Study Guide

The Tempest Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • The Supernatural

    In The Tempest, magic is a dazzling art form that infuses the play with a sense of wonder and a whole lot of spectacle. (Think "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in Disney's Fantasia, but better.) This lends itself to a concept developed throughout The Tempest—magic is a craft not unlike that of the playwright. Although Prospero uses magic to control the natural and the supernatural worlds, the play also suggests his art is distinct from the kind of black magic practiced by the witch Sycorax.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. How did Prospero come to master his "art"? What were the consequences of his intense study of magic?
    2. What difference, if any, is there between Prospero's magic and Sycorax's magic?
    3. When and why does Prospero promise to give up his "rough magic"? Do we actually see him do this?
    4. Are Miranda and Ferdinand under a spell when they fall in love, or is their love genuine?

    Chew on This

    Although Prospero uses magic to regain his place in Italy, magic is also the thing that got him into trouble in the first place—if Prospero hadn't isolated himself with his books, he never would have lost his dukedom.

    Although the play goes out of its way to differentiate Prospero's studied art from Sycorax's black magic, at times, the play makes us wonder if Prospero and Sycorax don't share more in common.

  • Art and Culture

    "Now my charms are all o'erthrown, / And what strength I have's mine own" (Epilogue). So says the newly retired magician as he bids adieu to the audience. Since The Tempest is likely the last play Shakespeare wrote by himself, the epilogue has long been cited as Shakespeare's own fond farewell to the stage—sniffle. 

    Regardless of whether or not we read Prospero the magician as a stand-in for Shakespeare the playwright, the similarities between Prospero's "art" and the "magic" of the theater are undeniable. Like Hamlet, The Tempest not only features a "play within the play" (Prospero's dazzling wedding masque) and blatant shout-outs to the theater, but it also features a protagonist who manipulates the play's action like a skillful director.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What's the purpose of Prospero's wedding masque? How does it draw our attention to the workings of the theater?
    2. In the epilogue, Prospero says the audience's applause is the only thing that can "set [him] free." Why is that?
    3. Does Prospero share anything in common with master playwrights like Will Shakespeare?
    4. Compare the theme of "Art and Culture" in The Tempest and Hamlet.

    Chew on This

    When Prospero uses his magic to produce a masque, or "some vanity of [his] art," the play makes it clear that the old magician is a lot like a master playwright.

    It doesn't make any sense to associate a grumpy, revenge-thirsty magician like Prospero with a playwright like Will Shakespeare.

  • Contrasting Regions

    Although the play takes place entirely on an island, The Tempest dramatizes the divide between the courtly worlds and the wilderness. As the play opens, Prospero, a former Italian duke now living in exile, has already journeyed from the court to the remote island and is now trying to return. When Prospero causes his royal enemies to be shipwrecked on his isle, we learn that loyalty to the King is no longer sacred, and court members must abandon their traditions and expectations. The Tempest's foray into a kind of "pastoral" world also aligns this play with As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream. 

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. Does Prospero conform to the ideals of the court or the pastoral world? With which world would he most likely align himself?
    2. Where does Miranda fall in the pastoral/courtly divide? Is she prepared to be Queen of Naples?
    3. It's clear through the actions of the play that courtly laws aren't suited for the pastoral setting. Or can they be? How would the laws of the pastoral world hold up in the environment of court?
    4. Are there principles that differentiate courtly values from pastoral values, or are the norms that govern each just the same rules, interpreted differently?

    Chew on This

    While hierarchy still matters in the pastoral setting, the rules of the court lose authority once court members find themselves in the wilderness.

    The rules of the court are abandoned by the shipwreck survivors because courtly rules have no place anywhere outside the court. 

  • Freedom and Confinement

    The Tempest is obsessed with the concept of imprisonment—both literal and figurative. Prospero and Miranda are forced to live in exile on a remote island, where Prospero enslaves the island's only native inhabitant (Caliban) and forces Ariel to do all of his bidding. The theme continues into the epilogue where Shakespeare suggests that, during the performance of a play, actors and playwrights are held captive by powerful audiences who may or may not approve of the artists' work.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How did Ariel come to serve Prospero?
    2. Why has Prospero enslaved Caliban? Is Prospero justified in his treatment of Caliban?
    3. What is the nature of Prospero's relationship with Ariel? How does Prospero view the spirit? How is this different from how Prospero views Caliban?
    4. Analyze the play's epilogue and explain why Prospero insists the audience must "release [him] from [his] bonds."

    Chew on This

    Because Prospero forces Ariel to serve him, he is no better than the witch Sycorax, who imprisoned Ariel in a pine tree before Prospero came along and "rescued" the sprite.

    Prospero is not free because he is subject to his own desire for justice; he is a slave to the past wrongs done to him.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Is man more "noble" in a natural state than in a state of civilization?  The Tempest returns to this question over and over again—in its portrayal of the ambiguous "monster" Caliban and in Gonzalo's utopian speech about the ideal state of the island.  Throughout the play (which paraphrases a key passage from Montaigne's famous essay "Of Cannibals"), Shakespeare also asks whether man can be at one with nature, or whether (perhaps by virtue of the biblical Fall in Eden) he is destined to make whatever he touches unnatural.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Is the natural state morally superior to the state of civilization (at court)? 
    2. Can the island be considered a natural or pristine place, untouched by man, when there is so much of Prospero's magic and enchantment all around it?
    3. Caliban is constantly referred to as evil or deformed by nature. How can nature produce things that are unfit to exist?

    Chew on This

    Gonzalo's utopian speech in Act 1, Scene 1 suggests that man is more noble living in a natural state.

