There are those who reject “universal” or “timeless” ways of reading any literature, but The Tempest invites such a reading by signaling its setting as beyond time. The Latin word “tempestus” for “storm” or “weather” is similar to the word “tempus” for “time.” Just as the action of the play takes place post-tempest, so it could be read as post-time or outside of time.
While Prospero explicitly sets the action between 2 and 6 p.m., multiple references in the text suggest a timeless, supernatural realm. Miranda invokes “the heavens” and Prospero, “Providence divine” to explain their previous delivery from death (Act I, scene ii). Ariel invokes “Destiny” and “Fate” to explain the survival of Alonso and his companions after the storm that Prospero has conjured (Act III, scene iii). Similarly, Ariel’s otherworldly music is barely heard by the earth-bound characters throughout the play. Prospero’s magic creates a sense of wonder and strangeness. There are references to visions, miracles, amazement, and mythical creatures. The magic island suggests a new creation, resurrection, or afterlife.
As the text itself suggests a timeless realm, so are we invited to consider a universal or transcendent significance to the play.
The Tempest begins with disorder (the storm), destruction (the shipwreck), and an encounter with death, as the crew and passengers tumble into the sea. This apocalyptic scene is followed by Prospero’s reassurance of Miranda that all is well and his recounting of their own exile, shipwreck, and survival on the island where Miranda has grown up, knowing only her father Prospero and his two slaves, Caliban and Ariel. Thus is the theme of symbolic death and resurrection established at the start.
Prospero then puts Miranda to sleep, introducing a motif of sleeping and waking that parallels the theme of death and rebirth.
His conversation with Ariel and Caliban introduces a theme of captivity and freedom and the need to earn one’s freedom. The appearance of Ferdinand confirms Prospero’s assurances and introduces the love theme as Ferdinand immediately falls in love with Miranda, who also falls under his spell. Just as freedom must be earned, so must love and happiness. Prospero pretends to believe Ferdinand is a spy with designs on the island and takes him prisoner, “lest too light winning/Make the prize light” (Act I, scene ii).
The island is beginning to emerge as an ambiguous world: rebirth and renewal, on one hand, and trial and ordeal, on the other; airy spirit and brute nature; union and exile.
Act II begins with Alonso, the King of Naples, fearing for his son Ferdinand’s life, as Ferdinand had feared for his father, Gonzalo imagining himself transforming the island into a new “golden age,” and Antonio (the Duke of Milan who had usurped his brother Prospero’s throne and cast him and Miranda away on the sea to die) conspiring with Alonso’s brother Sebastian to assassinate Alonso and Gonzalo so that Sebastian can assume the throne of Naples. Ariel intervenes, like a providential angel, to disrupt the plot and the group moves on in search of Ferdinand. Again the ambiguous island harbors both treachery and beneficence.
Brute nature asserts itself in the next scene as Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano succumb to the power of wine. Under the influence, Caliban bows in worship to Stephano, who supplied the wine.
The next scene (Act III, scene i) is the textual center of the five-act play. Ferdinand and Miranda, unknowingly observed by Prospero, work together in mutual labor, declare their love for each other and exchange betrothal vows. Beneficence breaks out in this scene as new love and the promise of new life triumph over the darkness of previous scenes.
Treachery, however, reasserts itself in the next scene as Caliban, Stephano, and Trinkulo, in a drunken state, plot to murder Prospero. Meanwhile, Ariel confronts Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian with their own treachery against Prospero, warning them of continuing punishment if they fail to repent and reform. Their ordeal of guilt begins.
At this point, the plot turns, as Prospero, in quick succession, blesses the union of Ferdinand and Miranda; with Ariel’s help disrupts the murder plot against him by the drunken trio; calls his enemies to account in his presence and pardons them; frees Ariel; and bids farewell to his magical arts before departing with the court to Naples.
Repeatedly, as the plot veers toward death and destruction, separation and division, or brutality and guile, tragedy is averted by rebirth and renewal, convergence and union, or providence and beneficence. It is a timeless mythic tale of suffering and redemption, in which new life, restoration, deliverance, and freedom must be earned by trial and ordeal.
At the center of the play is the young couple, representing innocence, love, fertility, and hope for the future. No doubt they will suffer yet more tempests, but the play is primarily affirmative, offering the promise of continual renewal for both the individual and humanity in general.