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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Shakespeare's The Tempest

These activities are designed to activate students' background knowledge, thereby preparing them to anticipate the plot and some of the themes of the play.

(Note: Teachers might consult other Teacher's Guides to Signet Classic editions of Shakespeare's plays as they contain many ideas that could easily be adapted to this play.)

* One way to arouse students' interest in studying The Tempest is a scavenger hunt. Make a list of objects related to the setting, characters, and themes in the play. Have students gather a range of objects, from easy to difficult, to bring to class to organize displays. Following are some suggestions:

1. SETTING: sand; sea shells; a picture of a lush island with sandy beaches; a picture of a storm at sea; a sailing ship; a 17th-century map showing Naples, Milan, the Mediterranean Sea; an audio tape with the sound of the sea or ethereal music suitable for magic and romance.

2. CHARACTERS: a magician's hat, wand, or robe; a crown; a picture of halfman, halfbeast or a monstrous looking man; statues or pictures of a spirit, beautiful girl, or handsome man.

3. THEME: objects which symbolize ambition, greed, drunkenness, revenge, romantic love, marriage, justice, mercy, harmony (prior to the scavenger hunt allow students to brainstorm ideas of objects which suggest these abstract qualities).

A week or two before beginning a unit on The Tempest, organize the class into teams of four to six students and give instructions for the scavenger hunt.


1. Each group appoints a leader and plans who will get the objects, models, or pictures.

2. Teams meet briefly during the week to check their progress.

3. On the kickoff day for the unit, all teams present their objects, models, or pictures to be tallied.

4. Teams set up class displays on tables or bulletin board. (Note to the teacher: These displays can be referred to during the discussions of the play.)

5. Scoring:

a. two points for each object or model

b. one point for each picture

c. only one object, model, or picture counted per group for each word

d. extra credit for creativity in designing the display of the objects

Genre: Romance, Tragicomedy or Comedy?

The Tempest, like all great literature, is both complex and ambiguous, especially when attempting to characterize it by genre.

* Before reading the play, review with students other Shakespearean plays they have read and their genre classifications. Ask: What makes A Midsummer Night's Dream a comedy and Hamlet a tragedy? Have you read other Shakespearean plays, such as Much Ado About Nothing, in which the definitions of comedy and tragedy seem blurred? Why and how are they blurred?

* Have students draw a distinction between the literary definition of romance and popular notions of this term. If the students have read The Scarlet Letter, they will have encountered Hawthorne's specific definition of this term in "The Custom-House" introduction which precedes the novel. Hawthorne describes the goal of the romance writer to create "a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other" (p.38 The Scarlet Letter, Penguin Classics, 1983). Using Hawthorne's definition as a guide, ask the students: Is The Tempest best described as a romance? What expectations do you have about the setting or the events of the play?

* Roman, the word for novel in most western European languages, shows the connection between the relatively new narrative form of the novel with earlier romances, stories of knights, their adventures or quests, and their devotion to a lady who inspires chivalrous behavior. Depending on the students' background, have them compare and analyze how an epic like The Odyssey is different from Gawain and the Green Knight or Malory's Morte d'Arthur.

Ask them to consider: How does the emphasis or theme of an epic differ from a romance? What choices of the writer or poet create this difference in theme and tone?

* Have the class discuss several contemporary films classified as romances. What elements do these films have in common? Are these "romances" fundamentally different from the earlier tales of knights and ladies in distress? What elements have remained constant?

Shakespeare, His Theater, and The Tempest

* Since most students have studied Shakespeare and previously read other Shakespearean plays, you can draw upon their background knowledge by means of an anticipation guide. Responding to questions will give students an opportunity to realize how much they know about Shakespeare and will also create some curiosity about the play they are about to read. (Read more about the anticipation guide and KW [Know, Want to Know, Learn] strategies in Ogle, D., "They Know, Want to Know, Learn Strategy," in Children's Comprehension of Text, edited by K. Muth, International Reading Association, 1989).


1. List two facts you know about the life of William Shakespeare.

2. List the titles of as many Shakespearean plays as you remember.

3. Using the play you remember most clearly, list three things you remember about it.

4. If you have seen a Shakespeare play performed, what was the play and what did you enjoy about the performance?

5. If you have seen a Shakespeare play in a movie version, what was the play and what did you enjoy about the production?

6. Describe what you think when you hear the phrase "Elizabethan or Shakespearean language." List words or phrases that come to mind when you think of Shakespearean language. What words that we use today do you identify with the Elizabethan period?

7. The Tempest was first performed in 1611, the seventeenth century. List three facts you know about this historical period.

