What is The Tempest about?
I think The Tempest is largely about the relationship between master and servant and by extention, colonialism and race relations. Much of the play is about "usurping" the power of another. Prospero's brother devise a sinister plan to essentially boot him out of power, so they can take his seat. And though Prospero is presented as a protagonist who ends up forgiving those who have wronged him, he also has usurped the power of Caliban who really should be master of the island. Prospero is master over Ariel and Caliban, much like a colonial power overcomes and dominates another culture. The relationship between Ariel and Prospero is especially ambiguous. Does Ariel obediently serve him becasue she wants to be free or because she has no choice? Caribbean writer, Aime Cesaire, has written an impressive adaptation of the story which he's titled "A Tempest." In his version Ariel and Caliban are depicted as Malcolm X and MLK. They both have different philosophical stances on black freedom. Ariel is obedient so she can eventually be freed from Prospero's hold and dominion over her; yet, Caliban rails against Prospero and is willing to gain his freedom by "any means necessary." The story also examines the idea of cultural dominance. Why should one assume that one culture is superior to another? Why should we assume that Prospero and Miranda are superior to Caliban?
On the plot level, The Tempest is about a group of sailors who shipwreck on an island. There they find Prospero and Miranda. Prospero was the duke of Milan before being exiled there. Miranda and one of the sailors fall in love, while other sailors plot to take over the throne of Naples and still others plan with Caliban, Prospero's monstrous servant, to kill Prospero.
Through magic, virtue, and young love, these plots are thwarted. The ship is repaired, and Prospero is restored to his rightful place as duke of Milan.
Now, thematically, the play is about the social order and what happens when it is upset, about the right to rule and rightful rulers, and about the wonder and magic of the world.
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