Power Relationships in "The Tempest"

Power, Control and Colonization in "The Tempest"

Shakespeare's The Tempest
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The Tempest includes elements of both tragedy and comedy. It was written around 1610 and it's generally considered Shakespeare's final play as well as the last of his romance plays. The story is set on a remote island, where Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, schemes to restore his daughter Miranda to her proper place using manipulation and illusion. He conjures up a storm--the aptly named tempest--to lure his power hungry brother Antonio and the conspiring King Alonso to the island.

In , power and control are dominant themes. Many of the characters are locked into a power struggle for their freedom and for control of the island, forcing some characters (both good and evil) to abuse their power. For example:

  • Prospero enslaves and treats Caliban badly.
  • Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill Alonso.
  • Antonio and Alonso aim to get rid of Prospero.

The Tempest: Power Relationships

In order to demonstrate power relationships in The Tempest, Shakespeare plays with master/servant relationships.

For example, in the story Prospero is master to Ariel and Caliban -- although Prospero conducts each of these relationships differently, both Ariel and Caliban are acutely aware of their subservience. This leads Caliban to challenge Prospero’s control by taking on Stefano as his new master. However, in trying to escape one power relationship, Caliban quickly creates another when he persuades Stefano to murder Prospero by promising that he can marry Miranda and rule the island.

Power relationships are inescapable in the play. Indeed, when Gonzalo envisages an equal world with no sovereignty, he is mocked. Sebastian reminds him that he would still be king and would therefore still have power – even if he did not exercise it.

The Tempest: Colonization

Many of the characters compete for colonial control of the island – a reflection of England’s colonial expansion in Shakespeare’s time.

Sycorax, the original colonizer, came from Algiers with her son Caliban and reportedly performed evil deeds. When Prospero arrived on the island he enslaved its inhabitants and the power struggle for colonial control began - in turn raising issues of fairness in The Tempest

Each character has a plan for the island if they were in charge: Caliban wants to “people the isle with Calibans”; Stefano plans to murder his way into power; and Gonzalo imagines an idyllic mutually controlled society. Ironically, Gonzalo is one of the few characters in the play who is honest, loyal and kind throughout – in other words: a potential king.

Shakespeare calls into question the right to rule by debating which qualities a good ruler should possess – and each of the characters with colonial ambitions embodies a particular aspect of the debate:

  • Prospero: embodies the all-controlling, omnipresent ruler
  • Gonzalo: embodies the utopian visionary
  • Caliban: embodies the rightful native ruler

Ultimately, Miranda and Ferdinand take control of the island, but what sort of rulers will they make? The audience is asked to question their suitability: Are they too weak to rule after we have seen them manipulated by Prospero and Alonso?