In late 1610, as he was reaching the end of his career as a playwright, Shakespeare read three accounts of a shipwreck that inspired him to write what turned out to be his final unassisted play, The Tempest. It was first performed a year later, but doesn’t appear to have become popular until the nineteenth century. It’s an unusual work, sometimes viewed as a series of enigmatic images rather than a single coherent narrative.
From the late sixteenth century onwards, The Tempest was more popular in an adapted and extended version by Dryden and Davenant, and Shakespeare’s original play wasn’t restored until 1838. It has been rendered in a range of media, including many paintings, although never as well-known as his major tragedies.
The play opens on board a ship in the middle of a raging tempest. Its passengers include Alonso, King of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and his friend Antonio, Duke of Milan, who are returning from Alonso’s daughter’s wedding to the King of Tunis. Their ship is driven aground on a remote island governed by Prospero, a sorcerer who is the rightful Duke of Milan but twelve years earlier was usurped by Antonio, his brother. It was Prospero’s magic that conjured up the storm. With him is his daughter Miranda, who was only three when the two of them were cast adrift in a small boat, eventually landing on this island.
John William Waterhouse painted The Tempest at least three times. His first, in 1875, shows Miranda gazing out to a calm sea.
Waterhouse’s second and third paintings date from the last year or so of his life, in 1916, when he returned to paint two almost identical versions of Miranda gazing at the ship being blown ashore in the tempest.
William Rimmer’s Scene from the Tempest (1850) shows Prospero with his daughter Miranda, and Caliban gathering wood behind them. Miranda is pointing to the sea where the prow of a ship in distress is just visible among the waves. The lamp hanging at the upper left corner appears to contain something else, perhaps the spirit Ariel.
One of Thomas Stothard’s better Shakespearean paintings is this group portrait of Prospero, Miranda and Ariel, from Act 1 scene 2. Miranda looks fearful, and her father is talking with Ariel.
Prospero’s magic causes Miranda to fall asleep, and he then summons Ariel, his spirit, who managed the storm and its effects for him, taking care that those from the ship were put safely to sleep without any casualties. After Prospero promises to free Ariel in two days, he commands the spirit to reappear as a sea-nymph who can only be seen by the sorcerer.
This anonymous painting of Prospero, Miranda and Ariel, from “The Tempest” from about 1780 shows Miranda asleep as Prospero talks to a highly radiant Ariel.
William Hamilton’s Prospero and Ariel (from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) from 1797 shows the same moment and characters.
When Miranda wakes up, the sorcerer summons Caliban, the son of a witch and their slave, who is sent away to bring them fuel.
Odilon Redon’s charcoal drawing of Caliban from 1881 follows the popular line of making the witch’s son appear subhuman.
The unseen Ariel then brings Ferdinand to them with a song which convinces the prince that his father drowned in the storm.
Richard Dadd’s Come unto These Yellow Sands (1842) was exhibited with these lines from Ariel’s song, used for the purpose:
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands,
Curt’sied when you have, and kissed
(The wild waves whist).
Foot it featly here and there,
And sweet sprites the burden bear.
However, when it was shown in Liverpool the following year, Dadd seems to have referred back to Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The moment that Ferdinand sets eyes upon Miranda, the couple fall deeply in love, he proposing to marry her. Prospero had expected this, but pretends to oppose their union. When Ferdinand tries to draw his sword, the magician paralyses him and threatens to put him in prison.
In another part of the island Alonso, King of Naples, is convinced that his son Ferdinand has drowned. Antonio, Duke of Milan, and Sebastian, Alonso’s brother, first mock the king, then, when all the others have been put to sleep by Ariel, they draw their swords ready to murder Alonso. At that, Ariel wakes the king, and his would-be assassins pretend they were reacting to the sound of lions.
Meanwhile Caliban hides from the king’s jester under a waterproof cloak. The jester joins him when it starts raining, then they’re discovered by the king’s drunken butler, who gives Caliban a drink. That’s sufficient for the slave to consider himself freed.
Ferdinand, now Prospero’s slave, is gathering logs for the magician when he and Miranda meet again and vow to marry, unaware that her father is watching them.
Caliban, the jester and butler are becoming increasingly drunk and disorderly. With Ariel’s unseen collusion, they agree that the butler will murder Prospero and marry Miranda.
Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian are treated to a magical banquet, watched by the invisible Prospero. Just as they’re about to tuck in, Ariel transformed into a harpy, makes the food vanish and reminds them of how they had banished Prospero twelve years earlier.
Prospero tells Ferdinand that his slavery was but a test of his devotion, and gives his blessing to his marriage to Miranda. He brings on a magical masque in celebration, but that’s quickly abandoned when Prospero remembers Caliban’s plot. The three conspirators have been led through undergrowth and a filthy pool on their way towards him. The jester and butler are distracted by the sight of clean, dry clothes, allowing Prospero and Ariel to drive the three away to be tormented by spirits in the form of hunting dogs.
Following Ariel’s description of the torments Alonso and his party have gone through, Prospero decides not to seek any further revenge on them. Ariel then brings them to stand within the magic circle the sorcerer has made on the ground. The party recover their wits, and the magician forgives Antonio while demanding his restoration as the rightful Duke of Milan. When Alonso laments the death of Ferdinand his son, Prospero draws a curtain to reveal him playing chess with his daughter. Their forthcoming marriage is blessed.
Edward Reginald Frampton’s undated Scene from The Tempest shows the couple playing chess.
Ariel then brings the ship’s captain and crew, who confirm that their vessel is intact and not wrecked after all. They’re followed by Caliban and his trio, who are duly dismissed. The play ends with a monologue to the audience by Prospero, who declares that now he has lost his magic powers, he needs their applause to free him.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.