How does Shakespeare explore the theme of betrayal in The Tempest?

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Betrayal, loyalty, revenge, and reconciliation are the principal, interconnected themes of The Tempest . Prospero longs for the restoration of his dukedom; because his brother betrayed him, he is motivated as much by desire for revenge as for his and his daughter’s recouping their rightful place. Caliban as well feels...

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Betrayal, loyalty, revenge, and reconciliation are the principal, interconnected themes of The Tempest. Prospero longs for the restoration of his dukedom; because his brother betrayed him, he is motivated as much by desire for revenge as for his and his daughter’s recouping their rightful place. Caliban as well feels betrayed by Prospero because he has been enslaved, but Prospero accuses him of wanting to violate Miranda. In contrast, Ariel seems loyal but also fears betrayal, as he is also bound to Prospero.

When Prospero tells Miranda about her heritage and how they came to the island, he explains that his own brother, the person he loved most, was the one who conspired with King Alonso: “that a brother should / Be so perfidious!” Although he does not share his whole pot, he explains that he has brought their ship to the island so he can make things right. After the travelers wash ashore, the plot develops along several tracks. Sebastian intends treason against his brother, Alonso, paralleling that of Antonio, but his betrayal is thwarted. Instead, the two territories and families are reunited, not only through Prospero’s machinations but also his forgiveness. He understands that the more valuable, but “rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance.”

While the restoration of Prospero, and especially Miranda, to their proper place is central to the play’s resolution, Shakespeare emphasizes that this is not entirely bestowed from outside. Prospero has worked his magic to bring the other Italians to the island, that is true. But only when the wizard accepts the centrality of his mortal side can he truly be free to assume his noble role. Similarly, he must keep his word and show loyalty to those who served him. Along with “abjuring his rough magic,” Prospero must embrace the character of nobility in thought as well as word.

Ariel, without whom Prospero could not have carried out his plan, is rewarded for loyalty, rather than betrayed by Prospero. Caliban, however, plotted against his ruler—thus paralleling the brother’s treason—and showed himself unworthy of Prospero’s rewards. His final status is left ambiguous, but it seems likely Prospero will not renege on “pardoning” him.

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Shakespeare explores the theme of betrayal in The Tempest through many of the characters and plot events that bring the drama to life. Twelve years before the start of the play, Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, sails to the island with his young daughter Miranda after being betrayed by his brother Antonio. Years later, Antonio and Sebastian plan to betray the king Alonso while Prospero's butler and jester conspire with Caliban to get rid of Prospero so they can take charge of the island on which they live. An exploration of any of these conflicts will reveal interesting perspectives on the theme of betrayal.

Another approach to the theme of betrayal could begin with a close examination of loyalty, a parallel theme that can be juxtaposed against the treacherous behaviors of some of the characters in the play. The loyalty of Ariel contrasts with the unfaithfulness of Caliban, for example, exposing an interesting tension amongst the supernatural beings of the island.

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The Tempest is driven by Prospero’s desire to avenge his betrayal. He says that he loved his brother Antonio more than anyone in the world other than himself. Prospero, “being transported / And rapt in secret studies” (reading, possibly studying sorcery), let Antonio take control of his dukedom. Like Lear’s daughters in King Lear, who presumed themselves rulers when their father gave them his kingdom, Antonio thought himself to be the role he assumed. He made a deal with King Alonso of Naples, “an enemy / To me [Prospero] inveterate,” who agreed to support Antonio’s bid for power. Instead of killing the popular Prospero, the conspirators put him and his young daughter, Miranda, on a rickety boat. The two unexpectedly survived their journey by landing on a desert island.

Prospero has it out for Antonio and Alonso, who crash on his island after Prospero has Ariel create a storm. Alonso’s brother Sebastian is also there, and he seems interested in following in Antonio’s steps. He plans to kill his brother to take the throne: “Thy case, dear friend, / Shall be my precedent; as thou got'st Milan, / I'll come by Naples.” Ariel rebukes and frightens Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian, referring to them as “three men of sin.” However, Prospero forgives them in the end.

Prospero and Caliban’s relationship demonstrates another example of betrayal. Caliban accuses Prospero of taking advantage of him:

When thou camest first,
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me,
…..
... and then I loved thee
And show'd thee all the qualities o' the isle...

Prospero calls him a liar and claims that Caliban betrayed him, repaying his kindness by trying to violate Miranda. Whatever the truth, Caliban certainly seeks to cross Prospero now. When he meets Stephano, who gives him drink, Caliban says he will serve Stephano if he helps kill Prospero. In spite of these many betrayals of trust, The Tempest ends not in revenge, but in forgiveness.

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