Forgiveness and Freedom as Moral Lesson in The Tempest

Forgiveness and freedom are the keynotes of the play. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has been grievously wronged by his brother Antonio who was entrusted with the administration of his dukedom. Antonio conspired with Alonso, the King of Naples to dispossess Prospero. In return, Antonio bartered away the independence and sovereignty of Milan and agreed to pay an annual tribute to the King of Naples.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Prospero was banished from Milan along with his infant daughter Miranda; they were put on a ship in the middle of the night and left to the dangers of the sea and the sky. It was only through the compassion and kindness of the old courtier Gonzalo that they survived all these years on this uninhabited island. Gonzalo had very thoughtfully put all of Prospero’s books, which he says he values more than his dukedom, as well as provisions on the ship. Prospero came ashore on this island where he has brought up and educated Miranda. At the same time, he devoted himself to the study of the supernatural and came to rule the island previously ruled by Caliban's mother, the wicked witch Sycorax. He freed Ariel from his torment of having been imprisoned in a cloven oak tree and made him his supernatural aid along with other spirits of the air. He engineers a fierce storm on the sea while King Alonso is returning after celebrating the marriage of his daughter Claribel to the King of Tunis. The ship carrying the king and his entourage is wrecked and the king's men are scattered all over the island till Prospero chooses to bring them together. By that time, they are all distracted and bewildered at the supernatural happenings surrounding them; they are deeply affected. All his enemies are now at one place and at his mercy. It is Ariel, who is not a human being but a mere spirit that tells Prospero how moved he is at their plight. Prospero's forgiveness is solemn, judicial and has in it something abstract and impersonal. He cannot wrong his own higher nature, he cannot wrong the noble reason by cherishing so unworthy a passion as the desire of revenge. He forgives his wicked brother as well as Alonso, who has been driven to penitence by the supposed loss of his son. He also forgives Sebastian as well as the drunken trio of Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo for conspiring against him on the condition that they should restore the stolen trumpery and trim his cell handsomely. Even the deformed Caliban is suitably penitent. He now curses himself for having mistaken the drunken butler Stephano for his savior.  Prospero, the pardoner, implores pardon. Shakespeare was aware that no life is ever lived which does not need to receive as well as to render forgiveness. He appeals to the audience that, as he has pardoned his deceivers, let the audience now pardon him and in their indulgence set him free. Thus, the whole conduct of Prospero is a homily on the moral truth that it is far nobler to forgive than to take revenge. The happiness of life is to be attained by nobler forgiveness than cruel vengeance.

Freedom is also at the core of the-issues raised by The Tempest. Freedom is the very breath of life to Ariel, the spirit of the air. He is grateful to Prospero - for having freed him from his torment in the cloven pine-tree where the wicked witch Sycorax had confined him till Prospero released him. He pines for eternal liberty and keeps on reminding Prospero of his promise. And Prospero assures him that he would set him free once his purpose is fulfilled. Ariel rubs under restraint and Prospero has to constantly repeat his promise of freedom. Ariel serves his master and carries out his commands "without a grudge or grumbling"; he takes pride in the performance of labor that is repugnant to him for the sake of the promise of freedom that Prospero holds. Prospero's praises flatter him. And at the end of his play when all his labors are done to the entire satisfaction of his lord and master Prospero, he attains his freedom.

Caliban, the dull, deformed and evil son of Sycorax, the illegitimate son of the devil, regards service as drudgery. He resents Prospero and curses him of having deprived him of his rightful inheritance of the island after the death of his mother, Sycorax. Even though he is severely punished for his curses, Caliban is not penitent; he continues cursing Prospero all through because he truly believes: "This island is mine, by Sycorax, my mother, which thou teeth it from me". He sees saviors in the drunken butler Stephano and the jester Trinculo. His desire for freedom from Prospero's slavery forces him to conspire with them to overthrow Prospero. He sings the song of freedom, but soon realizes his mistake for mistaking "this drunkard for a god and worshipping this dull fool". He realizes that beneficent servitude under Prospero is preferable to the freedom promised to him by Stephano.

Ferdinand would not endure such "wooden slavery" in his own country, but he is reconciled to his lot for he is serving Miranda, his lady love. It makes his work lighter. He finds true freedom in service and does not complain against it. Miranda, too, in her instinctive goodness, offers to undertake the work of carrying heavy logs of wood for his sake. Her love for the handsome prince prompts her to offer voluntary bondage to Ferdinand. Both Ferdinand and Miranda, yoked to each other's slavery and bondage, gain their freedom when united in true love. The only exception to such a conduct is Sebastian. Alonso's brother, who smarts under bondage, seeking to rid himself of it by plotting with Antonio and murdering his brother in sleep - the same as Antonio had done to his brother twelve years ago in dispossessing him of his dukedom of Milan. Regeneration comes to all the characters in the play, except perhaps Sebastian, at the end.