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A Brief Examination of Shakespeare's The Tempest and The Theme of Redemption
What makes The Tempest such a difficult work to classify is that it is vaguely reminiscent of many of Shakespeare’s earlier works of various genres. In its exploration of the consequences of a disruption of the natural order, it illustrates many of the themes traditionally present in his tragedies. When the natural is disrupted by the unnatural, namely, when Antonio usurps Prospero’s dukedom, there is a consequence which must restore the natural order. If this were a tragedy, the audience would expect the eventual death of the usurped and usurping power and some sort of return to a natural state. Where this play differs, however, is how that natural order is restored. In this regard it holds loosely to the conventions of Shakespeare’s comedies in its subsequent movement toward redemption.
The Central Theme
This idea of redemption is, effectively, the most central theme of The Tempest. The storm that sets the scene in the beginning is the result of the upset natural order that has occurred previous to the action of the play, and it is the first step toward its restoration. In essence, the storm is an uprising of the natural against the unnatural—a violent and corrective rearranging of nature. It is fitting, in this light then, that Prospero has the power to manipulate the natural world as it is he against whom nature has been set. The audience may be concerned at first that Prospero’s intentions are inclined toward revenge rather than reconciliation, but the action quickly extinguishes these concerns. Though Prospero effectively rules with the power of a god, his use of power never becomes abusive or self-serving. He loves his daughter dearly and naturally, unlike previous Shakespearean fathers such as King Lear, nor does he attempt to repress her love for Ferdinand. Additionally, he grants mercy and forgiveness to those who wronged him despite his potential power over them.
Familiar Shakespearean Motifs
The story of The Tempest resurrects familiar themes of appearance and illusion versus reality which were extremely prevalent in many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays. As Prospero tells Ferdinand, “Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (4.1.154-158). This speech is remarkably reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and expresses a similar duality of human nature, namely the coexistence and interdependence of illusion and reality and its role in human existence.
One thing about The Tempest that seems markedly different structurally than many of Shakespeare’s other works is its tightly woven order. Whereas in plays such as Henry IV where months pass by, this play does not allow for an unnatural time differential between the drama and reality. The play is exclusively focused on the present, which stands out when compared to others. Also present is the harmonious working of parallels in characters and symmetry between plots and subplots. Both of these elements serve to ground the play in reality and advance the order and reconciliation being developed.
The Bigger Picture
Through a study of the works of Shakespeare, a reader can gain compelling insight of human nature—it’s vices from his tragedies and its redemption from his comedies. The Tempest is a compelling culmination of these two disparate elements. Humans are truly the rarest, most remarkable blend of dirt and magic, of mind and matter, of natural and unnatural, of destruction and redemption.