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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – The Tempest

The Tempest is one of William Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, but also one of his most vexing. Is it an invective against witchcraft? A prescient allegory about colonialism? A metacommentary on theater itself? The interpretations are endless, but the basic facts are not in dispute. Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, has languished on a deserted island with his daughter Miranda and two colorful characters named Caliban and Ariel. When Prospero uses his mastery of the mystic arts to bring those who deposed him to his island, drama ensues!

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on The Tempest.


Prior to the events of The Tempest, Prospero had neglected his ducal duties in favor of study. His brother Antonio took advantage of the power vacuum to depose Prospero. However, Prospero’s loyal councilor Gonzalo helped spirit Prospero and Miranda away to a remote island. For fifteen years, Prospero studied magic. His powers and experience have given him awareness of the transience of life, demonstrated by his famous quote that: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / is rounded with a sleep.” At play’s end, however, Prospero returns triumphantly to Milan, promising to abjure his magic: “Deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book.”


Prior to Prospero and Miranda’s arrival, the only inhabitant of the island is the wild and misshapen Caliban. Caliban is the son of Sycorax, a witch from Algiers who died before the play’s actions take place. Caliban bears a grudge against Prospero for wresting control of the island from him. Although pressed to serve Prospero, he rages against him and his daughter, proclaiming “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse.” Although depicted as a coarse and rude beast, Caliban also speaks of the island with moving beauty, saying: “This isle is full of noises / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”


Trinculo and Stephano are often seen as the comic relief of The Tempest. Both serve King Alonso, who has been shipwrecked on Prospero’s island along with Antonio and others. The duo hatch a plan with Caliban to kill Prospero by burning his magic books while he sleeps and then cutting his throat. Caliban is fascinated by the men, particularly Stephano, who he regards as a god for introducing him to liquor. The three conspirators are easily foiled by Ariel, who distracts them with flashy clothes. This gives Prospero enough time to scare them off with spirit dogs.


Ariel is a spirit on Prospero’s island. Imprisoned in a tree by Sycorax, Ariel was freed by Prospero. Prospero binds Ariel to him in service and throughout the play has the spirit perform various tasks for him. Ariel foils an attempted murder of King Alonso by Sebastian and Antonio. Later, he ruins Caliban’s plot to kill Prospero, and in Act III he appears as a harpy to terrify Sebastian and Antonio. Prospero finally rewards Ariel for his service and releases him when he successfully kindles a romance between Ferdinand and Miranda. Ariel is notable for having several songs in the play, including a famous one directed to Ferdinand that begins with the lines “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made.”

FERDINAND Ferdinand, son of Alonso and Prince of Naples, is shipwrecked along with his father and the other courtiers. Separated from them, he first despairs, believing them dead. However, when Ariel covertly leads him to Miranda, he quickly forgets this despair and falls instantly in love with Prospero’s daughter. Although Prospero intends to arrange their marriage for political purposes, he comes to respect Ferdinand as a suitor, especially after the young man promises he will not untie Miranda’s “virgin knot” until the pair are married.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • Some of the best productions of The Tempest manage to invest even Stephano and Trinculo with a certain level of seriousness.

  • Magic plays a central role in The Tempest. How did Shakespeare and his contemporaries conceive of magic and its relation to theater?

  • Martinican author Aimé Césaire wrote a version of The Tempest through a specifically post-colonialist lens.

  • Shakespeare was ahead of his time in many ways, including breaking the fourth wall. In The Tempest’s epilogue Prospero directly asks the audience to free him with their applause.


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