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The Tempest | Symbols


The three key symbols William Shakespeare uses in The Tempest represent the powers that are at work in bringing restoration at the end of the play. They create the enchanted, fairy-tale qualities of a story in which the playwright can expose very real human issues.


It's not unusual to hear someone refer to the "storms of life," meaning the various life circumstances that toss weak mortals in the winds. Storms suggest a swirling chaos of events beyond human control. Shakespeare extends this idea of the storm in The Tempest. The magical storm appears out of nowhere, the result of Prospero's long-held plan of revenge against the enemies who drove him from his rightful place as duke of Milan. The storm represents the eventual consequences of the treachery and self-interest of Antonio. Shakespeare suggests that when the natural order of things is disrupted, the repercussions create a conflict that goes beyond the realm of humans and into the realm of the supernatural. In the end however, the chaos of the storm produces a peaceful outcome and the restoration of order.

Magic Books

During Shakespeare's time it was common to compare the life of contemplation, which focused on intellectual pursuits, to that of action. Early in the play the audience learns that it was Prospero's books that kept him from ruling well in Milan: he was too focused on contemplative pursuits to be an active ruler. As a result he surrendered too much control to his more active brother. After Prospero is deposed and is escaping, Gonzalo sneaks some of his books onboard so that he will have them in his exile. Through his magic books Prospero learns to use the power that will help him execute revenge against his brother. The books symbolize Prospero's unique use of power to control the world toward his own ends. It is interesting, then, that at the end of the play Prospero surrenders his magical powers and books so that he can rejoin human society and rule well. Many scholars also believe the magic books represent Shakespeare's own writing, which he, too, surrenders at the end of the play.

Sleep and Dreams

Sleeping and dreaming are frequent pastimes in The Tempest. Ariel controls characters' levels of alertness and awareness by putting them to sleep so the spirit and Prospero can execute other plans. The sleep and dreams represent just how illusory human control is over life. As Prospero says in Act 4, Scene 1: "We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life./Is rounded with a sleep."

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