Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Illusion of Justice

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.

The Difficulty of Distinguishing “Men” from “Monsters”

Upon seeing Ferdinand for the first time, Miranda says that he is “the third man that e’er I saw” (I.ii.449). The other two are, presumably, Prospero and Caliban. In their first conversation with Caliban, however, Miranda and Prospero say very little that shows they consider him to be human. Miranda reminds Caliban that before she taught him language, he gabbled “like / A thing most brutish” (I.ii.359–360) and Prospero says that he gave Caliban “human care” (I.ii.349), implying that this was something Caliban ultimately did not deserve. Caliban’s exact nature continues to be slightly ambiguous later. In Act IV, scene i, reminded of Caliban’s plot, Prospero refers to him as a “devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick” (IV.i.188–189). Miranda and Prospero both have contradictory views of Caliban’s humanity. On the one hand, they think that their education of him has lifted him from his formerly brutish status. On the other hand, they seem to see him as inherently brutish. His devilish nature can never be overcome by nurture, according to Prospero. Miranda expresses a similar sentiment in Act I, scene ii: “thy vile race, / Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures / Could not abide to be with” (I.ii.361–363). The inhuman part of Caliban drives out the human part, the “good nature,” that is imposed on him. Caliban claims that he was kind to Prospero, and that Prospero repaid that kindness by imprisoning him (see I.ii.347). In contrast, Prospero claims that he stopped being kind to Caliban once Caliban had tried to rape Miranda (I.ii.347–351). Which character the audience decides to believe depends on whether it views Caliban as inherently brutish, or as made brutish by oppression. The play leaves the matter ambiguous. Caliban balances all of his eloquent speeches, such as his curses in Act I, scene ii and his speech about the isle’s “noises” in Act III, scene ii, with the most degrading kind of drunken, servile behavior. But Trinculo’s speech upon first seeing Caliban (II.ii.18–38), the longest speech in the play, reproaches too harsh a view of Caliban and blurs the distinction between men and monsters. In England, which he visited once, Trinculo says, Caliban could be shown off for money: “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” (II.ii.28–31). What seems most monstrous in these sentences is not the “dead Indian,” or “any strange beast,” but the cruel voyeurism of those who capture and gape at them.

The Allure of Ruling a Colony

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.344–345). As he attempts to comfort Alonso, Gonzalo imagines a utopian society on the island, over which he would rule (II.i.148–156). In Act III, scene ii, 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!—and Trinculo and thyself shall be my viceroys” (III.ii.101–103). Stephano particularly looks forward to taking advantage of the spirits that make “noises” on the isle; they will provide music for his kingdom for free. 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. Gonzalo’s utopian vision in Act II, scene i is undercut by a sharp retort from the usually foolish Sebastian and Antonio. When Gonzalo says that there would be no commerce or work or “sovereignty” in his society, Sebastian replies, “yet he would be king on’t,” and Antonio adds, “The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning” (II.i.156–157). Gonzalo’s fantasy thus involves him ruling the island while seeming not to rule it, and in this he becomes a kind of parody of Prospero. 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 by his willingness to abase himself before Stephano in Act II, scene ii. Even as Caliban plots to kill one colonial master (Prospero) in Act III, scene ii, he sets up another (Stephano). The urge to rule and the urge to be ruled seem inextricably intertwined.

Prospero’s threats

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.

Obedience and disobedience

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.

Treason

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?

Wonder/admiration

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.

Monstrosity

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.