The Tempest Themes

The main themes in The Tempest include illusion versus reality, human nature, and forgiveness and reconciliation.

  • Illusion versus reality: In The Tempest, Prospero’s use of magic and the mistaken identities of various characters emphasize the initial triumph of illusion over reality.
  • Human nature: Shakespeare calls into question what constitutes a human by juxtaposing humans with inhuman creatures. Through characters like Miranda, Shakespeare displays the goodness in humanity. 
  • Forgiveness and reconciliation: Shakespeare’s use of order and structure, particularly his adherence to the unities of time and space, helps to illustrate the necessity of forgiving when the time is right.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250

Witnessing a banquet complete with sprites and the shapes of unicorns, Gonzalo says: "If in Naples, I should report this now, would they believe me?" (III.iii.27-28). His sentiments are echoed by reformed King Alonso in his final word on Prospero's island and magical art:

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This is as strange a maze as e'er men trod;
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of: some oracle
Must rectify our knowledge.
(V.i.241-244)

In The Tempest illusion competes with reality and wins despite what our minds, and those of its characters, might say. Not only does magic play an instrumental role in the play, the atmosphere of Prospero's Island is in itself magical. The audience cannot trust its senses in the conventional sense of the word trust; it must surrender to its sense and suspend all disbelief.

Consistent with the theme of illusion, the mechanics of The Tempest often turn on mistaken beliefs about what is real: Ferdinand and Miranda mistake each other for super-natural beings; Stephano mistakes Caliban and Jester Trinculo for a two-headed creature; Caliban mistakes Stephano as god. Antonio and his party are mistaken about the death of Ferdinand; Ferdinand is mistaken about his father's death and his sad elevation to being Naples' new king. When Prospero reveals himself to Alonso, "Behold, sir king, / The wronged Duke of Milan, Prospero," a humbled Alonso can only reply "Whe'er thou be'st he or no, / Or some enchanted trifle to abuse me / As late I have been, I not know" (V.i.111-113). At the same time, the theme of illusion as falsehood also has a normative aspect to it, as when Prospero recounts her uncle Antonio's wrongs to Miranda and asks rhetorically, "then tell me / If this might be a brother" (I.ii.118-119).

The Tempest is above all theater, a show in which Prospero presents the audience with a series of shows. In the midst of the proceedings, Prospero says to his actor Ariel, "Bravely the figure of this harpy hast thou / Perform'd, my Ariel, a grace it had …" (III.iii.81-82). Shakespeare's last play is self-consciously theatrical, and as its internal author tells us, it is evidently about the theater itself. In the sole scene of Act IV, unable to discern what Prospero's grand plan might be, Ferdinand and Miranda ask about his passion. Prospero addresses his prospective son-in-law:

be cheerful sir:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
(IV.i.147-158)

This speech can be read as Shakespeare's own theatrical epitaph, signaling the end of his career as a playwright, director, and occasional actor on the Elizabethan stage. Seen in this light, the vision to which Prospero alludes is the vision that the play itself has created, the characters are actors, and the "great globe" may well be particularized as Shakespeare's own Globe Theatre.

But there is a broader light in which this passage can be read, for here, as elsewhere in Shakespeare's works, "theater" can be taken as a metaphor for "our little life" as mortal human beings. Here we note a related opposition in the play between Art or civilization, on the one hand, and Nature, or anarchic instinct, on the other. Following out one line of analysis, many scholars have noted that a passage from the French philosopher Montaigne's essay "On Cannibals" is echoed in Gonzalo's ideal commonwealth speech (Act II, scene i, 143-164), in which he says that were he the ruler of an ideal society, he would "execute all things," with no trade, no law nor courts permitted, and furthermore, "No occupation; all men idle, all: / And women too, but innocent and pure; / No sovereignty—" (155-157). What Gonzalo is espousing is a primitive state of humanity, such as Montaigne wrote about and Elizabethans were familiar with from the reports of New World explorers. Largely through that arch-primitive Caliban, Shakespeare distances himself from Gonzalo's vision of a pre-civil society. Indeed, Gonzalo later reinforces part of his argument on this count, when he says of the spirits that Prospero summons to the illusory banquet of Act III, scene iii,

If I should say, I saw such islanders,—
For, certes, these are people of the island,—
Who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet, note,
Their manners are more gentle-kind than of
Our human generation you shall find
Many, nay, almost any (30-35).

