. For his part Trinculo cannot tell if Caliban is fish or man, but decides to take shelter in Caliban's garments because he fears a storm is coming. Stephano, who has found the ship's liquor, doesn't know what to make of the "beast" he discovers with four legs, two voices, and a severe case of the shakes. Finally, Trinculo and Stephano discover each other, and Caliban is so impressed with Stephano's "celestial liquor" that he declares he will be his subject. Caliban promises to show Stephano all the fine points of the island and to give him food and drink; he vows he will no longer serve Prospero.

Act III, scene i

Ferdinand carries and stacks wood for Prospero, but declares that it is not odious work since he serves a sweet mistress. Miranda laments Ferdinand's heavy burden and offers to take his place. Prospero, observing this scene from a hiding spot, is happy because it confirms that the two young people are deeply in love. Miranda and Ferdinand declare their affections and decide to marry.

Act III, scene ii

Caliban, who is quite drunk, continues to pledge his allegiance to Stephano. The invisible Ariel creates mischief among Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo by making it appear that they are contradicting and interrupting each other. Stephano beats Trinculo for defying Caliban, finally forcing him to stand at a distance while he plots with Caliban to overthrow Prospero, marry Miranda, and rule the island. Their conspiracy is interrupted by Ariel's sweet music when Stephano and Trinculo follow the music in hopes of catching up with the musician.

Act III, scene iii

Alonso and his company, exhausted from their search for Ferdinand, decide they must accept the fact that he is drowned. Sebastian quietly vows to Antonio to take advantage of the next opportunity and carry out their coup. Suddenly music is heard and spirits enter with a banquet table and invite all to eat. The men are amazed and wonder if anyone will believe their stories of these strange events when they return home. Just as they prepare to eat, Ariel arrives in thunder and lightning, looking like a bird of prey, and makes the table disappear. The spirit announces "you are three men of sin" who overthrew Prospero; the shipwreck is fair punishment. The three men are deeply affected with guilt and anger and run off in different directions. Gonzalo thinks they may harm themselves in their desperation and calls on the rest of the group to follow them and restrain them if necessary.

Act IV, scene i

Prospero agrees to the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand. He explains that the tasks he set were merely trials of Ferdinand's love, and he has proven to be true. However, Prospero cautions Ferdinand not to give way to his passions before the marriage ceremony.

Ariel is sent to gather the whole company while Prospero entertains the young couple with a magic show. Ceres and Juno are called to the earth by Iris to witness a contract of true love. They sing of the blessings to be bestowed on their marriage. Just as nymphs and reapers begin to perform a graceful dance, Prospero rises up in alarm and interrupts the show. He has just remembered the conspiracy of Caliban and his confederates.

Meanwhile Ariel's music has led the trio through a maze of briers and mud. Stephano and Trinculo are disgusted and angry with Caliban who still urges them to kill Prospero. But when they get to Prospero's home, the men are distracted when they see luxurious clothing hanging on a line. They start to fight over the garments and force Caliban to carry what they steal. Suddenly spirits in the shape of dogs attack them.

Act V, scene i

Prospero realizes that his project is almost completed. All his enemies are gathered together in one place. Ariel describes the sorrow and emotions of the company, adding that anything human would certainly feel compassion for them. Taking this cue, Prospero decides to show mercy. His reason and not his passion takes control. He realizes that "the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance," and since they are sorry for their crimes, he has accomplished his purpose. Ariel is sent to release them. Prospero uses his magic one last time to create music to soothe the senses and spirits of the conspirators. Ariel fetches Prospero clothes showing his true status as Duke of Milan. When the company revives, Prospero greets them and accuses them of their crimes. Alonso begs forgiveness and asks about Prospero's life on the island. Everything would now be in order except that Alonso regrets deeply the death of his son. Prospero says he too has suffered a similar loss; he has lost a daughter. Then he bids the company to look into his home. There they see Miranda and Ferdinand playing chess, and all are happily united.

Ariel leads in the sailors who announce that the ship is safe and sound. Caliban and his conspirators are led forward, entangled in their stolen clothes and still reeling from drink. Caliban has a change of heart, realizing that Prospero is a true master, not the drunken Stephano. He vows to serve Prospero henceforth. The company retires to hear the story of Prospero's life after which he promises them safe journey home.

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