Study Questions for The Tempest

In a masterpiece such as The Tempest, every theatrical element (character, language, plot, and setting) fits into a unified whole. If you look carefully at any single moment of this play, you can link it to Shakespeare's overall dramatic purpose. 

You will be asked to write an essay which explains Shakespeare's artistic purpose in The Tempest. As you read the play, think about all the psychological pressures which are brought to bear on Prospero that finally erupt into the tempest. What will he do when his enemies are brought completely under the control of his magic?

Act I, scene i: The Tempest (pp. 2-4)

pp. 2-4 The Boatswain is desperately trying to direct his sailors to haul in the sails so that he can keep the vessel turned into the wind. He is interrupted in his task by the courtiers who berate him for endangering King Alonso. The Boatswain rebukes the noblemen, "What cares these roarers for the name of the King?" How does the tempest reveal the superficiality of social class?

Vocabulary: Try to determine the meaning of the following words from the way Shakespeare uses them in his verse. Use a dictionary if you have trouble.
boatswain  "Good boatswain, have care!"
furlong  "Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground..."

Act I, scene ii: Prospero's Cell (pp.4-21)

Part One (pp. 4-9): "the dark backward and abysm of time"

p.4 What is Miranda's response to the tempest conjured by her father?
What does she know about the motivations for her father's wrath?
p.5 How is this day a momentous one in Miranda's life?
pp.6-8 How did Prospero lose his dukedom?
To what extent is Prospero able to control his anger as he re-tells the story of their exile?
pp.6-8 What primal sin has Antonio committed? 
What story in the Bible describes a similar crime?
pp.8-9  Notice the tone change in Shakespeare's poetry when Prospero describes how he and Miranda were delivered from the sea.
How is Providence at work beneath the surface of the action in The Tempest?
What imagery does Shakespeare use to describe the mysterious workings of Providence?
p.9 How has Providence made it possible for Prospero to seek his revenge?


welkin  "the sea, mounting to the welkin's cheek, dashes the fire out..."
perdition  "not so much perdition as an hair..."
bootless  ...left me to a bootless inquisition...
abysm  "What seest thou else In the dark backward and abysm of time?"
perfidious  "that a brother should be so perfidious!--"
signories  "Through all the signories it was the first..."
rapt  "rapt in secret studies"
inveterate  "an enemy to me inveterate"
extirpate  "extirpate me and mine out of the dukedom"
cherubim  "O, a cherubim thou wast that did preserve me."
infuse  "Thou didst smile infused with a fortitude from heaven..."
mantle  [Resumes his mantle.]
prescience  "by my prescience 
zenith  I find my zenith doth depend upon
auspicious  a most auspicious star..."

Part Two: Ariel (pp. 9-13)

pp. 9-10  Describe Ariel's powers. What can this spirit do? Is Ariel human?
  List some of the words Shakespeare uses to describe Ariel:
pp. 11-12 Why does Ariel demand freedom? 
What would Ariel be doing if not under the control of Prospero's will?
pp. 11-13  From whom did Prospero free Ariel?  
What torments did Ariel suffer under his old mistress?
Is her power equal to that of Providence?
pp.11-13 What is the symbolic meaning of Ariel's story? 
How is Shakespeare describing a European interpretation of how human nature progressed from a savage to a civilized state?


Bermoothes  "Thou call'dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
From the still-vex'd Bermoothes..."
bate  "thou didst promise to bate me a full year...."
malignant  "Thou liest, malignant thing!"
manifold  "mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible"
abhorr'd  "her earthy and abhorr'd commands"
whelp  "A freckled whelp hag-born"
entrails  "I will rend an oak and peg thee in his knotty entrails..."

Part Three: Caliban (pp. 13-16)

pp. 13-14 Who or what is Caliban? Is he really, as Prospero describes him, a child 'got by the Devil himself'?
pp. 11-14 List words Shakespeare uses to characterize Caliban.
pp. 14-15  Could Prospero and Miranda have survived on the island without 
Caliban's help? Why couldn't Ariel have done the work?
p.15  What happened when Prospero and Miranda tried to teach Caliban how to speak English?
p.15  Is the idea of marriage between Caliban and Miranda really disgusting?
How has the tempest raging in Prospero's mind been fed by his failure to properly educate Caliban in European ways?


apparition  "Fine apparition! My quaint Ariel..."
fen  "wicked dew from unwholesome fen"

Part Four: Ferdinand (pp. 16-21)

pp.16-17 Who is Ferdinand?
What does he believe has just happened to his father?
pp.16-17 What effect has Ariel's mysterious music had on Ferdinand?


Look carefully at the second verse of the song Ariel sings to Ferdinand: 
How might the action of the whole play describe "a sea-change into something rich and strange"?
pp.17-18 What is Miranda's first reaction to seeing Ferdinand? 
How is Ferdinand different from Caliban? 