As epitomized by Ariel, the original inhabitants of Prospero's island generally exist without need for labor, without standing law, and without customary restraint, for they are good by nature. But there is a two-fold problem here: first, there is the matter of Caliban; second, the people to whom Gonzalo refers are not people, for they are not even human.

The overarching thematic issue that Shakespeare presents to us in The Tempest is the question of what is human. The subject surfaces prominently in the text. When Miranda first sees Ferdinand being led to Prospero's cell by the enchantments of Ariel, she exclaims: "What is't? a spirit? / Lord, how it looks about! Believe me, sir, / It carries a brave form. But 'tis a spirit. (I.ii.410-412). Immediately thereafter, Ferdinand responds to Prospero's false charge that he is a spy by saying, "No, as I am a man" (457). Shortly thereafter, while Ferdinand is charmed motionless after trying to resist the magician's plans to manacle him, Prospero says to his daughter:

Thou thinks't there is no more shapes as he,
Having seen but him and Caliban: foolish wench!
To the most of men this is a Caliban,
And they to him are angels.
(I.ii.479-482)

Reflecting the richness of the text, there is a parody of Miranda's encounter with Ferdinand in Caliban meeting with Trinculo and Stephano, with Caliban saying in an aside, "These be fine things, and if they be not sprites / That's a brave god; and bears celestial liquor" (II.ii.116-117).

In addition to its exploration through the language of the play, the question of what is human takes place through the characters of The Tempest. Ariel, of course, while he is able to converse with and to serve Prospero, is by no means human. Caliban, on the other hand, is half-human, the primitive, instinctual half of naturally unbounded lusts. Moreover, humanity in The Tempest encompasses three evil characters (Antonio, Sebastian, and King Alonso) and two ridiculous ones (Trinculo and Stephano) along with the positive examples of the good councilor Gonzalo, the king's unspoiled son, Ferdinand, and Miranda, the pure example of humanity's empathetic nature. It is through Miranda's eyes that Shakespeare pronounces his own blessing upon mankind. Near the very end of the play, after King Alonso blesses her marriage to Ferdinand, Miranda proclaims,

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!
(V.i.181-184)

The examination of human nature that Shakespeare conducts in The Tempest yields a benevolent result: we are led to hope with Miranda that mankind is good and to know with her that human beings are naturally good and capable of redemption.

Advanced Themes

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Last Updated on July 21, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1315

Magic
Magic has a strong presence throughout The Tempest and pervades nearly every action in the play. While this quality Informs the work with a fairy tale atmosphere, it Is important to recognize that in Shakespeare's time the topic of magic was treated with more seriousness than in our own. Some Renaissance scholars, such as Henry Cornelius Agrippa (of whose writings Shakespeare may have been cognizant), possessed much expertise in the subject of magic and wrote books describing the different sources of magical power. In simple terms, Shakespeare's audience would have been aware of two types of magic, the white (good) and the black (evil). In this scheme Prospero likely would have been deemed a theurgist, or practicer of white magic—a force derived from divine sources and dealing in the control of natural elements. This form of magic is said to have affinities with the natural sciences, as in the study of alchemy (the forerunner of modern chemistry). The other form of magic, black magic, is only tangentially related to the action of The Tempest. It was supposed to come from demonic sources, such as those that might have been wielded by Caliban's mother, the witch Sycorax.

Prospero and his servant, Ariel, are the two principal workers of magic in The Tempest. Both possess powers of illusion and deception. Under Prospero's orders, Ariel creates a powerful tempest at the beginning of the play that appears to destroy Alonso's ship and strand all of its passengers on the island. By the end of the play, however, the Boatswain exclaims that the ship "Is tight and yare bravely rigg'd, as when / We first put out to sea." Likewise, Prospero uses magic to separate and confuse the new inhabitants on the isle and to convince each that the others were surely killed in the storm. Prospero's manipulation of others through magic points to one of the important motifs in the work, the contrast between appearance and reality. Thus, as the illusions are lifted at the end of the play, Shakespeare invokes the theme of disenchantment, and places reality aright. These effects are particularly revealed in the characters of Caliban, who appears to have reached a level of disillusionment by rejecting his previously slavish behavior, and Alonso, in his newfound remorse for his past evil actions toward Prospero. Another significant critical application of this topic is a comparison of Prospero's magical powers to the work of an artist (i. e. Shakespeare) and his manipulation of reality through art. Many biographical explanations of The Tempest equate Prospero with Shakespeare and claim that the play represents Shakespeare's farewell to drama. Evidence for such an interpretation relies on the fact that Prospero consistently manipulates scenes and events in the play: he stages masques, orchestrates illusions, directs the actions of his fellows on the island, and finally, in the epilogue to the work, addresses the audience, asking for applause—, "But release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands: / Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails, / Which was to please." Prospero's "project" therefore becomes the same as Shakespeare's, the entertainment (and perhaps instruction) of his audience. His magical manipulations are thus aligned with Shakespeare's own artistic endeavors in creating the play.

