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Theme of Revenge in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

Updated May 6, 2022
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Theme of Revenge in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” essay

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Shakespeare’s The Tempest twists the common interpretation of power and authority in literature. Throughout the play, authority and hierarchy is not only a theme but a wanton desire that pervades the characters’ minds. There are many power relationships between characters that shift around in the play. Prospero, preoccupied with his magic, was overthrown by his brother, power-hungry Antonio. Once Prospero arrives on the island, he enslaves the spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban. Ultimately, the thirst for hunger that drives all these characters ends up driving them further into the ground—the irresponsible exercise of power—and, moreover, revenge—leads to more violence and, as the characters see it, retributive justice. It is only when Prospero forgives Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso, and Ferdinand and Miranda marry, that stability and rationality is restored. Whereas the involvement of power and authority may seem typical in the play, Shakespeare actually challenges the common deployment of the idea of power in literature. The Tempest proposes, through these various instances, that agreement and understanding, rather than vengeance, are more effective in accomplishing one’s own ends.

Futility of Revenge and Violence

Excessive scheming and revenge-taking proved to be futile in The Tempest. The play starts off with a bang and goes right into Prospero’s revenge on Antonio and his crew, conjuring up a tempest that beaches Antonio and company on Prospero’s island. Although the audience doesn’t witness Antonio’s initial overthrow of Prospero, Prospero tells Miranda all about it in a profound and very dramatic lecture in which he asks Miranda if she is paying attention three times. Prospero, “rapt in secret studies,” (1.2.95) grew more distant from his government post, while in Antonio “awaked an evil nature,” (1.2.113) which made him proceed to usurp Prospero’s dukedom, recruiting the help of Alonso, the King of Naples. This act of overthrowing Prospero not only enrages him but evokes a determined sense of revenge, which would later incite a similar act of revenge.

Subsequently, in Act II, Scene I, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo, and Alonso are bushwhacking through the island, brooding about Ferdinand’s apparent death, when a “strange drowsiness possesses them” (2.1.219) and Ariel charms Alonso asleep, leaving Antonio and Sebastian awake. Sparked by the first displacement of Prospero, Antonio devises yet another power-hungry act of greed and suggests to Sebastian that he “sees a crown dropping upon thy head,” (2.1.230-231) or, in other words, that they should murder Alonso and usurp his kingdom. Sebastian finally relents, saying “as thou got’st Milan, I’ll come by Naples. Draw thy sword.” (2.1.333-335) The continuous seeking of revenge and the desire for power and authority is not worthwhile in the end. While thoughts of domination and plots of murder are being planned, no character is benefiting.

The plot of the play is centered around the idea of Prospero’s control over the island. Therefore, the objective of the play is to demonstrate that Prospero’s government of the island was, in fact, weak. The characters’ innate greed and desire for power initiates a downspiraling chain reaction which, ultimately, is not productive for anybody. Even after Antonio’s overthrow of Prospero, Prospero’s subjugation of Ariel and Caliban, and Antonio’s unfruitful plot to kill Alonso, no character has reaped any reward.

Compromise and Understanding

Compromise and understanding are more powerful than any other sort of magic or plotting. It is only when Prospero forgives his past enemies and Ferdinand and Miranda marry that something inherently changes in the course of the play. In Act V, Scene I Prospero pledges to Ariel that he will give up his “potent art,” (5.1.59) and “drown [his] book” (5.1.66) of magic. Prospero forgives all the characters who he had been plotting revenge against. Ariel “shalt have the air at freedom,”(4.1.294) and is released from Prospero’s captivity. In a somewhat frivolous scene, Prospero “had [forgotten] that foul conspiracy” (4.1.155) of Caliban’s scheme to overthrow Prospero, but quickly dismisses his ache for revenge in a strange “passion that works him strongly.” (4.1.159-160) Prospero also forgives Alonso’s “rankest fault,” (5.1.152) and requires his dukedom to be restored to him. After Prospero ditches his magic tricks, he admits that “what strength I have is my own.” (E.2)

While the play may seem to deal with the insidious lust for power in a common literary theme, Shakespeare’s hidden theme here is focused on the reality of power, who it should be distributed to, and its consequences. Yes, he is telling us that power and authority are potent forces, but, on a deeper level, by examining who has the leverage, he is warning us of their true usage, and what can be done about it. By ending the play with the unity of the two kingdoms through Miranda and Ferdinand’s marriage and, more importantly, Prospero’s willingness to forgive and forget, Shakespeare is giving the audience a clear message that this is the way to use authority.

The Tempest considers the use and exercise of power using Prospero’s sovereignty of the island and others’ greedy influences. The purpose of the play is to examine who should be in control, what they should do, what qualities they have, and why. Shakespeare uses a good chunk of the play to prove a counterpoint, demonstrating what the irresponsible and revenge-focused reign would do to the characters. Essentially, when they try to bring down someone else, they bring themselves down. In the end, empathy and compromise—not vengeance and greed—are more effective in the exercise of power. According to Prospero himself, “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” (5.1.35-36)

Theme of Revenge in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” essay

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Theme of Revenge in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. (2022, May 06). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/theme-of-revenge-in-shakespeares-the-tempest/

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