Themes in Shakespeare's The Tempest

Forgiveness and repentance are the prime themes of the play The Tempest. Antonio, his brother, wronged him by dethroning and banishing some twelve years ago. Antonio was supported by Alonso and Sebastian. These all three corrupted people are the culprit of Prospero and are rightful to get punished by him.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Prospero designs a tempest and brings all his foes on the island. After some torture and magic over them, Prospero gives his real identity. The moment his identity is revealed, Alonso asks for his forgiveness, but Antonio and Sebastian never do so. However, he decides to forgive them all. Prospero forgives Caliban, the deformed monster, who tried to rape Miranda and even conspires to kill Prospero. He frees the airy spirit Ariel as promised at the end of the play. The forgiveness given by Prospero is Christian value which Shakespeare praises in his life too.

Quest for knowledge

As The Tempest is a Renaissance drama, the quest for knowledge as a theme pertains in the play. Prospero is the king of Milan, he has a lot of responsibility towards the people and the kingdom but he fails to accomplish his duty. He remains quite busy in studying book of magic. He is concerned in his hunger of knowledge that he wants perfection in his learning and forgets everything about the kingdom. Antonio, his brother, gets right chance to dethrone him with the assistance of the king of Naples and his brother, Alonso and Sebastian respectively.  Prospero loses the right to be the king of Milan, only because of his unquenchable thirst for the knowledge. In a sense, he is ready to lose everything for the sake of learning. He is the right example of Renaissance man. Whereas on the other hand, there is Caliban, a deformed being on the island who does not have any interest in learning, to be knowledgeable. Prospero teaches him the language to make him civilized and learned one, but he never learns it well. He learns few words, with which he curses Prospero for his ruthless treatment.


The pursuit of power and the exercise of power is one of the leading themes of William Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest. The theme is all-pervasive in this well-knit play. Before the play starts, Antonio, Prospero's brother who was put in charge of administration by Prospero, usurped power and conspired to banish Prospero from Milan. Here, he incites Alonso's brother, Sebastian, to kill the sleeping king and become the ruler of Naples. In the same manner, Prospero wants to be powerful with the help of magic and he seizes all the power of the island from the witch, Sycorax. The main political theme of the play is gaining power and control over others.

The difficulty of distinguishing "Man" from "Monster"

The identity of Caliban remains ambiguous in this play. Sometime he is addressed as monster and in some places he is called man. In the play when Miranda first sees Ferdinand she says that he is the third man she has ever seen. On that basis, we can say that the two other men must be her father and Caliban. Here she regards Caliban as a man. Prospero refers to him as a born devil, a thing most brutish, a vile race, which significantly rejects him being a man and takes him as a monster. The views of Miranda and Prospero contradict in terms of Caliban’s identity. They think that if they provide him with the western education along with the language, he can be uplifted and his status can be improved. But at the same time, they seem to see him inherently devil and monster to whom no education can reform. Caliban himself says he was generous to Prospero but when he starts dehumanizing him and oppressing him, he starts disliking him. It is vague to generalize that Caliban is born brutish or he is made brutish by the oppression of Prospero.

The Charm of Colonialism

The Tempest is interpreted as a play about colonialism primarily because Prospero comes to Sycorax’s island, subdues her, rules the land and imposes his own culture on the people of the land. Pushing the native to the side, he places himself at the helm of affairs. He displaces Caliban’s mother and treats her as a beast. He has full control over everything on the island. He makes Caliban work as his servant and calls him a thing of darkness. Caliban is being dehumanized or treated as subhuman. This shows the colonizer’s attitude of looking down on the colonized people. Caliban is seen as a despicable entity. The whites looked down on the people of other color. Some are born to dominate while others are born to be dominated. Caliban is treated as inferior. The colonizer used words like light, knowledge and wisdom to refer himself while he used terms like darkness, ignorance and elemental to describe the colonized. This binary opposition shows how Prospero as a colonizer creates essences about the colonized people. Prospero sees himself as a ruler carrying out the project of civilization mission. The way light dispels darkness and knowledge dispels ignorance Prospero as a colonizer educates and civilizes Caliban but without much success. The civilizing mission is always accompanied by the politics of domination over the colonized. These elements confirms the theme of colonialism in The Tempest.