World Literatures in Dialogue

Comparative Literature 60A: World Literatures in Dialogue


Reading Comprehension Questions for William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611)


You do NOT have to write down answers to these questions!




The Tempest is said to have been one of William Shakespeare’s last plays (he may have collaborated on a few more afterwards). For understanding the context of the play, it’s important to think not only about its position in his career (what is it saying about the theater in general? See below…), but also about the date of its composition and production – and about the location of its first production too.


Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616; during the first part of his life (and playwrighting career), Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) ruled England. After Elizabeth died, James I (1566-1625), who has been James VI of Scotland before acceding to the English throne, ruled England. It was thus under his rule that The Tempest was written and produced. In this context, it’s also important to know that while many of Shakespeare’s plays were written for and staged at the Globe Theater, which was in the so-called “Liberties” of London across the Thames’ river and outside the jurisdiction of the city of London and the court, The Tempest is documented as having been staged, first, at the Blackfriars Theater (a former monastery) in 1610-11; Because of its status as a former monastery outside the jurisdiction of the royal court, Blackfriars technically counted as a ‘liberty’. But it was then also apparently staged at Whitehall Palace near Westminster in front of King James I and the court. Then it was staged AGAIN in 1612-13 at Whitehall at the celebrations for the marriage of James’ daughter, Elizabeth, to Frederick of the Palatinate (from the Holy Roman Empire). James had been trying to marry his daughter and son off to various European crowns to create a network of often competing alliances.


After these productions, the play was not produced again until after the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 (the Puritans closed all the theaters when they were in power between 1649 and 1660) and then only in an adapted form. Knowing that the play was originally produced in a specifically monarchical political context is interesting to think about in terms of the issues of usurpation (both in Milan and on the island), definitions of political sovereignty (i.e., is Prospero really the ‘king’ of the island and what is the extent of his jurisdiction over Ariel and Caliban?), and dynastic continuity (the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand) that are at the center of the play. Recently, many scholars have read the play as an exploration of the origins of western colonialism, with Prospero as the colonizer and Ariel and Caliban as the colonized. – Consider the possibility of an allegorical reading of the ‘tempest’ – the storm – with which the play opens; there is a lot of both literal and metaphorical chaos both when the action of the play begins and throughout. Which ‘tempest’ is The Tempest about, then? At the end of the play, there nevertheless seems to be a sense of relative calm, forgiveness / reconciliation, and restabilization – at least for the ‘Italians’ in the play, if not necessarily for Caliban. But this ‘resolution’ comes about pretty unexpectedly, almost miraculously…Think about the relation, or even the tension, between the action of the play and the ending.


Finally: In terms of our understanding of what it might mean for Shakespeare’s play to a ‘classic’, it’s also interesting to know that scholars have found that he seems to have picked up and used / varied a number of earlier texts when he wrote his play. There are references to


a. the ancient Roman poet, Virgil’s ‘classic’ epic poem, The Aeneid (29-19 b.c.e.), in the storm itself and in the discussion of King Alonso of Naples’ daughter, Claribel, as like Queen Dido (Act II, scene I II.i.),

b. the French writer Michel de Montaigne’s essay, “On the Cannibals” (1588 / 1603) in Gonzalo’s speech (also in II.i.) about the ideal commonwealth on the island,

c. William Strachey’s A True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight, which was an eyewitness report of a real-life shipwreck in 1609 on the island of Bermuda while sailing towards Virginia,

d. Richard Eden’s The Decades of the Newe World of West India (London, 1555), with its accounts of Magellan’s experience in the 1520s with Patagonian natives who “cryed upon their great devil Setebos to help them” (Caliban calls upon “Setebos” in V.i.), and

e. the diary of Francis Fletcher, who was the chaplain of Sir Francis Drake when Drake followed Magellan’s route around the tip of South America in 1577-1580, and more.


Thus, when Aimé Césaire uses / varies Shakespeare’s The Tempest in his A Tempest (1969), he is also producing a ‘classic’ with references to earlier texts.




