The Tempest

by

William Shakespeare

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The Tempest: Motifs 6 key examples

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Definition of Motif
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the central themes of a book... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of... read full definition
Act 1, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Authority and Power:

The motifs of authority and power frequently recur in The Tempest. Many characters engage in power struggles for freedom or control. For instance, Prospero treats Caliban with contempt and maintains a distinct sense of superiority as his "master." Prospero also glorifies his own role as a father to Miranda in Act 1, Scene 2:

Sit still, and hear the last of our sea-sorrow.
Here in this island we arrived, and here
Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit
Than other princesses can, that have more time
For vainer hours and tutors not so careful.

Here, Prospero demands that his daughter "sit still" while he regales her with the story of their arrival. He asserts his own authority over her education by calling himself "thy schoolmaster." He also posits his own superiority over other peoples' attempts to learn and teach. 

Other examples of authority and power in The Tempest include Antonio's theft of the dukedom and the plot by Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano to overtake Prospero's control of the island—all of which underscores just how much the characters in this play value power.

This motif is significant because it helps the audience understand the conflicts between characters. Antonio usurps Prospero's power when he takes over the dukedom. Prospero then feels the need to take control in his own little corner of the world; he terms himself the master of his daughter's education and enslaves Caliban and Ariel. The disruption of political authority in Milan forces Prospero to wield power in other ways. At the end of the play, when his dukedom is restored, he relinquishes control over the island and its inhabitants, and the original power dynamics are restored.

Explanation and Analysis—Betrayal:

Betrayals abound in The Tempest, ultimately creating a motif. The primary source of conflict in the play is Antonio's betrayal of Prospero and his theft of the dukedom. In Act 1, Scene 2, the audience learns that Prospero valued their bond far more than his brother did prior to the betrayal:

Being once perfected how to grant suits,
How to deny them, who t' advance and who
To trash for overtopping, new created
The creatures that were mine, I say, or changed 'em,
Or else new formed 'em; having both the key
Of officer and office, 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 suck'd my verdure out on't. Thou attend'st not.

Prospero did not expect Antonio to betray him. By contrast, Antonio is perpetually plotting treacherous acts. Just because he is Prospero's brother does not make him loyal; indeed, proximity to Prospero's success makes him jealous enough to steal his dukedom.

Another betrayal happens when Caliban tries to rape Miranda. Despite Prospero's (purported) initial kindness, Caliban nonetheless seeks to violate his daughter. This occurs before the play begins, and Prospero mentions it in Act 1, Scene 2:

Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee,
Filth as thou art, with humane care; and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.

Here, Prospero berates Caliban for his actions. He claims to have been very nice to Caliban before the attempted rape; he even let Caliban stay in his own home. But Prospero values Miranda above all else and becomes enraged at Caliban's betrayal. 

The motif of betrayal creates an interesting contrast between the beginning and the end of the play. The raging tempest in the first scene transforms into calm and steady winds that guide Antonio's crew back to Milan in the final scene. Brotherly betrayal morphs into forgiveness. Confusion resolves into understanding. Prospero forgives Caliban's betrayal by freeing him. The depth and frequency of betrayal (as well as the resultant confusion, anger, and opposition) show the fragility of social and political systems and creates a contrast that emphasizes the play's positive ending.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Role of Language:

Language is a prominent motif in The Tempest. In Act 1, Scene 2, Caliban curses Prospero for teaching him his language:

You taught me language; and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! 

He curses the man who taught him to speak because language allows him to understand his otherness. He feels trapped by the requirement to use the language of the captor who has deprived him of his freedom. He feels frustrated that this new power seems significant to Prospero but still leaves Caliban himself powerless in the ways that really matter.

Language also signifies the idea of civility—Caliban despises that he remains subordinate to Prospero despite having comparable linguistic capacity. Language is the single privilege Caliban has, and as he aptly observes, it does him very little good beyond allowing him to curse the rest of his circumstances. Shakespeare often makes the characters with high political status speak in beautiful verse, and the lower-status characters speak in simple prose, but Caliban shows great range in his capacity to put words together.

This is, then, an excellent example of situational irony because the very thing that many people assume would "civilize" Caliban ends up making him even more bitter and prone to cursing (which is the opposite of what most people would consider civilized behavior). 

