The Tempest

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Themes and Colors
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Tempest, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Power Theme Icon

From the opening scene of The Tempest during the storm, when the ruling courtiers on the ship must take orders from their subjects, the sailors and the boatswain, The Tempest examines a variety of questions about power: Who has it and when? Who's entitled to it? What does the responsible exercise of power look like? How should power be transferred? The play is full of examples of power taken by force, and in each case these actions lead to political instability and further attempts to gain power through violence. Antonio and Alonso's overthrow of Prospero leads to Antonio and Sebastian's plot to overthrow Alonso, just as Prospero's overthrow and enslavement of Caliban leads Caliban to seek revenge.

Ultimately, it is only when Prospero breaks the cycle of violence by refusing to take revenge on Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, or Caliban that the political tensions in the play are calmed and reconciled. After Prospero's merciful refusal to seek revenge, Alonso and Prospero quickly come to an understanding and unite their once warring cities through the marriage of their children. The Tempest suggests that compromise and compassion are more effective political tools than violence, imprisonment, or even magic.

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Power Quotes in The Tempest

Below you will find the important quotes in The Tempest related to the theme of Power.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
What cares these roarers for the name of king?
Related Characters: Boatswain (speaker), Alonso
Related Symbols: The Tempest
Page Number: 1.1.16-17
Explanation and Analysis:

The play opens on a ship caught in the middle of a fearsome storm. Alonso, Gonzalo, and Antonio have attempted to speak to the Boatswain, who has pleaded that they stay below deck while he attempts to navigate the ship through the storm. When Gonzalo urges the Boatswain to bear in mind that Alonso is the King of Naples, the Boatswain responds that the storm doesn't care "for the name of king"––meaning that human hierarchies of status have no significance in the face of the almighty power of nature.

The boldness with which the Boatswain speaks to Gonzalo and the others emphasizes the way that the physical upheaval of the storm has created social upheaval among the characters. Additionally, the Boatswain's words serve as a reminder that, outside of a given political context, manmade structures such as rank and codes of behavior are made meaningless. Just as the storm itself will not distinguish between kings and ordinary people in its destructive might, so will the consequences of the storm throw these distinctions into disarray. 

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Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
Thy false uncle...new created
The creatures that were mine...set all hearts i'th'state
To what tune pleased his ear, that now he was
The ivy which had hid my princely trunk,
And sucked my verdure out on't...
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Antonio
Page Number: 1.2.95-106
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has decided to tell Miranda the truth about their past, before they were shipwrecked on the island. Prospero has explained that he was once the Duke of Milan, but that he effectively allowed his brother, Antonio, to manage the state; Antonio then betrayed Prospero to take total control of Milan for himself.

In this quote, Prospero explains how Antonio used his cunning political skill to manipulate others into believing whatever "tune pleased his ear." Prospero emphasizes how he and Antonio were initially very close and that he loved and trusted him, but that Antonio used this proximity and trust to undermine Prospero. This description establishes Antonio as a clear villain within the play, motivated not by loyalty and compassion but by self-interest and the desire for power. 

You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse.
Related Characters: Caliban (speaker), Prospero
Page Number: 1.2.437-438
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has thanked Ariel for creating the storm, although he has failed to set Ariel free per his request. Meanwhile, Prospero's "poisonous slave" Caliban enters, who Prospero treats much more cruelly. The two fight, with Prospero arguing that in the past he treated Caliban with care, only to have Caliban retaliate by attempting to rape Miranda. Caliban resentfully responds that he wished he had been successful in his rape attempt. Caliban grumbles that Prospero taught him language, but the only value of this is that now he knows how to curse. This is a key moment that establishes Prospero's paternalistic attitude to Caliban, a feature that signifies their colonial dynamic.

While Prospero considers it a gift that he has taught Caliban language, Caliban refuses to separate this education from Prospero's overall imprisonment of him. Caliban implies that there is little use to having language fluency if he is not treated as an equal by the people he communicates with. Under these circumstances, the only value in being able to speak is to curse his oppression. This tension is symbolically significant when compared to the "education" that European colonizers imposed on colonized populations throughout the New World.

