Study Guide for The Tempest by William Shakespeare: Plot and Themes

Plot Summary

Shakespeare's The Tempest takes place on a magical island. The story opens as a horrific storm causes a ship to crash stranding its men upon the shore of the island. As the weather clears, we learn that Prospero, guardian and ruler of the island, is the one who caused the storm (or tempest) in order to bring his brother Alphonso and his brother's men to the island. Having had past conflict between them, it is time for Prospero's revenge.

The next scene tells the story of Prospero and his daughter Miranda and how they came to the island 12 years before. With the help of Ariel, Prospero's magical chief agent and servant, the men from the ship were all brought to shore safely but split up into smaller groups throughout the island.

We learn that Ariel has been promised to be released from Prospero's hold if he completes these tasks without complaint. Then enters Caliban, chained to one place where he works for Prospero hauling wood and doing chores all day long. Caliban is the son of the witch Sycorax who locked up Ariel. When Prospero came to the island after Sycorax died, he freed Ariel to become his servant and took over Sycorax's son, Caliban, to be his servant.

Over the rest of the play, scenes play out leading to the confrontation between Prospero and his brother at the end. Prospero decides to let everyone free from his reign and makes amends with his family. Prospero gives his apology to all through the Epilogue and asks the audience to show their forgiveness by applauding.

Master Versus Servant Motif

The most obvious motif, or recurring literary device, that stands out in The Tempest is the theme of Master versus Servant. We clearly see from the very beginning that Prospero is a man of great power. He controls what happens on the island right down to the weather that causes his brother's ship to crash and leave its men stranded on shore.

With his power over everything on the island, we see several servants to Prospero, the first and foremost being Caliban. The Prospero-Caliban relationship is a negative example of the master-servant relationship. Prospero controls what Caliban does and keeps him locked up and constantly working for him. He even states that Caliban does not deserve to be treated as a human.

A more positive master-servant relationship is shown between Prospero and Ariel, the most magical character of the play in terms of being able to disappear and reappear as is convenient or needed and putting others in trances to do as Prospero wishes.

The Master-versus-Servant motif continues in a variety of other characters as well. Trinculo and Caliban literally crown Stefano at one point making him their king. Lastly, there is Alphonso and the power he keeps over his noblemen to get them to abide by his rules and do as he commands without questions.

Man or Monster Theme

One ever-present theme within The Tempest is that of Man or Monster. As the play progresses it can be extremely difficult to distinguish who is in fact man and who is monster and even who is a combination of the two. The most obvious in this case is Caliban. He both looks and acts like half man and half monster. The question here is what makes him a monster as opposed to a man? Prospero states that he stopped treating Caliban like a human when Caliban tried to rape his daughter, Miranda. So, in this case, did Caliban do this to act out against Prospero for keeping him tied up and trapped as a servant? Or did he do it out of a natural animalistic instinct? The line here between man and monster is almost indefinable. Caliban walks a thin line between both worlds.

This same theme could also concern Prospero. The things that he does to control and manipulate the other characters could categorize him as being part monster in manner.

Mysterious & Magical Sounds of the Island

A major underlying concept of The Tempest is the mysterious and magical sounds of the island. Right from the opening ship sequence and noises coming from within, we hear the sounds throughout the entire play. Many of the sounds and noises may not be as much of a mystery to the audience because we can see them coming from the various instruments played by Ariel. Ariel uses his music to overtake and control the actions of the characters on the island.

There is also a major speech made by Caliban to Trinculo and Stefano about how "the island is full of noises" and of their significance. They can be scary and comforting at the same time.

The entire underscore of the play, or sounds and noises of the island, are entrancing and allure the audience into the story of the island and its characters.