Teaching "The Tempest" in High School: Themes & 5 Activities

By Peter Boysen

This is a list of teaching activities and ideas to go with a unit on Shakespeare's play, "The Tempest."

Guiding Themes

The language in William Shakespeare's plays is difficult for modern readers to understand, particularly struggling high school students, and so a popular way to help these readers has been to develop classroom activities on Shakespeare's plays. The Tempest expresses the following themes, or major ideas, and one or more of these is the basis for all of the activities in the following sections:

1. If you admit your wrongdoing, you will find redemption. Every one of the wrongdoers in the play admits their misdeeds, and gain redemption at the end.

2. It's best to forgive and move on. Prospero finally decides to let go of his anger regarding the past.

3. Your best friends are there when they need to be. Thanks to Gonzalo, Prospero and his daughter make it through their trails in the sea.

4. When people explore new lands, they often abuse the indigenous populations. This might seem to be an oddly modern theme for Shakespeare, but he often dealt with themes past his time, like the racism that faced Othello. Also, remember that colonization started more than 200 years before Shakespeare was born, so these concerns were contemporary for him. Some scholars have suggested that Caliban is a symbol for native groups of people that the Europeans mistreated.

Critical Activities

Classroom activities on Shakespeare's plays, The Tempest among them, can take on a number of forms. These activities are the most analytical and may work best with AP-level classes, or with senior-level English.

1. What separates the theater from reality? This article is a public-domain lecture about ways to interpret the play, and one of the primary arguments suggests that Prospero's altering of reality expresses the differences between the theater and the real world. What do audiences leave behind when they enter the theater? What assumptions change? Have your students read the lecture, either in small groups or as a homework assignment, and lead a group discussion on the nature of the stage.

2. What is the proper relationship between ruler and subjects? Have your students locate passages describing Caliban's relationship with Prospero, and compare them with passages showing Prospero's way of dealing with his subjects in Milan. In what ways is his leadership style the same? What errors does he make in both places?

Creative Activities

In situations where you are dealing with struggling readers who are having a difficult time accessing the text on an analytical level, it can be useful to bring in more creative activities that give them access to the themes involved. Once they have an idea of what is going on and what the author is trying to say, then it becomes easier for them to follow the text. This is the goal for all of these classroom activities on Shakespeare's plays. The Tempest offers quite a few different opportunities to make these activities meaningful and entertaining.

1. Have students bring five objects that relate to each of the themes listed above. These objects can be pictures, drawings, maps, cutouts from magazines, or small three-dimensional objects. Then, split your class into groups of three, and provide each group with a piece of posterboard. Have the groups use their objects to make collages expressive of The Tempest. You can also have students do this individually.

2. Have your students set up Facebook pages for one or more of the following characters from The Tempest: Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, Caliban, Ferdinand, Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian and Gonzalo. As you read the play, this can turn into a multi-week project as students go in and update the "status" and events for their characters. Evaluate this based on how accurately the pages represent the personalities of the characters, and the events of the plot.

3. Forbidden Planet came out in 1956 and is a sci-fi adaptation of The Tempest. Instead of Caliban, the ruler has built Robby the Robot. Show portions of this movie, either in parallel with portions of a more literal film adaptation or with readings from specific passages from the novel, and ask students how the movie writers have adapted Shakespeare's ideas. Then, after you have finished the play, have your students write an adapted script of one of the major scenes of the play, but also in a modern genre.