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Act 2, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Water:

As the title suggests, water plays a prominent role in The Tempest. It most often appears as a signifier of power or violence. In Act 2, Scene 1, the royals arrive on the island with their garments "drenched in the sea." Gonzalo observes:

That our garments, being, as they were, drenched in
the sea, hold notwithstanding their freshness and
gloss, being rather new-dyed than stained with
salt water.

His observations prove to be ridiculous. Their garments are not fresh or glossy; they rather reek of saltwater. He remains correct only about being "drenched in the sea." The fact that he denies the presence of water on their clothing outs him as a comical character whose words are better laughed at than trusted. 

In Act 3, Scene 3, Alonso threatens to drown himself in "mudded" water after Ferdinand dies: 

Therefor my son i' th' ooze is bedded, and
I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded
And with him there lie mudded.

Both Alonso and Ferdinand believe each other to be dead until much later in the play. They mourn each others' deaths because they remain unaware of their simultaneous presence on the island. Alonso refers to water negatively here as "ooze," perhaps because it is mixed with earth to form swamp-like pools on the island.

During the play's final moments, Prospero promises to "drown my book" in Act 5, Scene 1:

And deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I'll drown my book.

In every case, water threatens to drown or destroy whatever it touches. Gonzalo foolishly claims that his clothes remain fresh and clean because he prefers to deny this (and many other) facts about his unfortunate circumstances, including a near-death experience in the tempest. Alonso expresses his grief by wishing for death by drowning in muddy water. And the drowning of Prospero's book signals the destruction, or the ultimate end, of his violent magic.  

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Act 3, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Water:

As the title suggests, water plays a prominent role in The Tempest. It most often appears as a signifier of power or violence. In Act 2, Scene 1, the royals arrive on the island with their garments "drenched in the sea." Gonzalo observes:

That our garments, being, as they were, drenched in
the sea, hold notwithstanding their freshness and
gloss, being rather new-dyed than stained with
salt water.

His observations prove to be ridiculous. Their garments are not fresh or glossy; they rather reek of saltwater. He remains correct only about being "drenched in the sea." The fact that he denies the presence of water on their clothing outs him as a comical character whose words are better laughed at than trusted. 

In Act 3, Scene 3, Alonso threatens to drown himself in "mudded" water after Ferdinand dies: 

Therefor my son i' th' ooze is bedded, and
I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded
And with him there lie mudded.

Both Alonso and Ferdinand believe each other to be dead until much later in the play. They mourn each others' deaths because they remain unaware of their simultaneous presence on the island. Alonso refers to water negatively here as "ooze," perhaps because it is mixed with earth to form swamp-like pools on the island.

During the play's final moments, Prospero promises to "drown my book" in Act 5, Scene 1:

And deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I'll drown my book.

In every case, water threatens to drown or destroy whatever it touches. Gonzalo foolishly claims that his clothes remain fresh and clean because he prefers to deny this (and many other) facts about his unfortunate circumstances, including a near-death experience in the tempest. Alonso expresses his grief by wishing for death by drowning in muddy water. And the drowning of Prospero's book signals the destruction, or the ultimate end, of his violent magic.  

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Explanation and Analysis—Storms:

The evolution of the motif of storms (as the play's setting literally goes from dark and stormy to peaceful and calm) parallels the calm resolution of chaos in The Tempest. The play takes its name from the storm that occurs at the beginning of the story. When Ariel transforms into a harpy in Act 3, Scene 3, he references the tempest to Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian:

You fools, I and my fellows
Are ministers of fate. The elements
Of whom your swords are tempered may as well
Wound the loud winds or with bemocked-at stabs
Kill the still-closing waters as diminish
One dowl that’s in my plume. 

Here, Shakespeare juxtaposes the strength of the storm with the inevitability of fate. The crashing waves and "still-closing waters" are too strong to be defeated by three men with swords. Their weapons will prove useless and unable to "kill" the storm; its power transcends their merely human abilities. Violent descriptions of the storm abound throughout the play.

However, the threats of storms eventually subside. At the end of the story, when Prospero promises to "drown my book" in Act 5 ,Scene 1, he promises calm seas:

I'll deliver all;
And promise you calm seas, auspicious gales
And sail so expeditious that shall catch
Your royal fleet far off.

Prospero swears to keep the seas placid during the others' voyage to Milan. Parallel descriptions of the sea, at first stormy but finally calm, creates a sort of circular structure that solidifies the motif of storms and signifies the end of a violent era in the story's world.

