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The Tempest | Themes

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William Shakespeare is renowned for his ability to weave together multiple, and often parallel, story lines within a drama. Within The Tempest Shakespeare integrates the same themes into various story lines that reflect different layers of society. By using the same themes in different contexts, he reveals their universal importance.

Language and Reality

In The Tempest language is power, and characters wield it to bless, curse, confuse, manipulate, or heal. Prospero is the most powerful character because of his studies of the liberal arts and advanced skill in manipulating Ariel, who is a figurative representation of Prospero's thoughts. Ariel plays out Prospero's commands "to th' syllable." Caliban deeply understands how spoken language and intentions are at the root of Prospero's powers to create illusion, control nature, and obscure reality. Prospero sends cramps, side stitches, and pinches that Caliban counteracts with elaborately structured curses. Miranda has taught Caliban to speak her and Prospero's language, and he points out that, having done so, he is now able to curse his oppressors and have them understand him. Both characters' speech patterns become more poetic and rhythmic when they battle for power through language. It is Caliban who reveals to the audience that without his books, Prospero's "but a sot, as I am, nor hath not/One spirit to command. They all do hate him/as rootedly as I."

The noble characters, even though they do not possess magical powers like Prospero's, still bless and curse in their ordinary language. For example, upon seeing Ferdinand for the first time, Alonso immediately gives him a father's blessing. Later he blesses the marriage of the lovers, and Gonzalo adds to the blessing with a simple "Amen." In the masque the lesser spirits and the goddess Ceres speak poetry to celebrate and bless Miranda and Ferdinand's love, and there is some concern that left unfinished—unspoken—the blessing will be incomplete. When Stephano stumbles upon Caliban and Trinculo appearing as one four-legged monster, he observes that humans possess two voices: the forward voice that speaks well and the backward voice that utters foul speeches and detracts, suggesting again that pairing language with intentions for ill or good carries weight.

Alliances, another kind of power, are created between those who share the same language in The Tempest. Ferdinand and Miranda's love bond begins with the recognition that Miranda speaks the same language as he does, and their speech patterns match throughout the play. As much as Caliban argues in Act 1 that learning language has done him no good but to curse his masters, Caliban's shared language with Stephano and Trinculo gives him the power to entice them to overthrow Prospero and empathize with him. Gonzalo, who "prates" shallowly, fails to mock effectively, and uses faulty logic in his discourse when speaking of his utopian commonwealth—saying he would be king of a region without need of a king—fails to command respect from the language-savvy and politically ambitious Antonio and Sebastian, providing a noticeable contrast. Gonzalo, too kindhearted to carry out the original plan to murder Prospero, still lacks the intention necessary to harness language to be used as a power.

Magic of Theater

The basic nature of any magic is its ability to change reality in unexpected and inexplicable ways. The obvious magic in the play comes from Prospero and his ability to manipulate the island's spirit and nature. A terrible storm hits a ship, but all its members survive and land in perfect sequencing upon the island. A banquet appears and disappears in thin air. A specific man comes onshore and meets the right woman at just the right time. Many scholars believe that the theme of magic represents the power of the playwright to create something out of nothing. As a magician Prospero controls and manipulates circumstances and people around him, just as Shakespeare as a playwright is able to do the same—eventually bringing restoration and order. Prospero creates a tempest with an ultimate sequence of events in mind—his daughter's marriage to Ferdinand, the restoration of his throne, and the repentance of his enemies—and for the most part things play out exactly as he has plotted, making him seem like a clever author who can create a narrative using real-life characters.

