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Definition: Tempest, The from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Romantic drama by William Shakespeare, first performed 1611–12, in London. Prospero, usurped as Duke of Milan by his brother Antonio, lives on a remote island with his daughter Miranda and Caliban, a deformed creature. Prospero uses magic to shipwreck Antonio and his party on the island and, with the help of the spirit Ariel, regains his dukedom.


Shakespeare, William: The Tempest, I i

Shakespeare, William: The Tempest, from I ii

Shakespeare, William: The Tempest, Epilogue

Summary Article: Tempest, The
from The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

A play by William Shakespeare, first performed c. 1611 and published in the First Folio of 1623. It draws on accounts of a shipwreck off the Bermudas in 1609 and Montaigne's essay ‘Of the Cannibals’ (as translated by Florio), but no single main source has been identified. This very electicism has given strength to those who argue that, in writing what he felt might be his last work for the stage, Shakespeare was consciously summarizing his theatrical art.

Prospero, exiled Duke of Milan, has taken up a 12year residence on a remote island, previously inhabited only by the airy spirit, Ariel, and the earthy Caliban, deformed son of the dead witch, Sycorax. With Prospero is his innocent daughter, Miranda, together with the books and the staff that enable him to practise magic. It is by magic that he brings about a storm and arranges for the arrival on the island of a group of shipwrecked figures from his past. From Milan come his usurping brother Antonio and the loyal counsellor Gonzalo, who gave Prospero what help he could when he was cast adrift 12 years before; and from Naples come King Alonso, his son Ferdinand and Sebastian, the King's scheming brother. The play recounts the various adventures of these characters, all overseen by Prospero and organized by Ariel. The outcome is that Miranda, who could recall no man save Caliban and her father, falls in love with Ferdinand, that Sebastian's malice is exposed to Alonso, and that Antonio restores the dukedom of Milan to Prospero. At the play's end, Prospero releases Ariel from his service, returns the island to a chastened Caliban, breaks his staff and buries his books. All will sail for home, guided by the gentle winds Ariel has conjured up.

Although formally a comedy, The Tempest is more aptly associated with the group of tragicomic romances with which Shakespeare greeted his company's move into the indoor Blackfriars Theatre: Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. It is a complex poetic work, whose mechanical plotting serves to draw attention to wider aesthetic and philosophical themes.

The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, © Cambridge University Press 2000

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