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Understanding the Tempest

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, is set on a remote island. It revolves around Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, who was betrayed by his brother Antonio and left to die at sea with his young daughter, Miranda. However, using his magic, Prospero creates a storm to bring Antonio and his allies to the island where he has been living in exile.

In the midst of all this, a love story unfolds between Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand, one of the shipwreck survivors. Their growing affection offers a glimmer of hope amidst the deceit and power play that dominates the island.

Throughout the play, Prospero uses his magic to influence the events on the island, leading to a climactic revelation of his true identity. Eventually, he chooses to forgive his enemies, give up his magical powers, and plans to return to Italy.

The play explores several key themes:

  • Power
  • Colonisation
  • Illusion vs reality
  • Forgiveness
  • Nature vs nurture

Act 1

At the beginning of the play, Prospero uses his magic to summon a fierce storm, known as a tempest. This causes a ship to wreck on the island where he’s been living in exile for many years. This intense moment is captured through the lines:

“A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard

 The passengers of the shipwrecked vessel are:

  • Antonio: The person who seized Prospero’s position as the Duke of Milan
  • Alonso: The King of Naples, who assisted Antonio in his coup
  • Ferdinand: Alonso’s son, who becomes an important figure as the play progresses
  • Gonzalo: A wise and good-hearted counsellor to Alonso
  • Sebastian: Alonso’s brother, who later conspires to kill him

On the island, Prospero lives with his daughter Miranda and has enslaved Caliban, a native of the island. He also has Ariel, a spirit, serving him as a way of repaying Prospero for freeing him from a witch’s spell. Through his magic, Prospero manipulates events on the island, aiming to bring his enemies, particularly Antonio and Alonso, to justice.

Act 2

In the second act, the story intensifies as Antonio and Alonso, along with Alonso’s brother Sebastian, are distraught. They fear that Ferdinand has drowned in the shipwreck. Alonso’s grief is very noticeable, a sentiment echoed in Sebastian’s remark:

He receives comfort like cold porridge

However, Ferdinand is actually alive, separated from the others by Prospero’s magic. Meanwhile, Prospero commands Ariel to put everyone to sleep except for Antonio and Sebastian. Seizing this opportunity, Antonio encourages Sebastian to kill his brother Alonso to seize the throne, a plot mirroring Antonio’s earlier betrayal of Prospero. He tempts Sebastian with visions of power, saying:

my strong imagination sees a crown dropping upon thy head

However, Ariel intervenes just in time, waking everyone up and therefore preventing the murder. This stops Antonio’s and Sebastian’s sinister plot in its tracks. The intervention demonstrates Ariel’s important role in guiding the events on the island following Prospero’s guidance. It also highlights the extent of Prospero’s control over the island’s occurrences through his magical powers.

Act 3

In Act 3, Ferdinand, who survived the shipwreck, finds himself working for Prospero. It doesn’t take long before he falls deeply in love with Miranda, confessing that his heart was instantly captivated the moment he laid eyes on her:

The very instant that I saw you, did my heart fly


All of this unfolds under the watchful eyes of Prospero, who secretly observes them and feels a sense of satisfaction seeing his plans coming to fruition.

Meanwhile, Caliban forms an unlikely alliance with two shipwreck survivors:

  • Stephano, the ship’s drunken butler
  • Trinculo, the jester

They come up with a dangerous plan to murder Prospero and take control of the island. Stephano is very eager, promising to kill Prospero. Ariel, who is very observant, overhears their conversation and decides to inform Prospero about their murderous intentions.

Act 4

Prospero gives Ferdinand and Miranda his blessing. He offers his daughter’s hand in marriage as a gift that Ferdinand has rightfully earned through his genuine love for her. He expresses his approval, saying:

“As my gift and thine own acquisition, worthily purchased, take my daughter.

To celebrate this union, Prospero orchestrates a magical performance using his spirit helpers, creating a joyful celebration for the engaged couple.

However, in the midst of this happy occasion, Prospero suddenly remembers the sinister plot devised by Caliban and his newfound allies. Realising the imminent danger, he springs into action to stop their plans. Using Ariel’s abilities, he creates illusions and uses tricks to mislead Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo. This steers them away from their murderous path and protects the island’s peace and safety.

This act showcases Prospero’s powerful control over the island’s events, as he skillfully balances the cheerful union of young love with the need to maintain order and justice on the island.

Act 5

In the final act, a transformed Prospero steps forward to face his brother and the King, revealing his true identity as the rightful Duke of Milan.

In a show of grace and maturity, he chooses to forgive them for their past crimes instead of seeking revenge. Determined to start afresh, he decides to give up his magical powers, signalling a return to a more natural order of life.

Prospero makes arrangements for everyone, including himself, to return to Italy, ending his long exile. He also grants freedom to Ariel, a loyal spirit who has served him dutifully, and Caliban, the native of the island who had once conspired against him.

As the play comes to a close, Prospero turns to the audience, seeking their applause as a form of liberation. This act of asking for applause goes beyond the narrative, symbolising his release from the confines of the island as well as the heavy responsibilities that came with his magical abilities.

At this moment, he acknowledges the loss of his magical strength, admitting to his human vulnerability and willingness to embrace a new beginning. He voices this transformation with the lines:

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own
Which is most faint.

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