A fierce storm rages at sea, battering a ship that carries noble cargo: King Alonso of Naples; his son, Ferdinand, and brother, Sebastian; and Antonio, Duke of Milan.
From an island shore, the young Miranda watches with horror as her father, Prospero, looks on with delight. As Miranda suspects, the storm is her father’s doing. He tells her that the ship carries men who betrayed them. Twelve years before, he was the Duke of Milan, but his brother, Antonio, plotted with Alonso to overthrow him. Set adrift in a leaky boat with his infant daughter, Prospero has been marooned on this island with her ever since. Now, with the help of Ariel, an island spirit, and his own magic arts, Prospero seeks revenge.
Prospero allows the ship’s passengers to make land safely but separates them, leaving Alonso to believe his son, Ferdinand, has drowned. Sebastian sees Ferdinand’s loss as an opportunity; he plots to kill Alonso and seize his crown.
His is not the only plot afoot. Prospero’s slave, Caliban, the island “savage,” encounters the drunken butler, Stephano, and the jester, Trinculo, and persuades them to kill Prospero so they can rule the island. In the meantime, Ferdinand and Miranda meet and fall instantly in love. Prospero tests Ferdinand with hard tasks and then, finally satisfied with the young man’s worth, conjures up an elaborate masque to bless the young couple’s engagement.
But Prospero ends the revels before they are done, suddenly remembering he must deal with his enemies. As Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban prepare to attack, he sends Ariel to drive them off with spirits shaped like hunting dogs. Prospero also has Ariel bring Alonso and the other nobles before him. At Ariel’s intercession, he shifts his course from vengeance to forgiveness, releasing the men from the spell that has bound them and resolving to abjure his “rough magic” forever. After reuniting Alonso with his son, Prospero decides to return with them to see Miranda and Ferdinand married and then retire to Milan.
But he has business to finish. He pardons Caliban and grants Ariel his long-desired freedom. He then turns to the audience. Having cast his magic aside, Prospero needs their help to release him from the island. And so he asks them for their applause and their forgiveness for his wrongs: “Let your indulgence set me free.”
Seldom has a single play inspired so many artists, musicians, film makers and writers to converse with it for centuries after its making.
Some 46 operas alone base themselves on The Tempest
. A 2004 adaptation by Thomas Adès was revived at the Metropolitan Opera and broadcast around the world in 2012 to great acclaim. Orchestral works and songs based on the play include Tchaikovsky’s 1873 fantasy, The Tempest
(opus 18); Jean Sibelius’ 1926 Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest
(opus 109); and Michael Nyman’s 1990 Ariel Songs
, among countless others.
The play has had a life in popular culture as well. In 1956, the cult science-fiction film, Forbidden Planet
, famously transformed Caliban into the destructive id of the Prospero figure, a scientist inhabiting the world of Altair IV and seeking to understand its mysteries. TV shows like Gilligan’s Island
also owe some part of their genesis to Shakespeare. Neil Gaiman’s comic book series The Sandman
(1996) focused on Shakespeare’s composition of his own last (solo) work.
Some of the play’s richest offshoots have explored the lives of its secondary characters. Caliban is the center of Robert Browning’s long poem, “Caliban Upon Setebos” (1864). As Caliban speaks, Browning suggests the psychic cost of his history; he can only refer to himself as “he,” his sense of “I” gone. In her 1949 work By Avon River
, imagist poet H. D. gives voice to the voiceless. Claribel, married off to the King of Tunis by her father, Alonso, never appears in the play; H. D. adopts her to represent the plight of the female artist, silenced by male tradition, an exile in an alien world. Intent on adapting Shakespeare’s play “for a Black theater,” Martiniquan playwright Aimé Césaire wrote Une Tempête
in 1969 with Caliban as a revolutionary African field hand and Ariel a more compliant mulatto. In Indigo
, British novelist Marina Warner examines the long legacy of colonialism by fleshing out the life of Sycorax (absent but powerful in Shakespeare’s text) and by making her Ariel female, a Caribbean girl who bears a white invader’s child and whose Creole descendent, Miranda, will struggle generations later to define her own identity.
An edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2014
Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full
Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of