English Literature: The Tempest symbols

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The tempest (the storm)

The play begins with a mighty tempest that brings about the shipwreck that puts Prospero’s enemies at the mercy of the sea. This reflects the way that control was taken from Prospero and he is is visiting that same fate on his enemies, and bringing them under his control.

It represents the political and social upheaval that is central to the story, indicating that events have been put in motion that must play out, giving a sense of inevitability as the drama unfolds.The social order is reversed and this happens throughout the play. It symbolizes his enormous power and mastery over his environment

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The game of chess

Ferdinand and Miranda are revealed playing a game of chess as the play concludes. As chess players seek to use strategy to capture the king and win the game (check-mate), this symbolizes Prospero’s ultimate victory. He has captured the king by marrying his daughter to the king’s son (Ferdinand).

The chess game also symbolizes Prospero’s skill in maneuvering the various characters, or pieces, around the island to bring about this political victory and repair the wrong done to him. In this game Miranda is Prospero’s most important piece as well as a lowly pawn, moved about and sacrificed at Prospero’s whim.

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Prospero's books

They represent the source and breadth of Prospero’s magic, but also his vulnerability, as without them he is reduced to a mere man. The books are also a symbol of isolation and Prospero’s desire to withdraw from the world – to return to the world he must give up his magic.

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Water is often associated with spirit and emotion and in the Tempest, is a central symbol, especially in relation to immersion and drowning. The island is surrounded by water, highlighting it as a spiritual place removed from mundane concerns and restrictions. In this context, water represents loss, but also recovery. Characters thought to be drowned re-discover each other at the end, bringing hope of new beginnings.

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Prospero's cloak

Similarly to his books, Prospero’s cloak is a source of his magic. The removal and donning of the cloak clearly distinguish Prospero the man, of the vibrant, every-day political world; and Prospero the magician, in the darker magical world of the island.

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