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English 11-12

HSC Area of Study: Shakespeare The Tempest Analysis

In this post, we will discuss some textual analysis of The Tempest and walk you through some examples.

Welcome to our HSC Area of Study: The Tempest Analysis post. Because Shakespeare is difficult, many students struggle with the textual analysis of his texts.

The Tempest Analysis

The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last play, and is more complex than many of his earlier works in terms of structure and content. If you are unsure about how you should study Discovery, you should read this post on HSC Area of Study: Discovery first.

Looking for the Module A: Tempest and Hag-Seed Guide?

Find it here.

Table of Contents

  1. What is The Tempest?
  2. Context of The Tempest
  3. Key Concepts
  4. The Characters
  5. Analysing the Text

What is the Tempest?

Shakespeare’s The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, the Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda who have been marooned on an island in the Mediterranean. They were exiled there by Prospero’s brother, Antonio, who tried to murder them both. They escaped to the island with the help of Gonzalo. There they enslaved Caliban. Prospero orchestrates the wrecking of the ship carrying his brother and the king of Naples, Alonso, back to Italy. Prospero uses his magic to manipulate the King’s son, Ferdinand, into marrying his daughter. The play concludes with the cast returning to Italy for the marriage of Miranda to Ferdinand, uniting the families in conflict.

Late Romance

The Tempest is what is called a “Late Romance.” This was a categorisation given to some of the latter plays by Shakespeare that defied easy classification. The Late Romances blended genres, in this case comedy and tragedy:

  • Comedy: A series of personality clashes leads to turmoil in the royal court. The action moves to a pastoral setting where the characters work through their conflicts. Comedy does not imply there must be humour, although there often is. There will be a wedding, or maybe several, that are used to resolve the conflicts in the text when the action returns to the court.
  • Tragedy: A character is led by their hamartia – a fatal flaw in their nature – to undertake actions that will be their undoing. This action might be seeking revenge, murdering their way to becoming a king, desiring a role in society above their station, or plotting to marry against their parents’ wishes. Tragedies always end badly with the deaths of at least one character, if not more.

The Tempest blends aspects of tragedy – Prospero seeks revenge against those who have wronged him – with elements of comedy – the resolution of the play in marriage and sub-plot of the three clowns (Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban). This combination of genres served to keep audiences guessing about the play’s resolution. It is important to be aware of the text’s genre, so that you can discuss how it challenges the traditions of form to represent discovery. It does this, for example, by subverting audience expectations.




The Tempest is a political play that explores notions of power and its acquisition through usurpation, physical control, and marital connections. The play may therefore, be understood to reflect the political milieu of the European colonial period. From the 16th century to the mid-20th century, several European powers, including Britain, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and France established colonies in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas. These actions often involved the imposition of their own government and cultures upon the colonies, allowing for the exploitation of natural resources, the economy and the people.


Shakespearean Theatre

Shakespearean theatre was visceral, using crude makeup, costuming, and props such as trap doors and animal blood to complement the script. Stages of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period were for the most part, bare and simple. There was little on-stage scenery, and the possibilities for artificial lighting were limited. Therefore, much dramatic effect and interpretation was left up to the minds of the audience.

We see a particularly good example of this in Act II, Scene I when Gonzalo, Sebastian, and Antonio argue whether the island is beautiful or barren. The bareness of the stage would have allowed either option to be possible in the audience’s mind.


Key Concepts:

Discovery of the Natural World:

As the ‘Other’, Caliban is a figure that captures the audience’s imagination. Neither monster nor noble savage, it is the inherent impossibility of defining Caliban’s character that brings the audience to question the line between the natural realm and that of the ‘civilised’.

Example: Initially, Caliban is characterised through animal imagery from Prospero’s perspective as a ‘freckled whelp, hag born…not honoured with human shape’, echoing the European belief of the inferiority of indigenous peoples, which fuelled the transatlantic slave trade. As such, in Prospero’s narrative, Caliban is continually ungrateful for the help and civilisation he has received, despite his perceived lack of humanity.

