Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Tempest tells a fairly straightforward story involving an unjust act, the usurpation of Prospero’s throne by his brother, and Prospero’s quest to re-establish justice by restoring himself to power. However, the idea of justice that the play works toward 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—though he is furious with his brother for taking his power, he has no qualms about enslaving Ariel and Caliban in order to achieve his ends. At many moments throughout the play, Prospero’s sense of justice seems extremely one-sided and mainly involves what is good for Prospero. Moreover, because the play offers no notion of higher order or justice to supersede Prospero’s interpretation of events, the play is morally ambiguous. As the play progresses, however, it becomes more and more involved with the idea of creativity and art, and Prospero’s role begins to mirror more explicitly the role of an author creating a story around him. With this metaphor in mind, and especially if we accept Prospero as a surrogate for Shakespeare himself, Prospero’s sense of justice begins to seem, if not perfect, at least sympathetic. Moreover, the means he uses to achieve his idea of justice mirror the machinations of the artist, who also seeks to enable others to see his view of the world. Playwrights arrange their stories in such a way that their own idea of justice is imposed upon events. In The Tempest, the author is in the play, and the fact that he establishes his idea of justice and creates a happy ending for all the characters becomes a cause for celebration, not criticism. By using magic and tricks that echo the special effects and spectacles of the theater, Prospero gradually persuades the other characters and the audience of the rightness of his case. As he does so, the ambiguities surrounding his methods slowly resolve themselves. 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. The establishment of Prospero’s idea of justice becomes less a commentary on justice in life than on the nature of morality in art. Happy endings are possible, Shakespeare seems to say, because the creativity of artists can create them, even if the moral values that establish the happy ending originate from nowhere but the imagination of the artist.
Upon seeing Ferdinand for the first time, Miranda says
that he is “the third man that e’er I saw” (I.ii.
The nearly uninhabited island presents the sense of infinite
possibility to almost everyone who lands there. Prospero has found
it, in its isolation, 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, now Prospero’s slave,
laments that he had been his own king (I.ii.
Prospero issues many threats in The Tempest, demonstrating his innate violence and cruelty. For the most part, Prospero directs his threats at his servants. Prospero’s threats typically contain elements of magic, as when he reprimands Caliban for his disobedience: “If thou neglect’st or dost unwillingly / What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps, / Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar” (I.ii.). Prospero also makes harsh threats against his more helpful servant, Ariel. Prospero has promised to liberate Ariel after a period of faithful service, and when Ariel reminds his master of this promise, Prospero warns: “If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak / And peg thee in his knotty entrails” (I.ii.). Curiously, the tree prison Prospero describes here echoes the tree prison the witch Sycorax had placed Ariel in prior to Prospero’s arrival. Thus, not only do Prospero’s threats indicate his cruel and domineering nature, but they also link him to other tyrannical figures.
The themes of obedience and disobedience underscore the island’s hierarchy of power. Prospero stands at the top of this hierarchy. As both the former Duke of Milan and a gifted student of magic, Prospero is the most powerful figure on the island. He therefore demands obedience from all of his subjects, including his servants and his daughter. At some point, however, each of these subjects disobeys him. Caliban swears his allegiance to Stephano, trading one master for another in an attempt to topple the island’s hierarchy altogether. Other examples of disobedience in the play are more nuanced. Miranda, for instance, believes she disobeys her father by pursuing romance with Ferdinand. But her actions are actually in line with her father’s wishes, since Prospero’s harsh treatment of Ferdinand is designed to make Miranda take pity on him and fall in love with him. The situation is again different in Ariel’s case. Ariel has proven himself a faithful servant, yet Prospero considers him disobedient when he asks for his freedom. These complexities ultimately suggest that the island’s hierarchy of power is less stable than it appears.
Shakespeare weaves the theme of treason throughout The Tempest. The first instance of treason occurred in the play’s prehistory, when Antonio conspired with King Alonso to assassinate Prospero and succeed him as the new Duke of Milan. The attempt to kill Prospero was both political treason and brotherly betrayal. The theme of treason returns in the form of twin assassination plots that arise during the play. While Caliban and Stephano plot to kill Prospero and take control of the island, Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill Alonso and take control of Naples. Both of these plots get interrupted, so despite these men’s treasonous intentions, they ultimately do no real harm. Yet the interruption of these assassination plots does not fully dismantle the theme of treason. Perhaps indicating future strife, the play’s final scene features Miranda and Ferdinand playing chess—a game that can only be won with the metaphorical assassination of the opponent’s king. When Miranda accuses Ferdinand of cheating, she recalls how her uncle Antonio cheated his way into power twelve years prior. Does the future hold yet more instances of treason?
The themes of wonder and admiration center on Miranda, whose name means both “wonderful” and “admirable” in Latin. In a play so full of negative feelings about past wrongdoings, Miranda’s optimism about the future serves as a beacon of hope. Ferdinand senses Miranda’s admirable qualities upon first meeting her, exclaiming, “O you wonder!” (I.ii.). In a later scene he proclaims her superior virtues: “O you, / So perfect and so peerless, are created / Of every creature’s best!” (III.i.). Aside from Gonzalo, Miranda most clearly symbolizes optimism about the possibility of new beginnings and a better future: what she herself calls a “brave new world.” In spite of Miranda’s optimism, wonder sometimes carries a less positive connotation in The Tempest. Under Prospero’s command and Ariel’s magic, the island is itself a place of wonderful occurrences meant to confuse and disorient. At one point in Act V Prospero comments that Alonso and his company have had many wonderful visions, and that these visions prevent them from thinking clearly. In this sense, the island’s wonderful occurrences conceal truth for the purpose of manipulation.
The theme of monstrosity constitutes the flip-side to the themes of wonder and admiration. Whereas wonder and admiration apply mainly to the beautiful and loving Miranda, monstrosity applies mainly to the ugly and hateful Caliban. The word “monster” appears most frequently in the scenes with Stephano and Trinculo. Upon first laying eyes on Caliban, Trinculo identifies him as a fishy-looking freak, and he imagines exploiting Caliban’s monstrous appearance for profit on the streets of a city: “holiday fools” would willingly part with “a piece of silver” to witness the sideshow attraction. Caliban’s monstrosity derives not from his appearance alone, but from the contrast between his savage appearance and his civilized language. At one point Trinculo expresses surprise that a creature like Caliban should use a term of respect like “Lord.” Although Caliban stands as the primary example of monstrosity in The Tempest, Alonso also uses the word “monstrous” to refer to illusory sounds and visions produced by Ariel.