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Themes in The Tempest

Themes Examples in The Tempest:

Act I - Scene I


"Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging...."   (Act I - Scene I)

Gonzalo has not only affirmed his belief in the Boatswain’s professional skill, but he has also made stated his belief that the Boatswain is not meant to die by drowning (based on his complexion). In addition to trusting that the Boatswain has the skill to help guide them through the storm, Gonzalo also invokes Fate in this passage, emphasizing his belief that events are preordained by a power outside the control of humankind.

"What cares these roarers for the name of the king?..."   (Act I - Scene I)

The Boatswain is trying his best to get the ship through the fearsome storm when Alonso, Gonzalo, and Antonio attempt to speak with him. Gonzalo tells the Boatswain to remember that he’s speaking to Alonso, the King of Naples, and the Boatswain’s response here states that the storm cares not for “the name of the king,” which means that the power structures of humankind are of no significance compared to the awesome power of nature. The boldness of the Boatswain’s assertion here emphasizes how the storm has created social upheaval among the characters. Since the storm is so dangerous, any kind of social structure that emphasizes rank and tradition is meaningless: the storm ignores such distinctions.

"You taught me language, and my profit on't Is I know how to curse...."   (Act I - Scene II)

While Caliban is depicted as contemptible, his relationship with Prospero features into a colonial dynamic within Shakespeare’s play. Prospero considers it a gift to have taught Caliban language; Caliban only sees this education as another form of imprisonment that Prospero has over him. Since Caliban states that the only value of language for him is to curse, we can understand his view that he is not treated equally by those with whom he can communicate. He can only speak to curse his oppressors. The tension between these two symbolically represents the "education" that European colonizers imposed on colonized groups across the world.

"Full fathom five thy father lies. Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes;(470) Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:..."   (Act I - Scene II)

Under strict orders from Prospero, Ariel disguised himself as a water nymph and sings to bewitch Prince Ferdinand, bringing him to Prospero and Miranda. These first several words,"Full fathom five thy father lies" Ferdinand takes to mean that his father has drowned. This whole selection represents the detailed instructions that Prospero has given to Ariel: creating a kind of play within the larger play. Ariel's song emphasizes the fantastic and magical in the play. The lyrical and alliterative language not only persuades Ferdinand that his father is dead, but it also conveys the impression that the play is like a folktale or myth.

"Whereof what's past is prologue; what to come In yours and my discharge..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Antonio's claim that "what's past is prologue" is one of Shakespeare's more memorable quotes. In addition to saying that what has happened in the past provides a foreground for the future, this line is also an example of metadrama, meaning that characters in a play discuss their situation as if they were in a theatre. In this way, Antonio views himself as a playwright, manipulating events and people to gain power. This is very similar to his brother’s orchestrations with the storm and commands to Ariel; however, as we will see, Prospero has the real power of storyteller in The Tempest.

"I'th’ commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Gonzalo imagines a kind of utopian society in which everyone is equal, no one has to work, and there is no conflict. On the one hand, Gonzalo’s ideal world highlights his fair and honorable nature: Gonzalo is not hungry for power and does not wish to enslave people, unlike many other characters in the play. However, Gonzalo’s vision is reminiscent of the larger colonial narrative of the time: to discover a rich, abundant island and govern it as one sees best. European colonizers had a similar way of thinking, which ultimately meant that the native populations were oppressed and enslaved, as the colonizers attempted to create their ideal nations. Gonzalo’s dream society may seem wonderful, but the reality of it is problematic.

"Twenty consciences That stand ’twixt me and Milan, candied be they(320) And melt ere they molest!..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Ariel has put most of the men to sleep, and during this time Antonio has revealed his plan to murder Alonso and make Sebastian King of Naples. Antonio encourages Sebastian to carry out the plan by referring to his own power grab when he got rid of Prospero and took the title of Duke of Milan for himself. When Sebastian asks if Antonio has any qualms about having done this, Antonio states that "twenty consciences" would “melt ere they molest,” meaning that he has absolutely no remorse. Such a claim reveals Antonio to be a villain with few complications to his character beyond a shameless and simply desire to acquire as much power as possible for himself. The acquisition and perpetuation of power is a theme throughout the play, and Antonio’s ambition provides an example of power taken by force and violence.

"A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a poor drunkard!..."   (Act II - Scene II)

To free himself from Prospero’s slavery, Caliban chooses to become a slave to Stephano, calling him a god because of the power of his liquor. Trinculo’s and Stephano’s treatment of Caliban provides a metaphor for the abusive and ignorant way that European colonizers took advantage of colonized populations. Furthermore, Trinculo’s calling Caliban “ridiculous” and “strange” is similar to the dehumanizing language Prospero uses with Caliban.

"Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows...."   (Act II - Scene II)

Fearing lightning from yet another brewing storm, Trinculo hides under the cloak with Caliban and makes this statement. Besides the fact that these two strangers are lying under a cloak together, Trinculo’s words also comment on the events of the storm because many different groups of people have been brought to the island, which has caused unexpected alliances. Finally, this sentiment also expresses a view on loss and reclamation: when one is miserable from loss, one might find themselves with new people and in new situations that can offer them comfort.

"If I can recover him and keep him tame and get to Naples with him, he's a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat's leather...."   (Act II - Scene II)

Similar to Trinculo’s earlier speculation, Stephano also expresses a desire to take Caliban to Europe in order to profit off of him. This scene represents another aspect of how colonists treated native peoples: Stephano uses alcohol as a way to “tame” Caliban in order to make him do what Stephano wants. Alcohol then is a symbol of colonial power because it can be used to abuse native peoples and alter their judgment, much like the treatment of Native Americans by the American colonists.

"There(30) would this monster make a man. Any strange beast there makes a man...."   (Act II - Scene II)

Being the fool in the play, Trinculo’s actions and words often provide comic relief from the plots that take place in The Tempest. However, in this moment we see that Triculo’s words reflect the colonial mindset of the Europeans at the time and the notion that one can venture to exotic lands, take what they want, and profit off of it in Europe.

"There be some sports are painful, and their labour Delight in them sets off. Some kinds of baseness, Are nobly undergone, and most poor matters Point to rich ends. ..."   (Act III - Scene I)

“Baseness” here refers to lowly activities or work. Ferdinand has been imprisoned by Prospero, and the work that he is forced to do may not seem noble to others. For Ferdinand though, his love for Miranda makes the work enjoyable and worthwhile—Ferdinand will cheerfully labor so that he can win Miranda’s affection. Also note that Ferdinand’s position as Prospero’s servant is very different from Caliban’s; Caliban is enslaved by Prospero against his will, meaning he will not benefit from his service to Prospero, unlike Ferdinand. Both Caliban and Ferdinand have lost their freedom, but only Ferdinand feels his work is a means to an end.

"I'll to my book, For yet ere supper-time must I perform Much business appertaining...."   (Act III - Scene I)

Pleased with how Miranda and Ferdinand have taken to one another, Prospero states here that he must continue consulting his book in order to carry on his plans. His books have been established as magical already, but the way this scene has portrayed Prospero as a playwright further suggests another sign of the metadrama, or play within the play: Prospero is not only consulting his book for a spell, but he is looking at what will happen in the next scenes of the play, providing an enticing bit of tension as to what will happen next.

"Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not...."   (Act III - Scene II)

Caliban offers this well-spoken speech about the nature of the island to reassure Stephano and Trinculo that there is nothing to worry about. Such a speech provides a markedly new presentation of Caliban as a character: until now, he has been bitter, crude, and vile, but here we see him talk about the natural world in beautiful language. From a colonial lens, this could be criticism against the colonizers view of native lands but it could also be a European depiction of the Noble Savage, a stereotype of non-European cultures as having a natural simplicity and virtue that hasn’t been corrupted by European civilization.

"Give me thy hand. I am sorry I beat thee; but, while thou liv'st, keep a good tongue in thy head...."   (Act III - Scene II)

Since these three have been together, they have continued to drink and get progressively more drunk. Stephano has decided that he shall rule over the island with Caliban as his faithful servant while Trinculo has continued to mock Caliban, causing Stephano to threaten to hang him. However, Caliban informs them about Prospero and Miranda, saying that Stephano can gain great power if he kills Prospero. The promise of this power provides an opportunity for them to stop bickering. While this scene is largely meant to be humorous and serve as a reprieve from the more serious scenes, the foolishness of these characters and how easily they fight and reconcile with one another demonstrates the fickle and deceitful aspects of human nature, particularly when opportunities for power present themselves.

"A devil, a born devil, on whose nature..."   (Act IV)

Prospero’s statement that Caliban is “a born devil” who would be incapable of learning to behave any differently, reflects a common colonialist belief that native populations were inherently “savage” and “uncivilized.” Some Europeans believed that the native peoples could be taught the ways of the “civilized,” and colonizers would thus seek to “civilize” the local populations by forcing their own language, beliefs, and customs on them. Others claimed that non-European populations were naturally inferior and that it was impossible to “civilize” them, as Prospero does. These racist claims were essentially used as justification for enslaving the native populations, and Prospero’s comment echoes this violent ideology.

"Go, charge my goblins that they grind their(280) joints With dry convulsions, shorten up their sinews, With aged cramps, and more pinch-spotted make them Than pard or cat o'mountain...."   (Act IV)

Prospero’s command for Ariel to make Caliban and the others suffer for their plot reveals the deep extent to which Caliban infuriates Prospero. Considering their relationship and Caliban’s refusal to acknowledge Prospero’s authority, the rage Prospero shows is likely the result of his inability to fully subdue Caliban’s will. If read through a colonial lens, Prospero’s anger at Caliban’s indignation may represent the discord between European colonizers and their colonies.

