It is not known for certain exactly when The Tempest was written, but evidence supports the idea that it was probably composed sometime between late 1610 to mid-1611. It is considered one of the last plays that Shakespeare wrote alone. Evidence supports composition perhaps occurring before, after, or at the same time as The Winter's Tale. 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 eighteenth century, researchers have suggested passages from "Naufragium" ("The Shipwreck"), one of the colloquies in Erasmus's Colloquia Familiaria (1518),[a] and Richard Eden's 1555 translation of Peter Martyr's De orbo novo (1530).
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 toward Virginia, is considered a primary source for the opening scene, as well as a few other references in the play to conspriacies and retributions. Although not published until 1625, Strachey's report, one of several describing the incident, is dated 15 July 1610, and it is thought 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. Regarding the influence of Strachey in the play, Kenneth Muir says 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, published his account, A Discovery of The Barmudas dated 13 October 1610; Edmond Malone argues 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.
Michel de Montaigne’s essay "Of the Caniballes" is considered a source for Gonzalo’s utopian speculations in Act II, scene 1, and possibly for other lines that refer to differences between cultures.
A poem entitled Pimlyco; or, Runne Red-Cap was published as a pamphlet in 1609. It was written in praise of a tavern in Hoxton. The poem includes extensive quotations of an earlier (1568) poem, The Tunning of Elynor Rymming, by John Skelton. The pamphlet contains a pastoral story of a voyage to an island. There is no evidence that Shakespeare read this pamphlet, was aware of it, or had used it. However, the poem may be useful as a source to researchers regarding how such themes and stories were being interpreted and told in London near to the time The Tempest was written.
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 (2.1.148–157, 160–165) 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."
A source for Prospero's speech in act five, in which he bids farewell to magic (5.1.33–57) is an invocation by the sorceress Medea found in Ovid's poem Metamorphoses. Medea calls out:
- Ye airs and winds; ye elves of hills, of brooks, of woods alone,
- Of standing lakes, and of the night, approach ye every one,
- Through help of whom (the crooked banks much wondering at the thing)
- I have compelled streams to run clean backward to their spring. (Ovid, 7.265-8)
Shakespeare’s Prospero begins his invocation:
- Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
- And ye that on the sands with printless foot
- Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
- When he comes back . . . (5.1.33-36)