'The Tempest' Themes, Symbols, and Literary Devices

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most imaginative and unusual plays. Its setting on an island leads Shakespeare to approach more familiar themes, such as authority and legitimacy, through a new lens, leading to a fascinating engagement with questions regarding illusion, otherness, the natural world, and human nature.

Authority, Legitimacy, and Betrayal

The plot’s driving element is Prospero’s desire to win back his dukedom from his perfidious brother, making this theme central. However, Shakespeare complicates this claim to legitimacy: although Prospero asserts his brother was wrong to have taken his dukedom, when he is exiled he claims the island as his own, despite the native Caliban’s desire to be “mine own king.” Caliban himself is heir to Sycorax, who also declared herself queen of the island upon arrival and enslaved the native spirit Ariel. This complex web highlights how each character claims kingship against the others, in one way or another, and probably none has any transcendent right to rule. Thus, Shakespeare suggests that claims to authority are often based in little more than a might-makes-right mentality. At a time when kings and queens claimed their legitimacy to rule came from God himself, this point of view is notable.

Shakespeare also offers through this theme an early lens on colonialism. After all, Prospero’s arrival on the island, although it is in the Mediterranean, is often seen to parallel the contemporary Age of Exploration and the European arrival in the New World. The dubious nature of Prospero’s authority, despite his incredible manpower, could be seen to throw into question European claims to the Americas, although if any such suggestion is made, it is done so subtly and we should be cautious attempting to deduce Shakespeare's political intent from his work.

Illusion

The entire play is more or less brought about by Prospero’s control of illusion. From the very first act, each band of sailors is convinced that they are the only survivor of the terrible shipwreck of the first act, and throughout the play practically their every action is prompted or guided by Prospero through Ariel's conjuring of illusions. The emphasis on this theme in The Tempest is particularly interesting because of the complicated dynamics of power at play. After all, it is Prospero’s ability to make people believe something that is not true that grants him so much power over them.

As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, an emphasis on illusion reminds the audience of their own engagement in the illusion of a fictitious play. As The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, scholars often link Shakespeare to Prospero. It is particularly Prospero’s goodbye to magic at the end of the play that reinforces this idea, as Shakespeare says goodbye to his own art of illusion in playwriting. However, while the audience may be immersed in the play, we are explicitly unaffected by Prospero’s magic: for example, we are aware, even as Alonso weeps, that the other sailors are still living. In this way, there is only one element of the play that Prospero has no power over: us, the audience. Prospero’s final soliloquy in the play may account for this disparity, as he himself begs us to release him with our applause. Prospero, through his association with Shakespeare as playwright, thus acknowledges that although he can captivate us with his storytelling, he himself is ultimately powerless to the might of the viewer, the student, and the critic.

Otherness

The play offers rich interpretation for postcolonial and feminist scholarship, which often deals with the question of the “Other.” The Other is generally defined as the less powerful opposite to the more powerful “default” who is often forced into being defined in terms of that default. Common examples include the female to the male, the person of color to the white person, the wealthy to the poor, the European to the native. In this case, the default is of course the all-powerful Prospero, who rules with an iron fist and is obsessed with his own authority. Shakespeare suggests over the course of the play that there are two options when the Other is faced with such a powerful opposite: to cooperate or to rebel. Miranda and Ariel, each "Other” and less powerful (as woman and native, respectively) in relation to Prospero, both opt to cooperate with Prospero. Miranda, for example, internalizes Prospero’s patriarchal order, believing herself to be totally subordinate to him. Ariel, too, decides to obey the powerful magician, although he makes it clear he would much rather be free of Prospero’s influence. Contrastingly, Caliban refuses to submit to the order that Prospero represents. Even as Miranda teaches him how to speak, he asserts that he only uses language to curse, in other words, he only engages in their culture in order to break its norms.

Ultimately, Shakespeare offers the two options ambivalently: although Ariel gives in to Prospero’s commands, he does seem to have some affection for the magician and seems relatively content with his treatment. In the same vein, Miranda finds herself a marriage with a satisfyingly masculine counterpart, fulfilling her father’s wishes and finding happiness despite the minimal exposure to choice she has and her lack of control over her fate. Meanwhile, Caliban remains a moral question mark: was he already a hateful creature, or did he become hateful because of his resentment of Prospero’s admittedly unjust imposition of a European culture upon him? Shakespeare portrays Caliban’s refusal to comply as monstrous, and yet subtly humanizes him, showing how although Caliban, horrifyingly, tried to rape the gentle Miranda, he was also robbed of his own language, culture, and autonomy at Prospero’s arrival.

Nature

Even from the very beginning of the play, we see the attempt of humans to control the natural world. As the boatswain cries out, “If you can command these elements to silence and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more” (Act 1, scene 1, lines 22-23), he underscores the utter lack of power even kings and councillors have in the face of the elements. The next scene, however, reveals that those elements have been controlled all along by Prospero.

Prospero thus serves as the bringer of European “civilization” to an island in a “state of nature.” Nature thus becomes the “Other,” of which we spoke above, to Prospero’s powerful norm of civilized society. Caliban is again a critical character through which to view this theme. After all, he is often given the epithet “natural man,” and operates distinctly against Prospero’s civilized wishes. Not only does he not want to engage in productive labor as Prospero demands, he also attempted to rape Miranda. Ultimately Caliban refuses to exert any control over his desires. While European civilized society admittedly placed many restraints on human nature, Shakespeare’s presentation of an “unrepressed,” “natural” figure here is not celebratory: after all, it is impossible to see Caliban’s attempt at rape as anything but monstrous.

However, Caliban is not the only one whose interactions with his own nature is at play. Prospero himself, although the most powerful person in the play with his ability to control the natural world, is in thrall to his own nature. After all, his desire for power seems somewhat out of control, himself a so-called “tempest in a teapot.” This desire for power gets in the way of normal, satisfying relationships; for example, with his daughter Miranda, on whom he uses a sleeping spell when he wants to stop conversing. In this way, Prospero’s nature, which centers around a desire for control, is itself uncontrollable.