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The Tempest written by William Shakespeare in 1610 is one of the most famous works of dramaturgy in known history. The play draws its influences from a variety of genre characteristics as well as potential historic events and cultural motifs. The primary themes of The Tempest discussed in this paper are power dynamics, colonialism, and the concept of illusion and reality.
Power relationships are inherently at the core of The Tempest’s plot and thematic elements. The primary pursuit of power occurs at the hands of Prospero, who attempts to manipulate most other characters, including his daughter. At the same time, he has direct control over Ariel and enslaves Caliban. The power dynamics demonstrate an interesting perspective. Ariel demonstrates obedience and servitude, eventually earning her freedom. Meanwhile, Caliban enacts rebellion and attempts to find a new master in Stefano, which leads to a similarly abusive power dynamic (Jamieson). Prospero wields magic that presents with him an advantage on the island at demonstrating power by punishing or abusing those who have crossed him. This innately presents readers with a dilemma of whether power, even when wielded by a protagonist, leads to moral and fair decisions.
The socio-political hierarchy in the play presents aspects of power dynamics from the first lines of the play as orders are given. Forceful acquirement of power, particularly related to political instability is central to The Tempest. One of the subplots is focused on internecine conflicts between leaders engaged in a power struggle for control over Milan, the island, and their servants, leading both sides to make regrettable decisions. Antonio and Alonso overthrow Prospero as the rightful Duke of Milan, banishing him to his death. On the island, Prospero overtakes Caliban who is the rightful native ruler which creates conflict. Antonio and Sebastian later plot against Alonso. In a way, Shakespeare demonstrates an unbroken cycle of power and violence that causes betrayal, revenge, and suffering. It is only broken at the denouement of the play as Prospero chooses a path of forgiveness rather than the pursuit of revenge and power.
The colonialism theme in The Tempest is one of the most popular literary perspectives. However, at the time that the play was written, colonialism was at its initial stages, and only decades later when it achieved its peak, scholars began to examine the play through this lens. The colonialism emerges partially from the power dynamic aspect of Prospero taking control of the island. The play indicates that he arrives on the island, destroys Sycorax, and enslaves Caliban. As time goes by, he imposes his rules and culture on the island, usurping all influence and identity from the “native” ruler of the island which is Caliban. Meanwhile, Caliban is forced into a life of poverty, violence, and drunkenness. Prospero claims ownership of Caliban directly when he states, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” (Shakespeare lines 330-331).
Various scholarly perspectives exist regarding true ownership of the island. Ariel and her “race” of spirits are also considered as potential natives of the island oppressed by Prospero. However, modern critics agree that Caliban represents all native tribes, regardless of race, as most Europeans saw the same bestiality and lack of intellect in all locals of conquered lands. Natives experienced similar patterns of abuse and disenfranchisement which are represented in the portrayal of Caliban (Ridge 233). Prospero’s disgust with Caliban is part of the colonialism mentality which viewed Europeans themselves on the pedestal of humankind while engaging in condescending attitudes of racism and dehumanization. Shakespeare emphasizes this with the language and tone used to describe characters. While Caliban is described through a lens of evil and repugnant, Prospero and other Europeans are portrayed as civilized and intelligent, which is a direct consequence of a colonialist mindset.
Illusion and Reality
The difference between illusion and reality is a pertinent theme in The Tempest as Prospero uses magic to manipulate the world around the characters, thus compelling certain decisions and events. Magic illusions often reveal to characters uncovering their true identities and intentions. This theme can be examined from an existential perspective, as Prospero hints that humankind may be living in an illusional world, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” (Shakespeare lines 173-175).
There is a scholarly perspective that suggests Prospero’s magic is a metaphor for theatre, creating a masque over reality and Shakespeare’s role as a playwright. This illusion concept is interconnected to the power theme of the play. Prospero is inherently in a vulnerable position, exiled and outnumbered. However, using magic, he creates an illusion of power and lurks in the shadows, while manipulating reality (similar to that of a playwright). At the end of the play, he practically renounces his powers, releases Ariel, and acknowledges the “baseless fabric of this vision” (Poulard 4). The play is known for its innovative special effects for the time it was written, often surprising audiences, strafing on the thin line between illusion and reality.
The themes of power, colonialism, and illusion in The Tempest are interconnected through their influence on the plot and characterization. They serve an important role in creating depth and thoughtful perspectives on a rather simplistic play. Shakespeare introduced these themes as elements that intrigued audiences and produced commentary for centuries after.
Jamieson, Lee. “Power Relationships in “The Tempest”. ThoughtCo. 2018, Web.
Poulard, Etienne. “‘Shakespeare’s Politics of Invisibility: Power and Ideology in The Tempest.” International Journal of Zizek Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-21.
Ridge, Kelsey. “‘This Island’s Mine’: Ownership of the Island in The Tempest.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, vol. 16, no. 12, 2016, pp. 231-245.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Shakespeare’s Plays, n.d. Folger Digital Texts, Web.