Analyzing Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'

Read About Morality and Fairness in 'The Tempest'

Miranda, Prospero and Ariel, from 'The Tempest' by William Shakespeare, c.1780 (oil on canvas)
Miranda, Prospero and Ariel, from 'The Tempest' by William Shakespeare, c.1780 (oil on canvas). English School/Getty Images

This analysis reveals that Shakespeare’s presentation of morality and fairness in the play is highly ambiguous, and it is not clear where the audience’s sympathies should lay.

The Tempest Analysis: Prospero

Although Prospero has been treated badly at the hands of the Milan nobility, Shakespeare has made him a difficult character to sympathize with. For example:

  • Prospero’s title in Milan was usurped, yet he did much the same thing to Caliban and Ariel by enslaving them and taking control of their island.
  • Alonso and Antonio cruelly cast Prospero and Miranda out to sea, yet Prospero’s revenge is equally as cruel: he creates a horrific storm which destroys the boat and throws his noble counterparts into the sea.

Prospero and Caliban

In the story of The Tempest, Prospero’s enslavement and punishment of Caliban is difficult to reconcile with fairness and the extent of Prospero’s control is morally questionable. Caliban had once loved Prospero and showed him everything there was to know about the island, but Prospero considers his education of Caliban as more valuable. However, our sympathies firmly lay with Prospero when we learn that Caliban had tried to violate Miranda. Even when he forgives Caliban at the end of the play, he promises to “take responsibility” for him and continue to be his enslaver.

Prospero’s Forgiveness

Prospero uses his magic as a form of power and control and gets his own way in every situation. Even though he does ultimately forgive his brother and the king, this could be considered to be a way to reinstate his Dukedom and ensure the marriage of his daughter to Ferdinand, soon to become King. Prospero has secured his safe passage back to Milan, the reinstatement of his title and a powerful connection to royalty through the marriage of his daughter–and managed to present it as an act of forgiveness.

Although superficially encouraging us to sympathize with Prospero, Shakespeare questions the idea of fairness in The Tempest. The morality behind Prospero’s actions is highly subjective, despite the happy ending which is conventionally employed to “right the wrongs” of the play.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Analyzing Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 27). Analyzing Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Analyzing Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).