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.

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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 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.

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,...

(The entire section is 2,565 words.)