8. What do you already know about the play The Tempest?

9. Just looking at the title, what might you suspect this play is about?

10. This play is often classified as a romance. Knowing that, what might you suspect will happen in the play?

* After completing the anticipation guide, have students work in a cybernetic session, a collaborative brainstorming session, pulling out all the information they already know about Shakespeare, his theater, and the context of this play. (For more information about this strategy read: Maszfal, N. B., "Cybernetic Sessions: A High Involvement Teaching Technique," Reading Research and Instruction, vol. 25, Winter 1986, 131-36.)


1. Divide the class into six groups.

2. Each group has one large sheet of paper and a marker.

3. At the top of each sheet have the group scribe write one of following topics:

a. Biography of William Shakespeare: What we know/What we would like to know

b. Seventeenth Century England and Europe: Facts and Questions

c. Design of the Globe Theater and Acting in the Elizabethan Age

d. Other Shakespeare Plays and their Themes

e. What we know about The Tempest - What we would like to know

f. The Language of Shakespeare's famous quotes

4. Have groups brainstorm for 4 to 5 minutes, writing down everything they know about their topic.

5. Call time. Have the groups move the papers clockwise to the next group and continue with brainstorming until each group has had an opportunity to work on each topic. (In rooms with sufficient space you may choose to have students move from paper to paper.)

6. Return each paper to the original group.

7. Have the group read, review, and discuss all the ideas listed on the sheet.

8. Each group makes a brief presentation (summary) of the main ideas and questions that have been generated.

* Make no corrections or comments at this point. During the next session, you can use students' ideas to lead into discussion. Students' questions can be used as a guide in order to fill in areas where students show they need additional background. For example, direct students to "The Source of The Tempest" in the Signet edition in order to help them develop a clearer understanding of the contemporary context in which Shakespeare wrote the play.


Following a common Shakespearean convention, characters are listed in order of their social importance. Have students do some of the following activities to help them understand how Shakespeare deals with character.

* List and arrange the characters according to their familial relationships. Examine the brief descriptions for each character and make predictions about how they will act in the play. As the students read the play have them refer to their list of characters in order to keep their relationships clear.

* After they have finished reading the play, students can create a new list of characters, listed according to their moral behavior. This can lead to a discussion about how the moral behavior of these characters relates to their social standing. The following questions can stimulate the discussion:

1. Who is the most moral person in the play and why?

2. What is the role of the king or the father in Elizabethan society?

3. How does King Alonso violate the right order?

4. What is the right relationship of subjects to their king?

5. What is the right relationship of children to their fathers?

6. How does Prospero upset the right order of his relationship to his subjects?

7. What is the right relationship of rulers to their subjects?

8. Is Prospero "right" in the way he treats Caliban?

9. Is Prospero "right" in the way he treats his daughter?

* After students have read Act I, have them draw pictures or clip pictures from magazines of the characters. Post the pictures on a bulletin board leaving space for captions of the character's speech. As the action of the play unfolds, have students change the captions to reflect the state of mind of the character.


The action of The Tempest takes place during a short period of time at a very specific location, the island where Prospero lives with his daughter. Complications are caused when the travelers are shipwrecked and separated from each other; they assume that everyone else has been drowned in the storm. Here are some activities to help students keep track of the characters and the action.

* Draw a large map of the island, using information from "The Source of The Tempest" about a shipwreck off Bermuda that occurred in 1609. Figures representing the characters could be moved on the map to represent changes in location.

* Create a three dimensional model of the island.

* Create playing cards with the pictures of each character, using the back of the card to list information about the character. Students can add more details as they read the play. These cards can serve review purposes and show students how their general impressions of a character change as they see and hear the character in action.

* The first scenes of this play, as is usual in most drama, give background information and set up action that follows, so it is useful to spend significant time reading aloud and acting out these scenes. Assign small groups of students to read different sections of scenes 1 and 2. Assign scene 1 in its entirety; divide scene 2 into appropriate sections, for example, lines 1106, lines 108185, lines 189257, and so on. Be sure the sections are short enough so students have time to read the lines aloud, to analyze the language, and feel confident they understand what is happening. Give students time to prepare for their performance of the lines for the class. Suggest the following to help students make their performances more interesting:

1. use physical movements

2. use classroom furniture or simple props

3. use modern language in place of the Shakespearean language

4. use significant passages and condense the scene as appropriate

5. vary voice inflections to indicate the emotions of the characters

6. be creative in planning the scene--think like a play director or film maker to create a visual representation of the emotions and themes of the short scene

* Another technique that will help students better understand the play is to read aloud the first scene to the class. Emphasize the opening stage directions so students understand the action takes place on a ship at sea in a terrible storm with flashes of lightning and thunder. If you have an audio or video tape of a storm, play it prior to or during the reading to set the mood. Vary your voice to represent the different characters. Ask students: What did you learn about the characters in the first scene? How do the sailors relate to their passengers? How do the sailors act in the face of The Tempest? How does their behavior compare to the way the noble passengers act?