    Despite Gonzalo's utopian speech in Act 1, Scene 1, the play suggests that man is not more noble living in a natural state—Caliban, after all, is in no way a "noble savage."

  • Betrayal

    Loyalty and betrayal are linked to The Tempest's larger themes of servitude and freedom; either feeling is motivated by how each individual perceives his position relative to others. Antonio's betrayal of his brother and theft of the dukedom of Milan are the source of conflict in the play, but the action contemporary to the play follows a series of attempted betrayals. 

    Alonso and Prospero would both be murdered by traitors, but this is thwarted by the actions of loyal characters like Ariel and Gonzalo. Loyalty and treachery also serve as the two main personality traits of the players. You can separate the loyal out, and divide the bad into those who were misguided and now repentant... and those who are just plain evil. 

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Gonzalo is arguably the most loyal character in the play, though he doesn't stop anyone from exiling Prospero. He's also doggedly loyal to Alonso, who aided in Prospero's betrayal. Does Gonzalo's sympathy mean anything?
    2. What is the turning point for Sebastian, after which he is willing to murder Alonso? Is it Antonio's persuasion, or some seed that must just be part of Sebastian's character? (Think of Macbeth and the "influence" of the three witches.)
    3. Was it disloyal of Antonio to take over a dukedom that he effectively ran anyway, especially if Prospero was never doing his duke-y duties? How much of this betrayal is Prospero's own perspective and convenient forgetting that Antonio was doing all the hard work?
    4. The Tempest is the origination of the phrase "what's past is prologue." What does this kind of mentality say about opportunities in the present? Can one really have loyalty built on old ties when so much is new?

    Chew on This

    Loyalty is a farce in the play; everyone follows the courtly rule of swearing loyalty, but gives up on the notion as soon as it is no longer convenient.

    Antonio's betrayal of Prospero reminds us that even family members cannot be counted on to be loyal.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    "The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" (5.1.27-28). This is Prospero's startling revelation after years of living in exile and plotting his return to Italy. The Tempest's emphasis on mercy and forgiveness are hallmarks of Shakespeare's "romances," four plays (The Tempest, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline) written late in the playwright's career.  

    Prospero's capacity to forgive those who have betrayed him, Miranda's empathy, Ariel's mercy, and Gonzalo's thoughtfulness dramatize the triumph of the human spirit. Awww. Talk about the warm fuzzies.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Does forgiveness come naturally to Prospero? If it does, why was it so important to orchestrate the whole tempest thing? So he could publicly forgive everyone for stuff they weren't even sorry about? What's the real motivation here?
    2. Ariel says he would feel tenderness towards the enchanted men if he were "human." Can we take it for granted that mercy is a natural human sentiment?
    3. What is it that prompts Prospero to forgive his enemies?
    4. How do we reconcile Prospero's constant petty harassments of Caliban with the wonderfully forgiving Prospero later in the play? Has Prospero changed, or is he merciful and magnanimous only on a human-to-human basis? Is this a colonial thing again, where everyone's equal but some are more equal than others?

    Chew on This

    Mercy does come naturally to man in the state of nature. Miranda, full of empathy and sympathy, is evidence of this. 

    Prospero and the others in the play do not come to mercy so easily because they have been ruined by civilization.

  • The Divine

    The divine is a parallel to Prospero's magic in The Tempest. Like nature, the divine is often given credit for Prospero's work, yet it has a special meaning for Prospero in particular. He is the only one that grasps the limitation of his power, and he knows that it stops shy of making him a god. Womp womp.

    To celebrate Miranda and Ferdinand's union, Prospero brings spirits in the shape of gods before them, hoping to impress the young lovers. Prospero admits, perhaps with some sadness, that these are not the real deal. Prospero, as everyone else, is subject to the divine. His magic is only a tinkering tool in the face of the larger project designed for him by powers higher than his own. 

    Questions About The Divine

    1. Prospero seems a bit sad that he can only show the children fanciful mockups of the real gods as he celebrates Ferdinand and Miranda's union. Does Prospero envy the gods' power?
    2. What is Prospero's relation to the gods? Does he answer to any higher power?
    3. How much of what happens in the play is the direct result of Prospero's magic, and how much seems to be the coincidentally convenient outcome of divine providence? 

    Chew on This

    Prospero's art is not at odds with the gods because he still answers to and appeals to them, not to himself.

    Prospero has no god, otherwise he would not dare meddle in works of both nature and the divine.

  • Versions of Reality

    Perspective plays a large role in The Tempest. The island is dominated by magic, and it clouds the ability of all the new arrivals to tell the difference between reality and the magical illusions they see. Reality is also tempered by the outlook of the individuals—Gonzalo is relentlessly positive, and so sees the island as beautiful.  

    Ariel revels in the island's naturalness, while Sebastian and Antonio see it as an inhospitable place because of their negative outlooks. Reality is clouded by magic, and this duality is only furthered by the influence of personal perspective over each individual's perceptions.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. How do you account for the difference between Gonzalo's vision of the island, as opposed to Antonio and Sebastian's vision? 
    2. Why does Alonso move back and forth so much on the issue of whether Ferdinand is dead? What does he really believe to be true?
    3. How does Ariel's appearance as a harpy at the banquet table impact the traitors Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian? Do they view themselves as traitors?
    4. Is it safe to trust your senses, or your own sense of reality, when in a magical place? Can the strange occurrences and behaviors in the play be explained by personal quirks, or by the island's enchantment?

    Chew on This

    People construct their own versions of reality depending on their perspective. The influence of magic in this play is irrelevant, because the characters' divergent interpretations of reality are due to their different experiences and perspectives.

    Antonio and Sebastian are unrealistic characters because they have absolutely no remorse or fear of accountability.