The Tempest follows the fortunes of Prospero the sorcerer, who was once the Duke of Milan. He has spent 12 years marooned on a distant island since conspirators betrayed him and stole his dukedom. During that time, Prospero’s only companions have been his daughter Miranda, a native island dweller named Caliban, and a spirit named Ariel. In The Tempest, Prospero conjures up a storm to shipwreck his enemies upon the island. He then has to decide between vengeance and forgiveness.

Sir Jonathan Bate has been described as the world’s foremost Shakespeare scholar. He is Provost of Worcester College and Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. We caught up with him when he was in Sydney recently, to find out what he makes of The Tempest.

You’ve spent much of your career analysing and critiquing Shakespeare’s plays. What makes The Tempest so special?

The Tempest is Shakespeare in complete command of all his powers. It is his last solo authored play and it’s a showcase for his dramatic art. And what is particularly striking is that it puts Prospero at the centre of the play, a man who uses that word “art” a lot. For Prospero, the magician, the word art can refer to magic but it can also refer to the creative art of the writer, or the art of theatre. Prospero, in some senses, stages the play himself. He begins by conjuring up the storm, he brings his enemies together, he brings it to a climax, and he speaks the epilogue at the end of the play.

Prospero is a striking figure, isn’t he. Early on, he’s powerful, angry and authoritarian. Then later on, he’s more compassionate. What do you make of him?

At one point Prospero describes himself as a schoolmaster. And there is a real sense at the beginning that he is lecturing his daughter, that he is lecturing Ariel, that he is lecturing Caliban. He wants to be in control.

Yet, as you say, towards the end he really does seem to recognise the need for mercy. His magic gives him power but he renounces that magic and amazingly what inspires him to do that is the spirit Ariel, this extraordinary character. Prospero has imprisoned his enemies, and he sees the tears of repentance on Gonzalo’s face, streaming down his cheeks. Ariel reflects on the human suffering and Prospero says, “Can you see that? You? You are just air, you are not human”. Ariel replies: “I would feel merciful if I were human” and, in saying that, Ariel makes Prospero human. Prospero renounces the desire for vengeance. He concentrates instead on forgiveness.

And in doing so, Prospero frees himself as well…

Yes, exactly. Then there is that very poignant moment when he realises that he has to let Ariel go. There is that lovely tender farewell when he says, “I shall miss thee” and he addresses Ariel as “chick”. At the moment of releasing Ariel, Prospero realises how much he has loved her.

But then the other thing that he does that is really interesting is that he takes responsibility for Caliban. In the sub-plot of the play, Caliban – this dark creature – has joined with the rebellious Stephano and Trinculo, the butler and the jester, to have a rebellion to overthrow the order of the State. They are caught out. But after that Prospero says, “I, at some level, am responsible for Caliban’s darkness”. That makes the audience think back to his dialogue with Caliban in the opening scene where he has described Caliban as a savage and a slave and so on, and Caliban says, “What has made me behave badly is the fact that you’ve treated me as a slave.” Prospero has educated Caliban into the idea that Caliban is this subservient figure. Caliban thinks, “Well if that’s the role you want me to play, if you are calling me a savage, then I will be a savage.”

He is savage in some senses, Caliban, but then again, he also utters some of the most gorgeous language in the whole play doesn’t he.

Exactly. That is very, very interesting isn’t it. Most of the time he speaks this prose but it does feel as if it is almost like a child’s prose; it’s just been learned. He swears and he is very rough-edged. But then there is this strange moment where unearthly music is heard in the air. Caliban rises to it and speaks beautifully:

“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twingling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices

That, if I then had waked after a long sleep,

Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.”

Caliban speaking like this sees Shakespeare challenging the prevailing political wisdom of his time, doesn’t it. It was commonly accepted back then that the English were conquering foreign lands and “civilising” the natives. And there’s political satire throughout The Tempest isn’t there?

Yes, absolutely. Shakespeare is almost saying, “Let’s imagine an alternative world, a kind of empty space, an empty island. Let’s bring people here, and see how they behave”. In a way, it’s like when Hamlet speaks of the theatre as holding a mirror up to nature, of holding a mirror up to the audience. It’s a way of exploring power plays in the real world.

The Bell Shakespeare production of The Tempest will be performed at Sydney Opera House (19 August – 18 September). Details at

Sir Jonathan Bate has published several books about William Shakespeare and his work. Details at

Interview written by Felicity McLean, freelance journalist and author @FelicityMcLean