1. Read the opening scene of the storm (Act I, scene i = I.i.) carefully for the commentary it provides on the question of hierarchies of power and (practical) knowledge. What is the Boatswain’s attitude toward his political superiors on the ship during the storm? What are Antonio’s and Sebastian’s attitudes toward the mariners and the Boatswain? Toward the “king” (Alonso, the King of Naples)? What is Gonzalo’s attitude toward the Boatswain? Toward the storm? In sum: What can we tell about the characters in the play from their reactions to the “tempestuous” storm?


2. There are several plots in this play. One of the most important ones derives from the backstory, which involved a struggle over who was going to be the Duke of Milan, Prospero or Antonio. Prospero tells this story to his daughter, Miranda (and thus to the audience!), in I.ii. While it is clearly the story of political usurpation – with Antonio taking over from the ‘rightful’ duke, his brother, Prospero – that irks Prospero the most, it’s important to notice what kind of Duke he was when he was in power: “rapt in study,” growing ‘strange’ to his “state,” and “neglecting worldly ends” ; “my library was dukedom large enough.” Antonio calls in Alonso, the King of Naples, who was Prospero’s adversary anyway, to help him displace Prospero, and they send him out to sea with the baby Miranda in a leaky boat. The good Gonzalo makes sure they have some supplies…Some scholars thus say that the main point of the on-stage action is to investigate Prospero’s struggle to regain power in Milan – and thus not necessarily about the issue of power on the island (although the two ‘scenes’ of the struggle for power are clearly related…). – Consider what this backstory-plot tells us about what the stakes are in terms of good leadership in the play, and if Prospero is destined to be a better ruler when he gets back to Milan after the action of the play is over, and, if so, why? If not, why not?. – Moreover: Consider the two other plotlines that are also about usurpation, namely,


a. Antonio’s and eventually Sebastian’s plans to kill Gonzalo and Alonso (II.ii), and

b. Stephano’s, Trinculo’s, and Caliban’s plans to overthrow the “tyrant sorcerer,” Prospero (III.ii.) that Prospero remembers in IV.i. and that they try to pull off in that same scene.


How do these various scenes of usurpation relate to one another?


3. Another important plot in the play is associated with the romantic relationship and “rare affections” (III.i.74) between Miranda and Ferdinand, who is the son of Alonso, the King of Naples. As interesting as their romance is – Miranda of course hasn’t really seen any other men for most of her life except her father and Caliban, who attempted to rape her, and Ferdinand is so infatuated with her that he is willing to do any kind of manual labor ordered by Prospero just to be near her – the question of dynastic continuity that their relationship suggests is also important. Why is Alonso so distraught about the possibility that Ferdinand has drowned, for example (II. i.)? Also think about the marriage status and location of Alonso’s other child, his daughter, Claribel, who has just married the King of Tunis (II.i.). What is at stake in the play in terms of getting Miranda and Ferdinand married off? Also: Why is Prospero so insistent that they wait until after they are married for the “virgin knot” to be ‘broken’ (IV.i.15)? NB: Think of the context of the 1612-13 performance of the play!!!


NB: Read the “masque” interlude (IV.i.) in this context. This is an inserted play-performance within the play, with Roman goddesses – Ceres (Demeter), Juno, Iris, other “temperate” nymphs, and “Reapers” – dancing “charmingly” and ‘gracefully’ in honor of Miranda’s and Ferdinand’s upcoming wedding and future offspring. Why is the masque so rudely interrupted? What does this interruption tell us about the issues of the play?


4. A related point: All of the roles in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater (i.e., theater during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I) were played by boy / male actors. But very few of Shakespeare’s other plays are so resolutely male in the roster of characters. Make a list of the women characters either seen (only Miranda actually) or mentioned in the play, and consider what they stand for in each case. HINT: Their names are (as above): Claribel and the “witch,” Sycorax. Why is Sycorax “banish’d” from Argier (Algeria – I.ii.)? Does her characterization as a “witch” make us think differently about Prospero’s ‘magical’ powers or not?


