The Tempest is one of the few Shakespearean plays that uses theatre as a major motif. Between the masque put on for Ferdinand and Miranda to all of the magical spectacles that Ariel and Prospero perform, the subject of theatre and theatrical devices can be found throughout the play. Prospero even has a line that could be referencing the Globe Theatre where the play was performed.
The use of magic in The Tempest is interesting considering the time Shakespeare was writing. These were the days of occultists being burned at the stake, and worldwide people still feared that which was unexplainable. Shakespeare was careful to present Prospero as a scholar who focused his attentions on rational magic instead of occultist incantations. As a result, we have a character who can control the mystic forces on the island without wallowing in the dark and “sinful” areas of magic that was so unpopular with the masses. To further highlight the difference between Prospero’s scholarly approach to his craft, Shakespeare cast Sycorax (Caliban’s mother) as a dark witch who worshipped the devil and used that same occultist magic that everyone feared. As a result ,she had a cursed child and could not control sprites like Ariel. Her magic is described to us as ugly, dark, and terrible while Prospero is good and light and beautiful.
In Shakespeare’s day much of the world was still unexplored. Ships were constantly leaving for and returning from voyages to exotic lands such as the Caribbean. Many sailors brought back stories of savage natives and beautiful islands. While it’s easy to see how such tales of adventure inspired the setting of the play, Shakespeare took it one step further and looked at how colonization affects those native to the land. The Tempest is now one of the most cited works when discussing the topic of Colonialism. Scholars tend to look at Caliban and his enslavement as a literary representation of the settling of the Caribbean and the Americas. He was a native who helped the foreigner, showed him all the secrets the island possessed and was then enslaved. Ariel, on the other hand, was rescued by Prospero. Though under a master’s hand, he is free to do as he pleases as long as he carries out Prospero’s demands. While we cannot be sure whether or not Shakespeare was for or against colonization, his work certainly leaves enough material for a debate on either side.
Early psychologist Sigmund Freud believed a person’s psyche was composed of three parts. The id, ego, and super-ego. The id is the basest part of a person’s personality, it is responsible for instinctual wants and desires. It is what kept humans alive back in our caveman days. The ego is the part of our mind that helps the id get what it wants by behaving properly. A good example of this is when a child learns to say please to get what it wants instead of throwing a tantrum. Lastly the super-ego acts as our conscience. It polices our behaviors and keeps the other parts in check. It is the part of our brain that makes us feel good when we have done something well and bad when we have not. Whether or not this is true, we can see those three parts of a person’s personality reflected in characters in The Tempest. Caliban, impulsive, wild, and savage, would be the id. Calculated, refined, and trusted, Ariel fits the role of ego. Lastly, Prospero as the super-ego dictates directions to both and keeps them in control.