Humanity and Society in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

by • October 27, 2014 • PhilosophyComments Off on Humanity and Society in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”3574

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What effect does society retain on people’s actions when they are removed from it? Shakespeare’s The Tempest addresses this question with a small cast of characters who end up in an unusual situation, on a remote island that’s totally detached from their familiar society. The Tempest demonstrates that people will behave as their society has instructed them to, even when they are completely removed from it. Though they may speak or think of making a “new” society which is better than the one they came from, their actions still reflect their old societal ideals.

The Tempest begins with a ship caught in a storm somewhere in the Mediterranean (I.1). The ship is wrecked, landing its aristocratic passengers on ex-duke Prospero’s strange, mystical island. The island is inhabited only by Prospero, his daughter Miranda, the hideous slave Caliban, and a number of spirits (I.2). Prospero, as it turns out, orchestrated the storm through Ariel, a spirit who owes Prospero service because Prospero saved his life (I.2 193-205, 285-293). One of the ship’s passengers is Prospero’s brother Antonio, who usurped Prospero’s dukedom and had him banished to the remote island (I.2 122-132). By shipwrecking Antonio on the island, Prospero intends to get his dukedom back (I.2 177- 186).


In an early scene of the play, in which the group of aristocrats realize that they have landed on a strange island but have not yet encountered its inhabitants, an interesting speech takes place. Gonzalo, an old councilor, speculates on what civilization on the island would be like if he were to rule (II.1 143). He proposes a sort of utopia, in which such things as riches, poverty, and land boundaries would not be known; “No occupation; all men idle, all;/And women too, but innocent and pure;/No sovereignty”(II.1 150-156). This is ironic, for as Antonio points out, “The latter end of his commonwealth forgets/the beginning” (II.1 157-158). Gonzalo proposed a civilization with “no sovereignty,” which he would be king of. This irony foreshadows the rest of the play, for though the characters may desire to break out of the societal norms they are familiar with, none of them succeed in doing it.

One who perhaps best feels the desire to be free from his place in society is the slave, Caliban. His mother, a witch, was banished to the island while pregnant with him, so the island was rightfully his (I.2 269-284, 332-333). However, when Prospero came to the island, Caliban was made a slave (I.2 341-344). Caliban was below Prospero by the standards of Prospero’s society, for he was a bastard child and hideously deformed, as well as spiteful and angry (V.1 267-276). As Miranda puts it, “thy vile race,/Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good/natures/Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou/Deservedly confined into this rock,/Who hadst deserved more than a prison” (I.2 358-362). Even on a remote island, Caliban is subject to a low place in society due to his nature and the circumstances of his birth.

Caliban’s place in the miniature society of Prospero’s island is not entirely static: he at least attempts to assert himself as equal to, if not above, Prospero and Miranda. However, the failure of his endeavors all the more asserts the inescapability of society’s control. Though it actually happened prior to when The Tempest begins, Prospero mentions an instance of attempted rebellion in which Caliban tried to rape Miranda (I.2 347-348). This was not just an act of sheer lust or spite, but an effort to gain power. Caliban tells Prospero, “O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done!/Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else/This isle with Calibans (I.2 349-351). Caliban’s intention was to create more beings like himself, so that Miranda and Prospero would be outnumbered and he would hold the greater power.

Later in the story, Caliban tries again to gain power for himself. He encounters Trinculo, a jester; and Stephano, a butler, shortly after the shipwreck (II.2 15-111). The three of them all share one thing in common: a low place in society. Caliban sees in his new companions an opportunity to escape Prospero’s control. He suggests to Stephano that they kill Prospero, hinting at the good life they would have if Prospero were out of the way (III.2 54-55). “Monster, I will kill this man: his daughter and/I will be king and queen, save our graces! and Trinculo/and thyself shall be viceroys” (III.2 106-108) says Stephano in reply. But Prospero finds out about their plan with Ariel as his spy, and is ready when they come to kill him (IV.1 185-187). The would-be murderers are caught, and Stephano and Trinculo are returned to their masters at the end of the story, as is Caliban (V.1 255-256). Encouraged by their unusual circumstances and their companionship, they had tried to change their place in society, but found themselves still lacking the power to do so.


This inability to argue with society’s expectations does not just apply to the lower-class characters of The Tempest, though. When Prospero had Ariel shipwreck Antonio and the other aristocrats on the island, he let one be separated from the rest. This one was Ferdinand, the king’s son. With a song, Ariel leads Ferdinand from the sea to where Prospero and Miranda are (I.2 388-396). By creating an encounter between his daughter and the king’s son, Prospero intends to have his daughter fall in love with this aristocrat, thus securing a high place in society for her. His plan works and Ferdinand and Miranda immediately take a liking to each other (I.2 445-450). However, Prospero insists that they do not engage in activities that would not have been considered appropriate for an unmarried couple in the society they came from. When Prospero catches them in a “lover’s embrace,” he scolds, “Look thou be true: do not give dalliance/Too much the rein: the strongest oaths are straw/To th’ fire i’ th’ blood. Be more abstemious,/Or else good night your vow!” (IV.1 51-54). Though there is no society around to judge Miranda’s or Ferdinand’s character, it is still important to Prospero that the young lovers refrain from anything that would not be approved of by society.

Another example of the strong power society has over the characters of The Tempest is Prospero’s desire to get his dukedom back. Though he has an entire island under his control, including a powerful spirit to do his bidding, he wants the dukedom back simply because that is the way he thinks it should be. He knows that he has been wronged by his brother, as he relates to Miranda early in the story, and he wants to set things right (I.2 62-63) Prospero even went to the trouble of causing Antonio to be shipwrecked on his island so that Antonio would have no choice but to grant him his dukedom (I.2 177-186, V.1 130-134). In the last scene of the play, Prospero tells the audience, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown,/And what strength I have’s mine own,/Which is most faint” (V.1 320-322). Though he could have kept his supernatural power, he chooses to let Ariel go free along with all his own power (V.1 317-319). Prospero is willing to give up these things in order to get his rightful place in society back.


Many speculations have been made as to how society affects people when they find themselves totally separated from it. Whether or not Shakespeare intended to address this concept, The Tempest is full of characters that behave as their society has trained them to, even though they are on an island that is far from any familiar society. Though Gonzalo imagines leading a civilization that’s different from the one he’s familiar with, none of the characters can break free from the ideas planted in them by society. Caliban remains a slave inferior to Prospero and Miranda, Trinculo and Stephano fail at changing their circumstances, Prospero insists that Miranda and Ferdinand don’t touch each other until they’re married, and Prospero himself gives up all his power and his own island in order to return to his rightful place in society. Although The Tempest was written hundreds of years ago, the message is still relevant: people may always be subject to doing what society tells them, regardless of the circumstances, for better or for worse.

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