In his asides to the audience Prospero seems pleased by the happy first encounter between Miranda and Ferdinand, but he speaks angrily to Ferdinand and threatens him. What happens when Ferdinand draws his sword?
What tests must Ferdinand pass before Prospero will let him marry with Miranda?


featly  "Foot it featly here and there..."
chanticleer "I hear the strain of strutting chanticleer Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow..."

Act Two, scene i: What's Past is Prologue (pp.21-29)

pp. 21-22  How do Gonzalo and Adrian describe this tropical isle?
What has happened to the courtiers' rich garments after having been drenched in sea water?
How is this detail related to the imagery of the play?
pp. 21-24 Who are Antonio and Sebastian? How are they related to Prospero?
What do they think of Gonzalo and his assessment of their predicament on this isle?
pp. 22-23 From whence had the royal fleet sailed before the tempest struck them?
(Note Shakespeare's rather curious idea of the geographical location of the Bahamas.) 
Was there any objection among the courtiers to the inter-racial nature of this royal wedding?
p.24  What is Gonzalo's vision of the government which could be created on this island?
What would prevent the realization of this plan?
Compare this passage with the glowing depictions of the New World presented in many of the publicity pamphlets used by the Virginia Company to promote colonization of North America.
p. 25  What causes the courtiers to drop off to sleep?
pp.26-28  What primal crime do Antonio and Sebastian plot while the others sleep?
According to Antonio, what is the only obstacle which prevents him and Sebastian from achieving their dream?
What form of government could prevent this plot?
pp. 28-29 What prevents the villains from carrying out their scheme?
Can Prospero do anything to prevent evil people from thinking such thoughts and acting upon them?


temperance  " [This isle] must needs be of subtle, tender and delicate temperance."


"he trod the water, whose enmity he flung aside, and breasted the surge most swolln that met him"
contentious  "his bold head 'bove the contentious waves he kept"
commonwealth  "I' the commonwealth I would by contraries execute all things..."
tilth  "Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard"
foison  "nature should bring forth, of its own kind, all foison, all abundance"
chough  "As this Gonzalo; I myself could make a chough of as deep chat..."
kibe  "Ay, sir; where lies [conscience]? if 'twere a kibe, 'twould put me to my slipper..."

Act II, scene ii: O brave monster! (pp.29- 34)

pp. 29-30 What does Caliban believe is approaching him when he sees Trinculo?
p. 30 What does Trinculo believe he has encountered when he stumbles upon Caliban just as the storm breaks again?
pp. 31-32 When the drunken Stephano sees Trinculo and Caliban hiding beneath the gaberdine, what kind of exotic creature does he believe he has discovered?
pp.33-34 What new language does Caliban learn from Stephano when he tastes liquor for the first time? Why does Caliban kneel to Stephano? 
What plot does the drunken Caliban hatch?
How does this comic sub-plot relate to the larger action of the play?


urchin  "Fright me with urchin--shows..."
firebrand  "lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark..."
mow  "Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me"
gaberdine  "my best way is to creep under his gaberdine"
ague  "This is some monster of the isle with four legs, who hath got, as I take it, an ague."
neat's leather "he's a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat's leather"
siege  "How camest thou to be the siege of this moon-calf?"
a butt of sack "I escaped upon a butt of sack..."
scurvy  "This is a scurvy tune too..."
abominable  "An abominable monster!"
trencher  "Nor scrapetrencher, nor wash dish"

Act III, scene i: Admired Miranda! (pp. 34-37)

p.34 What odious task has Prospero assigned the prince? 
Why is Prospero humbling Ferdinand?
pp. 35-36 Who proposes marriage?
Is this act immodest?
 How would a typical Elizabethan father have responded to such an act?
p. 37  What is Prospero's response when he witnesses the lovers' exchange of vows?
Describe the complicated nexus of feelings that a father undergoes when his daughter decides to get married.


odious  "This my mean task would be as heavy to me as odious..."
quickens  "The mistress which I serve quickens what's dead"
sinews  "I had rather crack my sinews, break my back,"
dower  "the jewel in my dower"
appertain  "I must perform much business appertaining..."

Act III, scene ii: When Prospero is destroyed. (pp.37-41)

pp. 37- 39 What do the drunkards plan?
How will they accomplish their plan?
p. 39 What does Caliban plan to do to Trinculo once Stephano has become 
the king of the island?
How can ambition makes a mockery of the law?
pp. 38-39 How do Ariel's tricks cause the rebels to quickly turn on each other?
p. 40 Look carefully at Caliban's speech which begins, 
            "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises...."
What brave new world has opened for Caliban since Prospero has taught him how to speak? 
Has his encounter with the Europeans been positive or negative


deboshed  "Why, thou deboshed fish thou,..."
pied ninny  "What a pied ninny's this! Thou scurvy patch!"
pox  "A pox o' your bottle!"
paunch, wezand  "paunch him with a stake, or cut his wezand with thy knife."
sot  "without them he's but a sot, as I am"
viceroys  "Trinculo and thyself shall be viceroys..."
tabour  "Ariel plays the tune on a tabour and pipe."

