The Tempest Key Themes


A mind-map exploring 5 of the key themes of William Shakespeare's The Tempest - God & Humanity, Magic, New World & Old World, Forgiveness & Reconciliation and Power & Freedom. Plus a few quotes, historical context, critical interpretation and limited comparisons to Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.
Joe Brown
Mind Map by Joe Brown, updated more than 1 year ago
Joe Brown
Created by Joe Brown over 8 years ago

Resource summary

The Tempest Key Themes
  1. God & Humanity
    1. Play may be an allegory. James Russell Lowell described the play as "an example of how a great poet should write allegory".
      1. Does Prospero represent God? Does the island represent the Garden of Eden? Are Prospero, Miranda and Ariel a allegorical representation of the Father, Daughter and Spirit?
        1. Prospero is very powerful. A very omnipotent character. He even controls every single aspect of the play - he controls the characters, the elements etc. This is symbolised in A5S1 when Ferdinand and Miranda are playing chess.
          1. HOWEVER like in Doctor Faustus, it is not Prospero who is all powerful, it is not Prospero who cast the eponymous tempest but is in fact his servant - Ariel. Prospero is a manipulator, but not necessarily God-like.
            1. It could be argued Prospero is in fact a self-portrait of Shakespeare. Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes Prospero as "the very Shakespeare himself".
              1. The Tempest was written in 1611 and is believed to be Shakespeare's final play. Shakespeare like Prospero is ageing and beginning to question his own mortality.
            2. Jan Frans Van Dijkhuizen notes that the Masque Scene demonstrates Propsero's "ability to defy the laws of time and nature" - again demonstrating his omnipotence.
              1. However Prospero recognises the limitations of his powers. "I find my zenith doth depend upon/A most auspicious star". Prospero's magic does not rely upon his ability own but nature too, and he is very grateful and respectful of this. Though he is powerful he is not omnipotent.
        2. Magic
          1. Is magic ever used beningly in the play? E.g Sycorax's imprisonment of Ariel? Prospero's enslavement of Caliban and Ariel? Prospero's control over Miranda and the other characters?
            1. ALTHOUGH it appear's Prospero is being evil with his magic he is not as he is very careful not to to harm anybody on-board the ship - "I have with such provision in my art/So safely ordered that there is no soul/No, not so much perdition as an hair, Betid to any creature in the vessel" (A1S2)
              1. It is true no one has harmed in the conflict - but both Ferdinand and Alonso suffer during the experience, thinking one another is dead.
            2. In England during the time the play was published there was still a widespread belief in magic. James I believed in witches and persecuted many of them. Maybe why Shakespeare presents Scycorax as an evil witch, yet Prospero as a just magician?
              1. Feminists would criticise the play. Shakespeare oppresses Miranda - even putting her in trance during A1S2. She is only 'freed' when Prospero finds a man suitable for her - Ferdinand. Mike Brett argues that "Miranda's apparent freedom is entirely illusory"
              2. The whole island is associated with the supernatural - Sycorax is banished there, Prospero's magic powers develop there and are only given up before he leaves.
                1. It is as if the island is enchanted, as recognised by Caliban "...the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs". That put Caliban to sleep.
              3. New World and Old World
                1. The Tempest has often been seen as a play based on colonialism, reflecting the European expansionism occurring during James I's reign. Prospero comes to Caliban's island, subdues him, rules the island and imposes his culture upon him - teaching him his language.
                  1. Caliban is described as a "Hag born" "whelp" who is not "honoured with a human shape". Shakespeare dehumanises him to build sympathy for the character and to reflect the colonizer's attitude towards the native Americans. He is portrayed as a despicable entity, who all the creatures from the 'civilized world' view with disdain and fear.
                  2. HOWEVER Shakespeare may be talking about class rather than colonialsim,
                    1. In Gonzalo's monologue, he envisions a utopian state - reflecting a Communist state - a state where "riches, poverty,/And use of service" are gone, where all men and women are idle but are "innocent and pure"
                      1. By the end of the play all imprisoned characters - Ariel, Caliban, Ferdinand and Miranda are free. Perhaps Shakespeare had sympathies with the poor and women - envisioning a world of freedom and equality. Perhaps this is the "New brave world" Miranda discovers.
                  3. Reconciliation& Forgiveness
                    1. Many scholars argue reconciliation and forgiveness is at the centre of the play.
                      1. The play, despite having a large focus on the supernatural, places a large emphasis on human spirit. "The rare victory is/In virtue than in vengeance". Prospero's capacity for mercy and forgiveness towards his enemies, Miranda's empathy and Gonzalo's thoughtfulness dramatize the triumph of human spirit.
                        1. HOWEVER it could be argued that some characters do not change.
                      2. Power and Freedom
                        1. Most characters desire power at some point - even the benevolent Gonzalo.
                          1. Whilst, in the words of Walton Beacham, Ariel's "only request is to be free".
                            1. Prospero is master to both Caliban and Ariel - something which they are acutely aware of.
                              1. "Prospero and Caliban's 'relationship' deteriorates into one rebellion" (Davis Lindely)
                                1. Reflects rebellion against monarchs during the reigns of Elizabeth? The Northern Rebellion of 1569 and the numerous Catholic Plots to overthrow Elizabeth?
                            2. Barry Beck see's the play as "a tale of political power and social responsibility"
                              1. Gonzalo's utopian state would be ideal - where everyone is equal and cares for one another.
                                1. Sebastian and Antonio are both despicable men - and mirror the foolish characters of Stephano and Trinculo who both desire power.
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