How does Shakespeare present good and evil in the play?

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akersel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The presentation of good and evil in The Tempest is far from clear-cut. Rather than have a straightforward distinction between the two, morality in the play is distinctly ambiguous. What is good and what is evil is a question that remains unanswered, but the play itself can be read as a treatise on human nature, learning, and civilization. 

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to unpack this question is by taking a look at the characters of Prospero and Caliban.

As has already been mentioned, The Tempest is a political play and deals with the idea of rightful places, a matter of great importance during the Elizabethan period. Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan but has been usurped by his brother. On the island, he has complete power, using his magic to maintain control over others, namely Caliban and Ariel. He can seem like a cruel and callous leader, although not explicitly malevolent. By the end of the play, Prospero has become a more compassionate, less autocratic leader and is able to return to his rightful place as the Duke of Milan.

In the play, there is a large amount of magic. Prospero's magic is largely benign, and Ariel, although possessing an elemental power, willingly serves Prospero, as he wants his freedom. Caliban, on the other hand, is explicitly mentioned as being the child of the witch Sycorax and the Devil, two associations that to an Elizabethan audience would seem very dark indeed. Despite his origins, though, Caliban is a complex, ambiguous character, and it is through Shakespeare's treatment of him that we can gain a lot of information about how the themes of good and evil are handled.

We learn that Caliban is enslaved by Prospero and wants his island returned to him, even going so far as to plot to murder Prospero to achieve this. This taps in again to the theme of rightful places, as Caliban believes that the island is rightfully his. From a modern perspective, it is easy to read Caliban as a victim of colonialism. However, we learn that Prospero enslaved Caliban only after he attempted to attack Miranda, stating that he would have "peopled else / This isle with Calibans."

Caliban occupies the intersection between man and nature, even being described as appearing somewhere between a human and an animal. Although he tried to attack Miranda, it could be argued that this was the result of his inability to modify his animal impulses and that it is only through civilization and learning that he—and any human—will ever be able to do so. From a twenty-first-century point of view, this is still problematic, but by the end of the play, Caliban claims he has learned valuable lessons. We never learn exactly what happens to Caliban, whether he will face further punishment or whether he will be left to claim his rightful, solitary place on the island after Prospero's departure.

So, from this, we can conclude that there is no straightforward presentation of good and evil in the play. Instead, morality is presented as something ambiguous and shifting, something that humans are not born with but have to learn and will continue to learn throughout their lives.

gbeatty eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For the most part, he doesn't. By that I mean, Shakespeare gives us a tale of political power, magical power, and vengeance   but a lot of the play doesn't have much to do with good or evil. Instead, it has to do with rightful places (Prospero is deposed), rights to power (Caliban claims the island should be his), and duty.
To the extent that good and evil are shown in the play, they are shown to be changeable, and to depend on character and situation. Prospero's power is extreme, and he could do much evil with it, but he sets it aside at the end, for example.

bearman123 | Student

im not sure but shakespeare does this though prosperos magic.

good -when prospero breaks sycorax spell that was used on areil.

this is my only example so far sorry.

bad- lucking caliban in a room not leting him go free on the island.

creating the tempest.

and finally using areil .

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The Tempest

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