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Act 5, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Water:

As the title suggests, water plays a prominent role in The Tempest. It most often appears as a signifier of power or violence. In Act 2, Scene 1, the royals arrive on the island with their garments "drenched in the sea." Gonzalo observes:

That our garments, being, as they were, drenched in
the sea, hold notwithstanding their freshness and
gloss, being rather new-dyed than stained with
salt water.

His observations prove to be ridiculous. Their garments are not fresh or glossy; they rather reek of saltwater. He remains correct only about being "drenched in the sea." The fact that he denies the presence of water on their clothing outs him as a comical character whose words are better laughed at than trusted. 

In Act 3, Scene 3, Alonso threatens to drown himself in "mudded" water after Ferdinand dies: 

Therefor my son i' th' ooze is bedded, and
I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded
And with him there lie mudded.

Both Alonso and Ferdinand believe each other to be dead until much later in the play. They mourn each others' deaths because they remain unaware of their simultaneous presence on the island. Alonso refers to water negatively here as "ooze," perhaps because it is mixed with earth to form swamp-like pools on the island.

During the play's final moments, Prospero promises to "drown my book" in Act 5, Scene 1:

And deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I'll drown my book.

In every case, water threatens to drown or destroy whatever it touches. Gonzalo foolishly claims that his clothes remain fresh and clean because he prefers to deny this (and many other) facts about his unfortunate circumstances, including a near-death experience in the tempest. Alonso expresses his grief by wishing for death by drowning in muddy water. And the drowning of Prospero's book signals the destruction, or the ultimate end, of his violent magic.  

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Explanation and Analysis—Storms:

The evolution of the motif of storms (as the play's setting literally goes from dark and stormy to peaceful and calm) parallels the calm resolution of chaos in The Tempest. The play takes its name from the storm that occurs at the beginning of the story. When Ariel transforms into a harpy in Act 3, Scene 3, he references the tempest to Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian:

You fools, I and my fellows
Are ministers of fate. The elements
Of whom your swords are tempered may as well
Wound the loud winds or with bemocked-at stabs
Kill the still-closing waters as diminish
One dowl that’s in my plume. 

Here, Shakespeare juxtaposes the strength of the storm with the inevitability of fate. The crashing waves and "still-closing waters" are too strong to be defeated by three men with swords. Their weapons will prove useless and unable to "kill" the storm; its power transcends their merely human abilities. Violent descriptions of the storm abound throughout the play.

However, the threats of storms eventually subside. At the end of the story, when Prospero promises to "drown my book" in Act 5 ,Scene 1, he promises calm seas:

I'll deliver all;
And promise you calm seas, auspicious gales
And sail so expeditious that shall catch
Your royal fleet far off.

Prospero swears to keep the seas placid during the others' voyage to Milan. Parallel descriptions of the sea, at first stormy but finally calm, creates a sort of circular structure that solidifies the motif of storms and signifies the end of a violent era in the story's world.

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Explanation and Analysis—Nature :

The motif of nature functions as a barometer for political and social tensions. It also reminds the audience of the parallel between the uncontrollable forces of nature and those of human emotions. For instance, at the beginning of the play, the wind and waters rage around the island and bring to shore Prospero's enemies. And at the end of the play, Prospero promises them calm winds and placid waters. 

The Tempest features a variety of natural elements, including water, wind, earth, and thunder and lightning. Sometimes, nature is portrayed as threatening; other times it appears benign. Take, for example, Ferdinand's observation in Act 5, Scene 1 that:

Though the seas threaten, they are merciful;
I have cursed them without cause.

Here, Ferdinand admits that he "cursed" the seas without cause. His father did not perish in the sea as he formerly believed; while they 'threaten[ed]' to kill his father, they were 'merciful' enough to spare his life. 

To further the sense of ambivalence and confusion in the first two acts, the nature of the island also appears to be up for debate. The characters disagree about the quality of its features; Gonzalo sees it as "lush and lusty," but others think it "tawny" and "uninhabitable." This lack of consensus about the true nature of the sea, as well as nature in general, gives the setting a touch of mystery. The only person who seems able to know and control nature is Prospero, who believes that "bountiful Fortune" brought him to the island, where he learned how to control nature-spirits. He uses natural elements in his magic, especially when he demands that Ariel stir up the great storm called the tempest. However, nature always has a touch of mystery and magic, especially since it remains at the mercy of magical creatures. 

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