The Tempest is generally regarded as Shakespeare’s last play, first performed in 1611 for King James I and again for the marriage festivities of Elizabeth, the King’s daughter, to Frederick, the Elector Palatine.
Scholars attribute the immediate source of the play to the 1609 shipwreck of an English ship in Bermuda and travellers’ reports about the island and the tribulation of the mariners. The period in which it was written, the 17th century age of exploration, the circumstances of its performance at court, and the context of the playwright’s writing career suggest some of its rich themes and ambiguities.
The play can be read as Shakespeare’s commentary on European exploration of new lands. Prospero lands on an island with a native inhabitant, Caliban, a being he considers savage and uncivilized. He teaches this “native” his language and customs, but this nurturing does not change the creature’s nature, at least from Prospero’s point of view. But Prospero does not drive Caliban away, rather he enslaves him, forcing him to do work he considers beneath himself and his noble daughter. As modern readers, sensitive to the legacy of colonialism, we need to ask if Shakespeare sees this as the right order: What are his views of imperialism and colonialism? What are our 20th century reactions to the depiction of the relationship between the master and slave, shown in this play?
The theme of Utopianism is linked to the explorations of new lands. Europeans were intrigued with the possibilities presented for new beginnings in these “new” lands. Was it possible to create an ideal state when given a chance to begin anew? Could humans hope to recreate a “golden age,” in places not yet subject to the ills of European social order? Could there be different forms of government? Would humans change if given a second chance in an earthly Paradise?
The play emphasizes dramatic effects. Because it was performed at court, there is a lot of stage business: music, dance, masque-like shows. The role of the artist is explored through Prospero’s use of his magic, and parallels can be drawn to Shakespeare’s own sense of his artistry.
Finally, knowing that this is Shakespeare’s last play, it is intriguing to explore autobiographical connections. Does he see himself in Prospero? Does he feel somehow isolated, in need of reconciliation? How is this play a culmination of other themes he has explored?
Here you can find the full text of the play.