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Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

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.