How far do you agree that The Tempest is a play about the use and abuse of power

Topics: The Tempest

The Tempest uses a variety of symbols and motifs to create the allusion of power upholding a hierarchical society. The play as a whole uses the idea of having one character controlling the fate of all other characters: other supporting characters also contribute in sustaining the theme of power successfully whom I will talk about further on. I am going to consider how Shakespeare uses his central character to promote the idea of misusing power as a means to ending injustice, and how this character develops relationships with other characters to demonstrate this.

Firstly I will look at how not only characters depict this theme but how structurally and literary ideas used by Shakespeare can reveal the illusive nature behind political power.The opening scene alone creates the setting in which all abuse of power is derived. This scene Act 1, Scene 1, opens with a howling storm (“The Tempest”) tossing a noticeably smaller, powerless boat, threatening to kill the characters before the play had even begun.

Referring back to the idea of masters and servants, this is instantly shown throughout Act 1, Scene 1, with social division emerging. The characters on the boat are divided into noblemen, professionals and servants. The danger of the tempest upsets the social dynamic and thus this is where we see how educational power can overrule political power. The boatswain, a lower class commoner, is in direct conflict with the ill-fated nobles, who are appalled at the language a significantly lower class man can use to command authority; this is a contrast to Sebastian and Antonio who seem ignorant and unworthy to the situation onboard.

