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.
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.
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.
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.
Wow, that was a long act. Meanwhile, Alonso (King of Naples, remember) and his friends are looking for Ferdinand, Alonso's son. They can't find him; he washed up somewhere else on the shore. They can't believe they're alive - it's been crazy with the shipwreck, etc. Alonso's feeling really bad and thinks everything is all his fault. Antonio (remember, Prospero's brother, the usurping Duke of Milan) and Sebastian (Alonso's brother) are not being very helpful or nice. They all get 'magicked' to sleep again by Ariel's piping or something like that, and while they're sleeping, Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill Alonso so that Sebastian can be king. These guys are super bad news. They deposed Prospero - this is really nasty. They're supposed to be on an island helping each other out, and all they can think about is who they're going to murder next. Luckily, Ariel decides to wake everybody up with his pipe - so he kind of interrupts the plotting and now Ariel knows about it and lets some of the other dudes know that there's a plot afoot. So people kind of know, but it still might happen. That's how we leave things.
There's a dude named Trinculo who encounters Caliban. He thinks he's basically a freak-show creature. (Is he a man? Is he a fish? I don't know; I guess he's just a symbol of cultural domination.) Then he's hanging out with a dude named Stephano, who is drunk. Stephano and Trinculo get Caliban drunk. Caliban's a huge fan of Stephano because he loves to drink, and they wander around the island together and hatch a plot to steal Prospero's magic books. Then they're going to kill Prospero. So they're basically going to take his magic away and then kill him. Caliban wants revenge on Prospero because he's been his servant for forever. You can probably tell that this will not work out properly - I don't think I'm spoiling anything by letting you know - and these guys are basically absurd. They're kind of like Hurley and Charlie if Hurley and Charlie were bad on Lost. They're driving around in the VW bus, basically; they're just there to make trouble.
Meanwhile, on the island, Ferdinand is hauling wood for Prospero because Prospero needs to build fire after fire, it seems. He needs everyone to bring wood for him. Miranda wanders in, they whisper sweet nothings to each other, he tells her she's really beautiful and she's like 'Gee, thanks. I had no idea because I've never seen another woman before.' And she's also never seen another man besides her father, so she thinks that Ferdinand's attractive but she probably can't be too picky.
Once she's convinced that he loves her, she actually proposes:
I am your wife, if you will marry me;
If not, I'll die your maid: to be your fellow
You may deny me; but I'll be your servant,
Whether you will or no.
My mistress, dearest;
And I thus humble ever.
My husband, then?
Ay, with a heart as willing
As bondage e'er of freedom: here's my hand.
It's kind of an interesting contrast in the end because he is in bondage to Prospero, and then he's saying that he's going to be in bondage with Miranda and whatnot, freely acquiescing to Miranda's proposal of marriage. Prospero's response to all this is characteristically muted. He says he can't be happy for them.
Meanwhile, King Alonso and his company are still wandering around on the beach. Ariel comes along and plays that music again. This time it doesn't make everybody fall asleep; instead, it brings a banquet. (Magic banquets are not really always a good sign - kind of like in The Hunger Games when the banquet comes and it's really just to lure them all to fight each other more.) Alonso et al are on to this a little bit. They argue about whether they should eat or not, then they just decide to go for it because they clearly haven't read all the stuff that says you shouldn't eat magical food. Ariel appears, scolds them for kicking Prospero out of Milan and says they've taken Ferdinand as revenge. Alonso thinks Ferdinand must be dead and wants to kill himself. Antonio and Sebastian freak out and they run after Ariel and all the other spirits who brought the food.
Prospero finally gives his blessing to Ferdinand and Miranda. He totally messes with them first because, as you might be able to recognize by now, Prospero loves playing God; that's kind of his thing. So he messes with Ferdinand a little more, then says 'Alright, you can marry her.' He reminds him that he can't bang her before he actually marries her, so that's out of the way. Then they have a big party and spirits dancing, and Ferdinand's very impressed. Prospero remembers now - he's found out about Caliban's plot to kill him - that this is about when Caliban thought that he was going to do it. Again, nothing surprises him because he's really kind of like God, but he decides he'd better shut down the party in favor of stopping the attempt on his life. He gives a very famous speech that goes a little something like this:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air
He goes on, and concludes with:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
This speech is famous because it really emphasizes the 'play-ness' of the play. It's conscious of itself as a work of theater - these can be 'our' revels also, and the players also 'melt into thin air' when it's all over. Prospero deals quickly with Caliban - not even an issue.
It's really all over but the shoutin'. Prospero dresses up in his duke clothes and addresses Alonso and all of them. He says he forgives Antonio, but he better get his dukedom back. Then he gives a speech about how he's going to give up magic once he gets back to Milan. He reveals that Ferdinand is totally okay and that he's marrying Miranda. At this point, Miranda comes out, she sees all these people and she gives her very famous line - remember, I said she has one good line. She says:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!
Did you catch that? Brave New World! That's a book that you might have read about a dystopian future in high school or something. That's where the title comes from; it comes from The Tempest.
Now we're really almost done. They all go back to Italy and are going to live out their days. Prospero give a famous final epilogue speech, again very conscious of the 'play-ness' of the play. And this is what he says:
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples.
He's basically saying that the audience could keep him here forever on the island, or on the stage, if they wanted to. And he ends with the following couplet. He says:
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
So the play ends, and it's sort of like you're setting him free, off the stage and off the island, which are all metaphors for each other.
And that's it! So what did we talk about in regard to The Tempest? It was a long play. We summed up the plot, which basically amounts to a bunch of people wandering around on Prospero's island after he causes their shipwreck. We've got the King of Naples, named Alonso, and the Duke of Milan, named Antonio. Antonio had ousted Prospero from his dukedom, so Prospero should be the Duke of Milan. He's been living on the island with Miranda ever since. He's also a magician and also accompanied by Caliban and Ariel, who are supernatural creatures. Caliban is a symbol of the colonial influence on native people; that's how it's been interpreted lately - remember the whole cursing and language interaction.
Prospero succeeds in getting Antonio to step down, gets Miranda to marry the King's son, Ferdinand, and renounces magic at the end of the play, with a strong suggestion that his actions as a magician should be compared to the playwright's actions as a writer of the stage. The island is the stage, and the audience 'sets him free' by clapping and ending the play. He can be forever imprisoned on the stage or set free into the imagination (or set free into the realm of fandom, as happened to the cast of Lost). So that's The Tempest!
After watching this lesson, you should be able to describe the main characters and plot of Shakespeare's The Tempest.