Study Guide

The Tempest Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Shakespeare

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Tempest

Like the storm in King Lear, the tempest that opens our play is full of symbolic meaning.

When Prospero uses magic to whip up a storm that shipwrecks the King of Naples on the island, the tempest seems like a very physical manifestation of Prospero's anger and his suffering, which has been eating at him for the past twelve years. Big surprise there, right?

Although the tempest (like Prospero's anger) is definitely powerful enough to cause a shipwreck, no real harm is actually done. Prospero wants to teach Alonso and Antonio a lesson, but the fact is that he doesn't kill anybody or cause permanent damage to the ship or its inhabitants. Unlike the notorious storm-whipper-uppers in Macbeth (that would be the Weird Sisters), Prospero is NOT an evil guy. He's bitter, controlling, and wants some payback for losing his dukedom, but, ultimately, Prospero forgives the men who once betrayed him.

We also want to point out how the tempest is associated with social upheaval. You probably noticed that as the crew and passengers are being tossed around on deck, panic sets in and quite a lot of trash talking goes down after Duke Antonio tries barking orders at the crew. The Boatswain, who knows a thing or two about sailing, basically tells the Duke of Milan to keep his mouth shut and get out of the way: "Hence! What cares these roarers / for the name of King? To cabin! Silence; trouble us not" (1.1.5). Oh, snap! The social and political hierarchy begins to break down here as the Boatswain points out that royal titles are meaningless in a life and death situation at sea. ("Roarers," by the way, means "waves" in this context but it's also a term used to describe a rioting crowd.)

At this point, we wonder for a moment if we'll have a mutiny on our hands that could turn into a Lord of the Flies scenario once everyone washes up on shore. (If Stefano, Caliban, and Trinculo had their way, Stefano would have usurped both Alonso's and Prospero's power, right?) When we think about it, this is basically what happened back on dry land in Milan when Prospero's brother snatched the dukedom from him.

Want to know more about Shakespeare's love of storms? Check out "Symbols" in King Lear and Macbeth.


By the middle of Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero has worked his magic to win back his dukedom and he has also orchestrated the marriage of Miranda and Prince Ferdinand, who everyone thinks is dead thanks to Prospero. Still, Prospero's got one more trick up his sleeve. In the middle of the scene, Prospero gathers everyone around and dramatically draws back a curtain to reveal his virginal daughter and Ferdinand...playing a game of chess. Surprise!

It looks like Ferdinand has made good on his promise to keep his hands to himself until his wedding night, wouldn't you say? As it turns out, the conversation going on between Miranda and Ferdinand is as G-rated as the action. Miranda bats her eyelashes and says something cute ("Sweet lord, you play me false") and Ferdinand promises that he'd never do such a thing (5.1.1). So, it seems like chess is being used here as a metaphor for romantic pursuits or, the kinds of teasing little "games" played by people who are in love.

We really want to believe Ferdinand when he says he'd never cheat (it wouldn't bode well for the couple's marriage), but we can't say the same thing about the parents of this sweet couple. Hmm. Is Shakespeare trying to tell us something?

Let's think about this. The goal of a chess game is to capture your opponent's king by strategically placing him in a position from which he can't move. Gee. That sounds kind of familiar. Where have we seen this kind of game before? Oh, we know! This is exactly what's been going on between Prospero and Alonso ever since the King of Naples allowed Antonio to steal Prospero's dukedom. In the end, Prospero has ultimately won this little game by backing Alonso into a corner from which the king cannot move. Check mate. Game over.

Prospero's Books

Prospero's books are a pretty big deal in this play. They're the source of Prospero's magic, which is why Caliban says Prospero is completely vulnerable without them:

Why, as I told thee, 'tis a custom with him,
I' th' afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books, or with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
Or cut his wezand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books; for without them
He's but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.

In other words, without the contents of his treasured library, Prospero's a "sot" (a stupid fool) and as powerless as Caliban. When Prospero says he's going to retire from the magic business, he promises "I'll drown my book" (5.1.5).

As useful as these books are, we also want to point out that Prospero's nose was buried in these very same texts back in Milan when his brother was busy stealing his dukedom (1.2). By his own admission, when Prospero was "rapt in secret studies," he neglected his duties as a ruler and isolated himself from the rest of the world (1.2.10). That's odd. Why would Shakespeare warn us that burying oneself in his or her art can be dangerously isolating? Let us know when you work that one out for us.

Brain Snack: The artsy 1991 film Prospero's Books concentrates on the (imagined) contents of our favorite magician's library.

Gonzalo's Big Utopian Speech

Ever the optimist, Gonzalo's response to being stranded is to make a big speech about how things would be if he ruled the isle:

I' the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;--
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

Shakespeare (a notorious and unapologetic plagiarist) cribbed Gonzalo's speech from Montaigne's famous essay "Of Cannibals" (1580), where the Brazilian Indians are described as living at one with nature:

[Brazilian Indians have] no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate or politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or metal. (from John Florio's 1603 English translation)

At a time when Europeans were running around calling natives in the Americas "savages," Montaigne suggests that the Brazilian Indians live a utopian lifestyle while European colonizers are the real barbarians. (This essay, by the way, is where the concept of the "noble savage" comes from.)

So, it's interesting that Shakespeare puts this speech in the mouth of one of his characters, don't you think? Does this mean that Shakespeare endorses Montaigne's ideas about New World inhabitants? Maybe. Gonzalo, after all, is the play's ultimate good guy. On the other hand, Caliban, who is a kind of exotic "other," is portrayed as a complete savage in this play.

