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The Tempest | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Act 4, Scene 1, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, why is the warning Prospero gives to Ferdinand important?

Prospero reveals that his tests of Ferdinand and Miranda "were but my trials of thy love," but he quickly moves on to warning Ferdinand not to "break her virgin-knot before/All sanctimonious ceremonies may/With full and holy rite be administered." Prospero even threatens great ill will come to the couple if they sleep together before the marriage and in the end they would hate it both. This warning reveals Prospero's view of marriage as a holy contract, as well as his acceptance of certain social and religious mores. Although he has been living on an isolated island all these years, he still embraces the moral laws of a "civilized" society and wants that for his daughter. Prospero also wants to protect his only child, a very innocent girl who has spent her youth far from the rest of the world.

Why does Prospero conjure a masque in Act 4, Scene 1, in Shakespeare's The Tempest?

After agreeing to the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda, Prospero calls for a celebratory masque in honor of the engagement. The masque exemplifies the hopes for this young couple's union, and the mythological goddesses in the performance symbolize fertility, harvest, and eternal love. By blessing the union with the masque, Prospero hopes to bring about abundance within the human relationship as well as in the natural surroundings. The masque also honors the institution of marriage itself as an important and honorable social structure in society. Finally the masque reveals Prospero's own power as a magician, which he tells Ariel: "I must/Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple/Some vanity of mine art."

What is Prospero's reaction to the murderous plot against him in Shakespeare's The Tempest, and what does it reveal?

After forgetting "that foul conspiracy/Of the beast Caliban and his confederates," Prospero remembers and stops the masque, so that he can deal with the situation. He sends Ariel to fetch glittering garments, and they string them up outside Prospero's cell. As the men "red-hot with drinking" approach to murder Prospero, Stephano and Trinculo are distracted by the fancy clothing and begin to try different garments on, posturing themselves in their new roles in "King Stephano's" kingdom. Stephano and Trinculo's tendency to be so easily distracted by the garments of nobility, and Prospero's omniscient ability to know they would be, both serve the plot and provide humorous social commentary. The folly of Stephano and Trinculo lends a bit of physical comedy to the play, and it suggests that their intention to murder Prospero was never sincere; that they are nothing more than foolish drunks who humor Caliban. This stands in contrast to the great lengths to which Alonso and Antonio went to attempt to murder Prospero. This contrast underscores the level of humanity Prospero must have to forgive his brother and the king of Naples for their evil deeds.

Which features of Shakespeare's The Tempest might cause the play to be read as a drama of colonialism?

During Shakespeare's time there was a prevailing ethos that colonialism was the white man's burden, meaning that it was the duty of the civilized cultures to conquer "uncivilized" lands and teach the indigenous people how to behave properly by forcing white European culture upon them. It is easy to see that "the foul witch" Sycorax's island represents an uncivilized land, and Ariel and Caliban are its uncivilized indigenous inhabitants. Upon arrival with Miranda, Prospero overthrows Sycorax and takes Caliban and Ariel into his bondage. Caliban is characterized as a dirty, ignorant savage, a description very much in line with the narrative told to justify colonization. In an exchange between Prospero and Ariel, where Ariel asks to be given his freedom early, Prospero demonstrates his personal belief that he is the savior of Ariel (i.e., the one who delivered him into civilization) by reminding Ariel that he was saved from Sycorax's imprisonment in a pine tree by Prospero. The irony, of course, is that Prospero did not save Ariel from imprisonment; he only usurped the imprisoner. This pattern of usurpation might point to conflicts among European countries who sought after the same uncolonized lands to expand their influence and global foothold.

In Act 5, Scene 1, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Ariel says the sorrow of the men would soften his heart "were I human." What is the significance of this statement?

Ariel's statement has several significant aspects. First it reminds the audience of the difference between Ariel and Prospero. One is a human, and one is a spirit. It also reveals Ariel's knowledge of Prospero's character. The spirit knows that deep down Prospero is a kind-hearted man who does not really wish to harm others. He knows that Prospero's intent on revenge would change were he to see the effects of his plan on the men. Finally Ariel's statement raises a question: What makes a human a human? If Ariel, who is not a human, can feel such deep tenderness toward suffering humans, shouldn't humans feel even more compassion toward one another? Prospero recognizes this himself: "Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling/Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,/One of their kind, that relish all as sharply/Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?" Through this statement Ariel plays a vital role in Prospero's evolution as a character and in his transition from anger to forgiveness.

