Twelve years before Prospero, the Duke of Milan, was usurped by his brother, Antonio, with the help of Alonso, King of Naples, and the King's brother Sebastian. Prospero and his baby daughter Miranda were put to sea and landed on a distant island where ever since, by the use of his magic art, he has ruled over the spirit Ariel and the savage Caliban. He uses his powers to raise a storm which shipwrecks his enemies on the island. Alonso searches for his son, Ferdinand, although fearing him to be drowned. Sebastian plots to kill Alonso and seize the crown. The drunken butler, Stephano, and the jester, Trinculo, encounter Caliban and are persuaded by him to kill Prospero so that they can rule the island. Ferdinand meets Miranda and they fall instantly in love. Prospero sets heavy tasks to test Ferdinand and, when satisfied, presents the young couple with a betrothal masque. As Prospero's plan draws to its climax, he confronts his enemies and forgives them. Prospero grants Ariel his freedom and prepares to leave the island for Milan.
On his return from Italy, de Vere boasted to friends that he would have been made the Duke of Milan for his valiance on the battlefield were it not for one of Queen Elizabeth's agents. One of de Vere's colleagues in 1575 was a nobleman - Prospero Fattinanti - who because the Duke of Genoa.
In the play, Prospero tells his daughter (Miranda) that her mother "was a piece of virtue and she said thou wast my daughter". This echoes what Ann Cecil would have told de Vere about Elizabeth.
The character of the Earl of Derby, who married de Vere's eldest daughter Elizabeth, is portrayed by Ferdinand (after Ferdinando, Lord Strange - the Earl's brother). Puns on the word "strange" are made throughout the play.
The authorial character Prospero is initially not convinced about the worthiness of Ferdinand as his daughter's husband. Eventually, Ferdinand convinces Prospero of his worthiness, and Ferdinand and Miranda marry. At the wedding, Prospero stages a wedding masque. (De Vere staged a play at the wedding of his daughter Elizabeth.) In the wedding masque, the maid Psyche must go to extreme lengths to please an exacting mother of the groom (Venus). Prospero admits he is asking a lot of Ferdinand, but his daughter represents "a third of mine own life"; de Vere had three daughters.
In the play, Prospero is the ailing sorcerer. The Tempest was written toward the end of de Vere's life, when he was ailing.
In the play, Prospero plays tribute to the doddering court counselor Gonzalo. Of Gonzalo, Propero says:
Knowing I lov'd my books, he furnish'd me
From my own library volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.
This is a tribute from de Vere to Burghley, who was responsible for de Vere's education.
De Vere invested in Martin Frobisher's expeditions to North America. On his second expedition, Frobisher returned with two adult Eskimos and an infant who died. Their cadavers were put on display. In the play, the clown Trinculo talks of Englishmen who "will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian."
In 1605, shortly after de Vere died, a dramatist was brought before the Privy Council to answer to the crime of dramatizing the Essex uprising. It was dangerous to write about the uprising around the time that de Vere was writing to the play. In the play, Caliban - a deformed subhuman - is the rebellion's ringleader. As Essex was rumoured to have had an affair with Elizabeth, Caliban was said to have had an affair with Miranda. Caliban's co-conspirators are presented as simple drunkards who followed their lead without understanding what they were doing. Caliban and his co-conspirators attempt to enter Prospero's cell and steal some magic. However, Prospero and Ariel force Caliban and company into a cage. The rebels are imprisoned. Prospero says:
Let them be hunted soundly. At this hour
Lies at my mercy all mine enemies.
Shortly shall all my labours end, and thou
Shalt have the air at freedom. For a little
Follow, and do me service.
Prospero arranges for pardoning of the rebels. Prospero reflects on his career as one who brought back to life long-dead monarchs and nobles (just as de Vere had done). Prospero, knowing that he is in poor health, says:
Go, release them, Ariel
My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore ...
The strong-bas'd promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar. Graves at my command
Have wak'd their sleepers, op'd and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure ... I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
In the epilogue, Prospero says:
Release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands,
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so that is assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgences set me free.
On May 30, 1588, de Vere may have been part of Drake's fleet that set out to defeat the Spanish Armada. The fleet encountered strong winds and was forced to return to harbour on June 6, 1588. On June 5, 1588, de Vere's wife Ann died suddenly at thirty-three years old. There is no evidence that de Vere attended the funeral. There is no record of any actions by de Vere in the late spring and early summer of 1588. A likely reason was his involvement in Drake's expeditions against the Spanish Armada.
The opening scenes of the Tempest describe a ship's encounter with life-threatening winds. The accuracy of the descriptions suggest the author must have had some experience with such a situation. It is likely that de Vere did, as part of Drake's fleet.
De Vere's long-time secretary Arthur Munday published two English translations under the pseudonym "Lazarus Plot". One of the two publications was part of Munday's ongoing project to Anglicize the continental Primaleon and Palmerin series of chivalric romances. These were sources for the Tempest.