Order and Structure
Critics have over the centuries been very interested in the structure of The Tempest, noting that, in a manner quite uncharacteristic of him, Shakespeare closely adhered to the classical concept of the unities of time and space in that play. The action takes place entirely on the tropical island that is home to Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban, and its duration is only a few hours—approximately as long as a theatrical performance of The Tempest would take. The only other play in which Shakespeare observed the classical unities rule is the early Comedy of Errors, and his reasons for this late departure from his usual practice have remained somewhat mysterious. Various theories have been advanced by critics in this regard: some, for example, contend that Shakespeare wanted to prove to his detractors, like Ben Jonson, that he could indeed write a tightly unified play; others suggest that the play might be a very early and immature work in which Shakespeare conformed to the unities out of inexperience; still others view the play as Shakespeare's farewell to the theater in which he wanted to portray a perfectly ordered, balanced world as a sort of final vision. In this latter biographical interpretaion, the dramatist is linked with the character of Prospero, an artificer and magician, through whom Shakespeare comments on his own role as an artist and arranger of reality.

Most scholars, however, have focused on Shakespeare's skillful use of order and structure in The Tempest as a means of advancing the themes of reconciliation, restoration of order, and forgiveness in the play. The Tempest's strong use of symmetry, contrast, and parallelism in charactrization and structure neatly contributes to the idea of order achieved by the end, with characters commenting upon each other (for example, Ariel on Caliban, and Propsero on Gonzalo) and various scenes inviting parallels that ultimately contribute to harmony. Many commentators have also called attention to Shakespeare's handling of time in the play. All scenes are based firmly in the present, with the past referred to only to illuminate the present, and the hoped-for future presented as an offshoot of the present. With so much emphasis on the now, the theme of the need to seize the opportunity to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation while the moment is right is highlighted through Shakespeare's masterful handling of order and structure in the play.

Music and the Masque
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's most musical plays and is filled with more songs and music than any other of his dramas. Much of this music comes in the form of Ariel's songs, which are scattered throughout the play, but music is also an integral part of the betrothal masque that Prospero throws in celebration of Miranda's and Ferdinand's love. In Shakespeare's time music was commonly associated with celestial harmony, a theory that derives in part from the writings of Aristotle and the ideas of Medieval Christian commentators on his work. According to this theory, the planets, the moon, the sun, and the stars were said to orbit the earth in perfect crystalline spheres that produced a kind of beautiful music, representing the sanctity of the heavens. This blissful harmony is said to relate to the theme of reconciliation that informs The Tempest. While the play opens with its characters in a state of conflict, primarily involving Prospero's desire to revenge the usurpation of his dukedom, the motion of the play is toward reconciliation in the next generation. Prospero's feud with King Alonso is overcome by the love of Miranda and Ferdinand and their political squabbling is ended by the joining of their children in marriage.

Music is further related to the theme of reconciliation in the betrothal masque of Ferdinand and Miranda. While Shakespeare's presentation of this masque in Act IV, scene i, seems a bow to its vogue at the time that The Tempest was written, it nevertheless represents several integral thematic aspects of the play. In Shakespeare's time the masque—a stylized production consisting of song, dance, music, and mythology designed as a courtly entertainment—had reached a high point of popularity. This masque in The Tempest invokes the mythological figures of Iris, Juno, and Ceres, the last of whom, a classical goddess of fertility, places a blessing on Miranda and Ferdinand. It also invokes Shakespeare's theme of life as an illusion and the transience of worldly things. As the masque ends, Prospero tells Ferdinand, "Yea, all ... shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep."

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