Through the use of symbols, an artist can express much more than would otherwise be possible. The symbols enable the artist to express the great by the use of the small, the infinite by the finite, the spiritual by the physical and the abstract by the concrete. Symbols increase the richness and deep of meaning, they express what cannot be expressed by the use of ordinary language. Shakespeare has used symbols in all his plays but The Tempest is especially rich in this respect.
The use of symbols in this play is complex and intricate, as the same figures serve to express different concepts. For example, according to Wilson Knight, Prospero’s island symbolizes the stage for the world of theatre, and Prospero guiding and controlling the world of the enchanted island is Shakespeare himself who controlled his plots and the world of his plays in the same manner. Just as Prospero can perform wonders with his magic, so also Shakespeare could perform even greater wonders by his artistic powers. Prospero’s Milan symbolizes Shakespeare’s Stratford, and Prospero abjuring his magic and bidding farewell to art represents Shakespeare intending for leave London for Stratford to pass a life of rest and leisure there. Indeed through the life and career of Prosper, Shakespeare has symbolically rendered his own life and career. Wilson Knight says that Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, Miranda are all aspects of Shakespeare himself. Ariel is his imagination; Caliban is his baser, physical self, and Miranda his faith in human nature which he has kept intact despite all the ups and downs of his life.
Prospero also symbolizes prosperity. He regains his Milan and succeeds in making his daughter the Queen of Naples. He also symbolizes providence like God who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. He has foreknowledge and he also controls and manipulates the course of events. He also symbolizes the supreme artist, and Ariel symbolizes the imagination of an artist. Prospero can achieve wonders only through the agency of Ariel; he is swift as thought and rapid as imagination. Further, Prospero symbolizes the colonizer, the imperialist of his island, the colonized country and Caliban, the dispossessed native. Through the relationship of Prospero and Caliban Shakespeare has traced the entire history of the relationship between the colonized native and the colonizer and brought out the dangers of that relationship. Stephano and Trinculo, the leaders of the revolution symbolize the foreign power or powers to which the native turns for help against the colonizer.
Caliban symbolizes the wickedness and evil in nature as well as its poetry and beauty. Ariel of the air symbolizes all that is good, pure and refined in nature. Caliban stands for the bestial lower self of man: lust, greed, wickedness, ambition, ungratefulness etc. and Ariel for the higher, spiritual self of man. One symbolizes the forces of good, the other those of evil.
Again Miranda symbolizes innocence, mercy, purity, and faith. Ferdinand and Miranda together symbolize all that is beautiful and virtuous in youth and human nature. The servitude accepted by Ferdinand for the sake of Miranda symbolizes humanity. Miranda is also a fertility symbol.
The very theme of the power symbolizes the long history of the struggle for power of Milan. This theme has been repeated four times in the play. It is symbolizing by the story of Prospero, the story of Caliban, the plot of Antonio and Stephano against Alonso and is parodied by the conspiracy of Caliban and Stephano against Prospero. Music symbolizes form and order. The storm is the symbol of a passion of violence of feud and lust which must be combated as so many threats to orderly life. The love and marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda symbolize the continuity of nature.
To conclude, we find that the Tempest is rich in symbolism. It is capable of several allegorical interpretations and that is why different critics have found a different value and significance in it.