The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s final plays before he retired to Stratford. Between a shipwreck, an exiled duke, and the mischievous spirits roaming a remote island, it has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean classic. But it is more than that – in many ways, it is a meditation on theatre itself. The magician Prospero manipulates the events on the island like Shakespeare manipulates the action on stage. And, in the final scene, he renounces his magic and delivers a moving speech which many read as Shakespeare’s own final farewell: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown / And what strength I have’s mine own.”
Until the shipwreck, Prospero and his daughter are the only humans living on the beautiful remote island. He has enslaved the monster Caliban, and uses his magic to control the weather. Are humans always a threat to the natural world?
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“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,” says Caliban. The wonder of the natural world is closely linked to Prospero’s magic and to Ariel’s enchanting music. Prospero’s supernatural powers, in turn, are closely connected to Shakespeare’s own magical art: language and the theatre.
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Prospero was exiled to the island after his throne was usurped by his brother. When those responsible sail by, Prospero uses his magic to whip up a storm, wash the ship ashore, and enact justice. But when the men realise the error of their ways, Prospero forgives them and renounces magic for good.
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Is anyone in The Tempest really free? Prospero and Miranda are imprisoned on the island. Prospero freed Caliban and Ariel from a witch, only to enslave them again. And, in the final scene, Prospero asks for the audience’s applause to help free him from the play itself: “As you from crimes would pardon’d be / Let your indulgence set me free.”
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Almost every scene of The Tempest explores a power dynamic of some kind: between masters and servants, fathers and daughters, man and nature. Where does true power come from? And how can it be used responsibly?
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