The Tempest

by: William Shakespeare

Tone

Main ideas Tone

Over the course of the play, the tone of The Tempest shifts from threatening to hopeful. The tempest, or storm, that opens the play plunges the audience into chaos. By the end of the play, however, the tone enters a more hopeful register as the characters resolve their conflicts and look to the future. Between these two points, the tone shifts constantly and uneasily. In one scene, Alonso speaks solemnly as he mourns his son’s death, but in the next scene, Trinculo and Stephano are by turns jocular and conspiratorial. The tonal fluctuation from scene to scene reflects the chaos and confusion that Prospero has orchestrated. Newcomers to the island see the island as a “strange” landscape full of mysterious sounds and enigmatic spirits. Audiences, similarly, may wonder how to make sense of the action they see, whether to laugh or cry. By the play’s end, Miranda’s sense of wonder at and hope for the “brave new world” (V.i.) that has opened for her suggests that the proper response to all that has come before is appreciative awe.

Just as the overall tone of the The Tempest shifts as the play progresses, the tone of individual characters also evolves over the course of the play. Prospero initially comes across as overbearing and is quick to issue threats to anyone who disobeys him. Despite his domineering nature, however, Prospero’s ultimate desire is not to rule the island like a despot. Instead, he wants to be a duke again and to rule Milan justly and humanely. In this sense, Prospero’s overbearing tone conceals a deeper seed of hope—a hope that he also expresses by orchestrating Miranda and Ferdinand’s marriage. This concealed sense of hope connects Prospero to the optimism Miranda proclaims in the play’s final scene. To make matters more complicated, however, the hopeful tone that resonates at play’s end may itself conceal a deeper ambivalence. When Miranda calls Ferdinand out for cheating in their game of chess, her accusation may not bode well for the future. On the one hand, it may indicate that their marriage will not end as happily as Prospero intends. On the other hand, since chess is an allegory for regicide (i.e., assassination of a king), Ferdinand’s cheating may suggest a future political betrayal.