The play itself is a masque-like comedy; it far surpasses the majority of those traditional pieces with similar themes which were continuously being updated by other writers of Shakespeare's day. It is a tale of magic and wonderworking, of retribution and forgiveness, of shipwreck and enchanted isles. The Tempest is also the last of Shakespeare's completed plays.
Prospero, Duke of Milan, a studious man who had delegated to his ambitious brother Antonio many of the affairs of government, was 'extirpated' by him and sent to sea, with his infant daughter. Providence brought him safely to an island used as a place of exile by the witch Sycorax, where he lived for many years, studying the art of sorcery. When the play opens, he has long ruled the island, commanding the spirits of the air, and enslaving the brutish, misshapen Caliban, progeny of the witch. Through his spells he causes to be swept ashore by a tempest, a ship bearing the ally of Antonio, the King of Naples, and his son Ferdinand, and Antonio himself. As Prospero tells Miranda, his daughter:
... This King of Naples, being an enemy
To me inveterate, hearkens my brother's suit,
Which was, that he, in lieu of the premises
Of homage, and I know not how much tribute,
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...self in his quest for vengence, (or at least righting the wrongs done him), is the prime mover of The Tempest. He exists in a higher level of 'nature' than do the other characters because he has educated himself in obedience to primordial laws and exercised the habit of virtue. To this extent, the entire society formulated on the island by Prospero's ministrations is a natural society. Prospero's daughter, Miranda, occupies the highest level of this society, because of her chastity and innocence, which place her in harmony with higher nature. The discipline-required to exist in this higher nature is imposed on the other characters by Prospero's magic. Throughout The Tempest the emphasis is on moral and spiritual rebirth; this suggests rituals of initiation and festivity in a way which represents the culmination of achievement in Shakespeare's dramatic art.
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