* To show how Shakespeare varies the dramatic tension in the play, contrast the opening scenes of Act 1. After reading scene 1, read orally the first passages of scene 2. Have students compare the mood of the two scenes by asking: What do we learn about the situation immediately? What do we learn about Prospero? How does the sudden change in mood affect the reader or spectator of this play?


Since even experienced readers of Shakespeare's plays often have some difficulty interpreting every word of a play, students can engage in activities to help them become more confident and to give them strategies for reading the play.

* Demonstrate to students that the most important key to understanding the language is visualizing the action by reading scene 1 aloud. Ask: What do you know about the characters so far? (Note: students may reply that the nobles are fearful while trying to appear in control and the sailors have no time for their foolishness. The sailors are blunt and businesslike. They know what they need to do, and they don't want to stand around talking about what might happen. When the sailors cry out "All lost!" they really believe that they are doomed.) Cite a few lines from the scene; for example, Gonzalo says, "I have great comfort from this fellow. Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect gallows." Ask: What do these lines mean? What do they suggest about the importance of a person's appearance as a sign to their personality or fate? Have students read the note and see how it adds additional information, telling us that Gonzalo is quoting a proverb. Point out to the students that they didn't need the note to gain a general sense of the scene even if they did not understand every word or phrase. Since the action of a play moves quickly, students need to learn to rely on their first impressions.

* To help students carefully examine the language used by Miranda in the play, have them work in pairs to fill in the blanks in the Cloze passage below. They should not use their books to complete this activity; rather they should attempt to fill in the correct word through contextual and syntactical clues.


If by your art, my dearest father, you have

Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

The sky, it seems, would pour down _______ pitch

But that the sea, mounting to the welkin's cheek,

_______ the fire out. O, I have suffered

With those that I saw _______ ! A brave vessel

(Who had no doubt some _______ creature in her)

Dashed all to _______! O, the cry did knock

Against my very _______! Poor souls, they perished!

Had I been any god of _______, I would

Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere

It should the good _______ so have swallowed and

The fraughting souls within her. (l, ii, 113)

Have several of the pairs read their completed passages orally. Discuss with the class reasons for their word choices. More advanced students may be able to move beyond context to syntax. Compare students' answers with the original. Which pairs came the closest to Shakespeare's words?

*Devise another Cloze passage for the epilogue at the end of the play. After quoting the complete first two lines, get students to tune into the rhythm and rhyme of the passage by leaving blank one of the rhyming words in each of the couplets; for example:


Now my charms are all o'erthrown,

And what strength I have's mine own,

Which is most faint. Now 'tis true

I must be here confined by _______,

Or sent to Naples. Let me _______,

Since I have my dukedom got

And pardoned . . . (Epilogue, 17)

* Insults and name-calling are used to indicate the relationships between characters and also to define the status of a character, according to the speaker's perspective. Have students look carefully at who is speaking and what his or her underlying motive or point of view might be. Use as an example how Prospero and Caliban interact exchanging insults.


Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself

Upon thy wicked dam, come forth! (I, ii, 519-520)


As wicked dew as e'er my mother brushed

With raven's feather from unwholesome fen

Drop on you both! A southwest blow on ye

And blister you all o'er! (I, ii, 521-524)

For discussion ask: Why does Caliban resent being called a "slave"? Why do Prospero and Miranda insist on using this word repeatedly? What European attitudes towards the people they conquered are shown through this language use? Have students find more examples in the same scene and discuss their reactions to the use of various derogatory terms.

* Shakespeare is a master of comic word play. Cite as an example Act II, scene ii when Caliban encounters Trinculo and Stephano. Ask students: What classic types of comedy does this scene employ? (answers: slap stick and word play). In small groups of three, have students read the scene and plan how they would act it out. Suggest that they try out various physical actions to show what is happening.

* Have the class do a "still photograph" of their favorite part of Act II, scene ii or another comic scene.

* Ask students to choose their favorite joke or word play and tell why they liked it.


Ruler and Subjects - An important theme of The Tempest, the right relationship between ruler and subjects, is set within the context of the discovery of new lands during the seventeenth century.

* Have students find and compare passages in the play that show the relationship between Prospero and Caliban to Prospero's relationship to his subjects as Duke of Milan. Ask: What happens when Prospero forgoes his duty for his own intellectual pursuits?

Why does Prospero assume that he has the right to rule on the island? What rights do the native inhabitants possess?

Revenge or Mercy

* To enable students to see personal relevance in the revenge or mercy theme of The Tempest, present the class with a problem situation. Have them free write their responses and then share their reactions in pairs or small groups. Lead a whole class discussion using the students' responses or asking students to take a stand about the way they would act in the situation: take revenge or be forgiving.

