Tempest Summary by R Moore

Tempest Summary
by R Moore
Taken from
25th November 2002
Although some scholars have speculated that Shakespeare wrote portions of The
Tempest at an earlier stage in his career, most literary historians assign the entire play
a composition date of 1610 or 1611. And while Shakespeare may have had a hand in
The Two Noble Kinsman (written a decade or so after The Tempest and assigned to
dual authorship), The Tempest is customarily identified as the Bard's last stage piece.
These marginal issues aside, The Tempest is the fourth, final, and the finest of
Shakespeare's great and/or late romances. Along with Pericles, Cymbeline, and The
Winter's Tale, The Tempest belongs to the genre of Elizabethan romance plays. It
combines elements of tragedy (Prospero's revenge) with those of romantic comedy
(the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand), and, like one of Shakespeare's problem
plays, Measure for Measure, it poses deeper questions that are not completely
resolved at the end. The romance genre is distinguished by the inclusion (and
synthesis) of these tragic, comic, and problematical ingredients and further marked by
a happy ending (usually concluding with a masque or dance) in which all , or most, of
the characters are brought into harmony.
No reading of The Tempest can do it justice: Shakespeare's tale of Prospero's Island is
inherently theatrical, unfolding in a series of spectacles that involve exotic, suprahuman,and sometimes invisible characters that the audience can see but other
characters cannot. The play was composed by Shakespeare as a multi-sensory theater
experience, with sound, and especially music, used to complement the sights of the
play, and all of it interwoven by the author with lyrical textual passages that over-flow
with exotic images, trifling sounds, and a palpable lushness.
The richness of The Tempest as theater is matched by the extraordinary thematic
complexity of its text. Recognizing that all of the themes and accompanying
figurative strands of the play cannot be discussed here, the play's topical highlights
can still be approached by first noting the salience of two themes that arise from the
very theatricality of the play: the opposition between reality and illusion and the
tandem subject of the theater itself. The play challenges our senses and is selfconsciously a performance orchestrated by Shakespeare's effigy in the master
illusionist Prospero. There are, in addition, numerous interpenetrating polarities in the
play, most notably between nature and civilization or Art. These thematic strands
come together at multiple points of intersection. Nevertheless, from one angle on the
text, The Tempest asks a single question, one that Shakespeare had posed in many and
divers of his other plays: What is a human being? (or, in Elizabethan terms: What is
man?) -- R. Moore
There are only nine scenes in The Tempest and, aside from the opening shipwreck
scene, they are all set on parts of Prospero's Island (the location of which is
deliberately ambiguous, with textual signs pointing toward Bermuda in the New
World and to the Old World of Mediterranean Tunis). Events do not cut back and
forth between locations, there is nothing akin to dramatic tension in the play, and even
its dual murder plots are never to be taken seriously. Act IV and Act V each consist of
a single scene in which changes of scene unfold in transitions from reality into dreamlike illusion.
There is, in fact, very little plot in The Tempest. Its central narrative can be sketched
in a few short strokes. Prospero and his daughter Miranda were set adrift by his
brother, Antonio, in league with the King of Naples, Alonso. They wound up on an
exotic island where Prospero has used his knowledge of magic to control its nonhuman inhabitants. Through his powers, Prospero arranges for his brother, the king
and others (including the king's son Ferdinand) to be shipwrecked on that island.
Often working through the sprite Ariel, he then uses magic to orchestrate the
repentance of the wrongdoers and arrange the marriage of Miranda to Ferdinand.
While this is a fair summary of the play's conventional, it does not begin to describe
what takes place before our eyes (and ears). Perhaps most notably, it includes no
reference to one of the most memorable denizens of the Island -- and in all of
Shakespeare's magical comedies -- the "ridiculous monster" Caliban.
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