Prospero, Duke of Milan, deposed from his throne by his brother Antonio, has been shipwrecked on a lonely island with his daughter Miranda. Thanks to his knowledge of magic, Prospero has released the spirit Ariel who was imprisoned by a witch called Sycorax, and who now becomes Prospero’s servant. He also has another servant, Caliban, the witch’s own son. Caliban is a monstrous creature and was the sole inhabitant of the island until Prospero’s arrival. Prospero has spent twelve years on the island and during these years he has perfected his knowledge of magic.
The play begins with a storm raised by Prospero’s magic which causes the ship carrying Antonio, Alonso King of Naples, his brother Sebastian as well as Alonso’s son Ferdinand to be shipwrecked off the island. The passengers are miraculously saved but are dispersed about the island in different groups. The members of each group believe themselves to be the only survivors. This gives rise to three sub-plots:
1) Ferdinand meets Miranda and the couple fall in love but Prospero puts a spell on Ferdinand to protect his daughter’s virtue before finally permitting the couple to marry at the end of the play.
2) Meanwhile on another part of the island Antonio and Sebastian, the villains of the play, are planning to kill Alonso and his honest counsellor Gonzalo, but they fail.
3) Caliban persuades two Of the ship’s crew, Stefano, a drunken hurler, and Trinculo, a jester, to try to murder Prospero and take control of the island. This plot forms a comic counterpoint to Antonio’s conspiracy.
At the end of the play, after Prospero has used the spirit Arid to manipulate events and defeat the various conspiracies, all the characters are finally reunited. Prospero forgives Antonio on the condition that he returns his dukedom to him, and before they all embark tot Italy, he sets Caliban and Ariel free, renouncing both his political and magic powers.
Features of the play
The text probably derives from more than one source. Some passages echo the English translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, while among its other influences are Montaigne’s Essays as well as travel literature, particularly the accounts of the shipwreck of the Sea-Adventure off the coast of the Bermudas in 1609, before its passengers arrived safely in Virginia.
The Tempest is a complex play where illusion and reality intermingle. It is a play about power in all its forms: the power of European culture over non-European cultures, the power of language and the power of the artist to create illusion. The relationship between Prospero and Caliban reflects the power of the colonisers over colonised peoples, while the figure of Ariel stands as a metaphor for the powers of art and language that the artist may borrow to create his works but can never master completely. Just as Prospero must set Ariel free at the end of the play, so too must Shakespeare set his play free once it is complete, thus relinquishing his control over its ultimate meaning. Art and language have a life of their own, beyond the author.
On a different level, Prospero’s release of Caliban at the end of the play is accompanied by an acknowledgement that he too contains something of Caliban’s savage uncontrollable nature. This has been much commented on, particularly in post-colonial readings of the play.
Source: Thomson – Maglioni, Literary Links. Literature in time and space, Cideb, an old Italian book 2000.