At a Glance

The Tempest key themes:

  • In The Tempest, Prospero’s use of magic and the mistaken identities of the various characters emphasize the triumph of illusion over reality.

  • The Tempest is self-consciously theatrical; Prospero creates a series of shows for the audience.

  • Shakespeare examines human nature by juxtaposing good characters with evil ones, and human with inhuman creatures.

  • Shakespeare’s use of order and structure, particularly his adherence to the unities of time and space, helps to illustrate the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation.

  • Music is prevalent in the play and reflects the themes of harmony and reconciliation.

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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:

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2,565 words.)