Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary
devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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. For instance, 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.
Water and Drowning
The play is awash with references to water. The Mariners
enter “wet” in Act I, scene i, and Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo
enter “all wet,” after being led by Ariel into a swampy lake (IV.i.193). Miranda’s
fear for the lives of the sailors in the “wild waters” (I.ii.2) causes
her to weep. Alonso, believing his son dead because of his own
actions against Prospero, decides in Act III, scene iii to drown
himself. His language is echoed by Prospero in Act V, scene i when
the magician promises that, once he has reconciled with his enemies,
“deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book” (V.i.56–57).
These are only a few of the references to water
in the play. Occasionally, the references to water are used to compare
characters. For example, 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.
Perhaps the most 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.
The isle is indeed, as Caliban says, “full
of noises” (III.ii.130). The play begins
with a “tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning” (I.i.1,
stage direction), and the splitting of the ship is signaled in part
by “a confused noise within” (I.i.54, stage direction).
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, scene i. Moreover, the magical banquet
of Act III, scene iii is laid out to the tune of “Solemn and strange
music” (III.iii.18, stage direction), and
Juno and Ceres sing in the wedding masque (IV.i.106–117).
The noises, sounds, and music of the play are
made most significant by Caliban’s speech about the noises of the
island at III.ii.130–138. 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.