Themes -The Illusion of Justice
Unjust act- the usurpation of Prospero’s throne by his brother. Prospero’s quest to re-establish justice by restoring himself to power.
The idea of justice seems highly subjective, since this idea represents the view of one character who controls the fate of all the other characters. Though Prospero presents himself as a victim of injustice working to right the wrongs that have been done to him, Prospero’s idea of justice and injustice is somewhat hypocritical, as he is furious with his brother for taking his power yet has no qualms about enslaving Ariel and Caliban in order to achieve his goals.
Sometimes Prospero’s sense of justice seems extremely one-sided. The play offers no notion of justice to supersede Prospero’s interpretation of events, the play is morally ambiguous. By using magic and tricks that echo the special effects and spectacles of the theatre, Prospero gradually persuades the other characters and the audience of the rightness of his case. Prospero forgives his enemies, releases his slaves, and relinquishes his magic power, so that, at the end of the play, he is only an old man whose work has been responsible for all the audience’s pleasure.
Themes- Difficulty of Distinguishing “Men” from “M
Miranda says tells Ferdinand that he is “the third man that e’er I saw”. The other men are, presumably, Prospero and Caliban. Caliban is described as "most brutish” and Prospero says that he gave Caliban “human care”. Caliban’s exact nature continues to be slightly ambiguous later. Prospero refers to him as a “devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick”. Prospero believes his devilish nature can never be overcome by nurture. Miranda expresses this again in Act 1: “thy vile race, / Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures / Could not abide to be with”.
Which character the audience decides to believe depends on whether it views Caliban as inherently brutish, or as made brutish by oppression. Caliban balances all of his eloquent speeches, such as his curses in and his speech about the isle’s “noises”. Trinculo’s speech upon first seeing Caliban, the longest speech in the play, blurs the distinction between men and monsters. Trinculo says, Caliban could be shown off for money in England (where the audience would be): “There would this monster make a man. Any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian”.
Themes- Allure of Ruling a Colony
The nearly uninhabited island presents the sense of infinite possibility to almost everyone who lands there. Prospero has found an ideal place to school his daughter. Sycorax, Caliban’s mother, worked her magic there after she was exiled from Algeria. Caliban, once alone on the island, laments that he had been his own king. Gonzalo imagines a utopian society on the island, over which he would rule. In Act III, Caliban suggests that Stephano kill Prospero, and Stephano immediately envisions his own reign: “Monster, I will kill this man. His daughter and I will be King and Queen—save our graces!". All these characters envision the island as a space of freedom and unrealized potential.The tone of the play, however, toward the hopes of the would-be colonizers is vexed at best.
While there are many representatives of the colonial impulse in the play, the colonized have only one representative: Caliban. We might develop sympathy for him at first, when Prospero seeks him out merely to abuse him, and when we see him tormented by spirits. However, this sympathy is made more difficult as Caliban plots to kill one colonial master (Prospero) in Act III, he sets up another (Stephano). The urge to rule and the urge to be ruled seem inextricably intertwined.
Motifs- Masters and Servants
Nearly every scene in the play either explicitly or implicitly portrays a relationship between a figure that possesses power and a figure that is subject to that power. The play explores the master-servant dynamic most harshly in cases in which the harmony of the relationship is threatened or disrupted, as by the rebellion of a servant or the ineptitude of a master.
In the opening scene, the “servant” (the Boatswain) is dismissive and angry toward his “masters” (the noblemen), whose ineptitude threatens to lead to a shipwreck in the storm. From then on, master-servant relationships like these dominate the play: Prospero and Caliban; Prospero and Ariel; Alonso and his nobles; the nobles and Gonzalo; Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban; and so forth.
The play explores the psychological and social dynamics of power relationships from a number of contrasting angles, such as the generally positive relationship between Prospero and Ariel, the generally negative relationship between Prospero and Caliban, and the treachery in Alonso’s relationship to his nobles.