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
I'th'commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women, too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty—
...
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of it own kind, all foison, all abundance
To feed my innocent people.
Related Characters: Gonzalo (speaker)
Page Number: 2.1.163-180
Explanation and Analysis:

Alonso, Gonzalo, Antonio, and others have washed up onto a different part of the island, and Alonso is distraught because he believes his son, Ferdinand, has drowned. Gonzalo has tried to comfort Alonso, and Antonio and Sebastian have mocked Gonzalo for it. Sebastian, meanwhile, has told Alonso he has brought Ferdinand's death upon himself by letting his daughter marry and African. Gonzalo then begins a speech in which he fantasizes about being the ruler of an island like the one they are on. He imagines that everyone would be equal, with no "riches, poverty, and use of service," that no one would have to work, all women would be "innocent and pure," everything would grow in abundance, and there would be no conflict. 

To some extent, this reveals Gonzalo to be a kind, fair, and noble person. Unlike other characters, such as Antonio, Gonzalo is not power-hungry, and seems to believe that, under ideal circumstances, everyone would live a simple and equal life. Similarly, Gonzalo's comment that if he were ruler of the island there would be no "use of service" puts him in contrast to Prospero, who has enslaved Ariel, Caliban, and now Ferdinand. 

On the other hand, Gonzalo's speech is a typical colonial fantasy: he imagines that on an island like this, "nature should bring forth" an abundance of goods. During the age of colonial empires, the reality of this kind of thinking meant that local populations were oppressed and enslaved in order for European colonizers to live out their utopian fantasies. In many ways, Gonzalo's dream of a society without work or conflict seems hopelessly naïve.   

...She that from whom
We all were sea-swallowed, though some cast again
And by that destiny, to perform an act
Whereof what's past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.
Related Characters: Antonio (speaker), Sebastian
Related Symbols: The Tempest
Page Number: 2.1.287-290
Explanation and Analysis:

Ariel has entered and played music that has lulled Alonso and Gonzalo to sleep. Meanwhile, Antonio has pointed out to Sebastian that Ferdinand has drowned, and that this means that Sebastian is the heir to the throne of Naples. In this passage, he claims that the upheaval caused by the tempest has provided an opportunity for him and Sebastian to "perform an act" that would lead them to gain power. This speech is a perfect example of the kind of cunning persuasiveness that Antonio used to gain power by betraying Prospero so many years earlier. Rather than telling Sebastian outright of his plan to murder Alonso, he plants ideas slowly in Sebastian's mind, creating the impression that this is all part of a larger "destiny." 

Antonio's comment "what's past is prologue" is one of Shakespeare's many famous lines. It is an example of metadrama, wherein characters in a play refer to the situation they are in as theatre. Clearly, Antonio envisions himself as the playwright, with the power to plan and manipulate events into taking place exactly as he wishes. In this way he is very similar to his brother, Prospero; however, as will be made clear, it is Prospero himself who has the power of the playwright within The Tempest. 

Twenty consciences
That stand 'twixt me and Milan, candied be they,
And melt ere they molest.
Related Characters: Antonio (speaker)
Page Number: 2.1.319-321
Explanation and Analysis:

With Gonzalo and Alonso lulled to sleep by Ariel, Antonio has revealed to Sebastian his plan to murder Alonso. He reminds Sebastian that he has pulled off a similar act before, when he took his brother Prospero's title of Duke of Milan. Antonio boasts that the position of Duke of Milan suits him well, and when Sebastian asks if he is troubled by his conscience, Antonio replies that "twenty consciences" would melt before they bothered him.

This response reveals Antonio to be an arch villain, with no trace of remorse for having murdered his brother and niece (or so he believes). While other characters are presented as having a more complex relationship with ethics and personal gain, Antonio is straightforward and shameless in his desire to seize power for himself. 

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
Give me thy hand. I am sorry I beat thee. But while thou liv'st, keep a good tongue in thy head.
Related Characters: Stephano (speaker), Trinculo
Page Number: 3.2.121-123
Explanation and Analysis:

Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban have all been getting drunk together. Stephano has declared himself Lord of the Island and promises Caliban the position of his Lieutenant. Trinculo, meanwhile, has mocked Caliban, leading Stephano to threaten to hang him. However, once Caliban has told them about Prospero and Miranda, the three resolve to kill Prospero and seize power, and agree to end their disputes.

