Sorrow and Suffering in Shakespeare’s ‘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 a tragicomedy. It looks logical to see sorrow and difficulties in it, but is 12 years of hardships, a brother usurping the throne from his brother, and a father trying to make her daughter fall deeply in love so that he can take revenge from some people also logical in a romance? It is. Read on to find out the supporting logic.

Crying male looking at candle
Suffering in The Tempest lasts long and makes life bitter for many characters, although it is not a tragedy. (Image: jfkfoto.se/Shutterstock)

A romance has elements that help the reader understand what happens and why it happens. One of these elements is a three-part plot structure. The story begins with outrageous wrongdoing, continues with a long period of suffering, and ends with forgiveness. The suffering in The Tempest belongs to the second part.

Prospero in The Tempest

A very important and active character in the play is Prospero. He is the father, the block to young love of his daughter and a prince, the actor, the director, and the one who wants to control everything like he controls his servant spirit, Ariel.

A painting of a young woman looking sadly at the sea.
Prospero makes his daughter, Miranda, suffer as well. (Image: Frederick Goodall/Public domain)

Much of the suffering in The Tempest belongs to Prospero. He had experienced many years of it when his brother usurped him and expelled him out of the country he was ruling and also during the time he spent on the island, thinking of revenge. Further, he is a source of suffering to other people: Ariel, Miranda, and Ferdinand.

On top of all his human efforts, there is magic to make the impossible possible for him. He creates a huge storm at the beginning, and although it looks massive and deadly, no one is hurt. He did this for the show. When the ship gets to the shore, Prospero puts a sleeping charm on the crew. He then has Ariel disperse the boat party throughout the island in different groupings: Ferdinand by himself, the lower-class characters Stephano and Trinculo together, and then the main court party separately.

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

The Crew in the The Tempest

Prospero and Ariel put each group of the ship’s crew to the test for different reasons and purposes. They want Ferdinand to fully value the love of Miranda, they want the crew to show their real nature, and Antonio and Sebastian to reveal their cruelty and sinister nature.

Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother, and Sebastian, the sinister brother of King Alonso, are scheming to kill Alonzo. All the suffering in The Tempest is divided between all these characters because of the great sins they have committed.

Tests and Suffering in The Tempest

Prospero keeps testing everyone and making them suffer until Gonzalo, the good man who helped Prospero and Miranda when they arrived on the island, gets tired. He says that their march through the jungle is like going through a maze.

The maze resembles the famous test of Theseus in Greek mythology. The fundamental pattern of all the suffering in the jungle march is Christ on the Way of Sorrows, carrying his cross all the way to his place of crucifixion. Thus, the suffering in The Tempest is to bring redemption, not revenge.

Learn more about overcoming tragedy in Measure for Measure.

The Jungle Feast

When everyone gets tired of the march, Prospero and Ariel lay a magnificent banquet, with wonderful food and finery in front of the men. As soon as they want to start eating, Ariel appears in the form of a harpy, making the food disappear and declaring their wrongdoing:

You are three men of sin, whom Destiny,
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in’t, the never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you; and on this island Where man doth not inhabit; you ‘mongst men Being most unfit to live …

… you three
From Milan did supplant good Prospero;
Exposed unto the sea, which hath requit it,
Him and his innocent child: for which foul deed The powers, delaying, not forgetting, have Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures, Against your peace.

This is where Prospero can take his revenge, but he spares them for now.

Learn more about The Tempest-Shakespeare’s farewell to art.

Change in Prospero

Throughout the play and to get to the forgiveness part, Prospero changes. His heart changes, and when the crew, especially Alonso, realize their guilt and admit, the plot moves toward the third stage. Prospero finally accepts Ferdinand as a son-in-law and tells him why he was making them suffer.

He then blesses the young couple with courtly entertainment. This scene is thoroughly in contrast to what Ariel told the men in the jungle. Thus, the third part of the plot, forgiveness, and reconciliation, is realized, and the play keeps its nature of romance through wrongdoing, suffering, and blessing.

Common Questions about Suffering in The Tempest

Q: Is The Tempest a tragedy?

There is definitely a place for elements of tragedy, sorrow, and suffering in The Tempest, but the play does not end as a tragedy does.

Q: What is the fundamental pattern of sorrow in The Tempest?

The fundamental pattern of suffering in The Tempest is Christ on the Way of Sorrows, the path from his sentencing by the law to his place of crucifixion, carrying his cross all the way.

Q: Why does Prospero not crush all his enemies when he can?

Prospero’s heart changes eventually. He throws away the worse half and seeks only forgiveness, reconciliation, and harmony. Thus, the suffering in The Tempest begins to slowly disappear.

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