5. The status of the ‘native’ inhabitants of the island, Ariel and Caliban – as distinct from the Italians, Prospero and Miranda, on the one hand, and Alonso, Antonio, and the others from the shipwreck, on the other – has elicited much scholarly interest, particularly the disaffected Caliban. First: Track where these ‘natives’ are from, who their parents and / or ‘masters’ were both originally and after they got to the island. Are they really ‘natives’? Second: Consider how they each deal with the relations of power in which they are caught in both cases (both originally under Sycorax, I.ii. for Ariel, and then for both of them under Prospero, who consistently calls Caliban his “slave” and even at the end refers to him as a “thing of darkness,” V.i.275). What is Ariel’s and Caliban’s relationship to one another, and what are the respective tasks that Prospero assigns to each of them and why are they able to fulfill them? Does Caliban have any ‘strengths’ other than his mere brawn (cf. his offer to Trinculo and Stephano to show them “every fertile inch o’ the island,” II.ii.160. – He had done the same thing for Prospero – I.ii.337)? What about the way that Caliban interacts with Trinculo and Stephano (II.ii. and III.i.) who call him their “servant-monster”? What happens to Ariel at the end of the play? What happens to Caliban? And what is the effect of Ariel having to constantly remind Prospero about the promise he (Prospero) has made of his (Ariel’s) “liberty” before he is ‘freed’?


6. A related point: There has been a lot of scholarly debate about Caliban’s relationship to the language he says that Miranda taught him (I.ii.), in which he learned primarily to “curse.” Caliban is very aware of the ‘magical’ power that Prospero’s language and knowledge (his books) in particular has (cf. III.iii.103 – “Remember first to possess his books”). What is Shakespeare saying about the power of language? Of learning?


7. There is a lot of magic in this play; much of it is orchestrated by the ‘magician’ Prospero and carried out by Ariel – he is the one who ‘stage manages’ the storm, for example (I. ii.), puts everyone except Antonio and Sebastian to sleep (II.i.), ‘disappears’ the banquet in III.iii., stages the masque (IV.i.), brings the “trumpery”-clothing for Stephano and Trinculo to attempt to seize (IV.i.), calls the hounds on Trinculo and Stephano and Caliban (IV.i.), etc., etc. Scholars have said that the obvious ‘staging’ of many of the magical interludes – which Prospero refers to in IV.i.155 as an “insubstantial pageant” – and particularly the (disappearing) banquet, but also the storm which starts and stops pretty abruptly – stands for the power of illusion associated with theater itself. Why would a playwright, namely Shakespeare, draw attention to the transitory nature of theater? And what is the effect of Prospero giving up his magic at the end of the play?


8. Note that Gonzalo seems to be a kind of exception to the general ‘Italian’ way of doing things. (He is described as an “honest Councillor” in the “Dramatis Personae”, the cast list, after all…). His utopian vision in II. i.152-175 of how he thinks the island should be run as a “plantation” is very important as a kind of counter-vision to what is actually going on on the island / in the “commonwealth.”


9. The ‘resolution’ of this play is somewhat unexpected. Prospero chooses “virtue over vengeance” (V.i.27), “abjure[s]” his “rough magic” (V.i.50-51), breaks his magic staff, and will ‘drown’ his “book.” He then “forgives” (V.i.78) everyone, Alonso requests a ‘pardon’, and the Boatswain and the boat turn out to have survived the storm. All in all, the Italians are set to head back to Naples and Milan, respectively, for the wedding and, all importantly, for Prospero to be restored to his rightful place as Duke of Milan. (He really doesn’t want to stay on the island, as the “Epilogue” makes clear.) – What do you make of the ending of the play? Does it follow from the rest of the stage action? Is Prospero’s change of heart a kind of characterological deus ex machina, a ‘miraculous’ resolution that allows the play to end well, but that could not have occurred ‘naturally’, given the personnel of the play?

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