Many consider "The Tempest" to be the final play that Shakespeare wrote solo, which gives a certain bittersweet flavor to its story -- especially since the main character is a sorcerer who manipulates others to get the ending he desires. Shakespeare juggled a trio of main stories before tying them off in rare style, but it's Prospero and his final speech that are truly intriguing.
For many years, the exiled Duke of Milan Prospero has lived on a remote island with his young daughter Miranda. But when he discovers that his treacherous brother Antonio and his similarly treacherous friends are nearby on a sailing ship, he summons a storm that causes the ship to crash on the island.
And like a puppet-master, Prospero arranges this as he wants -- he sends his servant Ariel to haunt the men who betrayed him, he thwarts the machinations of his evil servant Caliban, and he pretends to treat Alonso's son Ferdinand badly while secretly matchmaking him with Miranda. In the end, everything will be as he desired.
"The Tempest" is a play with two different dimensions. On one hand, we have a simple story about a mage whose power allows him to manipulate everything in his little domain. And on the other, we have the story of a brilliant storyteller who arranges his own little worlds as he sees fit, and bids farewell to his role ("Now my charms are all o'erthrown/And what strength I have's mine own...")
And appreciated on its own, "The Tempest" is a brilliant play -- Shakespeare juggled the three main plotlines nicely, and brought a solid sense of resolution to the story. His rich dialogue is stunning ("But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange/Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell..."), especially during Ariel's songs and Prospero's speeches. Even the insults are brilliant -- just try yelling "A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!" at someone you don't like.
Prospero is a rather unique character -- he rules over his little island with magical powers, sort of like a local demigod. Everything that happens on the island is because he wants it to be so, but he's a sad, benevolent figure rather than a tyrannical one. And Shakespeare sketches up an intriguing cast of characters, both mortal and immortal -- the ethereal, puckish Ariel and grotesque Caliban, the naive Miranda, and the contemptible trio of onetime conspirators.
"O brave new world, That has such people in't!" cries Miranda at the end of "The Tempest," and while not every character in it deserves a "brave new world," the play itself feels like a weekend trip into a magical world.
The best notes of any edition I've used. (Lewis Ward, Exeter University)