"We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life(175) Is rounded with a sleep...."   (Act IV)

In addition to demonstrating his power, Prospero orchestrates the play to celebrate Miranda and Ferdinand’s love. When Prospero starts acting strangely after remembering the murder plot, Ferdinand expresses concern. Prospero’s response is an odd way to reassure someone–pointing out that life is transient–so we can read it as applying on a more general and introspective level to the audience instead of to Ferdinand. Since many believe The Tempest to be the last play Shakespeare wrote, the play within a play here has significant meaning, paralleling Shakespeare’s own retirement from the theater. Prospero’s words can then be read as Shakespeare speaking through his character whose words “our little life” and the “insubstantial pageant” present to the audience a sense of humility on the part of the playwright. Of course, Shakespeare’s legacy proved to be more lasting than any other English writer in history, making such claims somewhat ironic.

"This thing of darkness I(320) Acknowledge mine...."   (Act V)

By “thing of darkness,” Prospero is referring to Caliban. We again see Prospero denying Caliban’s humanity, referring to him as a nonhuman “thing” rather than a man, which Prospero has done numerous times throughout the play. The term “darkness” refers to Caliban’s skin tone, further emphasizing Prospero’s racism. Prospero believes Caliban is his property and treats him as if he were his pet or possession. Considering that the play was written only a few decades before the Atlantic slave trade began, during this time colonizers would have referred to indigenous people as “thing[s]” to justify their enslavement of them. Viewed through this lens, Prospero’s comments echo this imperial mindset.

"O rejoice Beyond a common joy! And set it down(240) With gold on lasting pillars: in one voyage Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis, And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife Where he himself was lost; Prospero his dukedom In a poor isle; and all of ourselves,(245) When no man was his own..."   (Act V)

Notice that all of the characters have been brought together here, even those that have been presumed dead. Gonzalo points out that although the storm wreaked havoc on the group, the natural order has actually been restored: Prospero has regained his dukedom, and Ferdinand and Miranda have fallen in love. Gonzalo again illustrates his caring and optimistic nature here, emphasizing that although the characters have faced much adversity, they have all found themselves even “when no man was his own.” However, while Gonzalo describes the ways in which Italian society has been improved upon by the storm, he ignores the ways in which the natives of the island have been affected. Gonzalo’s celebratory comments may be coming from a place of compassion, but they also indicate his ignorance of and indifference to the plight of the natives.

"O brave new world That has such people in't!..."   (Act V)

Ariel’s exclamation here represents her surprise and pleasure at seeing so many new people. However, it also represents how young and naive she is, because many of these men, and humans in general, are cruel, selfish, and treacherous, a fact that Prospero immediately points out in the next line.

"I'll break my staff, Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,(60) And deeper than did ever plummet sound I'll drown my book...."   (Act V)

Having resolved to free Alonso and the others, Prospero gives a speech about his experiences with magic and concludes that he shall give it up after his final actions by breaking his staff and throwing his books into the ocean. Prospero’s resolution suggests that this must happen in order for him to return to Italy and to restore a natural order and balance of power. A further reading of this passage could represent a symbolic farewell by Shakespeare to the theatre, with magic and the power to write drama as gifts that are not meant to last forever.

"The rarer action is In virtue than in vengeance...."   (Act V)

Prospero has decided to be more sympathetic, and despite the hurt he feels for Antonio’s past transgressions, this line represents his reasoning that it is better to be virtuous than vengeful. The use of “rarer” here also has a double meaning. While it can refer to something happening less frequently, the word “rare” can also mean something of value or quality. Therefore, acting with compassion and forgiveness is a more important part of being human.

"Mine would, sir, were I human. ..."   (Act V)

While Prospero does have magical power of his own, Ariel has done nearly all of the work in carrying out Prospero’s plan. In addition to Ariel’s power, he has also acted with more compassion, intelligence, and restraint than most of the characters in the play. Keeping this in mind, it is somewhat ironic that this humble comment reminds the audience that Ariel is not human because of his actions and the advice he gives Prospero. Ariel’s role then, like Caliban’s, can be viewed as another example of a colonized subject, obediently doing Prospero’s work and passively accepting Prospero’s without claiming a right to equal status.

"Now my charms are all o'erthrown, And what strength I have's mine own, Which is most faint...."   (Epilogue)

Prospero has freed Ariel, forgiven those who betrayed him, given up his magic, and even set conditions for Caliban to earn his own freedom. Now, in this final scene, he humbly asks the audience for his own freedom, which is curious considering that he has been the one who controlled and enslaved others. If this speech is meant to serve as Shakespeare’s own farewell to theater (as many believe), then the desire for release from the audience is more understandable: the “charms” serve as a playwright’s skill and “with the help of your good hands” refers to the applause of the audience. As it applies to Prospero and the play, the speech serves as a declaration of the restoration of the natural order and hierarchy of power and the dissolution of any remaining plots.

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