Miranda's Virginity

If you're like us, you're probably wondering why the play and most of the characters in it are so obsessed with Miranda's virginity. Prospero is always talking about it (and guarding it from the likes of Caliban) and, when Ferdinand sees Miranda for the first time, he says he hopes she's unmarried and still carrying her V-card (1.2.3). What the heck is going on here? We've done some investigating (read: close analysis of the text) and we've come up with some ideas.

First of all, it was really, really, really important for unmarried women to be chaste in Shakespeare's day. If they had sex before marriage, they were considered damaged goods who couldn't be depended on to produce legitimate offspring. (Trust us. There were entire sermons and books written about the subject.)

Miranda's virginity is a thing that's treated like a "treasure" to be guarded, mostly by her dad, who prevents Caliban from raping her and populating the "isle with Calibans" (1.2.3). Prospero not only prevents his daughter from being assaulted, he also puts a stop to the potential threat that the island could be taken over by the offspring of his slave. Prospero would much rather give his daughter over to Prince Ferdinand (although he gives his son-in-law a huge lecture about keeping his hands to himself until after the wedding) because 1) Miranda loves the guy and 2) Miranda and Ferdinand will have legitimate babies that will one day rule Naples.

At times, it also seems like Miranda's virginity is symbolic of her purity, innocence, and goodness. (As opposed to Sycorax the witch, who hooked up with the devil and gave birth to Caliban.) It also seems like Miranda's status as a virgin helps to somehow redeem the island's naturalness. Remember that the last woman on the island was Sycorax. She was unnatural by virtue of being a witch, but also because when she came to the island, she was already carrying the devil's child (it doesn't get any more unnatural than that). If the island is to be a place of redemption for all the characters in the play, Miranda's virginity is symbolic of the promise of a new and pure beginning.

We also want to point out that Miranda will inevitably lose her virginity to her new husband and this signals that she is growing up and, well, changing in ways that not even her father can manipulate and control. Miranda (unlike Isabella in Measure for Measure) is really excited about this and says as much about what she "desires to give" Ferdinand after she becomes his wife (3.1.9).

Water, Water, Everywhere!

Water is central to this play, and, particularly, the act of being immersed in water – namely, drowning. Of course, the first scene when the ship splits is a pretty good time to worry about drowning, but the imagery goes beyond that to represent loss and recovery.

When first exiled with Miranda, Prospero suggests that he could have drowned the sea with his own tears when he cried over his lost dukedom and his past: "When I have deck'd the sea with drops full salt" (1.2.18).

The new inhabitants of the isle are obsessed with water too. Ferdinand, upon hearing Ariel's song, knows it refers to his father's certain drowning:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange

Ariel's song leads Ferdinand to believe that his father has drowned and is lost to him forever. Not only that, but the song suggests that his body has been transformed into something unrecognizable.

Later, when Alonso gives up hope that Ferdinand could have survived the shipwreck he says, "he is drown'd / Whom thus we stray to find, and the sea mocks / Our frustrate search on land. Well, let him go" (3.1.1) and Antonio notes the King has "given up hope" (3.1.1).

The idea here is that when someone is lost to the sea, there probably isn't even going to even be a body that can be recovered. Drowning demands that the dead must be let go, without the closure of a burial ceremony. So what we're talking about here is the seeming finality of drowning. Usually, once a thing is given to the ocean, it can never be taken back, which is why Rose drops the diamond necklace into the ocean in everyone's favorite tacky love story (yes, Titanic).

But wait! The Tempest isn't just a story about loss. It's also about the recovery of what seems to have been lost forever. As we know, Ferdinand and his father don't actually drown and when they discover each other at the play's end, we're reminded that new beginnings are possible.

Same goes for Prospero, who once thought Milan would never be restored to him but lives to see the day his daughter is married to Prince Ferdinand and will live as a royal in Italy. While Miranda and Prospero will never get back the twelve years they lost on the island, the play suggests that, despite their suffering, they will gain something even greater.

Clasping of Hands

Hands stuff pops up all over the place in this play. Prospero takes Miranda's hand before he tells her of their true identity, and our first introduction to the Prince and King has them below deck, praying, with their hands clasped. Ariel invites Ferdinand to take hands (presumably Miranda's) as he leads him away from crying over his father's death. Miranda is offered Ferdinand's hand as a symbol of his faith to her and of their marriage. Prospero gives Miranda's hand in marriage to Ferdinand when he agrees to their union, and Alonso clasps all their hands together and raises them to the heavens when asking God's blessing on the new union. Finally, when Prospero gives his epilogue speech to the audience, he asks that they bring their hands together, supposedly in prayer forgiving him his failures, but really in applause to tell him that he's totally awesome.

So, hands mean prayer, truth, love, and applause. (By the way, did you know the origin of the handshake was to show the other person your goodwill by revealing that you had no concealed weapon in your hand? Well now you do.)

Of course, to stretch this thing out the way English professor-types do, the ultimate importance of the hand is that it is the source of the translation from the mind to the page, the seat of writing and so the palm of the play. This act of translating words beyond the page, of making them worthy of playing, is the best thing that Shakespeare could hope to do. As his plays were written to be acted, applause (the act of the audience's hands) was the playwright's only assurance that he hadn't sucked. This is especially significant if we think of The Tempest as Shakespeare's last play. After a long career, the man deserved a bit of the audience's indulgence, in the form of their clasped hands, providing the ultimate praise of his own hand's work.

The Epilogue

We thought you might look here for some thoughts about Prospero's epilogue. We talk about it in "What's Up With the Ending?," which is where you should go now if you want to know more about it.