The Tempest: Colonialism and Magic in Shakespeare

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  • 0:05 The Tempest
  • 1:54 Characters
  • 3:22 Act I
  • 10:47 Act II - III
  • 15:06 Act IV - V
  • 17:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In Shakespeare's 'The Tempest,' a group of Italian nobility is shipwrecked on the island of Prospero, an exiled magician. In this lesson you'll learn how Prospero seeks to regain his right to the title Duke of Milan.

The Tempest

We're talking about The Tempest, which is one of Shakespeare's last plays. It's written around 1610, and people think it's probably the last play he wrote on his own. He died in 1616; he wrote a couple things in between The Tempest and then, but they were collaborations with other people. It's an appropriate final work because it really reflects this growing concern at the beginning of the 1600s with the New World. Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, so they'd known about America for quite some time. Jamestown, in Virginia (the first permanent English settlement), was settled in 1607 - it's weird to think of that as contemporaneous with Shakespeare, but it totally is. It's where Pocahontas and John Smith - all of that - played out ('Just around the river bend!').

The Tempest isn't set in America, but it is set on an island where some kind of native/colonist dynamic ends up playing out. It's also got magic, which is kind of cool. And it's sort of one of those plays that's not quite a comedy, not quite a tragedy; it's a little bit of an odd duck of a Shakespeare play.

And I will just put this out there right now - there are a lot of people, they are difficult to keep track of and, for the most part (in my humble opinion), they don't do very interesting things. I'm going to try my very hardest to separate all these people out and make it work for you. It's kind of like the third and fourth seasons of Lost, when it seemed like the writers had no idea where it was going and just wrote stuff. There's that episode where Hurley drives around the island in a VW bus and nothing happens - that's kind of like The Tempest, honestly. There's a lot of 'driving around in the VW bus,' a lot of running through the jungle, a lot of weird, supernatural, magic stuff that no one understands. There's no polar bear, but there might as well be.


So who are the major players? We've got Prospero, who is the former and rightful Duke of Milan. He was kicked out, and now he lives on an island (the island that we've been talking about). He's also a magician; that's something important about him. Miranda is Prospero's daughter. She's generally pretty inoffensive and kind of boring, but she has one very famous line, so that's a reward for that actress, I guess. We've got Ariel, who is a mermaid with red hair - hah, no she's not. He is actually a spirit of the air, so don't think we're going to start breaking into song or anything. Caliban is a native of the island and kind of bestial (I think he has scales). He's a slave to Prospero because he tried to rape Prospero's daughter Miranda. We've got Antonio, who is Prospero's brother and who kicked him out of Milan and is now the duke. So Prospero's the rightful duke; Antonio is the usurping duke. Alonso is the King of Naples; Sebastian is the King of Naples' brother. Ferdinand is Alonso's son (so the King of Naples' son), and he's the eventual love interest for Miranda.

William Shakespeare

There're a whole bunch of other people, assorted sailor types. Trinculo, Stephano - all these people kind of blur together and aren't that important, so I'll get to them when I get to them.

Act I

What do they all do? Act I; let's go. The play begins, as all good things do, with a storm at sea. (That's the 'tempest' of the title. Not the tempest in the teapot.) Anyway, it turns out it's no natural storm, and Prospero has raised it from his island because he knows there's a boat coming that has Antonio and Alonso on it. (Remember, they're his usurping brother and the king of Naples.) So he knows there's a boat going by so he raises this storm to drown them or to bring them to the island because, lest you forget, he's not only the deposed Duke of Milan; Prospero's also a wizard, so he can do stuff like that. You'd think he would have figured out a way to wizard his way out of being thrown out of power if he's just able to sink ships at will, but I guess consistency isn't quite Shakespeare's strong suit. Come to think of it, that's kind of like Lost as well in a way. The plane crashes because Desmond forgets to push the button, but there's heavy suggestion that the people were destined to come there anyway. So there's a little bit of inconsistency there as well. Like the people of Oceanic Flight 815, the people on board the ship are pretty sure they're all going to die because things aren't looking good for them.

