Shakespeare’s The Tempest has been variously interpreted as a romantic comedy, a comedy concerned with such serious themes as justice and mercy, and as an autobiographical play. Many critics think that Shakespeare bid farewell to his dramatic career through writing the play The Tempest. Other critics have tried to find a colonial theme where Prospero and Caliban stand for the colonizer and colonized respectively.
Outwardly, the main theme of The Tempest seems to be the love affair between Ferdinand and Miranda which culminates in their marriage at the end of the play. Shakespeare has treated the romantic theme of love between young men and women in secluded surroundings. One is reminded of the romantic love-affair between Rosalind and Orlando in the Forest of Arden in As You Like It or confusing and confused love entanglement of the Athenian youths in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In The Tempest, Ferdinand and his company find themselves ship-wrecked on the shore of Prospero’s island where Ferdinand meets Miranda, the daughter of Prospero and they fall in love with each other instantly. Although there is an element of implausibility in speed in which Ferdinand and Miranda’s love affair passes through all the expected stages of maturation- through trials and tribulations. But Shakespeare’s magical imagination makes the romantic theme plausible to us.
One important theme of The Tempest, when looked at from the allegorical point of view is the autobiographical theme. The play reflects the circumstances of Shakespeare’s own career at its end. The play has a distinctly autobiographical interest. Prospero has often been identified with Shakespeare. Like Prospero, Shakespeare is the magician of the London stage, which is the prototype of an enchanted island. Like Prospero, Shakespeare has raised the tempest of emotions in the mind of his audience. Ariel is allegorically the poetical imagination of Shakespeare who has helped the dramatist in creating the sweet music to the charmed readers. The Tempest is clearly the last of Shakespeare’s drama under the form of an allegory. It is the dramatic last will and testament of the great poet. Shakespeare is saying goodbye to the public through the mouth of Prospero. Prospero, at the end of the play, sets free Ariel and bids farewell to the island. He decides to break his magic wand and drown his magic books and return to the ordinary life of Milan:
“But this rough magic
I here abjure; and, when I have required
Some heavenly music-which even now I do-
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is far, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,”
Two important themes of The Tempest are mercy and forgiveness. In his earlier plays, Shakespeare has dealt with the sound and fury of revenge, his hatred, and evil. In Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and King Lear he had shown a bloody universe where there are cruelty, murder, hypocrisy, and ingratitude. But in this last phase of life, Shakespeare’s vision of life is mellowed into a sober one. After the din and bustle of his revenge play, Shakespeare in the last days of his career started writing tragic-comedies and romances. In The Tempest Shakespeare shows that it is love and forgiveness that can bring final peace in the world. The theme of reconciliation is the main theme in The Tempest. Prospero was wronged by his brother but he does not take revenge when he gets his enemy in his power. He rather forgives him and embraces him. This view of life is a maturing one and definitely, it is a final message to the world. Shakespeare is saying farewell to the stage by asking us to follow the path of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The 20th-century critics have identified the theme of colonization in ‘The Tempest’. In one sense, Prospero is a colonizer; he colonizes the remote island by snatching it away from its rightful owner Sycorax, the mother of Caliban. Prospero’s dukedom was usurped by Antonio, his brother. On the island, Prospero has himself become another usurper.
One subsidiary theme of The Tempest is the theme of education. Prospero educates Miranda; he also tries to educate Caliban in a civilized way but in a sense, Prospero also undergoes a process of education. There is an inner development in Prospero which turns him into an intensely human being. It is often said that in portraying Prospero’s character, Shakespeare has a large extent revealed himself. The progress in wisdom made by Prospero gives us some idea of the path which Shakespeare has himself followed in life. As the Duke of Milan, Prospero was essentially a scholar with no practical wisdom. Thus he neglected his government of the state which was his first duty and gave an opportunity to his wicked brother to undermine the throne. But in the course of the play, he has become as watchful as providence; he has known human nature in the worst form Prospero becomes mature and worldly wise through experience.