How is language used to explore the themes in The Tempest?

The Tempest carries themes such as the supernatural/magical, culture, freedom, and friendship. Language plays a very significant role in the play as the characters use language to manipulate, control, confuse, or seize power. For example, Prospero uses his words and intelligence to rise above the other characters, and Caliban tries to use it against Prospero, his mentor.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Tempest is very thematically layered; magic, freedom, identity, culture, friendship, oppression, and power are all themes within this play. Language is a key tool Shakespeare uses to illustrate them. For example, Prospero and Miranda believe that language is central to one's identity, and Prospero takes great pride in his...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The Tempest is very thematically layered; magic, freedom, identity, culture, friendship, oppression, and power are all themes within this play. Language is a key tool Shakespeare uses to illustrate them. For example, Prospero and Miranda believe that language is central to one's identity, and Prospero takes great pride in his wit and ability to cast spells to bend reality. Language also plays into the theme of oppression; Caliban was taught how to speak by Miranda, but the lessons remind him of his oppression and otherness; how different he is from Miranda and Prospero, and how they have imprisoned him.

The romance and friendships the characters form in the play are also often forged by language. When Miranda and Ferdinand meet, they are immediately drawn to one another when they realize that they speak the same language; throughout the play, their speech patterns mimic one another. Caliban also uses his language to form an alliance with Stephano and Trinculo.

In The Tempest, language itself is also a theme; most scholars agree that it represents power. Prospero, who has studied language, uses it to manipulate Ariel. Caliban understands how Prospero uses language to create illusion and alter reality and knows that he can use the language Miranda and Prospero taught him against them. Even though it reminds him of his oppression, he can reclaim his power by cursing them with it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Tempest, William Shakespeare uses language in specific ways that highlight the importance of its major themes. The difficulty of distinguishing illusion from reality is one theme that carries through the play. This theme is presented repeatedly, and recapped in Prospero’s final reference to “the baseless fabric of this vision.” Prospero’s identity as a sorcerer is bound up in his command of language gained through his “secret studies.” His ability to alter reality and dominate the island’s inhabitants depends on magic spells.

Prospero also channels his power through Ariel, whose use of language often confuses or deceives the visitors. Language includes magical words as used in songs, such as the one with which Ariel puts the shipwrecked men to sleep. Caliban both recognizes the power of words and rejects Prospero’s supposed right to rule the island. His determination to overthrow the illegitimate ruler parallels Prospero’s intention to restore appropriate rulership to the Mediterranean islands.

Questions about the identity of the inhabitants correlate with the frequent doubts characters have about the reality they behold; “devils” and “monsters” are common terms applied to various characters. Ferdinand, after the shipwreck, exclaims that they are all “devils.” Gonzalo ponders that those of “monstrous shape” have gentle manners. Similarly, Miranda has grown so accustomed to Ariel that she mistakes a man for a “spirit.”

The use of words was essential, Caliban maintains, in Prospero’s gaining control. Although he condemns the magician’s use of spells and lies, he also intends to use lies to achieve his objectives. Offering his servitude to Stephano, he aims to gain his support in vanquishing Prospero: “I'll swear myself thy subject.”

As their plot continues, lying plays an increasingly important part. The concealed Ariel repeatedly states that various characters are lying, thus making them mistrust each other. As Caliban enlists the sailors’ support, he emphasizes the importance of Prospero’s books as the basis of his “command.”

Remember
First to possess his books, for without them
He's but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command—they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team