Caliban’s rich and sensuous appreciation of nature and imaginative power is revealed through his use of poetic imagery in the lines, ‘Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not’. Although, initially characterised as illiterate and savage by Prospero, as the play progresses, the audience gains a deeper understanding of his behaviour. His character serves as a reminder to us of the disjunction between the other characters’ assertions and what we perceive. Moreover, Caliban himself acts as a motif, allowing us to question our own nature, and reappraise the differences between the worlds of the monstrous, the natural, and the civilised.


Rediscovery of the Meaning of Power:

The audience is led to reconsider the meaning of power through both the events and characters of the play.

Example: Throughout the course of the play, Prospero is made aware of the paradoxically liberating and enslaving nature of his relentless pursuit for knowledge. On the one hand, his books have afforded him great comfort and have throughout the years, formed a crucial aspect of his identity. On the other, however, they play a pivotal role in his eventual fall from power. In his exclamations, ‘My library / Was dukedom large enough: of temporal royalties’ and ‘Mine own library with volumes that / I prize above my dukedom’, both hyperbole and allusion are used to underscore the importance of knowledge in the pursuit of learning to Prospero.


Discovery of the Nature of Truth:

Prospero, on one hand, is viewed alternately as a tyrant or noble ruler, a Neoplatonic scientist, or colonial imperialist. In contrast, Caliban has been rendered as a sensitive savage, an uneducable brute and a New-World native – at once tragic and comic in his characterisations. Miranda, on the other hand, has been portrayed alternatively as a damsel in distress or rebellious ingénue. Meanwhile the ambiguity of Ariel’s gender has meant that his or her character has been left open for a larger degree of interpretation. The important thing however, is that the text does little to heed to “correctness” of these representations. Rather, it presents evidence for a multitude of perspectives, all of which may be viewed as versions of the truth.

Example: The storm is not clear-cut in its implications. We bear witness to a multitude of representations of all the characters on the boat, and are left to question their true motivations and the subjectivity of true virtue. This is particularly pertinent when we consider the shifting attitudes of these same characters when they find themselves displaced on the island.


The Characters


Prospero is the former Duke of Milan. While Duke, he became obsessed with learning magic and handed the running of the kingdom to his brother, Antonio. He and Miranda escaped with the help of Gonzalo. Importantly, Prospero is an intelligent, powerful, and manipulative figure. The exiled Duke uses his magic to orchestrate all the events on the island.



Prospero’s brother. He is a treacherous individual driven by self-interest. While on the ship with Alonso and his retinue he encourages Sebastian to kill his brother, King Alonso.



The King of Naples, he is powerful man who is bereaved by the seeming loss of his son, Ferdinand. While Ferdinand is missing, he is protected from his brother by Prospero and Ariel, but also threatened and imprisoned by Prospero. Alonso is willing to be punished for his part in betraying Prospero, thereby demonstrating his nobility.



Alonso’s brother; he is disgruntled with Alonso. Antonio attempts to convert this to anger and regicide. Fortunately, he is also thwarted by Ariel.



Prospero’s daughter. She is a quintessential renaissance girl. She has been raised on the island away from men. Ferdinand is the first man she meets aside from her father Prospero and his slave Caliban. She falls in love with Ferdinand at first sight, although it is unclear if this is a consequence of their connection or her father’s powers. In the end, her marriage to Ferdinand promises peace.



Alonso’s son. He falls in love with Miranda and is willingly enslaved by Prospero so he can spend time with Miranda. Ferdinand agrees to marry Miranda after she proposes to him. Notably, he is not the most quick-witted of characters and Prospero often talks him in circles.



The indigenous inhabitant of the island. The son of Sycorax the Witch, he is a deformed figure. He was enslaved by Prospero after attempting to rape Miranda. Subsequently, Caliban plots to kill Prospero with Trinculo and Stephano, who he mistakes for gods. Ultimately, he is thwarted and repents.



A sprite enslaved by Prospero. Ariel manufactures the tempest of the text’s title to shipwreck Alonso and his retinue. He does Prospero’s bidding under threat of torture and the promise of release. Ultimately, he is freed at the end of the play.



