The Tempest by Shakespeare creates a world within itself where governance, power, and colonization are discussed. The play describes how colonized societies relate to colonists and highlights the systems of civilization and governance. From the beginning, the theme of power and control over others is portrayed. The Tempest describes how colonization and modernization were brought to the inhabitants of the island. Ariel and Caliban represent some of the characters who are constantly fighting for their freedom and independence from their masters while at the same time abusing others with their powers in the struggle as well. This master-servant relationship has led to a never-ending cycle as both parties fight for their rightful space. This paper describes the struggle for independence in The Tempest and highlights the forces that encourage or block independence.
Power Relationships in The Tempest
Prospero is the rightful duke of Milan, but he loses his dukedom to his brother Antonio. A power struggle is evident here when Antonio banishes his brother Prospero to a barren island to die there. Boatswain tells Gonzalo, “You are a councilor; if you can command these elements to silence and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more. Use your authority” (Shakespeare 1.1.20-21). The call to use authority is a clear indication of the underlying power struggles in the play. Poulard argues that the “boatswain’s ironic appeal to Gonzalo in the very first scene of The Tempest sets the tone and uncovers the most pervasive theme of the play: power relations” (1). Antonio is aided by Alonso, the king of Naples, to usurp dukedom from his brother, Prospero, who is left to drift with his daughter Miranda in the sea to an island. The quest to rise to power and hold on to it for the longest time possible drives the power relations and struggles among the different characters involved in this tussle.
Revenge is another plot that is established in the struggle for independence within this play. Prospero wants revenge against several characters who have wronged him in some ways. In this regard, Prospero does not involve himself directly but instead uses the spirit of Ariel to achieve his endeavors. For instance, Prospero uses Ariel to wreck Antonio’s ship in revenge. He tells Miranda, “Be collected. No more amazement. Tell your piteous heart There’s no harm done” (1.2.14-16). During this play, Prospero wants revenge against two people namely, Antonio and Caliban. The spirit of Ariel is used to separate Sebastian, who was Alonso’s brother, from his son to an extent that he assumes his son has drowned particularly during the ranging sea. Additionally, the drunkards on this island also experience the power of Prospero’s revenge as executed by the spirit of Ariel when he gives them a banquet with lots of alcohol and then sends them into disillusionment when they think that the banquet was their imagination. Prospero is driven by the lust for revenge and the spirit Ariel plays the central role in executing his mischievous tactics.
Prospero is pushed by his egocentric motives to abuse the rights of power for the sake of his goodness. According to Poulard, “the social reality of the island is determined by power dynamics which are themselves dictated by ideology” (10) – an ideology hinged on the desire to remain in power at whatever cost. During the initial stages of this play, Prospero wants to incite her daughter Miranda to learn that he was betrayed when he discloses the history of political errors to her by narrating how his dukedom was stolen and usurped by his brother Antonio. Prospero banks on her daughter’s trust to understand the motives behind his revenge mission. Miranda seems to fulfill the obsessive need for the attention of his father who is experiencing a never-ending power struggle.
There is a major struggle for freedom and independence between the old and the new world in The Tempest. Miranda, just like Ariel, is subjected to her father’s commands – she does not enjoy freedom. As Tuğlu posits, Prospero controls Miranda and she “has no other chance but to be subjected to her father’s desires” (64). Similarly, Ariel lives as a prisoner, which explains why she keeps on asking for her liberty. She tells Prospero, “Let me remember thee what thou hast promised, Which is not yet performed me… My liberty” (1.1.288-289, 292). Tuğlu adds that the “language Prospero uses to describe Ariel suggests that this is an imprisonment within the womb” (64). These observations introduce the concept of colonialism, which is another form of power struggle, hence the need for independence.
The power struggle for independence comes out clearly when Caliban declares that he wants to rule the island, which was initially ruled by his mother, the witch Sycorax before she died. He says, “This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother, Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first” (1.2.396-397). Caliban has realized that his rights have been violated by Prospero – an alien governing them illegally and undemocratically. When Prospero and Miranda converge a meeting to converse with Caliban, he starts cursing them because they took over an island that once belonged to him. The fact that he is a native islander gives him the democratic right to rule over his people but Prospero does not allow that. Caliban reminds Prospero that he took him on a tour to show him around when he first arrived on the island. This is an indicator that he knew every corner of the island where his people lived before Prospero, the despot came. However, Prospero accuses Caliban of being ungrateful for the many life lessons he has given him and the effort he made to equip him with an adequate education. Eventually, Caliban earns isolated on the island because of his aggressive nature and fight for his democratic space.
Another significant aspect of the struggle for independence is registered when Prospero executes a plan to win back his dukedom in Milan twelve years after he was banished by Alonso. Through his magic works, Prospero sends a strike to a ship carrying Alonso and his friends as they travel back to Italy after attending the wedding of Alonso’s daughter. The royal team and the mariners are engulfed with fear for their lives and cry for help as they all prepare to sink. During this shipwreck, Prospero and his daughter Miranda are standing by the shore of their island to witness the tragedy. Miranda pleads with her father to do something and save the lives of the occupants of the ship. Little does she know that her father plans to destroy Alonso and his colleagues so that they can relocate back to Milan and assume his dukedom. Prospero uses this opportunity to reveal to Miranda how he has orchestrated the shipwreck and tells her to be mindful of how they lost their royal position to the hunger-filled Alonso. Eventually, Prospero succeeds in his magic tactics and returns to Milan to have his dukedom restored.
While on the island, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill King Alonso so that Sebastian can ascend to the powerful throne of Naples. Ariel starts playing music and everybody except Alonso and Sebastian fall asleep. During this time, Alonso persuades Sebastian to kill his brother who is now vulnerable because he is dead asleep. Sebastian is fully convinced that he will inherit the throne after Alonso tells him that usurping his dukedom from Prospero was the best move he ever made in his life. However, Sebastian seems to have a second thought on this matter and thinks over it aloud. Antonio pushes him until he is eventually convinced and they both take up their swords to finish King Alonso. At this time, Ariel enters with music and whispers to Gonzalo’s ears about the dreadful conspiracy on the king’s life. Immediately Gonzalo wakes up and makes some loud noise that wakes everybody else in the room and Alonso’s life is saved. Sebastian lies to the lords that they drew their swords for self-defense when they heard a loud voice from outside.
The Tempest consists of rebellion, betrayal, and conspiracies against the ruling regime. Several characters are yearning for freedom and independence from despotism and abuse of the rule of law. The conflicts registered throughout the play depict how far these characters can go to fulfill their hunger for power and independence. Based on the culture, there is a clear distinction between the master and his servants in terms of power and authority. It is evident that some characters feel more entitled to their rights than others and this has created room for a never-ending conflict. In this regard, one can relate the cultural similarities from history as described in The Tempest by Shakespeare.
Poulard, Étienne. “Shakespeare’s Politics of Invisibility: Power and Ideology in The Tempest.” International Journal of Žižek Studies, vol. 4, no.1, 2016, pp. 1-21.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Tuğlu, Begüm. “Identities in The Tempest, Tempests in Identities.” International Journal of English and Literature, vol. 7, no. 5, 2016, pp. 62-68.