What does Prospero mean when he says in Act 5, Scene 1, in Shakespeare's The Tempest "The rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance," and why is it important?

Prompted by Ariel's soft heart Prospero feels a tenderness toward the despair of the king and his men. He recognizes his own painful experiences in theirs and says, "Go, release them, Ariel./My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore,/And they shall be themselves." Here Prospero's ability to bring himself to act virtuously not only leads to his forgiving Antonio and Alonso; it also leads to Prospero's own redemption. He releases his role as orchestrator of an elaborate—and at times, cruel—revenge plot, and relinquishes his power. His ability to learn from Ariel, the representation of the highest human virtue, enables him to soften toward the humanity in those who betrayed him.

What does Alonso's response to Prospero's appearance in Act 5, Scene 1, in Shakespeare's The Tempest reveal about his character?

Although the audience knows that Alonso did play a part in taking Prospero's dukedom from him, there is clearly no real evil in Alonso. As soon as he sees Prospero he recalls his own guilt and begs that Prospero "pardon me my wrongs." He restores Prospero's dukedom. Alonso then explains his own grief to Prospero as one friend might share with another, and he commiserates with Prospero about the loss of his daughter. When the lovers are revealed Alonso is quick to accept their engagement and says that he is a second father to Miranda. All these reactions of Alonso reveal that although he is a flawed human being, he is honorable, honest, and loving.

Why doesn't Shakespeare have Antonio show any repentance in The Tempest?

With Antonio's usurpation of Prospero's dukedom as the backdrop to the whole story, the audience might expect Antonio to be filled with guilt and repentance when he finds out that Prospero still lives. Instead he says nothing to his long-lost brother. On the other hand Prospero, who has manipulated the entire tempest around getting revenge on his brother, has no more intention of punishing the crime. He takes back his dukedom, but he forgives his brother even though Antonio does not ask for forgiveness. Just as Caliban recognizes that Prospero is a better master, perhaps Shakespeare wanted the audience to recognize that Prospero, who is merciful, will be a far better duke of Milan than the unfeeling, ambitious Antonio could ever be. Another reason could be to point out that while Prospero is powerful and all of his plans come to fruition at the end of the play, no amount of magic or power is ultimately able to control another human being's true nature. On Prospero's island magic can only reveal who a person really is.

How is Gonzalo different from the other members of the king's party in the final scene of Shakespeare's The Tempest?

Unlike all the other members of the king's party, Gonzalo has nothing to confess or to be forgiven for. He is the very man who helped Prospero escape with his books and other provisions 12 years before. And even as an advisor to King Alonso, Gonzalo has done nothing to earn judgment from Prospero. He is a good and honorable man who does not have to change because he has remained consistent. This makes him less interesting as a dynamic character, but he serves as a symbol of the goodness of humanity and the power of hope in more ideal governance throughout civilization.

What can be learned by comparing the characters Miranda and Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest?

The parallels and differences between Miranda and Caliban help draw out an exploration of the role of different types of knowledge in the human experience. Though the parallels between Caliban and Miranda are not immediately obvious, they do share some circumstances. They are both the children of rulers, Prospero and Sycorax, who have both been usurped, and they both seem to be under Prospero's complete control. Miranda, having been removed from her original home at the tender age of three, has only Prospero and his books as a source of knowledge. Prospero withholds information from Miranda, such as the story of how she came to the island, until dispensing that information is useful for his purposes. In this way Prospero has colonized Miranda's mind, just as he has colonized Caliban in body. Each of these characters also embodies a certain type of human knowledge that the play exposes as inadequate. Caliban, as a known attempted rapist, embodies, among other things, carnal, primal knowledge. He navigates the world through animalistic instinct and with brute force and foul presence. His actions throughout the play demonstrate this type of knowledge is an inadequate tool with which to navigate the world. By contrast Miranda exudes a gentle way and delicacy befitting Prospero's "princess," yet her book knowledge meets its limits in the drama. She is in no real way able to question whether her marriage to Ferdinand is right for her, and she instead blindly follows her father's wishes. Additionally her book knowledge is not robust enough to avoid or even be aware of Prospero's use of magic to put her to sleep and close her off from certain experiences as he sees fit to suit his purposes.

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