Prospero’s advisor and friend from Milan. He saved Prospero by organising a boat. He is also an idealist who is naïve and mocked for his views. Gonzalo interrupts the plot to kill Alonso. As a consequence, he is spared Ariel’s horrid form in the banquet scene.


Analysing the text for Discovery:

Area of Study (AOS) has a specific theme – in this cycle it is “discovery” – which serves as a lens through which you need to analyse your text. Remember, the most effective way to do this is to use the cues from the syllabus document to analyse the text. So, what we will do now is take a couple of statements from this document and see how to relate some examples from the text to them:

  • Rubric Statement: “Discoveries can be sudden and unexpected, or they can emerge from a process of deliberate and careful planning evoked by curiosity, necessity or wonder.”

This statement discusses how discovery can occur: suddenly and surprisingly, or from a process. Additionally, it presents some potential motivations for this: curiosity – a desire to find something out; necessity – a need to understand or find something; and wonder – an emotional response to discovery that compels individuals to further discoveries.


“To my state I grew stranger, being transported/ And rapt in secret study.” (1.2.78-9) Prospero uses a metaphor to highlight how he neglected his duties in favour of discovery. His desire for knowledge is driven by wonder and necessity. Prospero describes it as something insatiable that had him “rapt.” As a result, this demonstrates regret on his part for choosing his selfish arcane study over the governance of Milan.



“Would ‘t had been done! Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else this isle with Calibans.” (1.2.349-350) Caliban voices regret that Prospero stopped him from raping Miranda. His exclamative tone embodies his necessity to discover Miranda in a sexual manner. This is possibly not driven by sexual desire, but potentially a desire to raise an army of “Calibans” to overthrow his captors, Prospero and Miranda.

  • Rubric Statement: “[Discoveries] can also be confronting and provocative.”

This statement comments on the nature of discovery for individuals and how it can be challenging to deal with. Discoveries that are confronting challenge individuals’ beliefs, knowledge, and expectations. Therefore, discoveries that are provocative result in an emotional response by provoking feelings such as love, anger, loss, or shame.



“I might call him / A thing divine, for nothing natural / I ever saw so noble.” (1.2.498-500) Miranda uses hyperbole and metaphor to describe Ferdinand. Since she has never seen a male aside from her father, or the deformed Caliban, his appearance captivates her. Consequently, this discovery provokes her to fall in love.



“Full fathom five thy father lies. / Of his bones are coral made. / Those are pearls that were his eyes. / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” (1.2.397-401) Ariel uses an extended metaphor to comment on Alonso’s death, or the appearance of it, as a positive thing in the cycle of life. This is a confronting statement to make to one who grieves for their father. But, it is potentially cathartic in helping them come to terms with death.

  • Rubric Statement: “Discoveries may be questioned or challenged when viewed from different perspectives and their worth may be reassessed over time.”

This statement asserts that discoveries are not static. Discoveries change in value over time. Furthermore, knowledge is ever changing and evolving. Thus, as new information comes to light we apply it to our existing understanding of things. Due to this we can change our perspectives, or we might completely dismiss our original ideas.



“But this rough magic/ I here abjure…I’ll break my staff…and…I’ll drown my book.” In the final act, Prospero pledges to make significant changes to himself and his world. Therefore, his pledge to “break [his] staff” and “drown [his] book” illustrates how his experiences on the island have made him reconsider the use of magic and the path of revenge he nearly took.



“All things in common nature should produce / Without sweat or endeavour; treason, felony, / Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine    Would I not have; but nature should bring forth / Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance, / To feed my innocent people.” (2.1.162-180)

Gonzalo offers a manifesto for his proposed kingdom. It is based on his experiences as a courtier and as a man presented with, what he perceived to be, terra nullius – nobody’s land. Additionally, Gonzalo’s proposed social and political structure challenges the European values of the monarchical state and the requirements for an individual’s labour that this structure foists upon humanity.


Written by Matrix Education

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