In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611)

  • Introduction
  • Editions
  • Internet Resources
  • Colonialism/Postcolonialism
  • Other Major Critical Works (pre-2000)
  • Recent Critical Essays (post-2000)
  • Ecocriticism
  • Collections and Overviews

Atlantic History William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611)
Andrew Hadfield, Lesley Carvello
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0402


Shakespeare’s last single-authored play has an unusually complicated stage and critical history. Celebrated by many as a dramatic testament to the author’s own art, with Shakespeare representing himself as the magician Prospero, and possibly signaling his own retirement at the end of the play, it has also been a foundational text in postcolonial history, with the oppressed Caliban regarded as a colonized subject helpless to resist the aggressive appropriation of his island by Prospero, the failed and exiled Duke of Milan. Performances on stage and screen have, accordingly, varied significantly. Some emphasize the musical enchantment of the play, set on an island full of strange sounds and beautiful noises, culminating in a masque. Others, generally after the Second World War, emphasize the brutality of Prospero’s rule, casting the play as an allegory of colonial appropriation and power, the European invader dispossessing the native inhabitant. The Tempest has always been popular, and it was one of the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s plays after the Restoration, adapted as an opera by William D’Avenant and John Dryden, with music by Henry Purcell, in 1674. It enjoyed attention throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and continuing into the twentieth, when its critical and performance history started to shift with the advent of decolonization and the breakup of the European empires that had dominated much of the globe since Shakespeare’s time. The Tempest was one of the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be filmed, spawning both straightforward adaptations and more oblique versions. It has also appealed to a number of novelists and music writers. As a late Shakespeare play, it refuses easy generic classification, seeming to be an experimental work. The Tempest is carefully plotted in terms of the dramatic theory of the unities from Aristotle’s Poetics, obeying unity of time, a maximum of twenty-four hours; action, related and interconnected plots; and place, one location. Shakespeare’s play takes place over a day; all the plots are skillfully interwoven, from Prospero’s revenge against his brother to Stephano and Trinculo’s attempt to seize control of the island; and there is only one, confined location, the island after the storm. This unspecified Mediterranean island resembles a recently discovered American island, such as Bermuda, which was claimed for the Crown in 1612, a year after the play was first performed, and which had been the subject of recent discussion after the shipwreck of the Sea Venture there in 1609. Naming one of the play’s earlier—arguably indigenous—inhabitants, Caliban, further signals the cannibals, the ferocious man-eaters thought to populate the southern Americas and Caribbean islands. Moreover, the play’s significant deployment of music, with Prospero using music and sound to control people, has featured prominently in many critical works on the play.


As the play only exists in the Folio, it has generated few textual issues and cruxes that need to be resolved. Even so, The Tempest has been especially well served by distinguished editors, notably since the World War II, with many keen to intervene in debates about the play and to make a mark, often emphasizing its relationship to contemporary colonial history, still hen very much in the future for the British, beginning with Kermode’s seminal edition (Kermode 1954), and developed by Orgel 1987, Vaughan and Vaughan 1999, and Hulme and Sherman 2019. Lindley’s edition (Lindley 2002) deliberately places itself as a qualification to the dominance of postcolonialism with its emphasis on music.

  • Hulme, Peter, and William H. Sherman, eds. The Tempest. New York: Norton, 2019.

    Contains a useful selection of contextual materials, especially extracts from geographical works, and critical essays (Michael Neil, Julia Lupton, Stephen Orgel, John Dover-Wilson), along with reworkings of the play by major figures (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Aime Cesaire, and Ted Hughes).

  • Kermode, Frank, ed. The Tempest. Arden Shakespeare: Arden 2. London: Methuen, 1954.

    A pioneering edition with a substantial introduction that emphasizes the Bermuda pamphlets and the New World context of the play, as well as the play’s analysis of the relationship between art and nature in determining identity.

  • Lindley, David, ed. The Tempest. New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Concentrates on the music and performance in the play to explore its significance in relation to the development of the action and the nature of performance, vital in a play that concludes with the masque.

  • Orgel, Stephen, ed. The Tempest. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

    An edition that sought to challenge perceived views of the play as static and fixed, and to argue that it stimulated debates that it was not trying to conclude. Good on ways of reading complicated passages in the play.

  • Vaughan, Virginia Mason, and Alden T. Vaughan, ed. The Tempest. Arden Shakespeare: Arden 3. London: Nelson, 1999.

    Valuable edition with material on Caliban as a “salvage man” and a comprehensive overview of the stage history and adaptations.

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