Meanwhile, while his storm is trashing the boat, Prospero and Miranda are sitting around watching the fireworks from their island, and Prospero decides this is the perfect moment to tell her where she comes from. ('When a man and a woman love each other very much…' No, not that part.) He decides to tell her - because apparently he has not told her this before - that he's the rightful Duke of Milan and he was deposed by his evil brother, who, by the way, is on that ship out there. It's kind of weird that he's never told Miranda any of this, leaving her content to just think that she was 'magicked' into being on this weird island by her weird magician father. But now he's told her, and he 'magicks' her to sleep after he tells her and he goes to deal with serious business. He gets his air-sprite fairy servant guy Ariel to come down for a chat (no, not that Ariel; I told you already before).

So Ariel was the one who actually made the storm, it turns out - he can just be told to go and conjure lightning and thunder and all that - and he's made sure that everybody has survived, and he's deposited them all over the island. (So there's the tail section of the plane and the body of the plane and all that stuff with the pilot and whatever.) After reviewing all of this with Prospero - job well done! - Ariel asks if he can have some time off because apparently Prospero promised him that if he worked hard without complaining, he could have a year of freedom. Unfortunately, it seems like asking about this has counted as complaining in Prospero's book, so he gets the very long 'Why are you so ungrateful?' speech from Prospero. Prospero reminds him that he actually rescued Ariel from imprisonment. Ariel had been locked away, basically inside of a tree, for failing to serve Sycorax, who is a witch who used to live on the island and who is now dead. Prospero rescued him, so apparently now Ariel has to serve him forever without complaining - so no freedom for Ariel.

Ariel leaves, Miranda wakes up (there's a lot of magical falling asleep and waking up in this play, so just go with it). So Prospero decides to call his other supernatural servant, Caliban. He is actually the son of that witch Sycorax who locked Ariel in the tree. He enters the stage, and he's cursing:

As wicked dew as e'er my mother brush'd

With raven's feather from unwholesome fen

Drop on you both! A south-west blow on ye

And blister you all o'er!

He's really upset; he's not a happy camper. Prospero is not pleased by Caliban's outpouring of venom, and he threatens to give him cramps as punishment. It turns out that all he wants him to do is gather firewood, but we get an interesting exchange in this process. This is when we find out that Caliban had tried to rape Miranda:


…I lodged thee

In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate

The honour of my child.


O ho, O ho! Would't had been done!

Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else

This isle with Calibans.

So that's a little creepy. He's basically saying that if Prospero hadn't interrupted him, he would have 'peopled the isle' with little baby Calibans via Miranda. (Clearly one is difficult enough, so I'm kinda glad that didn't happen.) Prospero scolds him for being horribly ungrateful, and then we get a continued exchange that really highlights something that's seen as a big theme of this play: the ethics of colonization and colonial/native relations.


…I pitied thee,

Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour

One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,

Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like

A thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes

With words that made them known…


You taught me language; and my profit on't

Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language!

So basically Caliban was a native of the island and didn't know how to speak. Prospero came along and taught him (he also enslaved him and made him fetch him firewood all the time), and he thinks that Caliban should be grateful for this, should be grateful for learning how to talk. But Caliban basically says that his only profit from learning how to speak is that now he knows how to curse and he can curse out Prospero - essentially his slave-driver - and better express his misery. Modern critics have basically interpreted this as reflecting the problem of colonizing 'savages' in order to 'improve' them. It's not an improvement if then they're subordinate to the colonizers. There are a lot of issues then with people writing literature in colonized countries in the language of the colonizer, and what that might mean, so it has a lot of implications. Caliban really becomes a symbol of colonized language in a way for a lot of people later on who study this kind of thing.

Anyway, in the play, Caliban, after this exchange, skulks away. Prospero has Ariel lead Ferdinand (remember, he's the son of the King of Naples) across Miranda's field of vision, and of course it's love at first sight; they really like each other. But Prospero, while he's sort of resigned to the fact that this might go down, doesn't want to make it easy. He can't just let them be happy. So he decides that he's going to pretend to imprison Ferdinand and make him do stuff for him. And he tells Miranda that he's actually an awful guy, and Miranda doesn't know what she's talking about because she's never known anybody except her dad. Again, Prospero's resigned to them getting together, so he's really just doing this to be annoying and likes to imprison people, I guess, and make them serve him. That's what kind of dude he is.

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