The Tempest

by: William Shakespeare

Setting

The majority of the action in The Tempest takes place on a small, remote island. The island provides a convenient container for the action of the play, a confined space where Prospero can easily observe and influence the actions of his enemies. The island’s isolation allows Shakespeare to concentrate the storytelling and abide by the classical “unities” of drama first set forth by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The two unities most relevant to this play include the unity of action, which says a play should take place in a single geographical location, and the unity of time, which says the action of a play should span no more that 24 hours. Aside from the play’s first scene, which takes place on a ship, the action of The Tempest remains restricted to the island, and it covers about as much time as it takes to perform the play. The setting therefore helps give the play a more classical form than Shakespeare’s other romances.

In addition to confining the action of the play, the island is also a site of magic and illusion. With the magician Prospero in charge of Ariel and his fellow spirits, strange things happen on the island constantly, and these things tend to inspire confusion, sadness, and horror more often than amazement. In Act I, scene ii, Ariel conceals himself as he sings a song to Ferdinand. At first Ferdinand feels confused about where the song is coming from, but his confusion turns to sadness as he registers that the song concerns the death of his father, Alonso, in the tempest. Another disorienting vision appears in Act III, scene iii, when spirits create the illusion of a splendid banquet for Alonso and his company. But the enticing vision quickly turns horrifying when Ariel appears in the form of a harpy to chastise the men. Ultimately, the illusions that populate the island serve to confuse and manipulate. Although they do no physical harm, they break individuals down psychologically.

Despite the importance of the play’s island setting, the precise location of the island remains a mystery. The unknown location of The Tempest has long been a source of debate among Shakespeare scholars. One theory posits that the island is located somewhere in the Caribbean. Scholars in this camp see The Tempest as a “New World” play, linked to the colonization of the Americas that was taking place at the time Shakespeare wrote the play. Another theory posits that the island would more likely be located in the Mediterranean, probably off the coast of Tunis. Scholars in this camp see The Tempest as an “Old World” play, linked to the shifting politics and maritime powers of the Mediterranean, which in Shakespeare’s time remained a region charged with tension between Christianity and Islam. British scholar Gordon McMullan proposes a compromise between these two theories, suggesting that The Tempest is geographically hybrid, “[set] in the Mediterranean and in the Caribbean and yet in neither, exactly.”