The Tempest

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scene 1, Prospero’s spirit-servant Ariel whips up the effects of a tempest. Explain the appeal of the oceanic storm, both as a physical event and as a metaphor for chance, fate or some other concern. Why would a storm at sea or a shipwreck be such an effective, impactful thing to stage for early modern audiences? What risks were associated with travel either by sea or by land in that era and before?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, aside from stage directions and some statements about how to maneuver the ship in the storm, most of what we see and hear involves interaction among a limited number of the characters on board. In particular, what does the wildness of the storm do to preconceived notions about rank, authority, and decorum, as people of high and low station argue with one another about what to do? With regard to the aristocrats, what differences among Gonzalo, Antonio, and Sebastian can you discover, based on their words, actions, and reactions?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how is Miranda positioned as an important character in the play, based on her initial dialogue with Prospero? What virtues of soul and intellect does she appear to possess? What kind of relationship does the dialogue suggest that Miranda has with Prospero? How much does she know about her past, and how does she react to what she learns about her origins and status in this scene?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, Prospero, by way of informing Miranda who she is, must tell her who he once was: the Duke of Milan, Italy. What story does he tell Miranda about how the two of them ended up on a nearly deserted island? How, mainly in the context of political analysis, does Prospero explain his loss of power and his exile? Besides himself, who else does he consider responsible for his misfortunes, and why so?

5. In Act 1, Scene 2, in the course of explaining to Miranda why he lost his dukedom and got exiled from Milan, Prospero repeatedly mentions his fascination with certain abstruse studies. What studies is he talking about, in terms of specific references in the play’s text? There will be occasion later in the play to return to the nature of Prospero’s learning and magic, but at this point, to what extent do these studies seem like normal Renaissance humanist pursuits, and to what extent might they be conjectured to go beyond the boundary or normal, permissible learning?

6. In Act 1, Scene 2, how should we characterize Prospero’s interaction with the island-spirit Ariel? How does this spirit describe the present and past services he has done for Prospero, including the spectacular effects of the storm that his master commanded him to create? What is Ariel’s “back story” before he was rescued and set to work for Prospero? What does Prospero’s treatment of him throughout this scene suggest about the exiled duke’s understanding of authority and its proper uses? To what extent is Prospero’s potential for tyranny on display in this scene?

7. In Act 1, Scene 2, Prospero’s conference with Ariel is followed by a very unpleasant encounter with the native-born Caliban. This character has sometimes been allegorized by modern critics as an island native confronting the unwanted attentions of self-entitled, grasping European colonizers. Based on Caliban’s story about who he is and how he came to become Prospero’s “slave” as well as on the opposing narrative of Prospero and Miranda, 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?

8. In Act 1, Scene 2, Prince Ferdinand swims to shore, and soon Ariel sings two brief songs with musical accompaniment to draw the prince further towards land. How does Ferdinand initially understand his situation when he makes it ashore, and how does Ariel’s singing affect him? In particular, what does he make of the song that begins, “Full fathom five thy father lies” (409, 1.2.395ff)? What more can we, the audience, learn by connecting the songs to the play’s action and exploring them thematically?

9. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the first encounter between Ferdinand and Miranda go? What does each think of the other, and on what basis? It’s clear that Prospero is inwardly pleased with the meeting, but how does he nonetheless treat Ferdinand at this point? What is he trying to accomplish by treating him the way he does? How does Ferdinand respond to his predicament once he understands it?

ACT 2

10. In Act 2, Scene 1, what kind and quality of advice does the Neapolitan counselor Gonzalo offer disconsolate King Alonso? How does Alonso respond to this advice? How do Antonio, Sebastian, and Adrian respond to it? Fundamentally, what seems to be Gonzalo’s perspective on what has just happened to them as a group: their seemingly narrow escape from death and their presence now on a far-flung island?

11. In Act 2, Scene 1, Gonzalo’s thoughts about the island lead him to try his hand at philosophizing like Plato, builder of the ideal republic: he constructs a utopian vision of a society and its government for his hearers. What are the main features of this utopia, and what assumptions about human nature underlie it? How do Sebastian and Antonio respond to this noble vision? On the whole, does Gonzalo seem wise and good? What are his strengths and limitations? How, in terms of character and ethics, does he compare to the others in his island group?

