Elements of Romance in ‘The Tempest’

From the Lecture Series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

The Tempest is one of William Shakespeare’s later works, and has specific characteristics that take it beyond the classification of comedy and tragedy. There are elements of romance in The Tempest, and the play is categorized as a tragicomedy. Read on to find out the elements that Shakespeare uses here and how they affect this play.

Portrait of a girl in a medieval dress on the river holding a vintage old tattered book and bookmarks bouquet of roses
Elements of romance next to tragic and comic elements in The Tempest show the maturity and complexity of the play, something which had been beyond the scope in Shakespeare’s previous plays. (Image: Alla Molodid/Shutterstock)

Shakespeare began his artistic work with formulaic tragedies, comedies, and histories. Eventually, he developed his own form of plays that went beyond the classic classifications—he developed a more complex form of the history play, while making his way into the high comedies and the more mature tragedies, then he further pushed these forms with his problem plays, which question both tragedy and comedy. Another form was a tragicomedy; The Tempest is one of his tragicomedies.

The Making of The Tempest

Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, were all written probably between 1608 and 1611. They were the final four plays that Shakespeare wrote thoroughly by himself. They are mature, complex, and different in the sense that they do not fit in the old categories anymore.

They are called tragicomedies. They are different from the problem plays that also use elements of both comedy and tragedy. But, what sets the tragicomedies, including The Tempest, apart is the element of romance in them. But, first, let’s develop an understanding of what we mean by the term “romance”, and what sort of play it prepares us to see and understand.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Understanding Romance to Understand The Tempest

A romance is actually a very ancient literary form—the Greeks wrote romances, and nearly every culture has some version of romance in its folklore and legends. In fact, it is an important aspect of Shakespeare’s romances: They are old-fashioned, having a timeless and ancient quality to them. They are closer to folktales, to the stories told around the fireside in ancient cultures.

The Tempest is also a collection of folktales: a shipwreck stranding a crew on an enchanted island, a sorcerer and his spirit-angel, a protective father, a servant scheming against the sorcerer to overthrow him and possess his powers, and more.

Learn more about the comic structure in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

No Pretense to Realism in The Tempest

The next element is the surrealism in romantic plots. The magic in The Tempest is an example of this independence of realism. Other romances have such examples, too. For instance, in The Winter’s Tale, a woman is apparently dead, but in fact, she has been hidden away for 16 years. In the final scene, she appears as a statue which is miraculously brought back to life to behold the daughter she has not seen in the 16 years.

Vintage witcher cauldron with books and magic potions
Magic is a big part of The Tempest, and being away from realism is an element of romance. (Image: Shaiith/Shutterstock)

Pericles and Cymbeline also have their non-realistic examples. The audience does not try to find logic and reality in these cases. Instead, they go with the play and, as the prologue says in Henry V, let the play “on their imaginary forces work”. We must enter into the story, or go along for the ride.

In Pericles, a mother is separated from her beloved and their daughter because she dies giving birth. However, a doctor brings her back to life after he takes her coffin from the sea in a different land. After 14 years at Diana’s temple, her beloved and daughter come to the same temple for offerings, and they find each other.

Cymbeline holds the record with connecting the play to the birth of Christ and the greater peace he brings along.

Shakespeare’s final works do not try to bear with the limitations of the stage and performing the play. He wrote them independent of all the rules and boundaries.

Learn more about overcoming tragedy in Measure for Measure.

The Three-Part Plot Structure in The Tempest

The third element of romance in The Tempest is the three-part plot structure. It is specifically influencing the form. The first of the three parts is outrageous wrongdoing. The second part is a long period of suffering or penance, and the third is forgiveness and reconciliation. This kind of plot is outstanding as a capstone to Shakespeare’s career.

This tool is also at work in the other three plays. For example, in The Winter’s Tale, the king develops frantic jealousy toward his wife. He strongly suspects that his wife and his best friend are having an affair, and their new-born daughter is a result of their love.

He tries to kill his friend, and after he outs his wife on trial, she and their son die of sadness. The god Apollo tells him that he will live without an heir unless his lost daughter is found. There is the 16-year wait, after which the daughter comes back, and the wife’s statue comes back to life. The king’s friend also returns, and they look with love at the king’s daughter and the friend’s son, who are already married.

In the final scene, the forgiveness plot appears. The wife sees her daughter and seems to forgive the king who gave her such a hard time and even killed her on trial. She is finally restored with her daughter, and the play concludes with the reconciliation that the king does not deserve.

Shakespeare’s late plays all seem to have this theme of outrageous wrong, which is ultimately forgiven. The Tempest is no exception. In conclusion, we can say that the elements of romance have a bold role in this play and understanding it.

Common Questions about Elements of Romance in The Tempest

Q: Is The Tempest a problem play?

No. There are elements of romance in The Tempest, which makes it a tragicomedy.

Q: Are there elements of comedy in The Tempest?

Yes, elements of comedy complement elements of romance in The Tempest.

Q: What is a three-part plot structure?

A three-part plot structure begins with outrageous wrongdoing, followed by a long period of suffering or penance, and then concluding in a scene of forgiveness and reconciliation that is remarkable as a capstone to Shakespeare’s career. This is one of the elements of The Tempest.

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