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SecondaryEnglishThe Arts

Shakespeare School – Why you should teach The Tempest

Helen Mears’ tour of lesser visited Shakespearean works alights upon the Bard’s fantastical and dreamlike swansong…

Helen Mears
by Helen Mears
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD Top tips for teaching Secondary English

About the play

The Tempest is probably Shakespeare’s last solo authored play. It’s traditionally placed amongst the so-called Problem Plays, and therefore hard to pin down to a single genre. It tells the story of Prospero, who after being usurped as Duke of Milan by his brother now lives with his daughter Miranda on an isolated island peopled by spirits and Caliban – the only indigenous inhabitant. He has raised a storm that has left his enemies shipwrecked on the island, and at his mercy…

When should I teach it?

The play could be taught in KS3, but as it’s on the list of Shakespeare plays for GCSE English Literature for both AQA and Edexcel, it could also be taught at KS4. Teaching The Tempest could be a useful precursor to a study of Romeo and Juliet at GCSE, with Miranda and Ferdinand offering a less dangerous take on teenage romance. There are also links to Macbeth in its supernatural elements.

How should I teach it?

At KS3, teaching of the play can focus more on the relationships than the revenge plot. As well as the aforementioned romance, there’s the father and daughter relationship (a recurring feature of the Problem Plays) between Prospero and Miranda, which can be interesting to explore – particularly for how Prospero engineers her meetings with Ferdinand as part of his grand plan.

Then there are the master/ servant relationships Prospero has with Caliban and the spirit Ariel. There’s much to explore in the exchanges Prospero has with these characters, particularly the ways in which he trades insults with Caliban. There’s been a lot of recent research into teaching the play with younger age groups, so you may find that there are many resources available.

For GCSE students, the revenge plot is a good starting point. It highlights the dichotomy between revenge and forgiveness, while also allowing for deeper examination of the parallels between Prospero and Caliban. We are encouraged to sympathise with Prospero for having been usurped by his brother Antonio, and yet Prospero has himself usurped Caliban as ‘ruler’ of the island.

Why should I teach it?

In addition to multiple thematic approaches, the play also offers rich and varied language. Caliban is an excellent character to explore here, being another of Shakespeare’s code-switchers – veering between the plosive, monosyllabic insults he throws at Prospero and Trinculo, and the beautiful verse he uses when extolling the virtues of ‘his’ island. This may suggest an inner nobility, while hinting that he’s the island’s rightful ruler.

Our post-COVID world could potentially give our students a greater understanding of isolation and how it might feel for Prospero and Miranda, trapped as they are on the island. Studying The Tempest also provides excellent opportunities to study historical performance practices. Written late in Shakespeare’s career, the play was likely intended for performance at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre, which Shakespeare’s Acting Troupe acquired in 1609.

His later plays reflect this change of location, with more intimate staging and a greater use of music and song. The Tempest is one of a few plays in the First Folio to feature contemporary stage directions by the company’s scribe.

How does it link to the rest of the curriculum?

A study of The Tempest will have strong links to history, PSHE and current affairs. Prospero’s reign over the island and displacement of its sole indigenous inhabitant links with issues of colonialism – both at the time it was written and to more recent history – and raises questions around identity and the master/slave dynamic.

Is Caliban justified in his revenge plot, merely wanting to take back the land he feels was stolen from him? These questions of identity can lead to discussions concerning the Black Lives Matter movement and its resurgence following the murder of George Floyd.

How can I watch it?

The play is frequently performed, and both The Globe and The RSC have recent productions available on DVD. For an introduction for younger students, there’s the recent Cbeebies version, as well as the ever-popular Animated Tales version.

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