12. In Act 2, Scene 1, when Alonso and Gonzalo fall asleep, what course of action does Antonio urge upon Alonso’s brother Sebastian? According to Antonio, what opportunity has the tempest presented to Sebastian, and how should he respond? How does he justify this course of action, which would more or less repeat the treachery he himself practiced against Prospero twelve years ago? What benefit might accrue to Antonio if Sebastian were to follow his plan? How does Ariel thwart the plot for the time being?

13. In Act 2, Scene 2, Caliban reveals his disdain and abject fear of Prospero and his tormenting spirits. Soon, he is observed by the jester Trinculo and the butler Stefano, who have arrived on shore separately. What does each man think of Caliban—who or what do they believe he is? How do they hope to profit from his exotic appearance? In what sense do Trinculo and Stefano form a natural or logical group with Caliban? How does their interaction reflect on or complement the earlier one between the plotters Antonio and Sebastian?

ACT 3

14. In Act 3, Scene 1, what heavy task has Prospero given Ferdinand, and what is the latter’s perspective on his present labors? The affection of both Miranda and Ferdinand deserves the description “love at first sight,” but how do they differ with regard to their respective ways of processing or accounting for that profound, instant feeling? How can both of them be sure of the rightness of their affection?

15. In Act 3, Scene 1, Prospero is apparently listening in on everything that transpires between Miranda and Ferdinand. How does he respond to their conversation, and in particular to what he hears from Miranda, who boldly proposes to the young prince she loves? What complexity of feeling marks Prospero’s responses to the unfolding of the lovers’ dialogue? What accounts for this complexity?

16. In Act 3, Scene 2, what developments take place in the relationship between Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban? What deepens the latter’s dislike of Trinculo and his attachment to Stefano? How does Ariel promote this development? What does the interaction among these three characters suggest about the nature and prospects of their budding conspiracy?

17. In Act 3, Scene 2, what outline for a successful coup against Prospero does Caliban offer Stefano? How does he assess the strengths and weaknesses of his enemy Prospero? What appears to be his primary motivation in wanting to overthrow the old man? On the whole, what appears to be Caliban’s political philosophy, if we may call it that? In other words, how, in Caliban’s view, is power best won, what is it for, and who deserves to wield it?

18. 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 he command Ariel to serve up a banquet and then, in the form of a harpy, to make the banquet disappear while Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian look on helplessly? See the classical source of this strange scene (Virgil’s Aeneid, 3.253-319). How does that source elucidate the event that takes place in the present play?

19. In Act 3, Scene 3, Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian have undergone the shock of Ariel’s initial visit in the form of a harpy, that spirit returns in the same form to declare their faults to them. What stern accounting of these men’s sins does he offer, and what course of action does he prescribe for the three men if they seek redemption? What will happen to them if they don’t follow this course? How does Gonzalo assess the effect that the “harpy’s” sentence has had upon the three men? Finally, what effect does this production have on Prospero himself: how does he describe his situation at this point?

ACT 4

20. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero, after apologizing to Ferdinand for his harsh treatment of him and warning the young man to exercise self-restraint before the wedding, tells Ariel that he feels obligated to treat the couple to what he calls “some vanity of mine art” (433, 4.1.41). Provide a brief outline of the masque arranged by Ariel, including some information about each of the divine characters that the spirits portray. What is the basic action of the masque, as enacted by Iris, Ceres, and Juno? What purpose/s does this aethereal display serve?

21. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero utters his famous lines beginning, “Our revels now are ended” and concluding with “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (437, 4.1.148-58). He follows this up with a second, briefer portion that begins “Sir, I am vexed” (437, 4.1.159-63). What is the immediate context of the first part of Prospero’s speech—that is, what spurs him to say it? What seems to be Prospero’s intention towards the young couple in saying what he says? As for the second part of the speech, why is it necessary—why might the first part of the speech not have proved comforting to Ferdinand and Miranda?

22. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero utters his speech beginning, “Our revels now are ended” (437, 4.1.148-58). In previous centuries, this moving passage was often taken as Shakespeare’s personal farewell to the theater. The reading’s fall into disuse stems from the fact that after completing The Tempest, Shakespeare collaborated on three further dramas with John Fletcher: Henry VIII, Cardenio, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Prospero is not Shakespeare, either—he is a fictional character. All this duly acknowledged, might a critic still argue that this speech offers some hint of the playwright’s mature perspective on the value of the dramatic arts, or of his own art specifically? Explain.

23. In Act 4, Scene 1, after the end of the scene’s “masque” portion, Prospero and Ariel meet to hash out what to do with the base conspirators Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban. How has Ariel positioned these three in a way that helps foil their plans? Why don’t they accomplish the murderous deed that would make Stefano king of the island, and Caliban his most devoted subject?

ACT 5

24. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero’s scene-beginning conversation with Ariel moves him to show the higher-class conspirators Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian some mercy. In what way is Ariel instrumental in getting Prospero to soften his stance? What key principle allows Prospero to add intellectual and moral justification to his emotion-based decision to take pity on the longstanding enemies who are now in his grasp?

25. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero says he is at last willing to part with his magic book and staff. The source of his description is Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 7.265-77. What powers does Prospero claim to have wielded? Do any of them seem troubling? If so, why? Moreover, in what spirit does Prospero make his decision to yield his magical powers? Does he seem decisive and content to let them go, or is there some ambivalence or grudging quality to his yielding? Explain.

26. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero gives us his internal, private assessment of Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian (as well as Gonzalo, about whom he thinks only good things and whom he embraces first), and then, when they are more awake, he addresses these three “men of sin” openly. How does this open performance differ in style and substance from the private assessment? Consider in particular Prospero’s public treatment of King Alonso—why is he most generous towards this man, even though he has been seriously wronged by him? As for the guilty Antonio and Sebastian, neither man ever apologizes to Prospero. Does that matter? Why or why not?

27. In Act 5, Scene 1.88-94, we are treated to Ariel’s joyful song “Where the bee sucks, there suck I,” and we know that the time has come for him to gain his freedom. What kind of future can we conjecture to lie in store for Prospero’s longtime assistant? What elements or realms has Ariel symbolized throughout the play, and what life will he enjoy now that Prospero is ready to dismiss him? How does Ariel’s song itself envision the freedom he has sought for so many years, first imprisoned by Sycorax and then pressed into service by Prospero?

28. 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 of game on Shakespeare’s part, with respect to the couple’s island courtship and their prospects for a happy future? How does the elder characters’ carefully staged encounter with the young couple help to settle the reconciliation that Prospero has sought? How are the elders’ perspectives different from those of Ferdinand and Miranda, yet not incompatible with them?

29. In Act 5, Scene 1.205-13, the upright old Neapolitan counselor Gonzalo gives the other characters and us an optimistic gloss on the play’s nearly completed action. To borrow a line from another Shakespeare play, “All’s well that ends well.” To what extent do the mood and substance of the play support Gonzalo’s characteristically cheerful interpretation, which seems to affirm the successful actions undertaken by Prospero to be in alignment with divine providence? Explain.

30. In Act 5, Scene 1, Ariel drives in the base conspirators Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban to face judgment and mockery by Prospero and the other high-born characters. How does Alonso react to his ill-behaved servants Stefano and Trinculo? How does Prospero deal with Caliban, with whom he has a long, bitter history? What, if anything, do you suppose the old wizard’s statement “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (446, 5.1.278-79) might mean for Caliban’s future?

31. In the epilogue following Act 5, Scene 1, what prerogative does Prospero acknowledge as belonging to the audience? In what sense does he here put himself in the situation of his 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?

32. Finally, with regard to the Epilogue following Act 5, Scene 1, now that Prospero (apparently having cast away his magic book and staff) stands reduced to the level of a rather frail, mortal human being, how should we reconcile his newly diminished status to the life he has lived as a powerful wizard on an enchanted island? To what extent does Prospero’s recovery of his dukedom in Milan make up for the loss? What else has he gained, and to what degree does it compensate him for the loss of his magic?

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.

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