Power and Exploitation

The play explores the role of power and its use in exploiting other people in families and in the social order. In nearly every scene Shakespeare reveals a situation in which power and its exploitation creates a lack of harmony. Even in the opening scene the community structure is disrupted when the nobles come on board during the storm and interfere with the work of the sailors; the boatswain points out that while men may respect royalty and nobility, the storm does not, so the nobles have no authority at this moment. The events driving the play began when, back in Milan, Antonio exploited the power he was given to help his brother rule, becoming power hungry and driving Prospero into exile. But that is just the beginning. Prospero lands on an island and becomes master of Caliban and Ariel, despite Caliban's claim to the island. Antonio and Sebastian plot to take King Alonso's power for their own. Trinculo and Stephano, aware that they are superior to no one but Caliban, exploit the creature for their own gain. Gonzalo's vision of an ideal commonwealth, in which no one rules over anyone else, is treated as a naïve and unrealistic fantasy. It is not until Prospero willingly gives up his "magical" power and his need for revenge that the spell is broken and there is any hope of peace in the social order, although that peace can only come about by returning Prospero to power and marrying his daughter to an even more powerful ruler than he is: Ferdinand, the future king of Naples.

Revenge, Forgiveness, and Restoration

The controlling energy of much of the play comes from individuals' desire for revenge in pursuit of some form of justice. Prospero is driven by his need to expose what was done to him and regain his rightful place as the duke of Milan. His book learning and magic are focused on correcting the wrongs of the past. Caliban, too, is set on revenging his displacement and the wrongs inflicted on him by Prospero. When offered a way to do this through Stephano, Caliban vows his allegiance to a new master—a far worse master than Prospero ever was. The only way to destroy the power of revenge is to absorb it rather than unleash it, which is what Prospero does at the end of the play, willingly surrendering both his power and his need for revenge.

Almost all of the major characters except Antonio and Sebastian show remorse over some aspect of the past, ultimately asking for forgiveness. Prospero admits he was a bad duke. Caliban regrets serving a new master, and Stephano admits he would be a bad ruler even if he only had one subject. Alonso apologizes and asks for Prospero's pardon. However, it is noticeable that Caliban does not repent having attempted to murder Prospero or rape Miranda, and Stephano and Trinculo do not repent for their part in the murder plot against Prospero. Antonio and Sebastian never show remorse, and King Alonso never discovers that they plotted against him because Prospero speaks of all the "sins" they committed while the nobles are under a spell. The thematic significance derives from that fact that Prospero's forgiveness at the very end of the play has no relation to the crimes committed or the quality of or lack of repentance made by each character at the climax of the play. Prospero offers pardon to all, even to his brother who has not asked for it. In the end Prospero frees himself from his own need for revenge through his gift of mercy, and forgiveness is shown to be the most significant power explored in the play. Through forgiveness freedom is restored to those washed up on the island, even as Prospero's position in Milan is restored.

Utopia and Idealism

In each act of the play notions of utopian idealism are pitted against ideas of disharmony and discord, beginning with the chaotic tempest itself, which is only an illusion that causes no real harm. Gonzalo's ideal commonwealth speech in Act 2, Scene 1, presents the political ideas of a utopian society to counterbalance Prospero's description of his brother Antonio's dystopian deeds enacted before the play begins: using Propero's money and power and believing "his own lie" to feed his growing ambition. Prospero believes in divine providence and heavenly music, the power of nature, virtue, and the pursuit of knowledge. These beliefs seem quite idealistic as compared to the forces driving Antonio. He feels no remorse and lacks virtue. He acts opportunistically, seeking to slay King Alonso within hours of being shipwrecked on a seemingly deserted island far from society and uncertain whether he will ever make it back to civilization. Prospero's idealism is consistent throughout the play—notwithstanding his treatment of Caliban, whom he must keep distant from Miranda—as he never takes real action for revenge and focuses his energies on orchestrating the ideal circumstances for love to flourish between Miranda and Ferdinand. And in turn the lovers display idealistic qualities. They each perceive the other as divine at first sight, equally enjoin to serve, and keep their vows of chastity. Those who seek disharmony and discord (Sebastian, Antonio, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo) lose to the idealistic characters seeking harmony and balance.

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