Alonzo the King of Naples, his brother Sebastian, his son Fernando, the courtier Gonzala, and Antonio the Duke of Milan are caught in a storm on board a ship on their way back from Alonzo’s daughter’s wedding to the King of Tunis. Also on board the ship are Alonzo’s drunken butler Stephano and jester Trinculo. The magician Prospero, Antonio’s brother, has created the storm in order to shipwreck them on the strange and magical island he now inhabits with his daughter Miranda. His justification for the magical storm that he has created is that twelve years earlier he had been cruelly deposed as the legitimate Duke of Milan by his ambitious brother, Antonio, in league with King Alonzo.
If it had not been for the help of kindly Gonzala, who secretly supplied him not only with the necessities for life, but also with his precious books, Prospero and his daughter would have perished in the leaky little boat in which they had been cast out to sea, as Antonio had intended. Now, after twelve years of study, Prospero has become a powerful magician, and with the help of his spirit servant Ariel, and the hindrance of his resentful savage slave Caliban – who forms an uneasy alliance with Trinculo and Stephano – Prospero is poised to take his revenge on those who plotted his downfall.
But what form will his revenge take? Is this play, probably the last play Shakespeare wrote entirely by himself, a typical revenge tragedy of the early seventeenth century? Does it end, as would be expected by Shakespeare’s audience, in shocking bloodshed? Will the guilty acknowledge their crimes? Can Prospero find forgiveness in his heart? Can anything good come out of the ill-deeds of the past? Can love be born out of hate and resentment?
How will Alonzo, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzala, Ferdinand, Stephano and Trinculo, who are all only accustomed to the comforts of late 1930s court life, cope with being shipwrecked on this magical island? Will they simply try and recreate their dysfunctional civilisation in this alien world inhabited by Ariel and Caliban, just as Europeans were doing in the new world of the Americas at the time this play was written? Can there ever be a society, high or low, as Gonzala proposes, without the servant-master construct?
Intriguingly, in his surprisingly off-beat and iconoclastic farewell to the stage, Shakespeare leaves us with questions not only about the nature and structure of theatre but also about the essence of life itself.
Questions to which there are no easy answers.