"You have been elected President of the Student Council during the last election, but your brother betrays you. Because you are very involved with your studies, you allow your brother, who is Vice-President of the Student Council, to take over most of your duties.

He seems to enjoy the work, and this allows you to be free to really get into your multimedia and English classes. But you also enjoy the status of being President, and you make sure that the work of the Council is being done. However, early in the Spring semester, your brother engineers your downfall. He goes to the faculty advisor with whom he is friendly and enlists his help in deposing you. At a Council meeting, the advisor charges you with dereliction of duty and kicks you out of office. He installs your brother as President. Hurt and aggrieved, you withdraw within yourself to reflect on what has happened to you.

Through reflection, meditation, and study of the classics, you develop powers that you did not know you had before. Also, you discover that an audio tape you had been using to record environmental noise for your multimedia class somehow picked up the conversation of your brother and the advisor when they plotted to force you out. When the activity bus breaks down on a field trip that the Council officers and the advisor are taking, you offer the two a ride to get help. They are stunned when you put the tape in your tape player and play back their conversation to them. You have them in your power. Now you have a choice. Do you go for vengeance, get the advisor fired and your brother publicly dishonored and maybe suspended from school? Or do you go for mercy, forgive your brother and the advisor; have the advisor reinstate you as president and your brother as vice president? What would have to happen before you could feel merciful to your brother?"


Ask students to list moments in film that depict love at first sight, such as the moment when Maria and Tony see each other across the crowded dance floor in West Side Story. Ask them why the moment of seeing each other is so important. What does it mean? Consider that in the middle ages it was a common belief that the soul could be seen through the eyes of a person. What is the significance of the look exchanged between lovers given this idea?

Utopias While for most Europeans the colonies represented vast economic advantages, at least some thinkers saw the "new lands" as an opportunity to experiment in forms of government and social systems, to overcome some of the failures of the past. Shakespeare alludes to this utopian urge in the speeches of Gonzalo. To help students understand the utopian theme, have them do the following:

* Describe the world you would create if you were given the chance to design an "ideal" society.

* Compare your ideas to Gonzalo's description of an ideal commonwealth in Act II, i, 152-172. What do you think of his vision? Have you used any of these features in the world you described? Would such a state be able to survive? How would success be defined in this world? What would keep people from competing?

* Role play: How would it feel to live in the utopia described by yourself or Gonzalo? To prepare for the role play, make a list of the positive and negative aspects of life in an ideal state. Then with two other students, prepare a scene from the daily life of your utopia. Create dialogue for the scene which suggests some of the positive and negative aspects of the life.

* Read another piece of utopian literature (suggestions in the bibliography). The selection can be short, such as the description of Candide's journey to El Dorado or More's description of the daily life of the people in Utopia. Ask: What elements do these writings have in common with Gonzalo's speech? Are you aware of similar attempts to create ideal communities in the modern world? What is the impulse behind such communities? Why do they so often fail?

Do the writers intend for these ideas to be a blueprint for a community, or do they have some other purpose in mind?

Encounters with Indigenous Peoples

To help students understand how Shakespeare deals with the theme of the encounter between Europeans and indigenous peoples, have them read the excerpt from Montaigne's "Of the Cannibals" in the Signet edition. Ask: What commentary does he make about the European approach to the culture of indigenous peoples?

* Role play or imagine through free writing or dramatic play what it would be like to live on a Caribbean island in the seventeenth century and to witness the arrival of Europeans. List the feelings of native peoples. List the kinds of behavior they might show to the Europeans. List the way the Europeans might react to the natives. Ask: What do you think would pose the greatest difficulty to the two groups surviving together?

* Read out loud an excellent picture book, Encounter by Jane Yolan (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), which tells the story of the Spanish invasion of San Salvador from the point of view of a native Taino child. Discuss the way in which a native, as opposed to a European viewpoint, creates fundamental differences in the way events and persons are described.

Role of the Artist

Prospero, the magician, who seems to manipulate the other characters, may represent Shakespeare's idea of the power of the artist to heal and restore order. Perhaps as some critics have speculated, Shakespeare saw himself in the character of Prospero. Although we can't know for sure, it is interesting to look at the way Prospero uses his art for good or ill and what this says about the role of the artist.

* Remind students or have them brainstorm other works they have read in which the main character is an artist, such as Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) or Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929). Or you may wish to use brief excerpts from these works as a way to stimulate discussion about the role of artists in a society. Remind students that Plato did not want artists in his ideal society because he considered their way of creating illusions dangerous. Ask: What do you think about the role of contemporary artists, writers, painters, musicians? What is their role? Do we need artists? Why?

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