Once again, this scene exists as a humorous diversion, a comic double of Antonio's more plausible and sinister plot to murder Alonso (as well as his original betrayal of Prospero, which landed Prospero on the island in the first place). However, the foolish fighting and reconciliations between the three drunk characters nonetheless exposes the fickle, deceitful element of human nature. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
...The rarer action is
In virtue, than in vengeance.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.35-36
Explanation and Analysis:

Moved by Ariel's sympathy for Alonso and the other men who Prospero has ordered to be imprisoned, Prospero has reflected that he himself should be more sympathetic. He admits that he still feels hurt by their "high wrongs," but reasons that it is more rare to act virtuously than vengefully. The events leading up to this moment certainly support this theory; the play is full of characters seeking revenge on one another.

Yet Prospero's use of the word "rare" does not just refer to infrequency, it also refers to value. As he has observed to Ariel, acting with compassion and forgiveness toward others is admirable, and an important part of being human. Note that Prospero must be reminded of this fact, and of how to use his power for good, by Ariel, a non-human with very little power. 

...But this rough magic
I here abjure...I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than ever did plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker)
Related Symbols: Prospero's Cloak and Books
Page Number: 5.1.59-66
Explanation and Analysis:

Having decided to set free Alonso and his men, Prospero conjures the spirits onstage and gives a lyrical speech about the many acts of magic he has performed in the past. He then resolves that, after this final act, he will break and bury his staff and "drown" his magic books, giving up his supernatural powers for good. Although Prospero is not a villainous character and (arguably) used magic mostly for good, this speech suggests that it is necessary for him to stop practicing magic in order to restore the natural order and balance of power––both on the island and back in Italy. 

This speech takes on a further level of significance if we read Prospero as representing Shakespeare. As Shakespeare neared the end of his life, perhaps he used Prospero's speech as a symbolic farewell to the theatre after a lifetime of creating "magic" and illusion on the stage. This analogy suggests that, while the power to create drama is akin to a supernatural gift, it is not possible for this to last forever, as even playwrights are mortal beings whose "little life" will inevitably come to a close. 

...this thing of darkness, I
Acknowledge mine.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Caliban
Page Number: 5.1.330-331
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that everyone has been brought together, Prospero has reclaimed his dukedom, and Miranda and Ferdinand's love has been announced, Prospero asks Ariel to undo the spell placed on Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. Prospero reveals the plan the three drunk men hatched against him, and asks the other characters if they recognize Stephano and Trinculo. He then claims "this thing of darkness" as his own. Assumedly, "thing of darkness" refers to Caliban; there are many times in the play when Caliban is referred to as a nonhuman "it" rather than as a man, and this description is related to his indigenous status and dark skin.

Such an interpretation confirms the impression that Prospero believes Caliban to be his property, and treats him simultaneously as a child, pet, and inanimate possession. Such a dynamic was typical of this era (bear in mind that The Tempest was written only a few decades before the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade). It is possible that these lines actually consist of Prospero taking partial responsibility for the sinister plot against him, though this is somewhat unlikely considering that after this statement Caliban says "I shall be pinch'd to death."

Epilogue Quotes
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own—
Which is most faint. Now 'tis true
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples, let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island, by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker)
Related Symbols: Prospero's Cloak and Books
Page Number: Ep.1-20
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has scolded Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban for their plot against him, but has suggested that if Caliban follows a final set of orders, he may be freed. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters have made plans to spend one final night on the island before voyaging back to Italy the next day. Everyone exits except Prospero, who delivers a final speech addressed to the audience. Prospero reviews the fact that he has relinquished his magical powers, reclaimed his dukedom, and "pardoned the deceiver." In other words, the natural hierarchy of power has been restored, and there remain no outstanding plots or grudges. Prospero asks the audience to "release me from my bands / with the help of your good hands"––meaning that the audience's applause will set him free. 

Again, many critics interpret this final speech to be the voice of Shakespeare himself, proclaiming a final farewell to the theatre. The speech alludes to the importance of forgiveness, perhaps suggesting that the power of drama lies within its ability to evoke sympathy and to encourage people to treat one another with mercy and compassion. Prospero's request to be "released" and "set free" is curious, as he himself has imprisoned and enslaved various other characters throughout the play. Overall, whether within the world of the play or in the context of a farewell from Shakespeare, Prospero's speech emphasizes the continuation of life beyond the ephemeral presence of any one person.