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Free Study Guide-The Tempest by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS

Major Theme

The key theme of this play is the chain of penitence / forgiveness / reconciliation, all of which is filled with religious overtones. The entire plot is an elaborate scheme designed by Prospero to bring his rivals to a state of regret so that he can pardon them and restore the rightful order of things to his dukedom of Milan. Since Prospero is seen as being all-powerful over the island, he could easily destroy or punish his enemies in the royal party by any method or means. Instead, he brings the past conspirators face-to- face with the sins of their past, which causes them to be repentant. In a god-like way, Prospero forgives each of them, allowing them to live and return to Italy. In appreciation, they promise to faithfully serve Prospero. It is a picture of full reconciliation, with the exception of Antonio. To add to the beauty of the reconciled image, Prospero masterfully brings Miranda and Ferdinand together as symbols of a new generation standing for hope and re- generation.

Because of the religious overtones of the forgiveness/reconciliation theme, many critics judge Prospero as a Christ-figure. Like Jesus, he is betrayed by his enemies. After he is stripped of his power, Prospero is then sent to die at sea; but he is almost miraculously raised from the near-dead due to the loving care of Gonzalo, who is a God-like figure due to his age, wisdom, kindness and caring.


In spite of the wrongs done to Prospero, like Jesus, he bears no grudges and does not become bitter. Instead, he uses his power to gather his enemies so that he can bring them to repentance and subsequently forgive them in order for everyone to be reconciled. The parallels to Christ are quite obvious.

Minor Themes

The power of love is a less developed but powerful theme. Miranda and Ferdinand are developed as the pure characters of the play; both are oblivious to sin and innocent of crimes. They appropriately fall in love with one another and become symbols of the finest kind of love and devotion -- pure and unblemished. Because of their total surrender to one another and to love, they become the symbol of reconciliation and hope for the future. Prospero, Gonzalo, and Alonso are also influenced by love. Prospero is devoted to his daughter Miranda and uses his power to make certain that she finds the right husband to bring her love and happiness. Gonzalo shows his love for his fellow man when he secretly puts provisions in Prospero's boat and when he tries to calm his fellow passengers during the tempest. Even Alonso shows his love and concern for his daughter Claribel, who must endure a politically arranged marriage, and for his son, who he fears has been lost at sea. The finest characters in the play are those that are guided by love.

The inevitable conflict between nature and civilization is another pervasive theme in the play. The symbol of civilization is the royal party, who are power mongers known for their evil, deceit, and treachery. In sharp contrast, the island is a symbol of the pure and natural, free from society and its evil ways. Miranda, who remembers nothing except life on the island, is a picture of purity and a perfect reflection of the beauty of the enchanted island. She appears to be heavenly, divine, ethereal, and angelic, an almost perfect picture of innocence. Where Miranda is the highest natural creature, Caliban is surely the lowest. Since he knows nothing but the island, he is totally uncivilized and uncultivated; even his name is reminiscent of the cannibals. But due to his natural state, Caliban is not all bad. In fact, many times when he is compared with representatives of "civilization", such as Trinculo and Stephano, Caliban comes out looking decidedly more desirable. Sometimes his natural language gives way to beautiful poetry, in contrast to the foolish and guttural pratter of the jester and the butler.

Another important theme is that of appearance versus reality. Ariel and Prospero are adept at confusing the illusory with the real. Prospero is thought to be dead, but he is alive and well on an enchanted island. Ferdinand is also assumed dead by the royal party, but he is safe and in love on the other side of the island. The ship is thought to be lost, but it really waits in the harbor as perfect as when it set sail. Throughout the play, characters appear to be faithful, all the while scheming and lying and plotting to kill. Stephano is mistaken for a god, Ariel pretends to be a harpy, Prospero makes himself invisible. All these illusions are vital parts of the plot and necessary acts to bring about reconciliation and restoration.

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