Act III, scene iii: The Deep and Dreadful Name of Prosper (pp.41-44)

pp. 41-42 


Note the exhausted courtiers' cautious response when a delectable banquet of tropical foods magically appears before them. Can you think of other stories in which it is highly dangerous to accept food from dream-like strangers? What might happen?
p.42 At what precise moment does this dream-like scene suddenly flip to nightmare?
pp. 43-44 Under Ariel's spell, what are Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian forced to see?
What effect do these revelations have on their brains?
Is such a punishment possible in the real world?
Would a moral government use such a tool to achieve justice? What is your judgment of the revenge Prospero has chosen to take?


meanders  "here's a maze trod indeed through forth-rights and meanders!"
salutation  "they dance about it with gentle actions of salutation..."
drollery  "A living drollery..."
dew-lapped "mountaineers dew-lapp'd like bulls..."
harpy  "Enter ARIEL, like a harpy; claps his wings upon the table..."
surfeited  "the never-surfeited sea Hath caused to belch"
supplant  "From Milan did supplant good Prospero..."
perdition  "Lingering perdition, worse than any death"
plummet  "I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded"

Act IV, scene i: The Masque: A Most Majestic Vision (pp. 44-52)

pp. 44-45 How has Ferdinand passed Prospero's test?
What warning does Prospero give the young lovers?


What majestic vision does Prospero summon up to celebrate his daughter's betrothal?
Use your imagination and conjure up a suitable spectacle to celebrate such a moment. What spirits would you summon to the scene?
p.48 What causes the celebration to suddenly evaporate? 
How does Prospero behave when he suddenly remembers?
p.48 Look carefully at Prospero's speech beginning
       "Our revels now are ended..." 
What is Prospero saying? 
What is his new philosophy of life? 
Is the speech cynical, or does it express wisdom?
pp. 49-50 Even though Prospero and Ariel can easily deal with Caliban's plot, what un-resolvable philosophical problem does their rebellion present?
Do you agree with Prospero's final condemnation of Caliban? Is he
        "A devil, a born devil, on whose nature/ Nurture can never stick...."?
pp. 50-52 What prevents Stephano and Trinculo from following through on their plans?
How are they punished?


austerely  "If I have too austerely punish'd you..."
vexation  "all thy vexations were but my trials of thy love"
sanctimonious  "sanctimonious ceremonies"
aspersion  "No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall..."
dalliance  "do not give dalliance too much the rein"
abstemious  "be more abstemious, Or else, good night your vow..."
sedged  "With your sedged crowns and ever-harmless looks..."
furzes, goss "Tooth'd briers, sharp furzes, pricking goss and thorns"
trumpery  "the trumpery in my house, go bring it hither"
canker  "as with age his body uglier grows, so his mind cankers"
pard  "more pinch-spotted make them Than pard or cat o' mountain"

Act V, scene i: O brave new world! (pp. 52-62)

pp. 52-53


Once Prospero has attained absolute control over all of his enemies, he breaks his magic staff and gives up his opportunity to wreak revenge upon his enemies.
Why does he do this?
Does his choice surprise you?
How has Prospero himself been transformed by the action of the play?
p.54 In what state of mind have the courtiers been captured?
p.55 What is Alonso's immediate response when he beholds Prospero?
p.56 Why doesn't Prospero reveal Antonio and Sebastian's treachery to Alonso?
p.57 What are Ferdinand and Miranda doing when Prospero reveals them
to the courtiers? 
How does Miranda respond when she sees the courtiers?
p.58  How have the kingdoms of Milan and Naples been blessed through the action of the play?
pp. 59-60 What will happen to Caliban when the courtiers return home?
What does Prospero plan to do when he returns to Milan?
p. 61 What is Prospero's last request of Ariel before he sets him free?
p. 62 Why does Prospero ask for the audience's indulgence to set himself free.
The Tempest was Shakespeare's last play. After writing it he retired to Stratford and gave up playwriting.
How does this speech represent Shakespeare's farewell to the London stage and his career in the theatre?


eaves  "His tears run down his beard, like winter's drops from eaves of reeds..."
rifted  "I have given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak"
promontory  "With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up the pine and cedar..."
abjure  "But this rough magic I here abjure..."
rapier  "Ariel, fetch me the hat and rapier in my cell..."
rankest  "I do forgive thy rankest fault..."


indulgence  "Let your indulgence set me free."