The Tempest is thought by most scholars to have been written in 1610–11, and is generally accepted as the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone, although some have questioned either or both assertions. Scholars also note that it is impossible to determine if the play was written before, after, or at the same time as The Winter's Tale, the dating of which has been equally problematic. Edward Blount entered The Tempest into the Stationers' Register on 8 November 1623. It was one of 16 Shakespearean plays that Blount registered on that date.
There is no obvious single origin for the plot of The Tempest; it seems to have been created out of an amalgamation of sources. Since source scholarship began in the 18th century, researchers have suggested passages from Erasmus's Naufragium (1523), (translated into English 1606) and Richard Eden's 1555 translation of Peter Martyr's De orbo novo (1530). In addition, William Strachey's A True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight, an eyewitness report of the real-life shipwreck of the Sea Venture in 1609 on the island of Bermuda while sailing towards Virginia, is considered by most critics to be one of Shakespeare's primary sources because of certain verbal, plot and thematic similarities. Although not published until 1625, Strachey's report, one of several describing the incident, is dated 15 July 1610, and critics say that Shakespeare must have seen it in manuscript sometime during that year. E.K. Chambers identified the True Reportory as Shakespeare's "main authority" for The Tempest, and the modern Arden editors say Shakespeare "surely drew" on Strachey and Montaigne for specific passages in the play. There has been, however, some scepticism about the alleged influence of Strachey in the play. Kenneth Muir argued that although "[t]here is little doubt that Shakespeare had read ... William Strachey's True Reportory" and other accounts, "[t]he extent of the verbal echoes of [the Bermuda] pamphlets has, I think, been exaggerated. There is hardly a shipwreck in history or fiction which does not mention splitting, in which the ship is not lightened of its cargo, in which the passengers do not give themselves up for lost, in which north winds are not sharp, and in which no one gets to shore by clinging to wreckage," and goes on to say that "Strachey's account of the shipwreck is blended with memories of Saint Paul's – in which too not a hair perished – and with Erasmus' colloquy."
Another Sea Venture survivor, Sylvester Jourdain, also published an account, A Discovery of The Barmudas dated 13 October 1610, and Edmond Malone argued for the 1610–11 date on the account by Jourdain and the Virginia Council of London's A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia dated 8 November 1610.
The Tempest may take its overall structure from traditional Italian commedia dell'arte, which sometimes featured a magus and his daughter, their supernatural attendants, and a number of rustics. The commedia often featured a clown known as Arlecchino (or his predecessor, Zanni) and his partner Brighella, who bear a striking resemblance to Stephano and Trinculo; a lecherous Neapolitan hunchback who corresponds to Caliban; and the clever and beautiful Isabella, whose wealthy and manipulative father, Pantalone, constantly seeks a suitor for her, thus mirroring the relationship between Miranda and Prospero.
Gonzalo's description of his ideal society (2.1.148–57, 160–5) thematically and verbally echoes Montaigne's essay Of the Canibales, translated into English in a version published by John Florio in 1603. Montaigne praises the society of the Caribbean natives: "It is a nation ... that hath no kinde of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie; no use of service, of riches, or of poverty; no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle; no respect of kinred, but common, no apparrell but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corne, or mettle. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousnes, envie, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them." In addition, much of Prospero's renunciative speech (5.1.33–57) is taken word-for-word from a speech by Medea in Ovid's poem Metamorphoses.