Motifs- Water and Drowning
There are many references to water. The Mariners enter “wet” in Act I and Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo enter “all wet,” after being led by Ariel into a swampy lake. Miranda’s weeps at the fear for the lives of the sailors in the “wild waters”. Alonso, believing his son dead, decides in Act III to drown himself. In Act V Prospero: the magician promises that, once he has reconciled with his enemies, “ I’ll drown my book”
The echo of Alonso’s desire to drown himself in Prospero’s promise to drown his book calls attention to the similarity of the sacrifices each man must make. Alonso must be willing to give up his life in order to become truly penitent and to be forgiven for his treachery against Prospero. Similarly, in order to rejoin the world he has been driven from, Prospero must be willing to give up his magic and his power.
The important overall effect of this water motif is to heighten the symbolic importance of the tempest itself. It is as though the water from that storm runs through the language and action of the entire play—just as the tempest itself literally and crucially affects the lives and actions of all the characters.
Motifs- Mysterious Noises
The isle is indeed, as Caliban says, “full of noises”. The play begins with a “tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning”, and the splitting of the ship is signaled in part by “a confused noise within”. Much of the noise of the play is musical, and much of the music is Ariel’s. Ferdinand is led to Miranda by Ariel’s music. Ariel’s music also wakes Gonzalo just as Antonio and Sebastian are about to kill Alonso in Act II. Moreover, the magical banquet of Act III, is laid out to the tune of “Solemn and strange music”, and Juno and Ceres sing in the wedding masque.
The noises, sounds, and music of the play are made most significant by Caliban’s speech about the noises of the island. Shakespeare shows Caliban in the thrall of magic, which the theater audience also experiences as the illusion of thunder, rain, invisibility. The action of The Tempest is very simple. What gives the play most of its hypnotic, magical atmosphere is the series of dreamlike events it stages, such as the tempest, the magical banquet, and the wedding masque. Accompanied by music, these present a feast for the eye and the ear and convince us of the magical glory of Prospero’s enchanted isle.
Symbols- The Tempest
The tempest that begins the play, and which puts all of Prospero’s enemies at his disposal, symbolizes the suffering Prospero endured, and which he wants to inflict on others. All of those shipwrecked are put at the mercy of the sea, just as Prospero and his infant daughter were twelve years ago, when some loyal friends helped them out to sea in a ragged little boat. Prospero must make his enemies suffer as he has suffered so that they will learn from their suffering, as he has from his. The tempest is also a symbol of Prospero’s magic, and of the frightening, potentially malevolent side of his power.
Symbols- The Game of Chess
The object of chess is to capture the king. That, at the simplest level, is the symbolic significance of Prospero revealing Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess in the final scene. Prospero has caught the king—Alonso—and reprimanded him for his treachery. In doing so, Prospero has married Alonso’s son to his own daughter without the king’s knowledge, a deft political maneuver that assures Alonso’s support because Alonso will have no interest in upsetting a dukedom to which his own son is heir. This is the final move in Prospero’s plot, which began with the tempest. He has maneuvered the different passengers of Alonso’s ship around the island with the skill of a great chess player.
Miranda and Ferdinand also symbolize something ominous about Prospero’s power. “Sweet lord, you play me false,” Miranda says, and Ferdinand assures her that he “would not for the world”. Ferdinand and Miranda, suddenly revealed behind a curtain, playing chess and talking gently of love and faith, seem entirely removed from the world around them. Though he has promised to relinquish his magic, Prospero still seems to see his daughter as a mere pawn in his game.
Symbols- Prospero’s Books
Like the tempest, Prospero’s books are a symbol of his power. “Remember / First to possess his books,” Caliban says to Stephano and Trinculo, “for without them / He’s but a sot”. The books are also, however, a symbol of Prospero’s dangerous desire to withdraw entirely from the world. It was his devotion to study that put him at the mercy of his ambitious brother, and it is this same devotion to study that has made him content to raise Miranda in isolation. Yet, Miranda’s isolation has made her ignorant of where she came from, and Prospero’s own isolation provides him with little company. In order to return to the world where his knowledge means something more than power, Prospero must let go of his magic.