Themes In The Tempest Essay

1333 words - 5 pages

Themes in the Tempest

  The Tempest is generally considered to be Shakespeare's last sole-authored play. The play draws a number of oppositions, some of which it dramatises, and some of which it only implies. Prospero, a figure exhibiting many resemblances to the Elizabethan idea of the 'Mage', (of whom the best known is probably Dr. John Dee), is opposed to both his corrupt brother, usurper of his role as Duke of Milan, and to Sycorax, an evil witch and mother of the 'deformed slave' Caliban. Sycorax does not enter the action of the play, having died before it opens, but enough is made of her evil disposition and behaviour to show Prospero as a model of human virtue in comparison. This despite Prospero's own use of magic to accomplish his will, and his bullying of the spirit Ariel and his threats to and punishments of Caliban. Prospero's role is central to the play, he is in control of the action throughout, through the exercise of his 'Art'. A further contast is drawn between Miranda, Prospero's daughter, and caliban. Bothe were brought up together by Prospero since his arrival on Caliban's Island, but Caliban has not responded suitably to Prospero's civilising education. Miranda, however, in line with the tenor of Shakespeare's late plays in particular, is a model of chastity and virtue. Caliban's 'ingratitude' would seem to result from what we would call his genetic inheritance. Miranda calls him


Abhorred slave

Which any print of goodness will not take (1:2:353-354) [FN1]


And Prospero


A devil, a born devil, on whose nature

Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,

Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost. (4:1:188-190)


The opposition of nature and nurture is made explicitly here, a distinction which has had its cultural importance restated in new terms since Darwin and the revolution in genetic biology. The Tempest is involved in a discussion of 'nobility', seen here as a matter of inheritance, but in the opposition of Prospero and his brother Antonio we see that inheritance has two sides. Antonio betrayed Prospero and stole his inheritance (materially; his Dukedom), so virtue, 'nobility', is not entirely a matter of having noble parentage.


A further denotation of nobility, in line with fashionable Neo-Platonism is that the beautiful are good, and the ugly, wicked. This is explicit in Miranda's case, both in herself and in the attitudes she expresses:


There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple:

If the ill spirit have so fair a house

Good things will strive to dwell with't. (1:2:460-462)


Caliban, on the other hand, is 'deformed', and described as a 'fish' and a 'monster'


As with age his body uglier grows,

So his mind cankers. (4:1:191-192)


It is not so simple, however. At this very point Prospero has sunk to a level not much above Caliban's:


I will plague them all

Even to roaring (4:1:192-193)


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