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The fact that in this opening scene no personal names are used to refer to the characters, only terms to indicate social status are used: “Master”, “Boatswain”, “King” highlights the importance power has over the ship. Considering the very impact this storm is having upon the boat, it seems peculiar that the characters mention very little about this tempest, and focus their language principally on the social class quarrels, with each character’s own attempt to survive it, thus gain power on board the boat, this is shown when Gonzalo jokingly states that, due to the working-class status Boatswain defends, they must all be safe as if hierarchy follows correctly, such a commoner was born to hang rather than drown: “I have great comfort in this fellow. Methinks he hath/ no drowning mark upon him – his complexion is/ perfect for the gallows.” (25-28) It is not only Gonzalo who wishes to protect his reputation, Sebastian also shows a perfect example of how, without aggravation, he almost acts as if it is his duty to disparage Boatswain, this is to assure himself sovereignty: “A pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog” (38-40) this abuse is unwarranted for.However, Boatswain has the ability to mock these supposed educated nobleman just as much, and also notices the social divisions onboard the ship and has the intelligence to suggest how unimportant monarchy is compared to the “natural” storm currently tormenting: “What cares these roarers for the name of the king?” (15-16) Boatswain has cleverly noticed that in the face of nature, political power is worthless, however this is ironic as here, unbeknownst to the characters onboard, the tempest is not caused through nature, rather it is the product of another power, a rival power: Prospero’s magic. From then on Prospero thus has control of the characters, the play, and the audience due to their ignorance. Realisation therefore sets in for the audience as they now feel they hold a power in the form on knowledge. Shakespeare uses this opening scene to set up expectations for the later disarray of hierarchy, which he mocks in this scene, so his plot can evolve.The character who we see advocates this power most, is Prospero. As a magician he is able to manipulate situations, intimidate others on the island, and thus abuse his powers. Despite this Prospero is a sympathetic character in that he was wronged by his misappropriating brother; however this has unfortunately made him more power-hungry, fuelled by rage in a quest for restoration of power.Firstly, Prospero presents himself as a victim of power, this is illustrated at the beginning of Act 1, Scene 2 in which he reveals to his ignorant daughter Miranda how they have been victims of his brothers treachery, from lines 71-79 “And Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed/Thy false uncle” ; however this is hypocritical of him, as he may be enraged with his brother for stealing his rightful title as Duke of Milan; yet he seems to have no reservations with enslaving Ariel and Caliban. We see this motif of “servants” continue throughout the play, for example, the relationships between the powers held as a master and the influence upon his servant.This is most evident in Act 1 Scene 2. This can be seen between Prospero and Ariel. Both Ariel and Caliban appear as colonized slaves to Prospero, and both are undoubtedly oppressed by Prospero, this is evident in Ariel’s first appearance, his language portrays him as a dutiful, courteous subject to Prospero who obliges himself to fulfil his masters needs without hesitation, “All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail!” (189) this contrasts the relationship between Caliban and Prospero greatly. Caliban’s attitude of unforgiving rebelliousness is exhibited in the same scene as to Ariel’s affirmation of greatness, greeting his master (Prospero) with a curse: “As wicked dew e’er my mothers brush’d/ With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen/ Drop on you both! A south-west blow on ye/ And blister your all o’er!” (321-324) Prospero replies to this curse the only way he can: by intentionally using his magic art to punish Caliban, thus restore his power over him: “Be sure tonight thou shalt have cramps” (325)It is this art which enables Prospero power to control his slaves, binding them to his influence, revealing his abusive powers. Prospero exploits the guilt of his subjects to his own advantage, thus appraising his exploits in order to secure power: “Hast thou, spirit/ Perform’d to point the tempest that I bade thee? /… My brave spirit!” (193 -194/206) However, when consulting with Caliban, Prospero uses his power maliciously in a merciless manner, inflicting him with bodily harm, an extreme example of how Caliban feels is in lines 371-374: “No, pray thee. [Aside] I must obey. His art is of such power” Caliban has no duty to Prospero, unlike Ariel whom Prospero saved from the curse of Sycorax, this answers the question of why Ariel, under such heavy authoritarian power, can still be submissive towards Prospero, and in return for Prospero’s equally good nature towards Ariel. Shakespeare is trying to show that his treatment of Ariel as a possession, forcing him to retell his suffering endured in his story, allows Prospero to hold more control over Ariel as well as underlining to himself and Miranda how he is the saviour who conquered Sycorax, however Prospero also uses this story to display his own power thoughtfully and physically threatening to re-trap Ariel like Sycorax did, preventing Ariel, Caliban and Miranda to rebel against his authority.However, Ariel occupies possibly the most important role in the last two acts of the play: This is what threatens Prospero. Prospero may have had the mental power to create the idea of the Shipwreck; however this plan is worthless without Ariel to carry out the essential aim. This dependency upon Ariel for the fulfilment of his plan where all power is thus vested is similar to that dependency of Ariel’s freedom from Prospero. From this point onwards we see a reversal in roles of power, this is apparent in Ariel’s language as it changes significantly, this is seen in his speech to Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian in Act 3, Scene 3, where he seems to take control of the powerful, authoritarian language that had previously been allocated to Prospero: “You fools: I and my fellows/ Are ministers of fate. The elements of whom your swords tempered may as well…” (60-66) Power is a vital strategy in regaining his Freedom – however this can never be fully realised as he is restricted by his obligation to Prospero.Continuing with Prospero, it is evident to the audience that from our first encounter with him in Act 1 Scene 2, he appears to be authoritative and self-important, repeating his insistence that Miranda pay attention to his story. This first monologue creates the foundation to which the theme of power exists. Through from lines 30-175 he begins his story with an initial demand to restore order and supremacy over the uninspired Miranda, “Obey and be attentive!” (48) Another notable exploit of magical power Prospero uses is controlling his daughter via putting her asleep to avoid any confrontation with her, which could mean tarnishing his reputation as master of all inhabitants of his island.The self-appraisal Prospero has for himself of regaining power victoriously, would never have been possible without his “books”. Prospero’s books have been the very basis to his reign as king on the illusive hierarchy of the island – Prospero has created this hierarchy himself almost experimentally to flatter his ego. If Prospero’s power is as effective as he implies it is, especially against his enemies, it seems apparent to question why this power was not used in Milan to secure his title; this must be due to the island being the only inspiration to create such powerful art. Prospero has therefore created the scenes unfolded before the audience’s eyes, by the power he has to bring and maintain the illusory magic enchanting his family on the ship to be lured towards the fantasy he lives in. Prospero has the absolute power to control what humans see, hear and feel on the island, as well as the audience. Without his books, Prospero is nothing but a slave like the rest of the inhabitants: “He’s but a sot” (Caliban, Act 3, Scene 2, 88)Throughout Act 2 there is a continuity following through showing the misuse of power and political authenticity. Sebastian and Antonio plot to kill Alonso in his sleep: “My strong imagination sees a crown/Dropping upon they head” 208-209. Sebastian is able to seize power for himself as a blood relative. Caliban also highlights to the audience how a once maliciously evil, inhuman slave, whose very freedom is at risk, can submit himself to two drunks. This is what leads to me to question if the play isn’t simply about the gain of power, rather the gain involved from having power. Caliban wishes freedom and companionship from his gain. This scene also shows how Prospero uses Ariel to successfully finalise his plan. Ariel makes all but Antonio and Sebastian fall asleep, this situation is created by Prospero to reinforce the idea of his brothers being villainous. Prospero once more outlines himself as the manipulator in the play.It is in Act 5 that we see authority change in the resolution of the play. Act 5 shows the most complex change in power. Theatrically as well, sees significant changes in structure, as for the first time in the whole play, all characters are seen on stage together. Prospero repeatedly states that he is renouncing his magic, even criticising it: “But my so potent art. But this rough magic” (50) It is ironic that for someone who is supposed to be relinquishing his power, Prospero enters the scene in his symbolically powerful magic robes. The power that once seemed almost repulsive to the audience is now justified as Prospero’s judgements on his enemies seem evidently true and his true cause for his misuse of power was to protect his genuinely loved daughter. In this final seen we see the comments made about other characters by Prospero correct in his judgments: Alonso knew that he, himself, had been vindictive “Most cruelly didst thou, Alonso” (71-72). Prospero is also honest in his appraisal to Gonzalo, “O good Gonzalo/ loyal sir” (68-70).Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo are brought into the scene “in their stolen apparel” it is ironic that they are carrying a symbol of power (Prospero’s stolen clothes) but Prospero is quick to point out that they are still each dressed in their servant uniforms: “Mark but the badges of these men” (267) Prospero’s change of personality is noted significantly when he accuses his enemies of what they deserve, yet forgives them instantly, however this is only when he has succeeded his title as Duke of Milan back. He will no longer hold Ariel and Caliban as his slaves and he will no longer control Miranda – the very reason behind his social lesson taught – as she is marrying Ferdinand (without Prospero’s intervention). This sudden change in forgiveness is taught to Prospero through Ariel: “If you beheld them now, your affections/ would become tender” (18-19). The power exercised by Prospero originally may have been unsettling to the audience, however in this final scene it is apparent that the theme of power is the primary source of all pleasure enjoyed by the audience.There is no doubting that power is the key to the success of The Tempest. Shakespeare uses his protagonist Prospero to control every outcome throughout the play, as with a playwright. As The Tempest is the last play written by Shakespeare it is appealing to think of Prospero as being a deliberate representation of Shakespeare. Prospero’s last speech can be viewed as Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre. The amount of artistic references culminated into the play acts almost as a trophy cabinet for Shakespeare’s most achieved goals as a writer.

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How far do you agree that The Tempest is a play about the use and abuse of power. (2019, Mar 19). Retrieved from

How far do you agree that The Tempest is a play about the use and abuse of power
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