The Tempest

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Norton Romances and Poems, 3rd edition, pp. 387-448).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what kind of “tempest” does Prospero stir up? Explain the resonance of the storm metaphor for this play. For example, what does the storm at the outset of the play do to notions about rank, worth, and so forth, as the characters on board the sinking ship argue with one another?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, how is Miranda positioned as a central character in the play, and what virtues does she appear to possess? How much does she know about her past, and what does she learn about her origins and status in this scene?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Prospero explain his loss of power and exile to Miranda? To what extent does he admit partial responsibility for his own downfall, and to what degree does he find others (his brother Antonio and the King of Naples) culpable?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, what kind of magic does Prospero wield? What seems to be the source of that magic, and to what ends is he presently employing it? Aside from Prospero’s magic, what role does Fortune or Providence (God’s plan) play in the first two scenes?

5. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Prospero treat Ariel and Caliban? What does his treatment of them suggest about his understanding of power and its proper uses? In what sense might it be said that Prospero’s potential for tyranny is on display in this scene?

6. In Act 1, Scene 2, Caliban has sometimes been allegorized by modern critics as an island native facing the onslaught of European colonizers. How do you interpret his situation? What are Caliban’s virtues and vices, and how does he describe himself — his nature, his origins, his rights, his limitations?

7. In Act 1, Scene 2, How does Ferdinand understand his situation after the shipwreck? How does Ariel’s song reinforce Ferdinand’s perceptions? Why does Prospero treat Ferdinand as he does, in spite of his inward delight at Miranda’s admiration for the young man?


8. Act 2, Scene 1, what utopian vision of governance and society does Gonzalo set forth? How do Sebastian and Antonio respond to this vision? Does Gonzalo seem wise? What are his strengths and limitations?

9. Act 2, Scene 1, what course of action does Antonio urge upon Sebastian, brother of Alonso, King of Naples? According to Antonio, what opportunity has the tempest presented to Sebastian, and how should he respond? How does Ariel thwart this evil exhortation?

10. Act 2, Scene 2, how does the comic scene with Trinculo and Stephano complement the previous one with Antonio and Sebastian? Why do Trinculo and Stephano form a natural unit with Caliban?


11. In Act 3, Scene 1, what task has Prospero given Ferdinand? What sort of interaction between Ferdinand and Miranda takes place — upon what is their affection based, and in what manner do they declare that affection? How does Prospero react to their conversation, which he overhears without their knowledge?

12. In Act 3, Scene 2, what action does Caliban urge upon Stephano? What appears to be Caliban’s view of “politics”? In other words, how should power be won, who deserves to win it, and how should it be maintained? What weakness in understanding does Caliban show in this scene?

13. In Act 3, Scene 3, what is the significance of Prospero’s magical stagecraft as he prepares to pronounce sentence against the shipwrecked men who have wronged him — why does Ariel offer up a banquet and then, appearing as a harpy, make the banquet disappear?

14. In Act 3, Scene 3, how does Prospero describe the sin of King Alonso of Naples? How does he punish Alonso for his role in banishing him? What effect does this punishment have upon the King?


15. In Act 4, Scene 1, what demonstration of his power does Prospero give Ferdinand and Miranda, and why does he offer them this demonstration? Who are Ceres and Iris, and what is the subject of their exchange?

16. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero utters his famous remark, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (156-58)? What is the immediate context of this remark in the scene, and how, more generally, does it apply to Prospero’s own magical powers?


17. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero seems quite willing to part with his magic at long last. Why so? What has it helped him to accomplish that is perhaps even more important than exposing the faults of his enemies and getting them to promise to restore him to his dukedom?

18. In Act 5, Scene 1, when Prospero reveals Ferdinand and Miranda to the assembled company, they are playing chess. What is the significance of that choice on Shakespeare’s part, with respect to the couple’s island courtship and their prospects for a happy future?

19. In Act 5, Scene 1, what has Alonso learned from his ordeal as a temporarily bereaved father? How does he participate in the play’s successful resolution and setting-to-rights in this final scene?

20. In Act 5, Scene 1, what future lies in store for Prospero’s onetime minions Caliban and Ariel? What power or realm has Ariel symbolized throughout the play, and what life will he enjoy now that Prospero will soon have no further need of him?

21. In the epilogue, what prerogative does Prospero acknowledge as belonging to the audience? In what sense does Prospero here put himself in the situation of his own servant Ariel with respect to playgoers? How does the epilogue reflect on the relationship between art and life beyond art, between the representations of a creator and the imagination and attention of a viewer?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake